Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Rival Queens

Nathaniel Lee's Restoration-era tragedy The Rival Queens tells the story of the death of Alexander the Great through the lens of the women in his life.

Wait... Alexander the Great... and women? Well, yes. Many of the stories about Alexander that circulated in early modern Europe linked him to various women he was alleged to have loved.

For instance, in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus the Emperor asks to see the paramour of Alexander. This paramour is presumably Thais, a courtesan who allegedly convinced the conqueror to burn the famed palace of Persepolis.

While Thais is name-checked in The Rival Queens, the play focuses instead on Roxana, his first wife, and Statira, a Persian princess he married as part of a plan to unify Greek and Persian civilizations. When the play opens, Statira is distraught because Alexander had promised her he would never bed Roxana again, but he seems to have broken that promise. Statira's opening lines show her in a conventional state of grief:

               Give me a knife, a draught of poison, flames!
               Swell, heart, break, break, thou stubborn thing!
               Now, by the sacred fire, I'll not be held!
               Why do ye wish me life, yet stifle me
               For want of air? pray give me leave to walk.

When Alexander hears how upset Statira is, he blames his hook-up with Roxana on beer goggles, claiming she seduced him while he was drunk. He professes his undying love for Statira and asks her mother and sister to help him win her back again. If he cannot, he vows to renounce his empire and live out the remainder of his life in the countryside, forsaking worldly glory.

The third act introduces Statira's rival queen, Roxana. She is determined to not have to share Alexander, and proclaims:

               Roxana and Statira, they are names
               That must forever jar; eternal discord,
               Fury, revenge, disdain, and indignation
               Tear my swoll'n breast, make way for fire and tempest.

Well, that's just fine with Alexander, who doesn't want anything to do with Roxana anymore, anyway. Celebrating his reconciliation with Statira, he invites his faithful soldiers to a feast. It is at that feast that a group of conspirators plans to poison Alexander, and they attempt to gain the aid of Roxana. Instead of helping them slay her lover, she resolves to murder her rival.

That murder occurs in the play's climactic fifth act. The two rival queens meet, and Roxana kills Statira while Alexander himself is also dying of poison. And what of Hephestion, the notorious male lover of Alexander? Well, he appears in the play, but as a suitor for the hand of Statira's sister. Lee also banishes Hephestion from the fifth act of the play, having his death merely reported.

The emphasis on the female characters might be linked to the fact that they were played by... well... women. The play's epilogue threatens to return boy actors to the stage in women's roles if the audience does not leave the professional female actresses alone. Lee wrote The Rival Queens sometime around 1676 or 1677, so women on the professional English stage were still a relatively new phenomenon. Perhaps, then, it should be unsurprising that a Restoration-era tragedy about Alexander focused on his relationships with women.