Agrippina, a Tragedy

Dramatis Personae

  • Agrippina, the Empress mother.
  • Nero, the Emperor.
  • Poppaea, believed to be in love with Otho.
  • Otho, a young man of quality, in love with Poppaea.
  • Seneca, the Emperor's preceptor.
  • Anicetus, Captain of the Guards.
  • Demetrius, the Cynic, friend to Seneca.
  • Aceronia, confidante to Agrippina.

Scene, the Emperor's villa at Baiae

The Argument

The drama opens with the indignation of Agrippina, at receiving her son's orders from Anicetus to remove from Baiae, and to have her guard taken from her. At this time Otho having conveyed Poppaea from the house of her husband Rufus Crispinus, brings her to Baiae, where he means to conceal her among the croud; or, if his fraud is discovered, to have recourse to the Emperor's authority; but, knowing the lawless temper of Nero, he determines not to have recourse to that expedient, but on the utmost necessity. In the meantime he commits her to the care of Anicetus, whom he takes to be his friend, and in whose age he thinks he may safely confide. Nero is not yet come to Baiae: but Seneca, whom he sends before him, informs Agrippina of the accusation concerning Rubellius Plancus, and desires her to clear herself, which she does briefly; but demands to see her son, who, on his arrival, acquits her of all suspicion, and restores her to her honours. In the meanwhile Anicetus, to whose care Poppaea had been entrusted by Otho, contrives the following plot to ruin Agrippina: He betrays his trust to Otho, and brings Nero, as it were by chance, to the sight of the beautiful Poppaea; the Emperor is immediately struck with her charms, and she, by a feigned resistance, increases his passion; tho', in reality, she is from the first dazzled with the prospect of empire, and forgets Otho: She therefore joins with Anicetus in his design of ruining Agrippina, soon perceiving that it will be for her interest. Otho hearing that the Emperor had seen Poppaea, is much enraged; but not knowing that this interview was obtained thro' the treachery of Anicetus, is readily persuaded by him to see Agrippina in secret, and acquaint her with his fears that her son Nero would marry Poppaea. Agrippina, to support her own power, and to wean the Emperor from the love of Poppaea, gives Otho encouragement, and promises to support him. Anicetus secretly introduces Nero to hear their discourse; who resolves immediately on his mother's death, and, by Anicetus's means, to destroy her by drowning. A solemn feast, in honour of their reconciliation, is to be made; after which she being to go by sea to Bauli, the ship is so contrived as to sink or crush her; she escapes by accident, and returns to Baiae. In this interval Otho has an interview with Poppaea; and being duped a second time by Anicetus and her, determines to fly with her into Greece, by means of a vessel which is to be furnished by Anicetus; but he, pretending to remove Poppaea on board in the night, conveys her to Nero's apartment: She there encourages and determines Nero to banish Otho, and finish the horrid deed he had attempted on his mother. Anicetus undertakes to execute his resolves; and, under pretence of a plot upon the Emperor's life, is sent with a guard to murder Agrippina, who is still at Baiae in imminent fear, and irresolute how to conduct herself. The account of her death, and the Emperor's horrour and fruitless remorse, finishes the drama.


Scene I.

[Agrippina, Aceronia]
1 'Tis well, begone! your errand is performed.
[Speaks as to Anicetus entering.]
2 The message needs no comment. Tell your master,
3 His mother shall obey him. Say you saw her
4 Yielding due reverence to his high command:
5 Alone, unguarded and without a lictor
6 As fits the daughter of Germanicus.
7 Say, she retired to Antium; there to tend
8 Her household cares, a woman's best employment.
9 What if you add, how she turned pale and trembled:
10 You think, you spied a tear stand in her eye,
11 And would have dropped, but that her pride restrained it?
12 (Go! you can paint it well) 'twill profit you,
13 And please the stripling. Yet 'twould dash his joy
14 To hear the spirit of Britannicus
15 Yet walks on earth: at least there are who know
16 Without a spell to raise, and bid it fire
17 A thousand haughty hearts, unused to shake
18 When a boy frowns, nor to be lured with smiles
19 To taste of hollow kindness, or partake
20 His hospitable board: they are aware
21 Of the unpledged
[ed.] The OED lists "unpledged bowl" as (n. poetic Obsolete) "a drinking bowl whose contents have been poisoned," and cites one other instance, from 1823: S. Rogers Italy 160 "For deeds of violence..came the unpledged bowl, The stab of the stiletto." To "pledge" a person was to to drink with or to him or her as a gesture of fidelity, goodwill, etc. (Christopher Francese <>, Dickinson College)
bowl, they love not Aconite.
22 He's gone; and much I hope these walls alone
23 And the mute air are privy to your passion.
24 Forgive your servant's fears, who sees the danger
25 Which fierce resentment cannot fail to raise
26 In haughty youth and irritated power.
27 And dost thou talk to me, to me, of danger,
28 Of haughty youth and irritated power,
29 To her that gave it being, her that armed
30 This painted Jove, and taught his novice hand
31 To aim the forked bolt; while he stood trembling,
32 Scared at the sound and dazzled with its brightness?
33 'Tis like, thou hast forgot, when yet a stranger
34 To adoration, to the grateful steam
35 Of flattery's incense and obsequious vows
36 From voluntary realms, a puny boy,
37 Decked with no other lustre than the blood
38 Of Agrippina's race, he lived unknown
39 To fame or fortune; haply eyed at distance
40 Some edileship, ambitious of the power
41 To judge of weights and measures; scarcely dared
42 On expectation's strongest wing to soar
43 High as the consulate, that empty shade
44 Of long-forgotten liberty: when I
45 Oped his young eye to bear the blaze of greatness;
46 Showed him where empire towered, and bade him strike
47 The noble quarry. Gods! then was the time
48 To shrink from danger; fear might then have worn
49 The mask of prudence; but a heart like mine,
50 A heart that glows with the pure Julian fire,
51 If bright ambition from her craggy seat
52 Display the radiant prize, will mount undaunted,
53 Gain the rough heights, and grasp the dangerous honour.
54 Through various life I have pursued your steps,
55 Have seen your soul, and wondered at its daring:
56 Hence rise my fears. Nor am I yet to learn
57 How vast the debt of gratitude which Nero
58 To such a mother owes; the world you gave him
59 Suffices not to pay the obligation.
60 I well remember too (for I was present)
61 When in a secret and dead hour of night,
62 Due sacrifice performed with barbarous rites
63 Of muttered charms and solemn invocation,
64 You bade the Magi call the dreadful powers
65 That read futurity, to know the fate
66 Impending o'er your son: their answer was,
67 If the son reign, the mother perishes.
68 Perish (you cried) the mother! reign the son!
69 He reigns, the rest is heaven's; who oft has bade,
70 Even when its will seemed wrote in lines of blood,
71 The unthought event disclose a whiter meaning.
72 Think too how oft in weak and sickly minds
73 The sweets of kindness lavishly indulged
74 Rankle to gall; and benefits too great
75 To be repaid, sit heavy on the soul,
76 As unrequited wrongs. The willing homage
77 Of prostrate Rome, the senate's joint applause,
78 The riches of the earth, the train of pleasures
79 That wait on youth and arbitrary sway:
80 These were your gift, and with them you bestowed
81 The very power he has to be ungrateful.
82 Thus ever grave and undisturbed reflection
83 Pours its cool dictates in the madding ear
84 Of rage, and thinks to quench the fire it feels not.
85 Sayest thou I must be cautious, must be silent,
86 And tremble at the phantom I have raised?
87 Carry to him thy timid counsels. He
88 Perchance may heed 'em: tell him too, that one
89 Who had such liberal power to give, may still
90 With equal power resume that gift, and raise
91 A tempest that shall shake her own creation
92 To its original atoms tell me! say,
93 This mighty emperor, this dreaded hero,
94 Has he beheld the glittering front of war?
95 Knows his soft ear the trumpet's thrilling voice,
96 And outcry of the battle? Have his limbs
97 Sweat under iron harness? Is he not
98 The silken son of dalliance, nursed in ease
99 And pleasure's flowery lap? Rubellius lives,
100 And Sylla has his friends, though schooled by fear
101 To bow the supple knee, and court the times
102 With shows of fair obeisance; and a call
103 Like mine might serve belike to wake pretensions
104 Drowsier than theirs, who boast the genuine blood
105 Of our imperial house. [Cannot my nod]
106 Rouse [up] eight hardy legions, wont to stem
107 With stubborn nerves the tide, and face the rigour
108 Of bleak Germania's snows [?] Four, not less brave,
109 That in Armenia quell the Parthian force
110 Under the warlike Corbulo, by [me]
111 Marked for their leader: these, by ties confirmed
112 Of old respect and gratitude, are [mine].
113 Surely the Masians too, and those of Egypt,
114 Have not forgot [my] sire: the eye of Rome
115 And the Praetorian camp have long revered,
116 With customed awe, the daughter, sister, wife,
117 And mother of their Caesars. Ha! by Juno,
118 It bears a noble semblance. On this base
119 My great revenge shall rise; or say we sound
120 The trump of liberty; there will not want,
121 Even in the servile senate, ears to own
122 Her spirit-stirring voice; Soranus there,
123 And Cassius; Veto too, and Thrasea,
124 Minds of the antique cast, rough, stubborn souls,
125 That struggle with the yoke. How shall the spark
126 Unquenchable, that glows within their breasts,
127 Blaze into freedom, when the idle herd
128 (Slaves from the womb, created but to stare
129 And bellow in the Circus) yet will start,
130 And shake 'em at the name of liberty,
131 Stung by a senseless word, a vain tradition,
132 As there were magic in it? Wrinkled beldams
133 Teach it their grandchildren, as somewhat rare
134 That anciently appeared, but when, extends
135 Beyond their chronicle oh! 'tis a cause
136 To arm the hand of childhood, and rebrace
137 The slackened sinews of time-wearied age.
138 Yes, we may meet, ungrateful boy, we may!
139 Again the buried Genius of old Rome
140 Shall from the dust uprear his reverend head,
141 Roused by the shout of millions: there before
142 His high tribunal thou and I appear.
143 Let majesty sit on thy awful brow
144 And lighten from thy eye: around thee call
145 The gilded swarm that wantons in the sunshine
146 Of thy full favour; Seneca be there
147 In gorgeous phrase of laboured eloquence
148 To dress thy plea, and Burrhus strengthen it
149 With his plain soldier's oath and honest seeming.
150 Against thee, liberty and Agrippina:
151 The world, the prize; and fair befall the victors.
152 But soft! why do I waste the fruitless hours
153 In threats unexecuted? Haste thee, fly
154 These hated walls that seem to mock my shame,
155 And cast me forth in duty to their lord.
156 My thought aches at him; not the basilisk
157 More deadly to the sight than is to me
158 The cool injurious eye of frozen kindness.
159 I will not meet its poison. Let him feel
160 Before he sees me. Yes, I will be gone,
161 But not to Antium all shall be confessed,
162 Whate'er the frivolous tongue of giddy fame
163 Has spread among the crowd; things that but whispered
164 Have arched the hearer's brow and riveted
165 His eyes in fearful ecstasy: no matter
166 What, so it be strange, and dreadful. Sorceries,
167 Assassinations, poisonings; the deeper
168 My guilt, the blacker his ingratitude.
169 And you, ye manes of ambition's victims,
170 Enshrined Claudius, with the pitied ghosts
171 Of the Syllani, doomed to early death
172 (Ye unavailing horrors, fruitless crimes!),
173 If from the realms of night my voice ye hear,
174 In lieu of penitence and vain remorse,
175 Accept my vengeance. Though by me ye bled,
176 He was the cause. My love, my fears for him,
177 Dried the soft springs of pity in my heart,
178 And froze them up with deadly cruelty.
179 Yet if your injured shades demand my fate,
180 If murder cries for murder, blood for blood,
181 Let me not fall alone; but crush his pride,
182 And sink the traitor in his mother's ruin.

Scene II.

[Otho, Poppaea]
183 Thus far we're safe. Thanks to the rosy queen
184 Of amorous thefts: and had her wanton son
185 Lent us his wings, we could not have beguiled
186 With more elusive speed the dazzled sight
187 Of wakeful jealousy. Be gay securely;
188 Dispel, my fair, with smiles, the timorous cloud
189 That hangs on thy clear brow. So Helen looked,
190 So her white neck reclined, so was she borne
191 By the young Trojan to his gilded bark
192 With fond reluctance, yielding modesty,
193 And oft reverted eye, as if she knew not
194 Whether she feared or wished to be pursued.


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About this text

Title (in Source Edition): Agrippina, a Tragedy
Author: Thomas Gray
Genres: blank verse; drama; fragment

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Source edition

Gray, Thomas, 1716-1771. Thomas Gray: English poems. Web. Oxford: Thomas Gray Archive, 2002.

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Typography, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation have been cautiously modernized. The source of the text is given and all significant editorial interventions have been recorded in textual notes. This ECPA text has been edited to conform to the recommendations found in Level 5 of the Best Practices for TEI in Libraries version 4.0.0.

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