12. Herod the Great
Play 12, HEROD THE GREAT: FOOTNOTES
1 Here begins Herod the Great
2 Lines 32–35: He will pay [for his transgression] / more than 12,000 times over, / I tell you — trust me
3 Lines 57–58: There attend on him / those who would make bold boasts (see note)
4 Lines 309–10: A virgin will conceive / and bear a son (Isaiah 7:14)
5 Lines 343–44: No, he shall be brought down; / I shall kill him immediately
6 Lines 471–72: I shall pay them on the coat (beat them) / once I begin to rampage
7 Lines 610–11: Their mothers, I know, / will never [again] bind them in swaddling cloths
8 Here ends Herod the Great
Play 12, HEROD THE GREAT: EXPLANATORY NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: Chester: The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. Lumiansky and Mills (1974); CT: The Canterbury Tales, ed. Benson (1987); DSL: Dictionary of the Scots Language; Elliott: The Apocryphal New Testament, ed. Elliott; EP: The Towneley plays, ed. England and Pollard (1897); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MS: Huntington MS HM 1 (“the Towneley manuscript”); N-Town: The N-Town Plays, ed. Sugano (2007); OED: Oxford English Dictionary; REED: Records of Early English Drama; SC: The Towneley Plays, eds. Stevens and Cawley (1994); s.d.: stage direction; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases; York: The York Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Davidson (2011).
Herod is the archetypal tyrant and an infamous stage character: already in the late thirteenth century, Chaucer’s Absolon in the Miller’s Tale “pleyeth Herodes upon a scaffold hye” (CT I[A] 3384), while just over two centuries later, Shakespeare’s Hamlet denounces a bombastic acting style by stating that “It out-Herods Herod. Pray you avoid it” (Hamlet 3.2.12–13). As already noted (see the headnote to play 10), his encounter with the three Magi was given dramatic form in the liturgical Officium stellae, some examples of which include brief representation of the Massacre of the Innocents, deemed the first Christian martyrs by the Catholic church. Based on Matthew 2:16–18, this event is commemorated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December, and has long been the focus of separate liturgical plays, and ultimately vernacular drama, in which Herod’s raging was given more free reign. No less than six Middle English dramatizations (and records of still others) survive, including the “The Killing of the Children” in the Bodleian Library’s MS Digby 133 as well as plays from York and Chester, N-Town and Towneley, and the Coventry Shearmen and Tailors’ pageant in which Herod famously “ragis in þe pagond and in the street also” (line 728, s.d.) and three mothers sing the lullaby known as the Coventry Carol just before their children are slain. Herod rages in the Towneley Offering of the Magi, as well, and indeed consults with two counselors only to become enraged by their reports; however, as SC argue, this Herod is “more conspicuously used as a vehicle to parody contemporary courtly manners” (p. 522, headnote). Despite the grim subject, the text is both complex and entertaining, much like the other plays written in the same 13-line 'bob and wheel' stanza. However, unlike his Chester, N-Town, and Digby counterparts, this Herod does not die at the end of the play (see Matthew 2:19); on its own, at least, the play gives no sense of any restoration of moral order, but leaves evil alive and well.
1 Mahowne. Muhammad is invoked as a (false) god, as often in these plays (see note to 6.410), this time not by a tyrant but by his messenger.
3–4 Both of burgh and of towne, / By fellys and by fyrth. That is, everyone — both from town and from country.
7–9 That radly wyll . . . . Shall behapp. That is, protection will be granted to all people who promptly quiet themselves down to a whisper. Calling for silence is standard at the beginning of plays featuring a tyrant.
32–35 Byes he that bargan . . . . May ye trast. That is, he will pay (for his transgression) more than 12,000 times over, I tell you — trust me.
53–55 kyng of kyngys . . . . lord of lordyngys. This phrase is explicitly associated with Christ in the New Testament (see 1 Timothy 6:15 and Apocalypse 17:14, 19:16).
57–58 Ther watys on his wyngys . . . bost wyll blaw. In keeping with the references to his great power, these lines describe Herod’s retinue as divisions of an army at his sides (see MED winge (n.), sense 8), but also evoke the image of the winged angelic force that surrounds God.
62–73 Tuskane and Turky . . . . to his crowne. Largely alliterative lists of place names are similarly featured in plays as varied as the N-Town Temptation (23.161–75), The Castle of Perseverance (lines 170–78), and the Croxton Play of the Sacrament (lines 95–114).
69–70 Unto Kemptowne, / From Sarceny to Susa. Kempton was a royal manor in Surrey, near London; Sarceny is the land of the Saracens while Susa was the supposed capital of Prester John’s mythical kingdom.
101 dernly. EP transcribe this word as dernly, glossed as “secretly, quietly” (see MED derneliche (adv.)), although the Messenger clearly wants to be seen kneeling before the king. This edition follows SC, which — noting the similarity between n and u throughout the MS — transcribe this as deruly, a variant of derfly, meaning “promptly” (SC p. 524n101; see MED derfli (adv.)). Both dern and derfe as well as the variant spelling darfe appear in the Judgment play (27.294, 655, and 1, respectively), but nowhere else in the MS.
143 small as flesh to pott. That is, like diced meat for a stew — for the pot.
146 And all for oone. The “oone” person referred to here is “that lad” (line 153), Christ.
152 In wonys. The same expression is used in a similar way in the Buffeting (“worthi in wonys,” 18.67); while “wone” has a wide range of meanings, the phrase here likely indicates the degree to which Herod should be a considered “a full lewde syre” (line 153) if he does not do as he intends.
155 this steyll brand. Herod is brandishing a sword; he also wears a crown (line 163). Herod, the Jewish king, is often represented in late medieval sources as a Saracen, armed with a curved blade (see the note to 7.b.5).
168 by Gottys dere nalys. “God’s nails” may refer to the nails of the cross or (as anachronistically) to Jesus’ finger- or toenails (as religious relics); compare “Cokys dere bonys” at lines 331 and 571 (and see note to 27.408–09).
186 Set all on sex and seven. That is, cause disorder; the phrase derives from the game of hazard, and refers to betting everything on one throw of the dice (see note to 8.56).
192 The dewill me hang and draw. That is, may the devil hang and disembowel me. (Note that “to draw and hang” means to drag to the place of execution before hanging.)
206 For-ugly and for-fell. The prefix for- is used here (and at line 737) as an intensifier.
218–19 where may I byde, / Bot fyght for teyn and al to-chyde. Where might I stay without always fighting and scolding out of anger?
227–28 Ther ar no greatt myschefys / For these maters to gnast. That is, nothing so terrible has happened to give you cause to gnash your teeth.
234 Withoutt othere sawes. That is, without further evidence or hearing what we have to say.
247 ditizance doutance. The phrase is a corruption of the French “dites sans doutance” — that is, said without doubt. French appears to be used here, as in his addressing the messenger as “Bewshere” (beau sieur or “fair sir”), largely to indicate Herod’s pretension; see the note to line 741 below.
257 to quart. The more usual phrase is “in quart” (as at line 481) — that is, in health.
284 prevey counsel. The privy (that is, private or personal) council — in this case, apparently just two Counselors — served as advisors to the monarch.
285–86 Clerkys, ye bere the bell; / Ye must me encense. He asks the clerks to lead the way, swinging incense in censers or thuribles as they might do before a priest at mass. While “you bear the bell” could mean “you are the best” (or worst — see 8.268 and note), here it more means simply that they should lead the way, as the bell-wether might lead the flock. It is possible, given the censing, that one of them also literally carries and rings a bell, as was done to signal the beginning of the mass (and at the Elevation of the Host), emphasizing Herod’s blasphemous pride.
287–90 Oone spake . . . . to be kyng. In the Offering of the Magi, the counselors, not the Magi, tell Herod about the prophecy of the virgin birth (see 10.417–20), as they will do in this play as well.
293 In Vyrgyll, in Homere. Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue was widely interpreted as messianic prophecy (see 8.556–59 and note), and the work of Homer through the Latin Middle Ages was known largely through paraphrase or summary and often Christianized commentary; Herod’s avoidance of the sacred, to a late medieval audience, may have appeared not merely misguided but comically impossible.
295 Bot legende. The modern sense of “legend” as inauthentic or nonhistorical is not attested until the seventeenth century (see OED legend (n.), sense 5b); prior to that the primary meanings relate to the lives of saints and scriptural readings for ecclesiastical services — holy texts that Herod wishes here to avoid.
297–98 Lefe pystyls and grales; / Mes, matyns noght avalys. That is, avoid the (apostolic) Epistles and hymns; the services of the mass and of Matins (early morning prayers) have no benefit. The counselors respond by giving readings from Jewish scripture — the Old Testament — rather than directly (and anachronistically) from the New Testament; these are nonetheless readings used prominently in Christian services.
304–14 We rede thus by Isay . . . . for to say. The same passage (Isaiah 7:14) is quoted in the second Shepherds play (9.982–84; see also 8.491–503) and is referred to in the Offering of the Magi (see 10.417–28 and note); see also the final note to 7.a.
315–20 And othere says . . . . shal be ay. The reference is to Micah 5:2; see also 10.445 and note.
327 bot I drynk onys. Most of the York tyrants and villains drink onstage as well (York 7.80, 29.74, 30.95, 31.37, 32.129).
332 Thou can not half thi crede. The creed was typically the first thing learned in school; this is thus equivalent to saying that one does not know the alphabet.
352 a carll in a kafe. According to the Protevangelium 18:1 (Elliott, p. 64) the nativity took place in a cave.
387–90 Markys, rentys, and powndys . . . . the chace. A mark was a monetary unit worth 160 pence or two-thirds of a pound sterling, while “rents” can refer to a variety of revenue sources or to the revenue itself. Herod also offers his counselors property and hunting rights, which only a king can grant. See MED chace (n.), sense 1b.
419–20 Tarry not for to stand / Ther or we have beyn. That is, do not pause until we get there.
437 brast my gall. The gall bladder was the proverbial seat of bitterness and anger, as the organ associated with yellow bile — the choleric humor.
419–20 men I shall you make, / Where ye com aywhere. That is, men of note, recognized everywhere. They are of course being sent to kill a defenseless child, making the line ironic; however, it is possible that Herod here gives them emblazoned tabards to wear, making them recognizably his men (see the note to line 517 below).
461 I mon whett lyke a bore. That is, I must prepare for attack, whetting my tusks like a boar; the soldier may literally be sharpening a sword or spear.
475 grote. A groat was worth four pence. He is making a wager that he will manage to offend the woman he approaches at line 478. In leaving Herod’s palace, the soldiers have possibly moved into the audience, where — one by one — they meet the actors playing the mothers, effectively making the audience complicit as idle bystanders, but also under threat.
491 Have on loft on thy hode. She hits him on his head. As her next line indicates, the soldier immediately kills her child.
517 Have at thy tabard. She beats him. A tabard is a short, open-sided surcoat, worn over armor and generally emblazoned with armorial bearings — presumably here a symbol of Herod (see the note to lines 441–42, above). As before, the soldier kills her child as soon as he is attacked (see line 521), possibly taking advantage of her movement against him.
533 mekyll warldys wonder. That is, astonishing miracles or more particularly prodigious punishment.
538 Wyll ye do any dere. The third woman initially uses the polite singular pronoun ye in response to the soldier’s coaxing, but switches to the familiar form “thou” (line 543) when the soldier kills her child.
556 This kepe I in store. That is, there is more where that came from. She has jabbed or stabbed him with something, possibly a spindle (see 3.430–41, 9.430 and notes).
575 ryn fote hote. That is, hot-foot it — run quickly.
642–44 A hundreth thowsand pownde . . . . Of pennys good and rownde. What he offers and what he tells them they are worth are drastically different; 100,000 pounds would be equivalent to 240 million pennies — far more than they could carry.
662–63 Now Mahowne he you bryng / Where he is lord freyndly. May Mahound bring you to where he reigns in friendly manner — that is, within the medieval Christian view, to hell. At this point the soldiers make their exit, leaving Herod alone, “in peasse” (line 664), to address the audience.
687 all of sugar is my gall. That is, all bitterness is turn to sweetness; see also line 437 and note.
696–702 And els wonder . . . . cannot bete. That is, it would be a marvelous thing that one should be unharmed and escape unhurt, given that so many lie strewn in the streets where many children cannot find relief for their suffering.
703–05 A hundreth thowsand . . . And fourty . . . And four thowsand. Herod’s stated total of 144,000 dead alludes to the number of those marked as having served God in Apocalypse 7:4.
709–15 Had I had bot oone bat . . . . many a tong. That is, if I had had just one chance to hit that young child, how I avenged myself would be spoken about by many, even after I was dead.
718–19 In thare wyttys that ravys / Sich mastré to make. That is, who think wild thoughts about having such authority as I have.
735–37 Begyn I to rokyn, / I thynk all dysdayn / For-daunche. When I consider the matter, I think that all disdain is squeamish; that is, nothing is really contemptible. The MS has rekyn, emended here as in SC for rhyme (SC p. 530n735), but with the assumption that the meaning is the same, the form being a northern variant.
741 I can no more Fraunch. That is, no more than “adieu” (line 740) and the smattering of French forms he has used through the play (see line 247 and note).
Play 12, HEROD THE GREAT: TEXTUAL NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: EP: The Towneley Plays, ed. England and Pollard (EETS, 1897); Facs: The Towneley Cycle: A Facsimile of Huntington MS HM 1, ed. Cawley and Stevens; MED: Middle English Dictionary; MS: Huntington MS HM 1 (base text); SC: The Towneley Plays, ed. Stevens and Cawley (EETS, 1994); s.d.: stage direction; Surtees: The Towneley Mysteries, ed. Raine; York: The York Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Davidson (2011).
16 sourmontyng. So SC. MS: Iourmontyng, having apparently mistaken a long s for an I, possibly assuming an alliterative pairing with Iewry.
43 Greatt. MS has an uncancelled stroke before this word.
101 dervly. So MS. SC: deruly. EP: dernly.
122 For if. MS: a later hand has scrawled these same words and more, smudged and faded, in the top margin above the line itself.
221 And told when thay went by. MS: a later hand has written a B in the margin after this line.
244 Shall I se on thare bonys. MS: there is a faint black cross in the margin before this line.
330 knafe thou. A later hand has written ys (this?) in the margin above these words.
381 a pope. The words have been partly erased.
389 soundys. So SC, restoring rhyme. MS: sandys.
409 Soldier 2 (speech heading). MS: the speech heading (secundus miles) is written midline as if part of the dialogue, not boxed in red.
500 al to-torne. So SC. EP, MS: alto torne.
617 emang. SC, MS: emangys, here emended for rhyme.
735 rokyn. So SC, emending the rhyme. MS: rekyn.