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Artabanus, now holding his king in contempt and aspiring to the throne, murders him, and as a means of concealing his guilt he accuses Darius of this parricide to Xerxes younger son Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes kills his brother. Then, having learned better about the matter, he avenges all these injuries by the death of Artabanus and his sons.
DARIUS, ARTAXERXES sons of Xerxes
ARTABANUS Xerxes' chief officer
PHILASTER, CARILLUS sons of Artabanus
BACCHABASUS a Persian noble
GHOST OF XERXES
Now that Xerxes has been removed, Artabanus and his sons congratulate themselves. When Artaxerxes makes an appearance, they accuse his brother Darius of this act of parricide.
ARTAB. So far favorable Fortune has smiled on our aspirations, and, with a favoring breeze blowing, our ship has held its course, so that, neither assaulted by mad gales nor ever run aground on rocks, it has now put into harbor, free of danger, leaving not the slightest trace of its voyage behind it whereby those responsible for this crime might be detected.
PHIL. With no small credit to the helmsman, since he, manning the rudder, has so set his course and governed his ship in accordance with his will that it has not been overwhelmed by towering masses of water, nor run onto hidden reefs, nor foundered on concealed sandbanks and shallows. You should not be reluctant to ascribe this honor to yourself, for by excellent right the glory for this achievement is owed to you. So why grant this fickle and inconstant goddess, the implacable enemy of prudence, a share of your praise?
CAR. Don’t rashly criticize the gods, brother. Reproaches leveled against the gods do not hurt them, yet by provoking an offended deity’s anger we forge well-deserved thunderbolts to punish our crimes. Fortune weighs and steers the things that result from the world’s affairs according to her will. She heaps with new accessions the man who is grateful and mindful of her bounty, while she despoils those she finds heedless of her help of even the good things she has freely bestowed. Why begrudge the fickle little goddess this empty glory, as long as, content with this, she allows us a solid advantage and true honor for what we have accomplished? Let her applaud herself with this, as long as our hands are decorated with scepters, our heads with glittering crowns?
ARTAB. I praise your noble character, worthy of the sons of Artabanus and not unequal to steering the reins of the world. Such should be the hands which hold scepters. Gem-encrusted crowns are owed to none but such. But it is not fitting to sing a song of triumph before the victory is gained. Xerxes indeed is laid low, and with his blood has created for us a first step to mount to the throne. But that pair survives and we have no stairway for our climb save over their prostrate bodies. As long as I see only Xerxes killed, I think we have accomplished nothing. This man, who rivals the Lernaean Hydra in his fruitfulness, has substituted two heads for the one now cut off, to our harm. As long as I behold them living, my judgment is that our work and effort has been wasted.
CAR. The axe which cuts down a solid tree supported by deep roots, can with easy effort lop off its noble little branches. Now that Xerxes is laid low, I believe the Gordian Knot has been cut. The remaining effort concerning the boys is bound to be easy. Let this task be assigned to us. You, our father, removed the father; let us, your offspring, remove these sons that stand in our way.
PHIL. Why did Xerxes leave only two sons behind him? Would that their mother had been more fertile than the daughter of Tantalus, and brought to light more children than the daughters of Danaus! It would have been good for each of them to be a Briareus, plying fifty swords and fifty shields. By Hercules, our zeal for ruling would have grown greater in the face of all those enemies, and all those extra rivals would have set spurs to our virtue, and made it speed to the royal purple at a faster clip.
ARTAB. But we must fear lest it be tripped up in its excessive haste.
PHIL. Virtue does not know how to take a fall, and if it should happen to stumble over something, the closer it is seen to approach the threat, the more spiritedly it rises up once more. The blast of the winds grows when it is confronted by forests and collides with mountains, but blows more gently over flat plains and soft meadows.
CAR. Why are we wasting time in speaking? Why not use speed in removing those obstacles? All delay is hateful for those in a hurry to gain power. Let us make haste, brother, and lop the proud heads from off those poppies. The thirst burns in my veins, unquenchable by anything other than the blood of princes.
ARTAB. Restrain your frenzy. The delay which you denounce as hateful had often proved anything but injurious to those in a hurry. You will be granted the opportunity to reap that harvest, if you want, but that crop has not begun to ripen with its happy sprouts.
CAR. I want to pluck them out, even if unripe. I want to, if they stand in the way of our growing hope.
ARTAB. I’ll pluck them out, but in the meantime your effort won’t be devoted to this work.
PHIL. This would be desirable, if harvested fruit were not more welcome to the laborer after he has undergone effort and risk.
ARTAB. Whoever climbs a tree and exposes himself to danger is a fool, if in safety he can have apples raining down into his lap as he profits from another man’s exertion. If the crown of Persia should come to our heads as if we were unwilling and reluctant, why should we seek to acquire it at the cost of gaining infamy? That fruit is foul to the taste and harmful to the health to which is added no other flavoring than manifest treachery. Thus far we are thought to be faithful, and nobody dares call our dutifulness into question. If we maintain this reputation in everybody’s eyes, we shall rule in security when the princes have been done in, and we shall remove them by employing their very own handiwork. Hear how. We shall persuade Artaxerxes, who is still a gullible boy and innocent of guilt, that Darius, inflamed by a monstrous craving for power, laid violent hands on his father, and we will inspire him to take vengeance.
CAR. The brother’s nature will plead the case in his brother’s eyes, and his very innocence will allow him to be condemned of such an unspeakable crime, guiltless though he be.
ARTAB. If these things are successful, you have no need to raise a hand. (Enter Artaxerxes.). But the quarry has entered our nets. [To Artaxerxes.] His devotee greets the world’s unique glory.
ART. And I pray for your everlasting welfare, Artabanus. Now, after my father’s death, my shipwreck hangs in the balance. My stars bright rising promised a sunny day, but now my glory, wrapped in dark clouds, threatens a grievous setting.
ARTAB. Phoebus scarce ever sends brighter beams and shines more welcome for a weary world than when he breaks through the clouds, the darkness banished.
ART. But who will dispel the clouds that have enveloped me? My eyesight is dimmed by this darkness, and cannot discern who sent it, or from where.
ARTAB. If this concern grips you so, prince, you may set aside your sorrow. The source of these air-infecting fumes is clear enough. Gather spirits worthy of yourself and make an offering to your father’s shade with the blood of a parricide. If I were not aware that this vengeance belongs to you, the murderer, guilty of so great a crime, would not happily be breathing the breath of life.
ART. Have no fear, he’ll soon be breathing somewhere else, no matter who he may be. Tell me his name.
ARTAB. I fear lest your anger will subside when I have uttered his name.
ART. I promise by my father’s unburied shade and whatever beyond the Styx is sacred to Dis, he’ll die. Utter his name immediately. Even if he should be born of Xerxes, he’ll die, done in by this hand of mine.
ARTAB. Forgive me, prince, but you should rather command my silence. I shudder to name the man responsible for so great a crime. Would that the dagger that drank the blood of Xerxes had also cut short my life’s thread! Then I should not be living, party to such a an unspeakable parricide.
ART. Tell me quickly. He who conceals a crime when bidden to speak admits his own guilt.
ARTAB. Would this could be atoned for by my own blood! If only the throne were less dear to Darius than his father, than Xerxes, whom we are mourning with our tears, would still be alive.
ART. Gods faith! So Darius dared commit such an accursed crime? You ingrate! Is this how you repay your father? I’ll give you a repayment worthy of your crimes. But what is my inward nature silently suggesting to me? I am both freezing and burning. I wholly hate the fact that Darius has had no hearing, and yet at the sound of my fathe’rs name my fearful mind wholly swells with rage. While I silently think on the duty a son owes his father, I hate the parricide. But when the sweet name of a brother sounds in my ears, once more I put off the son and entirely take on the personage of a brother. Can you love a man stained with the blood of his father? Can you hate your brother, born of Xerxes? Can you dye your hands with fraternal blood? Can you, a son, love the murderer of Xerxes your father? Yes, I can hate whoever has laid criminal hands on my parent. I can take Darius, brother though he is, and cast him to wild beasts to be devoured, after he has been rent asunder in dire ways. Come from the Underworld as a lamentable shade, father, I offer your ghost a parental sacrifice of my brother’s blood. Enjoy this vengeance. (Exit.)
ARTAB. He’s gone?
PHIL. He’s fled, swept along by Furies.
ARTAB. With what an easy striking this dry tinder catches fire, by which the royal house will perish! But meanwhile let us cunningly weave the web we have begun.
Darius mourns his father’s death, and is killed in his sleep by his brother. Artaxerxes is informed of Artabanus treachery by Bacchabasus.
DARIUS (Alone.) What hole in the ground will open up and receive me? Where may the eternal dark of night hide me forever from the hateful sight of heaven, wrapped in its sacred shadows? Hateful, unwelcome, barbarous, cruel heaven! Why deploy all those legions of fiery stars in the night time? Or why with his daily toil should the watchful father of everlasting light traverse the sky, if not to keep watch for the security of kings? Oh you idle eyes of heaven! When dangers threaten the lives of kings, does nothing out of such a huge number stand guard? Hence you may dismiss your squadrons of watchmen, your light is useless for withstanding this hideous monstrosity. That glory of the Persians, a man with few rivals in worshipping the sun, died in the sight of heaven, or rather while the sun slept its idle sleep. Who henceforth will kneel and worship Phoebus, or place the welcome odors of the incense of Sheba on his altars? Who will be so mad as to pour forth his prayers to a deaf divinity, or entrust his safety to such a feeble god? I am bringing down the wrath of the gods upon myself, if any gods exist, in impiously representing the divinity of the sun as a lifeless globe. So it is better henceforth to acknowledge no divinity, since they turn a deaf ear to the prayers of their devotees. Farewell, you meaningless shadows, henceforth I shall be a god to myself, together with the pain that always gnaws at my vitals. (The ghost of Xerxes appears and gestures with its hand.) What cold chill suffuses all my frame? My spirit fails, shivering overcomes my limbs, and a sudden horror makes my hair stand on end against its will. (He looks back.) Who is this gloomy citizen of Tartarus’ night? With his arrival he taints my unhappy day. A bejeweled crown encircles his bedraggled hair, in his pale hand he wields a glittering scepter. He’s my father. But why is he silently beckoning with a gesture of his hand? My parent has arrived. (Exit the ghost.) What sluggish cold checks my limbs? My eyes grow heavy. Would that an everlasting sleep would steal over my wretched self! (Exit. Enter Artaxerxes.)
ART. The coward! Does this parricide, guilty of a horrible crime, predict such a peaceful death for himself? You’ll soon find out what a false prophet you were. You who monstrously employed barbarous steel to deprive your innocent father of his life while he was awake, seeing, and clinging to his son’s knees, are you seeking to give up your guilt-laden spirit while snoring in a feather-bed? Wheels, scaffolds, spikes, balls of fire sufficient to expiate this felony could not be found. But let this be conceded to fraternal piety that, since you are afraid to die while wakeful, you may gain your death in sleep. Come, my blade, can you drink the blood of kings? Be bold and consume his final drops. Offer a sacrifice to my father’s shade, my sorrow. (Exit. Enter Bacchabasus.)
BACC. Could deceptive Artabanus nurse such a plague in his bosom? Did he think me so lacking in loyalty that this traitor could be entrusted to me? Let my greater loyalty to my prince surpass a traitor’s treachery. What are you saying, Bacchabasus? Could you treacherously betray a friends safety, so solemnly entrusted to you? Or could you expose your prince’s unprotected life to the weapons of traitors? As if set between the twin monsters of the Straits of Sicily or among the currents of the shifting Euripus, my mind floats, doomed soon to be overwhelmed by these considerations or by those. On the one hand I am pressed by my prince, on the other by my friend; on the one hand there is friendship, on the other duty and loyalty. Treachery inspires my mind to support my friend, but the prince’s innocence humbly pleads his case. One’s duty towards one’s prince is ended together with his life, but the bond of friendship endures beyond death. Why are you seeking a knot in a bulrush, you perverse fellow? Whoever suggests treachery takes the lead in dissolving the bonds of friendship. So let Artabanus blame himself if he pays double forfeits for his crimes. Let the innocent lad be preserved and perish the traitor, as he deserves. (Enter Artaxerxes.) But behold, it’s the prince, with Furies on his countenance.
ART. He has it. Give your applause, you Fury. I have sacrificed the victim long overdue my father, by spilling my brother’s blood. Thus may parricides perish.
BACC. Oh the lot of good men, always hostile! The innocent are punished, while those who devise crimes celebrate triumphs, enhanced by the spoils of other men.
ART. Whose lot are you lamenting?
BACC. Yours, my prince, and your brother’s, your father’s, our kingdom’s, and my own, for you are over-late in applying remedies to evils. Is your hand stained with fresh blood?
ART. I have taken revenge for the murder of my new-killed father.
BACC. With whose blood? Your brother’s?
ART. Yes, that parricide’s?
BACC. You should rather say of that innocent lad.
ART. Who dares call the contriver of such an unspeakable crime innocent?
BACC. A man is shown to be innocent when somebody else ascribes his crime to him.
ART. But in stealing his father’s life with his own hand he demonstrated his guilt.
BACC. I don’t deny that the man who committed this crime is guilty. But Darius was not responsible for this crime?
ART. So who murdered Xerxes, if Darius was not responsible for this crime?
BACC. A man who equally wanted to do in Artaxerxes after he had become guilty of his brother’s bloodshed — Artabanus.
ART. So he deceitfully ascribed the guilt for this crime to somebody else, so as to destroy me in my guilt and deceive my piety by involving it in a crime equal to his own? So that I might imagine myself my father’s champion, and as an a avenger of parricide become a parricide myself? I’ll quickly wash off this stain with your blood. You took the lead in teaching me this art, I’ll pay you your tuition, and by your own art discover how adroit you have become.
BACC. Deceit must be swindled by deceit. Artfulness does not enter into spread nets. If you need my assistance in this, I promise I shall be faithful.
ART. Thank you, Bacchabasus. Just call away his sons and remove them as a protection to their father, and when they have been removed hand them over to trusted soldiers until my judgment pronounces another doom on them. Artabanus is owed to me alone. I shall exact retribution for my father and brother. But a single man will scarcely suffice to endure such great punishment.
BACC. I obey.
ART. A great reward awaits your loyal service.
Artabanus rejoices in the success of his enterprises. Afterwards, as the result of guile, he is stabbed by Artaxerxes.
ARTAB. (Alone.) Mount the throne, Artabanus, and wield the world’s reins with a happy hand. Fortune favors your desire. Garlanded with laurel and flying with an applauding wing about you in your triumph, Victory sings her hymn. Surely there is nothing beyond the throne? This is my goal, the object of my desire, and I regret having come so far that nothing further is offered. Would that you, Artaxerxes, and likewise others would oppose my fury! A fire is quenched and disappears into thin air when fuel fails it. The handsome laurel spreads more luxuriant foliage if you poll it. In my madness, I was too hasty. I should have kept Xerxes and Darius alive so that they might join in opposing me. It is ruinous to my virtue, I think, that I have nobody against whom I may strive, unless the combined vanity of the gods would bless me with this victory. Such battles would be worthy of my powers, if only the Fates would dare bring such fruits to light. (Enter Artaxerxes.)
ARTAB. I await my sovereign’s command.
ART. I finally came to understand the entire business, and I washed this blot from my name with the blood of that parricide.
ARTAB. Because of this the virtue of my sovereign shines all the brighter, and your reputation will praise you as being worthy of your father Xerxes, worthy of the throne of the Persians. I pray that you may reign for the days of a Nestor.
ART. Your loyalty has earned you the second place.
ARTAB. The lowest place surpasses my merits.
ART. Leave that concern to me. Do you have armed soldiers at hand? It is needful to settle accounts with their support. Afterwards I shall assume the royal insignia of Persia in the presence of my cheering army.
ARTAB. Insignia not to be discarded forever! This is everyone’s solemn wish.
ART. I embrace the happy omen. What’s that gleaming on your breast? (He points at a jewel).
ARTAB. This diamond shines with feeble light in my night, the royal day will display it with a nobler sunlight. Condescend, my sovereign — (When he kneels, about to offer the diamond, he is stabbed by Artaxerxes.)
ART. Take your reward. With your blood I restore to the diamond its lost glory, and likewise to my honor. Go, please the shades of my father and my murdered brother. Tell them they may soon receive from me the full measure of vengeance, when I return his sons to their father. Farewell, hateful shade. This is the path by which I walk to the throne. (He mounts to the throne over Artabanus outstretched corpse, dons the crown and takes the scepter. Enter Bacchabasus with soldiers.)
BACC. May Artaxerxes live forever. The gloomy shades of his sons accompany that of Artabanus. Your happy soldiery cheers you. And you, you witnesses to this joy, now give triumphal applause to your sovereign. (The soldiers set the corpse of Artabanus on the lowest stair of the throne, surround the throne, repeatedly shouting Hail triumph! Let us repeat, Hail!)