Fletcher, Massinger, and Roman Imperial Character

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2009


Western Michigan University English Department

Source Publication

Comparative Drama

Source ISSN


Original Item ID

DOI: 10.1353/cdr.0.0072


In 1678, Thomas Rymer, the infamous debunker of Shakespeare, attacked Rollo, Duke of Normandy, a collaborative tyrant tragedy by John Fletcher, Philip Massinger, and probably some others, on what ought to occur to us as a puzzling basis: Rymer located the root of the play's alleged ugliness in its ties to history. Rollo, in recasting the history taken from Herodian of Caracalla's slaughter of his brother Geta, and in merely renaming the personages, offers a prime example of how "particular yesterday truths were imperfect and unproper to illustrate the universal and eternal truths" of tragedy. To Rymer, it was for "History to describe the truth, but Tragedy was to invent things better then the truth." Caracalla's tyrannical fratricide was a "horrid and bloody story," "all which" had been injudiciously "cram'd" into Rollo, "crude and undigested, as in the Original"; Rollo was "indeed a History, and it may well be a History; for never man of common sense could set himself to invent any thing so gross. "For Rymer, despite the changes in setting and naming, the Normans of Rollo are essentially reconstructions of the Romans of Herodian. Rymer assumes that such a historical reconstruction is ill-advised, but that he assumes it at all should astonish us from our vantage point today, for it flies in the face of our own assumptions about the dramaturgy of Fletcher and Massinger, and of their contemporaries. What if Rymer is right, and a significant part of the intention behind Rollo is to get at the heart of the "horrid and bloody story," and to do so by analyzing the particular "yesterday truth" of who this murderous Roman emperor really was?


Comparative Drama, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Fall 2009): 317-354. DOI.