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The Devil's Charter:
A tragedy containing the life and death
of Pope Alexander the Sixth
by Barnabe Barnes
(this edition prepared by Nick de Somogyi)
Theatre Arts Books/Routledge in association with
Globe Education: New York, 1999
The restored “Shakespeare's Globe” theatre in London mounts, as well as the works of the Bard, productions of many of the plays of his lesser known contemporaries. New editions of these plays are also being published, some for the first time in four hundred years, in the “Globe Quartos” series. This particular play, first performed by Shakespeare's own company in 1607, concerns the dramatic legend of those incestuous scheming poisoners, the Borgias. The actual history of this family is slightly more mundane. They were a Catalonian family whose fortunes prospered in Italy, especially when Rodrigo (Roderigo) became Pope Alexander the Sixth in 1492.
In 1455 Rodrigo's uncle, Alonso de Borja, of the province of Valencia in the kingdom of Aragon, had become Pope Calixtus the Third, and he immediately made his 24 year old nephew a cardinal. By the time Rodrigo Borja became Pope, at 61, he had three recognized children (ostensibly his “niece and nephews”) Lucrezia (Lucretia), Juan (John) and Cesare (Caesar). While Rodrigo was Pope, from 1492 to 1503, he did his best to establish his surviving son Cesare as the king of central Italy (the so-called Papal States), and might well have succeeded had he lived a few years longer. He also drew the lines which first divvied up the world between the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires (around 143 degrees E and 37 degrees W), and he instituted the first papal index of banned books.
All in all, Alexander the Sixth was a rather typical Renaissance Pope. Perhaps it was his naked interest in political power to the exclusion of anything truly spiritual (for instance, he suppressed and then had executed the reforming revivalist and charismatic preacher of Florence, Savonarola) that led to the elaboration of a legend of Borgia evil even more monstrous than the facts (as we now judge them). Barnabe Barnes' exuberant and fast-paced play is (like Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus) an extreme “tragedy of blood”, filled with murders, incest, and nasty intrigues. It starts with Roderigo signing a covenant with the Devil in exchange for becoming Pope Alexander, and it ends with the Devil tricking Alexander and his son Caesar into drinking the poisoned wine which they had intended for their chief opponents in the college of cardinals.
What is there about this work that might be of specific interest to a Thelemite (as opposed to say a Renaissance history buff and/or lover of “Jacobean” drama)? Well, it's because Alexander the Sixth, or “Roderic Borgia” as Crowley terms him in the saints list of the Gnostic Mass, is considered by the Prophet to be one of his many significant past lives. As he says in Chapter 86 of his Confessions, “[I,] as Alexander the Sixth, failed in my task of crowning the Renaissance, through not being wholly purified in my personal character. (An appropriately trivial spiritual error may externalize as the most appalling crimes.)”
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