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Katherine Philips as Political Playwright: "The Songs Between the Acts" in Pompey


Anne Russell


On 10 February 1663, Katherine Philips’s translation of Pierre Corneille’s La Mort de Pompée, with five songs she wrote to link the acts, was performed in Dublin. Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery, facilitated the play’s professional production at the new Smock Alley Theatre, helping with funds for expensive costumes and professional singers from the church. By April, John Crooke had published the text of Philips’s translation in Dublin; he published another edition in London later that year. In addition to having the play performed and printed, Philips also arranged for a presentation manuscript of the play to be sent to the Duchess of York, wife of King Charles’s younger brother and heir, James and later arranged for a copy to be sent to the king. Philips’s deliberate dissemination of the play to a wide audience of Dublin playgoers, a print readership, and also a court audience, suggests that she had particular public and political aims in translating the play.

Pompey engaged contemporary English political concerns in two key elements of the plot. After the battle of Pharsalus in the Roman Civil Wars, the virtuous Pompey is betrayed by Ptolemy and beheaded, and Cleopatra, returned from exile, is crowned at the end of the play. The execution of King Charles I in 1649 is certainly evoked in the sympathetic treatment of the murdered Pompey, and the restoration of Cleopatra’s right to a usurped throne might also be read as an analogy of the recent restoration of monarchy in England. These events in Pompey brought to memory the traumatic events of the recent civil wars in England from the perspective of the even more recent, and still precarious, restoration of monarchy and court.

As a whole, however, the play does not present a simple royalist allegory of regicide and restoration, but suggests a more complex political analysis of English history and politics. The analogical relations between Roman and English characters and events which seem striking at first become more complex when considered in detail. Philips’s entr’acte songs add characters to the play, further complicating political interpretation. Some songs implicitly comment on the actions of characters, allowing spectators an interlude to reflect on the scene’s implication before moving on to the next. Other songs foreshadow events beyond the time-frame of the play. Philips’s songs introduce dramatic irony which undercuts the play’s representation of Cleopatra’s restoration to the throne by reflecting on long-term history as well as immediate events. Philips’s translation, augmented by her songs, simultaneously evokes and disrupts analogies between the Roman and English civil wars. The work as a whole reflects on events and characters in sceptical and ironic ways which are not entirely sympathetic to one party or another, but which open up a complex political discourse.

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