Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 August 2022
In 1603, Shakespeare was booed off the stage. He was performing alongside Richard Burbage in one of the period’s most notorious flops: Ben Jonson’s Sejanus. No fewer than four contemporary witnesses, including Jonson himself, attest to the heckles, jeers and hisses with which the play was greeted by its first audience at the Globe, who apparently had little patience for Jonson’s meticulous reconstruction of imperial Rome.2 By contrast, Shakespeare’s Othello, written in the same period and performed by the same company, gained immediate and lasting popularity, and, as Samuel Pepys attests, was one of the first plays to be performed when the theatres reopened in 1660.3 So, too, the plays appear to be at odds in their choice of and approach to source material. From direct quotations from little-known Greek tragedies to extensive translation of Roman historiography, Sejanus is self-consciously erudite.4 For the main plot, Jonson followed Tacitus’ account of Tiberius’ influential favourite, Sejanus, and his fall from the emperor’s grace, as recounted in Books III to VI of the Annales. The lost sections of Book V he supplemented with material from Cassius Dio and Suetonius.