Academic journal article Early Theatre

Slavery and Anti-Republicanism in Sir Ralph Freeman's Imperiale, a Tragedy (1639)

Academic journal article Early Theatre

Slavery and Anti-Republicanism in Sir Ralph Freeman's Imperiale, a Tragedy (1639)

Article excerpt

In Sir Ralph Freeman's Imperiale, a Tragedy (1639), a young nobleman of Genoa named Francisco finds himself helplessly in love with Angelica, the daughter of his father's rival. He feels so tightly bound by his amorous desires that he describes himself as love's slave--a standard trope of courtier romance that could be easily dismissed if not for other factors in the play. Following dramatic convention (and Francisco always seeks predictable conventions to follow), the young lover believes he can bribe a clever domestic servant to help him woo the object of his love. To this end he engages Molosso, an African slave bound to the mortal enemy of Francisco's father. At first glance, one might assume that Freeman intends to follow a Plautine juxtaposition of love slave and chattel slave to emphasize the lover's sense of bondage to his desire, but Freeman surprises us. In this play, the slave does not reinforce the lover's plight; rather, the lover's pangs highlight the misery of slavery. That is, Freeman does not feature the chattel slave to reinforce metaphors for love; he portrays the love slave as a way of showing how empty mere metaphors of slavery are when compared to actual forced servitude.

Francisco O 'tis hee.

How is't Moloss? thy face hath businesse in't,

would thou wert at leysure.

Molosso My toyl'd body

Will not admit a cheerfull countenance;

But I can throw off care, if you command.

Francisco Wouldst thou embrace redemption?

Molosso Aske me whether

I would not wish some shade if I were broyl'd

Upon the Lybian Sands, where Cancer reignes:

But Sir, if I mistake not, you sustaine

A greater servitude, yet seek not freedome.

Francisco Thou woul'dst perswade me to shake off Loves fetters.

Molosso Rather to change them into chains of Gold,

To wealth and ornament; it may be done

Without your Chymicall projection. (C4v-D1r) (1)

Francisco's love, doomed from the start, receives far less attention than Molosso's plot in the play overall. The socially superior nobleman is merely a pawn; the chattel slave controls the scene and garners our greater sympathy for his greater suffering. Although Francisco observes that Molosso looks serious and business-like, he can barely fathom the depth of Molosso's thought. He does not realize that Molosso's master, the titular Imperiale, has recently tortured the slave, nor does Francisco realize that Molosso plots a revenge scheme (although Francisco is one of the few Europeans who understands the slave's desire for emancipation).

Freeman is no Plautus, and Francisco's destiny is not comic. The slave manoeuvres Francisco in a complicated plot against Imperiale--a plot that includes Francisco's murder. In light of this dramatic irony, Francisco's complaint at bearing love's fetters lacks decorum and appears downright foppish when set next to a physically fettered and suffering slave. Molosso professes that Francisco's invisible shackles weigh more than his own tangible irons, but Molosso deceives the lover: the pangs of love pale compared to the tortures Molosso has endured. This subterfuge calls stoic philosophy into question. Mental bondage might only seem more severe than physical bondage to those who are not in actual chains. The slave allows and even encourages the lover to wallow in self-pity and the rhetoric of slavery, intentionally keeping the nobleman ignorant.

Freeman empties metaphorical love slavery of its poetic worth by considering physical and legal slavery, but the playwright has bigger slave metaphors to deconstruct than those of love. Published just prior to the outbreak of the English civil war, Imperiale is a product of a time when would-be rebels deployed slave rhetoric to justify their disobedience to a tyrannical monarch. Freeman uses the same process by which he deconstructs Francisco's love slavery to question the appropriateness of slave imagery used by Charles I's detractors and future revolutionaries. …

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