The Indian Queen (play)

The Indian Queen is a play by Sir Robert Howard, written in collaboration with John Dryden, his sister's husband. It was first performed in 1664 with incidental music by John Banister the elder (1630–1679). In 1695, the play was expanded with additional music to create a new semi-opera of the same name by the composer Henry Purcell.


The plot is set at the courts of Peru and Mexico right before the Spanish invasion. It is difficult to follow due to an information gap which is filled only in the last scenes, and due to changes of location which the reader is likely to miss (here the spectator will have an advantage).

The play's protagonists can be divided into the groups of two countries and their respective royal families:

  • the Peruvians: King Ynca and his daughter Orazia
  • the Mexicans, who are divided in a family feud between:
  • the now ruling Queen Zempoalla, her general Traxalla, and her son Acacis. With Traxalla's help, Zempoalla has usurped the Mexican throne. Acacis, uncle of the deposed king, is not at all happy about the prospect of becoming the next Mexican king. He remains horrified by his mother’s deeds.
  • the legitimate Mexican line of succession still alive with Montezuma, the son of the deposed king, a man of valour, and, at the play's beginning, Peru’s successful general. Montezuma has been educated in the woods by Garrucca who has not told him anything about his noble heritage; his background remains unclear right into the play’s last scenes in which his mother Amexia appears with Garrucca, both supported by the Mexican people who are now ready to end Zempoalla’s reign.

Minor characters are Ismeron, a Mexican prophet and conjuror and the God of Dreams whom Ismeron manages to evoke on Zempoalla's request.


The play begins at Ynca's court. The old king honours his young general Montezuma who has just defeated the Mexicans and caught their prince Acacis. Generously Ynca grants Montezuma personal power over the defeated realm and over Acacis. Montezuma proves his own generosity by setting Acacis free, and he defies the riches he is offered in a show of his own pride and love: he can win any country; it is Ynca's daughter he wants, and all is worth nothing if he does not get her.

The play's central conflict is constructed around Ynca's reluctance to consent to his daughter's marrying Montezuma. Orazia's own feelings remain hidden; she acts the obedient daughter with readiness to follow her father into death on the Mexican altar.

The reversal of affairs – Mexico conquers Peru and captures Ynca and Orazia – takes place between scenes one and two. Montezuma announces at the end of the first scene that he will change sides and support Mexico against Peru. The second scene opens at the Mexican court with Montezuma having just degraded Orazia and her father to Mexican state prisoners.

Montezuma and Acacis have meanwhile become friends. Ynca and his daughter are for the rest of the play the captives of Zempoalla, the Mexican usurper, which does not facilitate the situation. Montezuma remains eager to marry Orazia. The fair captive and her father are now, however, destined to die at Zempoalla's command as human sacrifices on Mexico's altar - Zempoalla has sworn their deaths.

Different interests begin to block each other: Zempoalla wants to see her captives die and falls in love with Montezuma (still in love with Orazia). Her son Acacis has fallen in love with Orazia himself and has to choose between his new friendship with Montezuma and his love for his mother's captive. General Traxalla acts the Machiavellian courtier in between: he has brought Zempoalla onto the throne – a woman who is now about to fall in love with Montezuma the new successful Mexican general. Traxalla himself could try to win Orazia, the royal captive in a power struggle against Zempoalla whose secret thoughts he can reveal in his monologues.

The different conflicts culminate step by step. Acacis has to fight a duel over Orazia with Montezuma. He has realised that neither of the two friends will be happy if he has to see Orazia marrying the other. Orazia ends the fight between her two lovers only when Acacis is already badly wounded and expecting his own death.

The tragedy's final catastrophe is ripe after a dark scene in which Zempoalla has asked for an explanation of her dreams. Dark signs forecast her failure and the re-installation of the legitimate line of succession.

Acacis stabs himself when he realises that Montezuma will win Orazia and furthermore aggravated about his own future prospects as the son of his mother, an unlawful usurper. Traxalla is killed by Montezuma whom he attacks in an attempt to get more power over Orazia. Zempoalla kills herself when the situation is finally resolved by Mexico's people: Amexia and Garrucca turn up, supported by a revolt, and they can stop the execution of Ynca and his daughter.

The old Ynca is moved by all these events and offers Orazia to Montezuma – before Montezuma receives the information that he is actually the heir of the Mexican throne, the very person who can with all justification marry the Peruvian princess.

Some critical thoughts

A number of conflicts run through the play: can the throne be usurped by an unlawful queen? The answer is no. Zempoalla remains haunted by her past deeds; her son does not develop the necessary eagerness to inherit a crown unlawfully gained. Fate turns against the usurper and an insurgence seals that fate. The legitimate heir regains his position even though he is at that moment not aware of his rights to the throne. Fate, one could say, is not blind, human actors may be.

The second group of conflicts is arranged around Orazia and Montezuma, the two unquestionably attractive characters on the stage. Orazia plays the role of the obedient daughter (who will follow her father into death) and the unhappy and pitiable prisoner. Montezuma gains his attractiveness as the bold warrior and successful general. All the play's love affairs are fixed on Orazia and Montezuma – both can only marry if they defy all the other claims on their respective persons. It remains a problem that they cannot resort to unlimited violence without losing their attractiveness. Montezuma can fight with Acacis over Orazia in a duel of gallantry, he wounds Acacis yet he does not kill him – Acacis stabs himself and so does his mother – the play can thus end in a re-installation of power without the bloody scene of Zempoalla's execution. (Montezuma's killing of Traxalla is less problematic – he comments the act as lawful act against an usurper. Traxalla remains, however, the aggressor – his just death an act of self-defence by Montezuma.)

Parental love has a dubious position in this play. Zempoalla is strangely in love with her son Acacis – there are aspects of incestuous love wrought into her monologues, her ambition turns ultimately futile with his suicide. Ynca on the other hand is not ready to marry off his daughter to the most attractive applicant the play has to offer. In the final scenes he allows this marriage which would make his general the future king over Peru. The act is one of mildness of an old man expecting his death. It is also a futile act as Orazia is so far not likely to profit from it: She is determined to die with her father rather than to marry Montezuma.

The play does all in all celebrate the re-installation of legitimate and lost power. Montezuma does receive an appreciation he is worthy to receive as a true borne prince. The central conflicts of love (who is allowed to marry Orazia or Montezuma?), friendship (between Montezuma and Acacis) and legitimation of power (both of Montezuma and Zempoalla/Acacis) remain schematic. The exotic setting allows the usual surprising turns no European setting could allow: Montezuma does not know more about his own past (whilst a modern European prince would have his past nicely documented) – it remains a weakness that we ourself do not realise that he could have a hidden past. We do eventually get a deeper background where we have not asked for it, nor hoped it could resurface. Montezuma's lost past is thus reduced to a mere additional and natural legitimation – it does not function as a kind of sword of Damocles sword, a dark expectation one might gradually see resurfacing. The special Latin-American setting offers (in contrast to the regular Eastern oriental settings) the climax of imminent human sacrifices to be performed on the stage. The link to European affairs remains underdeveloped. The prologue and epilogue offer not more than vague hints that one could connect the play to Europe's history.

See also

This page was last updated at 2019-11-12 15:23, update this pageView original page

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