King Victor and King Charles
Category: Verse
Level 9.06 1:31 h
King Victor and King Charles was the second play written by Robert Browning for the stage. The subject of the play is the strange incident in 1730–32 in the Kingdom of Sardinia in which the elderly king, Victor Amadeus II, first abdicated in favour of his son Charles Emmanuel III, and then after months of ever-increasing complaints unexpectedly demanded to be restored.

King Victor and King Charles

A Tragedy

Robert Browning

King Victor and King Charles


This was No. II. of Bells and Pomegranates and was issued in 1842, though it appears to have been written before the publication of Pippa Passes. The following is the advertisement prefixed to the tragedy when first published and always afterward retained.

“So far as I know, this tragedy is the first artistic consequence of what Voltaire termed ‘a terrible event without consequences;’ and although it professes to be historical, I have taken more pains to arrive at the history than most readers would thank me for particularizing: since acquainted, as I will hope them to be, with the chief circumstances of Victor’s remarkable European career — nor quite ignorant of the sad and surprising facts I am about to reproduce (a tolerable account of which is to be found, for instance, in Abbe Roman’s Récit, or even the fifth of Lord Orrery’s Letters from Italy) — I cannot expect them to be versed, nor desirous of becoming so, in all the detail of the memoirs, correspondence, and relations of the time. From these only may be obtained a knowledge of the fiery and audacious temper, unscrupulous selfishness, profound dissimulation, and singular fertility in resources, of Victor — the extreme and painful sensibility, prolonged immaturity of powers, earnest good purpose and vacillating will of Charles — the noble and right woman’s manliness of his wife — and the ill-considered rascality and subsequent better-advised rectitude of D’Ormea. When I say, therefore, that I cannot but believe my statement (combining as it does what appears correct in Voltaire and plausible in Condorcet) more true to person and thing than any it has hitherto been my fortune to meet with, no doubt my word will be taken, and my evidence spared as readily. R. B.”

London, 1842.


Victor Amadeus, first King of Sardinia.
Charles Emanuel, his son, Prince of Piedmont.
Polyxena, wife of Charles.
D’Ormea, minister.

First Year, 1730. King Victor

Part I

Scene. — The Council Chamber of Rivoli Palace, near Turin, communicating with a Hall at the back, an Apartment to the left, and another to the right of the stage.

Time, 1730-31.
Charles, Polyxena.

Charles. You think so? Well, I do not.

Polyxena. My beloved,
All must clear up; we shall be happy yet:
This cannot last forever — oh, may change
To-day or any day!

Cha. — May change? Ah yes —
May change!

Pol. Endure it, then.

Cha. No doubt a life
Like this drags on, now better and now worse.
My father may … may take to loving me;
And he may take D’Ormea closer yet
To counsel him; — may even cast off her
— That bad Sebastian; but he also may
… Or no, Polyxena, my only friend,
He may not force you from me?

Pol. Now, force me
From you! — me, close by you as if there gloomed
No Sebastians, no D’Ormeas on our path —
At Rivoli or Turin, still at hand,
Arch-counsellor, prime confidant … force me!

Cha. Because I felt as sure, as I feel sure
We clasp hands now, of being happy once.
Young was I, quite neglected, nor concerned
By the world’s business that engrossed so much
My father and my brother: if I peered
From out my privacy, — amid the crash
And blaze of nations, domineered those two.
‘Twas war, peace — France our foe, now — England, friend —
In love with Spain — at feud with Austria! Well —
I wondered, laughed a moment’s laugh for pride
In the chivalrous couple, then let drop
My curtain — “I am out of it,” I said —
When …

Pol. You have told me, Charles.

Cha. Polyxena —
When suddenly, — a warm March day, just that!
Just so much sunshine as the cottage child
Basks in delighted, while the cottager
Takes off his bonnet, as he ceases work,
To catch the more of it — and it must fall
Heavily on my brother! Had you seen
Philip — the lion-featured! not like me!

Pol. I know —

Cha. And Philip’s mouth yet fast to mine,
His dead cheek on my cheek, his arm still round
My neck, — they bade me rise, “for I was heir
To the Duke,” they said, “the right hand of the Duke:”
Till then he was my father, not the Duke.
So … let me finish … the whole intricate
World’s-business their dead boy was born to, I
Must conquer, — ay, the brilliant thing he was
I of a sudden must be: my faults, my follies,
— All bitter truths were told me, all at once,
To end the sooner. What I simply styled
Their overlooking me, had been contempt:
How should the Duke employ himself, forsooth,
With such an one, while lordly Philip rode
By him their Turin through? But he was punished,
And must put up with — me! ‘Twas sad enough
To learn my future portion and submit.
And then the wear and worry, blame on blame!
For, spring-sounds in my ears, spring-smells about,
How could I but grow dizzy in their pent
Dim palace-rooms at first? My mother’s look
As they discussed my insignificance,
She and my father, and I sitting by, —
I bore; I knew how brave a son they missed;
Philip had gayly run state-papers through,
While Charles was spelling at them painfully!
But Victor was my father spite of that.
“Duke Victor’s entire life has been,” I said,
“Innumerable efforts to one end;
And on the point now of that end’s success,
Our Ducal turning to a Kingly crown,
Where’s time to be reminded ‘tis his child
He spurns?” And so I suffered — scarcely suffered,
Since I had you at length!

Pol. To serve in place
Of monarch, minister and mistress, Charles!

Cha. But, once that crown obtained, then was’t not like
Our lot would alter? “When he rests, takes breath,
Glances around, sees who there’s left to love —
Now that my mother’s dead, sees I am left —
Is it not like he’ll love me at the last?”
Well, Savoy turns Sardinia; the Duke’s King:
Could I — precisely then — could you expect
His harshness to redouble? These few months
Have been … have been … Polyxena, do you
And God conduct me, or I lose myself!
What would he have? What is’t they want with me?
Him with this mistress and this minister,
— You see me and you hear him; judge us both!
Pronounce what I should do, Polyxena!

Pol. Endure, endure, beloved! Say you not
He is your father? All’s so incident
To novel sway! Beside, our life must change:
Or you’ll acquire his kingcraft, or he’ll find
Harshness a sorry way of teaching it.
I bear this — not that there’s so much to bear.

Cha. You bear? Do not I know that you, though bound
To silence for my sake, are perishing
Piecemeal beside me? And how otherwise
When every creephole from the hideous Court
Is stopped; the Minister to dog me, here —
The Mistress posted to entrap you, there!
And thus shall we grow old in such a life;
Not careless, never estranged, — but old: to alter
Our life, there is so much to alter!

Pol. Come —
Is it agreed that we forego complaint
Even at Turin, yet complain we here
At Rivoli? ‘Twere wiser you announced
Our presence to the King. What’s now afoot
I wonder? Not that any more’s to dread
Than every day’s embarrassment: but guess
For me, why train so fast succeeded train
On the high-road, each gayer still than each!
I noticed your Archbishop’s pursuivant,
The sable cloak and silver cross; such pomp
Bodes ... what now, Charles? Can you conceive?

Cha. Not I.

Pol. A matter of some moment —

Cha. There’s our life!
Which of the group of loiterers that stare
From the lime-avenue, divines that I —
About to figure presently, he thinks,
In face of all assembled — am the one
Who knows precisely least about it?

Pol. Tush!
D’Ormea’s contrivance!

Cha. Ay, how otherwise
Should the young Prince serve for the old King’s foil?
— So that the simplest courtier may remark
‘T were idle raising parties for a Prince
Content to linger the court’s laughing-stock.
Something, ‘t is like, about that weary business
[Pointing to papers he has laid down, and which Polyxena examines.]
— Not that I comprehend three words, of course,
After all last night’s study.

Pol. The faint heart!
Why, as we rode and you rehearsed just now
Its substance … (that’s the folded speech I mean,
Concerning the Reduction of the Fiefs)
— What would you have? — I fancied while you spoke,
Some tones were just your father’s.

Cha. Flattery!

Pol. I fancied so: — and here lurks, sure enough,
My note upon the Spanish Claims! You’ve mastered
The fief-speech thoroughly: this other, mind,
Is an opinion you deliver, — stay,
Best read it slowly over once to me;
Read — there’s bare time; you read it firmly — loud
— Rather loud, looking in his face, — don’t sink
Your eye once — ay, thus! “If Spain claims” … begin
— Just as you look at me!

Cha. At you! Oh truly,
You have I seen, say, marshalling your troops,
Dismissing councils, or, through doors ajar,
Head sunk on hand, devoured by slow chagrins
— Then radiant, for a crown had all at once
Seemed possible again! I can behold
Him, whose least whisper ties my spirit fast,
In this sweet brow, naught could divert me from
Save objects like Sebastian’s shameless lip,
Or worse, the clipped gray hair and dead white face
And dwindling eye as if it ached with guile,
D’Ormea wears ...

(As he kisses her, enter from the King’s apartment D’Ormea.)

I said he would divert
My kisses from your brow!

D’Ormea. [Aside.] Here! So, King Victor
Spoke truth for once: and who’s ordained, but I
To make that memorable? Both in call,
As he declared! Were ‘t better gnash the teeth,
Or laugh outright now?

Cha. [to Pol.] What’s his visit for?

D’O. [Aside.] I question if they even speak to me.

Pol. [to Cha.] Face the man! He’ll suppose you fear him else.
[Aloud.] The Marquis bears the King’s command, no doubt?

D’O. [Aside.] Precisely! — If I threatened him, perhaps?
Well, this at least is punishment enough!
Men used to promise punishment would come.

Cha. Deliver the King’s message, Marquis!

D’O. [Aside.] Ah —
So anxious for his fate? [Aloud.] A word, my Prince,
Before you see your father — just one word
Of counsel!

Cha. Oh, your counsel certainly!
Polyxena, the Marquis counsels us!
Well, sir? Be brief, however!

D’O. What? You know
As much as I? — preceded me, most like,
In knowledge! So! (‘T is in his eye, beside —
His voice: he knows it, and his heart’s on flame
Already!) You surmise why you, myself,
Del Borgo, Spava, fifty nobles more,
Are summoned thus?

Cha. Is the Prince used to know,
At any time, the pleasure of the King,
Before his minister? — Polyxena,
Stay here till I conclude my task: I feel
Your presence (smile not) through the walls, and take
Fresh heart. The King’s within that chamber?

D’O. [Passing the table whereon a paper lies, exclaims, as he glances at it] “Spain!”

Pol. [Aside to Cha.] Tarry awhile: what ails the minister?

D’O. Madam, I do not often trouble you.
The Prince loathes, and you scorn me — let that pass!
But since it touches him and you, not me,
Bid the Prince listen!

Pol. [to Cha.] Surely you will listen:
— Deceit? — Those fingers crumpling up his vest?

Cha. Deceitful to the very fingers’ ends!

D’O. [who has approached them, overlooks the other
other paper Charles continues to hold].
My project for the Fiefs! As I supposed!
Sir, I must give you light upon those measures
— For this is mine, and that I spied of Spain,
Mine too!

Cha. Release me! Do you gloze on me
Who bear in the world’s face (that is, the world
You make for me at Turin) your contempt?
— Your measures? — When was not a hateful task
D’Ormea’s imposition? Leave my robe!
What post can I bestow, what grant concede?
Or do you take me for the King?

D’O. Not I!
Not yet for King, — not for, as yet, thank God,
One who in ... shall I say a year, a month?
Ay! — shall be wretcheder than e’er was slave
In his Sardinia, — Europe’s spectacle
And the world’s by-word! What? The Prince aggrieved
That I excluded him our counsels? Here
[Touching the paper in Charles’s hand.]
Accept a method of extorting gold
From Savoy’s nobles, who must wring its worth
In silver first from tillers of the soil,
Whose hinds again have to contribute brass
To make up the amount: there’s counsel, sir,
My counsel, one year old; and the fruit, this —
Savoy’s become a mass of misery
And wrath, which one man has to meet — the King:
You’re not the King! Another counsel, sir!
Spain entertains a project (here it lies)
Which, guessed, makes Austria offer that same King
Thus much to baffle Spain; he promises;
Then comes Spain, breathless lest she be forestalled,
Her offer follows; and he promises ...

Cha. — Promises, sir, when he has just agreed
To Austria’s offer?

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