David Bruce: George Peele’s DAVID AND BATHSHEBA, AND THE TRAGEDY OF ABSALOM: A Retelling — Cast of Characters, Prologue, Scene 1


David and his Family:

David, King of Israel and Judah.

Cusay, a lord, and follower of David.

Amnon, son of David by David’s first wife: Ahinoam. He is David’s oldest son.

Jethray, Servant to Amnon.

Chileab, son of David by Abigail.

Absalom, son of David by Maacah. George Peele called him Absalon.

Thamar, daughter of David by Maacah.

Adonia, son of David by Haggith.

Solomon, son of David by Bathsheba. George Peele called him Salomon.

Joab, captain of the army to David, and nephew of David and son of his sister Zeruia.

Abisai, nephew of David and son of his sister Zeruia.

Amasa, nephew of David and son of his sister Abigail; also captain of the army to Absalom.

Jonadab, nephew of David and son of his brother Shimeah; also friend to Amnon.

Other Characters:

Uriah the Hittite, a warrior in David’s army. George Peele called him Urias theHethite.

Bathsheba, wife of Uriah. George Peele called her Bethsabe.

Maid to Bathsheba.

Nathan, a prophet.

Sadoc, high priest.

Ahimaas, his son.

Abiathar, a priest.

Jonathan, his son.

Achitophel, chief counselor to Absalom.

Ithay, a captain from Gath.

Semei,who hates David.

Hanon, King of Ammon.

Machaas, King of Gath.

Woman of Thecoa.

Messenger, Soldiers, Shepherds, and Attendants.

Concubines to David.



I have used the names we know the characters by instead of George Peele’s names.

  • His Bethsabe is our Bathsheba.
  • His Absalon is our Absalom.
  • His Urias the Hethite is our Uriah the Hittite.
  • His Salomon is our Solomon.

Zion is the city of David: the Jerusalem of ancient times.

Often, George Peele will use Jerusalem when he means Israel; thus, in one sentence he will refer first to Jerusalem (Israel) and then to Zion (Jerusalem).

George Peele’s play often uses the name “Jove” for God. Jove is, of course, Jupiter, a pagan god. This use of “Jove” for God is common among Elizabethan playwrights.

In Elizabethan culture, a man of higher rank would use words such as “thee,” “thy,” “thine,” and “thou” to refer to a servant. However, two close friends or a husband and wife could properly use “thee,” “thy,” “thine,” and “thou” to refer to each other.

The Elizabethans believed that the mixture of four humors in the body determined one’s temperament. One humor could be predominant. The four humors are blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. If blood is predominant, then the person is sanguine (optimistic). If yellow bile is predominant, then the person is choleric (bad-tempered). If black bile is predominant, then the person is melancholic (sad). If phlegm is predominant, then the person is phlegmatic (calm).


Here is an excellent annotated edition of the play, which can be downloaded free:

Peele, George. David and Bethsabe. Annotated Edition. ElizabethanDrama.org, 2019. Web.


The man behind ElizabethanDrama.orgis Peter Lukacs.

The ElizabethanDrama.org edition of the play quotes from the 1568 Bishop’s Bible, which was the main Bible that George Peele used in writing this play. The ElizabethanDrama.org edition modernizes the spelling of that Bible, and my retelling of George Peele’s play uses some of those modernized-spelling quotations.

Many Elizabethan plays are based on mythology, but this is the only extant play based solely on the Bible (and the playwright’s imagination). The ElizabethanDrama.org edition identifies the Biblical source, when relevant, of each scene:

Bible Verses Described by the Prologue: None.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene I: 2 Samuel 11:1-6.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene II: 2 Samuel 12:26-28.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene III: 2 Samuel 13:1-7.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene IV: 2 Samuel 13:15-20.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene V: lines 1-64: 2 Samuel 13:21, 23-27; after that, 2 Samuel 11:7-15.

Bible Verses Described by the Chorus I: 2 Samuel 11:16-17, 26-27; and 2 Samuel 12:14.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene VI: 2 Samuel 12:15.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene VII: 2 Samuel 12:1-24.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene VIII: 2 Samuel 13:27-29.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene IX: all the indicated verses are from 2 Samuel: (1) lines 1-86, 12:29-31; (2) lines 87- 140, 13:30-33; (3) lines 142-218, 14:1-23; (4) lines 220-225, 14:25-26; (5) lines 227-247, 14:33; and (6) lines 249-266, 15:1-6.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene X: 2 Samuel 15:17-37.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene XI: 2 Samuel 16:15-17:21.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene XII: all the indicated verses are from 2 Samuel: (1) lines 1-99, 16:5-13; (2) lines 101-132, 17:21-22; and (3) 134-174, 18:1-5.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene XIII: 2 Samuel 17:23.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene XIV: None.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene XV: 2 Samuel 18:6-17.

Bible Verses Described by the Chorus II: None.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene XVI: None.

Bible Verses Depicted in Scene XVII: there are no verses in the Bible corresponding to lines 1-151; lines 153 to the end of the scene match up with 2 Samuel 18:24-19:8.


An actor sings the Prologue. In addition to praising King David of Israel, who both composed many songs of praise to God and achieved many military victories for his country, the actor asks a Muse for help in telling King David’s story.

“Of Israel’s sweetest singer now I sing,

“His holy style and happy victories;

“Whose Muse was dipped in that inspiring dew

“Archangels distilled from the breath of Jove,

“Adorning her temples with the glorious flowers

“Heavens rained on the tops of Zion and Mount Sinai.

“Upon the bosom of his ivory lute

“The cherubim and angels laid their breasts;

“And, when his consecrated — sacred — fingers struck

“The golden wires of his ravishing harp,

“He gave alarum to [alerted] the Host [Army] of Heaven,

“The angels who, winged with lightning, broke through the clouds, and cast

“Their crystal armor at his conquering feet.

“Of this sweet poet, Jove’s musician,

“And of his beauteous son Absalom, I strive to sing.

“Help, divine Adonai [God], to conduct

“Upon the wings of my well-tempered and pleasant verse

“The hearers’ minds above the towers of Heaven,

“And guide them so in this thrice-lofty flight

“That their mounting feathers are not scorched by the fire

“That none can temper but Thy holy hand.

“To Thee for succor flies my feeble Muse,

“And at Thy feet her iron pen does use.”

In this case, the Muse is too weak to tell David’s story and so the playwright must ask Adonai — another name for God — for help.

The Muse’s iron pen is a chisel. Words written in rock with a chisel have permanence.

— Scene 1 —

On the roof of the Royal Palace in Jerusalem, King David sat and watched Bathsheba below bathing over a spring. Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a soldier in King David’s army, was unaware that King David was watching her bathe. She sang as she bathed herself:

Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air,

Black shade, fair nurse, shadow [screen] my white hair:

Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air, and ease me;

Black shade, fair nurse; shroud me, and please me:

Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning,

Make not my glad cause a cause of mourning.

Bathsheba was beautiful, and she was blonde. She wanted her skin — a reason for her happiness — to remain fair and not burn in the strong sunlight.

Let not my beauty’s fire

Inflame unstaid [immoderate] desire,

Nor pierce [penetrate] any bright eye

That wanders lightly.

The word “lightly” can mean 1) unthinkingly, or 2) wantonly.

Bathsheba then said, “Come, gentle Zephyr, you west wind, adorned with those perfumesthat formerly in Eden sweetened Adam’s love — Eve — and stroke my bosom with thy silken-soft fan.

“This shade, sun-proof, is yet no proof against thee. Thy body, smoother than this waveless spring, and purer than the substance of the same, can creep through that which his lances cannot pierce. Thou, Zephyr, and thy sister, soft and sacred Air, goddess of life, and governess of health, keep every fountain fresh and arbor sweet. No brazen gate can repulse her passage, nor can bushy thicket bar thy subtle, fine, delicate breath.

“So then deck thyself with thy loose delightsome — delightful — robes, and on thy wings bring delicate perfumes to play the wantons with us through the leaves.”

King David said to himself, “What tunes, what words, what looks, what wonders piercemy soul, incensed and inflamed with a sudden fire? What tree, what shade, what spring, what paradise, enjoys the beauty of so fair a dame?

“Fair Eve, placed in a garden of perfect happiness, lending her praise-notes to the liberal heavens and praising in song the generous heavens, singing with the accents of archangels’ tunes, did not bringmore pleasure to her husband Adam’s thoughtsthan this fair woman’s words and notes bring to my thoughts.

“May that sweet plain that bears her pleasant weight be always enameled with flowers of many colors.

“May that precious spring bear sand of purest gold, and, for the pebbles, let the silver streams that pierce the earth’s bowels to maintain the source, play upon rubies, sapphires, and green-colored gems.

“Let the waters be embraced with and surrounded by golden curls of moss that sleep with the sound the waters make out of joy at feeding the spring with their flow.

“Let all the grass that beautifies her shady bower bear the Biblical food called manna every morning instead of dew, andlet the dew be sweeter far than the dew that hangs, like chains of pearl, on high Hermon Hill, andsweeter far than the balm that trickled from old Aaron’s beard.”

Psalms 133:3 states, “It is also like unto the dew of Hermon, which falleth down the hill of Zion” (1568 Bishop’s Bible).

Psalms 133:2 states, “It is like unto a precious ointment poured upon the head, which runneth down upon the beard, even upon Aaron’s beard, which also runneth down the skirts of his garments” (1568 Bishop’s Bible).

Aaron was the brother of Moses, and he was a high priest.

King David then called for a servant: “Cusay, come up, and serve thy lord the king.”

Cusay arrived and asked, “What service does my lord the king command?”

King David replied, “Look, Cusay, see the flower of Israel, the fairest daughter who obeys the king in all the land the Lord subdued to me.”

He was referring to Bathsheba, his subject.

He continued, “She is fairer than Isaac’s lover at the well, brighter than the inside-bark of new-hewn cedar, sweeter than flames of fine-perfumed myrrh, and comelier — more beautiful — than the silver clouds that dance on Zephyr’s wings before the King of Heaven.”

Genesis 24 tells the story of how Isaac, the son of Abraham, married. Abraham wanted Isaac to marry a woman from Mesopotamia, so Abraham sent his oldest servant to find a wife for Isaac. The servant arrived at a Mesopotamian well and prayed. Rebecca came to the well, drew water, and gave the servant water to drink. Rebecca became Isaac’s wife.

Cusay asked, “Isn’t she Bathsheba, the wife of the Hittite Uriah, who is now at the siege of Rabbah under the command of Joab?”

Rabbah was about 40 miles northeast of Jerusalem. It was the capital city of Ammon.

King David ordered, “Go and find out, and bring her quickly to the king: me. Tell her that her graces have found grace with him.”

“I will, my lord,” Cusay said.

He exited.

King David said to himself, “Bright Bathsheba shall wash, in David’s bower, in water mixed with purest almond-flower, and bathe her beauty in the milk of young goats.

“Bright Bathsheba gives earth to my desires. She gives verdure — lush green vegetation — to earth, and to that verdure she gives flowers. To flowers she gives sweet odors, and to odors she gives wings that carry pleasures to the hearts of kings.”

Cusay appeared at the spring below the palace, startling and frightening Bathsheba.

Cusay said, “Fair Bathsheba, the King of Israel from forth his princely tower has seen thee bathe, and thy sweet graces have found grace with him. Come, then, and kneel to him where he stands; the king is gracious and has liberal and generous hands.”

She replied, “Ah, who and what is Bathsheba to please the king? And who and what is David, that he should desire, for fickle beauty’s sake, the wife of his servant?”

Beauty is fickle: It doesn’t last. It moves on to someone else.

Uriah, a soldier in King David’s army, was the servant whose wife she was.

Bathsheba knew immediately that King David wanted to sleep with her.

Cusay replied, “Thou, fair dame, know that David is wise and just, elected to the heart of Israel’s God. So then don’t expostulate with him about any action that contents his soul.”

Bathsheba replied, “My lord the king, elect to God’s own heart, should not inflame his gracious jealousy — his thoughts are chaste. I hate incontinence.”

The word “his” could refer to Bathsheba’s husband, to God, or to King David — or to all three.

“Jealousy” is a strong emotion. Bathsheba’s husband would be jealous if King David were to sleep with her. God is a jealous god because he feels strong emotion when people follow false idols and commit sin. King David ought to have the same kind of gracious jealousy that a husband or the one true God ought to have. Instead, the strong emotion that King David was feeling was sexual desire. He was jealous of Bathsheba’s husband.

Cusay said, “Woman, thou wrong the king, and doubt the honor of him whose truth maintains the crown of Israel. You are making him wait who ordered me to bring thee to him immediately.”

“The king’s poor handmaid will obey my lord,” Bathsheba said.

“Then come, and do thy duty to his grace,” Cusay said. “Do what seems favorable in his sight.”

Bathsheba and Cusay went into the palace.

King David said, “Now comes my lover trippingly like the roe deer, and she brings my longings tangled in her hair. As a place to enjoy her love, I’ll build a kingly bower, seated within the sound of a hundred streams, which, for their homage to her greatest joys, shall, just like the serpents fold into the serpents’ nests in oblique turnings, wind their nimble waves about the circles of her elaborate walks; and with their murmur summon easeful Sleep to lay his golden scepter on her brows.”

Hearing Cusay and Bathsheba coming, King David ordered his attendants, “Open the doors, and welcome my love. Open, I say, and, as you open, sing, ‘Welcome, fair Bathsheba, King David’s darling.’”

Cusay and Bathsheba entered.

King David and the attendants sang to Bathsheba, “Welcome, fair Bathsheba, King David’s darling.”

He then said, “Thy bones’ fair covering was previously revealed to be fair and beautiful, and all my eyes were pierced with all thy beauties.

“Heaven’s bright eye — the sun — burns most when highest it climbs the curved zodiac with its fiery sphere, and shines furthest from this earthly globe. Therefore, since thy beauty scorched my conquered soul, I called thee nearer for my nearer cure.”

A temporary cure for sexual passion is an orgasm.

Bathsheba replied, “Too near, my lord, was your unprotected heart when furthest off it pierced my luckless beauty, and I wish that this dreary day had turned to night, or that some pitch-dark cloud had cloaked the sun, before their lights — the light of the day and the light of the sun — had caused my lord to see his name and my chastity disgraced!”

So far, Bathsheba had been a chaste wife: She was loyal to her husband and had not slept with anyone else. King David, however, was a powerful man who intended to make her unchaste.

King David replied, “My love, if want of love has left thy soul a sharper sense of honor than that possessed by thy king — for love leads kings sometimes from their thrones, making them behave inappropriately — as formerly my heart was hurt, displeasing thee, so come and taste thy ease with easing me.”

King David knew what he wanted: sex with Bathsheba. Her husband was a soldier who was away on a military campaign, and so she lacked sex, which according to King David’s view, meant that she wanted sex. He had displeased her, which he said hurt his heart, and now he wanted her to ease his hurt by sleeping with him. If she did, she would “taste her ease” — that is, she would enjoy herself.

To King David, this may have made some kind of sense — he was thinking with his penis — but it did not make sense to Bathsheba.

She replied, “One medicine cannot heal our different harms, for the one medicine would rather make us both fester at the bone. So then let the king be cunning in his cure, lest by his flattering and misleading both of us, both of us perish in his hand.”

King David’s harm was that he wanted to have sex with Bathsheba; Bathsheba’s harm was that she was being pressured to have sex with King David, a man with whom she did not want to have sex.

The medicine that King David was advocating was sex, but that would “cure” only one of their harms.

The harms were also sins: King David wanted to commit adultery, and he wanted Bathsheba to commit adultery. These actions would make them metaphorically fester at the bone.

In a Christian world-view, sin can cause one to perish. If King David were to commit adultery with Bathsheba, both of them could perish.

King David said, “Leave it to me, my dearest Bathsheba, whose skill is conversant in deeper cures.”

The best cure is prevention: Don’t commit adultery and bring that harm on yourself. This is not what King David had in mind.

King David ordered, “Cusay, hasten to my servant Joab and command him to send Uriah home with all the speed that can possibly be used.”

“Cusay will fly about the king’s desire,” Cusay replied, exiting.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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