Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1156
In the anteroom of the imperial palace Agrippine waits to speak with Néron, her son. The impatient nature of his character at last reveals itself in antagonistic behavior toward Britannicus, and Agrippine fears that she will next incur his disfavor. Albina is convinced of the emperor’s continued loyalty to his mother. Agrippine feels that if Néron is indeed noble, the fact that she wins the throne for him will ensure his devotion; but if he is ignoble, the fact of his obligation will turn him against her.
On the previous night Néron abducted Junie, to whom Britannicus is betrothed, a deed possibly motivated by resentment against Agrippine, who begins to support Britannicus in an attempt to preserve her position in the future if Néron is to turn against her. Albina assures Agrippine that her public power and honor, at least, are not decreasing. Agrippine, however, needs the assurance of a more personal trust. She confides that once Néron turned her aside from the throne on which she customarily sits in the Senate. She is also denied all private audiences with him.
Agrippine, reproaching Burrhus for disloyalty to her, accuses him of attempting to gain power over Néron. Burrhus is convinced that his prime loyalty is to the emperor, who rules well by his own authority. Néron fears that Britannicus’s children will inherit the throne if he marries Junie. Britannicus, distracted by his loss of Junie, complains of Néron’s harshness. Agrippine sends him to the house of Pallas, the freedman, where she will meet him later. Britannicus tells Narcisse, who encourages him to join Agrippine, that he still wishes to claim the throne.
Néron decides to disregard his mother’s reproaches, which he calls unjust, and to banish Pallas, the friend and adviser of Agrippine, who, he thinks, corrupts Britannicus. Narcisse assures him that Rome approves of his abduction of Junie, and Néron confesses that when he saw her he fell in love with her. He is convinced by Narcisse that Britannicus is devoted to Junie and that she probably loves him in return. Narcisse insists that the love of Junie will be won by a sign of favor from the emperor. Narcisse advises Néron to divorce Octavia, Britannicus’s sister, and marry Junie. Néron fears Agrippine’s wrath if he does so; only when he avoids her completely does he dare defy her wishes, for in her presence he is powerless. Narcisse informs Néron that Britannicus still trusts him; he is therefore dispatched to bring Britannicus for a meeting with Junie. Junie asks Néron what her crime is and insists that Britannicus is the most suitable person for her to marry, as he is the only other descendant of Augustus Caesar at court. When Néron says that he himself will marry her, Junie, appalled, begs him not to disgrace Octavia by doing so. Finally she realizes that she can save Britannicus’s life only by telling him, when they meet, that he is to leave Rome. Néron intends to listen to their conversation.
At their interview, Britannicus is bewildered by Junie’s coldness toward him and by her praise of the emperor. When he leaves, Néron reappears, but Junie flees, weeping. Néron sends Narcisse to comfort Britannicus. Burrhus reports that Agrippine is angry at Néron, and he fears that she might plot against the emperor. When Néron refuses to listen to Burrhus as he begs him not to divorce Octavia, the tutor realizes that the emperor’s true character is at last appearing.
Meanwhile, Agrippine plans to take Britannicus before the Roman army and to declare that she wronged him by exalting Néron to the throne....
(This entire section contains 1156 words.)
By this action she hopes to win their allegiance to Britannicus. Burrhus tells her that her scheme is impossible. Agrippine tells Albina that if Néron marries Junie and banishes Britannicus, her own power will end. That condition she can never accept. Although Britannicus does not trust her, she plans with his cooperation to prevent Néron’s marriage to Junie.
Although Narcisse persuades Britannicus that Junie is faithless, she nevertheless manages to see him and insists that he flee to save his life. Accused of unfaithfulness, she explains that Néron was listening during their previous meeting. Britannicus falls at her feet in gratitude for her continued love. In this situation Néron comes upon them and demands from Britannicus the obedience that through fear he intends to extort from all Rome. Later Néron orders Britannicus arrested and Agrippine detained in the palace.
Burrhus advises Agrippine, before her audience with Néron, to be affectionate and even apologetic and to make no demands on him. Instead, she explains to him exactly how she procured the throne for him and reproaches him for his present behavior. Néron, infuriated by her continued claims on him, realizes that she made him emperor only for her own glory. Accused of being a plotter, Agrippine denies that she attempted to replace Néron with Britannicus; all she wants is for Junie to be allowed to choose her own husband and for her to see Néron when she wishes. When Néron appears to yield, Burrhus congratulates him. Néron merely deceives Agrippine, however; he still intends to punish Britannicus. Burrhus then implores him to continue his just reign and be reconciled with Britannicus. Néron, again wavering, decides to meet Britannicus.
Narcisse prepares poison for Britannicus, but Néron declares he will not now use it. Narcisse, counseling him against clemency, says that Agrippine already publicly boasts of her regained control. He also insinuates that Burrhus is not to be trusted. Néron decides to plan his future actions with Narcisse.
Britannicus informs Junie that he is to be reconciled with Néron and voices his conviction that she will be returned to him, but Junie, doubting Néron’s sincerity, fears that Narcisse is deceiving them. Agrippine, on the other hand, believes that her words changed Néron completely and that her plans will be executed. Sometime after Britannicus leaves for his audience with Néron, Burrhus returns and informs the women that Narcisse poisoned Britannicus and that Néron, unmoved, watched him die. Appalled by Néron’s callousness, Burrhus determines to leave Rome.
Although Néron declares that the death of Britannicus was inevitable, Junie flees from the palace. When Agrippine accuses Néron of murder, Narcisse attempts to explain that Britannicus was a traitor. Agrippine predicts that Néron has set the pattern for his reign. After a public disturbance, Albina informs the court that at the statue of Augustus, Junie pledged herself to become a priest of Vesta and that the crowd, to protect her, killed Narcisse. Agrippine and Burrhus go to Néron to try to console him in his despair.