Context: As the play opens, Bajazet, the pagan and dishonorable Emperor of the Turks, has attacked and overrun Greece in violation of a thrice-sworn treaty. In the course of the invasion, Moneses, a Grecian prince and a Christian, and his bride of a few hours, Arpasia, are captured; as a protective device they pretend to be brother and sister. Bajazet, holding Arpasia as hostage, forces Moneses to act as guard to his daughter, Selima, and to conduct her away from the scene of battle. Tamerlane, the pagan but honorable ruler of Asia, has taken the field with his armies to force Bajazet to honor his treaties and restore freedom to Greece; in a preliminary skirmish one of Tamerlane's generals captures Moneses and Selima. After the battle in which the forces of Bajazet are defeated, Moneses is reunited with Arpasia, but she informs him that during their separation Bajazet had forced her into marriage and a consummation of it. She can, therefore, no longer consider herself to be the wife of Moneses but to her great sorrow must remain the wife of the despicable Emperor of the Turks. In the first scene of the fourth act she contemplates suicide, reflects on several classical heroines who preferred death to dishonor, and concludes that as a Christian this course of action is not open to her:
ARPASIAOh! Death! thou gentle end of human Sorrows,Still must my weary Eye-lids vainly wakeIn tedious Expectation of thy Peace:Why stand thy thousand Doors still open,To take the Wretched in? if stern ReligionGuards every Passage, and forbids my Entrance?–Lucrece could bleed, and Porcia swallow Fire,When urg'd with Griefs beyond a mortal Sufferance;But here it must not be. Think then, Arpasia,Think on the Sacred Dictates of thy Faith,And let that arm thy Virtue, to performWhat Cato's Daughter durst not,–Live Arpasia,And dare to be unhappy.