King Herod

Male. High Baritone. The King of Galilee; Jesus is brought to him for judgment after first being taken to Pilate.

Age range: 18-60
Vocal range: B2–G4

Relevant Insights

“King Herod was a bit of a debauched bloke, who sat around smoking and drinking all the time with a lot of women around him.”

– Tim Rice

“It was Herod’s father who, when told that a Savior had been born, ordered the slaughter of the innocents. Pilate may have been responsible for sending Christ down, but he was a Roman gentleman in the Greek tradition – educated and compassionate. He said: ‘I can find no fault with this man.’ It was Herod who knew that Jesus was of the Royal House of David and feared him. Herod couldn’t have Jesus at any price, except as a doorstop, could he? […] It may be only one number a night, but what a number!”

– Angry Anderson (Herod, Australian revival, 1992)

“[Herod is] so strange, and spoiled, and jealous […] he’s a man who has everything, Herod does, and he just can’t quite have that extra little bit of what he wants, so he goes berserk.”

– Rik Mayall (Herod, 2000 film)

“I look at Herod as being the Hugh Hefner of his time, using his position of power and money to help feed his gluttonous desire to be the life of the party! Herod has spoiled himself with an endless appetite for wine, women, song, and attention.”

– Jason Simon (Herod, Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, 2004)

Further Analysis

For openers, it’s a mistake to call him “King” Herod. King Herod was his father. (Literally.) The Herod of JCS was more a mid-level, local politician than an actual king. He had his chance to be a real king, but he was always a bridesmaid and never a bride. (Perhaps a poor choice of words, but…)

The son of Herod Sr.’s fourth wife (of ten), he was his father’s fourth choice for the heir to the throne, only for Daddy to change his mind about the succession, splitting the kingdom between him and his brothers. (Though he pled his case valiantly in Rome, and some of his family gave qualified support [they wanted direct Roman rule, but if it had to be one of the kids, they liked him best for the job], the emperor ratified the final will, leaving him with two troublesome territories instead of the entire country.)

He started well enough trying to live up to his father’s legacy, with massive construction projects in Galilee and Perea, sensitivity to local traditions in governing (eschewing graven images on his coinage, successfully petitioning Rome on the people’s behalf to get Pontius Pilate’s votive shields removed from public buildings in Jerusalem), even mastering the art of strategic alliances by marrying the daughter of a king whose realm bordered one of his territories, and who was no friend to either Rome or the Jews.

Of course, sooner or later, everybody makes mistakes. Just when things looked good, he got comfortable and managed to piss it away:

  • His lavish new capital for Galilee, named in honor of the emperor, was built on top of a graveyard, so pious Jews avoided it as a source of ritual impurity, forcing him to colonize it with a mixture of foreigners, forcibly displaced people, poor folks, and freed slaves, which dulled the shine.
  • He and his sister-in-law, Herodias, fell hard for one another and conspired to divorce their respective spouses and start over together. Unfortunately for Herod, the politically advantageous first wife got wind of their idea and made for her father’s kingdom as fast as she could travel. Once safely in his custody, her dad’s revenge would be swift: he declared war on Herod, just the thing he’d been trying to avoid in the first place. His new wife’s ex-husband sent mercenaries to team up with the rival army, as did another kingdom with whom the rivals were allied. Herod’s forces got their asses kicked over the next several years, seldom with any help from Rome and usually the kind that got withdrawn at the last minute because there were bigger fish to fry.
  • As if that wasn’t bad enough, a new rabble-rouser, John the Baptist, publicly attacked the marriage as contrary to Jewish law. Not only had he married his brother’s wife while his brother was still alive (though the brother didn’t live for much longer), but due to the convoluted nature of royal families and pure bloodlines, Herodias was also his niece. (Who knew that all Game of Thrones was missing was lots of sand?) This wannabe prophet’s influence was the kind that could spark a rebellion. Killing him wouldn’t go down well with the hoi polloi, but he could throw the annoying bastard in jail, so that’s exactly what he did. After, according to one account, being tricked into executing him, he was wary of other such holy men, including that bumpkin from Nazareth.

And this is just scratching the surface. Before drastically cutting down the preceding, I almost wrote a mini-biography of this guy. Outside of Wikipedia, from which I sourced the above info, nobody writes about him without it involving his association with Jesus or the camel-hair-wearing cousin. (Seriously. A cursory Google search looking for recommended reading for the “Helpful Hints” blurb turned up many fictional versions of his admittedly far more noteworthy father and a single non-fiction book about him.)

If I may dip into opinion outside of a “My Two Cents” blurb for a second, what I found suggests that this is a person for whom the Jesus incident would have been a footnote at best. Herod Antipas – his full name, to distinguish him from his father – strikes me as possibly a very compelling central character for a piece of his own: someone who wanted to be king and tried his best even when he couldn’t achieve that, but, through a few bad decisions and arguable inability to control his libido, wound up the first-century equivalent of the tabloid images of Donald Trump (pre-presidency) or Paris Hilton: a puppet ruler – petulant, spoiled, larger than life, a bon vivant who cared about nothing so much as his self-satisfaction and image. Okay, so he couldn’t live up to Dad’s legacy; at least he knew how to curry favor with the right people and how to party, only to be ultimately done in by political intrigue and crippling paranoia. (In his treatment of John the Baptist before his death and his curiosity about Jesus before and during his trial, we even see hints of so many modern “celebrity Christians,” always asking God for something, always making deals, always begging for miracles, always flocking to far-flung places to witness the latest fake miracle sighting.)

While I’m not setting out to write the first historical novel about him, somebody should because there’s a great deal more to this guy than a simple comic-relief vaudeville pastiche… which, when you think about it, is the point JCS tries to make about all of its characters. But I digress…

The 50th-anniversary tour’s casting call perhaps comes closest to nailing the Herod we meet after this series of peaks and valleys: “The former Superstar, now gone to seed. Cynical, comedic, cruel: a creature.” Someone who can turn on a dime from a charming eccentric to a truly dangerous madman, having lived both extremes. An old pro, sizing up the fresh competition, goading Jesus, tempting him to prove he has God on his side. Somebody who constantly has something to prove himself, the archetype of an envious fan who sees themselves outdistancing any performer at their routine. “I could have been as big as you if I tried, made the right connections, got all the breaks, and I’ll prove it! Watch how I do this number!” Before he sends his captive audience on their way, he must take this opportunity to show what he can do himself. In addition, he is prepared for any reaction except silence. Silence is his enemy; in silence, he has time to think about how shallow and inconsequential he truly is, only on his excuse for a throne at the Romans’ say-so. Any of his wealth or extravagance can be stripped from him at a moment’s notice, thus heightening his existing insecurity.

It’s not Jesus’ fault; he knows that nothing he says will change anything, so he says nothing… and Herod blows his stack. The lines “You’re a joke, you’re not the Lord / You are nothing but a fraud” could as easily apply to him as to Jesus, plainly an attempt to convince himself, a creepy debauchee, of his self-worth and deny that of the prisoner before him.

“It may be only one number a night, but what a number!” Indeed.

My Two Cents

Helpful Hints