Lucius Annaeus Seneca c. 4 B.C.-65 A.D.
An influential and prolific philosopher and playwright, Seneca was a respected man of letters who actively participated in the politics of his time. As a tutor and advisor to the young emperor Nero, Seneca helped to direct Roman political policy between the years 54 and 62, ensuring a greater measure of tolerance and justice in the empire. Critics have praised the prose in Seneca's essays, letters, and treatises as one of the foremost examples of the "pointed," or epigrammatic style of the Silver Age. They have also admired its instructional tone and skillful use of colorful and unusual figures of speech. Seneca's tragedies, alternately extolled for their powerful depictions of extreme circumstances and mental states and censured for their presentation of lurid onstage violence, have had a strong impact on European drama, particularly that of Elizabethan England. Playwrights to the present day have drawn on Seneca's works for elements of characterization, plot, and mood, attesting to his lasting influence.
Seneca was born in what is present-day Cordoba, Spain, the second son of Seneca the Elder, a famous rhetorician and teacher. As a child he was brought to Rome, where he embarked on the study of grammar and rhetoric, eventually turning to the study of philosophy. Following a stay in Egypt with his aunt and uncle—who was the provincial governor—Seneca returned to Rome in 31 to take the post of quaestor (a Roman official chiefly concerned with financial administration). He was eventually admitted to the Roman Senate. Around this time Seneca began to establish what was to become a successful career as an orator and author. It may have been his popularity and professional stature, biographers speculate, that led to his fall into disfavor with the emperor Gaius (Caligula). Subsequently, Caligula's successor Claudius accused Seneca of adultery with Claudius's niece Julia and exiled him to Corsica. When the emperor's wife Agrippina interceded on Seneca's behalf, he was allowed to return to Rome in 49. It was then that he became Nero's tutor and assumed the office of praetor (a judicial post). When Nero rose to power five years later, the inexperienced emperor relied on the guidance of Seneca and the praetorian prefect Burras. Historians note that although Seneca's influence on Nero was beneficial, he must have followed the emperor's wishes in order to preserve his position at court. Seneca therefore may have been an accomplice to—or at least a party to the coverup of—Nero's murder of Agrippina in 59. With Nero's behavior growing increasingly erratic and dictatorial, and with the death of Burras, Seneca retired from public life to devote himself to writing. In 65 he was implicated in an unsuccessful conspiracy against Nero and was ordered to take his own life. He complied. His final act, judged a heroic one, was recorded by Tacitus in his Annals.
Although a number of Seneca's works have been lost, a good portion of his output has survived, including writings on science, geography, and philosophy, as well as ethical treatises, essays, and epigrams. In his prose works Seneca stresses the importance of life experience, knowledge of natural phenomena, common sense, and tolerance, guiding his reader toward the ideal of a life well lived. His chief poetic works are the nine tragedies written around the period 45 to 55. Eight are based on existing Greek models: Hercules Furens (Mad Hercules), Troades (The Trojan Women), Medea, and Phaedra take after similarly titled plays by Euripides; Oedipus, Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women), and Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta) follow plays by Sophocles; and Agamemnon derives from Aeschylus's like-named play. Thyestes seems to have no Greek precedent. The Phoenician Women survives only in fragments and Seneca's authorship of Hercules on Oeta has at times been disputed. A tenth play, Octavia, which was formerly attributed to Seneca, is now generally considered the work of some other writer.
Critics have noted that, despite structural similarities, Seneca's dramas differ significantly from their Greek models. The elaborate rhetoric, argumentation, and complex verbal exchanges in Seneca's plays are quite unlike the spare dialogue of Greek tragedy. Moreover, the atmosphere of gloom, disease, insanity, and physical horror that pervades his plays is antithetical to the spirit of Greek drama. Repeatedly in Seneca's plays passion leads to madness, which in turn causes chaos and abnormal occurrences in the natural universe. The verbal, visual, and thematic exaggeration of his tragedies contrasts markedly with Seneca's fundamental Stoic philosophy, and thus serves to warn against the dangers of excessive emotion and to emphasize the theme of fate that is central to tragedy. The extreme verbosity and graphic violence of the plays have led some to question whether they were meant to be performed on stage at all or intended merely for presentation in dramatic readings.
Reaction to Seneca's work has consistently been mixed. In his own time, the plays were popular among young people who strove to imitate their sophisticated and witty rhetorical style. They were criticized by Caligula, however, and later they were censured by Quintilian, who charged that Seneca had corrupted the writing style of generations of students. Early Christian writers admired his philosophical writings, finding in them similarities to their own beliefs; but St. Augustine perceived a certain hypocrisy inherent in Seneca's role at Nero's court. In the Middle Ages, Seneca's works, along with Cicero's, were essential educational texts. He was studied and quoted by Petrarch, Chaucer, and Dante.
The introduction of Seneca's plays to England—through Thomas Newton's 1581 edition of Seneca His Tenne Tragedies—marked an important event in the history of English drama because so many playwrights were to imitate Seneca's style and themes. Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Webster, and William Shakespeare all admired Seneca's tragedies and modeled their works on them. Scholars list the plays of Seneca among the most significant influences on Elizabethan tragedy, noting that many stock characters and situations derive from these works. On the European continent, Seneca served as a model for seventeenth-century playwrights Pierre Corneille and Jean Baptiste Racine. Championed in the eighteenth century by Jean Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, Seneca was attacked or ignored in the nineteenth. The noted German critic August Wilhelm Schlegel, for example, faulted Seneca's tragedies for their "display of bombast, which distorts everything great into nonsense."
Twentieth-century commentators have continued these earlier debates. While some have argued that Seneca's works set the standard for Latin Silver Age literature, others have disparaged their rhetorical contrivances and florid style. Increasingly, however, scholars have shown interest in Seneca's handling of characterization, stressing the playwright's often subtle psychological insight. Even as his specific contribution to drama has undergone continual reevaluation, Seneca has throughout the centuries remained an important and powerful influence on playwrights.
Hercules Furens (Mad Hercules)
Troades (The Trojan Women)
Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta)
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii (Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius) (satire)
Consolationes (Consolations) (essays)
†Dialogi (Dialogues) (essays)
De Beneficiis (On Giving and Receiving Favors) (essays)
Ad Lucillum Epistulae Morales (Moral Letters) (essays)
Quaestiones Naturales (Natural Questions) (treatise)
*No dates for Seneca's plays are known; all were written between c. 45 and 55 A.D. The ordering here reflects that of the so-called E group, based on the Codex Etruscus, the most trustworthy of the surviving ancient manuscripts of Seneca's dramas. Another important grouping, called A, lists the plays as follows: Hercules Furens, Thyestes, Thebais [Phoenissae], Hippolytus [Phaedra], Oedipus, Troas [Troades], Medea, Agamemnon, Octavia, and Hercules Oetaeus. Octavia appears only in A, and, although scholars once considered it a Senecan play, it is now judged to be the work of some other dramatist.
†Contains such pieces as De dementia (On Mercy), De Ira (On Anger), De Providentia (On Providence), and others.
Clarence Valentine Boyer (essay date 1914)
SOURCE: "Seneca," in The Villain as Hero in Elizabethan Tragedy, 1914. Reprint by Russell & Russell, 1964, pp. 13-20.
[Boyer looks at Medea and Thyestes, Senecan plays in which the principals are cast as "villain-heroes," and he examines the possible influence of such characterization on Elizabethan drama.]
The influence of Seneca on Elizabethan drama has been carefully though not exhaustively studied, so that there is general agreement as to the fact, if not the extent of his influence. To Seneca is usually attributed the introduction of the ghost and the chorus, the division of the play into five acts, as well as the introduction of various themes, such as revenge. It is the question of themes and the manner of treating them that concerns us here. All of Seneca's themes are violent and sensational. It is true that with the exception of Octavia they are taken from Greek sources, but owing to the manner of treatment they radiate anything but a Greek atmosphere. In the selection of characters, Seneca is faultless. Even Aristotle might be said to approve his choice, for the Greek critic remarks: "The best tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses—on the fortunes of Alcmaeon, Œdipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, and those others who have done or suffered something terrible." But in the general management of his subjects, Seneca makes many of these tragedies not terrible, but shocking, horrible, revolting; hence they do not produce tragic pleasure. Revenge is, indeed, the impelling force which drives many of Seneca's characters to their monstrous deeds; but revenge is not, as some critics maintain, always represented by him as a sacred duty, as it came to be later on in Elizabethan drama, in the Hamlet type of play, for instance. It may be the death of a relative for which vengeance is sought, and the revenge may be associated with some supernatural force, as e.g. the ghost. But the ghost, in Thyestes at any rate, does not appear to urge Atreus to revenge as a sacred duty; on the contrary, it urges him to revenge that both he and Thyestes may suffer for their wickedness and that of their ancestors. The revenge itself is represented as sinful; it is undertaken for personal injuries, and is born of malice rather than of duty.
In thus representing faithlessness, cruelty, murder, revenge, and lust as governing the hearts and minds of men in high places—even in his appeal to magic and the supernatural—Seneca offered themes both familiar and pleasing to the audiences of the Elizabethan theatre. At the same time Seneca stood for antiquity, and his name, technic, and moralizing passages exerted a paramount influence with the classicists. Now among the plays of this authoritative and highly appreciated dramatist we find two that clearly suggest the villain-hero type, viz. Medea and Thyestes. Considering the remarkable influence of Seneca upon the Elizabethan drama in general, it would not be at all surprising if his influence extended to the shaping of the villain-hero type in particular.
Seneca follows Euripides in making Medea a villain as well as the heroine, but in the process he transforms her into a monster. In the first part of the Greek play, all our sympathy is awakened for Medea. We despise Jason. It is not until the heroine contemplates revenge that our sympathy is in the least abated. We could almost forgive her for an open murder of her enemies. When she contemplates the murder of her children, however, she begins to appear monstrous; but this feeling again merges into pity when we see how she suffers at the thought of losing them. Moreover, Euripides seeks to lessen the horror of the deed by laying stress upon the fact that Medea is killing her children to keep them from being killed by her enemies. But when she actually murders them, and triumphs in the car above Jason's head, rejoicing in her victory over him, and showing no signs of mother-pity, our aversion once more masters us. Nevertheless, the feeling that we carry away from a perusal of the play is one of mingled pity and aversion in which the former is fully as powerful as the latter.
In Seneca's tragedy the effect is quite different. Medea herself opens the play with a blood-curdling soliloquy, calling upon the powers above and below to damn for ever Jason, Creon, and Creüsa:
… and ye
Whose aid Medea may more boldly claim, thou
Of endless night, th' antipodes of heavenly realms,
Ye damned ghosts, thou lord of hades' dark domain,
Whose mistress was with trustier pledge won to thy
Before ye all this baleful prayer I bring: Be near!
Be near! Ye crime-avenging furies, come and loose
Your horrid locks with serpent coils entwined, and
With bloody hands the smoking torch; be near as
Ye stood in dread array beside my wedding couch.
Upon this new-made bride destruction send, and
Upon the king and all the royal line! But he,
My husband, may he live to meet some heavier
This curse I imprecate upon his head; …
This dire curse at once alienates sympathy. We get the impression that Medea is an evil woman, and this impression becomes fixed, for the act is closed by the chorus immediately following this soliloquy. Medea does not tell of her own wrongs until Act II; and when she there enumerates the crimes she has been guilty of for Jason's sake, the cruelty of the deeds swallows up the reason for them. In Act III, in a conference with Jason, she learns that he loves his children, but she only makes use of this discovery to inflict brutal punishment. In Euripides, her children are to be banished, and she seeks to have them protected. In Seneca, the children are safe in the father's hands, which makes her slaughter of them the more revolting. In the fourth act she appears chanting horrible incantations, and herself steeps the bridal gifts in the brew that is to make them fatal. Finally, in the fifth act, she slays her children before the audience, and exults in the suffering of Jason. Her own hesitation over killing the children is scarcely touched as a motive. The result is that she becomes an extremely unsympathetic protagonist. The effect of the combination of villain and protagonist is disappointing; the emotions called forth are as untragic as Aristotle predicted.
In the tragedy of Thyestes the murderer Atreus appears as the villain. The mere fact that he is a murderer, however, does not make him a villain. We must remember that the wilfulness of the act is as important as the act itself. With the exception of Medea, none of the classical criminals seems to be acting altogether voluntarily. Thyestes suffers because he is the son of a doomed house; and even Atreus is inspired by the Ghost of Tantalus, who in turn is driven on by the Fury to do his allotted part. But in the case of Atreus this motive is lost sight of in his horrible cruelty and exultation in torture. He is one of the most monstrous creations in dramatic literature. As he prepares his brother's children as a feast for the parent, and glories in his wickedness, he is actually loathsome. With him we may fairly say it is crime for crime's sake.
Atreus. … 'Tis sweet to note
The father's frantic grief when first he sees
His children's gory heads; to catch his words,
To watch his colour change; to see him sit,
All breathless with the shock, in dumb amaze,
In frozen horror at the gruesome sight.
This is the sweet reward of all my toil—
To see his misery, e'en as it grows
Upon his soul.
Atreus is, in fact, the paragon of villains; the question is whether he is also the hero. The play is named after Thyestes, and, according to the Greek conception of the gods punishing evil from generation to generation until the original sin had been balanced by the punishment, the fate Thyestes meets with in this tragedy for the sins of his ancestors would doubtless have made him the protagonist in the estimation of a Greek audience. For Thyestes and Atreus were the sons of Pelops who was served as a dish to the gods by his father Tantalus; and from Atreus sprang Agamemnon who was killed by his wife. This whole family was so submerged in crime, and was so well known to the Greeks, that the tragic end of any one of them would have made that one the protagonist in their eyes. It is to be said also for Seneca's tragedy that the audience is informed by narration of the evil deeds committed in the past by Thyestes against his brother. But Thyestes is repentant, and has already suffered for his past sins by poverty and banishment when he is introduced to us. Consequently we are inclined to sympathize with him. When Tantalus and the Fury have retired after a prologue called Act I, Atreus appears in soliloquy and at once becomes the centre of interest. We hope that his scheme to entice his brother back will not be successful; we are most interested in him from beginning to end, because we wish him to fail in everything which he attempts; we are so filled with loathing and hatred for him mat we have little or no feeling, not even of pity, left for anyone else. It is not the effect of his machinations upon Thyestes as a hero with whom we are in sympathy that is the centre of interest, but his own frightful crimes, his colossal wickedness, his conflict with moral law. Moreover, he has the chief acting part and speaks the greatest number of lines, so that he may reasonably be classed as the hero according to our definition.
Unless the Elizabethans were thoroughly familiar with Greek legendary history and the Greek idea of retribution, as well as with the classic method of presenting merely the culmination of an action, they must have been much impressed by the preponderating part played by the criminals. Consider for a moment the startling nature of the Senecan themes:
Œdipus is guilty of incest, and gouges out his own eyes; Clytemnestra commits adultery, and murders her husband; Medea slaughters her own children, and hurls them down to her husband from the housetop; Atreus makes his brother drunk at a banquet, and serves him the flesh of his own children!
Considered in the bald outline, could any facts be more gruesome? And yet these plays were constantly read by the Elizabethan poets, and were regarded as the best examples of dramatic art. Violence and murder were before them as model themes for imitation, and in at least two of Seneca's plays the protagonists were themselves villains. Having the sanction of classicism, and appealing to the imagination of mat era, these tragedies undoubtedly exercised some influence in directing the Elizabethan playwright's choice and handling of theme, so that Seneca, if he did not furnish the actual models, may be said at least to have suggested the plot with the villain as hero.
The Elizabethans, however, must be credited with one distinct advance. The tragedy of Thyestes does not end unhappily for Atreus: he is successful in his designs and suffers no punishment. The same is true of Medea. Of course, the fact that the plays open only with the last phase of an action, and that those who do meet with misfortune are suffering because of their own past or the deeds of their ancestors, and likewise the fact that he who triumphs now will suffer in the play to follow, makes it excusable for the villain to succeed; but the effect, nevertheless, upon the reader at the close of one of these tragedies is anything but pleasing; it is distressing. Successful villainy adds shock to the horror of the crimes. If these plays served in any way as models for the Elizabethans, the reversal of fortune at the end for the villain-hero was their own addition. In presenting the whole of an action, though they were not squeamish in the actions they imitated, they recognized that a spectator demands at least some satisfaction for his moral sense if he cannot be elevated, and they consequently saw to it that the villain perished for his crimes before the curtain fell, though they had to strain a point to kill him.
T. S. Eliot (essay date 1927)
SOURCE: "Seneca in Elizabethan Translation," in Selected Essays, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1950, pp. 51-88.
[Perhaps the most influential poet and critic to write in the English language during the first half of the twentieth century, Eliot is closely identified with many of the qualities denoted by the term Modernism: experimentation, formal complexity, artistic and intellectual eclecticism, and a classicist's view of the artist working at an emotional distance from his or her creation. The following essay was originally published in 1927 as an introduction to the Tudor Translation Series edition of Thomas Newton's 1581 rendering of Seneca's plays, entitled Tenne Tragedies. Eliot focuses on Seneca's effect on the development of the Elizabethan Tragedy of Blood, his impact on the dramatic language of the period, and his influence on the intellectual ideas contained in the plays of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, and others.]
The influence of Seneca upon Elizabethan drama has received much more attention from scholars than from literary critics. The historical treatment has been very thorough. The admirable edition of the works of Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, by Kastner and Charlton (1921), has a full account of this influence both direct and through Italy and France; in this introduction also will be found the best bibliography of the subject. Dr. F. S. Boas, especially in his edition of Kyd's Plays, has treated the matter at length. Professor J. W. Cunliffe's Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy (1893) remains, within its limits, the most useful of all books, and Mr. Cunliffe has handled the question in a more general way in his Early English Classical Tragedies. Indirect Senecan influences have also been studied in detail, as in Professor A. M. Witherspoon's Influence of Robert Garnier on Elizabethan Drama. And work which is now being done on the earlier drama (see Dr. A. W. Reed's recent Early Tudor Drama, 1926) will enable us to understand better the junction of the Senecan influence with the native tradition. It is not fitting that a literary critic should retrace all this labour of scholarship, where either his dissent or his approval would be an impertinence; but we may benefit by this scholarship to draw certain general conclusions.
The plays of Seneca exerted their influence in several ways and to several results. The results are of three main types: (1) the popular Elizabethan tragedy; (2) the "Senecal" drama, pseudo-classical, composed by and for a small and select body of persons not closely in touch or in sympathy with the popular drama of the day, and composed largely in protest against the defects and monstrosities of that drama; (3) the two Roman tragedies of Ben Jonson, which appear to belong between the two opposed classes, to constitute an attempt, by an active practising playwright, to improve the form of popular drama by the example of Seneca; not by slavish imitation but by adaptation, to make of popular drama a finished work of art. As for the ways in which Seneca influenced the Elizabethans, it must be remembered that these were never simple, and became more complicated. The Italian and the French drama of the day was already penetrated by Seneca. Seneca was a regular part of the school curriculum, while Greek drama was unknown to all but a few great scholars. Every schoolboy with a smattering of Latin had a verse or two of Seneca in his memory; probably a good part of the audiences could recognise the origin of the occasional bits of Seneca which are quoted in Latin in some of the popular plays (e.g. several times by Marston). And by the time that The Spanish Tragedy and the old Hamlet had made their success, the English playwright was under the influence of Seneca by being under the influence of his own predecessors. Here the influence of Kyd is of the greatest importance: if Senecan Kyd had such a vogue, that was surely the path to facile success for any hardworking and underpaid writer.
All that I wish to do is to consider certain misconceptions of the Senecan influence, which I believe are still current in our opinions of Elizabethan drama, although they do not appear in works of scholarship. For such a purpose the contemporary translations possess a particular value: whether they greatly affected the conception of Seneca, or greatly extended his influence, they give a reflection of the appearance of Seneca to the Englishman of the time. I do not suggest that the influence of Seneca has been exaggerated or diminished in modern criticism; but I believe that too much importance has been attached to his influence in some directions, and too little to his influence in others. There is one point on which every one is agreed, and hardly more than one: the five-act division of the modern European play is due to Seneca. What I chiefly wish to consider are, first, his responsibility for what has been called since Symonds' day the Tragedy of Blood'—how far Seneca is the author of the horrors which disfigure Elizabethan drama; second, his responsibility for bombast in Elizabethan diction; and third, his influence upon the thought, or what passes for thought, in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It is the first which I think has been over-estimated, the second misconstrued, the third undervalued.
Certainly, among all national dramas, the Elizabethan tragedies are remarkable for the extent to which they employ the horrible and revolting. It is true that but for this taste and practice we should never have had King Lear or The Duchess of Malfy; so impossible is it to isolate the vices from the virtues, the failures from the masterpieces of Elizabethan tragedy. We cannot reprehend a custom but for which one great experiment of the human spirit must have been left unmade, even if we cannot like it; nor can we wholly deplore anything which brings with it some information about the soul. And even leaving Shakespeare apart, the genius of no other race could have manipulated the tragedy of horror into the magnificent farce of Marlowe, or the magnificent nightmare of Webster. We must therefore reserve two measures of comparison: one, that between the baser tragedy of the time and the best tragedy of the time, the other (which is perhaps a moral measure, the application of which would lead us too far for the present discussion) between the tragedy of the time as a whole and another tragedy of horror—we think of Dante's Ugolino and the Oedipus of Sophocles—in which, in the end, the mind seems to triumph. Here, the question of Seneca's influence is capital. If the taste for horror was a result of being trained on Seneca, then it has neither justification nor interest; if it was something inherent in the people and in the age, and Seneca merely the excuse and precedent, then it is a phenomenon of interest. Even to speak of Seneca as offering a precedent and excuse is probably to falsify; for it implies that the Elizabethans would otherwise have been a little uneasy in conscience at indulging such tastes—which is ridiculous to suppose. They merely assumed that Seneca's taste was like their own—which is not wholly untrue; and that Seneca represented the whole of classical antiquity—which is quite false. Where Seneca took part is in affecting the type of plot; he supported one tendency against another. But for Seneca, we might have had more plays in The Yorkshire Tragedy mould; that is to say, the equivalent of the News of the World murder report; Seneca, and particularly the Italianised Seneca, encouraged the taste for the foreign, remote, or exotic. No doubt The Jew of Malta or Titus Andronicus would have made the living Seneca shudder with genuine aesthetic horror; but his influence helped to recommend work with which he had little in common.
When we examine the plays of Seneca, the actual horrors are not so heinous or so many as are supposed. The most unpleasantly sanguinary is the Thyestes, a subject which, so far as I know, was not attempted by a Greek dramatist. Even here, if the view that the tragedies were intended only for recitation is true, the cultivated Roman audience were listening to a story which was part of their Hellenic culture, and which is in fact a common property of folklore. The story was sanctified by time. The plots of Elizabethan tragedy were, so far as the audience were concerned, novelties. This plot of Thyestes is not employed by any Elizabethan, but the play has undoubtedly more in common with the Tragedy of Blood, especially in its early form, than any other of Seneca's. It has a particularly tedious Ghost. It has, more emphatically than any other, the motive of Revenge, unregulated by any divine control or justice. Yet even in the Thyestes the performance of the horrors is managed with conventional tact; the only visible horror is the perhaps unavoidable presentation of the evidence—the children's heads in a dish.
The most significant popular play under Senecan influence is of course The Spanish Tragedy, and the further responsibility of Kyd for the translation of the pseudo-Senecan Cornelia of Garnier has marked him as the disciple of Seneca. But in The Spanish Tragedy there is another element, not always sufficiently distinguished from the Senecan, which (though it may have relations among the Italian Renaissance progeny of Seneca) allies it to something more indigenous. The Senecan apparatus, it is true, is impressive. The Ghost, and Revenge, who replace the Tantalus and the Fury of the Thyestes, use all the infernal allusions—Acheron, Charon, and the rest—so dear to Seneca. Temporary insanity is an expedient well known to Seneca. But in the type of plot there is nothing classical or pseudo-classical at all. "Plot" in the sense in which we find plot in The Spanish Tragedy does not exist for Seneca. He took a story perfectly well known to everybody, and interested his auditors entirely by his embellishments of description and narrative and by smartness and pungency of dialogue; suspense and surprise attached solely to verbal effects. The Spanish Tragedy, like the series of Hamlet plays, including Shakespeare's, has an affinity to our contemporary detective drama. The plot of Hieronymo to compass his revenge by the play allies it with a small but interesting class of drama which certainly owes nothing essential to Seneca: that which includes Arden of Feversham and The Yorkshire Tragedy. These two remarkable plays are both based on contemporary or recent crimes committed in England. Unless it be the hint of divine retribution in the epilogue to Arden, there is no token of foreign or classical influence in these two plays. Yet they are bloody enough. The husband in The Yorkshire Tragedy kills his two young sons, throws the servant downstairs and breaks her neck, and nearly succeeds in killing his wife. In Arden of Feversham the wife and her conspirators stab the husband to death upon the stage—the rest of the play being occupied by a primitive but effective police inquiry. It is only surprising that there are not more examples of this type of play, since there is evidence of as lively a public interest in police court horrors as there is today. One of the pieces of evidence is associated with Kyd; it is a curious little account of a poisoning case, The Murder of John Brewen. (A little later, Dekker was to supply the deficiency of penny journalism with his Plague Pamphlets.) In Kyd, whether Arden be by him or by an imitator, we find the union of Senecan with native elements, to the advantage of both. For the Senecan influence is felt in the structure of the play—the structure of The Spanish Tragedy is more dramatic than that of Arden or The Yorkshire Tragedy; whilst the material of The Spanish Tragedy, like that of the other two plays, is quite different from the Senecan material, and much more satisfying to an unlettered audience.
The worst that can be urged against Seneca, in the matter of responsibility for what is disgusting in Elizabethan drama, is that he may have provided the dramatist with a pretext or justification for horrors which were not Senecan at all, for which there was certainly a taste, and the taste for which would certainly have been gratified at that time whether Seneca had ever written or not. Against my use of The Yorkshire Tragedy, it may be said that this play (the crime in question was committed only in 1603) and Arden also were written after the success of The Spanish Tragedy, and that the taste for horrors developed only after it had received Senecan licence. I cannot prove the contrary. But it must be admitted that the greater number of the horrors are such as Seneca himself would not have tolerated. In one of the worst offenders—indeed one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all, a play in which the best passages would be too highly honoured by the signature of Peele—in Titus Andronicus—there is nothing really Senecan at all. There is a wantonness, an irrelevance, about the crimes of which Seneca would never have been guilty. Seneca's Oedipus has the traditional justification for blinding himself; and the blinding itself is far less offensive than that in Lear. In Titus, the hero cuts off his own hand in view of the audience, who can also testify to the mutilation of the hands and the tongue of Lavinia. In The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronymo bites off his own tongue. There is nothing like this in Seneca.
But if this is very unlike Seneca, it is very like the contemporary drama of Italy. Nothing could better illustrate the accidental character of literary "influence"—accidental, that is, with reference to the work exercising the influence—than the difference between Senecan drama in Italy and in France. The French drama is from the beginning restrained and decorous; to the French drama, especially to Garnier, the Senecan drama of Greville, Daniel and Alexander is allied. The Italian is bloodthirsty in the extreme. Kyd knew both; but it was to the Italian that he and Peele yielded themselves with sympathetic delight. We must remember, too, that Italy had developed stagecraft and stage machinery to the highest point—for the most sumptuous masques in England, Italian managers, engineers and artists were brought over; that the plastic arts were much more important in Italy than elsewhere, and that consequently the spectacular and sensational elements of drama were insisted upon; that Italian civilisation had, in short, everything to dazzle the imagination of unsophisticated northerners emerging into a period of prosperity and luxury. I have no first-hand acquaintance with Italian plays of this epoch; it is a library which few readers would penetrate in pursuit of pleasure; but its character and influence in England are well attested. It is possible to say that Seneca hardly influenced this Italian drama at all; he was made use of by it and adopted into it; and for Kyd and Peele he was thoroughly Italianised.
The Tragedy of Blood is very little Senecan, in short, though it made much use of Senecan machinery; it is very largely Italian; and it added an ingenuity of plot which is native.
If we wished to find the reason for the sanguinary character of much Elizabethan drama—which persists to its end—we should have to allow ourselves some daring generalisations concerning the temper of the epoch. When we consider it, and reflect how much more refined, how much more classical in the profounder sense, is that earlier popular drama which reached its highest point in Everyman, I cannot but think that the change is due to some fundamental release of restraint. The tastes gratified are always latent: they were then gratified by the drama, as they are now gratified by crime reports in the daily press. It is no more reasonable to make Seneca responsible for this aspect of Elizabethan drama than it is to connect Aeschylus or Sophocles with Jude the Obscure. I am not sure that the latter association has not been made, though no one supposes that Hardy prepared himself by close application to the study of Greek drama.
It is pertinent to inquire, in this context, what was the influence of Seneca, in the way of horrors, upon the small body of "Senecal" dramatists who professedly imitated him. But this collation is relevant also to the question of Seneca's influence upon language; so that before making the comparison we may consider this latter question next. Here, the great influence of Seneca is unquestionable. Quotation after quotation, parallel after parallel, may be adduced; the most conspicuous are given in Cunliffe's Influence of Seneca, others in Lucas's Seneca and Elizabethan Tragedy. So great is this influence that we can say neither that it was good nor that it was bad; for we cannot imagine what Elizabethan dramatic verse would have been without it. The direct influence is restricted to the group of Marlowe and to Marston; Jonson and Chapman are, each in his own way, more sophisticated and independent; the later or Jacobean dramatists, Middleton, Webster, Tourneur, Ford, Beaumont and Fletcher, found their language upon their own predecessors, and chiefly upon Shakespeare. But none of these authors hesitated to draw upon Seneca when occasion served, and Chapman owes much, both good and bad, of his dramatic style to his admiration for Seneca. No better examples can be found, however, of plays which, while not Senecan in form, are yet deeply influenced by Seneca in language, than the True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, and the Shakespearean Richard II and Richard III. These, with the work of Kyd and that of Marlowe and of Peele, and several of the plays included in the Shakespeare Apocrypha, have a great deal in common.
The precise pilferings and paraphrases have been thoroughly catalogued by the scholars I have mentioned, and others; hardly a dramatist, between Kyd and Massinger, is not many times indebted to Seneca. Instead of repeating this labour, I prefer to call attention to his universal influence. Not only the evolution of the dramatic structure, but the evolution of the blank verse cadence, took place under the shadow of Seneca; it is hardly too much to say that Shakespeare could not have formed the verse instrument which he left to his successors, Webster, Massinger, Tourneur, Ford, and Fletcher, unless he had received an instrument already highly developed by the genius of Marlowe and the influence of Seneca. Blank verse before 1600, or thereabouts, is a crude form of music compared to blank verse after that date; but its progress in fifteen years had been astonishing. In the first place, I believe that the establishment of blank verse as the vehicle of drama, instead of the old fourteener, or the heroic couplet, or (what might have happened) a particular form of prose rhythm, received considerable support from its being obviously the nearest equivalent to the solemnity and weight of the Senecan iambic. A comparison of the trotting metre of our translations with Surrey's translation of Virgil will show, I think, that while the former has undeniable poetic charms of its own, the latter would reveal more resources to the ear of the dramatist. The pre-Marlowe versification is competent, but extremely monotonous; it is literally a monotone, containing none of the musical counter-rhythms which Marlowe introduced, nor the rhythms of individual speech which were later added.
When this eternal substance of my soul
Did live imprison'd in my wanton flesh,
Each in their function serving other's need,
I was a courtier in the Spanish court:
(Prologue, Spanish Tragedy)
But to illustrate the early use of this metre under Senecan influence, a worse play serves our purpose better; the Senecan content justifies our quoting at some length from Locrine, an early play of no merit whatever. Here is the Revival of Learning in the brain of a fourth-rate playwright:
Humber. Where may I find some desert wilderness,
Where I may breathe out curses as I would,
And scare the earth with my condemning voice;
Where every echo's repercussion
May help me to bewail mine overthrow,
And aid me in my sorrowful laments?
Where may I find some hollow uncouth rock,
Where I may damn, condemn, and ban my fill
The heavens, the hell, the earth, the air, the fire,
And utter curses to the concave sky,
Which may infect the airy regions,
And light upon the Brittain Locrine's head?
You ugly sprites that in Cocytus mourn,
And gnash your teeth with dolorous laments:
You fearful dogs that in black Lethe howl,
And scare the ghosts with your wide open throats:
You ugly ghosts that, flying from these dogs,
Do plunge yourselves in Puryflegiton:
Come, all of you, and with your shriking notes
Accompany the Brittain's conquering host.
Come, fierce Erynnys, horrible with snakes;
Come, ugly Furies, armed with your whips;
You threefold judges of black Tartarus,
And all the army of you hellish fiends,
With new-found torments rack proud Locrine's
O gods, and stars! damned be the gods and stars
That did not drown me in fair Thetis' plains!
Curst be the sea, that with outrageous waves,
With surging billows did not rive my ships
Against the rocks of high Cerannia,
Or swallow me into her wat'ry gulf!
Would God we had arriv'd upon the shore
Where Polyphemus and the Cyclops dwell,
Or where the bloody Anthropophagi
With greedy jawes devours the wand'ring wights!Enter the ghost of Albanact
But why comes Albanact's bloody ghost,
To bring a corsive to our miseries?
Is't not enough to suffer shameful flight,
But we must be tormented now with ghosts,
With apparitions fearful to behold?Ghost. Revenge! revenge for blood!
Humber. So nought will satisfy your wand'ring ghost
But dire revenge, nothing but Humber's fall,
Because he conquered you in Albany.
Now, by my soul, Humber would be condemned
To Tantal's hunger or Ixion's wheel,
Or to the vulture of Prometheus,
Rather than that this murther were undone.
When as I die I'll drag thy cursed ghost
Through all the rivers of foul Erebus,
Through burning sulphur of the Limbo-lake,
To allay the burning fury of that heat
That rageth in mine everlasting soul.
Ghost. Vindicta, vindicta.
This is the proper Ercles bombast, ridiculed by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Nashe. From this, even to Tamburlaine, is a long way; it is too absurdly distorted to serve even as a burlesque of Seneca; but the metre has something Senecan about it. From such verse there is a long distance to the melodies of
Now comes my lover tripping like a roe,
And brings my longings tangled in her hair.
Welcome, my son: who are the violets now
That strew the green lap of the new-come spring?
But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill:
that is to say, to the lyrical phase of blank verse, before Shakespeare had analysed it into true dramatic differentiation; it belongs to the first or declamatory phase. But this declamation is in its impulse, if not in its achievement, Senecan; and progress was made, not by rejection, but by dissociating this type of verse into products with special properties.
The next stage also was reached with the help of a hint from Seneca. Several scholars, Butler in particular, have called attention to a trick of Seneca of repeating one word of a phrase in the next phrase, especially in stichomythia, where the sentence of one speaker is caught up and twisted by the next. This was an effective stage trick, but it is something more; it is the crossing of one rhythm pattern with another.
—Sceptrone nostro famulus est potior tibi?
—Quot iste famulus tradidit reges neci.
—Cur ergo regi servit et patitur iugum?
Seneca also gets a kind of double pattern by breaking up lines into minimum antiphonal units:
Rex est timendus.
Rex meus fuerat pater.
Non metuis arma?
Sint licet terra edita.
Cui sim vides.
A man like Marlowe, or even men with less scholarship and less genius for the use of words than he, could hardly have failed to learn something from this. At any rate, I believe that the study of Seneca had its part in the formation of verse like the following:
—Wrong not her birth, she is of royal blood.
—To save her life, I'll say she is not so.
—Her life is safest only in her birth.
—And only in that safety died her brothers.
It is only a step (and a few lines further) to the pun:
Cousins, indeed; and by their uncle cozen'd.
Some of the effects in such plays as Richard II and Richard III are indeed of pre-Marlowe origin, as:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
I had a Henry, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him.
which is already in even Locrine, as:
The boisterous Boreas thundreth forth Revenge,
The stony rocks cry out on sharp revenge,
The thorny bush pronounceth dire revenge,
but in the following lines from Clarence's Dream we see an immense advance over Locrine in the use of infernal machinery:
I pass'd, methought, the melancholy flood,
With that grim ferryman which poets write of,
Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.
The first mat there did greet my stranger soul,
Was my great father-in-law, renowned Warwick;
Who cried aloud, "What scourge for perjury
Can this dark monarchy afford false Clarence?"
The "kingdom of perpetual night" and the last two lines are a real approximation in English to the magnificence of Senecan Latin at its best; they are far from being a mere burlesque. The best of Seneca has here been absorbed into English.
In Richard II, which is usually dated a little earlier than Richard III, I find such interesting variations of versification that I am convinced that it is a slightly later play, or else that there is more of Shakespeare in it. There is the same play of words:
Give Richard leave to live till Richard die.
A brittle glory shineth in his face;
As brittle as the glory is the face.
but there is less stichomythia, less mere repetition, and a dexterity in retaining and developing the same rhythm with greater freedom and less obvious calculation. (See the long speeches of Richard in Act III, sc. ii. and sc. iii, and compare with the more carefully balanced verses of Queen Margaret's tirade in Richard III, Act IV, sc. iv.)
When blank verse has reached this point, and passed into the hands of its greatest master, there is no need to look for fresh infusions of Seneca. He has done his work, and the one influence on later dramatic blank verse is the influence of Shakespeare. Not that later dramatists do not make peat use of Seneca's plays. Chapman uses him, and employs the old machinery; but Seneca's influence on Chapman was chiefly on Chapman's "thought." Jonson uses Seneca deliberately; the superb prologues of Envy and Sylla's Ghost are adaptations of the Senecan ghost-prologue form, not an inheritance from Kyd. Massinger, a most accomplished dramatist and versifier, sometimes falls back most lamentably upon ghosts and spectacles. But the verse is formed, and Seneca no further responsible for its vices or virtues.
Certainly, Elizabethan bombast can be traced to Seneca; Elizabethans themselves ridiculed the Senecan imitation. But if we reflect, not on the more grotesque exaggerations, but on the dramatic poetry of the first half of the period, as a whole, we see mat Seneca had as much to do with its merits and its progress as with its faults and its delays. Certainly it is all "rhetorical," but if it had not been rhetorical, would it have been anything? Certainly it is a relief to turn back to the austere, close language of Everyman, the simplicity of the mysteries; but if new influences had not entered, old orders decayed, would me language not have left some of its greatest resources unexplored? Without bombast, we should not have had King Lear. The art of dramatic language, we must remember, is as near to oratory as to ordinary speech or to other poetry. If the Elizabethans distorted and travestied Seneca in some ways, if they learned from him tricks and devices which they applied with inexpert hands, they also learned from him the essentials of declaimed verse. Their subsequent progress is a process of splitting up me primitive rhetoric, developing out of it subtler poetry and subtler tones of conversation, eventually mingling, as no other school of dramatists has done, the oratorical, the conversational, me elaborate and me simple, the direct and me indirect; so mat they were able to write plays which can still be viewed as plays, with any plays, and which can still be read as poetry, with any poetry.
It is improper to pass from the questions of Seneca's influence upon the Tragedy of Blood and upon the language of the Elizabethans without mentioning the group of "Senecal" plays, largely produced under the aegis of the Countess of Pembroke. The history of mis type of play belongs radier to the history of scholarship and culture man to the history of the Drama: it begins in a sense with me household of Sir Thomas More, and therefore is doubly allied to the present subject by Jasper Heywood; it is continued in the conversations at Cambridge of Mr. Ascham, Mr. Watson, and Mr. (later Sir John) Cheke. The first to attack openly the common stage was Sir Philip Sidney, whose words are well known:
Our Tragedies and Comedies (not without cause cried out against), observing rules neither of honest civility nor of skilful Poetry, excepting Gorboduc (againe, I say, of those mat I have seen), which notwithstanding, as it is full of stately speeches and well sounding Phrases, climbing to the height of Seneca his style, and as full of notable morality, which it doth most delightfully teach, and so obtain the very end of Poesie, yet in troth it is very defectious in the circumstances, which grieveth me, because it might not remain as an exact model of all Tragedies. For it is faulty both in place and time, the two necessary companions of all corporal actions. … But if it be so in Gorboduc, how much more in all the rest, where you shall have Asia of the one side, and Afric of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms, that the Player, when he comedi in, must ever begin with telling where he is: or else the tale will not be conceived? Now ye shall have three Ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a Garden. By and by, we hear news of shipwrack in the same place, and then we are to blame if we accept it not for a Rock.
It was after Sidney's death mat his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, tried to assemble a body of wits to compose drama in the proper Senecan style, to make head against the popular melodrama of the time. Great poetry should be both an art and a diversion; in a large and cultivated public like the Athenian it can be both; the shy recluses of Lady Pembroke's circle were bound to fail. But we must not draw too sharp a line of separation between the careful workman who laboured to create a classical drama in England and the hurried purveyors of playhouse successes: the two worlds were not without communication, and the work of the earlier Senecals was not without fruit. …
I wish only to call attention to certain characteristics of Senecal Tragedy in its final form, in the work of Greville, Daniel and Alexander. I would only remind the reader that these final Senecal plays were written after any real hope of altering or reforming the English stage had disappeared. In the early Elizabethan years appeared a succession of tragedies, mostly performed by the Inns of Court, and therefore not popular productions, which might in favourable circumstances have led to a living Senecan drama. Notably, Gorboduc (mentioned by Sidney above), Jocasta, and Gismond of Salerne (three of the four plays contained in Cunliffe's Early English Classical Tragedies). When The Spanish Tragedy appeared (with, as I have suggested, its particularly non-classical element) these feeble lights were snuffed out. I pass on to the finished Senecal product, because I am only concerned to elicit the effect of Seneca upon his sedulous admirers and imitators who professed to be, and were, men of taste and culture.
The Monarchic Tragedies of Alexander, Earl of Stirling, are the last on our list, composed under the auspices of the scholarly King James I. They are poor stuff: I imagine that they are more important in the history of the Union than in the history of the Drama, since they represent the choice, by a Scotsman of accidental eminence, to write verse in English instead of in Scots. Their faults are the faults of the other plays of the group; but they have not the virtues of the others. The two plays of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, the friend and biographer of Sidney, have some magnificent passages, especially in the choruses; Greville had a true gift for sententious declamation. But they have much dullness also; and they do not imitate Seneca nearly so faithfully as either those of Alexander or those of Daniel. Greville not only cannot stick to one chorus, but will introduce, on one occasion, a chorus of "Bashas or Caddies," and after the next act, a chorus of "Mahometan Priests"; he introduces the still more doubtful practice of supernatural figures, a "dialogue of Good and Evil Spirits," or even a chorus of two allegorical figures, "Time and Eternity" (ending indeed with the fine line spoken by Eternity: I am the measure of felicity). The best, the best sustained, the most poetic and the most lyrical, are two tragedies of Samuel Daniel: Cleopatra and Philotas. They contain many lovely passages, they are readable all through, and they are well built.
Now, in comparison with the supposed influence of Seneca on the barbarity of Elizabethan tragedy, and his supposed bad influence upon the language, what do we find in the plays of those who took him as their model in their attack upon the popular stage, in that attack in which Daniel, in his dedication of Cleopatra to the Countess of Pembroke, declared himself the foe of "Gross Barbarism"? Deaths there are, of course, but there is none of these tragedies that is not far more restrained, far more discreet and sober, not only than the Tragedy of Blood, but than Seneca himself. Characters die so decently, so remote from the stage, and the report of their deaths is wrapped up in such long speeches by messengers stuffed with so many moral maxims, that we may read on unaware that any one concerned in the play has died at all. Where the popular playwrights travestied Seneca's melodrama and his fury, the Senecals travesty his reserve and his decorum. And as for the language, that, too, is a different interpretation of Seneca. How vague are our notions of bombast and rhetoric when they must include styles and vocabularies so different as those of Kyd and Daniel! It is by opposite excesses that Senecals and popular dramatists attract the same reproach. The language of Daniel is pure and restrained; the vocabulary choice, the expression clear; there is nothing far-fetched, conceited, or perverse.
Cleopatra. What, hath my face yet power to win a
Can this torne remnant serve to grace me so,
That it can Caesar's secret plots discover,
What he intends with me and mine to do?
Why then, poor beauty, thou hast done thy last,
And best good service thou could'st do unto me;
For now the time of death reveal'd thou hast,
Which in my life did'st serve but to undo me.
The first two lines are admirable; the rest are good serviceable lines; almost any passage from Cleopatra is as good, and some are far better. The whole thing is in excellent taste. Yet we may ponder the fact that it would not have made the slightest difference, to the formation of our Augustan poetry, if Daniel and his friends had never written a line; that Dryden and Pope are nearer allied to—Cowley; and mat they owe more to Marlowe man to the purest taste of the sixteenth century. Daniel and Greville are good poets, and there is something to be learned from them; but they, and Sir John Davies who somewhat resembles them, had no influence. The only one of Lady Pembroke's heroes who had influence is Edmund Spenser.
Within the limits of an essay it is impossible to do more than touch on the influence of Seneca upon the "thought" of the Elizabethans, or more exactly, upon their attitude toward life so far as it can be formulated in words. I would only say enough, at mis point, to remind the reader that Seneca's influence upon dramatic form, upon versification and language, upon sensibility, and upon thought, must in the end be all estimated together; they cannot be divided. How the influence of Seneca is related, in the Elizabethan mind, with other influences, perhaps those of Montaigne and Machiavelli, I do not know; and I think it is a subject still to be investigated. But the frequency with which a quotation from Seneca, or a thought or figure ultimately derived from Seneca, is employed in Elizabethan plays whenever a moral reflection is required, is too remarkable to be ignored; and when an Elizabethan hero or villain dies, he usually dies in the odour of Seneca. These facts are known to scholars; but if known, they are usually ignored by literary critics. In a comparison of Shakespeare with Dante, for instance, it is assumed mat Dante leant upon a system of philosophy which he accepted whole, whereas Shakespeare created his own: or that Shakespeare had acquired some extra- or ultra-intellectual knowledge superior to a philosophy. This occult kind of information is sometimes called "spiritual knowledge" or "insight." Shakespeare and Dante were both merely poets (and Shakespeare a dramatist as well); our estimate of the intellectual material they absorbed does not affect our estimate of their poetry, either absolutely or relatively to each other. But it must affect our vision of them and the use we make of them, the fact that Dante, for instance, had behind him an Aquinas, and Shakespeare behind him a Seneca. Perhaps it was Shakespeare's special rôle in history to have effected this peculiar union—perhaps it is a part of his special eminence to have expressed an inferior philosophy in the greatest poetry. It is certainly one cause of the terror and awe with which he inspires us.
Philip Whaley Harsh (essay date 1944)
SOURCE: "Seneca," in A Handbook of Classical Drama, 1944. Reprint by Stanford University Press, 1963, pp. 401-36.
[In the following excerpt, Harsh examines Seneca's works against the backdrop of his life and times.]
Seneca … was a man of the highest social, political, and economic status. He early distinguished himself in literature, as his father had done in rhetoric, and he left an impressively large body of writings. Much of this has survived to make him the most influential Latin prose writer after Cicero. His primary interest was clearly moral philosophy; but his activity in letters, as in business, extended far and wide. Among his lost works was one on the geography of India, one on the form and one on the movement of the earth. These, like his extant work entitled Natural Questions, are noteworthy here because the scientific interests which they reveal are observable in his tragedies.
Nine tragedies of Seneca have been preserved. These are all written on the conventional Greek tragic subjects. Influence of intermediate adaptations, sometimes demonstrable, may be assumed in most cases, and always Seneca has himself made important changes mat are apparently original. In general, however, five of his tragedies are modeled primarily after Euripides (the Mad Hercules, the Trojan Women, the Phoenician Women, the Medea, and the Phaedra), two after Sophocles (the Oedipus and the Hercules on Oeta [Trachiniae]), and one after Aeschylus (the Agamemnon). Seneca's Thyestes is the only tragedy for which no corresponding Greek original has survived.
A tenth play, the Octavia, is preserved. This tragedy concerns a contemporary historical situation and presents Seneca himself as an important character. For various reasons it is often assumed that this play was written after the death of both Seneca and Nero.
Tragedy Under Seneca
The leap from Greek tragedy to Seneca is one of almost five hundred eventful years. Of the extensive corpus of tragedies produced in both Greece and Italy during this period, however, only a series of names and titles and a few hundred short fragments have survived. Probably one Greek play, the Rhesus, also belongs to this period. In the field of tragedy changes were certainly enormous, but no approach to an adequate picture can be obtained. One point of interest in connection with Seneca may be mentioned: "philosophical" tragedy not designed for production in the theater seems occasionally to have been written.
Turning to Seneca's tragedies from the extant Greek plays, we appear to be on familiar ground. The same old subject material is being mulled over once more: Oedipus and Agamemnon are still stamping across the scene. If we are satisfied with this first appearance, or if we insist upon absolute literary criteria, we shall find the plays of Seneca so far inferior to the Greek tragedies that we may be tempted to view the Roman plays as the worthless product of an incompetent writer. Judged by the criteria of Aristotle, however, some of the plays of Shakespeare himself would come off poorly. The comparison of Seneca's plays with the very best Greek masterpieces is likely to obscure more than it reveals unless designed primarily to discover the intent of Seneca in making his changes. Such comparison is so obvious, furthermore, that one never thinks of comparing Seneca's best with the only other plays that have survived from this half-millennium, the Rhesus and the Octavia, to which either Seneca's Trojan Women or his Phaedra is much superior. Critics forget, also, that many Senecan faults are found in plays such as the Rhesus or Euripides' Orestes.
It is unnecessary here to point out all the respects in which the Greeks wrote better Greek tragedies. Certainly if Seneca's purpose had been to imitate the Greeks of the fifth century, a man with far less talent could have done a much more competent job. Nor is it likely that one who was such a competent writer in other fields should continue writing tragedy unless he felt that he was achieving his purpose, or that he would be so conceitedly prejudiced that he could not perceive something of the true qualities of his work. The inevitable conclusion is that most critics condemn Seneca for not doing what he never had the slightest intention of doing. Actually his plays are vastly different from the Greek tragedies of the fifth century, though they are doubtless not masterpieces judged by any standard. His strong personality has left its impress on every phase of them, and they are thoroughly Roman productions.
The primary purpose of Seneca in writing his tragedies is one of the most disputed problems in classical drama. Any attempt at a satisfactory solution, therefore, must be conjectural. The various interests of Seneca can be determined from his tragedies, from his other writings, and perhaps from a knowledge of his life. Obviously the plays must be interpreted in the light of these interests, more so with Seneca than with the previous classical dramatists. These were all practical men of the theater or at least had intimate contact with actual production. They were all professional dramatists in the best sense of that term. But Seneca was not. Most critics would call him a dilettante. His tragedies are marked not so much by the superficiality of the dilettante, however, as by the disproportion of the amateur. The perfection of the artistic whole is sacrificed to the author's special interests. This characteristic is a vice which he shared with many in a nervous and intellectually chaotic age. These special interests of Seneca, furthermore, were sometimes incompatible with dramatic effectiveness.
Several of Seneca's interests have a tinge of pedantry. He is inordinately fond of detailed geographical descriptions. The Romans of his day had achieved a far larger world than any previous people, and they were conscious and justifiably proud of this. Even now it is thrilling to read Seneca's references to the antipodes or his prediction of the discovery of America in the Medea (375-79). Such a bold stretch of the human imagination, though anticipated by others, is undeniably admirable. His detailed catalogue of the districts of Attica at the opening of the Phaedra, however, must have been almost as boring to the Roman as it is to the modern reader. Many another catalogue is equally so, as are his lists of hunting dogs and his series of rare wild animals. He could well have been more sparing also with his vast mythological lore—his plays require a far more detailed knowledge of Greek legends than the Greek tragedies do.
All critics recognize one interest and one effect consistently achieved in Seneca's tragedies: rhetorical display. Brilliant sophistic argument, arresting epigrammatic point, vivid description of sensational events—these qualities were highly prized in Seneca's day, and these he achieved undeniably well. It is often concluded, therefore, that the tragedies were designed merely as a vehicle for this rhetorical display and that they were written not for actual production but for reading. Still we should not be too ready to assume that a man of Seneca's stature—history and his other writings prove that this was not small—should indulge in mere display and should write tragedies as a schoolboy's exercise.
The question of production is an old and still hotly disputed one. There is no external proof that any of his plays were ever produced. Most critics who analyze from the point of view of Greek tragedy and Roman rhetoric are convinced that the plays were written for reading or recitation. The extreme violence of many scenes is cited. Certainly the slaughter which the mad Hercules wreaks would tax modern stagecraft to the utmost—we need not assume that Roman stagecraft of this period was much less skillful. But this slaughter may be enacted behind the scenes. Certainly the assembling of the body of Hippolytus is done on stage, and some critics cite this as a scene impossible of presentation. But the scene at the end of Euripides' Bacchae, now lost, may have been almost as gory. In short, there is no proof here.
The strongest indication that the plays were not intended for the theater, in the opinion of the present writer, lies in the minuteness with which the actions of characters on stage are described. When Phaedra rushes up to Hippolytus and faints, for instance, the Nurse does not cry out in a natural fashion and come to her aid; but in the fashion of a medical casebook she describes how Phaedra's body falls lifeless to the ground and how a deathlike pallor spreads over her face. Even plainer are the words of Hippolytus when he is on the point of slaying Phaedra: "See, I have grasped your hair and forced your shameless head back with my left hand. …" Though a certain amount of such description is natural in ancient drama where stage directions were not explicitly added, this description is so much commoner in Seneca than in other extant plays that it seems designed to replace the action of the real theater. The assumption that the plays were not written for production appears attractive, therefore; but it is by no means proved, and the plays should be read without prejudice on the point.
Certain dramatic qualities are sadly lacking in the plays of Seneca, especially dramatic action. This is most clearly brought out by a comparison of the number of scenes in the extant tragedies. The seven plays of Aeschylus have an average of approximately eight and one-half scenes each, the plays of Sophocles and Euripides fifteen scenes, and those of Seneca approximately nine scenes. Seneca is careless of motivation of entrances and exits, realistic dialogue, preparation for subsequent events, and the various other details of technique which the Greek masters had developed to such perfection. The plays tend to seem collections of scenes, therefore, rather than dramatically articulated units. Often action is managed awkwardly. Medea calls for her children who are within the house, and one line later they seem to be standing before her awaiting her orders. Such unnatural, schematic action is characteristic of the informality of Old Comedy. Still more important, the characters often are implausibly or desultorily presented, unity of subject seems to be violated by apparently extraneous material, and the plays usually open on such a shrill note of horror that no opportunity remains for an effective reversal of fortune.
In contrast to these various undramatic features, extremely theatrical and spectacular scenes are not infrequent. The opening scene of the Phaedra seems to be designed as colorful pageantry—thoroughly according to the Roman tradition of overelaborate stage effects. The scene between Andromache and Ulysses in the Trojan Women is splendid theater. So is the scene between Phaedra and Hippolytus. Many of the final scenes, however horrible, are eminently spectacular.
That rhetorical display is one of Seneca's most striking characteristics is obvious; but sometimes it may serve as a means to a less obvious end. The first choral song of the Phaedra, for instance, is pertinent to the situation and its poetry would be very acceptable if the whole passage did not end with the point that love overcomes even a step-mother. Again Hippolytus, delivering a fine Stoic speech excoriating civilized man and his crimes, cites all sorts of crime within the family except the crimes of the stepmomer. It would be unfair, he intimates, to argue from such an extreme and indisputable example. But this seems a jarring note in his characterization; for hitherto Hippolytus has revealed no prejudice or cause for such at least against his own stepmother, and in the ensuing scene with her he seems to have no prejudice. Consistency of character appears here to have been sacrificed to rhetorical point. But many sententious pronouncements on stepmothers are found in this tragedy of Seneca as in several others, and although the stepmother theme was a rhetorical commonplace we must consider the possibility that Seneca was interested not primarily in rhetorical display but in stepmothers. Nor is this alternative as ridiculous as it at first seems; for the mother of the Emperor Nero as a stepmother had run the gamut of crimes, and this theme is very properly an important one in the historical tragedy Octavia.
The theme of the tyrant is even more frequent in Seneca. Those speeches in which the Nurse tries to dissuade Phaedra from pursuing Hippolytus, for instance, read like a lecture of Seneca to his pupil Nero urging him not to embark upon a career of crime. "I am not unaware," she says (136-39), "how unwilling to be guided to an honorable course is royal pride, callous and unaccustomed to the truth. But I shall bear whatever fate may chance to be mine; courage is given to one who is old by the thought that death soon will bring freedom." Unfortunately, however, this play like all the others cannot be dated. The assumption of any reference to the ruling family, therefore, is purely conjectural.
The use of drama as more or less subtle political criticism had a long tradition in Rome. Extended allegory was not necessary; a single line even of an old play was often interpreted in the light of contemporary events and greeted with applause or hissing. During the time of Seneca, when the tyrannies of the emperors made open criticism of political policies extremely dangerous, all genres of literature were used for covert criticism. A certain Cremutius Cordus wrote a history in order, perhaps, to praise Brutus and to call Cassius "the last of the Romans." Cordus was forced to commit suicide. Another contemporary of Seneca, Curiatius Maternus, wrote tragedies with a political purpose and sometimes on Roman historical figures. These were publicly read by the author and were apparently not intended for production in the theater. One of the men under whom Seneca in his youth mastered rhetoric, Mamercus Aemilius Scaurus, is said to have incurred the wrath of the Emperor Tiberius by writing a tragedy, Atreus, in which a common-place from Euripides' Phoenissae (393) was included—"One must bear the follies of his rulers."
Every play of Seneca has somewhat similar lines. It is not inconceivable that Seneca, though no extremist, should write a whole play for one well-placed line of this type. The subject material of Greek tragedy was ideal for such application. The more commonplace a theme might be there or in contemporary rhetoric, such as the theme of the tyrant or that of the stepmother, the safer the author would feel in dwelling upon it; and the audience would doubtless be no less keen in applying it where it seemed most apposite in the contemporary situation. That Seneca had a political purpose in writing his tragedies, therefore, is an easily conceivable, though at present not widely accepted, hypothesis.
Inextricably bound up with a possible political end are Seneca's very certain moral and philosophical interests.
The inevitability mat one dreadful crime will lead to another, for instance, is an obvious theme in the Thyestes and the Agamemnon, and indeed this is the theme of Aeschylus himself in his trilogy on Orestes. Not only interpretation of the legends is affected by philosophical concepts but portrayal of characters also, the choral lyrics, the action, and perhaps even the form of the play. If crime must lead to crime, then the individual characteristics of those who come late in the vicious cycle do not determine the course of events and so need not be dwelt upon. Indeed, if determinism is accepted, then tragedy of character becomes meaningless. Perhaps this in part is the explanation of the very desultory treatment which is given the character of Oedipus or that of Clytemnestra.
Many of Seneca's figures are almost ideal Stoics. Even his women and children face disaster and die with a fortitude which may well stifle pathos and preclude dramatic effectiveness. The choral lyrics, where intensity of feeling is most desirable, are emotionally reserved. Such stringent inhibition of the softer emotions results in a lack of genuine pathos in Seneca's plays—perhaps their one greatest shortcoming.
Violent emotions and their outrageous crimes, however, are most frequent and constitute another obvious special interest of Seneca. His portrait of Medea is not, like that of Euripides, a detailed psychological study of a more or less normal woman driven by a series of events to abnormal crime. It is rather a livid exaggeration of the conventional barbaric sorceress. His motive is apparently not to explain an abnormal action but to display a sensational figure who is more than abnormal from the first line of the play. He deliberately strives to create a climax that is fantastically horrible; and no one will deny that he succeeds.
Closely allied with Seneca's interest in the horrible is his enthusiasm for the mystic. This appears superficially in rites of magic, ghosts, and concern with the underworld. The pathetic fallacy, also, is carried to mystical lengths. The whole cosmos reacts to the crime of Atreus. But these external manifestations are merely the dark background for the mysticism of man's own soul. Thyestes is overwhelmed with the consciousness of his guilt (Thyestes 513), and an inexplicable premonition of ill chokes his enjoyment of the banquet. Even more significant is the obsession of death which many Senecan characters display. This obsession was the author's own, as may be observed also in his prose works—and justifiably so, for his health was extremely delicate and, in an age precarious for all of his class, he lived in unusually close and dangerous relation to the tyrannical emperors. In his tragedies death is at once the ultimate of the horrible and the supreme release from toil and suffering. This avid mysticism and obsession of death is the intellectual ground that later proved so fertile a seed plot for Christianity.
Seneca has chosen his material with a keen regard for his special interests. There must be no romantic recognitions and no sweetness—no Alcestis or Iphigenia in Tauris. All his plays with the possible exception of the mystic Hercules on Oeta are tragedies in the modern sense of that word. All are filled with the qualities for which he was famous in the Renaissance—atrocitas, gravitas, maiestas. The Greeks of the fifth century were the youths—eternal youths—of the ancient world; Seneca was its disillusioned old age.
Interpreted as expressions of his intellectual interests, we conclude, the tragedies of Seneca are successful productions. The author was a serious thinker and an eloquent writer despite his many faults. He was not a great dramatist and made no attempt to be; but his plays have certain dramatic virtues, and their historical importance as drama has been tremendous. Largely neglected in ancient and in medieval times, they emerged in the fourteenth century as the only well-known classical tragedy, and their rule over Italian and French drama continued for many centuries. In the England of Shakespeare's day, too, they were immensely popular. Nor should we be too ready to deplore history's preference for Seneca, because of his language, above the Greeks. His intellectual outlook, like his language, was a part of the immediate tradition of Italy and France: the Greeks were essentially foreign. Even as drama, Greek tragedy with its chorus and with its Greek divinities, though vastly superior, could never have been so readily and so thoroughly assimilated.
STRUCTURE.—By the time of Seneca, dramatists as well as critics seem to have approved the rule of five acts, for all his plays except possibly the Oedipus have four divisional choral songs. The rule of three speaking characters, too, is observed, though some scenes, as that at the end of the Agamemnon, would require four actors. The unities of time and place are normally respected. A change of scene, how-ever, seems to occur in the Hercules on Oeta and possibly elsewhere. The background of the Medea, furthermore, seems vague and uncertain. Strict unity of subject is often sacrificed to the author's peculiar interests.
In metrical usage Seneca is conservative. His characters almost invariably speak in simple iambic verse. Three short passages in trochaic verse of seven and one-half feet occur. Occasionally a character, such as Hecuba at the opening of the Trojan Women, is given anapestic or other lyric measure. The choral meters are monotonously simple.
The tragedy often begins with a monologue-prologue delivered by the main character. This form is doubtless descended from the Euripidean prologue; but Seneca does not use it primarily for purposes of exposition. Indeed, lack of adequate exposition is a typical feature of a Senecan play. One can hardly avoid the impression that the audience and even the characters themselves are thoroughly acquainted with their past, present, and future before the action begins. Any exposition given often appears inevitable or fortuitous. The Senecan prologue is normally used to create the mood of the play, and this mood is frequently that of horror. A dire note is struck at the very first and is maintained throughout. The prologue may develop into a semblance of a dialogue, but usually it constitutes the whole first act. Ghosts and spirits are used twice in prologues and a major ivinity is used once.
The chorus in Seneca is primarily an interlude. It is sometimes withdrawn after a lyric, as apparently in earlier Roman tragedy, but again it may remain on stage and even engage in conversation with a messenger or some character. This is rare, however, and occurs only when no other speaking character is on stage. Sometimes two different choruses are used. In the Agamemnon, for instance, a group of Trojan captives constitutes the second chorus. The lyrics themselves occasionally rise to poetic heights of real beauty, but too often they are pedestrian. A distinct effort is still made to give them at least a superficial connection with the action. In general, however, little of the Greek subtlety in adapting the chorus to the needs of the play can be observed, and it is regrettable that the chorus was not wholly eliminated.
The absence of an organic chorus creates certain difficulties of staging to which Seneca is not wholly impervious. On the huge Roman stage, as in Roman comedy, the entrance of a character in mid-scene becomes a distinct problem. Such entrances are accompanied by a soliloquy, which is often an aside. Asides are not unnatural under these conditions, and they are accordingly much more common than in Greek tragedy. Such soliloquies are employed to reveal information which it might be difficult to convey in the ensuing dialogue. Indeed, Seneca is inordinately fond of soliloquies of every type.
Usually at the beginning of the second act the dramatic action is initiated. Frequently this takes the form of a subaltern's attempting to deter the main character from crime. Such a scene is designed, of course, to bring out the criminal determination of the main character. The entrance of a new character may develop a complication. The act usually ends with the formation of a definite criminal plan.
The third act, as in the Thyestes, may be given over to the presentation of the victim and may end with his entrapment. The fourth act may give a description of the catastrophe and the fifth a vivid illustration of it. Normally there is no sharply marked peripety or any strong emotional contrast between the opening and the close of the action. The situation is very bad at the beginning, and it rapidly becomes much worse.
Seneca uses no deus ex machina, unless the appearance of Hercules at the end of the Hercules on Oeta can be called such. Far from having any prejudice against violent deeds on stage, he delights in making his finale fantastically horrible and bloody. So we see Jocasta stab herself in her "capacious womb," and so we hear the thud of the bodies of Medea's children as she flings them from the housetop.
1. Mad Hercules (Hercules Furens)
The Mad Hercules shows many dramatic faults and much overdone rhetoric, but individual scenes in it are very impressive. The subject doubtless made a strong appeal to Seneca for several reasons. It is perfectly adapted to the themes of the stepmother and the tyrant. Both these were dear to his heart, and they furnish some of his finest rhetorical effects. "No greater victim can be Sacrificed to Jupiter and no richer one than a king who is unjust," says Hercules as he is about to sacrifice while his hands still drip the blood of Lycus. Effective also is Hercules' apostrophe to his own hands as the tools of his stepmother (1236). The fantastic exaggeration of his labors also must have teased the imagination of Seneca, and the long description of the underworld is well fitted to serve both moralist and rhetorician. Seneca obviously took delight also in depicting the growing frenzy of Juno and especially the seizure of Hercules—a magnificent scene. Still more attractive perhaps was the contemplation of the sufferings of this Stoic saint which so clearly emphasize Fortune's envy of virtue and her ironic fickleness in bestowing her favors (esp. 524-32).
SOURCES.—Euripides introduced this subject into tragedy in his still extant Heracles; and, though there were later Greek versions and perhaps one Roman adaptation, Seneca seems to have followed the original play. The incidents, at least, are the same, but fundamental changes in treatment and interpretation have been made. Since these affected every part of the play they may best be noted in the general consideration.
DISCUSSION.—Seneca has added a conventional prologue spoken by Juno. Her catalogue of the various loves of Jupiter and their mementos in the sky seems a little ridiculous but is a part of the stepmother theme. More important is her recitation of the great accomplishments of Hercules and her great anger at his success. Finally, raising her voice to the screech of hysteria, she foretells his madness and adumbrates its results. Thus the loud note of horror which usually characterizes the opening of a Senecan tragedy is here clearly sounded.
Another effect of the prologue is even more important. The foreknowledge here imparted casts a shade of irony upon the glory of Hercules' return, and thus Euripides' magnificent contrast between the returning hero and the murderer of wife and children is largely lost. No such contrast really exists in the life of Hercules as Seneca presents it. All has been and still remains a titanic struggle against a superior power. The climax of this struggle and Hercules' inevitable ruin is the subject of Seneca's tragedy. In the prologue and throughout the play the fantastic exaggeration of Hercules' accomplishments raises the hero so far above human accomplishment that he loses much of his human appeal. But he gains the superhuman stature requisite for contest with divinity. Juno's prologue, therefore, serves the Senecan interpretation of Hercules well, however far this may be from the Aristotelian concept of the most effective tragic character. The prologue also concentrates attention upon Hercules alone, whereas the opening of Euripides' play emphasizes the plight of his family.
As an explanation of Hercules' madness, Juno's conventional prologue replaces the very unconventional scene of Iris and Lyssa in the center of Euripides' play. The elimination of that scene allows the gradual seizure of Hercules to be depicted on stage without supernatural interference in its presentation. But while Iris and Lyssa poetically symbolize the madness which at that moment is at work within the palace, Juno's prologue, though ending on the pitch of frenzy, comes long before the actual madness and is immediately followed by the chorus' idyllic description of dawn and Stoic praise of the simple life!
The second act begins in no less declamatory fashion than the prologue. Amphitryon now prays for relief from misfortune and holds forth on the eleven previous labors—the securing of Cerberus is still in progress—for some seventy-five verses, and Megara closes the series with a mere thirty on much the same subject. Both invoke Hercules as if he were a god. Thus the first three hundred and eight verses pass in only four units. This disturbingly awkward opening is caused by Seneca's failure to recast the first of his play—or rather the first of Euripides' play—after he has added the prologue by Juno. The endless repetition of the labors has its justification—emphasis on the endless struggle which Hercules' life has been. The effect is well designed, therefore, but it is not well executed. The repetition is too monotonous and boring.
The scene with Lycus, except for the further intrusion of the labors, is far better. Seneca gives the tyrant the very plausible motivation of make his reign a more legitimate one. This is an improvement over Euripides, designed no doubt to facilitate Seneca's theme of the tyrant. If the play was written during the reign of Nero, however, it was an obvious motivation; for Nero himself had a somewhat similar reason for marrying Octavia, the daughter of Claudius. Nero's relation to Octavia also was somewhat similar, for Claudius and his son were to be or had been murdered for the benefit of Nero, and according to Seneca he who derives the benefit from a crime is the guilty party. After Lycus has withdrawn, Amphitryon at the end of the scene foresees the return of Hercules.
The labors are now once more attempted, this time by the chorus, and special emphasis is given the return from the underworld. Following their fanfare, Hercules appears. After an entrance monologue in which he boasts of his triumph over death, he hears of Lycus' outrages and immediately goes off to slay him. He has shown no tenderness in greeting wife and children; and, since Theseus has entered with him as a speaking character, Megara can say nothing if the rule of three speaking actors is to be maintained. Thus one of the most pathetic episodes of Euripides' play is eliminated. But this is consistent with Seneca's procedure; for he makes no effort to humanize Hercules, at least before the climax, and Megara and the children are carefully kept in the background throughout.
Theseus has been brought on with Hercules in order, no doubt, that he may declaim on the underworld and Hercules' accomplishments there. This description enables the author to bring out the Stoic conception of retribution after death and to apply it especially to the tyrant. Such a conception is a natural counterpart or consolation for a view of life as a laborious and finally unsuccessful struggle, but no effort is made to bring out this connection with the theme of the play and so to justify the inclusion of the scene. Theseus' description itself, of course, is sensational and colorful.
Dramatically Theseus' entrance with Hercules is very plausible and avoids the abruptness of his appearance later, as in Euripides. But this advantage is small gain and apparently involves the extreme inconvenience of removing him at the climax when Hercules is about to slaughter wife and children.
After a choral song contemplating the underworld and death but ending on an ironically joyful note concerning the success of Hercules, the hero returns with the blood of Lycus upon his hands. As he prepares to sacrifice in spite of this defilement, the madness gradually comes over him. The actual presentation of this scene has been made possible by having Lycus slain somewhere off stage and not trapped within the palace as in Euripides. This, too, is a distinct gain for Seneca, but precisely how the following carnage could have been portrayed in the theater is quite uncertain. Some assume mat it was not designed ever to be portrayed, others that the carnage takes place behind the scenes while Amphitryon views and reports it. Amphitryon's detailed description does not necessarily decide the matter, for contemporary action on stage is often so described in Seneca. The seizure itself is plausibly managed and does not include those manifestations which the comic poets considered a little puerile and ridiculous in Euripides.
After a choral lyric of grief that is too rhetorical to be very effective, Hercules awakens, and through his own deductions he is made to realize what he has done. His gradual enlightenment and his desire to die are depicted with genuine pathos. He is finally persuaded to live, not so much by Theseus' exhortation to withstand adversity, the prime consideration in Euripides, as by Amphitryon's appeal to filial piety. This, too, is as we should expect in Seneca, where suicide is often praised as the one escape from misfortune.
2. Trojan Women (Troades)
The Trojan Women has often been considered the best of Seneca's plays. It is certamly an impressive spectacle of the mutability of fortune, the woes of the vanquished, and the insolence of the victorious. The whole is overcast by the irony of the victors' own coming destruction. The outlook of the play, then, is similar to mat of the Trojan Women of Euripides; so is the structure, which achieves a certain unity of tone and theme even though the two main incidents of the play are only superficially connected. The scene between Andromache and Ulysses, an important source for Racine, is brilliantly written and would doubtless be very effective in any theater. On the whole, however, the play lacks that consummate finish of dramatic technique which usually characterizes Greek tragedies.
SOURCES.—The murder of Astyanax and the grief of Andromache form one of the main episodes in Euripides' Trojan Women. The death of Polyxena is an important part of his Hecuba. Seneca follows the main outlines of Euripides in relating these events, and distinct echoes of both plays are found; but major changes have been made. The question of sacrificing Polyxena is here made the subject of a spirited and dramatic debate; Andromache has a premonition of the danger and hides Astyanax in Hector's tomb, but eventually she is forced by the crafty Ulysses to reveal his whereabouts. This hiding of Astyanax occurred also in a Latin tragedy of Accius entitled Astyanax, in which also Calchas seems to have motivated the murder. But the use of the tomb of Hector for this, considered fantastic by some critics, may be original with Seneca.
Variouis other important changes have been made: Hecuba is not the center of Seneca's play; more speaking characters are brought on stage; the choral songs though effective do not have the beauty or depth of pathos of those in Euripides. Seneca's play may well be the product of contamination, since this combination of Astyanax and Polyxena is not known to have occurred in any previous play.
Various other plays may have been drawn upon for details. Sophocles wrote a Polyxena and also a Captive Women (Aichmalotides), which may possibly have covered some of the same material as Euripides' Trojan Women. Accius wrote a Hecuba and apparently a Trojan Women besides the Astyanax just mentioned. Still other plays had been written on these subjects in both Greek and Latin.
DISCUSSION.—Hecuba, at once the most venerable and the most pathetic survivor of the destruction of Troy, opens and closes the play. Her prologue emphasizes the mutability of fortune, the sacrilegious violence of the conquerors, and the enslavement awaiting the women. These thoughts very naturally develop into an antiphony between her and the chorus, which contains genuine tears for the dead and for the even more unfortunate living. Emotionally, this is an effective opening of the play. From the dramatic point of view, however, we should have expected some significant reference to Polyxena, Andromache, and Astyanax, the characters about whom the main incidents of the play devolve. Actually Hecuba twice refers to Cassandra, who does not appear as a character in the play. At the end of this lyric exchange, furthermore, Hecuba very ineffectively withdraws (or becomes silent).
The Herald now comes on for a more typical Senecan prologue of horror reporting the appearance of the ghost of Achilles. Since the Herald immediately departs when his report is given, his speech also has mat detachment which usually characterizes a Senecan prologue. The creation of Senecan atmosphere is doubtless the main purpose of this sensational speech, for the information which it gives could easily have been worked into the conversation between Pyrrhus and Agamemnon.
Agamemnon here, reminiscent of me Agamemnon of Euripides' Hecuba, is a very cautious and restrained conqueror. He is keenly aware mat the Greeks have gone to excesses and mat the momentary whim of fortune is just as formidable as an armada of a thousand ships or a struggle of ten long years. Indeed he forebodes the disasters which actually overtake the Greeks and himself. Thus the ominous theme of Hecuba's prologue is elaborated to cast a grim irony over the present insolence of the victors. With such farsighted Stoic characters, Seneca's play has no need of a divine prelude like mat of Euripides' Trojan Women. This substitution of vague human foreboding for supernatural explicitness might be considered a distinct improvement.
The quarrel between Pyrrhus and Agamemnon over the sacrifice of Polyxena begins with long and comparatively restrained speeches. But it soon develops into a rapid and excited contest of abuse which is one of the most dramatic dialogues in Seneca. Finally Calchas is called in to settle the matter like a deus ex machina. All critics have laid the severest strictures upon the abruptness here, and perhaps this, like the appearance of the children in the Medea (845), is another example of that dramatic awkwardness which is not infrequent in Seneca. Still this scene could be staged very effectively by having Calchas and various other figures enter along with Pyrrhus and Agamemnon at the beginning of the scene. The sacred insignia would clearly mark out the priest who sacrificed Iphigenia. He would stand by ominously silent and contemptuously superior to this futile logomachy over reason and justice—the priest waiting for the kings to appeal to him as he knows they eventually must. The end of this act is admittedly abrupt, but Agamemnon can say nothing after Calchas' pronouncement ex cathedra.
The pronouncement of Calchas not only settles the dispute over Polyxena; the fate of Astyanax, also, is brusquely determined in three short lines. Thus the action of the remainder of the play is foretold. The following chorus on death as the end of all is not inapposite, and this pagan conviction is here expressed with depressing certainty.
The third act is masterly. The appearance of the ghost of Hector to Andromache, corresponding to that of the ghost of Achilles to the Greeks, is well conceived. Andromache's finding the features of her dead husband in the face of her son is both moving and significant for the dilemma which she is soon to have thrust upon her. The genuine pathos here and the obviously inevitable tragic outcome prevent any semblance of melodrama in the spectacular scene with Ulysses. Andromache's turmoil of spirit is depicted with keen psychological insight, though the incoherency of her lines is sometimes destroyed by benighted modern editors. In these scenes, furthermore, Seneca has placed at least some restraint upon his inveterate fondness for rhetorical effect.
In the ensuing lyric the chorus contemplate to what homes they may be taken in Greece. This adaptation of a Euripidean choral theme is not well done, but the suggestion of imminent departure is effective.
The fourth act moves rapidly but lacks the brilliance of the third. Andromache's wrangling with Helen immediately after Astyanax has been taken off to die detracts from the pathos of her suffering. Euripides chose the wiser course when he allowed her to make her final exit along with Astyanax, for anything that she can say after this must appear anticlimactic. Nor is the defense of Helen really pertinent to this scene, although the pity of an enemy adds to the pathetic tragedy of Polyxena. Significant for the play as a whole, however, is the resumption of the theme of the destruction to be visited upon the Greeks. Hecuba prophesies woes for Ulysses (994), and prays that the seas may be as savage to the Greeks as the Greeks are to their suppliants (1006).
The fifth act combines the stories of Astyanax and Polyxena, but only in an external fashion. The speech of the Messenger must be divided between these two unrelated events—a division not characteristic of messenger speeches in Greek tragedy—and the resultant awkwardness is aggravated by the Messenger's offering a choice as to whose misfortune he should relate first. Incidentally both Astyanax and Polyxena die like Stoics. The play ends effectively with Hecuba's ironic propempticon to the Greeks amounting to a curse and a prophecy that the sea will give them the welcome which they deserve.
3. Phoenician Women (Phoenissae)
Scholars have not agreed on an explanation of the scenes preserved under this title. Perhaps they are mere indepen-dent studies; perhaps they are parts of a complete or projected tragedy.
Doubtless Euripides' Phoenissae was Seneca's chief model. That play was one of the most famous of all Greek tragedies and contained perhaps the most widely known discussion of tyranny in classical literature. It was a dangerous play during Seneca's day, as Mamercus Scaurus, his contemporary and one of his rhetorical models, had discovered under Tiberius. The general subject had been treated in various other Greek and Roman tragedies, including Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, and in epic verse. The Roman historical legend of Coriolanus as related in Livy (2. 39-40) may well have contributed to the scene with Jocasta.
The first scene is one between Oedipus and Antigone. Oedipus asks that he be allowed to go the way which, even in his blindness, he will find more easily alone—the way of death. But Antigone replies that she will never leave him. Incidentally she reveals that Polynices is leading his army against Thebes, and that Jocasta is still alive. This conversation develops into a Senecan discussion of suicide somewhat like that in the Mad Hercules.
The scenes with Jocasta either include a change of locale from Thebes to the battleground or else Jocasta leads the brothers on stage in a unique manner. Here Jocasta does most of the talking, making a passionate appeal especially to Polynices and ending on the Senecan theme of the folly of kinghood. The attitudes of the two brothers are much the same as in Euripides.
This is a tragedy of revenge written with special emphasis upon the inhuman fury and weird sorcery of a barbaric Medea. Indeed this play is an important source of knowledge of ancient magic, and a comparison with the witches' scenes in Macbeth is sufficient to prove that in literature, at least, ancient magic was not so very different from modern.
SOURCES.—The story of Medea was one of the most popular among both Greek and Latin dramatists, and it was treated in various other genres as well. Especially famous in Latin literature was the tragedy which the brilliant young Ovid wrote. Seneca, an admirer of Ovid, seems to have been influenced considerably by that play as he doubtless was by still other treatments.
The plot of Seneca's play, however, is essentially that of the Medea of Euripides; and doubtless this famous masterpiece was his chief source and model. But fundamental changes, as usually in Seneca, have been made in the characters and tone of the play, and much of its dramatic action has been deleted. Aegeus and the Paedagogus are eliminated. Jason appears only twice; and he is very different from the Jason of Euripides. Here he is weaker, more ingenuous, and more appealing. He has been forced into the marriage; and his entreaties alone, as Creon himself reveals, have saved Medea from being put to death. Jason here is also extremely fond of his children. Indeed, he insists that he chose submission to Creon rather than death only in order to save his sons. In part this more human portrayal of Jason is designed to bring out the inhumanity of Seneca's Medea; for whereas Euripides' great achievement had been to make Medea entirely human and understandable, Seneca deliberately presents her as a fantastic exaggeration of that barbaric sorceress which she is normally represented as being in ancient literature.
DISCUSSION.—Medea herself opens the play with a hysterical monologue. She screeches for vengeance. She prays that death may come upon Creon and his daughter and that life may be made a miserable burden for Jason. She flagellates herself and casts about for a crime worthy of her maturity. Thus is sounded the usual Senecan note of horror. Entirely gone is the careful emotional preparation for the appearance of Medea which the prologue of Euripides' play contains, as well as its vague and uncertain forebodings. Gone too is the effective scene with the children, who do not appear in Seneca's play until they are sent with the poisoned gifts, when they are present for only four lines. All this, of course, is in strict accord with Seneca's desire to present Medea in a very unfavorable but very intense light.
Seneca's chorus, as might be expected, is bitterly opposed to Medea and sympathetic with Jason and their king. So the first choral lyric is a gay song in honor of the marriage which is now to be consummated.
Naturally the strains of this festive song gall Medea and stimulate her to greater fury. She recalls in detail the crimes which she has committed for Jason's sake. Still she is obviously in love with him, as she reveals by her conviction that Creon alone is responsible and by her momentary resolve to take vengeance only upon him. The Nurse makes a desperate attempt to curb Medea's wrath, but this serves merely to reveal her determination more sharply. The next scene with the imperious Creon allows Medea a spirited defense. It also adds direct description of her character and her witchcraft. She is one, says Creon, who combines the natural deceit of a woman with the aggressiveness of a man (267-68). After finally granting her one more day within the realm, Creon hastens off to the marriage—an effective detail.
The chorus deprecates the impious boldness of man in inventing ships and overcoming those barriers which the gods placed between the lands. Medea was worthy freight for the first vessel! Then, by a shocking anachronism, Seneca marvels at the vast extent to which man's ingenuity has expanded the world of his own day, and predicts that in a day to come new continents will be revealed—his famous prediction of the discovery of America.
After her Nurse has described her utter madness, Medea comes on again for more self-flagellation. This soliloquy reveals a hardening of her attitude toward Jason and prepares for his entrance just as her former soliloquy has prepared for the entrance of Creon. The scene with Jason gives Medea another opportunity for a brilliant speech justifying her position and incriminating Jason. But Jason stands up well against all her charges, and the sincerity of his defense has been carefully guaranteed by his entrance monologue as well as by the previous statements of Creon and by the free admissions of Medea. Jason resolutely refuses Medea's plea to return to her and seek life elsewhere. Only at this point does Medea, who has never shown much regard for her children, give up hope of recovering him and begin definitely to plot for a vengeance upon him far worse than that upon Creon. In the course of this scene, when Medea asks that the children be allowed to go with her Jason very naturally reveals his great love for them. Medea immediately realizes where her vengeance upon him can strike deepest. Thus Seneca skillfully works into this scene the main function of Euripides' scene of Medea and Aegeus. Seneca has no other use for that scene, for he is wholly unconcerned with any semblance of a realistic escape at the end of the play. As soon as Jason departs, Medea plunges into a tantrum and announces her plan to send the poisoned gifts.
Remarking the limitless fury of a woman spurned, the chorus ponder the ill fate of those who sailed on the first ship and pray that Jason, their leader, may be spared. So this lyric harks back to the previous choral song and sounds an effectively ominous note.
The scenes of witchery, like the sacrifice and the raising of the ghost in Seneca's Oedipus, are essentially a digression. Still they are not so very much out of place here, since Medea's sorcery has been emphasized from the first and an atmosphere of horror and diabolical crime has been consistently maintained. The metrical variation in this scene is noteworthy. She enters with excited trochaics, lists her magical accomplishments in staid iambics (well suited to the realm of facts!), shifts to lyric iambics in making her offerings, and then to anapests for her "prayers." At the end of the scene, which reaches its climax with Medea's barbaric gashing of her own arms, the children are abruptly dispatched with the gifts.
After a short choral lyric describing Medea's fury, a messenger reports the catastrophe. For once Seneca rejects the opportunity of making a long glowing description of horror. Indeed, so short a report is unique in ancient tragedy; but the innovation is as welcome as it has been long awaited. A conventional messenger's speech here, furthermore, would be quite useless, for Medea in her incantation has directed with revolting detail the effects which the gifts are to have upon the bride.
Medea's last soliloquy, in which she finally determines upon the slaughter of her children, is an amazing confusion of natural human emotions, including even remorse, of the mysticism of madness, and of sophistry strained almost to the ridiculous. She wishes that she, like Niobe, had borne fourteen children instead of two in order that her vengeance might be greater! There is here no thought of saving the children from destruction at the hands of her enemies, as in Euripides. Here all is vengeance.
Jason enters with soldiers, coming not to save his children primarily, as in Euripides, but to punish Medea. As Medea has just slain one of her children before the eyes of the audience in order to satisfy the Avenging Furies of her brother, so now, having mounted to the roof of her dwelling, she slays the other before Jason and despite his most abject entreaties. Then she apparently flings the bodies down to him. This ghastly scene is most dramatic and is a fitting climax to a play that from the very first has sounded the note of horror. It is less effective than the final scene in Euripides, because Medea is less human and the children here have never been effectively presented. It is less tragic, too, because the heavy grief that falls upon life, which must go on even after such a catastrophe, is really more tragic than the catastrophe itself. But Seneca has undeniably achieved a harrowing and spectacular finale.
5. Phaedra (Hippolytus)
The Phaedra is one of Seneca's best plays. His interpretation is very different from that of Euripides in his extant Hippolytus. No effort is made to soften the character of Phaedra. This villainess plays the main role of the tragedy, and perhaps Seneca's primary interest lay in the study of her character. There is nothing mystical about Seneca's Hippolytus, who worships Diana as any other huntsman would and who is a more normal human being than the Hippolytus of Euripides, though he does hate women and civilization for various philosophical reasons. The theme of the stepmother is prominent in the play, and it is conceivable that certain passages are directed toward the imperial family.
SOURCE.—Euripides wrote two plays on the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus, of which only the later Hippolytus Crowned has been preserved. Seneca's Phaedra shows certain similarities to this play but in the main appears to be an adaptation of Euripides' earlier Hippolytus Veiled. Several other dramatists, however, are known to have treated the subject. Various lines in Seneca's play, especially in the first scene between Phaedra and her Nurse, loosely correspond to certain fragments of Euripides' earlier play, although it is sometimes assumed that there was no Nurse in that play. Seneca's treatment has many points in common with an imaginary love letter of Phaedra written by Ovid. We know that on some points Ovid is following Euripides' earlier play, and it may be that both Seneca and Ovid are independently following Euripides rather than that Seneca is following Ovid.
INFLUENCE.—In his Phèdre (1677) Racine used to the best advantage not only Seneca's Phaedra but Euripides' extant Hippolytus as well. A complete analysis of Racine's indebtedness is beyond the limits of the present consideration, but the following motives may be mentioned as due to Seneca: Phèdre dominates the action throughout the play; the infidelity of Theseus is stressed; Phèdre confesses her love to Hippolytus in person, and her words are at times very close to those of Seneca; Phèdre beseeches the contemptuous Hippolytus to slay her and retains his sword; Phèdre dies on stage after confessing the truth.
The subject has been dramatized also by Gabriele d'Annunzio (Fedra, 1909).
STRUCTURE.—The play opens with a long passage in anapestic recitative by Hippolytus. Although his catalogues of places, dogs, and animals are elaborated with brilliant pedantry—witness the inclusion of the bison—still this scene could be staged as a colorful and spectacular extravaganza. It is more proper to the pageantry of modern opera, however, than it is to an exposition scene in serious drama. It is wholly a prelude. The lines of Hippolytus do end with a prayer to Diana; but this prayer is no more than that of an ordinary huntsman, and there is not, as in Euripides, any suggestion that Hippolytus is guilty of sacrilege toward Venus. After this prelude, Phaedra comes on with her Nurse. Her languishing complaints strongly contrast with the animal exuberance of Hippolytus and emphasize the gulf between these two. The conversation between Phaedra and the Nurse furnishes the real exposition of the play. Here the Nurse is already acquainted with Phaedra's passion, and the scene consists not of the Nurse's seducing Phaedra, as in Euripides, but of Phaedra's seducing the Nurse. Like a Stoic philosopher the Nurse preaches restraint and continency. She inveighs against royal license. She systematically eliminates every possibility of committing such a crime successfully. But Phaedra will not hear her, and by artfully threatening suicide, mistress bends servant to her will. The Nurse agrees to approach Hippolytus—the first step in the complication—and here the act ends (first act, 273 lines).
The subsequent choral song (84 lines) is strictly pertinent to the situation: love is supreme master of all the world. The poetry of the song is spoiled by the epigram at the end—love overcomes even the savage stepmother.
The second act (378 lines) opens with a realistic description of the manifestations of Phaedra's passion by the Nurse. Phaedra herself comes on, and her words and actions corroborate the description. This scene is reminiscent of the scene between Phaedra and the Nurse in Euripides' extant play; but its function here is somewhat different, for it is preparing for Phaedra's madly throwing herself at Hippolytus and perhaps for her madly taking revenge upon him. The action moves into new ground with the entrance of Hippolytus, who comes on at precisely the most convenient moment. The gross efforts of the Nurse to seduce him to a life of luxurious wantonness only offend him. After the Nurse has failed, Phaedra rushes up to faint in Hippolytus' arms. As she is revived, or pretends to be so, she steels her determination and makes her confession in a brilliantly written scene. She begs Hippolytus not to call her by the name of mother but rather by that of slave. She urges him to take her royal power—and herself. She tries to convince him that his father is dead. In Hippolytus she sees the more ideal Theseus. Finally she throws herself at his feet; but he is frightened and revolted by her crude advances. He abandons his sword and flees as Phaedra pretends to swoon and the Nurse comes to her rescue and calls for help in an effort to save her mistress by indicting Hippolytus.
The second choral song (88 lines) describes the flight of Hippolytus, dwells upon his beauty, and forebodingly suggests that flight will not bring him safety.
The leader of the chorus denounces Phaedra for her false charge and her base artifice. He then introduces Theseus. Theseus enters expressing his great relief at having escaped from Tartarus. He is startled by the sounds of grief. The Nurse appears and abruptly warns him that Phaedra is on the point of suicide. At the command of Theseus the doors of the palace are opened and Phaedra is revealed. But she artfully refuses to confess her secret until Theseus threatens to put the Nurse to torture. Refusing to name Hippolytus, Phaedra indicts him by means of his sword—an effective dramatic gesture. In a long monologue Theseus then calls upon his father Neptune to destroy Hippolytus. This short third act (135 lines) constitutes the climax of the play and practically the reversal of fortune for Hippolytus.
The choral song which follows (30 lines) loftily ponders why the universe is so marvelously controlled but mankind is left to the mere whims of chance. This is a not unnatural reaction to the apparent triumph of the wicked Phaedra and to the ruin of the innocent Hippolytus.
The fourth act (134 lines) consists of the Messenger's report of the destruction of Hippolytus. This strikes the modern reader as too long and too much concerned with the miraculous. Significant description of Hippolytus himself and of the reaction of friends and servants is not as effectively emphasized as in Euripides; but occasional phrases (1005, 1067) do reveal Hippolytus' pathetic admiration for his father.
The last choral song (31 lines) opines that Fortune is most likely to strike down the great, as it has struck down Theseus. He has returned from the underworld only to meet even worse calamity in his own house.
The fifth act (127 lines) begins with the appearance of Phaedra. She calls down imprecations upon herself; but her dominant emotion is grief at the death of her beloved Hippolytus. She confesses her guilt and commits suicide. In excited trochaic meter Theseus, overwhelmed with remorse, curses himself in the most extravagant manner. He finally attempts to compose the mangled body of his son and with his last words curses Phaedra.
DISCUSSION.—Structurally Seneca's play is not very different from Euripides' extant Hippolytus. Some scenes in the Greek play, however, have no equivalent in the Latin. The divinities of prologue and epilogue have been entirely eliminated. Seneca's play develops wholly on the human level, and he manages to reveal the truth to Theseus without divine revelation—a weak and often criticized device in Euripides' play. In Seneca, furthermore, there is no choral song between the opening scene with Hippolytus and the first appearance of Phaedra. This is awkward. Indeed the whole beginning of this play with its interminable speeches is very poorly managed.
Seneca has added some excellent scenes. That between Phaedra and Hippolytus is the best of these. Its psychology is keen and subtle. Its theatrical effectiveness is equal to almost anything in ancient drama. The scene wherein Phaedra indicts Hippolytus, furthermore, is a brilliant one. Lastly, the scene of Phaedra's confession and suicide is spectacular, though the lack of any effective exchange between Phaedra and Theseus perhaps robs this scene of the dramatic effectiveness which it might be made to possess.
But Seneca has suffered the very serious loss of the scenes between Hippolytus and Theseus which play so important a part in Euripides.
A comparison of one other item of structure in each play is very significant—the "curtain" of the second act. In Euripides' extant play, when Hippolytus denounces Phaedra and flees the scene, Phaedra bursts into a short lyric lament, and this is immediately followed by the scene in which Phaedra dismisses the Nurse as her bane and determines to die in a last resort to save her good name and the honor of her children, and also to punish Hippolytus for his haughty disdain. Thus Euripides at the exit of Hippolytus refuses a spectacular curtain and its consequent suspense. He prefers to end the episode with ominous foreshadowing of the tragedy, but not before he has thoroughly motivated the most dreadful of Phaedra's actions—her denunciation of Hippolytus. Seneca omits this motivation. Here the Nurse hastily forms the plan for denouncing Hippolytus. His act ends so quickly after the departure of Hippolytus that his curtain is a spectacular one, though the suspense has been spoiled by the Nurse's announcement of her plan. Racine, as we might expect, has this spectacular curtain; but he also maintains the greatest suspense by ending his second act before Phaedra has had time to consider her future course.
Phaedra is drawn with great skill. Forced into marriage with a man notorious for mistreatment of his wives, and now deserted and betrayed, she is intensely miserable in her solitude. Small wonder is it, then, that this Phaedra, the undisciplined child of a royal house whose women were distinguished for their worse than licentious conduct, should fall in love with her beautiful stepson. Almost incredibly selfish, this Phaedra shows no hesitation in making known her passion to the Nurse, and she complains only that she does not, like her mother, have the inventive genius of a Daedalus to pander to her desires. She freely admits the criminal nature of such a union, but her moral consciousness is so obtuse that she feels no obligation to struggle against her passion or even to rationalize away its criminal aspect. Madness rules over her, as she herself expresses it (184). She cannot bring herself rationally to consider the possibility of her husband's return or the impossibility of seducing Hippolytus. She is driven by a passion mat is reckless of everything but its own desire.
Still, Phaedra maintains enough equilibrium to practice deceit most artfully. She wins over the Nurse to her aid by an apparently insincere resolve to commit suicide. She faints most opportunely in the arms of Hippolytus (cf. 426). She begs Hippolytus to slay her, but this device—if it is device—is unfortunately without result. Seneca has not given Phaedra any expressed motivation for denouncing Hippolytus to Theseus. The Nurse in first suggesting such a course is motivated by the desire to cover their guilt. Perhaps Seneca felt that Phaedra's selfishness and her passionate weakness make further motivation unnecessary, or perhaps this is another instance of Seneca's tendency to write a collection of scenes and not a dramatically articulated play. But Phaedra goes to such extremes of artfulness in her deception of Theseus (cf. 826-28) that she must be considered morally responsible for this course of action even though the Nurse has been the first to suggest it.
In her final scene Phaedra is still the same. She taunts Theseus with his guilt, though this guilt is very slight compared to her own. She commits suicide not so much because of remorse as in a last desperate effort to be with Hippolytus and satisfy her insatiable passion.
The final scene has been severely condemned as an atrocious violation of propriety. This gory handling of the limbs of Hippolytus, however, seems to be not so very different externally from the original final scene of Euripides' Bacchae. Such matters are largely governed by superficial convention, though it must be admitted that for the modern reader Seneca's scene, far from achieving any great pathos, is revolting.
In his Oedipus Seneca appears most interested in presenting the portrait of a tyrant who from first to last was a curse upon his people and who himself was strangely obsessed with a premonition of his dreadful guilt. As a background for this mystic consciousness of sin, all the horror of the play is apposite, and even the callous sensibilities of one who has seen the slaughter of war or gladiatorial combats must be stimulated by this remarkable display. Those of more delicate sensibilities are likely to be repelled by it.
SOURCE.—Seneca follows the main lines of Sophocles' famous tragedy, but his purpose is so very different that the two plays are hardly comparable. His minor details may come from other sources. A host of Greek dramatists had treated the subject, and the young Julius Caesar, also, had taken a fling at it.
DISCUSSION.—Seneca has not only exhausted the natural possibilities of the subject for sensational and dreadful effects. He has introduced extraneous scenes, also, and germane and extraneous alike are strung together by the flimsiest dialogue in order to retain the semblance of a drama. Seneca makes no attempt to construct a logical and inevitable progression of events or to individualize the characters into something more than puppets of fate. Since the career of Oedipus is to be interpreted as an illustration of determinism (980-94), portrayal of character is superfluous for Seneca except that he wishes to present Oedipus as a tyrant obsessed with a consciousness of his guilt. Only the curtest respects, furthermore, are paid to details of dramatic technique. The most difficult problem in dramatizing the material is to avoid the embarrassment of two discoveries. Sophocles accomplished this only by the implausible expedient of identifying the shepherd who exposed Oedipus with the one survivor of Laius' struggle with the "robbers." Seneca has eliminated this implausibility, but he has two discoveries. Jocasta's revelation of the nature of Laius' death convinces Oedipus that he is the murderer. Mechanical haste in bringing on the Corinthian, however, prevents this untimely climax from becoming disturbingly obvious. But smooth articulation of the dramatic action also appears to be of little concern for Seneca; it is hardly pertinent to his chief interests.
"Seneca …," we read in the preface of the Oedipus of Dryden and Lee, "as if there were no such thing as nature to be minded in a play, is always running after pompous expression, pointed sentences, and philosophical notions, more proper for the study than the stage: the Frenchman followed a wrong scent; and the Roman was absolutely at cold hunting." Certainly the material furnishes Seneca an excellent excuse for delivering Stoic sermons on several of his favorite subjects, especially the principle that a king who inspires fear must himself be subject to it—a good theme for Seneca's pupil Nero. The quarrel of Oedipus and Creon, so nicely prepared for and worked into the progression of events in Sophocles, is here used for this sermon and has no important effect upon the action.
The play opens with a long soliloquy—though Jocasta may be present—in which Oedipus reveals the horror of his own conscience and his dark past. The consumption of the plague, also, is dwelt upon. Finally, another harrowing picture out of Oedipus' past, his clash with the Sphinx, is presented.
The chorus now continue with a depressingly vivid description of the plague.
Creon's chilling account of receiving the oracle brings more horror, and the oracle itself is all too plain. Like several other references, the oracle foretells the misfortunes of Oedipus' sons as well as those of the king himself. These references contribute to the general gloom of the play, but being extraneous they tend to disrupt its logical unity. The fearful curse which Oedipus pronounces upon the murderer is no less obvious than the oracle, thus losing the simple and effective irony of the curse in Sophocles. But the revolting details of an unnatural marriage have been added.
At this point the Sophoclean tradition of events is abandoned in order to insert the account of the sacrifice. This is gory in the extreme and doubtless original with Seneca. The bull's fleeing the light of day, of course, suggests Oedipus' blinding himself, as the manner of the heifer's death suggests the suicide of Jocasta. The splanchnology, too, is painfully clear in its application to the house of Oedipus.
Here, perhaps as temporary relief, Seneca has kindly introduced a choral dithyramb to Bacchus, which constitutes a fine display of geographical erudition.
The dreadful sacrifice leads only to a still more harrowing episode, the exorcism of the ghost of Laius. Returning from this ordeal, Creon is very loath to reveal its results to Oedipus. His reluctance is nicely brought out in the assignment of lines. Oedipus is given precisely two lines and Creon precisely one during several exchanges—a dramatic subtlety used in the opening scene of Aeschylus' Prometheus. But of course Creon is eventually brought to his gruesome description. It begins in the best classic manner with an account of the place where the rite was performed. But the best classic manner quickly gives way to more of the magic, the supernatural, and the horrible.
At first glance Seneca would appear to have lost an opportunity for exploiting the horrible by not having Jocasta on stage when the discovery of Oedipus' identity is made, or at least by not portraying her reactions when this point is being approached. In Seneca's version, it is the Corinthian who tries to deter Oedipus from pursuing this knowledge. In Sophocles the Corinthian is characterized by optimistic eagerness, which effectively contrasts with Jocasta's efforts to deter Oedipus and with the reluctance of the shepherd of Laius. In Seneca the loss of Jocasta's reactions is a serious one; but it is apparently necessary, for they must be reserved intact for the final scene.
The Messenger's description of Oedipus' blinding himself is another masterpiece in depicting the horrible. It is almost forgotten, however, after we have seen what Seneca has in store for us and what he can accomplish when he extends himself; for the final scene is horrible beyond all words. Jocasta commits suicide by plunging Oedipus' sword into her "capacious womb," and the blinded Oedipus seems to stumble over her corpse as he shuffles off into miserable exile.
The Thyestes in its own crude way is a powerful tragedy of revenge. A secondary theme, crime's perpetuation of crime, is given strong emphasis especially in the opening scenes and at the very close of the play. This theme is carried on in the Agamemnon, where vengeance for vengeance is foreshadowed. Such a theme was a timely one for the court of Nero. That Emperor had murdered or was soon to murder his stepbrother Britannicus and his own mother, who incidentally had murdered her husband, the Emperor Claudius. Uncertainty as to the dates of these plays, however, precludes any assumption of a definite reference to these contemporary events.
The Thyestes surpasses many of Seneca's plays in its technical execution and theatrical qualities. Dramatic dialogue is maintained throughout. Only one iambic speech extends to fifty lines. The dramatic action is straightforward, though it could hardly be otherwise in a plot of such simplicity. The tone, as usually in Seneca, is dire and unrelieved. Great care has been taken to integrate the choral lyrics with the dramatic action, but these are somewhat too long and at times too boring.
SOURCE AND INFLUENCE.—The story of Atreus and Thyestes was one of the most frequently dramatized Greek legends. Sophocles wrote an Atreus. We know of some nine Greek plays entitled Thyestes, including one tragedy by Euripides and perhaps two by Sophocles. Still other titles were used, such as Euripides' Cretan Women, and various phases of this complicated story were covered; but the banquet was its most famous event. Among the Romans this story was easily the most popular for tragedy. Four tragedies entitled Atreus and perhaps seven entitled Thyestes are known to have been written. These included plays by the masters Ennius and Accius, but most famous of all was the Thyestes of Lucius Varius Rufus, the intimate friend of Vergil and Horace, which Quintilian thought comparable to any Greek tragedy.
Only fragments of a few of these Greek and Latin plays have been preserved, however, and they furnish little of interest in connection with Seneca's play. One point is noteworthy: in some versions Thyestes returned of his own accord. Hence Atreus might well be afraid of him and thus be driven to crime. In Seneca, however, Atreus invites the return in order to obtain his vengeance. In any treatment the banquet must have been gory and dreadful.
The Thyestes, a model play of revenge, has exerted more influence on English drama than any other play of Seneca.
DISCUSSION.—In form the prelude between Tantalus and the Fury is somewhat reminiscent of various scenes in Greek tragedy, such as the prelude of the Alcestis or that of the Trojan Women and the scene between Iris and Lyssa in the Heracles of Euripides. In content, however, this scene is typically Senecan. The Fury lays grim stress on crime's passing from one generation to another in this house, and her words foreshadow every remarkable event and every dreadful future crime in the whole saga; but her most vivid prediction is reserved for the coming feast of Thyestes. After this it is small wonder that the ghost of Tantalus prefers his Hell.
The first choral song completes the saga by dwelling upon the past atrocities of Pelops and Tantalus and Tantalus' punishment in the underworld. Thus this lyric is bound to the previous scene. Cessation of the house's perpetual crime is the theme of the chorus' prayer.
Atreus now comes on to flagellate himself to fury and revenge. The efforts of his subaltern to deter him bring out his determination and the viciousness of tyranny—a favorite theme with Seneca—and again the inevitable progression from crime to greater crime. Finally, Atreus forms his plan: Thyestes will be lured into his clutches by his own desire for revenge. The prospect of return to power and escape from poverty will overcome all scruples if not of the father at least of his sons!
The chorus, who have apparently not been present during this scene, note the renewed harmony of the house. The main theme of their lyric, however, is the Stoic principle that the true king is he who has no fear and who rules his own soul—a theme that has real significance for the subsequent episode.
True to the prediction of Atreus, Thyestes does return. But he seems to have no desire to harm Atreus. His extreme reluctance to entrust himself to his brother and his desire to go back to the simple life of the free exile give him the Stoic virtue of which the chorus have just sung. Like them, Thyestes preaches against the life of the tyrant. The palace and the customs which he describes are those of the Palatine and the Roman emperors, especially Nero (455-67). Thyestes as a Stoic philosopher is hardly consistent with his actual return or with the motives predicted by Atreus; but this characterization does facilitate an excellent scene of irony when his son pleads with Thyestes to trust Atreus and restore them to wealth and power. Such a retiring Thyestes, furthermore, causes Atreus by contrast to appear all the more monstrous.
Irony plays a still more important role in the reunion of the two brothers, neither of whom can restrain his hatred without a great effort, as we observe in their grim asides. The innocent children of Thyestes are given as pledges of his faith, and Atreus in his last line promises to offer the destined victims to the gods! This last is reminiscent of Electra's similarly appalling line as she receives Clytemnestra in Euripides' play (1141).
The irony continues as the chorus celebrate the strength of family ties and the wonder of concord after war. But, as an introduction to the peripety, their lyric ends on the mutability of fortune. Afterward, the Messenger enters to give a gruesome description of this palace and a harrowing account of the "sacrifice." The chorus respond with a description of the turning aside of the sun and the apparently imminent destruction of the world—a strange motive in classical poetry, but a favorite one with Seneca.
Like Aeschylus' Clytemnestra after the murder of Agamemnon, Atreus appears to gloat over his deed. An interior scene, a rarity in Roman tragedy, now reveals the lonely Thyestes trying to drown his years of grief in the joys of the banquet. But strange misgivings rise up to choke his pleasure. Throughout he sings his lines in lyric anapests. The effect of this eerie scene is very powerful.
Atreus comes up to mock Thyestes and finally presents the heads of his sons for the ghastly climax of the play. The one defense of Atreus is that moderation should be shown in crime and not in revenge. Thus again the theme of perpetuation of crime is emphasized, and the play ends with Thyestes' resigned prediction of vengeance.
The story of the Agamemnon is a continuation of that of the Thyestes. Like the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, this play deals mainly with the return and murder of Agamemnon. Many other Greek and early Roman tragedies dramatized the fate of the house of Atreus, however, and Seneca seems to have been influenced by some of these. Noteworthy points of difference from Aeschylus are found in the introduction of the ghost of Thyestes for the prologue and the escape of Orestes at the end of the play. Besides suggesting the larger framework of the action, these innovations stress the perpetuation of crime in this royal house. The central section of Seneca's play is given over to the messenger's speech and to Cassandra. The first brings out the destruction of the sacrilegious Greeks by the storm, the second the destruction of the victor himself by his wife and her paramour. The play lacks a central figure; but again Seneca shows little interest in character. The action progresses naturally, and there is more dramatic dialogue than usually in Seneca.
A few words from this play (line 730) are scratched on a wall in Pompeii, and it is not impossible that the play was produced in one of the two theaters there. But Seneca had sojourned at Pompeii in his youth and visited there later in life; it was the home of his great friend Lucilius.
DISCUSSION.—As the Thyestes opens with the ghost of Tantalus, so the Agamemnon opens with the ghost of Thyestes, and this ghost like that one would prefer its place in Hell to this palace of dreadful crimes. The whole series is again recounted, and the coming slaughter of Agamemnon is foretold. Finally the ghost encourages his wavering son Aegisthus, though later in the play no reference is made to the ghost and Aegisthus seems never to have heard it.
Clytemnestra's wavering, the ominous admonitions of the Nurse, and the bickerings with Aegisthus—all these have distinct dramatic possibilities. They suggest a new and interesting approach to this old material. Properly they belong to a treatment which makes Clytemnestra a very ordinary human being caught in the trap of adultery and forced to murder her husband. Seneca's primary interest seems to lie not in a study of her character but in the moral theme that one crime must inevitably lead to another and that any woman caught in this situation must act in similar fashion. The alternative for Clytemnestra here, as Atreus claims in the Thyestes (203), also, is to kill or be killed. When Aegisthus enters, Clytemnestra plays the foil for him as the Nurse has earlier done for her in order that the inevitability of this crime may be further emphasized with rhetorical point and cogency. Any emphasis on her vacillation would be wholly pointless in view of her minor role in the remainder of the play; and the question whether her sudden change is genuine or pretended, long debated among critics, is not, therefore, of any real importance.
Disregard for character, however, has involved Seneca in certain inconsistencies. Aegisthus is craven and base. He can plausibly become extremely cruel to Electra after the murder. But his Stoic readiness to commit suicide (304-5) certainly does not seem consistent with such a character. Clytemnestra's talk of saving her children from a mad step-mother (198-99), furthermore, seems ridiculous in the light of her later desire to put Orestes and Electra out of the way.
At the mid-point of the play, the rhetorical fury of the messenger's storm is unleashed and threatens to blow the dramatic action quite away. Aeschylus had the natural elements run their course in some twenty lines; but Seneca, challenged also by Vergil's famous storm in the first book of the Aeneid and by many another such tour de force, adds a hundred to this score.
Cassandra's scenes are effective, and the use of a second chorus of Trojan captives is noteworthy. Madness is realistically suggested by the speeches of Cassandra—German scholars ' complaints of illogicality and their tamperings with the text are sufficient proof of this. In her repartee with Agamemnon, however, Cassandra is much too smart for Greek or modern taste. The king himself, on stage for only a few lines, plays a very minor role in the action. After he has gone into the palace, the chorus sing a long interlude on the labors of Hercules. Although, at the end, a reference to Hercules' taking Troy in ten days brings this into superficial connection with Agamemnon, this distant subject may have been chosen in order not to jeopardize the suspense at the climax of the play—a Euripidean technique.
After the murder Strophius appears "pat … like the catastrophe of the old comedy." Thus Orestes is spirited away, but Electra is left to the fury of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Forced by one crime to another, they are now utterly heartless villains. But Cassandra's final prediction, the last words of the play, is one of vengeance and more crime to come with the return of Orestes.
9. Hercules On Oeta
Like the earliest dithyrambic tragedy, perhaps, the Hercules on Oeta glorifies the passion of a divinity—the death and rebirth of Hercules. But the moral spirit of this play looks to the Christian future rather than to the Greek past. The triumph of this laboring Stoic over suffering and death, the feeling that the world should end with his destruction, and his epiphany to his mother—all this breathes a mystical allegory not unlike that of the story of Seneca's contemporary, Jesus of Nazareth. Hercules furnished the outstanding example of persecuted virtue in Greek legend. Long before the origin of formal Stoicism, he was the ideal Stoic hero. It is not surprising, then, that the Stoic Seneca reworked both of the plays on Hercules known to have been written by the leading Greek tragic poets. The very features which made Hercules a poor subject for Greek tragedy made him a splendid one for Seneca.
The shortcomings of the play are typically Senecan. One needs the devotion of a saint and the endurance of a martyr to bear up under the endless repetition of Hercules' toils. Every section of the play is too lengthy, and the whole is over two hundred verses longer than any other ancient drama. It has been called the most formless product having the pretense of art which has been preserved from ancient times. Indeed, its formlessness, like its change of scene and length, is almost Elizabethan. Still, the play, though as crude and rough as Hercules himself, has its virtues. The description of Hercules' death, however extravagant, is imaginative and powerful. One may recall the magnificent description of the death of Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. Hercules' epiphany, last of all, and the chorus' invocation of the new divinity furnish a glorious finale.
SOURCES.—The main source of the play is doubtless Sophocles' Trachiniae, although plays on Hercules were written by minor Greek dramatists. The story was told also in other genres, and the influence of Ovid seems to be undeniable. He had treated the subject in his Metamorphoses (9. 134-272) and in his Heroides (9). So much of Seneca's play is original, however, that these dependencies are of little significance.
DISCUSSION.—The Hercules on Oeta opens apparently in Euboea. Hercules declares that he has fulfilled his mission on earth, and for his reward he now asks Jupiter to raise him to the stars. Other than this prayer, there is no indication, such as the oracle in Sophocles, that a crisis in his life has been reached. At the end of his monologue-prologue, the chorus of captives are driven off singing of their fallen city, of death, and of the might of Hercules. Iole follows with a monody which incidentally gives some exposition and thus prepares for the coming scene. This prelude fixes attention upon Hercules and also prepares for the sacrifice at which the poisoned robe will do its work.
The locale now apparently shifts from Euboea to Trachis. Deianira, "like a mother tigress," rages with jealous wrath against Iole and Hercules. Nothing that the Nurse can say consoles her. Seneca has made no effort to exalt the character of Deianira. His interest, as we should expect, lies rather in depicting her in violent emotional upheavals. Seneca also emphasizes the irony of Deianira's being able to cause the death of Hercules, a thing which all the monsters and Juno herself have so far failed to do. The Nurse, however, finally prevails upon her mistress to resort to the use of magic to regain the love of Hercules. Deianira then abandons any intention of harming Hercules and determines, as in Sophocles, to anoint a robe with the blood of Nessus.
After a lyric of Horatian praise of the simple life sung by the chorus of handmaidens, Deianira enters in great consternation. The idea that Nessus could wish Hercules no good has occurred to her, and she has observed the consuming effect of the blood upon the fleece. Hyllus appears and describes the destruction of his father. He does not, however, upbraid his mother, nor does she without a word retire—we might forgive her more readily if she did! Indeed her remorse now becomes as insanely violent as her jealous wrath has formerly been. Hyllus, of course, must play the foil and attempt to dissuade her from her lengthily avowed purpose of suicide. Her fate is left uncertain at the end of the act, when she rushes off and Hyllus follows to prevent her.
The choral song does not jeopardize this suspense, though it dwells on mortality and predicts the end of the world now that Hercules has been destroyed. Hercules upon his en-trance continues this same theme and bemoans the irony of his dying at the hands of a mortal woman. The chorus express their sympathy in short verses. Alcmena, his mother, now appears to console him. In Sophocles, it will be remembered, the hero called for his mother but was told that she was not in Trachis (Trachiniae 1148-54). She is essentially an extraneous figure, but her wild grief nicely plays the foil for the Stoic heroism of Hercules and effectively motivates his final epiphany. At Hyllus' announcement of the innocence of Deianira, Hercules recognizes his fate. The theme of the irony of his downfall is now dropped. His mystical triumph over death begins.
After the chorus initiates the crescendo of Hercules' apotheosis, a Messenger enters to report the majestic end of the hero. Alcmena follows to bewail the small compass of the ashes of her colossal son. Even these ashes, however, will protect her and terrify kings. Her hymn of mourning is ended by the epiphany of her son. His virtue has again conquered death; the prayer of his first lines in the play has been answered.
Berthe Marti (essay date 1945)
SOURCE: "Seneca's Tragedies: A New Interpretation," in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. LXXVI, 1945, pp. 216-45.
[Below, Marti contends that modern critical disparagement of Seneca's plays is, in part, the result of inappropriate comparisons with Greek drama. She asserts that Seneca was not attempting to imitate the earlier models, but rather was trying to adapt the "technique of drama to the teaching of philosophy. "]
Perhaps no ancient writings have suffered more from the changing tastes of succeeding generations than Seneca's tragedies. Scaliger's extravagant praise of them, "Seneca … quern nullo Graecorum maiestate inferiorem existimo, cultu vero ac nitore etiam Euripide maiorem," is echoed by many of his contemporaries. Modern critics in general find themselves in agreement with Nisard's acid comments on Seneca's "tragédie de recette" and the ingredients of which it is composed. In both periods these extreme positions are due in part to a wrong estimate of Seneca's relation to Greek drama. In their almost complete ignorance of the tragedies of ancient Greece, the Elizabethans saw in his plays perfect examples of the dramatic technique of antiquity. To modern readers they appear as debased imitations of Greek drama. Recently, however, the Senecan tragedies have been reexamined in an attempt to arrive at a fairer estimate of their literary value. What in my opinion is lacking in most of these studies is an effort to determine Seneca's object in writing the plays, for while from a purely aesthetic point of view much in them deserves the most severe strictures, the critics who blame them for lacking the qualities of Euripides' or Sophocles' drama are guilty of one of the cardinal sins of criticism. The discussion of any literary work should start with an enquiry into the writer's aim and the measure of success he has attained in achieving his aim. Seneca repeatedly expresses his convictions as to the value and aim of literature. Life is too short, he says, to be wasted in such superfluous occupations as the study of philology, of dialectic, or the reading of the lyric poets (Epistulae Morales 49.5 ff.). Literature must be the interpreter of life and should teach justice, moral duty, abstinence and purity. Let the writer therefore give lessons in virtue, let him show by the example of Ulysses how to love one's country, one's wife, one's father, and how after shipwreck to sail on to honorable ends (Epistulae Morales 88, passim). Literature is to be judged from the quality of its ethical content; its one purpose is to teach. This is of course the orthodox Stoic doctrine, an echo of which is found in the Praefatio of the fifth book of Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria. There Quintilian criticizes the writers who hold that the sole duty of the orator is to instruct and who think that appeals to the emotions are to be avoided because all disturbance of the mind is a fault. These writers think, he says, that the attempt to charm is not only superfluous in a pleader but unworthy of a self-respecting man.
What then was Seneca's conception of the drama? Moses Hadas [in "The Roman Stamp of Seneca's Tragedies," American Journal of Philology 60 (1939)] assumes that Seneca, like most Roman playwrights, wrote tragedies for the sole purpose of entertaining a Roman audience used to spectacular and often violent shows and fond of virtuosity and rhetoric. But this is contrary to Seneca's idea of literature. To go to the theatre merely to be entertained by dramatic representations of mythological tales would be as frivolous a waste of time as to read the lyric poets. In the De Brevitate Vitae Seneca attacks the poets for "fostering human frailties by the tales in which they represent that Jupiter, under the enticement of the pleasures of a lover, doubled the length of the night. For what is it but to inflame our vices to inscribe the name of the gods as their sponsors, and to represent the excused indulgence of divinity as an example to our own weakness?" (16.5). "Veritatis simplex oratio est," he says (Epistulae Morales 49.12), quoting Euripides. Yet he must acknowledge the power of poetry. "The same words are listened to with less attention and affect us less when they are expressed in prose. When rhythm and regular metres are added and compress a lofty thought, this same idea is as if hurtled with a fuller fling." (Epistulae Morales 108.10). But poetry must have a moral purpose and, moreover, must be interpreted not as the scholar does when he deals only with the use and meaning of words, but as the philosopher who explains the ethical meaning and extracts the moral (Epistulae Morales 108.24 ff.). In this Seneca echoes the traditional theories of the Stoics, who even saw advantages in having the philosophers themselves use verse. "As our breath produces a louder sound when it passes through the long and narrow opening of the trumpet and escapes by a hole which widens at the end," Seneca quotes Cleanthes as stating, "even so the fettering rales of poetry clarify our meaning" (Epistulae Morales 108.10).
Just as poetry is more powerful than prose in rousing men, so the theatre could be a powerful inspiration: "Have you noticed how the theatre reechoes whenever any words are spoken whose truth we appreciate generally and confirm unanimously?" Seneca's frequent quotations from the dramatists show that he fully realised the didactic possibilities of drama. He also knew that the theatre with its mimes and dramatic recitations was more attractive to his contemporaries than any other genre:
Privatum urbe tota sonat pulpitum. In hoc viri, in hoc feminae tripudiant. Mares inter se uxoresque contendunt uter det latus illis. Deinde sub persona cum diu trita frons est, transitur ad galeam: philosophiae nulla cura est.
(Quaestiones Naturales 7.32)
While deploring this fact Seneca realised that drama, with its vivid representation of men struggling against destiny, might become a useful illustration of what he taught in the less popular Moral Essays and Moral Epistles. His aim always remained the teaching of philosophy, but since it was proving a bitter pill for his contemporaries to swallow, he used the dramatic form as sugarcoating, somewhat as Lucretius before him had used poetry to make Epicureanism more palatable. His readers would be interested in any new handling of the traditional themes of Greek drama. This would insure him large audiences for the public readings of the plays and wide circulation. Since drama wields such power of inspiration "how much more do you think this holds true when such things are uttered by a philosopher, when he introduces verses among his wholesome precepts, that he may thus make those verses sink more effectively into the mind of the novice?" (Epistulae Morales 108.9).
It is my purpose to show in this paper that Seneca did not intend to write plays after the manner of the Greek dramatists but that he adapted the technique of drama to the teaching of philosophy. For as Livy had observed of history that its great value consists in floodlighting the examples of the past by placing them for our instruction as if on a bright monument, so tragedy, dealing as it does with universals, with grave events and symbolic figures, might profitably be used as another vehicle to demonstrate the great ethical truths of Stoicism. In order to do so he did not simply translate Greek plays and adapt them to his purpose by stuffing them with Stoic sententiae, but instead composed philosophical propaganda-plays. He did not mean to have these pseudotragedies acted, for in his mind the individual plays were but parts of the whole series; he merely made use of the methods of the dramatists for the purpose of spreading his particular brand of eclectic Stoicism. In them he combined elements of the diatribe, satire and versified dialogue with those of drama, and he emphasised ethics and philosophy at the expense of plot and action. Thus his tragedies did not conform to the rules laid down by Aristotle, nor did Seneca intend them to. "Istae vero non sunt tragoediae," says Leo in the preface to his edition, "sed declamationes ad tragoediae amussim compositae et in actus deductae. … Itaque non comparabimus cum graecis has tragoedias ut artis opera, sed earum argumenta tantum et argumentorum tractationem." His characters remind T. S. Eliot of the "members of a minstrel troupe sitting in a semi-circle, rising in turn each to do his 'number' or varying their recitations by a song or a little back-chat" [Introduction to Seneca His Tenne Tragedies (1927)]. Seneca's drama is something entirely different from the conventional imitations of the great Greek dramatists by his Roman precedessors.
This fact explains Quintilian's silence concerning Seneca's plays. While he quotes Seneca about the propriety of using a certain expression in tragedy (Inst. Or. 3.8.31), and states that Seneca had dealt with almost all the fields of knowledge (ibid. 10.1.128), he does not mention him in his catalogue of the Roman successors of the Greek playwrights. Yet he knew Seneca's Medea and quoted from that play. He included in his review of Roman tragedy Ovid's Medea and Varius' Thyestes but left out Seneca's Medea and his Thyestes as well as the remaining seven plays. The conclusion seems to me clear: Quintilian did not consider them real tragedies; his omission of Seneca's name from the review of the Roman dramatists was deliberate and justified. This omission has baffled many scholars and led some to argue against the authenticity of the plays, but the arguments against Seneca's authorship are far too slight to outweigh the manuscript evidence.
Ever since Leo's work on the text of Seneca's tragedies, editors have agreed that of the two recensions known as traditions A and E, E, represented by Codex Etruscus (Laurentianus 37, 13), should be the basis on which to establish the text of the plays. One of the differences between the two traditions is the inclusion in A of the Octavia and the different order in which the plays are given in A and E. Whether Seneca published his own edition of the tragedies or left them for his executor to edit, I am convinced that E has preserved the order planned by Seneca: Hercules [Furens], Troades, Phoenissae, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamennon (sic), Thyestes, Hercules [Oetaeus]. I do not mean to imply that this is the order in which he wrote the plays, for this to my mind cannot be determined in the present state of our knowledge. But that he had a definite pattern in mind, that the nine plays form one whole and that Seneca intended them to be read in the order preserved by E can I think be proved.
Upon reading the titles of the plays in E, one fact is immediately obvious: they form a series, introduced and concluded by a play on Hercules, and within that frame the plays are arranged according to a deliberate order, the first two being named after the chorus (Troades, Phoenissae), the next two after the heroines (Medea, Phaedra), the next three after the heroes (Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes). … The fact that in the first tragedy Seneca has represented the passion and in the last the apotheosis of the patron saint of Stoicism, Hercules, is an indication that the series forms a philosophical whole, and that Seneca intended it to be, like all his other works, a piece of neo-Stoic propaganda. It is my belief that Stoic readers would, upon seeing the titles of the plays, realise that in them dramatic treatment was to be given to the sins and passions which prevent the attainment of virtue and wisdom. Even a cursory reading would show them the principles underlying Seneca's choice of subject-matter and his arrangement of the plays. The first group (Troades, Phoenissae) seems to be primarily centered upon the religious problems of life, death and destiny. The two plays represent men and women who, in their rebellion against the injustice of their fate, question the goodness of Providence. The next group (Medea, Phaedra) is a study of character and emphasises the effect of strong emotions, specifically passionate love, upon the lives of a group of human beings. These two plays illustrate the most significant contribution of the Stoics to psychology, the analysis of the effect of emotional impulses upon the struggle between vice and virtue. They provide exempla for a Treatise of the Passions. The last group (Agamemnon, Oedipus, Thyestes) deals with ethics and is focussed primarily upon the problem of free choice in life, and of sin and retribution. This does not mean that Fate, Fortune and Destiny are not involved in all the plays or that the passions of the main characters are not an important element in every one of the plays. Seneca was haunted by the thought of death and its shadow is seen on almost every page he wrote, in verse as well as in prose. He was passionately interested in the problems of Justice and Providence, and also in the study of the perturbations and vices of human nature. These constant preoccupations of a philosophical mind form therefore the background of all the plays. Nevertheless each reading strengthens my conviction that Seneca systematically ordered the tragedies according to their principal theme and adopted an arrangement (religion, psychology, ethics) which is more akin to a Stoic treatise than to a set of plays. A German dissertation [Paul Schaefer, De Philosophiae Annaeanae in Senecae Tragoediis Vestigiis (1909)] provides a very useful compilation of parallel passages from the plays and the essays, and the comparison of these quotations shows the extraordinarily close similarity in thought and expression between the two sets of works. But the tragedies represent his most ambitious literary effort. Nowhere does he come to grips more earnestly with the supreme problems of philosophy, and he seems to have conceived his set of tragedies as a sort of glorified Essay on Man. He lacked the dramatic and poetic qualities which might have given them real life and power, but as illustrations of his thought and as symbols of his beliefs they are of the utmost interest.
Others have suggested before this that Seneca's aim in writing the plays was primarily philosophical or pedagogical. They did not, however, realise that each tragedy is but a part of one whole and that apparent variations in some of them from Seneca's eclectic Stoicism, deliberate contradictions and unsolved problems, are removed in the final conclusion. Thus they failed to see that the individual plays, being the constituent parts of one set, present only partial solutions to the problems they raise, and that Seneca's ultimate aim can only be judged from the total effect of all the tragedies.
The story of Hercules had been allegorised ever since the time of Socrates.… What Hercules meant to the neo-Stoics may be seen in the works of Seneca, Dio Chrysostom, Epictetus and others. Hercules has been called wise by the Stoics, says Seneca, because he was never subdued by hard-ships, because he despised pleasure and conquered all terrors (Consolationes 2.2.1). He conquered nothing for himself, but travelled over the whole world, an enemy of the wicked, a defender of the good, a peace-maker on land and sea (De Beneficiis 1.13.2-3). His fortune did not match his virtue, but he bore his fate with wisdom and courage, and when his work was done discovered how to become immortal. The manner of his death by fire added symbolic meaning to his labors, for the Stoics believed that Fire was the creative god who, at the end of each cycle, destroyed all things in the general conflagration. …
Although Seneca did not believe in an exaggerated use of the allegorical method (Epistulae Morales 88.5), he, like other Stoic teachers, attributed great moral value to the ancient myths and often pointed out their deep ethical meaning. No wonder, therefore, that he exploited the dramatic possibilities of the story of Hercules. No better symbol of man's struggle against fate and adversity could be found than the tale of Juno's unjust persecution of the hero, the subject of Seneca's first tragedy, no greater allegory of the triumph of man's soul than Hercules' final vindication, the victory and immortality he gained through the Stoic purification by fire. Juno, unable to crush the hero who "thrives on trouble, enjoys her wrath and turns her hate to his own credit" (Hercules Furens 33-35), drives him to madness and makes him kill his sons and wife during a fit of insanity. Though his hands are guilty he is of course innocent. The tone of this first play is one of unrelieved horror, of bitter indignation at the injustice of the gods. If we were to take this play as a separate unit we could not reconcile its mood of harsh pessimism with the fundamental optimism of the Stoic doctrine. But the nine plays form a set, and the Hercules Oetaeus is a necessary complement of the Hercules Furens. Only in this last tragedy does Seneca justify the divine power, when he shows the justification for the trials Hercules has undergone so serenely. This technique of posing problems in the tragedies to which only partial solutions are given, the complete answer being reserved for the concluding play, is reminiscent of Seneca's method of asking rhetorical questions in his prose works. There he writes abstractly about universal problems and after he has questioned the justice of the gods and their management of the world he gives his solution immediately. In the tragedies the problems become alive, and the sight of the apparently undeserved agonies of symbolic human beings forces the reader to ask himself questions. The final solution, through a skilful use of dramatic suspense, is only foreshadowed, until we come to the last play, where the reader is at last made to see clearly the purpose of the divine wisdom.
Let us now turn to the plays inserted between the two on Hercules. I have said that in the first group Seneca considers the problems of fate, life and death. In the Troades he has combined the plots of two of Euripides' most harrowing tragedies, the Hecuba and the Trojan Women. He has made of it what at first seems to be an indictment of Fate and Providence. The relentless persecution of Hecuba, Andromache and the other innocent captives outrages the reader's sense of justice. The gods seem as vindictive against them as Juno was in her hatred of the hero Hercules in the preceding play. Their fate condemns the women to be stripped of everything they hold dear; no glimmer of hope lightens the blackness of their mourning. In their utter destitution they question the beneficence of providence (981 ff). Hecuba, who typifies their grim tragedy, has lost Troy and Priam, Hector and a happy throng of children and grandchildren; she sees Cassandra, Andromache and her sorrowing comrades given by lot to the victors, and in the final disaster her only remaining daughter, Polyxena, is sacrificed to the shades of Achilles while her grandson, Astyanax, is hurled by the Greeks from a lofty watch-tower. It is clear that the main interest of the play is centered upon the scene in which the death of Polyxena and Astyanax is described. For the child and the maid have faced their fate boldly and bravely, undaunted in spirit and with a sternness worthy of the greatest Stoic heroes. In the midst of the wretched captives they alone are free, for death has brought them release.
The chorus expresses the traditional Stoic view (a view not consistently held by Seneca in all his prose works) that death is complete annihilation:
post mortem nihil est ipsaque mors nihil,
velocis spatii meta novissima …
mors individua est, noxia corpori
nec parcens animae …
quaeris quo iaceas post obitum loco?
quo non nata iacent.
The theme that death alone brings release and freedom, that only the dead are secure, recurs throughout the play and is accompanied by another Stoic commonplace, that of the fickleness of Fortune and the danger inherent in high rank and earthly felicity. A passage of the Quaestiones Naturales (6.2.1-2) seems to me one of the best commentaries on the Troades. After discussing the calamities which overtake cities and the very earth as well as men, and the impermanence of all things including life, Seneca says that fear is folly when there is no escape, and that philosophy delivers the wise from terror. He adds that Vergil's words, una salus victis nullam sperare salutem, addressed to those overwhelmed with sudden captivity amid fire and foe, should be regarded as applying to the whole human race. Over and over in his prose works, Seneca teaches that life is small but the contempt of it is great (Epistulae Morales 32.3), that the Stoic considers all things which make men cry and groan as unimportant and not worth noticing (Epistulae Morales 13.4), for death is ever near to set the unfortunate free (Epistulae Morales 110.4) and deliver them from fear (Epistulae Morales 24.11). Since death must come to all "let courage be derived from our very despair" (Quaestiones Morales 2.59.5). What matters is the human spirit, which can only be known after it has grappled with fortune (Epistulae Morales 13.1: sic verus ille animus et in alienum non venturas arbitrium probatur).
Andromache recognises this spirit in her little son:
quid retro fugis
tutasque latebras spernis? agnosco indolem:
She, fearing for the child, knows that the worst evil is to fear without hope (miserrimum est timere cum speres nihil, 425). She also knows that one who has lost everything is no longer vulnerable. There is dignity and noble Stoic resignation in her words:
hic mihi malorum maximum fructum abstulit,
The second play of this group, the Phoenissae, is so incomplete that it is difficult to make any certain statement about its purpose. The first fragment represents the wanderings of blind...
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OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
Binns, J.W. "Seneca and Neo-Latin Tragedy in England." In Seneca, edited by C. D. N. Costa, pp. 205-34. London: Rout-ledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.
Looks at three Renaissance plays written in Latin—William Alabaster's Roxana, Matthew Gwinne's Nero, and the anonymous Perfidus Hetruscus—which he believes offer a novel perspective on Seneca's influence on Elizabethan theater.
Bishop, J. David. Seneca's Daggered Stylus: Political Code in the Tragedies. Konigstein: Verlag Anton Hain, 1985, 468 p.
Analyzes the "rhetorical undercurrent" in Seneca's plays.
(The entire section is 1122 words.)