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
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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.
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