Lucius Annaeus Seneca Critical Essays

Introduction

(Drama Criticism)

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.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

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.

MAJOR WORKS

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.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

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.