Seneca the Younger Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In spite of the high esteem in which Seneca’s tragedies have been held throughout the centuries, particularly in the Renaissance, a number of critics have regarded his plays as second-rate imitations of Greek originals. They have complained about his extensive use of rhetoric and mythology, his employment of melodrama, of the bloody, the horrible, the sensational on the stage, and have accused him of lacking dramatic force. Such critics have failed to observe that Seneca did not aim to write or to reproduce Greek tragedy but to create an original genre of his own.

To demonstrate Seneca’s dramatic talent, it is necessary to analyze the ways in which his plays are distinct from Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy is expansive, richly embroidered; Senecan tragedy is lean, often disjunct, without transitions from one scene to another. Greek tragedy is filled with action; Senecan tragedy abounds in declamation, monologues replacing dialogues, and scenes drastically reduced. In Senecan drama, characters do not develop; they remain the same throughout. There is no catharsis—no sense, at the play’s close, of the working out of justice. The Senecan protagonist is evil and unheroic. His violent deeds are enacted on the stage rather than decorously recounted to the audience by messengers. As a result of such violence, Seneca’s plays are referred to as “tragedies of blood.” In fact, it was his emphasis on the macabre, the grotesque, and the pathological that especially appealed to later playwrights: the frequent appearance of spirits and ghosts; the employment of religious signs and omens foretelling disaster; the use of lengthy, nervous, and psychologically revealing monologues and soliloquies; the emphasis on the theme of revenge; and the presentation of a protagonist who is utterly evil, furious, and demented. The above traits are especially evident in his most popular plays—Thyestes, Medea, and Phaedra.


Thyestes, perhaps Seneca’s most powerful play, concerns Atreus’s revenge on his brother Thyestes. Thyestes returns to Argos after having been exiled by Atreus, who had seized the throne from him. The deceitful Atreus feigns a loving reception of his exiled brother but in reality seeks to destroy him, believing that he had seduced his wife. In his quest for inordinate revenge, Atreus devises the scheme of butchering Thyestes’ children and serving their flesh to their father at the dinner table. In an unsurpassed final scene, one beholds the sated, drunken Thyestes at the banquet table, unwittingly having feasted on the meat of his three murdered sons, trying meekly to sing, though beset by premonitions of disaster. Such disaster is underscored by the dominant imagery of the play—storms, tides, winds that foreshadow the anarchic whirlpool of vengeance and the drama of blood. The characters are not only impelled to their doom by Fate but also by their own excessive passions. The prologue between the Fury and the ghost of Tantalus (grandfather of Atreus and Thyestes) unfolds for the audience the bloody events that are to follow. The Fury insists that Tantalus’s shade must infect his grandchildren with madness, leading to the slaughter and the cannibal feast. After Tantalus’s base spirit corrupts the house of his grandchildren, it returns to its infernal abode. Melodrama is the dominant feature of Thyestes. Characters speak at fever pitch, ranting, raving, and shouting. Atreus employs jokes, puns, and double entendres similar to the gruesome humor and sick jokes of Hamlet; he epitomizes the vice and the insanity of a tyrant, the deadly guile of a Iago. For all of Atreus’s bile and his sacrilegious boasts and celebrations, Seneca makes it perfectly clear, in the play’s most telling irony, that Atreus can never be content. “Bene est, abunde est,” Atreus pronounces at the high point of his revenge, but he can never find good or be satisfied. Such savage fury and ire can never be forsaken; such restlessness can never find quietus. Hence, even at the play’s end, the tormenting ruler is still savagely tormented: He finds that no revenge on Thyestes can ever be adequate; he still rankles with the agonizing thought that his wife might have been unfaithful, that his sons might not be his own. Such a madman, like Satan, can never find peace or regulation, for his desires exceed the boundaries of possibility. Because Atreus has surrendered reason itself, Seneca seems to imply, the final tragedy is not Thyestes’, but sadly, senselessly, his own.


Medea, too, is a play of bloody revenge. Medea, angry at her husband, Jason, who has cast her aside for a new bride, Creusa, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, decides to exact vengeance on Jason by slaying their own children. She never falters or changes her decision. Her opening speech is a soliloquy of violence, of towering rage, in which she appeals to the gods to assist her in obtaining vengeance. She continues throughout the drama in the same irrational state, calling on the deities for help and speaking of torches and fire. She is a barbarian witch, filled with venom and madness. The Nurse, too, shows no character development. She continually recommends patience and flight to her mistress and has nothing more to say. Jason, unlike his Euripidean counterpart, is neither tricky nor cunning. He is a constant: self-seeking, pursuing an advantageous new marital connection, unconcerned for his own and Medea’s sons, although he recites the traditional commonplaces about paternal love.

Where the Euripidean messenger describes at length the horrible deaths of Creusa and Creon, Seneca limits the description to a few lines regarding the general conflagration in the palace. Where in Euripides the audience does not behold the butchery of the children onstage, Seneca’s Medea murders one child offstage but brings the other out on the roof and destroys him before Jason’s very eyes. Such horror onstage justifies the reputation of Senecan tragedy as a “tragedy of blood.”

By her vengeance, Medea pathetically claims that she is regaining the chastity, the youth that she had enjoyed before her marriage to Jason while at the same time atoning for her former crimes—the murder of her own brother and of King Pelias of Iolchos, both of whom she destroyed in order to aid Jason. Yet like Atreus’s triumph in Thyestes, Medea’s, too, is a Pyrrhic victory. Her savagery and lunatic extremes of vengeance have left her bereft of the children she loved, and she is sorely dissatisfied. The bitter irony is that, ultimately, the revenge has really been taken on herself.


The emphasis in Senecan tragedy on human wickedness, self-willed and unnatural excess, is readily apparent in Phaedra. Phaedra, daughter of King Minos of Crete, is given in marriage as a prize to...

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