Seneca’s tragedies, essays, and letters share a keen focus on the processes of making sophisticated ethical and moral choices. To this concern, Seneca brings a terse and pointed style. In Troades (c. 40-55 c.e.; The Trojan Women, 1581), for example, Seneca dramatizes the effects of total power on the minds of those who wield it. There, in a chilling dialogue, the two Greek conquerors Pyrrhus and Agamemnon coldly deliberate whether they should kill the captive Trojan woman Polyxena.Pyrrhus: No law spares a captive or prevents punishment. Agamemnon: What the law does not forbid, shame forbids. Pyrrhus: A victor can do whatever he likes. Agamemnon: Who can do much should like to do least.
With similar poignancy, Seneca’s essay On Providence raises the universal question of why bad things happen to good people; as a Stoic, Seneca suggests that negative events test both a good person’s ability to overcome evil and his or her commitment to a balanced outlook on life. A wise person should accept with dignity the vicissitudes of life ordered by capricious Fate.
Yet Seneca’s Stoicism is not uniform, and his writings always incorporate intellectual positions taken from different sources. In Three Essays on Anger, for example, many different philosophers are quoted to support Seneca’s anti-Aristotelian argument that there is nothing useful or honorable in even short outbursts of anger. If this eclecticism has earned for Seneca the scorn of some purist critics, it has nevertheless served his practical aims well. Instead of developing a philosophical theory of his own, Seneca tests, and puts into his own language, different answers for such timeless questions as those that concern fulfillment and happiness, death and adversity, or the snares of luxury and power.
In his dramatic works, however, a trade-off is involved in Seneca’s decision—influenced by his education as an orator and public speaker—to focus strongly on an ethical problem and to display proudly his epigrammatic brilliancy as a writer of declamatory speeches. Thus, in The Trojan Women, the character of Andromache coldly deliberates whether she should sacrifice her son or let the Greeks desecrate the tomb of her husband. While these two choices pose a genuine ethical dilemma, their lengthy analysis all but destroys her dramatic believability as a grief-stricken mother and widow. Yet it is Seneca’s overriding interest in the consequences of the extreme situation with which he confronts his characters that, together with his unmistakably terse Latin style, distinguishes his tragedies from their Greek sources (primarily the plays of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles), with which they share their subject matter, Greek mythology.
Ubiquitous violence is another trademark of Seneca’s plays. Unlike his Greek predecessors, Seneca is not content to leave it offstage. Though scholars are still debating whether Seneca’s plays were intended only to be read or (as may be the new consensus) were indeed performed for small, private audiences, this crucial formal difference between direct or recorded action sets Seneca apart.
Seneca’s Oedipus (c. 40-55 c.e.; English translation, 1581) thus actually shows Jocasta’s suicide, a desperate act at which she arrives after dramatic deliberations. In Hercules furens (c. 40-55 c.e.; Mad Hercules, 1581), the hero, deluded by the Furies, kills his wife and his children on stage. In Phaedra (c. 40-55 c.e.; English translation, 1581), the bloody limbs of Theseus’s son Hippolytus are brought forth for all to see, and Medea kills her second child right before the horrified eyes of Jason (and the audience) in Seneca’s version of Medea (c. 40-55 c.e.; English translation, 1581).
For Seneca, violence is an ever-present dramatic possibility. Often, the very threat of it chills his audience. Aegisthus’s attempt to persuade Clytemnestra to murder her husband, Agamemnon, who has taken Cassandra as a mistress and killed Aegisthus’s brothers, lends incredible dramatic power to Seneca’s Agamemnon (c. 40-55 c.e.; English translation, 1581). In a similar dramatic exploitation of the primal rupture caused by a violent act, Hercules Oetaeus (c. 40-55 c.e.; Hercules on Oeta, 1581) offers a pointed cathartic depiction of the hero’s sufferings after he has lost his skin to the poisoned robe in which his wife, annoyed by his infidelity, has wrapped him.
Seneca’s use of violence fascinated Renaissance translators of his plays in Italy, England, and France and is discernible behind such gory masterpieces of the period as John...
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