Critical Evaluation

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The most fiendish revenge play in the history of drama, this gruesome story of a banquet at which the father partakes of his own children is a landmark in dramatic history. Thyestes is the model for many revenge plays that appeared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in English drama. Seneca the Younger was not the first ancient author to make use of the Thyestes legend, but his version of the story had the most direct influence on the tragedians of the Renaissance. Versions of the story by Sophocles, Euripides, Ennius, and Accius have not survived the years; scholars do not even have enough information about the other ancient versions of the drama to compare the treatments by those authors with that of Seneca. As a result of both Seneca’s influence on Renaissance playwrights and historical accident, Seneca’s name is foremost in discussions of the type of play he wrote, called the revenge tragedy or the tragedy of blood.

Seneca’s Thyestes is spectacle rather than true drama. Whereas genuine tragedy arises from character conflicts or internal divisions within characters, spectacle relies on sensational events carried out by characters who exist merely for the sake of the events and who have no actual existence of their own. This is certainly the case with every character in Thyestes. Each exists simply to point up the horror of Atreus’s revenge on his brother, Thyestes.

Another important point of difference between true drama and spectacle lies in the use of language. The speech of authentic tragedy approximates, in a formal way, the devices of normal conversation to reveal passions. The language of spectacle, however, being florid and highly artificial, tends toward bombast. Spectacle operates by set pieces, rhetorical essays that develop simple ideas at great length, by tedious and lush descriptive passages, and by moralizing epigrams. Seneca uses all three, and the result is that his characters speak in a highly unnatural way. Instead of communicating, they attitudinize, talking largely to the audience or soliloquizing.

This characteristic of Senecan drama has led many scholars to believe that Seneca wrote his plays for private recitation rather than for public performance. This idea gives no reason for assuming they were not produced. Spectacle, rhetorical overindulgence, and horrors were all part of public entertainment under the Roman emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, who ruled during Seneca’s maturity. Scholars know for a fact that Seneca’s tragedies were staged in the Elizabethan period and that they had immense influence on the dramas of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, John Webster, and others.

Thyestes derives from Greek legend and is based on an incident that occurred in the tragic family descended from Tantalus. Seneca’s treatment of the myth has some interest in its own right, but it also serves to illuminate his own biography. He handles the figure of Thyestes rather sympathetically, making him the victim of Atreus’s lunatic lust for revenge. Seneca plays down the fact that Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, stole his symbol of power, and caused a civil war. When Thyestes appears onstage, he assumes the role of the Stoic hero, determined to bear whatever fate has in store for him, and he frankly prefers the hardships of exile to the pomp of power that Atreus has treacherously extended to him. Exile has tempered his character.

It is worth noting that Seneca underwent eight years of exile on Corsica after he was accused of an intrigue with Emperor Claudius’s niece, Julia. The parallel is striking, but it extends even further. Like Thyestes, Seneca was recalled from exile with the promise of power. He was to tutor...

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and guide Nero in the art of statesmanship. When Nero became emperor in 54c.e., Seneca was able to exercise some control over him for the first five years of his reign, but then Nero began acting on his own, and Seneca retired from public life. Thyestes is Seneca’s personal testament on the instability of power and the helplessness of those who incur the wrath of an absolute and maniacal ruler. The only solution Seneca finds in this play is the same one he found in life—to bear one’s misfortune with Stoic dignity. Eventually Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide as punishment for his part in an alleged conspiracy. Seneca met his death bravely.

Through the murky rhetoric of Thyestes two important themes emerge: the nature of kingship and the necessity of maintaining a Stoic endurance in the face of a murderous, disintegrating cosmos. The appearance of Tantalus and Megaera the Fury at the beginning of the play is not accidental. Tantalus served his son, Pelops, as food for the gods, and as part of his eternal torment he must not only witness the kin murders of his descendants but also abet them. Presumably, he inspires the idea of cannibalistic revenge in Atreus’s mind, but Atreus carries his scheme out with gloating satisfaction. Atreus is an unrelieved monster, raging with paranoid pride.

Against him Seneca sets the idea of kingship founded on morality and restraint. The aphoristic conversation between Atreus and the attendant in act 2, scene 1, is a debate on whether kings should serve the people or the people should be utterly subservient to the king. In the first case morality is the main law; in the second, the will of the tyrant. The point is made that morality creates a stable kingdom, whereas tyranny is supremely unstable. Later, the chorus says that true kingship lies in self-control, not in wealth, power, or pomp.

Unfortunately, these observations make no impression whatever on Atreus, who is intent on proving his godlike power over human life, much like the Roman emperors Seneca knew. In striving to become like a god in his pride, Atreus becomes loathsomely bestial. Seneca constantly generalizes from the concrete situation of Atreus and Thyestes to the universe. When kings are corrupt, society is corrupted, and the rot extends throughout the cosmos. Nature mirrors human conditions in Seneca: The fire hesitates to broil the slain sons of Thyestes; an unnatural night falls upon the banquet. The play is full of hyperbole about the disintegrating universe, rendered in purple poetry. Against this profusion of rhetoric stand the pithy epigrams, like a Stoic element trying to bear up tightly against the frenetic declamations. The Stoic attitude can never prevail in a world full of crime, but it can enable one to endure great stress with courage. Seneca, in Thyestes, embodies the shame of Rome and his own valor in a style eminently suited to his subject.