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...
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