Analysis

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

In Thyestes, Seneca the Younger presents the history of the title character and his brother, Atreus. Both are the sons of Pelops, whose father, Tantalus, had sacrificed to the gods. Although Atreus is the legitimate ruler of Mycenae, Thyestes usurps his power by stealing the golden ram, the symbol of...

(The entire section contains 912 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Thyestes study guide. You'll get access to all of the Thyestes content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Analysis
  • Quotes
  • Critical Essays
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In Thyestes, Seneca the Younger presents the history of the title character and his brother, Atreus. Both are the sons of Pelops, whose father, Tantalus, had sacrificed to the gods. Although Atreus is the legitimate ruler of Mycenae, Thyestes usurps his power by stealing the golden ram, the symbol of Mycenaean rulership. What is more, Atheus’s wife has run off with Thyestes. These events hare sparked a civil war, in which the furies get involved when one of them, Megaera, releases the deceased Tantalus from Hades to foment unrest. After Atreus defeats and exiles Thyestes, he seems to relent and invites him back to Mycenae.

Thyestes’s suspicions of his brother’s intentions are initially dispelled at the celebratory banquet that welcomes him home, at which he overindulges in excellent food and wine. Atheus, meanwhile, has done away with his brothers’ three sons and disposed of their bodies in fiendish ways, as the drama shows. He deals the coup-de-grace when he brings forth the heads of Thyestes’s children on a platter and reveals that the meat he served his brother was the children’s bodies and the wine contained their blood. Devastated over their deaths and his enforced cannibalism, the furious Thyestes both prays for his release through death and calls upon the gods to exact his revenge. Atreus’s two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, had been the emissaries to lure their uncle back home. They live and go on to important roles in the Trojan War.

The ultimate revenge tragedy, Thyestes became the model for other Greek plays on the same topic and similar themes. Its influence was further extended in the revenge play genre that became wildly popular in Elizabethan theater. Even more than the gruesome content, the drama raises questions about the effects of power and the nature of rulership. Atreus justifies his actions in relation to the severity of Thyestes’s crime of treason, which threatened to destroy Myceanean society. Moreover, he maintained that as the legitimate ruler, he was exempt from ordinary human morality. Although his brother is destroyed, he is in principle equally bad, as he wishes he had carried out the same plan against Atreus’s children.

Places Discussed

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

*Mycenae

*Mycenae (Mi-SEE-nee). Fortified city in southeastern Greece and site of the Bronze Age kingdom ruled by the mythical general who led the Greek alliance in the Trojan War. Seneca follows Homer rather than Aeschylus in locating this dynasty in Mycenae rather than in nearby Argos. Lust to possess the city and the royal power it conveys motivates the chief characters to commit monstrous crimes which are described as polluting not only Mycenae’s Argive territory but also neighboring lands, such as the Isthmus of Corinth and Mount Cithaeron to the north and even the entire earth.

The hero describes specific features of Mycenae; its massive, irregular stone walls and cliffside palace site are still visible today, but a hippodrome and huge palace complex are monuments belonging to contemporary Rome. The intra-dynastic atrocities committed at Rome under the reign of Nero recall the events of the play. Seneca’s detailed depiction of the Mycenaean palace resembles an imperial Roman villa of a sort that was familiar to him, as he was once the Roman emperor Nero’s close advisor and knew Rome and the emperor’s palace well.

A messenger in the play luridly describes a shrine deep within the vast wings and porticos of the palace where a gloomy grove shelters a hellish spring, howling ghosts, relics of the dynasty’s crimes, and altars which receive human sacrifice. At the play’s climax, temple doors open to reveal the sumptuous royal banquet hall where the hero discovers he has unknowingly indulged in cannibalism. However, the play regularly evokes place through vivid rhetorical description rather than by scenic effects.

Hell

Hell. Mythical region of punishment for earthly crimes. The ghost of the Mycenaean dynasty’s founder and his tormenting fury open the play, summoned from Hell to motivate the action. The ghost describes Hell’s tantalizing pool with its elusive fruit tree and the fiery river Phlegethon, features familiar from traditional mythology, and promises that his entire progeny will someday join him in Hell to pay for their crimes.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 207

Griffin, Miriam Tamara. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1976. Definitive study of Seneca. Evaluates the man who had so many lofty ideals and whose life was so full of less-than-lofty facts. Dramatizes the problem of public service in a corrupt state.

Henry, Denis, and Elisabeth Henry. The Mask of Power: Seneca’s Tragedies and Imperial Power. Chicago: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1985. A study of Seneca’s tragedies, placing them in their cultural context. Bibliography.

Holland, Francis. Seneca. London: Longmans, Green, 1920. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. For a time, this work was the only biography on Seneca available in English. Thorough, readable, and still authoritative.

Motto, Anna Lydia. Seneca. New York: Twayne, 1973. Clear presentation of Seneca’s life and work. A good starting place.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Argues that Seneca’s Stoicism, as expressed in his philosophical works, must be studied in order to gain greater understanding of his plays. Bibliography.

Sutton, Dana Ferrin. Seneca on the Stage. Leiden, The Netherlands, E. J. Brill, 1986. Argues against the long-held idea that Seneca’s tragedies were written to be read. Supports claim with its discovery of stage directions in the form of clues in the characters’ speeches.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Thyestes Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Characters

Next

Quotes