Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Onward, damned shade, and goad thy sinful house to madness. Let there be rivalry in guilt of every kind; let the sword be drawn on this side and on that; let their passions know no bounds, no shame; let blind fury prick on their souls; heartless be parents’ rage, and to children’s children let the long trail of sin lead down; let time be given to none to hate old sins—ever let new arise, many in one, and let crime, e’en midst its punishment, increase (23).
Here, the fury elucidates the punishment that it has devised for Tantalus and foreshadows the events of a play wherein not only the two grandsons of the former king, but also his great grandsons will be swallowed up in suffering.
This is good, this method of pain is pleasing to me, for now (267).
By describing torture as good, Seneca confounds the notions of the moral good, characterized by Roman virtue with the Aristotelian notion of “good,” as that which best serves a given purpose.
What madness pricks you on to shed by turns each others’ blood, and by crime to gain the throne? Ye know not, for high place greedy, wherein true kingship lies. A king neither riches makes, nor robes of Tyrian hue, nor crown upon the royal brow, nor doors with gold bright-gleaming; a king is he who has laid fear aside and the base longings of an evil heart; whom ambition unrestrained and the fickle favor of the reckless mob move not (339).
Here, the chorus speaks with Seneca’s voice, criticizing both the tyranny of the emperor Nero and the fickleness of the Roman republic of earlier centuries. His portrayal of a king here is more in line with Claudius, the emperor he respected for his steadiness and courage.
Brotherly regard ofttimes returns unto the heart whence it was driven, and true love regains the vigour it has lost (474).
The irony of the reassurance, here offered by Tantalus to Thyest, is evident at this point of the play, where the audience, and indeed Tantalus, is well aware of the trap into which Thyest is being encouraged. However it takes on new dimensions when, at the climax of the play, it is revealed that Thyest has planned just the same horror to be unleashed on his brother.
Here gleams the great hall that could contain a multitude, whose gilded architraves columns glorious with varied hues upbear. Behind this general hall, which nations throng, the gorgeous palace stretches out o’er many a space; and, deep withdrawn, there lies a secret spot containing in a deep vale an ancient grove, the kingdom’s innermost retreat. Here no tree ever affords cheerful shade or is pruned by any knife; but the yew-tree and the cypress and woods of gloomy ilex-trees wave obscure, above which, towering high, an oak looks down and overtops the grove (641).
The setting here described by Seneca can be seen as an analogy for the house of Tantalus. On the outside, it seems grand and beautiful, yet deep within is contained a dark and gloomy grove, with trees that grant no shade. This grove is symbolic of the darkness that pervades the hearts of Tantalus’s descendants, with the oak towering over all characterizing Tantalus himself, the overlooker who witnesses his son’s shame.
Startled himself at such unwonted welcoming, the sinking sun beholds Aurora, and bids the shadows arise, though night is not yet ready. No stars come out; the heavens gleam not with any fires: no moon dispels the darkness’ heavy pall (813).
Pathetic fallacy is here evoked by Seneca,...
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who portrays the falling of an unnatural night to mirror the deeds of Atrius and Thyest, which are dark in the metaphorical sense, and also very unnatural, in their inversion of the human body with the body of animals more traditionally consumed within Roman society (813).
The open hall with many a torch is gleaming. There he himself reclines at full length on gold and purple, propping his wine-heavy head on his left hand. He belches with content. Oh, most exalted of the gods am I, and king of kings! I have o’ertopped my hopes (908).
Here, the hubris shown by protagonists in most classical tragedies, and indeed in most western dramatic traditions since, is evident. In his declaration of his own greatness, of his being superior even to the Gods, Atrius is setting himself up for an Icarus-like fall later on.
The gods will be present to avenge; to them for punishment my prayers deliver thee (1110).
To thy sons for punishment do I deliver thee (1112).
This concluding exchange anticipates a continuation of hatred and conflict beyond the play’s narrative, as was predicted at the play’s beginning. Both brothers will go on with their desires for revenge unsated, though significantly Thyest, the play’s antihero, appeals to divine justice, and Atrius appeals to a more earthly and temporary form of revenge.