Seneca: Tragedies

December 3, 2020

Six Tragedies
Phaedra, Oedipus, Medea, Trojan Women, Hercules Furens, Thyestes
Translated from the Latin by Emily Wilson
(Oxford, 2010) [c.50]
xxxvi + 240 p.

Quid ratio possit?
Vicit ac regnat furor.

What can reason do? The question is posed in the course of Seneca’s Phaedra, and it is central to all of these tragedies, plays in which ungoverned passions run amok, wreaking destruction on all sides. Madness conquers and reigns.

The plays are horror shows. Suicide, murder, cannibalism, child-murder, incest, self-mutilation – nothing, it seems, is beyond the reach of human depravity. In her play, Phaedra struggles against lust for her step-son; by play’s end he has been cursed and torn limb from limb, and she has killed herself. In his play, Oedipus cannot escape the gruesome end which the fates have prepared for him:

Fate is driving us: give in to fate.
No amount of worrying can change
the threads of fate’s fixed spindle.
All that human beings suffer,
all we do, comes from on high.
(Act V)

Medea is overcome with desire to revenge herself on her husband for his betrayal, no matter the cost to herself:

Come to me now, O vengeful Furies, punishers of sinners,
wild in your hair with serpents running free,
holding black torches in your bloody hands,
come to me, scowling as you did of old
when you stood round my marriage bed. Kill his new wife,
kill her father, and all the royal family.
(Act I)

In The Trojan Women neither Hecuba, the Trojan queen, nor Andromache, the wife of Hector, are able to prevent their children being sacrificed to the gods. Hercules, in his play, falls into a madness and slaughters his entire family. And in Thyestes the anger of two warring brothers results in one feeding the other’s children to him in a gruesome feast.

What is Seneca’s point in these plays? They are not celebrations of violence and depravity; throughout, the tone is melancholy and resigned. My best guess is that they are artistic explorations of his Stoic philosophy. The Stoics believed that detachment from passion, positive or negative, was the key to happiness. Their watchwords were steadiness, rationality, and acceptance of whatever fate laid in one’s path. Perhaps in these plays Seneca is attempting a proof by contradiction: see what happens when you don’t heed the counsels of Stoicism! Love, hatred, grief, terror, menace, and terrible suffering rule the day; witness the terrible consequences. This, at least, is my best reading of the grand strategy at work.

As is probably obvious from the subject matter of the plays, they bear a significant debt to the Athenian tragic tradition. Like the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides they are written in verse (iambic trimeter in the Latin), and are structured antiphonally with sections for dramatic characters alternating with sections for a chorus which comments upon the action. Although it is hard to judge from the page, my sense is that this structure gives the plays a somewhat episodic feel, like a sequence of vignettes, rather than developing them into a flexible drama that builds forward momentum. The plays are not particularly long – around 1000 lines, typically, and I would imagine that on the stage they would play in about an hour or so.

Seneca’s plays have been enormously influential in our tradition. The introduction to this Oxford edition argues that, among classical writers, his influence on European literature is second only to Virgil’s. These plays were read widely in the Middle Ages, and decisively affected early modern drama during the development of national traditions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, in particular, owe them a debt: the tragedies of Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus must be based more or less directly on Seneca’s Thyestes), Webster, and Marlowe are all, to some degree, drawing on them. Personally, I would be more inclined to pick up the plays of those “imitators” than I would be to dwell overlong on Seneca, but I have enjoyed reading them, at least this once.

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