Seneca

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Only ten tragedies survive from the entire Roman Republic and Roman Empire: nine by Seneca and one by an unknown author. Seneca PDF EBook This collection contains five of Seneca’s plays:

Trojan Women: This play describes the fate of Hecuba and Andromache, the mother and wife of Hector respectively, after the fall of Troy. Also featuring Ulysses, Agamemnon, Helen and Achilles’ son Pyrrhus, although in this play they are essentially the villains. I thought this was a real masterpiece and it gets my vote for Seneca’s best play. 5 stars.

Thyestes: Worst. Dinner. Ever. Atreus is angry at his brother Thyestes, so he does what any rational person would do in his situation: invites his brother to dinner, murders his brother’s kids, and tricks his brother into eating them. Dana Gioia called this “the most violent and gruesome play in the Western canon,” and after reading it it’s kind of hard to argue with the man. Not for the weak of stomach, but this dark and disturbed play is pretty damn good. 4 stars.

Phaedra: With Theseus wandering around in the underworld, his wife Phaedra gets a little antsy. She makes a pass at her stepson Hippolytus but is rejected. When Theseus returned, Phaedra turns the tables and claims that Hippolytus made a run at her. As you might expect, things go downhill from here. Very good but not quite Seneca’s best in my opinion, although T.S. Eliot thought this one (along with Medea) was Seneca’s finest. 4 stars.

Medea: While questing after the Golden Fleece, Jason woos Medea and convinces her to steal her family’s greatest treasure, murder her brother, and follow him to Greece in order to become his wife. Once back on Greek soil, Jason quickly decides he prefers blondes after all, leaves Medea for another woman (but takes the kids!), and tells his former wife to get lost. Medea decides she’s not gonna take all this lying down, and a classic revenge story unfolds. I am a huge Euripides fan and this version is every bit as good as his more famous play. 5 stars.

Agamemnon: The feel- PDFgood homecoming story we all know and love: the king of Mycenae comes home victorious from Troy, and is promptly murdered by his adoring wife. There are two (not mutually exclusive) ways to go when telling this tale: Agamemnon’s wife kills him because she wants to keep shacking up with his cousin, or she kills Agamemnon because she can’t forgive him for sacrificing their daughter before gallivanting off to Troy. The second motive is more psychologically interesting, but this version only touches on it in passing. Not bad, but suffers in comparison to Aeschylus’ interpretation. 3 stars.

Seneca was very influential for centuries, and his plays were the most important influence on Renaissance tragedy (including the Elizabethan theater). Unlike Aeschylus/Sophocles/Euripides, Seneca’s plays were in Latin, so Renaissance playwrights could read him in the original. But while his importance historically is unquestioned, his plays have fallen out of favor. Two major criticisms are often lobbed his way: (1) the over-the-top violence in his plays is distastefuland (2) his plays are derivative, rhetorical, and technically incompetent.

Regarding the violence…yeah these can be pretty gory:

”[Hippolytus] bounced on the ground, was dragged, trying to miss the rocks, but helpless, bruised, battered, terribly bloodied. The path they made was blazed in blood. And then, abruptly, they stopped, where the stump of a tree, like a stake planted in warfare, speared him through, impaling his groin…” – Phaedra 1082-87.

Etc., etc. And as for Thyestes…ummmmmmm…

”I’d have rather poured the hot blood fresh from their wounds down your retching throat that you could have drunk the gore of your still-living sons. I hurried. It was all too quick, too easy. I drove my sword into their bodies there at the altar. They died at once – and never knew what happened after. They could not see me tear their bodies apart, didn’t watch as I stuck their livers on spits and roasted them over the fire, could not hear the sputtering sounds of cooking.” – Thyestes 1054-1064

Alright, that’s pretty fucked up. But Thyestes aside, if you have ever watched an R-rated movie (or read a book by Stephen King) I don’t think the violence in these tragedies is going to shock you. And Seneca lived in a violent time. I’ve been reading about the early Roman Empire as I meander my way through these Latin classics, and lemme tell you it was no picnic. Seneca lived under Caligula and Nero. Life was cheap. This was a society that crucified people or, for patricide, sewed them up in a sack along with a snake, dog, monkey and rooster and tossed them into the ocean (seriously). So if Seneca gets a little lurid now and again, at least he’s a product of his time. These are not subtle plays, but Seneca didn't live in a subtle world.

Regarding the second criticism, I think that structurally his plays are a lot better than he gets credit for: Trojan Women and Medea are very well put together. But Seneca lived centuries after the Athenian tragedians who famously told many of these same stories, and most of his audience knew these tales by heart. Seneca’s main concern was not slowly and meticulously unfurling these plots, it was finding a way to tell very familiar stories in a new and engaging way. Like an opera, the real pleasure in these plays is how the story is told, not necessarily the story itself. So if Seneca comes across as rhetorical, with long speeches in place of onstage action, that was probably a conscious choice on his part, and an effective one in my opinion.

I did not go into these plays with the highest expectations: given that his plays are the only surviving Roman dramas, they would be heralded as “classics” even if they stunk. But I was pleasantly surprised. Are these plays quite as good as the Athenian tragedies…no. But they’re not that far off. If you’re a fan of Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, then consider giving the darker, lurid world of Seneca a try. You just might like what you find. 4 stars, recommended. Like this book? Read online this: Strong Kids - Grades 6-8, I racconti di Pietroburgo.

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