The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation by Peter France 28 Introduction



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2.2.3 Seneca


Seneca is the youngest from these three Roman writers. He lived and wrote during the era of the emperor Nero, which was a dangerous time for a dramatist – Mario Erasmo in Roman Tragedy: Theatre to Theatricality describes how the Roman Emperors associated themselves with ancient heroes or kings – Tiberius associating himself with Atreus and Nero with Thyestes, in particular. During these times dramatists wrote many versions of this ancient story about twin brothers and for some of them their literary attempts ended fatally – Erasmo mentions a story of M. Aemilius Scaurus, who wrote one of the versions of the story of Atreus and, while his story was “probably no more critical of the emperor than other versions then in vogue” (Erasmo 112), he was accused by Macro, a Praetorian prefect, for criticising the emperor Tiberius in certain passages of the play, and the emperor reacted also in a mythological allusion saying he would make him “an Ajax” which meant he would make him commit suicide – which probably happened because Scaurus died the same year of his play’s performance. This anecdote is important to portray the era and how in those times the politics played a considerable part in the life of a dramatic author (as will be later important in the Elizabethan and Jacobean times).

Seneca was greatly influenced by Euripides, Virgil and Ovid. Elaine Fantham in “Virgil’s Dido and Seneca’s Tragic Heroines” argues that it is Virgil’s influence on Ovid what blinds the critics of Seneca to the fact that he was influenced by the Virgil’s original and not only by Ovid’s representation of the same story in the Heroides and the Metamorphoses. The subject of this influence is the above mentioned book four of the Aeneid and the character of Dido in particular. According to Fantham, the arguments “for expecting some reminiscence of Virgil’s great queen” in Seneca’s heroine, Phaedra, and her tragic passion for her step-son, Hippolytus, are “the acknowledged supremacy of Virgil's reputation as a poet in Seneca's generation, and Seneca's own fondness for quoting the Aeneid” (1). On the other hand, she sees Euripides’ influence in a rather detailed analysis of various metaphors used by Seneca which resemble those used by Euripides in his Hippolytus, such as the simile of a rock in the sea for resistance to persuasion (Fantham 3).

To elaborate more on the influence of Euripides or on the differences between the two authors, it is useful to pay closer attention to the texts – the Medea written by Euripides and the Medea by Seneca are good examples for the analysis because they deal with the same storyline. The first difference that is easily perceived from the beginning is the Chorus – in Euripides the Chorus is represented by Corinthian women who side with Medea and understand her anger; in Seneca the Chorus is represented by Corinthians (probably both sexes, it is not further developed) and they side with Jason and his new wife, their princess. The other differences or similarities are connected to the characters and their behaviour. Euripides’s Jason is a despicable character – as it was stated in the part about Euripides, Jason betrayed his wife Medea and that is why she needs to step out of the oikos, to get her revenge. So far it is the same even in Seneca’s case, but the two Jasons differ in character to a great extent. Euripides’s Jason left his wife to become a part of the Corinthian royal family. He argues that he wanted the best for his children. But when he comes to see Medea after his marriage to the princess, he offers her money and his influence to help her and their children to find a good place to live – they are exiled because Medea is a threat to the royal family. This scene is accompanied by another dialogue between Jason and Medea, when she persuades him that she is not angry anymore and wants the children to stay with him because exile is not fit for them. Jason promises he will try to persuade his new wife, but all in all he does not seem as a loving father who betrayed his wife so that his children would live a better life. He seems unmoved by the fact he will lose them all and rather angry that she did not follow his plan and threatened the royal family. Seneca’s Jason, on the other hand, seems sorry for the things turning out this way. There is a hint that he might have been forced by the king, who picked him to marry his daughter. He wants his sons to stay with him because, as much as he would like to give them to her, he is a father and he simply cannot do that. He also seems more helpless – Medea begs him for a safe place to go but he does not know about any place where she would be welcomed – there is a stark comparison with the “older” Jason, who offers her “to give with an unstinting hand, and introduce you to my foreign friends, who’ll treat you well” (612-14). Seneca’s Jason does not have any friends and has reached an impasse – he cannot leave with her and he cannot help her. Euripides’ Jason can help her but his attitude is too outrageous for Medea to accept anything and instead, she plans to murder him and his new bride.

Another contrasting pair of characters is the two kings. But this example works the opposite way – mainly to support the above mentioned characters of Jasons. Euripides’ king Creon wants Medea to leave his country – this is a result of Jason’s insufficient pleading: “I kept on trying to dispel the anger in King Creon’s raging heart; I wanted you to stay” (455-6). Nevertheless, the king still wants her to leave. He is afraid that she would harm his family and only promises her a day to set all her things in order. Seneca’s Creon is a different person. He wanted to “rid” him “of this outrageous pest by the sword’s means” (179-80) but in this case Jason was persuasive enough: “the prayers of my daughter’s husband prevailed. I have granted her life” (183-4). Euripides’ Jason is facing a milder version of Creon, yet he is not successful in helping her, while Seneca’s Jason has to deal with a fiercer Creon and is able to change her sentence from death to exile.

The most different – and yet the most same – characters are the Medeas. Euripides’ Medea is, together with the Chorus, angry not only for her case but she is fighting for the whole womankind saying: “Of all those beings capable of life and thought, we women are most miserable of living things” (230-1). She is outraged that her husband left her without consulting it with her (if she is to believe that he did it for her good) and she does not want to see him again. She wants to kill their children because it would ruin him – but not because of his love for them, rather for the social aspect of ruining his “house” – but she is also afraid that if she leaves them, they will be killed by the Corinthians: “There’s no way this can be – that I should leave my sons alive to suffer outrage from my enemies. In any case it’s necessary that they die; and since they must, I’ll kill them – I who gave them life” (1060-4). In this case she sounds more like a father, who being afraid his enemies will get to his family, kills them with his own hand. This moment is not the only one in which Euripides’ Medea acts as a man. In her brilliant “dialogue” with herself, before she kills her sons, she is divided into a feminine and a masculine part – the feminine part, a mother, wants to save her sons, talks about how she will not be able to see them growing up and getting married, but then she switches to a masculine part, the avenger, who dreads nothing more than being “his” enemies’ laughing stock and talks about the great ancestor, the god of Sun, and about the famous royal family from Colchis. The masculine part wins and together with the children symbolically kills also Jason’s wife.

Seneca’s Medea is different. She is angry only because of what happened to her. She gets no support from the Chorus, which erases the social-criticism part of the older version. She wants Jason to leave with her – they came together, they should leave together – but he knows of no place to go, so he is not willing. She often seems to be angry more at the Corinthian royal family, blaming them for her misfortune, than at her husband – which is working because this Jason is the helpless but still caring one. She decides to kill the sons only to hurt Jason – when he during their dialogue talks about being their father, she realizes what will be her next move: “thus does he love his sons? ‘Tis well! I have him! The place to wound him is laid bare” (549). But even though her story evolves in the same course, Seneca depicted her differently in one special aspect of her character – when Euripides’ Medea plans to destroy Creon and his daughter, she only talks about using poison because she will have time to escape, while if she went to kill them in their sleep with a sword, she would be captured. But Seneca added the aspect of mythological witch; he highlighted her pagan origins in this description of her preparations: “she seizes death-dealing herbs, squeezes out serpent’s venom, and with these mingles unclean birds, the heart of a boding owl, and a hoarse screech – owl’s vitals cut out alive” (731-4). Also in her “dialogue” before killing her sons (which was preserved from the older version) she is different – the two parts arguing are an avenging wife and a sorrowful mother – both parts are female, so when the avenger wins, the deed is still done by a woman. And this woman is even worse than Euripides’ masculine Medea – while the older version takes the dead bodies with her and does not want to give them to Jason, whom she hates beyond measures, this Medea not only kills one son downstairs and then drags the other still alive with her on the roof, where she kills him, too, she also throws the dead bodies from the roof on her husband, who wants to bury them. For a woman such a handling of the dead bodies of her children is profane in comparison with Euripides’ Medea who hugs them tightly.

To summarize these two plays and their comparisons up, Euripides created a woman who felt betrayed and helpless within her social position, just as all the women of her times. Her husband is clearly aiming at better profit and his first wife is not profitable anymore. She is so outraged by his behaviour that she needs to punish him and his new family – even if this Creon is the milder one, he still does not want to help her as a betrayed woman and forces her to leave the country even though he knows she does not have a place to go and that she is the one who is hurt – he represents the society that does not care. When she kills her children, she becomes masculine – the only way, how a woman can achieve a sort of justice in the society is by becoming a man and avenging herself.

Seneca, on the other hand, presents more intimate tragedy that is focused only on one family, on one woman. This woman is a witch capable of killing her children to see her husband in pain. She has no respect for the dead bodies of her children. Her husband seems to be a better character, even though he betrayed her and started thus the whole tragedy. Seneca’s version does not make his female character even half worthy of sympathy in comparison with the Greek version, yet he still lets her leave unpunished after she avenged herself. Medea became in later centuries a model of a terrifying woman and a horrible mother, but in both plays her action is justified not only by her personal misfortune, but as well by her position in the society – even though the crime of Jason does not seem as awful as those of Medea, he betrayed people who had only him to support them and provide for them – women and children were marginalized groups in the societies of Ancient Greek, Rome and of Early Modern Europe as well.



In the seventeenth-century England, Latin plays were staged at schools. Seneca’s Phaedra was performed in 1546 at Westminster School. William Gager of Christ Church, Oxford, was “the most enterprising practitioner of Latin plays”18 produced in 1591 this play by Seneca with several added scenes under the name Hippolytus. He used this play, in which he tried to “reinforce the portrayal of Hippolytus’ purity”, in his 1591-2 vindication of the Classical plays as suitable for school performances. Gorboduc or The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville was “the first play in the Senecan tradition in English” (Coffey 35). It was performed by gentlemen of the Inner Temple in 1561. Jasper Heywood translated Troades in 1559, the Thyestes in 1560, Hercules Furens in 1561 and John Studley translated Agamemnon, Medea and Hercules Oetaeus in 1566 and Hippolytus a year later. The plays were printed separately and in 1581 Thomas Newton collected them together with other Seneca’s plays into one publication.



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