Senecan tragedy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Senecan tragedy is a body of ten 1st century AD dramas, of which eight were written by the Roman Stoic philosopher and politician L. Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger). The group of plays includes Hercules Furens, Medea, Troades, Phaedra, Agamemnon, Oedipus, Phoenissae, Thyestes, Hercules Oetaeus, and Octavia, although Hercules Oetaeus is generally considered not to be by Seneca, and Octavia is certainly not by him.[1] Rediscovered by Italian humanists in the mid-16th century, they became the models for the revival of tragedy on the Renaissance stage. The two great, but very different, dramatic traditions of the age—French neoclassical tragedy and Elizabethan tragedy—both drew inspiration from Seneca. The Senecan tragedy also focuses heavily on the supernatural elements.

Although many of the Senecan tragedies adapt the same Greek myths as tragedies by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, scholars tend not to view Seneca's works as direct adaptations of the Attic tragedies, as Seneca's approach to the myths differs significantly from the Greek poets and often contains themes familiar from his philosophical writings.[2] It is possible that Seneca's tragic style was more directly influenced by Augustan literature.[3]

French neoclassical dramatic tradition, which reached its highest expression in the 17th-century tragedies of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, drew on Seneca for form and grandeur of style. These neoclassicists adopted Seneca's innovation of the confidant (usually a servant), his substitution of speech for action, and his moral hairsplitting.

The Elizabethan dramatists found Seneca's themes of bloodthirsty revenge more congenial to English taste than they did his form. The first English tragedy, Gorboduc (1561), by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, is a chain of slaughter and revenge written in direct imitation of Seneca. (As it happens, Gorboduc does follow the form as well as the subject matter of Senecan tragedy: but only a very few other English plays—e.g. The Misfortunes of Arthur—followed its lead in this.) Senecan influence is also evident in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare's Hamlet: both share a revenge theme, a corpse-strewn climax, and ghosts among the cast, which can all be traced back to the Senecan model.


  1. ^ "The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature". Oxford University Press. 
  2. ^ Buckley, Emma; Dinter, Martin, eds. (2013). A Companion to the Neronian Age. Blackwell Publishing. 
  3. ^ Tarrant, R. J. (1978). "Senecan Drama and Its Antecedents". Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82: 213–263.