Senecan tragedy

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Ancient bust of Seneca (Antikensammlung Berlin)

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). 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.

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.

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