Most believe Seneca the playwright is the same as the Roman Stoic philosopher. In line with this view is the fact that many of the philosophical ideas expressed by characters in the play, usually in the form of a character advising a king on proper conduct, match up well with Seneca’s ideas in his Stoic letters and Stoic philosophy more generally. Seneca models his plays off his Greek predecessors Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, but his plays lack their depth of character and dramatic scenarios.
In Thyestes, we witness how Atreus seemingly reconciles with his brother, only to use his power as King to murder his sons and feed them to their unsuspecting father at a banquet. This infamous mythological event seems like something out of a modern horror movie!
In the Phaedra, a stepmother named Phaedra develops a taboo love for her stepson Hippolytus who has sworn off the other sex altogether. When she confronts him about her illicit passion, he violently rejects her, which leads her to accuse him of rape when her husband and his father, Theseus, returns from the underworld. Believing his son to have betrayed his marriage bed, Theseus asks his father, Neptune, to strike down Hippolytus. After his son is killed by sea monsters, Theseus learns the truth and has killed his son based on a lie.
In The Trojan Women, the surviving women of Troy suffer further miseries as their Greek conquerors demand one of their daughters to be sacrificed to Achilles’ shade and Hector’s son to be thrown off a tower in order for their ships to sail home.
In Oedipus, Seneca follows Sophocles’ tale very closely, but lacks its dramatic punch. This version is clearly inferior in every way to the one written by Sophocles.
Hercules Furens is a play about Hercules’ wife resisting the seduction of a king, while Hercules is away and upon his return Hera drives him mad. In his madness, he accidentally kills his family thinking they are his enemies. (1)
Octavia is the only non-mythological play. Instead it is a type of historical play in which characters try to prevent Emperor Nero from executing his soon to be ex-wife. It even includes Seneca as a character. It wasn’t written by Seneca, but it was written in his style and therefore is often included with his works.
Each play has a basic format: ghost or a deity delivers a speech at the beginning that serves as a prologue outlining the events of the play about to unfold and connecting it to previous myths. These prologues tell us exactly what is going to happen, leaving no mystery. Authority figure (usually a king or queen) plans some kind of immoral deed that we have just been told will happen in the prologue, while some sort of adviser warns against the abuse of monarchical power and tries to dissuade them against the act. The authority figure argues back with the adviser, defending their tyrannical power. Then the rest of the play the authority figure driven by their own irrational desires commits the predicted travesty against their victim.
As the back of my edition states, “What gives [Seneca’s] plays their momentum is the ruthlessness with which a disastrous event, foretold from the start, is pursued.” Even though Seneca bases his plays on the Greek playwrights, there is a world of difference in the treatment and the way each explores their themes. In the plays of the Greek playwrights, much of the inherent conflict revolves around different characters genuinely thinking their position is correct and the tension between close relationships coming to conflict. For example, in the Oresteia, Orestes has good reason to avenge his father, but he is morally conflicted because he must kill his own mother. So when the time comes, he hesitates and must bring his anger to a pitch; his mother’s pleas and her appeals almost dissuade him momentarily. His mother also justifies her own actions so we can sympathize to some extent with her. The play asks the audience to evaluate the perspectives and justifications of many characters, gaining its dramatic power from the moral conflict between these different characters justifying their actions and believing they are doing the right thing. To take another example, in Euripides’s version of Phaedra, Hippolytus is depicted as unnatural for his lack of desire for women. In that version, we are told that Phaedra falls in love with him as a punishment inflicted by Aphrodite for his unnatural ways. In Seneca’s version, we aren’t told why she falls for her step-son, just that these feelings are unnatural, but she gives into them anyway. It is not a punishment from a deity to teach Hippolytus a lesson, but rather it is an example of an irrational passion run amok. Hippolytus’ chastity seems more positive in Seneca, reflecting the Stoic imperative to overcome our passions.
We see that the moral conflict between characters is mostly gone from Seneca’s versions of the plays. Atreus in the play Thyestes never thinks twice about torturing his brother by feeding him his own children. Seneca’s plays are more about driving forward to a terrible bloodthirsty spectacle. These plays are about the dangers of giving into one’s passions (desire for revenge, sexual desires, etc.) by not embracing the tenets of Stoic philosophy, which would help curb and control those passions. This isn’t a battle between characters with different goals, nor is it a battle of pitting oneself against the unknown like in Sophocles’ Oedipus, rather the characters have advisers who tell them exactly what they should do, exactly how they ought to act, and these characters fail to heed their Stoical advisers and give into their passions anyway, leading to the bloodthirsty spectacle and personal disasters. And that is the point! They know better, they hear sound advice, but choose not to listen. This goes a long way to show how two writers can take the same basic story and plot and produce very different works in the end, depending on how they treat the issues, linguistic styles, and different emphasis.
These plays are worth reading, but lack the dramatic impact of its Greek predecessors. Perhaps their main importance rests with the way these plays influenced Renaissance drama. Seneca’s ghosts are reborn in Shakespeare. Indeed, one of the nice scholarly features of the Penguin’s Classics edition is that it included an appendix with Elizabethan translations of Seneca’s work and parts of famous Elizabethan plays that allude to Seneca’s work.
1. Hercules Furens is not included in the Penguin Classics edition. I read it in the Loeb Classical Library edition available for free here and decided to include it in this post.