Translation: E.F. Watling, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 292
There are several reasons why Octavia stands rather on its own in the canon of Seneca's works. It is not based on Greek myth, or a work by an earlier tragedian, but tells of the events of Seneca's own life. It is not a tragedy, being more akin to Shakespeare's histories: it may contain tragic elements, but the plot is determined by actual events. (Assuming that Seneca really wrote it, it is based on a more accurate knowledge of history than that possessed by Shakespeare - from first hand experience rather than from biased histories.) It is clearly not finished, consisting of a disconnected series of episodes not yet welded together into a conventional five-act framework. It could certainly not have been performed in Seneca's own lifetime, for his suicide came before Nero's death, and Nero was hardly an Emperor to take strong criticism calmly.
There is a question over the authorship of Octavia, which partly flows from the features which distinguish it from Seneca's definitely authentic works, but which also stems from other causes. There are two main manuscript groups for the plays, but Octavia only exists in one of them. The portrayal of Seneca is not very complimentary and doesn't fit with the traditional picture of the virtuous philosopher tutor to the depraved Nero. (Mind you, this picture of Seneca also doesn't fit in with the relish for the macabre shown in the tragedies, nor with some of the language of the speeches, in which the philosophy expressed is usually banal. This has been used as an argument against identifying the Seneca to whom the plays are attributed with Nero's tutor.)
The play itself is concerned with the plotting surrounding Nero's divorce of his first wife Octavia, in a similar vein to Rachine's Britannicus (with which it shares many characters). It is not sufficiently near completion to judge what its quality would have been if it had been finished, but it certainly contains some fine speeches.