Tuesday, 13 July 1999

Lucius Annaeus Seneca: The Trojan Women

Translation: E.F. Watling, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 288

Why were the sixteenth century dramatists so taken with Seneca? The reasons cannot be because of dramatic merit, but they must have been strong. Of the tragedies in this volume, The Trojan Woman most strongly exemplifies what I think the reasons were. The extent of Seneca's importance to the tragic drama of the time is obvious from even the single fact that plays of the period, including ones by Jonson and Marlowe, contain quotations from Seneca in Latin, as well as long speeches which are more or less adaptations of ones in Seneca's works. (E.F. Watling notes lines quoted in Latin by Elizabethan dramatists and in an appendix gives examples of English passages closely modelled on speeches from these plays.)

The clue to what was perhaps the most important way in which this influence occurred lies in the fact of such obvious plundering. (The way that playwrights felt able to quote the original Latin is additional evidence for this suggestion, because they would need to be pretty confident that a large proportion of the audience would understand and recognise the quotation.) The Elizabethan writer took from Seneca a highly poetic form of dialogue, with complex and developed metaphors, and reference to classical myth other than the main subject of the play - something Seneca copied from Homer rather than Greek playwrights. In the hands of a great master - Shakespeare is the obvious example - this could be combined with a sense of drama that not only made the play exciting to watch but which also made the poetry seem perfectly at home; it was after all supposed to be the dialogue of real people. Seneca is not the only writer to have written plays in which the poetry is of a higher standard than the drama. Among more recent writers, both Byron and Shelley come to mind, though the model they were trying to emulate was that of the German romantics rather than Seneca.

A second inheritance from Seneca seems to me (and I am no expert) to be a license to use the most extreme subject matter. As far as I know, most recorded pre-Elizabethan drama was strongly influenced by the church, as is particularly apparent in the medieval mystery and morality plays. After the reformation, authors must have been looking for other sources of material, and these they found in Seneca and the classics and secular history. (Protestantism tends to be rather stricter than Catholicism as far as the portrayal of Biblical characters I concerned; notice there complete absence from Shakespeare, for example.) The unpleasant goings on in some of Seneca's plays paved the way for the depictions of the worst of human nature in plays like 'Tis Pity She's A Whore and The White Devil.

The Trojan Women follows the setting of its Euripidean prototype closely. It is set at the fall of Troy, and centres on a group of women from the city as they await allocation as spoils of war to the victorious Greeks. This inspires the women, particularly Hecuba, formerly queen of Troy, to some great poetry mourning not only what they had lost - the death of husbands, sons - but what they still had to endure as playthings of the conquerors. The standard of the speeches makes it easier to see what the Elizabethans saw in Seneca, and the sedentary setting makes his deficiencies in plotting less obvious. (He does fall down in one detail, thoughtfully pointed out in a footnote by Watling: at one point he states that Hector's tomb is accessible nearby, but later it is so far across the plain that it is impossible to see events going on there.)

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