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The Dramatization of Inner Experience: The Opening Scene of Seneca's Agamemnon

  • Jo-Ann Shelton (a1)

Attempts to determine an absolute chronology for the composition of Seneca's tragedies have been frustrated by our lack of both external and internal evidence for dating. Even a relative chronology moreover will be open to dispute as long as we must depend almost solely on metrical, stylistic and linguistic considerations. Recently, for example, Calder has questioned the opinion of Leo, and other scholars, that Agamemnon was written before Thyestes. Calder has examined stylistic features of both plays, and he suggests, quite correctly, that the opening scene of Agamemnon is similar to that of Thyestes in structure and imagery but is less skilfully connected to the subsequent action. He concludes, however, that Thyestes is the earlier play, and he offers the following conjectures as proof: Seneca borrowed the opening scene of Thyestes from a play of Sophocles; then, when composing Agamemnon, instead of using the watchman's prologue of Aeschylus, he attempted to create a new opening scene after the pattern of his Thyestes. Not explicitly stated, though perhaps implied, is the unfortunate conclusion that the Thyestes opening scene is successful because Seneca followed Sophocles, that Agamemnon is flawed because Seneca later tried to innovate, to deviate from his Greek ‘models’.

Such a conclusion fails, I think, to take into proper consideration Seneca's creativity in his use of sources, and the reasons why he used an opening scene by a superhuman figure, rather than a watchman. Three of Seneca's plays begin with a scene in which appears a superhuman figure: Hercules Furens, Agamemnon and Thyestes. If we compare the first two plays with the Herakles of Euripides and the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, which both open with human figures, we find that in both Seneca has preferred not to imitate the prologues of the Greek dramatists. (We have, unfortunately, no complete Greek Thyestes with which we can compare Seneca's.) In addition, his opening scenes differ in style from those Greek plays in which a superhuman figure does appear in the prologue. Obviously, the choice of a human or non-human prologist, as Heldmann says, depends on something other than a Greek source.

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1. Evidence for dating is both limited and inconclusive: i.e. Quint. 8.3.31 (the dispute between Seneca and Pomponius Secundus) or Medea 364ff. (perhaps a reference to Claudius’ expedition to Britain). For some attempts to provide a chronology, see Cichorius, C., ‘Pomponius Secundus und Senecas Tragödien’, Römische Studien (Leipzig, 1922), 426–29; Herrmann, L., Le Théätre de Sénèque (Paris, 1924), 78–152; Herzog, O., ‘Datierung der Tragödien des Seneca’, RhM 77 (1928), 51–104; Sipple, A., Der Staatsmann und Dichter Seneca als politischer Erzieher (Wiirzburg, 1938).

2. Calder, W. M. III, ‘Seneca’s Agamemnon’, CP 71 (1976), 27–36. For other opinions that Thyestes is early, see Birt, T., ‘Was hat Seneca mit seinem Tragödien gewollt?NJa 27 (1911), 352, and Herzog, 71–82, who offers A.D. 41 as a date.

3. Leo, F., L. Annaei Senecae tragoediae, I: Observationes criticae (Berlin, 1878), 89–134, especially 133. Leo bases his conclusion, that Agamemnon is early, primarily on metrical evidence.

4. Peiper, R., Praefationis in Senecae tragoedias nuper editas supplementum (Breslau, 1870); Jonas, F., De ordine librorwn L. Annaei Senecae philosophi (Berlin, 1870), 37–38, 45–49; Peiper and Jonas place the composition of Thyestes in Seneca’s retirement; Sipple, 81–87, suggests that Thyestes is late (c. A.D. 62–63) because in it Seneca expresses his disgust with Nero; Hansen, E., Die Stellung der Affektrede in den Tragödien des Seneca (Diss. Berlin, 1934), 60–67, analyzes the development of the ‘Affektrede’ and suggests that Thyestes is later than Agamemnon.

5. Agamemnon 1–56: I call this section the opening scene, rather than the prologue, because I do not believe that the time here precedes that of the next scene (see text). This section differs in other respects from the expository prologue of a Greek tragedy; it is therefore perhaps less misleading to call it the opening scene. Cf. Anliker, K., Prologe und Akteinteilung in Senecas Tragodien (Berne, 1960), 49–51, who maintains the term prologue but calls the next section Act 2.

6. Cf. the conjecture of Lesky, A., ‘Die griechischen Pelopidendramen und Senecas Thyestes’, WS 43 (1922–23), 189–191 that Seneca modelled the Thyestes opening scene after the Iris-Lyssa scene of Euripides’ Herakles. See also Anliker, II, 23–24, and Heldmann, K., ‘Untersuchungen zu den Tragödien Senecas’, Hermes Einzelschriften, 31 (1974), 1–21, for the influence of Euripides on Seneca’s opening scenes.

7. For comments about Seneca’s use of Aeschylus’ play see Stackmann, K., ‘Senecas Agamemnon, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Agamemnon-Stoffes nach Aischy-los’, C. & M. 11 (1950), 180–221. He suggests, 203, that Seneca’s opening scene may have been taken from an Aegisthus play.

8. Many comparisons of Seneca and the tragedians of fifth century Athens reveal, even in the terms used, a crippling bias. Consider the terms ‘models’ and ‘originals’ (Kingery, H. M., Three Tragedies of Seneca [Norman, reprint 1966], 4) for the Greek plays, or ‘adaptations’ (Duff, J. W., Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age [London, 1927], 201) for Seneca’s plays. A less biased term would be ‘re-interpretations of the myths’. Cf. Haywood, R. M., ‘Was Seneca’s Hercules modelled on an earlier Latin play?CJ 38 (1942–43), 100: ‘It is wrong to assume that whatever is good in Seneca does not belong to Seneca.’ See also Mackay, L. A., ‘The Roman Tragic SpiritCSCA 8 (1975), 145–162.

9. At the beginning of Euripides’ Herakles, Amphitryon appears on stage, provides background information, and then moves directly into the scene with Megara. His ‘prologue’ is really part of the first scene.

10. See especially Heldmann, 1–16.

11. Heldmann, 3.

12. Whether or not the plays were in actual fact performed on a stage, with actors, we must accept the fact that Seneca created character roles and chose a dramatic form in which to express his ideas, and that he therefore intended an effect quite different from that of a poem or prose speech. Mastronarde, D. J., ‘Seneca’s Oedipus: The Drama in the Word’, TAP A 101 (1970), 291, suggests quite wrongly that ‘a fuller understanding of Seneca’s peculiar qualities as a Latin poet is to be attained by ignoring the usual questions (as to sources, dramatic unit … characterizations … etc.) and instead treating his works merely as poems’.

13. Haywood, 98–101.

14. See especially Heldmann; also Runchina, G., ‘Tecnica drammatica e retorica nelle Tragedie di Seneca’, AFCL 28 (1960), and Maguiness, W. S., ‘Seneca and the Poets’, Hermathena 88 (1956), 81–98.

15. Surely Seneca did not ‘borrow’ from Greek plays written 500 years before him and totally ignore Latin plays. Runchina, 194, discusses the difficulty of attributing anything in Seneca to one specific source.

16. See Braginton, M. V., The Supernatural in Seneca’s Tragedies (Diss. Yale, Menasha, 1933), who analyzes all the occurrences of the supernatural in the plays.

17. Cf. Euripides’ Herakles where Iris and Lyssa are sent to inflict the madness (822ff.), lest the position of the gods becomes weak while that of men becomes strong (841–42), and Athena is sent to end it (1002ff.). See Burnett, A. P., Catastrophe Survived (Oxford, 1971), 175, and Karl Galinsky, G., The Herakles Theme (Oxford, 1972), 58, for views about the gods’ unjust treatment of Herakles. For a view opposing mine, see Trabert, K., Studien zur Darstellung des Pathologischen in den Tragödien des Seneca (Diss. Erlangen, 1953), 35–39, who believes that Juno causes the madness of Seneca’s Hercules.

18. The human soul and world soul (universe) exist in the relationship of a microcosm to a macrocosm (SVF 1.495; Cicero, N.D. 2.58, Seneca, Ep. 65.24); but while the world soul is only good, the human soul may contain elements of good and evil (Cicero, N.D. 2.21; see Rist, J. M., Stoic Philosophy [Cambridge, 1969], 216f.). The danger of personal disorder is explained in Thyestes where Atreus’ mental disorder ultimately leads to cosmic disorder when the sun hides. But disorder was a frightening prospect not only to Stoics but to many Romans of the late Republic and early Empire. See L’Abbé E.|Dutoit, M., ‘Le Thème de “la force qui se détruit elle-même”’, REL 14 (1936), 365–73; Herington, C. J., ‘Senecan Tragedy’, Arion 5 (1966), 439–441; Scott-Kilvert, I., ‘Seneca or Scenario’, Arion 7 (1968), 502. Although Seneca in his prose work often states that Fate uses misfortune to test men (especially De Prov. passim), in Thyestes and Agamemnon he does not suggest that Fortune is the blind, hostile force which causes the disasters. However, see Lefèvre, E., ‘Schicksal und Selbstverschuldung in Senecas Agamemnori’, Hermes 94 (1966), 482–496; Die Schuld des Agamemnon’, Hermes 101 (1973), 64–91; Sandbach, F. H., The Stoics (New York, 1975), 161.

19. Passions are exaggerated and excessive impulses to action (SVF 1.206) which must be restrained and made obedient to reason (Cicero, De Off. 2.18). A major problem of Stoic ethics is whether passions (1) follow a faulty judgment, that is, an overestimation of indifferent things (the view of Zeno: see Galen, SVF 3.461); (2) are mistaken, irrational judgments, that is, impulse equals assent (the view of Chrysippus; see Galen above; also Plut., SVF 3.459; but does Cleanthes believe irrational judgments oppose rational judgments in the debate between Passion and Reason, Galen, SVF 1.570?); (3) cause faulty judgments (Posidonius). The first two views assume a unity of the soul (unless Cleanthes, above, means that passion and reason co-exist in the soul). The third view assumes a duality — a rational and an irrational force — in the soul (Cicero, De Off. 1.101; 1.132). Evil can then arise in man by nature. Seneca sometimes suggests that the soul is one and rational, and that passions result from an overestimation of indifferents (i.e., fear of death or poverty). Elsewhere, however, he speaks of duality (Ep. 92.1, 8) and suggests that passions cause, rather than result from, faulty decisions (Ep. 113.18; Ep. 37.5). In the tragedies, Seneca dramatizes this latter view (although one might suggest that Atreus’ lust results from an overestimation of wealth and power, rather than causes the banquet). In addition he dramatizes, as did Cleanthes, a conflict of Reason and Passion in the human soul. For discussion of Stoic views of passions, impulse and assent, see Rist 23–36, 39–41, 182–184, and Sandbach 59–68, 159–161.

20. ‘Problems of Time in Seneca’s Hercules Furens and Thyestes’, CSC A 8 (1975), 257–269.

21. Cf. Heldmann, 3ff.

22. Pratt, N. T., ‘Senecan Dramaturgy and the Familiar Tradition of Dramatic Myth’, TAP A 66 (1935), xxxiii, suggests that the function of the opening scene is to provide suspense of ironic anticipation. However, the primary function is not to provide factual background information. See Anliker, 15–16, who notes that references to past family crimes do not so much enlighten the audience, since many details are missing, but rather serve as reminders of the horrifying passions of family members.

23. Dramatic time in Seneca’s plays is not sequential. Hercules’ return from the Underworld is described by Juno as a past event in 47–48, 50–52, 59–61, but as a present event by Amphitryon in 522–23. Juno predicts Hercules’ threat to Heaven in 67 (quaeret, ‘he will seek’), then switches to a present tense in 74 (quaerit, ‘he is seeking’); he expresses his threat openly in 956–59. Owen, W. H., ‘Time and Event in Seneca’s Troades’, WS 4 (1970), 124, analyzes this same type of temporal manipulation in Troades: ‘the experienced dramatic present has become iterative’. Compare Chrysippus’ view of time, that no time is strictly present (SVF 2.509, 518). Stoic views of time may have influenced Seneca’s dramatic handling of it.

24. Tantalus pollutes the house, causes the banquet he was summoned to attend (63–67, especially 66: spectame te, ‘while you are spectator’, and 67: siste, ‘stay here!’) and retreats to the Underworld (103–106: domuscontactu horruit./actum est abunde! gradere ad infernos specus, ‘The house has trembled at your touch./ Well done! Go to the caverns of the Underworld’) all before the first choral ode at 122. This same period of time is dramatized again in 176 to the end of the play while we watch the actions of Atreus and Thyestes. A number of scholars have wrongly interpreted this manipulation of dramatic time in Thyestes and Hercules Furens as discrepancy; see Lesky, 191; Friedrich, W. H., Untersuchungen zu Senecas dramatischer Technik (Diss. Freiburg, 1933), 50–1; and Anliker 28–29, 47.

25. Juno, for example, can ‘see’ into Hercules’ mind and know that he is contemplating an attack on heaven (74). Cf. 959: petatur aether (‘let me seek heaven’).

26. It is the irrationality within Hercules which causes the atrocities: bella iam secum gerat (‘let him wage war with himself’, 85). Cf. Vergil’s Juno who functions also as the force of irrationality.

27. Supraque magnos gentium exultet duces / Libido victrix (45–46); misce penates, odia caedes funera I arcesse et imple Tantalo totam domum (52–53) (‘Let Lust, triumphant, exult over the mighty leaders of men’, 45–46; ‘embroil the household gods; summon hatred, slaughter and death; and fill the whole house with Tantalus’, 52–53). Cf. Knoche, U., ‘Senecas Atreus: Ein Beispiel’, Die Antike 17 (1941), 75–76.

28. See n. 22.

29. Cf. 11: hie epulis locus (‘here is the place for banquets’).

30. For the critical controversy about whether or not Aegisthus is on stage, see Calder, 30, n. 23.

31. Nor is the family curse given the importance which it has in Aeschylus; see Heldmann, 57–59.

32. Cf. Calder, 31.

33. Miller, F. J., ed. and tr., Seneca’s Tragedies II (Loeb Classical Library, London, 1929).

34. Calder, 30, n. 23. Cf. ‘le fait qui a motivé ta naissance est en marche, ô Egisthe’, L. Herrmann (Budé, Paris, 1961); or ‘der Grund, warum du geboren, Ägisth, ist da’, Thomann, T., Seneca, Sämtliche Tragödien (Zurich, 1969). But Dingel, J., Seneca und die Dichtung (Heidelberg, 1974), 91, suggests ‘die causa ist Agamemnon’.

35. But see Anliker, 16, on Ag. 31–36.

36. Cassandra says at 906: uterque tanto scelere respondet suis (‘each one, by such great crime, meets the demands of his family’), referring specifically to Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, perhaps generally to all people. Heldmann, 61, suggests that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus represent two different attitudes towards the fulfilment of vengeance.

37. Argos suffers the same fate as Troy; the storm at sea and then Agamemnon’s murder make Trojan and Greek equal. Indeed, Cassandra makes of her death a victory (vicimus victi, ‘we the conquered, have conquered’, 869). For various discussions of this theme, see Anliker, 98–103; Calder, 31–36; Lohikoski, K. K., ‘Der Parallelismus Mykene — Troja in Senecas Agamemnon’, Arctos 4 (1966), 63–70; Seidensticker, B., Die Gesprächsverdichtung in den Tragödien Senecas (Heidelberg, 1969), 119ff.

38. Compare Lactantius, de Ira Dei 17 (possibly the missing lines of Seneca’s de Ira 1.2.4: ira est cupidhas ulciscendae iniuriae; aut, ut ait Posidonius, cupiditas puniendi eius, a quo te inique putes laesum (‘anger is the desire to avenge an injury; or, as Posidonius says, the desire to punish him, by whom you think you have been unjustly harmed’). See also de Ira 1.1.1; 11.32.1–3; I1I.4.1–3, 27.1.

39. Heldmann, 61–62.

40. For a discussion of motifs in Thyestes, see Park Poe, J., ‘An Analysis of Seneca’s Thyestes’, TAPA 100 (1969), 355–76.

41. Nor is only Atreus guilty. Early in the play Thyestes advocated a sparse diet; later he greedily devours all of the food before him. His gluttony here externalizes his decision to return to power.

42. Consider the ambivalence in Seneca’s own portrayals of Thyestes. In Thyestes he first appears as a man of moderation, though Atreus recounts his earlier atrocities (220–241). At the end of the play, he is horrified by his deed. In Agamemnon, however, we learn that he subsequently committed more atrocities. Compare the conflicting views of Gigon, O., ‘Bemerkungen zu Senecas Thyestes’, Philologus 93 (1938), 176–83, who says Seneca’s portrayal of Thyestes is inconsistent, and Steidle, W., ‘Die Gestalt des Thyest’, in Senecas Tragöen, ed. E., Lefèvre (Darmstadt, 1972), 490–499.

43. The importance of the storm scene has been recognized by Seidensticker, 128f.; Lefevre, , Hermes 101 (1972), 80fL; Calder 33.

44. Seneca, in his prose works, makes frequent use of metaphors of the sea. See Steyns, D., Les Metaphores et les Comparaisons dans les oeuvres en prose de Seneque le philosophe (Gand, 1907), 71–78. And, of course, the Stoic terms levis motus, emotiones and perturbationes are metaphors taken from the disturbance of a calm sea. For the storm motif in other plays, see Poe, 374–76.

45. The play as a whole is less successful technically than Thyestes.

46. It is unlikely that Seneca ‘borrowed’ the temporal manipulation as part of a ‘borrowed’ Greek prologue, since he uses this technique so successfully elsewhere in his plays. Cf. Owen’s comments.

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