Heavy Seneca: his Influence on Shakespeare's Tragedies

Brian Arkins

University College Galway and Saint David's University College Lampeter


Immensely popular throughout sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, Seneca's eight tragedies influenced not only Racine and Corneille, but also Shakespeare - as this essay sets out to show. Whether or not Seneca's plays were originally designed for performance in the theatre, they have been and are being performed: Ted Hughes' version of Oedipus is a case in point. Seneca's tragedies, like those of the Athenian dramatists in the fifth century, deal with Greek myth: Hercules Furens, Agamemnon, Thyestes, Oedipus, Medea, Phaedra, The Trojan Women, The Phoenician Women. But Seneca is radically different from his Greek predecessors: since his play The Trojan Women puts on stage the murder of both Polyxena and Astyanax, and since it adds a sinister, supernatural element, it is very unlike Euripides' play of the same title and must be examined on its own terms.

Which brings us to the crucial point about Seneca's tragedies: the Roman dramatist uses Greek material to comment obliquely on the outrages of Nero's court and describes a world that is radically evil. These plays are therefore much more pessimistic than most Greek tragedies and might almost be termed religious drama. Typically in a Senecan tragedy, we begin with a Cloud of Evil, then witness the defeat of Reason by Evil, and finally experience the Triumph of Evil - as in The Trojan Women. It is therefore no surprise that a century which has witnessed the Holocaust, the Gulags, Hiroshima and much else should be engaged in the rehabilitation of Seneca's tragedies. Far from being contemptible as drama, these tragedies speak directly to our experience.

'No author exercised a wider or deeper influence upon the Elizabethan mind or upon the Elizabethan form of tragedy than did Seneca'.(1) So, rightly, T.S. Eliot. That influence is seen most obviously in Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy of 1586, in Webster's The Duchess of Malfy of 1614 and in the plays of Marston, but Seneca (2) is also crucial to Shakespeare,(3) who may well have read his plays in Latin at Stratford grammar school. The revenge tragedies Titus Andronicus and Hamlet derive from Seneca, as do those plays of vaulting ambition Richard III and Macbeth; and Seneca is extensively burlesqued in the comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream.

For the dramatists of the Renaissance in France, in Italy, and in England, Classical tragedy means the ten Latin plays of Seneca, not Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; as the Martindales say, 'Seneca was the closest Shakespeare ever got to Greek tragedy'.(4) Indeed Francis Meres sees Shakespeare as a new Seneca: 'As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latins; so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage'.(5) No wonder, then, that Shakespeare himself, when he satirizes contemporary dramatists who mix the four recognized types of drama to the customer's taste, uses Seneca as a touchstone: 'Seneca cannot be too heavy nor Plautus too light' (Hamlet 2.2.396-97).

For Seneca was in the Elizabethan air. Between 1551 and 1563 Cambridge was very Senecan, with two performances of The Trojan Women, two performances of Medea, and one of Oedipus; a landmark was clearly the staging of The Trojan Women, one of Seneca's best plays, in 1551. Then the first English tragedy Gorboduc, performed in 1562, was clearly Romanizing and was praised by Sidney as 'climbing to the height of Seneca his style'. And, not least, the Tenne Tragedies of Seneca were translated into English by Jasper Heywood and others between 1559 and 1581, when they were published as a single book. These translations, which, as Eliot says, have 'considerable poetic charm and quite adequate accuracy, with occasional flashes of real beauty',(6) exercised a substantial influence on Elizabethan dramatists.

Shakespeare's most Senecan plays are Titus Andronicus, Hamlet , Richard III, and Macbeth, and the plays of Seneca that most contribute to these are The Trojan Women, Phaedra, Thyestes, Agamemnon and Hercules Furens. What Shakespeare derived from Seneca are the following seven general features, mediated, in part, through Italian Senecan plays such as the Orbecche of Cinthio (1541):

  1. An obsession with scelus, crime.
  2. A preoccupation with torture, mutilation, incest and corpses - as in Titus Andronicus.
  3. A stress on witchcraft and the supernatural - as in Macbeth.
  4. The existence of vaulting ambition in the prince - as in Richard III and Macbeth.
  5. The ghost that calls for revenge - as in Hamlet and Macbeth.
  6. The self-dramatization of the hero, especially as he dies - as in Hamlet and Macbeth.(7)
  7. The frequent use of stichomythia in dialogue, which derives from passages like Medea 168 - as in Richard III and Hamlet .

Seneca's influence is paramount in two of Shakespeare's revenge tragedies, Titus Andronicus and Hamlet
. Widely regarded as Shakespeare's most Senecan play, Titus Andronicus, whose historical background is largely that of the fifth and sixth centuries AD, moves, like the plays of Seneca, 'towards a disaster for which the cause is established in the first minutes of action'.(8) First produced in the years 1590-92 and virtually absent from the London stage for centuries because of its horrors, Titus Andronicus invites us to contemplate multiple murders, human sacrifice, the cutting off of Titus' hand, the severed heads of Titus' sons, the rape, murder, and dismemberment of Lavinia, and a cannibal feast, in which Titus' mad cookery of Tamora's sons comes straight out of Seneca's Thyestes;(9) as Muir says, 'It is a nice irony that Shakespeare's most shocking play should be closest in spirit to the classics'.(10)

Here Seneca is teaching Shakespeare how to make scelus, crime, a word that occurs more than 200 times in Seneca's plays, 'the central principle of tragic action and design, how to focus on the crime, the perpetrators, the victims, and on the moral framework violated'.(11) Indeed two of the most common tags from Seneca in Elizabethan drama deal with scelus: 'for crimes the safe way always leads through more crimes' (Agamemnon 115) and 'Great crimes you don't avenge, unless you outdo them', which comes, significantly, from Thyestes (195-96). The word scelus, crime, occurs 38 times in Seneca's play Thyestes, which is an important influence on Titus Andronicus.

The revenge play, which is launched by scelus, comes in three phases, consisting of:

  1. the appearance of the ghost or Fury;
  2. the making of the revenger; and
  3. the ritual revenge itself.(12)

Shakespeare adapts this pattern in Titus Andronicus by sharing the revenge among three people, Tamora, who impersonates Revenge, Titus and Aaron. The most obvious representative of evil in the play - he is called by Waith 'an embodiment of evil'(13) - the Moorish barbarian, Aaron, clearly recalls the hateful figure of Atreus in Seneca's Thyestes. But Titus, who, as a noble Roman father, contrasts with Aaron, turns into an avenger himself and serves up her children for Tamora to eat in a cannibal feast; 'Rome is but a wilderness of tigers' (3.1.54). For, as we see from Orbecche, Gordobuc, and The Misfortunes of Arthur, the spectacle of Kindermord haunted the Renaissance.

For Titus Andronicus and for other plays, what Seneca offers Shakespeare, above all else, is an inimical universe in which evil triumphs(14) - as the two direct quotations from Seneca's Phaedra attest. For Demetrius adapts Phaedra 1180 on the subject of Hell to articulate 'his consuming lust for Lavinia; his hell is emotional and psychological, a product of unruly passion',(15) while Titus' outburst about the rapists' actions adapts Phaedra 671-72 to question God's tolerance of evil.

Discussion of Seneca's influence on Hamlet must begin with the remarks of Thomas Nashe:

Yet English Seneca read by candle light yeeldes manie good sentences, as Bloud is a beggar, and so foorth; and, if you intreate him faire in a frostie morning, he will affoord you whole Hamlet s, I should say handfulls of tragicall speaches. But O griefe! tempus edax rerum, what's that will last alwaies? The sea exhaled by droppes will in continance be drie, and Seneca led bloud line by line and page by page at length must needes die to our stage.(16)

It is not indeed that specific plays of Seneca's lie behind Hamlet , but that the whole tone of the play is Seneca; as Doran puts it, 'Hamlet is certainly not much like any play of Seneca's one can name, but Seneca is undoubtedly one of the effective ingredients in the emotional charge of Hamlet . Hamlet without Seneca is inconceivable'(17).

Thematically, what Seneca gives to Hamlet is the general theme of revenge for a great wrong done; the ghost of Hamlet 's father that seeks such a revenge and the extreme passion that characterizes Hamlet himself. Stylistically, what Seneca gives to Hamlet is the meditative soliloquy and stichomythia. There is therefore a general Senecan atmosphere in the play; as Miola says, 'The ghosts of Senecan drama - Atreus, Hercules, Pyrrhus, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Orestes, Electra - and of neo-Senecan drama - Hieronimo, Titus, Lucianus - hover in the background of Hamlet , providing perspective on character and action'.(18)

Central to that perspective is the fact that Senecan conventions are often transformed in Hamlet . For example, Hamlet himself is not an avenger of the Senecan type who ruthlessly pursues his victim, but is something quite different, a man who, notoriously, wavers constantly before committing himself to revenge. Here Shakespeare exploits the Renaissance topos of an opposition between passionate action on the one hand and the Stoic ideal that passion is an infirmity on the other ('Give me that man that is not passion's slave'); at times, Hamlet sets out to be the Senecan avenger, at other times, he regards revenge with extreme misgivings. On the other hand, Claudius who displays lust, vengefulness, and greed for power is straight out of Seneca's Aegisthus.(19)

The Senecan conventions are altered in other ways. While the ghost of Hamlet's father derives from the ghosts in Seneca's Agamemnon and Thyestes, unlike them, Hamlet's father modifies the call for revenge; 'nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother ought'. Again, Hamlet 's famous meditative soliloquy 'To be or not to be' derives from a choral ode in Seneca's The Trojan Women lines 371-81. (20)

Two of Shakespeare's plays of vaulting ambition in the prince, Richard III and Macbeth are also strongly influenced by Seneca. Richard III is called by Muir 'the most Senecan of Shakespeare's plays'(21) and the play is clearly indebted to Hercules Furens, Phaedra and The Trojan Women. Richard himself is a typically Senecan tyrant, a gloomy, introspective, self-dramatizing hero, 'a spectacular character who dares scelus',(22) he exemplifies extremely well the fact that evil is most potent when it lodges in the heart of the prince - as with Thyestes. Significantly, he revises that famous Senecan tag to 'But I am in / so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin' (4.2.63-4).

One of the main Senecan features of Richard III is that Gloucester's wooing of Anne derives from Lycus' wooing of Megera in Hercules Furens;(23) as Hunter says, 'The whole Lycus/Megera situation in Hercules Furens - the usurping monarch seeking to strengthen his rule by forcing marriage on the wife of the vanished ruler - seems to be echoed in this scene'.(24) To be specific: in both plays, there are similar preparations for entrance; appeals to general principles; the tyrant's wish for a softer answer, after a bitter one; his justification for past slaughter; and the violent reaction of the women who, clad in mourning, want the tyrant's death.

The climax of the wooing scene, the sword sequence, comes from Seneca's Phaedra. Just as the outraged Hippolytus holds a sword at the breast of the self-confessed criminal lover, Phaedra, who invites the stroke, so the outraged Anne holds a sword at the breast of the criminal lover, Gloucester, who invited the stroke. Faced with an eroticization of the situation, both Hippolytus and Anne drop the sword.

Finally, another important Senecan element in Richard III is found in the kommos of Act 4, scene 4: the lamenting women, led by Margaret, who seeks to revile the tyrant, derive from the lamenting women in The Trojan Women, led by Hecuba.

Macbeth, which was probably first performed at the Globe in 1606 and is one of the shortest of Shakespeare's plays, is 'a sophisticated recension of Senecan elements'(25) and so exemplifies what Hazlitt called 'the wildness of the imagination'. The Martindales usefully sum up Seneca's influence on Macbeth: 'There are a number of features in Macbeth - the heated rhetoric, the brooding sense of evil, the preoccupation with power, the obsessive introspection, the claustrophobic images of cosmic destruction - which recall Seneca's manner and interest, together with an unusually high number of passages which seem to derive from his plays'.(26) Indeed the play constitutes Shakespeare's 'most profound and mature vision of evil'(27) and Macbeth himself is a criminal, an immoral man in a moral universe, whose 'choice of evil unleashes catastrophic consequences which inflict the whole cosmos'(28) - a typically Senecan scenario. But Macbeth differs from Richard III: whereas Richard is the villain as hero, Macbeth is a hero who becomes a villain'.(29)

Detailed analysis of how Seneca's plays influence Macbeth must begin with Shakespeare's appropriation of two epigrams of Seneca that haunt the Elizabethan imagination; as Eliot says of Seneca, 'again and again the epigrammatic observation on life or death is put in the most telling way at the most telling moment'.(30) At Agamemnon 115 Clytemnestra says per scelera semper sceleribus tutum est iter, which Studley translates as 'The softest path to mischiefe is by mischiefe open still'; this becomes Macbeth's 'Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill' (3.2.55). At Phaedra 607 Phaedra says curae leves loquuntur, ingentes stupent ,which Studley translates as 'Light cores have words at will, but great doe make us aghast''; this becomes Malcolm's 'the grief, that does not speak,/Whisters the o'er fraught heart, and bids it break' (4.3.209-10).

But the Senecan play that most influences Macbeth is Hercules Furens, which Shakespeare must have re-read at this time. When, after the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth vainly hope to cleanse their blood-stained hands they draw not only on Phaedra 715-18, but also on Hercules Furens 1323-26. In Phaedra Hippolytus cries out after being polluted by his stepmother's attempted seduction:

What Tanais will wash me or what Maeotis
pressing barbarous floods into the Pontic sea?
Not the mighty father himself with all his Ocean
will expiate such a crime.

In Hercules Furens Hercules cries out after killing his children:

What Tanais or what Nile or what Tigris
raging with Persian water or what fierce Rhine
or Tagus flowing swollen with the golden sand of Spain
will cleanse this hand?

Compare Macbeth's soliloquy (2.2.59-62);

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine
Making the green one red.

and Lady Macbeth (5.1.48-49): 'There's the smell of blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand'.

Then Macbeth's famous soliloquy at the end of the play certainly derives from a passage in Hercules Furens, in which Hercules confronts the ruin of his life (1258-61):

There is no reason for me to hold, to delay my life
longer in this light; I have lost all my advantages,
mind, arms, fame, wife, children,
even my madness. No one can be cured of a
polluted mind; crime must be cured by death.

This becomes (5.3.22-26)

I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have ...

and (5.3.40)

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd?

Next, Macbeth's assertion (1.7.7) that 'We but teach / Bloody instructions, which being taught, return / To plague th' inventor' echoes Theseus' dictum in Hercules Furens that 'What each has done he suffers; the crime seeks out the author and the guilty one is crushed by his own form of guilt. And, finally, Macbeth's reflection on Sleep in Act 2, scene 2, is based on the Chorus' reflections on Sleep in Hercules Furens 1065-81 (as well as in Ovid); with Macbeth's 'Sleep that knits up the revell'd sleeve of care, / The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, / Balm of hurt minds, great Nature's second course, / Chief nourisher in Life's feast', compare, in Heywood's translation 'And then O tamer best / O sleep of toyles, the quietnesse of mynde / of all the lyfe of man the better parte'.

In yet another debt to Seneca, Shakespeare makes Lady Macbeth find a paradigm for atrocious masculine daring in the character of Medea.(31) Amid a framework of ritual incantation, Lady Macbeth's countenancing of infanticide recalls Medea's murder of her children, and her command to the Spirits to 'unsex me here' recalls Medea's invocation to her own soul to 'Exile all foolish female feare and pity from thy Minde' (Studley). Finally, behind the secret, black and midnight hags who seek to bring about the damnation of Macbeth, lie the Furies of Greek mythology and of Seneca's Thyestes, terrible avenging sisters who are synonymous with witches and devils.(32)

This astonishing catalogue of Senecan influence means that Macbeth rather than Richard III is 'the most Senecan of all Shakespeare's plays',(33) and, since it is also one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, we can see that Seneca's influence was enormously beneficial.

To conclude, the appeal of Seneca's plays for the Elizabethan age and for the modern age is not far to seek: Seneca studies evil with great diligence and, in particular, evil in the prince, and both those ages are very well versed in evil. In Seneca's plays and their Elizabethan recensions, in the revenge plays Titus Andronicus and Hamlet , and in the plays of vaulting ambition Richard III and Macbeth, evil is a palpable presence and lodges especially in the heart of the prince. In Seneca and in Shakespeare, we encounter first a Cloud of Evil, then the defeat of Reason by Evil, and, finally, the triumph of Evil.

All this is caviar to the age of Dachau and Auschwitz, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of Kampuchea, Northern Ireland, Bosnia. Horror does not turn us off, as it turned off the Victorians, who could not handle Seneca. Nor did horror turn off the Elizabethans, who lived in an age with its own uncertainties, with the Tower, the bear-baiting, the mob. Consequently, Shakespeare could embrace with éclat what has been called the Kingdom of Violence, could give us the horrors and crimes of Titus Andronicus, revenge, filicide, cannibal feast.

The significance of Seneca for Shakespeare and for our time can be gauged from the following quotation from Peter Brook, who directed a landmark production of Titus Andronicus at Stratford in 1955, with Lawrence Olivier as Titus:(34)

The real appeal of Titus (over theoretically "greater" plays like Hamlet and Lear) was that abstract - stylized - Roman classical though it appeared to be, it was obviously for everyone in the audience about the most modern of emotions - about violence, hatred, cruelty, pain - in a form that because unrealistic transcended the anecdote and became for each audience quite abstract and thus totally real.


1 T.S.Eliot, Selected Essays (1951),65.
2 For Seneca's plays, see esp. L.J. Herington Arion 5 (1966), 422-71, A.J. Boyle, Ramus 16 (1987), 78-101.
3 For Seneca and Shakespeare see esp. R.S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy - The Influence of Seneca (1992), also C. & M. Martindale, Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity (1990), 29-44.
4 Martindales (n.3), 44.
5 Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G.Gregory Smith (1971), vol.2, 317-318.
6 Eliot (n.1), 65-66.
7 For this self-dramatization see T.S. Eliot 'Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca' in Selected Essays (n.1), 126-140.
8 E.M. Waith, Titus Andronicus (1984) 69.
9 Cf. Martindales (n.1), 47: 'Especially close to Titus in atmosphere is Thyestes, with its brooding sense of evil and its climax in a cannibal feast.'
10 K.Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (1977) 23.
11 Miola (n.3), 16.
12 P. Mercer, Hamlet and the Acting of Revenge (1987).
13 Waith (n.8), 64.
14 Cf. Herington (n.2).
15 Miola (n.3), 14.
16 Elizabethan Critical Essays (n.5), vol. 1, 312.
17 M. Doran, Endeavours of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (1954)16.
18 Miola (n.3), 52.
19 W.A. Armstrong, Review of English Studies 24 (1948), 34.
20 Cf. Miola (n.3), 38.
21 Muir (n.10), 37.
22 Miola (n.3), 91.
23 H.G. Brooks, Modern Language Review 75 (1980), 728-37.
24 G.K. Hunter, Richard III (The Revels Plays), 138.
25 Miola (n.3), 93. He deals with Macbeth at pp. 92-121.
26 Martindales (n.3), 37.
27 G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1961),140.
28 Martindales (n.3), 38.
29 K. Muir, Macbeth (1957), lxi.
30 Eliot (n.1), 74.
31 I-S. Ewbank, Shakespeare Survey, 19 (1966) 82-94.
32 A.R. McGee, Shakespeare Survey, 19 (1966) 55-67.
33 See n.21.
34 Quoted in Waith (n.8), 55-56.

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