Born in Spain in 4 BC, Lucius
Annaeus Seneca was educated in Rome and became famous not only
as a playwright, but as an orator and philosopher as well. He
served as tutor to the young Nero, and when the boy became Emperor
in 54 AD, he retained Seneca as his advisor. For several years,
Seneca exerted a calming influence on the young emperor. After
he retired in AD 62, however, he lost favor with his former pupil,
and in AD 65, he was accused of conspiring against Nero and was
forced to commit suicide.
Of the plays Seneca left behind, at least 8 have survived
including The Trojan Women, Oedipus, Medea, The Mad Hercules,
The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, Agamemnon and Thyestes.
Two more plays, Octavia and Hercules on Oeta have
sometimes been attributed to Seneca although many scholars doubt
their authenticity. Hercules on Oeta is generally considered
to be an unremarkable imitation of Senecan tragedy, and Octavia
appears to have been written after Nero's death, thus discounting
Seneca as the author.
All eight of the authentic Senecan tragedies are adapted from
the work of other playwrights. Oedipus is adapted from
Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, Agamemnon
is adapted from the play by Aeschylus,
Thyestes is adapted from an unknown--probably Latin--source,
and the rest are adapted from the plays of Euripides.
Seneca never allowed himself to be bound, however, by the original
text, freely discarding scenes, rearranging, and using only the
material that he found useful.
It is not certain whether Seneca's plays were actually performed
in Roman theatres or whether they were simply intended for recitation
before a small private audience. Some scholars have suggested
that the wealthy Seneca would have considered it beneath him
to write for the theatre, and the plays themselves often show
a lack of concern for the physical requirements of the stage.
However, with a little imagination, they are certainly stageable,
and it is undeniable that Seneca's plays had a profound influence
on the development of the tragic form in later times, particularly
in the age of Shakespeare.
Seneca's tragedies are divided into five episodes separated
by choral interludes. This five-act form would become the standard
during the Renaissance. Another of Seneca's conventions, the
use of soliloquies and asides, would also prove integral to the
evolution of Renaissance drama.
Seneca was perhaps best known, however, for his scenes of
violence and horror. In Oedipus, for example, Jocasta
rips open her womb, and in Thyestes, the bodies of children
are served at a banquet. Other writers would later imitate these
scenes of violence and horror. Consider, for example, John
Webster's The Duchess of Malfi in which the Duchess'
enemies create a ghastly wax scene of her murdered husband and
children. Seneca's fascination with magic, death, and the supernatural
would also be imitated by many Elizabethan playwrights including,
among others, Christopher Marlowe.