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UNSETTLING THE SENECAN FIRST ACT

  • C. Michael Sampson (a1)

Extract

Beginnings matter. In tragedy, specifically, the first act is the initial tableau in a larger composition, introducing the raw material—themes, characters, and mythological crisis—whose development and consequences will comprise the poetic action. Seneca's are a case in point: although scholars have noted that his first acts can be ‘somewhat separate’ from the main action of the plot and overly general or preliminary in character, this is only true in dramatic terms; a holistic approach to Senecan tragedy regularly reveals the artistry of a first act in retrospect, from the standpoint of a play's conclusion. The scattering of Hippolytus’ companions (Pha. 1-30), for example, foreshadows his eventual dismemberment; and the extent of his patron's Diana's dominion (54-72) is ultimately dwarfed and subsumed by that of Amor. Echoes of the ghost of Thyestes’ prologue in Cassandra's final speech (Ag. 1004-11), similarly, approximate the epic technique of ring-composition, with supernatural voices of authority replacing that of epic's third-person narrator at the bookends of the drama. However dramatically detached a first act might appear, Senecan technique prioritizes the establishment of thematic, intellectual, and lexical foundations for what follows.

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* I'm grateful to the Fondation Hardt pour l’étude de l'Antiquité classique for the junior research scholarship that supported early work on this paper.

1. Fitch (1987), 115. Tarrant (1976), 157, remarks that ‘only in Phaedra does the action proper begin before the first choral song’ but cf. the criticisms of Zwierlein (1987), 104f.

2. Pha. 185-94, 274-357; cf. the remarks of the preface in this volume.

3. See Trinacty in this volume.

4. So also Mastronarde (1970), 291.

5. Medea, Atreus, and Hercules, for example, all assert their own realities.

6. Littlewood (2004), 259-301; Trinacty (2014), 130-38. Morelli (2007) discusses the latter prologue's relationship to the Aeneid, as well.

7. For the latter, see Kroll (1924), 202-24.

8. The same can be achieved at plays’ conclusions: in Agamemnon, for example, Cassandra brings the curtain down with an ominous prediction of future events: ueniet et uobis furor (‘to you, as well, will madness come’, Ag. 1012). Given how Cassandra echoes Thyestes’ ghost, as well, the tragedy's temporal boundaries are obscured both at the start and conclusion of the dramatic action. On prologue-ghosts and structural return, see Gunderson in this volume. Troades reveals something entirely different: it begins at an end-point, and pointedly limits its temporal scope to the events of the play itself (see further, infra).

9. So also Littlewood (2004), 260, responding to Segal (1986), 203.

10. As Gunderson discusses in this volume, Seneca's poetics are catalyzed by the (im)possibility of originality. The idea of renewal in the face of exhaustion informs Kroll's notion of generic enrichment as well: Kroll (1924), 202-24. For Seneca's reception of Augustan poetry, see, most recently, Trinacty (2014).

11. See, for example, Shelton (1978), 17-25.

12. Anliker (1960), 30. The Sphinx (Oed. 87-109) and, subsequently, Manto's exstipicy (Oed. 314-83), serve much the same purpose.

13. By the time he contemplates absconding, Oedipus himself makes the connection forcefully: [sperne] tabifica caeli uitia quae tecum inuehis / infaustus hospes (‘[spurn] the contaminating vices of heaven which you introduce with yourself as an unlucky stranger’, Oed. 79f.). The putrefaction, of course, is also a metapoetic comment on the myth's need for rehabilitation and freshening up.

14. Cf. Trinacty and DeBrohun in this volume.

15. Boyle (2011), ad 6f.

16. The gods are also implicated in the theme of confusion: Creon notes the ambiguity of Delphic responses (214f.), and Tiresias notes how divine anger is usually unmistakable (332f.).

17. See Cowan in this volume on the link between Oed. 14 and 1051.

18. On the unity of Oedipus, based in the vocabulary and themes established in the prologue, see Mastronarde (1970).

19. See further DeBrohun, in this volume.

20. The impetus for Hercules’ labors (traditionally performed in atonement for the murder of his family) is, as in Euripides’ Heracles, confused: Seneca's Juno takes personal responsibility for commanding him (HF 33-36).

21. On the compression of time and the confusion of causality in the prologue, see Shelton (1978), 18; Anliker (1960), 46-48.

22. HF 19-21: Semele, Antiope, and (most recently) Alcmene are the women Juno has in mind.

23. So Billerbeck and Guex (2002), 123: ‘Le rôle de ces personnages [in a Senecan prologue] ne consiste pas seulement à exposer les antécédents de l'histoire, mais aussi à lancer l'action dramatique, comme nous le voyons ici avec Junon.’ Fitch (1987), 115, concurs: ‘Background information emerges incidentally…and it is limited to the point that interests her, namely Hercules’ return from the underworld…’

24. Alcmene, as Fitch notes (1987), ad 21f., is not typically catasterized: this is Juno's supposition.

25. The night of his conception was unnaturally long, she reports, since Phoebus had been ordered to restrain the daylight (HF 24-26; cf. Ag. 813-26).

26. The idea expressed in an etymological play: the Greek Ἡρακλῆς (‘Hera's glory’) is transformed: as she puts it, in laudes suas / mea uertit odia (‘he turns my hatred into his glory’, HF 34f.), though she later hints that her role in his achievements is essential too—gloriae feci locum (‘I've set the stage for glory’, HF 36).

27. The tragedy, interestingly, downplays the version of the myth in which Juno inhibits Alcmene's labor so as for Eurystheus to be born first.

28. Hinds (2011), 14f.; Trinacty (2014), 130-38. See also Littlewood in this volume.

29. The idea is not unprecedented: in the Iliad, Heracles’ attacks on individual gods are described (Hom. Il. 5.392-404). Morelli (2007), 32-34, notes the prologue's emphasis on Hercules’ assault, as well.

30. effregit…limen (‘he has broken the gate’, HF 48); Dite domito (‘with Dis overwhelmed’, HF 51); Ereboque capto (‘Erebus conquered’, HF 54); rupto carcere umbrarum (‘the prison of shades ruptured’, HF 57); terna monstri colla deuicti (‘the threefold necks of the defeated monster’, HF 62).

31. Billerbeck and Guex (2002), 153, ad 58.

32. For the conflicting views of Hercules in the play, as well as the similarity of his sanity and insanity, Fitch (1987), 21-33, is classic; see also Shelton (1978), 58-73.

33. Anliker (1960), 47, describes the product of the change from future tense (quaeret, HF 67) to present (quaerit, HF 74) as reflecting a ‘causal anachronism’ (kausaler ‘Anachronismus’).

34. Fitch (1987), ad 79, notes that, after Hesiod, the Gigantomachy and Titanomachy are conflated: in the former, traditionally, Hercules assisted the Olympians. See Pindar Nem. 1.61-72; Diod. Sic. 4.15, 4.21.

35. Seneca would well appreciate the words of Publilius Syrus: ibi semper est uictoria ubi concordia est (‘victory is always where harmony is’, Sententiae 327).

36. Littlewood (2004), 15-102, esp. 72-81.

37. Fitch (1987), 115.

38. Cf. her complaint (HF 19-21) that she has too often been made a stepmother.

39. So Fitch (1987), 116: ‘[I]t is clear in her own mind, but is revealed to the audience only incidentally, through allusive hints.’ The idea of the allusive and dim revelation is an old one, going back to Leo (1908), 91.

40. Fitch (1987), ad 116f., notes Hercules’ last words at 1338-41: Juno has succeeded. That longing is inherited: Juno's wish—‘may he long for death’ (et cupiat mori, HF 116)—recalls that of Ovid's persecuted and laboring Alcmena: ‘and I longed for death’ (cupioque mori, Ov. Met. 9.303).

41. Hercules will not turn his sights to heaven after killing his family, but in his madness, he hallucinates that he is assaulting heaven and Juno herself (HF 939-1020).

42. Commands are also thematized in the play: Hercules’ commands from Juno/Eurystheus (41; 211; 213; 235; 604; 830-33; 1268); those of the violent tyrant (43); of Phoebus restraining the day for the purpose of Hercules’ conception (26); the certainty of death and the Parcae's cut (189); the perversion that good people are ordered by the wicked (253); Hercules’ exposing things from below to the light under orders (596; cf. 660).

43. The theme relates variously to Juno's displacement from heaven and the conception of Hercules (4-26), his violation of the underworld and retrieval of Cerberus (50-61; 821-27); Juno's retribution (123f.); the first choral ‘dawn song’; Amphitryon's grief (207-09); Hercules’ anticipated arrival (279-83); Megara's rejection of Lycus (373f.); Hercules’ thanks upon arrival (593-97); entry to the underworld (669-72); Hercules’ madness (939-42); Hercules as sun (1057-63); Hercules’ reawakening (1138-41); Hercules’ infamy and lack of asylum (1329-34).

44. Contrast is essential to Seneca's poetic point: in response to the exceptionalism of Hercules and the bedlam surrounding him (and Juno), the dawn-song and its juxtaposition of rustic and urban life reassert a status quo that is absent or undermined in the prologue. Fitch (1987), 161-63, shows how the ode is both integrated into the play to an unusual degree and indebted to numerous models; see also Billerbeck and Guex (2002), 173-75. Littlewood (2004), 81, notes that this ode ‘suggests a secure resolution of the drama’. The case of Medea I turn to currently.

45. Boyle (1997), 122, praises the structure of the play as well.

46. So also Hine (1989); Trinacty (2014), 188-90.

47. On the first ode of Hercules Furens, see Littlewood in this volume.

48. As Littlewood (2004), 148, notes the voyage of the Argo is thereby presented as a breach of natural order.

49. Medea is a granddaughter of the sun (28f.), and will call upon Hecate in preparation of her rites (577, 833, 839-42). I would go further and posit that they represent her family's acknowledgement of the union: Németi (2003), 131, ad 6-7, notes the tradition traced to Dionysius Scytobrachion in which Hecate is Aeëtes’ wife (and mother of Medea): Diod. Sic. 4.45.1-3; Σ Apoll. Rhod. 3.200b; 3.240. Such an admission makes their reappearance in the play's climax and denouement all the more appropriate.

50. Boyle (2014), ad 16-17, argues that the Furies’ presence was to punish her for her murder of Absyrtus: this is not made clear, however, until 967-71, regarding which he notes (2014), ad 967-71, that ‘In Apollonius (4.476) a Fury actually witnesses the murder.’ I incline toward Littlewood (2004), 152: ‘A feature of the avenging Fury is its tendency to re-stage the crime it punishes.’

51. The atram facem (‘black torch’, Med. 15) carried by the Furies resemble the torches that Furies use to inspire madness more than the iugales faces (‘conjugal torches’) of marriage, which can also be ominous (as at Sen. Ag.158). Boyle (1997), 113, has the play's socio-moral thesis as ‘what creates civilisation destroys it’.

52. As in other plays, Seneca eschews entirely the kind of expository prologue one finds in Euripides’ Medea: there is no need to do so when the plot at stake is obvious. See Costa (1973), 61; Biondi (1984), 16-22; Németi (2003), 127f.

53. Boyle (2014), 98.

54. As Boyle (1997), 128-33, and Schiesaro (2003), 17f., note, the realization of Medea's revenge is framed as poetic or dramatic inspiration.

55. Cf. Littlewood (2004), 148, who sees Phaëthon instead as a paradigm for Argonautic transgression, which is certainly true later in the play: see Costa (1973), ad 599-602; Biondi (1984), 152, ad 599sg. But Medea, although inspired by Phaëthon (i.e. Med. 826f.), will nonetheless surpass her predecessor and succeed.

56. For the ‘heavier’ deeds of Medea as a departure from Ovid and elegiac constraints, see Trinacty (2007), 67-69. On the maius-motif in Seneca more broadly, cf. Cowan’s essay in this volume.

57. My analysis of Hercules Furens and, subsequently, Troades would benefit no less from an analysis of the choral song that follows those first acts, but for reasons of space I have limited myself to Medea, regarding which I hope to demonstrate that the dualities in theme and structure are essential to Seneca's poetic point.

58. Given her innovative ambitions, I'm tempted to coin her vengeance a ‘dysthanization’.

59. As Biondi puts it, ‘Il monologo di Medea, nonostante il metro “dialogato”, ha connotazioni stilistiche decisamente innologiche: il suo discourse è una preghiera “nera” cui si opporrà quella “bianca” del coro’: Biondi and Traina (1989), 91.

60. So Biondi (1984), 25, refers to ‘la tragedia come antitesi’.

61. Hine (1989), 413.

62. See above pp. 9f.

63. That such ominous prayers are only thinly disguised is important: it is a principle of Roman divination that a sign must be noticed and accepted before it is effective or significant, but in the case of unfavorable utterances—κληδόνες—this is not necessarily the case. See Liebeschuetz (1979), 24f.

64. Cf. frenare (4), horridae (16), horrida (45).

65. Boyle (2014), lxxix, views the finale as the ‘imagery of its prologue realized.’

66. As Boyle notes (1994), 1-6, the opening rewrites the conclusion of Hecuba's lament over Astyanax in Euripides (Tro. 1203-06). Seneca also eschews the anapaests of Hecuba's first speech in Euripides in favor of more stately trimeters.

67. On the title and its implications, see Wilson (1983), 27f.

68. Calder (1970), 75f.

69. So also Fantham (1982), 203-05, comments on the lack of foreboding.

70. See Wilson (1983), 40-43; Boyle (1994), 33f.

71. Fantham (1982), ad 1-4, remarks on the variety of apostrophes and self-address (e.g. Tro. 4, 28-33, 41, 61). Cf. Wilson (1983), 48, who holds that she ‘is talking to herself.’

72. So Fantham (1982), ad 1-4.

73. Her sentiment is echoed internally by Agamemnon, who applies it to the Greeks, as well: stamus hoc Danai loco, / unde illa cecidit (‘we Danaans stand upon the same position from which that city has fallen’, Tro. 265f.).

74. Littlewood (2004), 242 n.127, detects allusions to the Aeneid, particularly the account of Dido's temple, in Hecuba's appeal to a powerful audience. But despite their common widowhood, Hecuba is no Dido; the latter died before ever witnessing the destruction of Carthage.

75. She will return to her status and value for the Greeks toward the end of the monologue, where she claims that she is a ‘cheap prize’ (praedaque uilis, Tro. 58). See further Littlewood (2004), 251-54, on the contrast in first and final acts between the ugliness of Troy and the beauty of its executed youth.

76. So also Wilson (1983), 48f. These dead men embody the fall of the city more fully than she.

77. While pregnant, Hecuba dreamed that she gave birth to a fiery torch (i.e. Paris). See Apollod. bibl. 3.12.5; Hygin. fab. 91. The myth of the dream was familiar to Roman audiences; so, for example, the prophecy typically assigned to Cassandra and frequently ascribed to Ennius’ Alexandros (TrRF II 151.10f. = fr. XVIII.41f Jocelyn).

78. Wilson (1983), 48, notes Hecuba's resilience, as well, but comes to different conclusions (see n. XX below). Fantham (1982), ad 62, compares me mea sequentur fata (‘my fates will follow me’, Tro. 994) which positions Hecuba as ‘a powerful instrument of divine Nemesis’.

79. Cf. Wilson (1983), 49, who argues that Hecuba clutches to ‘a perspective on events which restores to her a sense of control’.

80. On theatricality, see Boyle (1994), 36f. On death, see Wilson (1983), 50f.; Boyle (1994), 18-26, 31-33.

81. For control of the sea as an image of dominion and subjugation (marital or otherwise), cf. Med. 2-4 and Pha. 85-91.

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UNSETTLING THE SENECAN FIRST ACT

  • C. Michael Sampson (a1)

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