The Roman theatre and Seneca’s tragedies Hercules Furens, Oedipus
Jovita Dikmonienė
Published 2009-01-01

How to Cite

Dikmonienė J. (2009) “The Roman theatre and Seneca’s tragedies Hercules Furens, Oedipus”, Literatūra, 51(3), pp. 47-65. doi: 10.15388/Litera.2009.3.7756.


The article analyses the feelings of characters in Seneca’s tragedies prior and after recognising their guilt. Expression of the feelings of the characters in Seneca’s two tragedies Hercules Furens andOedipus is compared, features characteristic of tragedies of recognition and the main feelings of their characters are revealed: disintegration and social fear, guilt and shame. The latest studies on Seneca’s dramas are reviewed, as well as historical knowledge about the Roman theatre in Seneca’s time, the impact of the pantomime on tragedies is presented.

In the opinion of the present-day scholars (George W. M. Harrison, A. J. Boyle, Denis and Elisabeth Henry, Bernhard Zimmermann, Alessandra Zanobi) Seneca’s tragedies were devoted to being played in the theatre rather than to be recited. Pantomime that was popular in Rome in the first century exerted great influ­ence on the structure of Seneca’s dramas. Descriptive scenes, stopping the time of the play, remarks made aside, long introductory monologues are seen today as the specificity of fabula saltatarather than a lack of Seneca’s theatre experience. The chorus or an actor in these tragedies relates of what the character is doing  on the stage so that the spectators should understand what the only pantomime dancer performing all the roles without words is doing on the stage.

The distinguishing feature of Seneca’s tragedies is representation of the characters’ feelings. The poet, when creating scenes of chaos, the horror of the world to come, the pending world catastrophe of the Earth in his tragedies, seeks to frighten the spectators. Seneca, with the help of adynata, a figure of speech, portrays the characters’ anger and their fear of disintegration. The idea, which was popular in the first century, that man’ sin would cause a world catastrophe is used in Seneca’s tragedies to strengthen the culmination mo­ments and social fear of the characters.

Having recognised their crime, Seneca’s characters feel shame. They express this feeling by the desire to hide from people, to kill themselves, to leave the town, to prick out their eyes. A feeling of shame causes anger in Seneca’s characters; however, later the shame makes them control their aggression.

In his tragedies Seneca treats the crime as a mis­take, shows lots of pangs that the characters suffer so that we should feel pity for them rather than feel horrified by the characters’ cruelty. Nonetheless, Seneca’s characters understand that fate might send a misfortune, however, guilt is born in man’s heart and it is an individual himself that chooses evil. Therefore main characters of tragedies feel guilt after recognising their crime. Oedipus and Hercules express their guilt through a sense of dirtiness, soiling themselves. It seems to them that they would never wash their hands; they feel indebted to their town and their own people. Having experienced a feeling of guilt Hercules chooses a greater suffering than death – to live in shame because he wants his father to be happy having his son alive. Atoning for his guilt Oedipus also chooses a greater suffering than death – tearing out his eyes and going into exile so that he should clear the town of plague by his suffering. Being consumed with guilt the characters behave in an altruistic way. Hercules does not lay blame on his stepmother Juno, and Oedipus blames neither Apollo nor his parents.

Seneca expects from us – readers and spectators – the moral progress so that having learned a lesson from his characters’ misfortunes we should apprehend our haughtiness, anger, a desire to rule others and the world. We can guess that the moralist – philosopher and poet Seneca expects that spectators, having experienced bitter feelings of fear, guilt and shame that hard to overcome, together with the characters, will feel the desire to become honest because it is the feeling of shame and guilt that is the driving force of the moral progress.


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