Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.30

Gianni Guastella, L'ira e l'onore. Forme della vendetta nel teatro senecano e nella sua tradizione.   Palermo:  Palumbo, 2001.  Pp. 271.  ISBN 88-8020-428-9.  EUR 23.76.  

Reviewed by Ildikó Csepregi, Central European University, Budapest (
Word count: 2045 words

"Vengeance is not a Christian virtue. It was a pagan duty." (W. M. Calder III)

The blood-thirsty stories of Senecan mythology form a web of revenge-acts so constructed as to emphasize the "circularity of evil," the genetically-transmitted hunger for eternally repeated vengeance. To outdo the deeds of one's ancestors in crime and inflict a punishment beyond even the imagination of one's enemies: this constitutes the Senecan certamen virtutis, which becomes in the tragedies a marathon of cruelty, a perverted representation of what is, after all, a basic principle in Roman ethics. The Senecan citizen fulfils his filial duty by committing a crime larger than that of his forefathers.

Here we are already stuck deep in a mass of anthropological concepts, which will form the reference material of Guastella's inquiry: together with social ritual, marriage, matrilinear and patrilinear inheritance, fratricide, incest, and cannibalism, these form the matrix of an analysis of the tragedies centering on the notions of revenge, honour and fame, shame, and offence.

The book is divided into two parts: the first one (Chapters 1-4) covers revenge in Senecan tragedy, the second (Chapter 5 and an Appendix) shows the influence of Seneca in Elizabethan revenge tragedies. The principal aim of the book is to set out the development and change of a mythical motif (vengeance) in its dramatic context from fifth-century Greece (Euripides) to the Venetian stage (Correr) and Elizabethan England, always keeping Senecan drama at the centre of attention. Guastella singles out three mythical revenge stories, Thyestes, Medea and Procne; claiming a certain novelty in methodology, he chooses to work with anthropological concepts, neatly summarized in his Introduction (pp 9-30).

In his first chapter (pp 31-74) Guastella gives an account of pre-Senecan treatments of the Thyestes myth; in its Senecan version, he focuses on the dramatic elaboration of deceit, rivalry, and Atreus' motives for revenge. He places the latter in the context of the legal sanctions and social conventions of contemporary Rome concerning adultery, which jeopardize the clear paternity origin of children. That is the reason why Seneca introduces the trial set for the children by Atreus to test his fatherhood. In Guastella's reading, this disturbance caused by Thyestes in Atreus' family line adequately motivates Atreus' revenge (leaving the question of kingship aside).

Chapter 2 (pp 75-108) explores the theme of cannibalism. It focuses on the motif of the flesh of father and son, the symbolic values attached to the body of the son as a prolongation of the father's body, the projection of the father's self, while the father, in killing and/or eating his son, becomes a "living grave." A more nuanced result is achieved when Guastella adds in passing some ideas borrowed from philosophy (Lucretius) and calls attention to the connection between sexual insult and cannibalism as its punishment. The meaning of the word viscera is extended through different poetic connotations taken from analogous revenge-stories, those of Atreus, Procne, and Medea. Meanwhile we proceed from the body of the father to the body of the mother and hence to the Medea myth.

In Chapter 3 (pp 109-136), while scrutinizing the figure of Medea and her myth, which probably evokes the most extreme emotions of any tragedy, Guastella seems to share the sympathy of Euripides, Ovid, and Seneca towards their heroine. This enables him to detect the different motivations and changes in the authors' characterisations of Medea. By way of confronting the three versions, Guastella's analysis is centred on the destiny of the children, subsequent changes in Medea's identity, the subversion of social roles that defined her first as princess, then as an illegitimate wife and mother, then as the barbaric alien, and finally the passionate avenger. (The traces of Medea's former existence as a goddess, a sorceress-magician, and a descendent of the Sun are not treated.) As we move from Euripides to the Roman authors, the importance of marriage and motherhood as legal status becomes emphasised. This is the moment when the author's advertised anthropological methodology begins to bears fruit. Roman matrimony and maternity are defined by Guastella both as a natural female state and a responsibility assigned by the society, and his quotations give an insight into how Seneca uses these concepts as a poetic instrument creating powerful metaphors that permeate the Senecan play with an often crude physicality. (It is enough to recall the prologue: parta iam ultio est: peperi vv. 25-26.). Calling a child a pignus, when seen with legal terms in mind, means less a sign of mutual love than a guarantee for the legitimacy of the union. When deprived of these "indicators", the parental role is disrupted and the very basis of self-definition of both father and mother disappears.

As Medea throws off those layers of her personality she cannot, or is not willing, to keep, what is it that remains? In my reading of the tragedy, her very existence up to the moment in Corinth when she decides to kill her children has consisted of the gradual and constant destruction, or repealing, of these layers of her self, a never ending change of parts in a drama spiralling out of control; when, finally, she reaches the point of no return and strips off the last of her earlier feminine roles, she turns back towards her earliest self. For Medea, this gradual creation (restoration?) of self-identity -- the path from Medea. - Fiam to Medea nunc sum -- will be her greatest source of power. As she commits the "greater sin", she is at once the rival or her own girlish persona; she is, however, not only about to accomplish a more monstrous act than any she committed earlier (as the Nurse begins to suspect: v. 674); she is herself going to become the embodiment of vengeance, and in two ways. 1. She collects in herself all the power implicit in the surrounding world: Medea superest - hic mare et terras vides / ferrumque et deos et fulmina vv.166-167). 2. In planning the murder of her children, she raises herself and Jason to the level of originators of the act of vengeance in the strictest sense of the term; the crime is not simply the act of the destructive force collected in Medea but Medea herself: scelus est Iason genitor et maius scelus / Medea mater (933-934).

Guastella examines these changes of roles with great sensitivity. Chapter 4 (Virgo, coniunx, mater: Medea pp 137-154) performs an archaeology of the background to the destruction of these personae. First of all Medea's conscious choices and her re-evaluation of her own personal past through the fate of her children (non sunt mei - mei sunt), encompassing in a similar way (and similar terminology) the crimes committed for the sake of Jason, as well as her virtuous deeds (vv. 228-230), then the passing of love into hatred and finally the "dowry" lost for Jason (patria, pater, frater, pudor and her rapta virginitas). The aim of revenge is in fact a paradoxical restoration of Medea's earlier situation (her social and familial status, the lost or discarded feminine personae), metaphorically-speaking a re-claiming of her "dowry".

Chapter 5 attempts to follow the revenge-motif along its line of historical development, touched upon previously in the pre-Senecan treatments. Here the field is given to the Renaissance tragedies, to a smaller degree to French, Spanish and Italian "Senecanism," and on a greater scale to the English Elizabethan drama, as played in the Inns of Court. The preliminary clarification of the fact that classical tradition and Senecan impact on Elizabethan theatre is a style of tragedy not a systematic re-elaboration of Senecan themes leads towards the goal of the chapter: to explore how and into what Seneca is transformed in the new cultural context.

Sharing the opinion of Pastorale Stocchi, that Seneca was not at all a direct source of senecanism, Guastella proceeds to outline the contemporary audience which was so receptive to adopt Senecan dramas. The cultural horizon of the time on stage is characterised by the genre of the Mirrour for Magistrates. From the point of the Senecan corpus, it is interesting to see the changes executed by the translators at the end of the tragedies and in the prefaces justifying the alternations, attributing to the Senecan plays a clear-cut moral dimension. Oddly enough, the authors at The Inns of Court, when staging their plays, turned rather to the Venetian stage practice and again not directly to Seneca. Having summarised the transformation of Senecan play into a morally edifying speculum, performed for the restricted circle of the elite, Guastella turns again to the motive of tragic vengeance, as it was understood in the revenge tragedies designed for a wider audience. Through the analysis of three plays (Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Marston's Antonio's Revenge) he highlights the changes of the already familiar concepts: anger, honour, offence and vengeance as a response to a violation of personal dignity, the essence of which is always death.

The last part of the book (pp 209-233) is modestly called an appendix but in fact forms a conceptual summary of the book. When closely observed, Guastella's selection of Giorgio Correr's Progne proves to be an exemplary choice, connecting the two Senecan plays (the Thyestes and the Medea) discussed at the beginning, since the Procne story combines all the previously described elements of vengeance: sexual insult, the mother's infanticide and the father's cannibalism. On the other hand, the Venetian Correr's Progne (written around 1426-27) attests the transition between the Senecan models and Elizabethan theatre, while the play itself is an element of this same transition, elaboration of a theme familiar to Ovid and Seneca.

Making skilful use of the revenge-theme Guastella throws light on Seneca's Nachleben, not only in sixteenth-century theatre but as regards his wider impact on early modern European thought.

By the end of the book the reader will probably understand how the transformation of classical motifs works, in Guastella's words, how the magmatic cauldron operates, and so will be able to connect Medea's cauldron with that of Shakespeare's.

The novelty of Guastella's book lies beyond doubt in his adaptation of anthropological methods to Senecan tragedy. In doing so he has made a valuable contribution to current Senecan studies, especially through his sensitive understanding of the texts and by in his evocation of the manifold cultural background of Neronian Rome. But instead of presenting an anthropological survey in the proper sense of the word, he seems to carry out a socio-cultural inquiry, narrowing down his aims that appeared so stimulating and promising at the beginning (probably because the expectations raised by the introduction were far too great). His analyses and judgements provide neat explanations, expressed in fine, lucid prose, with well-organised cross-references, completed by a rich bibliography. It is worth mentioning his sober treatment of Senecan philosophy, its careful handling as a background for the understanding of the tragedies. There is only one aspect of the book which alerts the reader to the fact that it is really a collection of papers written separately for presentation and shaped subsequently into a book rather than a coherent monographic study, and this is its repetitiveness; on the other hand this shortcoming does largely contribute to ease of reading and clarity. In his preliminary statements and in his conclusions Guastella admittedly omits certain aspects in order to emphasise others. Within the individual analyses his creativity and the inspiring character of his work justify his decisions. Familiar notions from history of religion (such as the sorceress, former fertility-goddess, sun-daughter aspects of Medea; or the gods' favourite Tantalus; the role of gods in vengeance; the beast-priest Atreus who views his murders as an act of sacrifice) are missing but this lack does not make what is there any less convincing.

As for his selection of the plays, the Thyestes and the Medea are exemplary cases for a study of revenge-tragedy, but it is hard to understand why Guastella did not include other plays, especially the Agamemnon and the Phaedra, which would have greatly enriched what he says about his two chosen pieces.

Still, the work as a whole is a well-written, fine piece of research, and deserves a distinguished place in Senecan scholarship, showing as it does its greatest commitment in the search for new methods of approach to the texts.

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