Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.26

Neil Bernstein, Seneca: Hercules furens. Companions to Greek and Roman tragedy.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.  Pp. xv, 151.  ISBN 9781474254922.  $88.00.  

Reviewed by Aikaterini Tsoka, Athens (

This volume is the fourth of the Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy to deal with a tragedy by Seneca. The aim of this book is to scrutinize the artistry and the literary qualities of Seneca’s drama through a careful examination of the theme, structure, and style of Seneca’s Hercules furens. The titles of Seneca’s plays such as Hercules furens reveal that Seneca has not just taken on Greek myth but also classic Greek tragedies. Yet while Seneca displays an evident and important intertextual awareness of his Greek models, his works are clearly more than mere translation or imitation. While all the plays invoke similar systems of imagery and dwell obsessively on the corrupting power of passion, they also reflect a continuous effort to experiment, to create deeply individual, thought-provoking, and challenging drama, exhibiting originality and creativity in both theme and structure. Seneca’s Hercules furens, as Bernstein puts it in his illuminating analysis and discussion in this volume, allows evil to triumph, but it also explores the ironies of victimhood, guilt, the role of fate in suffering, and the operation of classic Roman virtues, courage and duty, in the face of tyranny.

The book consists of five short but rich chapters. The opening chapter (Chapter 1) provides what I see as a fitting introduction to the reading of Hercules furens. It presents briefly the background of the myth and the action of the play, and thus provides a context for the discussion of the basic aspects of Senecan drama, the object of a long series of specialized studies published over the last two decades. 1 The chapter is thorough and precise and the emphasis is put on things Roman in terms of plot, props, formats, and settings, which are presented in detail in the subsequent chapters.

One of the major themes (Chapter 2) of Hercules furens is that it begins by staging the process of its own construction. Contrary to the modern criticism regarding Hercules’ responsibility for the crime committed against his children and wife, Bernstein gives emphasis to the role of Juno: A superhuman character, Juno, with all her metadramatic resonances, provides the impetus which sets in motion the dramatic action and offers the creative momentum that underlies the tragedy as a whole. At the same time, in Seneca’s radical reinterpretation of Greek myth, none of the traditional heroes measures up to any respectable standard, Stoic or otherwise. Seneca is neither lecturing here on Stoic virtue nor denouncing vice. Commentary is unnecessary, for the failure of heroic and honorable conduct in Senecan drama is everywhere apparent. According to Bernstein, Seneca’s artistic presentations must speak for themselves, leaving the audience to assess the nature of his characters and the quality and value of their acts.

Seneca’s Hercules furens exhibits a continuous, even obsessive confrontation with its models, since it cannot escape from a largely predetermined series of events. At the same time, it is very much concerned with issues such as legitimacy, identity, and differential instability encompassing courage, violence, and suicide.2

Taking the analysis one step further, Bernstein brings in Chapter 3 the miscellaneous representations of Hercules to the fore, tracing the different variants of the myth in Greek and Latin literature available to Seneca from antiquity to his own time. As in Euripides’ play, Seneca’s protagonist will return victorious from the Underworld, only to be driven mad and kill his wife and children. Coming to his senses, he considers suicide before finally going into exile with Theseus, trapped in a living Hell. But while Euripides’ play challenges the audience to make sense of the nature of divinity itself, with Hera engineering an attack on the innocent and conspicuously rational Hercules half way through the play, Seneca moves his Juno front and center (Hercules furens 1-4). This Hercules is the architect of his own downfall in a way which makes the protagonist’s own behavior, not simply Juno’s, the central problem of the play. Seneca’s Hercules furens does not merely re-frame the master text of Augustan age, Virgil’s Aeneid, within a Neronian tragic prism. In evoking and then exploding Virgilian virtus, Seneca’s tragedy may not be so much distorting the Aeneid as revealing some of the problems of human experience illuminating the nature of furor and the operation of power, impotence, delusion, and guilt already in that epic. The dramatist’s piling of crime on crime merely explicates the power dynamics already inherent in Augustan Rome’s foundational epic. 3 In Bernstein’s account, the literary features of Hercules furens should be viewed with the same eye for detail as a Horatian ode or a book of the Aeneid, and Seneca’ s skill as a poet shines through in each line. The intertextuality is a main aspect of his poetics, as it grants his language additional resonance that colors not only Seneca’s text but also the Augustan originals as he interprets their works in a tragic context.

While Chapter 3 analyses Seneca’s play against its Augustan counterparts, Chapter 4 sees Hercules furens as a Roman drama even though Bernstein does not explain tragedy’s obsessive concern with power and the abuse of power or the related strand of criticism that seeks to place these dramas within the larger philosophical, but also the social and political, context. Whether strictly political or not, Senecan tragedy certainly creates in its mythological drama contexts, settings, and language that are distinctively Roman. 4 That Roman color is part of a deeper system of resemblance between the world of the plays and contemporary Rome. However tempting it is to see the tragedies as acts of political defiance, doctrinaire assumptions about the intentions behind Seneca’s depiction of power in the tragedies, or attempts to break any supposedly pre-programmed code, are bound to fail. Senecan dramaturgy is too dense, challenging and polysemous to be pinned down in such a fashion. Bernstein approaches the still remaining questions of the nature and latent issues of Hercules furens in an open-minded way: he explains Seneca’s dramatic language as a medium for doing moral and political philosophy but also as an inherently dialectical and hybrid genre that allows him to intertwine and contrast voices, positions, and reactions and to put debate and interrogation on display. He thus attempts to keep both readerships in mind: not to take knowledge of the ancient world for granted, but at the same time not to presume knowledge of the workings of the stage and the deciphering of a dramatic script. Bernstein makes use of his own consistent translations in his frequent quotations from the text to illustrate his points; all events are dated, persons are identified, and technical terms are explained, providing readers with interesting insights.

Chapter 5, finally, looks at key episodes in the fate of the script, roughly from the point when it re-emerged from the Dark Ages. The primary focus in this section is on the often acknowledged impact of Senecan drama on the theatre of the early Italian Renaissance, moving from there onwards to France and England. Bernstein also discusses modern versions, playwrights, and film-makers, with their often insightful, self-reflective manner of turning linear narrative into living drama. Both plays and movies offer eloquent witness to the continuing engagement with the Hercules myth in literature and theatre. Bernstein emphasizes the moral message carried by each of Hercules’ modern adaptations, ending by illuminating the figure Hercules as represented in the 21st century. And we can expect the process to continue, as each new generation finds points of traction with this.

Hercules furens proves to be a peculiar blend of rhetorical, mannerist, philosophical, and psychological drama. Bernstein’s treatment of the drama is framed with more general reflections on the nature of tragic poetry gleaned both from other Senecan tragedies and from his prose work. The goal of the author is definitely not to superimpose on the play a normative explanation that would forcibly orient interpretation, but to claim that the tragedies’ own self-reflexive statements on the nature of poetry afford readers considerable latitude in their own exegetical explorations.

The book has a comprehensive bibliography, an index, and a useful guide to “Further Reading“ containing the most recent bibliography to Seneca. This study may prove of interest, not only as an introductory guide to students of theatre and of Roman political and cultural history, but to all interested in specific topics such as the societal interplay of writing, spectacle, ideology, performance, and power. I believe also that its reading will enhance the understanding not just of ancient drama, but also of its post-classical revival.


1.   Boyle, A.J. (1997), Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition, London; Harrison, G. W.M. (2000), Seneca in Performance, London.
2.   For Seneca’s intertextual practices see Trinacty, Ch. (2014), Senecan Tragedy and the Reception of Augustan Poetry, Oxford.
3.   Schiesaro, A. (2003) The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama, Cambridge, pg. 208.
4.   Walter, S. (1975), Interpretationen zum Römischen in Senecas Tragödien, Zürich.

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