BMCR 2003.07.41

Seneca: Phaedra. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy

, Seneca : Phaedra. Duckworth companions to Greek and Roman tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2002. 142 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0715631659 £9.99 (pb).

This companion to what remains Seneca’s best known tragedy appropriately accompanies — or even more appropriately follows — those of William Allan on Euripides’ Medea and Sophie Mills on the same author’s Hippolytus. The series aims to provide accessible introductions to the plays, discussing their themes and modern criticism but also including a welcome emphasis on both historical context and later reception. The target audience is clearly the non-specialist and the beginner or intermediate student, an audience well served by the translation of all Latin and the thorough explanation of technical terms and historical context. Mayer (M.) on the Phaedra certainly fulfils the vast majority of these goals and, if his is not an ideal introduction to the play, it is certainly a very good one.

There are nine chapters: 1. Seneca and Roman Tragedy, 2. The Action of the Play, 3. The Major Themes of the Play, 4. Characterisation, 5. Literary Texture, 6. Reception and Later Influence, 7. Interpretation. 8. Performance History, 9. Translations. This is markedly more than either Allan (five) or Mills (six) devotes to their plays and, for a number of reasons, it is too many. There is an unwelcome degree of repetition, sometimes acknowledged, as points inevitably fall under multiple headings. The flip-side of this is that certain areas which could fruitfully and interestingly have been brought together — most obviously reception, performance and translation — are artificially kept apart. The series-standard notes, guide to further reading, bibliography, chronology and index follow and are excellent. M. rightly seems to feel that his explanation of terms in the text obviates the need for the usual glossary.

The first chapter is a concise introduction to Seneca’s life and times, as well as to several of the key topics necessary for contextualising his tragedies: Stoicism, rhetoric and the tradition of Roman tragedy. M. is even-handed but decisive on the issue of the tragedies’ original performance, favouring recitation but emphasising, by a happy analogy with Under Milk Wood, that this does not render it inferior as drama. Indeed throughout there is little of the almost blatant contempt for the play and its author which so often mars M.’s commentary with Michael Coffey.1 Occasionally the dismissive, judgemental tone does arise, as when the chorus are called ‘telepathic’ (22) or Garnier is said to ‘put right’ three of Seneca’s unstageable pieces of action (79), but such sneers are rare and unobtrusive.

The second chapter, dealing with ‘The Action of the Play’ is a very useful combination of synopsis and partial running commentary. M. pauses at certain strategic points, suavely including the reader in a conspiratorial ‘we’, to comment on aspects such as the dramaturgy of the chorus, the presence and absence of the nurse and problems of entrance and exit. The chapter closes with a coda devoted to the role of the chorus. This approach is largely successful, but I could not help feeling that issues discussed in later chapters about theme and ‘literary texture’ could profitably have been integrated into a more extensive running commentary. M. seems almost to acknowledge this by observing at the start of the next chapter that in ‘the course of the critical analysis of the action a number of the play’s dominant themes were necessarily referred to.’ (37) This is clearly a conscious decision and the book no doubt aims to provide neatly packaged boxes labelled theme, character, allusion, boxes which the target reader can no doubt usefully open at will. However, such boxes do fragment and compartmentalise one’s response to a text and the opportunity is lost for a more integrated, holistic reading, an approach quite in keeping with the ideals of the series.

Such cavils aside, the three chapters on themes, characterisation and literary texture are successful. M.’s major themes are nature, ‘family values’ (incorporating incest and heredity) and ‘ furor vs ratio‘, each discussed with a well-judged balance between Stoic and historical context on the one hand, and on the other close reading of specific scenes or passages. The chapter closes with a more extensive survey of ‘the moral world of the play’, which draws comparisons with Euripides, Petronius, Lucan and Tacitus to argue for a very human tragedy played out in a moral vacuum.

A chapter on characterisation does not immediately seem an inviting prospect, but M.’s approach is more subtle than its title suggests. He discusses each of the major characters in turn, once more with judicious reference to historical and literary context. The only oddity is the strangely direct engagement with an essay by Hannah M. Roisiman, an engagement which sits uneasily with the more general survey M. offers elsewhere.2 The discussion of individuals is followed by a more general meditation on the nature of tragic and specifically Senecan characterisation. M. differentiates the latter from that of the Attic tragedians, invoking factors such as rhetoric, Roman values and the mythological tradition. If these do not add up to an entirely coherent picture, they at least provide the reader with many of the tools with which to approach the text. The chapter on literary texture provides a useful introduction to basic ideas of intertextuality before focussing more specifically on the play’s relationship with Euripides and Ovid. The closing section on style, with its emphasis on rhetoric, allusiveness and brevity, could profit from more examples.

As M. moves away from the play itself, there are useful surveys of what might be broadly termed its reception. As has been mentioned, these could profitably have been more closely intertwined, but as they stand, the survey of the play’s influence on writers from Prudentius through Garnier and Racine to Sarah Kane is clear and informative. The same may be said of the chapter on performance history, though the differentiation it entails between performances of the Phaedra and of plays ‘influenced’ by it seems awkward. The chapter on translations is rather disappointing, engaging a little with the issues involved in translating Seneca but focusing too much on rather cursory critiques of the currently available versions. Most disappointing, however, is the chapter on interpretation. Here is a fine opportunity to survey a range of competing critical approaches and responses to the play, saving the reader new to Seneca weeks in the library. Instead, after a very brief history of scholarship from Trevet to Regenbogen and an even briefer dismissal of those who privilege Stoicism in their approach to Senecan tragedy, no fewer than four of the chapter’s seven pages are devoted to a critique, even-handed but generally dismissive, of Segal’s monograph on the Phaedra and of psychoanalytic criticism in general.3 However valid such a critique may be, it surely belongs in a review rather than taking up a disproportionate amount of space in what is potentially one of the most useful chapters for the envisaged reader.

The book reads well throughout. As has been noted, the conversational style is generally accessible and eminently suited to the tone of the series. Occasionally the colloquialisms and jocularity seem forced and artificial — ‘crime, like accidents, occurs chiefly in the home’ (39), ‘pear-shaped’ (60) — occasionally more alienating than inclusive, as in the repeated likening of Theseus to an Italian operatic bass (29, 58), but these are minor blemishes. The book’s presentation is excellent and the choice of endnotes — easily enough accessible and even more easily ignored, if so desired — is entirely appropriate to the aims and audience of the series. I only found one innocuous typo (‘too’ for ‘to’ p.52) and one very minor quibble.4

M. has produced a good general introduction to the Phaedra and, to some extent, to Senecan tragedy as a whole. It attains most of the goals to which this admirable series of companions aspires and will be found very useful by anyone approaching the play for the first time. If this praise seems qualified and even a little faint, that is a result of disappointment that, good as the book is, it misses many opportunities to be much better.


1. Seneca, Phaedra edited by Michael Coffey and Roland Mayer (Cambridge, 1990).

2. Hannah M. Roisiman, ‘A new look at Seneca’s Phaedra‘ in George W.M. Harrison ed. Seneca in Performance (Duckworth, 2000) 73-86.

3. Charles Segal, Language and desire in Seneca’s Phaedra (Princeton, 1986).

4. M. claims that Actaeon is the tit-for-tat victim whom Euripides’ Artemis will destroy to avenge Aphrodite’s destruction of Hippolytus (46). This is surely unlikely. The unspecified ὃς ἂν μάλιστα φίλτατος κυρῇ βροτῶν at l. 1420 is either just that, non-specific (as Barrett ad loc.), or Adonis, with a variant on his mode of death (Halleran), or simply obscure (scholiast).