BMCR 2006.04.32

Self-Representation and Illusion in Senecan Tragedy

, Self-representation and illusion in Senecan tragedy. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. vi, 331 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0199267618 $99.00.

Littlewood’s monograph, the revision of an Oxford D.Phil. thesis, comprises an Introduction and four chapters. Chapter 2 (‘The Broken World’) deals with images and patterns (both logical and rhetorical) of conflict and paradox, ambiguity and alienation; ‘Images of a Flawed Technical Genesis’ is the somewhat cryptic title of chapter 3; chapter 4 is devoted to ‘Meta-Theatre and Self-Consciousness’, while the concluding chapter is a case-study treatment, along the lines established in ch.4, of ‘Intertextuality and Innocence’ in Phaedra.

L. is an astute and painstaking reader of Senecan drama, well-grounded in both literary history and literary theory, and his book, although at times making for laborious reading, offers rich rewards. The main interest of Self-Representation and Illusion lies in the careful and engaging discussion of important, well-known aspects of Seneca’s plays on which L. is able to shed new light. The book does not attempt (intentionally) an overall description of Seneca’s tragic universe, but its intimation of a ‘a broken world’ with no fixed doctrinal or literary points, conveyed by the polycentric structure of the monograph itself, is both engaging and persuasive.

‘The Broken World’ discusses the assumption that Seneca’s tragedies offer repeated instances of an ‘erosion’ of difference between vice and (Stoic) virtue by representing both in similar forms. Stichomythia makes for a brittle and artificial form of communication, if not an altogether failed one: both virtue and vice stand isolated in self-contained sententious statements which forgo exchange and debate (incidentally, Senecan sententiae may fast be becoming a hot topic, to wit Pascale Peré-Rey’s recent Toulouse thesis Flores et acumina. Les sententiae dans les tragédies de Sénèque). The Stoic sage’s autocratic stance is as obsessively one-sided as the ‘evil’ determination which characterises a Medea or an Atreus. Seneca himself, in Epistle 77, comes dangerously close to suggesting an analogy between the tyrant and the Stoic sage which in the tragedies, devoid of any explanatory apparatus, simply stands out as a puzzling contamination between two psychological dispositions and literary configurations which strive hard (indeed, too hard) to keep each other at a distance.

Ch.3 is perhaps less innovative, since the self-consciousness of tragic characters such as Juno, Atreus and Medea is by now a rather well-rehearsed topic. An important contribution, however, lies in L.’s stress on the plurality of the contrasting self-representations which Seneca deploys in his tragedies. Indeed L. speaks of ‘a plural self-consciousness’, which brings into the fray, for instance, both the ‘deliberate criminality’ of the Fury and the ‘flawed magnificence’ of Phaeton. Chapter 4, too, covers fairly familiar ground, but again L. goes beyond many treatments of spectatorship in the tragedies when he points out its multifarious connotations in Troades, the play which more than any others problematizes the reactions of an internal audience to the events it witnesses. This chapter reworks, in part, an earlier article (‘Seneca’s Thyestes: the tragedy with no women?’, MD 38, 1997, 57-86) in which L. had already pointed out the interesting dividends which can be obtained by reading different levels of power within the play as gendered. Here the insight is developed in relation to spectatorship as well, and proves equally fruitful.

The final chapter, on Phaedra, is the most focussed and most rewarding of the book and shows L.’s qualities as a close reader of poetic texts at their best. L. develops, in the footsteps of Don Fowler’s ‘deviant focalisation’, the notion of ‘deviant intertextuality’, of ‘writing with the wrong voice’, as Hippolytus does when he consistently (and tragically) expresses his rejection of erotic furor with words which the poetic tradition fatally marks as elegiac, and, in more than one instance, specifically as Phaedra’s own. In the end, Hippolytus is destroyed by literary tradition itself, one more example of the threatening nature of the poetic past as experienced by ‘post-Augustan poetry, particularly when described as Silver’.

Overall, L. succeeds brilliantly in offering a nuanced, complex image of both Seneca’s style and his ideological stance. The book deserves to be read and taken seriously into account by anyone interested in Senecan drama and first century literature in general.