BMCR 2021.02.14

Seneca: Agamemnon. Edited with introduction, translation, and commentary

, Seneca: Agamemnon. Edited with introduction, translation, and commentary. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 752. ISBN 9780198810827. $155.00.

In recent decades we have gained a deeper understanding of Senecan tragedy: of its theatricality, within the dramatic conventions partially inherited from the Hellenistic theatre; of its enactment of the ways in which selfhood is constructed and maintained, and the relationship of selfhood to power; of its relevance to Roman cultural and historical experience; and of its complex (often oppositional) relationship to Stoicism and to other philosophical schools. We have developed a better appreciation of the power of declamatory rhetoric; of the plays’ engagement with the literary tradition, including non-dramatic literature; of their multivalency of language and the richness of wordplay; and of their expressive use of metre. We have also made great gains in our understanding of the textual transmission of the plays, and in the constitution of the text itself. Much of this progress has been driven by a spate of editions of individual plays, the fons et origo of which was Tarrant’s magisterial Agamemnon of 1976.

Tony Boyle has made major contributions in several of these areas. First he gave us shorter but stimulating editions of Phaedra and Troades in Cairns’ “Latin and Greek Texts” series. Next he scaled up to editiones maiores published by OUP of Medea, Oedipus, Thyestes, and now Agamemnon, as well as the non-Senecan Octavia. As if this were not enough, he has also given us Roman Tragedy, which traced the genre through the republican and early imperial periods up to Seneca, and Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition, which started from Seneca and charted his impact on Italian, French and English drama of the Renaissance.

In Agamemnon and in the other OUP editions Boyle uses a standard Introduction, slightly modified for each play, on these topics: Seneca and Rome, Roman theatre, the declamatory style, Seneca’s theatre of violence, Seneca on anger and kingship, metre, and the translation. On the issue of performance, Boyle acknowledges that tragedies in the imperial period might be experienced in several ways: in full-scale theatre production, in private performance in the mansions of grandees, in recitatio, and in “virtuoso recital of a tragic speech or episode or the singing of a tragic aria” (xxxix). Some critics think that Seneca, while certainly writing within the conventions of theatrical performance, did not have an exclusive commitment to that mode of performance: he did not book the Theatre of Pompey for the premiere of each of his plays in turn. Boyle’s commentary on Agamemnon, however, implicitly privileges full-scale theatrical realisation. This is certainly the mode to which a modern audience can relate most immediately, and the commentary helps us to envisage the impact of the play if performed in that way. Boyle is entirely convincing, for example, in arguing that Clytemnestra kills Cassandra onstage in the very last moments of the play, with the command furiosa morere (line 1012); moreresimilarly accompanies on onstage stabbing in the final Acts of Oedipus and Phaedra (both putatively early plays, like Agamemnon).

I will take issue here with one stage direction that Boyle inserts in his translation, at the point where Strophius enters in his chariot to rescue Orestes from his potentially murderous mother (line 912). “A moveable platform (exostra oreccyclema) is wheeled onto the stageOn it is a chariot, perhaps pulled by sculpted horses (or the exostra itself is shaped like a chariot), in which stands STROPHIUS.” Boyle’s invocation of the exostra or eccyclema here is puzzling, since these stage machines were used to reveal interior scenes, as Boyle rightly says elsewhere (xxxi and xxxviii), whereas this scene is clearly outdoors. More important, to insert these details in a translation that faces the Latin text seems to confer an unwarranted authorial status on them. The commentary admits that “there were many spectacular ways in which the entrance could have been staged” (452). But this is rather late in the day.

To return to the Introduction: in addition to the standard sections noted above, there are sections specific to Agamemnon: the myth before Seneca, the play, and reception of Seneca’s Agamemnon. Reception is a subject that Boyle has made his own. He documents here the varied literary inheritances from Seneca’s complex portrait of Clytemnestra, with her mixture of love, pride, shame and anger (so different from the Aeschylean portrait), and the interplay of her emotional life with the brutal realities of power. James Thomson’s Agamemnon (1738) presents her as an almost ‘innocent’ heroine; Vittorio Alfieri’s Agamemnone (1783) expands on her emotional relationship with Aegisthus. Particularly interesting are the similarities discussed by Boyle (cxxviii-cxxix) between Seneca’s play and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, both plays depicting a powerful woman urging her more hesitant man towards regicide.

After the Introduction comes the Latin text, with Boyle’s verse translation on the facing pages. The translation is verbally close to the Latin, and tracks it line by line so far as possible. As an equivalent to the iambic trimeter Boyle uses blank verse. “For the translation of plays from the Senecan corpus, whose iambic trimeter had such a formative impact on the development of English blank verse, there is no real alternative”, he writes (cxliv). The simultaneous accuracy and power of his translation at its best can be seen in this sample from Cassandra’s vision of Agamemnon’s murder (887-91):

The death-robe he puts on delivers him bound
To treacherous slaughter. Its loose, pathless folds
Block the hands’ exit and imprison the head.

Mortifera uinctum perfidae tradit neci
induta uestis. exitum manibus negant
caputque laxi et inuii claudunt sinus.

From the prologue, here is an allusive list of punishments in the underworld (15-21), where Boyle again catches well the driving force of the original:

… Where the man bound to a swiftly-turning wheel
Circles on himself, where uphill toil is foiled
And mocked as the unceasing stone returns,
Where a ravenous bird crops fecund liver,
And a man in a stream, scorched by fiery thirst,
Lunges for fleeing waters with cheated mouth,
Doomed to pay dearly for feasting with gods.

For anapaestic dimeters, the second most common metre, Boyle uses “a line of six to nine syllables”. This results in a varying number of stresses, usually four or three but sometimes just two (60-63):

Sceptres never held peaceful rest
Nor a day self-certain.
Care upon care wearies,
And new storms buffet the mind.

I would argue that English metre is based primarily on number of stresses rather than syllables, and that a regular four-stress line (such as I used in my Loeb translation) is a natural match for the regularity and balance of the four anapaestic feet. Where Boyle’s translation does have four-stress lines in sequence, it immediately evokes English folk rhythms and so gains power (691-92):

Our tears, Cassandra, have no measure;
What we suffer conquered measure.

Text and translation are followed by a very substantial commentary. In keeping with the series in which it appeared, Tarrant’s commentary was pitched for readers with considerable expertise in classical literature. Boyle’s edition is directed to a wider audience: “to drama students, to Latin students at every stage of the language, to professional scholars of Classics, Theatre and Comparative Literature—and to anyone interested in the cultural dynamics of literary reception and the interplay of theatre and history.” Consequently his commentary, at 391 pages, is almost twice as long as Tarrant’s. It is indeed immensely rich and varied, and constantly leads the reader in new directions. Its length, however, means that individual readers will need to be skilful at skimming or at using the index (which is not user-friendly, as noted below) to find particular kinds of material. For similar reasons my discussion will not be exhaustive, but will focus on just two topics, wordplay and textual issues.

The commentary is alert to the richness of reference in Seneca’s text—reference, for example, to literary predecessors, to Roman institutions, to similar-sounding words. Boyle is good on the fierce ambivalences and overtones of Clytemnestra’s language in 397-415, including the “delicious ambiguity” of petitus 398; he notes the double meaning of irem per 32, and writes persuasively that undique juxtaposed with fluentes at 895 “seems chosen for its suggestion of unda, ‘wave’”. Tarrant’s commentary was also strong on verbal play. One aspect of wordplay that has received more attention since Tarrant wrote is what Boyle terms “translingual etymological puns” on Greek names, e.g Ag. 388 vastogradu in reference to Eurybates (‘wide strider’, Boyle). Boyle usefully lists his notes on such puns on p. 118. Among the examples in my Glossary that he does not include, I would plead particularly for 319 praescia Manto, 463 nitidum Phoebi, 536 Pallas excussit. On the other hand, he persuasively notes 918-19 Strophius revertor (playing on στρέφω ‘turn’), which I failed to register.

In Boyle’s discussions of textual issues, it would have been helpful to state more fully the arguments for and against contending readings, so as to allow the reader to reach an independent conclusion. At 315 he claims that Richter’s conjecture Thespias “seems most persuasive”, and at 545 that Düring’s conjecture me nunc “seems less persuasive”, but without explaining why. In place of arguments he often gives team lists, so to speak, of modern editors who support one reading or another. But to range Giomini, Viansino and Moricca alongside Zwierlein and Tarrant is to suggest a democratic equality between minnows and giants. And one really should not lend any credibility to Giardina’s eccentric and self-indulgent edition of 2007, so different from his sound and serviceable edition of 1966.

In his choice of readings Boyle is generally conservative. (He does, however, accept emendation where necessary, as at 13, 258, 275, 529-30, 795 Helena ubi, and even where not, as at 268 itane est?) Like most recent editors, he eschews the adventurousness of Zwierlein’s OCT, returning to the text of manuscript branches E and A for example at 37, 52, 198-99 (no deletion), 272 (no lacuna), 457, 481 (no deletion), 725, 764 (no lacuna), 795 (puto); at all these points I think him right, and at some of them he kindly cites my discussions in Annaeana Tragica and elsewhere. I do, however, find it worrying that although Boyle frequently records the readings of the OCT, he does not cite the discussions in which Zwierlein argues for those readings, either in his mighty Kritischer Kommentar or in his detailed review of Tarrant’s edition at Gnomon 49 (1977) 565-74 (the latter not listed in Boyle’s bibliography). While Zwierlein’s judgment is sometimes flawed (and whose is not?), the depth of his scholarship makes his work an indispensible resource for any editor of these tragedies. His arguments on textual issues at lines 213, 240, 254, 551, 760, 818, 819 and 973 are strong in my view, and need to be answered if one favours another reading, as Boyle does at those points. And the Kommentarwould have alerted Boyle to Hudson-Williams’ incisive discussion of line 428 at CQ 31 (1981) 181-82, which leaves little doubt about the rightness of Leo’s emendation laetum for EA’s lentum.

In one respect the commentary is less than user-friendly. Boyle does not provide a line-number for each lemma, preferring to give a reference only for a chunk of text. For example, “637-48” has to serve for a dozen separate notes covering three pages of Commentary—inconvenient if one seeks enlightenment on a particular line, or if the index under ‘wordplay’ directs one to 637-48, so that one has to scrutinise all twelve notes.

The book is produced to high standards, and makes a handsome volume. Only two typos caught my eye (dissylable p. 227, coprse p. 478), though admittedly I did not go searching. The header on p. 429 has gone wrong. But these are very minor slips in what is mostly, and blissfully, an error-free publication.

In sum, this edition, like Boyle’s other work on Seneca, is full of sharp perceptions, of lively and engaging material. It provides a rich feast not only for professional classicists but for the many different constituencies who are drawn to these fascinating dramas.