Thursday, October 11, 2012

Seneca’s Oedipus: A Roman Approach

Seneca’s Oedipus: A Roman Approach

By Ron Lewis


Tangents: The Journal of the Master of Liberal Arts program at Stanford University, Vol.6 (2007)

Portrait of a poet, best known as
Portrait of a poet, best known as "pseudo-Seneca": the bust was identified for a very long time with the Roman philosopher Seneca. It was acknowledge as spurrious after the discovery of an inscripted portrait bearing Seneca's name (1813). Marble, Roman copy of the 2nd century CE after a Hellenistic original. Found in a river near Auch (France). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Introduction: In two contrasting versions of the play Oedipus, one by the Roman Seneca, (3 BCE-65 CE), and another written about 500 years earlier by the Greek Sophocles (497-406 BCE) there are notable contrasts. In the opening monologue of Seneca’s play, the king describes a devastating plague destroying Thebes. He suspects that he is responsible for this devastation, but he would rather “spurn the kingdom infected by [my] deadly hand” than help those dying in Thebes. This cowardly response to the adversity of others is compounded when Oedipus complains that his fate is too cruel and he blames it, not on his ineffectual choices in life, but on the “cruel…[and] too harsh” gods. He wishes that he could escape his cares either by flight or by suicide. But he can’t – the gods, he suspects, have something else in store for him.

Conversely, Sophocles’s Oedipus has gravitas; he weeps for his city and his nation, and is “ready to help” those who are suffering from the plague. He tells the Chorus that he grieves “for these, my people far more than I fear for my own life”. Unlike Seneca’s king, Sophocles’s Oedipus longs to understand the mystery of the contagion’s source. In his quest to find answers to that mystery, Sophocles’s Oedipus becomes a sympathetic character; he is the “man of grief”, “the great example” of the suffering that befalls all humankind.

As we can see, this brief summary of both plays shows “a quite extraordinary degree” of difference between them. Critics have perceived the Sophoclean king as “benign, self-confident, determined”, as well as “sympathetic,” and “appealing”; conversely, Seneca’s Oedipus is described as “obsessed with anxiety and guilt”, or as “random,” “isolated,” and “unstable”. There seems little doubt that Seneca’s characterization of Oedipus is due, in part, to the function of Roman drama, summed up here by A. J. Boyle: “What Roman audiences most wanted of the theatre, amphitheatre, or triumphal processions was visual spectacle”. One reason for this emphasis on showiness is that roughly 500 years separate the plays, which are the products of highly different cultures.

Click here to read this article from  Stanford University