In This Article Seneca’s Oedipus

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Latin Editions and Commentaries
  • Textual Criticism
  • Translations
  • Dating
  • Seneca’s Oedipus and Sophocles
  • Roman Imperial Context
  • Structure
  • Poetics and Intertextuality
  • Character and Construction of Self
  • The Monstrous and the Macabre
  • Stoicism, Fate, and Nature
  • Staging and Performance
  • Reception and Influence
  • Alexander Neville’s Translation of Seneca’s Oedipus
  • Ted Hughes’s Adaptation of Seneca’s Oedipus

Classics Seneca’s Oedipus
by
Susanna Braund, Emma Hilliard
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0285

Introduction

Seneca’s Oedipus, like all his plays, has in the past fifty years moved from being marginalized and rejected to being studied seriously in its own right as a poetic and dramatic product. This is reflected in the appearance in recent decades of two major commentaries and a number of fresh translations of the play as well as a “Companion.” It appears to be an early play, dating from before the death of Agrippina and possibly pre-Neronian, yet nonetheless reflects the atmosphere in the imperial court circles in which Seneca moved. The Oedipus probably suffers more than any other Seneca play from being compared, to its detriment, with a Greek play on the same theme. Overviews of the play are often subsumed in broader surveys of the treatment of the Oedipus myth in European literature, where it certainly plays a major role: the play was translated early into English by Alexander Neville and influenced English tragedy; it was crucial to French discussions of the role of the king in the 17th and 18th centuries; it affected Freud more deeply than he was aware; and it received a powerful modern translation from Ted Hughes before the revival of respect for Seneca. While comparisons with Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos continue and are probably inevitable, new scholarship is able to look past that framework and deploy other more helpful methodologies. Seneca sees in the Oedipus myth an opportunity to craft his own distinctively Roman version of the story. He develops the themes of the search for knowledge and the interpretation of riddles by interweaving peculiarly Roman concerns, such as the nature of kingship and the obligations of pietas. He incorporates elements designed to appeal to his imperial Roman audience, for example, the plague narratives, the divination scene, and the necromancy scene. Likewise, the powerful rhetoric of the long speeches, the sharp repartee between the characters, and the brilliant literariness of the choral odes are all attuned to his Roman audience’s education and expectations. The brutal power of his vivid and shocking language and imagery has had a lasting impact from antiquity to the modern era. Besides the tragedies, Seneca wrote copious amounts of Stoic philosophy; scholars actively debate the role of Stoic ideas in Oedipus, including appeals to what is or is not in accord with Nature, the memorable suicide performed on stage, exploration of the emotions of fear and rage, and apothegms about the power of fate. There can be no doubt that Seneca’s Oedipus is rooted in its specific moment and that it reflects its author’s identity as a philosopher closely associated with the imperial court. At the same time, the imaginative brutality of Seneca’s language and ideas has also exercised a significant influence on European literature and culture.

General Overviews

This section contains works which provide introductions to the play (Pratt 1983, Paduano 2010) and/or which study the play as a whole (Albini 1995, Braund 2016, Smith 1997). Comparisons with Sophocles are inevitable but we have reserved explicit comparisons for a separate section, Seneca’s Oedipus and Sophocles.

  • Albini, Umberto. 1995. La storia di Edipo in Seneca. Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione Classica 123:428–432.

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    Overview of the themes and structure of Seneca’s play, with attention to the characters of Oedipus, Tiresias, Manto, Creon, and Jocasta. Argues that Oedipus’s solitude reflects the condition of Roman emperors and that the play presents variations on a single theme without the possibility of relief.

  • Braund, Susanna. 2016. Seneca: Oedipus. Bloomsbury Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

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    Companion volume with four chapters followed by bibliography and guide to further reading: (1) the complex Oedipus myth; (2) Seneca in his time, including discussion of performance; (3) structure, themes, and issues in the play (emotions, kingship, Stoicism, monstrosity, fate, riddles, kinship, suicide) with a concluding discussion of rhetoric and paradox; (4) a reception history of the play from antiquity into 21st-century Canada, including a discussion of the importance of the Oedipus play in France (Corneille and Voltaire) and England (Dryden & Lee).

  • Paduano, Guido. 2010. Oedipus. In The classical tradition. Edited by Antony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis, 653. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Brief but incisive account of the Oedipus myth from antiquity onward, which acknowledges Seneca’s version as an essential subarchetype for later representations.

  • Pratt, Norman T. 1983. Seneca’s drama. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

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    An accessible introduction to the major elements of Senecan dramatic style: Neo-Stoicism, declamatory rhetoric, and the violent atmosphere under the Julio-Claudians. Pratt argues that Oedipus is a successful dramatization of Stoic thought on Fate and the destructive effects of fear (pp. 96–101).

  • Smith, Joseph A. 1997. The Translation of Tragedy into Imperial Rome: A Study of Seneca’s “Hercules” and “Oedipus.” PhD diss., Univ. of Southern California.

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    Hercules and Oedipus operate from an assumption of audience familiarity with the traditional texts; Seneca and his audience understood themselves to be living in a “post” period. Studies the relationship between the “authorized” texts Seneca is inheriting and the audience’s reaction to Seneca’s violations of the expected script. For Oedipus, see pp. 91–192.

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