Classics Seneca’s Phaedra
Roland Mayer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0256


Seneca’s tragedy Phaedra is a powerful depiction of the disintegration of the character of a woman driven by desire for her stepson Hippolytus. Her attempt to resist the passion proves futile. Equally futile is the attempt to seduce the young man. Fear of reprisal drives Phaedra to suggest to her husband Theseus that his son has raped her. Theseus curses Hippolytus, who had already run away to escape the pollution of incest. The curse is effected by a monstrous bull which rises out of the sea and provokes the death of Hippolytus. His shattered body is returned to the palace, where Phaedra admits her guilt and kills herself. Theseus is left alone with the corpses of his wife and son. The play’s major themes—kinship, erotic passion in conflict with reason, incest, and revenge—attracted a steady following from the Renaissance to the present day, exemplified in the dramas of Racine, Hugo Claus, and Sara Kane.

General Overviews

Readers should start with Susanna Braund’s Oxford Bibliographies article Seneca’s Tragedies, an indispensable guide to Seneca’s life and works. Damschen and Heil 2014 is the most comprehensive recent source for up-to-date accounts of Seneca and his works. Bartsch and Schiesaro 2015 examines the complete Senecan corpus, providing an up-to-date and user-friendly overview of Seneca’s place in thought and literature. Harrison 2015 contains no stand-alone essay on Phaedra, but there are scattered references to the play, which can be discovered from the index.

  • Bartsch, Shadi, and Alessandro Schiesaro, eds. 2015. The Cambridge companion to Seneca. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The companion is an excellent guide to students and scholars on all aspects of current thinking about Seneca’s literary and philosophical legacy. There are four sections: The Senecan corpus contains a chapter on the tragedies; texts and contexts; the third section, on Senecan tensions has a valuable chapter (see Wray 2015, cited under Phaedra); the concluding section is devoted to reception.

  • Braund, Susanna. 2011. Seneca’s tragedies. In Oxford bibliographies in classics. Edited by Dee Clayman. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Braund provides a comprehensive survey of the most important introductory works, general overviews, bibliographical surveys, texts, translations, collections of essays, studies of individual plays, dating, sources and models, Stoicism, performance, character portrayal, language, and finally reception and influence. There is a section devoted to Phaedra, in which are listed some of the most helpful books and articles on the characters and issues of that tragedy.

  • Damschen, Gregor, and Andreas Heil, eds. 2014. Brill’s companion to Seneca, philosopher and dramatist. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill.

    Part 1 covers Seneca’s life and legacy, his career, the dating of his works, and their transmission. Part 2 is devoted to his Stoic philosophy. Part 3 deals with his tragedies, both the individual plays and leading topics; the chapter on Phaedra is Mayer 2014 (cited under Individual Studies). The volume’s index should also be consulted for the characters of Hippolytus and Phaedra, since they are discussed by various contributors in other articles. The bibliographical contribution by Balbo and Malaspina, pp. 771–860, is indispensable.

  • Harrison, George W. M., ed. 2015. Brill’s companion to Roman tragedy. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill.

    This work surveys all of Roman tragedy, and necessarily deals with many aspects of Seneca’s plays, since they are the only complete Latin tragedies to have survived antiquity.

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