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Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca.

The influence of Seneca on Shakespeare used to be a classic dissertation topic in the heavily Germanic scholarship prevalent to about 1930. Then a strong reaction set in, especially in the works of Howard Baker (Induction to Tragedy, 1939) and G. K. Hunter, who argued for the primacy of medieval and Christian traditions, exclusive of Seneca. Miola quotes the strong conclusion of a review article by Hunter: "We are left with a few well-worn anthology passages and a few isolated tricks like stichomythia (and even that occurs outside tragedy) as relics of the once extensive empire of Seneca's undisputed influence" ("Seneca and the Elizabethans: A Case Study in 'Influence,'" Shakespeare Survey 20 [1967]). Miola's book attempts to refute Hunter's withering attack.

Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca is impressive in its scholarship, but it is only partly successful in reviving Seneca as an important influence on Shakespeare, especially in the tragedies. Miola wisely eschews specific verbal influence, as if Shakespeare had his copy of Seneca's tragedies open before him while he wrote, as he did with his Holinshed and his Plutarch. It is obvious that Miola doesn't have small Latin and less Greek, as Jonson insolently claimed for Shakespeare, which somewhat skews the argument, since it is hard for Miola even to imagine that Shakespeare was not really fluent in Seneca's Latin text and in the Greek tragedies that lie behind it, especially Euripides. When Miola claims that Seneca's Hercules Furens is an important source for Othello, it is difficult to conceive that Othello's heroic feats as a warrior, with which he woos Desdemona, are like the labors of Hercules, or that the notorious handkerchief is analogous to the poisoned shirt of Nessus. Miola makes no exaggerated claims about Shakespeare's knowledge of the classics, but nevertheless there is an assumption that similarities between Seneca and Shakespeare are of marked significance. Miola himself suggests a way out of this dilemma: since Seneca was so influential on medieval and Renaissance writers, some powerful part of his effect on Shakespeare was indirect and mediated. If Hamlet, for example, was influenced by Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, then Shakespeare took over a great deal of Kyd's Senecanism.

There are three large divisions in the book: Revenge, with Titus Andronicus and Hamlet as examples; Tyranny as seen in Richard III and Macbeth; and Furor as represented in Othello and King Lear. A final chapter on Seneca in comedy, especially A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Seneca's influence in the large area of tragicomedy is highly compressed and seems to need a book by itself. The most significant chapter is that on Senecan Revenge, of which furor, considered as a psychological attribute of the hero, is certainly a part.

At the heart of the matter is scelus, a horrible, awesome, unspeakable crime. Scelus is a key word in Seneca and it is expressed in two of the most popular Senecan commonplaces in Elizabethan drama: "Per scelera semper sceleribus tutum est iter" ("For crimes the safe way always leads through more crimes" from Agamemnon 115) and "Scelera non ulcisceris, / nisi uincis" ("Great crimes you don't avenge, unless you outdo them" spoken by Atreus in Thyestes 195-96). The furor that carries Titus Andronicus and Hamlet to scelus is very Senecan in its wildness, its sacramental dedication, and its histrionic flavor. Miola is at his best describing Shakespeare's engagement with Seneca in Hamlet:

Once again he recalls Seneca's depiction of extreme passion, his operatic, superbly playable rhetoric, his penchant for meditation, his concern with the supernatural, his focus on the Styx within the human soul. And once again Shakespeare struggles to transform the monomaniacal revenger of Senecan drama into a tragic hero. . . . (33)

I would only argue with Miola when he gets too specific and sees all messengers in Shakespeare as reflections of the Senecan nuntius, all confidants (including Lady Macbeth) as dependent on the Senecan convention of the domina-nutrix, all soliloquies as growing out of the Senecan choral meditation, and all apostrophes to Night as an essential part of Senecan tragic rhetoric.

Miola's argument may be seen at its weakest in the following observation: "Both Seneca's Hippolytus and Shakespeare's Titus wonder at man's capacity for evil; amazed, both protest against divine silence and inaction in rhetorical questions" (15). Rather than pointing to a specific relation, Miola's comment applies to virtually all tragedy, not just to Seneca and Shakespeare. Incidentally, the index is not as useful as it might be, since it does not include most of the references from the notes, nor do most of these references appear in the select bibliography.

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Author:Charney, Maurice
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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