Specters of Medea the rhetoric of stepmotherhood and motherhood in Seneca's Phaedra.
Yet, though it has generated important insights, this focus on a privatized, philosophical 'self' (by default, male) risks occluding other, socio-political dimensions in the tragedies, particularly gender. (4) Thus, in the concern to show that Medea is rhetorically (if not ethically) Stoic, it hardly seems to matter that she is also a woman, and that her crime, that of a mother killing her children, is profoundly gendered on both cultural and ethical grounds. Few Stoic-inflected interpretations, though coherent on their own terms, reflect on what point Seneca might be making to his (probably mostly male) audience about the larger implications of erotic passion and furor as human vices that, in his dramas at least, assumes their most exemplary destructive form in women. When gender is addressed, as for example by modern scholars like Hanna Roisman, the conclusion is that Medea and Phaedra are such extreme illustrations of the Stoic belief in the dangers of passion that they have no relation to "ordinary" femininity or any social context:
Seneca's characterization of his heroines locates evil in the rule of passion, but not necessarily in the essence of women. Passion may make his heroines bestial and drive them to madness, but not all women are bestial or mad. Indeed, in distancing his heroines from both his inner and outer audience and denying them sympathy for their misdeeds, Seneca draws a clear line between them and ordinary women, who, he implies, would not do the terrible deeds that his heroines do. (Roisman 2005, 87-8)
Roisman argues for a secure aesthetic and moral distance between Seneca's tragic divas and "ordinary women" -- although, problematically, she does not discuss what kind of ordinary women, what external audience(s) she believes the plays may have been written for, of what gender, and in what performative context (the latter a question extensively debated by others). (5)
In what follows, I consider ways in which Seneca's Phaedra might, rather, be problematizing or destabilizing the very idea of a "clear line" (Roisman) between his dramatic heroine and "ordinary Roman women" (and men). Rather than reading the play as directly reflecting a specific social reality, I argue that Seneca's tragedy plays on the ambiguities of Phaedra's literary and cultural contexts, and her familial and social roles, to raise questions about contemporary Roman gender relations and about the larger socio-political and aesthetic implications of women's representation in tragedy. To this end, I trace the development of two interconnected rhetorical motifs. In the first section, I analyze a distinctive aspect of Phaedra that chimes with, and complicates, contemporary Roman kinship concerns and gender stereotypes: her description as stepmother (noverca) and her concomitant association with uncontrolled, monstrous motherhood through her own mother, Pasiphae. This activates a cascading chain of anxieties in Seneca's play, at symbolic, poetic, and narrative levels, regarding maternity and stepmatemity. In the second section, I trace the source of these negative maternal and stepmaternal motifs to another rhetorical figure in Phaedra: the ultimate murderous stepmother and murderous mother, Medea, cited in Phaedra as rhetorical "proof" of woman's iniquity The play's allusions to Medea evoke Ovid's narrative of Medea as Theseus's stepmother in the Metamorphoses, but they also suggest a comparative reading with Seneca's own Medea tragedy, in which she slays her children. This Senecan-Ovidian Medea, I argue, functions in Phaedra as a kind of 'spectral mother, overdetermining Phaedra's attempt to transform herself from stepmother to would-be lover of Hippolytus. Nightmares of Medea also haunt Seneca's male protagonists, Hippolytus and Theseus, infusing with savage irony their attempts to establish meaning and authority. Tracing the ramifications of these two rhetorical tropes for the play's depiction of both femininity and masculinity provides a basis, in my conclusion, for considering the politics of gender representation in both Phaedra and Medea.
I. Stepmothers and Mothers
Phaedra is described as noverca in Seneca's tragedy four times: three by herself (638, 1192, 1200) and once by Hippolytus (684). The word appears three other times: twice in a general context (356, 558) and once in reference to Medea (697). Each instance of the word occurs at a climactic moment in a scene or in a character's speech. Given that Euripides' Phaedra is never described as mttruia, (6) Seneca's emphasis on Phaedra as noverca, and his comparative obsession with the Latin term, is very striking, although this has received little attention. (7) As for so much else in Phaedra, Seneca seems to have drawn inspiration for the noverca motif not from Greek precedent, but from Ovid, specifically Heroides 4. (8) Towards the end of her epistle to Hippolytus (Her. 4.129-36), Phaedra argues:
nec, quia privigno videar coitura noverca, terruerint animos nomina vana tuos. ista vetus pietas, aevo moritura futuro, rustica Saturno regna tenente fuit. Iuppiter esse pium statuit, quodcumque iuvaret, et fas omne facit fratre marita soror. And in case I should seem to he a stepmother who would lie with her husband's son, do not let empty names frighten your soul. That old-fashioned piety was rustic even in Saturn's reign and would die out in a later age. Jupiter ruled that whatever brought pleasure was virtuous and sister married to brother makes everything lawful. (9)
Ovid's Phaedra draws attention to, and wittily 'writes off: a particularly Roman problem in her story: the taboo of stepmaternal incest. The malign stepmother figure was an animating source of unease in the Roman cultural imaginary, evidenced by her insistent popularity in declamation and literature, where the stepmother label is even transferred onto figures for whom it had not before been a defining characteristic (e.g., Juno). (10) The unambiguously hostile saeva noverca, who persecutes her stepchildren to advance her own children, was the most common stereotype, often enhanced by cunning, witch-like aspects (the noverca venefica); in declamation, novercae were recurrently accused of plotting to disinherit their stepsons through murder by poison. (11) But the amorous stepmother-figure of Greek myth, of which by the early Principate Phaedra was the preeminent exemplum, (12) was infused with extra dread in the Roman context. Marriage between steprelations at Rome was outlawed under Augustan legislation, rendering any sexual alliance between stepmother and stepson, in principle at least, incest. (13) By contrast, in fifth-century Athens, although there was fear of stepmothers' supposedly unbridled sexuality, an incest prohibition does not seem to have applied, possibly reflected in the fact that Euripides' Phaedra is never described as stepmother; instead the chief moral focus upon her is as would-be adulteress. (14) Yet within Roman (if not Greek) families, sexual attraction between stepmother and stepson must have occurred often; given high maternal mortality, frequent remarriage, and a preference for brides far younger than husbands, stepmothers coeval or younger than stepchildren were a real possibility. (15) Examples in Roman literature of seductions or affairs between stepmother and stepson suggest that scenarios such as that depicted in Phaedra--absent father, young wife, and vigorous, manly son--were evidently perceived to be hazardous, however rare actual relationships may have been. (16) In her comprehensive study of stepmothers in Greco-Roman culture, Patricia Watson argues that the Roman obsession with both wicked and sexually predatory stepmother figures indicates a prevailing belief that the stepmaternal role led inherently to feminine lack of control and destructive impulses. Good, caring stepmothers were exceptions who proved the rule and, moreover, could only be rendered virtuous by the virtues of their stepchildren. (17) Seneca's remarks to his own mother, Helvia, exemplify this attitude: crevisti sub novercam, quam to quidem omni obsequio et pietate, quanta vel in filia conspici potest, matrem fieri coegisti, nulli tamen non magno constitit etiam bona noverca (You grew up under a stepmother, whom, certainly, through every obedience and dutifulness, as much as can be seen in a daughter, you forced to become a mother, although there is no one whom even a good stepmother does not cost greatly, Cons. Helv. 2.4). Cicero deploys a similar logic in his speech defending Cluentius, when he contends that murderous mother Sassia inverts the "name and laws of nature," becoming "a stepmother to her own son" (au. 199-200). In Heroides 4, Ovid's ever-persuasive Phaedra also exploits rhetorically the assumption of the 'naturally' saeva stepmother, suggesting it as the perfect alibi for her furtivus amor: embraces between her and Hippolytus will only lead to praise that she is that rare creature, a fida noverca (Her. 4.137-40). (18)
Invoked in court, satirized in poetry, or denounced in declamation, the stepmother figure seems to have constituted the Romans' terrifying, uncontrollable 'bogey-mother: the negative of the 'true' mother--the austere, devoted ideal embodied by figures such as Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi (and, indeed, by Seneca's mother Helvia, in his own depiction of her). (19) Murderous or sexual, the noverca was perceived as a treacherous intruder into the family (as her name, perhaps derived from novus, would suggest), (20) and her stereotype crystallized and provided an outlet for an array of powerful anxieties in Roman imperial society about remarriage and succession, and the control, subversion, and penetration of men by women. (21) Such anxieties found conspicuous real-life referents during and after Seneca's lifetime. Perhaps in reaction to the importance of matrilineage in Julio-Claudian succession, historians of the early Principate obsessively depict mothers and stepmothers of the imperial family as a powerful and corrupting presence in imperial life--plotting, dissimulating, seducing, and being seduced. (22) Tacitus draws memorably on the rhetorical type of the stepmother/bad mother in his savage portraits of Livia Augusta and Agrippina, described as matres impotentes with regard to their sons and saevae novercae to their stepchildren (Agrippa Postumus and Britannicus). (23) Here, the negative (step) maternal paradigm provides a rhetorical mode through which the historian can mordantly critique the regime as a whole--its corruption signified by its failure to control its womenfolk--and also figure the painful 'feminization' of those subject to the emperor's absolute and often arbitrary power.
Recent critics of Phaedra have drawn attention to the importance of rhetorical personae, as well as the psychology of the passions, which underpin Phaedra's characterization. (24) Yet the noverca motif, despite its rhetorical provenance and its association with destructive feminine passions, has scarcely featured. (25) This is possibly because Seneca's Phaedra is not a stock saeva noverca straight out of declamation (nor is she an Agrippina, despite attempts to read the play as a direct allegory of Julio-Claudian court politics). (26) As A. J. Boyle and others have argued, Seneca goes some way towards representing Phaedra sympathetically, emphasizing her self-conflict and painting both Theseus and Hippolytus as morally ambiguous figures, saevus and passionate in their own ways. (27) As a consequence, however, the stepmother motif is one of the tragedy's most ambiguous and ironically-presented themes, exploiting the popular rhetorical type, yet also deconstructing it. In some instances Seneca seems to tap into wider social prejudice against the noverca to energize an impression of Phaedra as a dangerously corrupted and corrupting figure. (28) Elsewhere he starkly undercuts it, articulating the alien stepmother as scapegoat for an even more troubling, deep-seated violence structured into the patriarchal family. The rhetoric of the stepmother consistently serves to expose a fault line, a vertiginous tension between socially-determined, rigid personae and the powerful flux and pull of individual passions.
The first mention of the noverca, and first indication that this role will be dramatically defining for Phaedra, occurs in the opening choral ode, an acclamation of the all-pervasive power of Natura and amor. The Chorus finishes its catalogue of love's victories with a final generalization: "What more can I sing? Love's care conquers wicked stepmothers" (quid plura canam? / vincit saevas cura novercas, 355-6). The ultimate proof of love's supremacy is the incongruous case of stepmothers who are amorous as well as (or even more than they are) cruel. (29) Although they are not specified to be in love with their own stepsons, the Chorus's paradoxical juxtaposition of saevae novercae and amor heralds the violent saevitia that will issue forth, in this tragedy, from one stepmother's love, thereby framing Phaedra in terms of the stereotype before she has even appeared.
The Chorus's introduction of the noverca through the rhetorical device of praeteritio (quid plura canam?) seems fairly innocuous in context--a standard persuasive strategy that uses silence, a 'refusal' to explain, to emphasize a point, drawing listeners into a community of understanding and consensus ("Of course, you all know already what we mean"). It is notable, then, that the next reference to the noverca has precisely the same rhetorical and ideological configuration. In his agon with the Nurse, Hippolytus also cites the stepmother as proof, this time not of love's power, but of feminine (and human) evil: "As to stepmothers I am silent: they are a thing no gentler than wild beasts" (taceo novercas: mitius nil sunt feris, 558). (30) As before, the climactic position of stepmothers in Hippolytus inventory of evil (again, the plural indicates a stock type) and his outraged pose of 'refusing' to speak about them, ideologically positions his listeners as a community of like-minded people and thus closes off further explication--even mentioning novercae, he implies, is "uncalled for."
The striking parallel in these first two references to novercae suggests more than merely contingent examples of Seneca's rhetorical style; rather, they inaugurate a subtle yet programmatic pattern in the play whereby the noverca is incorporated into rhetorical tropes or cliches that represent her as beyond words, as 'silencing' all further discourse, the extreme exemplum that speaks for itself. Seneca's placing of this generalizing rhetoric in his characters' mouths has increasingly ironic implications as his plot unfolds, overreaching its immediate context, foreshadowing events, revealing a character's doomed innocence or, in the case of Phaedra, her tragic self-awareness. Thus, in line 558 cited above, Hippolytus, one reasonably assumes, refers to the conventional saeva noverca who harms her stepchildren (obliquely reinforced by his preceding reference to child-killing mothers at 557). Even if he does have Phaedra in mind, Hippolytus in his innocence has not suspected that she could assume a 'loving' manifestation, the stepmother-as-seductress, whom (the reader knows) he should fear even more. A corresponding proleptic irony is operative later when, in response to Hippolytus's inquiry as to what is wrong, Phaedra herself replies: "An affliction which you would scarcely believe could happen to a stepmother" (quod in novercam cadere vix credas malum, 638). Phaedra here displays an abject awareness of the supposedly unspeakable, unbelievable paradox she embodies. (31) When Phaedra finally confesses her desire (which, unlike the Euripidean Phaedra, she does in person, in speech), Hippolytus's language, intentionally or not, recalls the rhetorical formulae he and the Chorus employed earlier in "not mentioning" novercae, but it is as if they have assumed a new, devastating meaning: he brands his stepmother's desire nefas (unspeakable, 678). (32) This masculine rhetorical association of cunspeakability) with stepmothers has wider, gendered implications in the play, particularly when linked to Medea, and I shall return to this in the next section. For my purpose here, the association signals the larger tendency of Senecan tragic rhetoric to push to the limit, to 'crack open; rhetorical (and social) norms. In the escalation from well-worn clich ("I say nothing of stepmothers"), to the language of the damned, to what cannot be said (Hippolytus's nefas) Seneca exposes the fear and horror that lurk behind, and are suppressed and controlled by, seemingly banal rhetorical types and tropes. (33)
As the plot unfolds, Seneca exploits the rhetorical and narrative incongruities of stepmaternal love and deconstructs them. Revolted by Phaedra's advance, Hippolytus declares extravagantly that her 'unnatural' lust has polluted him too: "I am guilty, I deserve to die: I have pleased a stepmother" (sum nocens, merui mori / placui novercae, 683-4). So perverse, so morally contaminating is the noverca in Hippolytus's eyes, that to "please" her--even unwittingly--is itself a crime; yet Hippolytus's hyperbolic guilt unintentionally prefigures Theseus's hasty acceptance of his son's presumed guilt and his subsequent condemnation of him to death. (34) The moment of greatest irony, however, occurs at the end of the play, where the noverca motif is given a final, bitter moral twist by Phaedra herself. After she has confessed her lie and pierced herself with the sword, she advises her husband to do the same: "Now your son is taken away, learn from a stepmother what you should do as a parent: hide in the regions of Acheron" (quid facere rapto debeas nato parens, / disce a noverca: condere Acherontis plagis, 1199-200). In a tragedy in which a father brings about his son's bloody dismemberment, the stepmother who loved her stepson (too much) can now claim to be a model of good parenting. (35)
Yet even as Seneca works to deconstruct and ironize the noverca stereotype, its persistent evocation in the play forces to the surface the Roman anxiety of stepmaternal incest and renders Phaedra's moral anguish twofold. Not only is Phaedra consumed with lust for a man not her husband, but the man is also her son, at least in the true sense that sexual relations with him would be contra naturam (contrary to nature), as if she was his natural, true mother, rather than simply contra morem (socially transgressive). From the beginning of the play, this unnaturalness of the stepmother's desire is conveyed through repeated comparison to her own mother, Pasiphae, and this inaugurates a chain of anxieties--symbolic, literary, rhetorical--linking stepmaternal and maternal transgression within the figure of Phaedra. Phaedra is first to locate the source of her lust in the perverse nature she has inherited from Pasiphae, who copulated with a bull and bore the Minotaur: "I recognize the fatal wickedness of my wretched mother" (fatale miserae matris agnosco malum, 113), she says, demonstrating painful awareness of her literary and mythic origins. For Phaedra, her incestuous passion is family history inexorably repeating itself: she is helpless, she claims, against the power of her mother's sin (698-9), which she interprets as a curse from Venus (124-8). (36) But for the Nurse Phaedra's very self-awareness makes her crime even more unspeakable than Pasiphae's, since, she argues, it is down to choice: "Why do you weigh down your infamous house and outdo your mother? This nefas is worse than monstrous, for you can blame the monstrous on fate, but crimes on character" (quid dornum in, fa aggravas / superasque matrem? maius est monstro nefas: / nam rnonstra frito, marlines scelera imputes, 142-4). The coupling of noverca and privignus would be, the Nurse alleges, another concubitus novus, resulting in monstrous offspring like the Minotaur (169-73,176-7):
expelle facinus mente castifica horridum, memorque maths metue concubitus novos. miscere thalamos patris et nati apparas uteroque prolem capere confusam irnpio? purge et nefandis verte naturam ignibus! natura totiens legibus cedet suis, quotiens amabit Cressa?. Cast out of your chaste mind this horrid crime, be mindful of your mother and be afraid of strange forms of sexual union. Are you planning to mix up the beds of father and son and carry confused offspring in an unnatural womb? Go and reverse nature with your your unspeakable fires! ... Will nature always surrender her laws whenever a Cretan woman loves?
Whether it is her choice or her fate, the shadow of her Cretan mother sets the pattern by which Phaedra's passion in Seneca's play is played out as perversion. Like Pasiphae, who lusted after "the wild leader of savage cattle ... fierce, impatient of the yoke" (pecoris efferum saevi ducem ... torvus, impatiens iugi, 116), Phaedra's passion is also for a wild creature: Hippolytus is described as ferus (240, 272, 414), intractabilis (229, 271), irnmitis (273), saevus (273), torvus (416), ferox (416), silvester (461), and silvarum incola (922). Following Pasiphae, Phaedra's desire "knows how to sin in forests" (matris agnosco malum: / peccare noster novit in silvis amor, 114). (37) When the Nurse invokes the specter of Phaedra's father, Minos, judge of the Underworld ("Remember your father"), Phaedra invokes an alternative role model: "I remember my mother also" (243). And in the end, the Nurse's fear that her mistress's incestuous passion will produce a confusam prolem (173) like the Minotaur finds realization in the hybrid bull-cum-behemoth summoned by Theseus to kill Hippolytus, which the Messenger describes as emerging from the sea in a monstrous birth: (38) "The sea swells with a monster" (tumidumque monstro pelagus, 1016); "A heavy billow bears something in its burdened womb" (nescioquid oneratu sinu / gravis unda portat, 1019-20). Ripped to pieces by this savage creature, in part the product of Phaedra's monstrous desire, Hippolytus's allegation that stepmothers are as wild as beasts (558) is symbolically proven true in the most horrific and unexpected fashion. (39)
Is Phaedra, then, a saeva noverca, or is she not? On the one hand, Seneca's play refuses to naturalize the Roman saeva noverca type, instead underscoring, especially in Phaedra's own marked uses of the term, the ironic, tragic tension between her moral and emotional predicament and the unequivocally evil role imposed upon her. Disengaged from the pedagogical imperatives of declamation, integrated into a tragic narrative, Seneca's play gives the noverca an emotional voice, destabilizing and ironizing some of the gender norms that declamatory rhetoric sought to justify, and the self-righteous, anxiety-filled mode in which it did so (echoed, to some extent, in Hippolytus's hysterical tirades). (40) But at the same time, the term's very reiteration in the play forces us to read Phaedra's transgression in terms of the broader social stereotype (almost as if it exerted causal force)--perhaps even to read her, like Hippolytus, as ironically 'worse' than it, since her uncontrollable passion unleashes a saevitia far exceeding the conventional stepmaternal variety. This unresolved ambiguity within the use of the noverca motif feeds into the larger representational ambiguities of Phaedra's struggle in Seneca's tragedy, as she vacillates between resisting her illicit desire for Hippolytus and the literary role assigned to her, and maneuvering to fulfill it.
If the malign stepmother is a perversion of the loving mother, Seneca's Phaedra, as loving stepmother, is rhetorically presented as a perversion of a perversion, and her already unnatural blurring of categories is reinforced by the problem that her desire is also, in Roman legal terms at least, incestuous. This provokes another more profoundly problematic question than whether or not Phaedra is a saeva noverca: What makes such desire unnatural? Or, put another way, what is the difference between a stepmother and a real mother? In Heroides 4, Ovid's Phaedra shockingly dismisses the problem of stepkin incest as a matter of classification: stepmother and stepson are just "empty names" (vana nomina, Her. 4.130), mere rhetoric. In Phaedra, however, Ovidian comedy becomes Senecan horror as his text consistently blurs any such categorical distinctions between natural and unnatural, blood and non-blood kinship, and between Phaedra's stepmaternal and maternal aspects. By repeatedly invoking the taurophile mother as origin and precedent for the amorous stepmother, Seneca's tragedy elevates the Roman legal and social prohibition on sexual relations between stepmother and stepson into a fundamental law of nature, the transgression of which is made equivalent to intercourse between human and beast. Incestuous in spite of herself (hoc quod volo me nolle, 604-5; also 177-85), Seneca's Phaedra is aware that she is an ironic victim of the stepmother role assigned to her, that she incarnates what is supposed to be a rhetorical and cultural impossibility--the loving noverca (638). Yet at the same time, since her unnatural stepinotherly desire is dictated by and replicates her mother's crime, it assumes a kind of biological inevitability in her mind: "I too recognize the fate of our house: we seek out what should be shunned; but I have no control over myself" (698-9). (41)
II. Specters of Medea
Behind Pasiphae and the declamatory saeva noverca lurks, however, an even more problematic specter for the Senecan Phaedra, a figure who yokes together these powerful negative paradigms of femininity: cruel stepmother and monstrous mother. The second rhetorical motif I will examine is the play's allusive use of Medea.
Medea is invoked explicitly twice in Phaedra, most prominently in the central seduction scene when Hippolytus compares Phaedra to Medea. This moment provides an ironic structural counterpoint to Phaedra's earlier attempts, prior to her confession, to reconstruct herself in the role of Hippolytus's potential lover. (42) Phaedra rejects her stepson's appellation mater as "proud and too powerful" (609) and offers instead titles with less perverse (and more erotic) connotations--sister or servant (611)--and then claims she is like virginal Ariadne, with Hippolytus as Theseus redux (646-6; cf. respersa nulla labe et intacta, 668), (43) Yet despite this rhetorical effort to restyle herself as anything-but-mother, Hippolytus's reaction to her desire shows that Phaedra cannot shake off the maternal "stain" (687-93): (44)
o scelere vincens omne femineum genus, o maius ausa matre monstrifer malum genetrice peior! illa se tantum stupro contaminavit, et tamen taciturn diu crimen biformi partus exhibuit nota, scelusque matris arguit vultu truci ambiguus infans. ille to venter tulit! O you outdo the whole race of women in crime, you have dared a greater evil than your monster-bearing mother, you are worse than your parent! She polluted only herself with debauchery, yet still her long-silent offence was revealed by the proof of her double-formed offspring. The ambiguous infant with his beast-like face proved the mother's crime. That very womb bore you!
Like the Nurse at 170ff., Hippolytus recoils not so much at Phaedra's adulterous eroticism but at her procreative aspect, at the prospect she presents of a grotesque maternal sexuality like Pasiphae's, the empirical proof of which is her brother the Minotaur (nota arguit, 691-2). (45) But Hippolytus's hyberbolic rhetoric is also a search for an appropriately universal and apocalyptic scale against which to measure his horror. Just after this description of Phaedra as "worse" than all women, including her beast-loving mother, Hippolytus finds the definitive comparandum he is looking for: genitor, invideo tibi: / Colchide noverca maius hoc, maius malum est (Father, I envy you, this is greater, a greater evil than the Colchian stepmother, 696-7). If sexual perversity is passed from Cretan mother to daughter, bad luck with stepmothers seems to run in Hippolytus's side of family: Hippolytus's paternal grandfather Aegeus, king of Athens, married the Colchian sorceress, Medea, after she fled Corinth and the murder of her children. Yet Hippolytus here ironically counts Theseus lucky: Medea, after all, only tried to poison her stepson, not seduce him. The intertext signaled here is Ovid's account in the Metamorphoses (7.404-24), where Medea plots to murder Theseus when he returns as a stranger to Aegeus's palace. (46) The youth is saved at the last minute when Aegeus recognizes the markings on Theseus's sword, realizes the boy's true identity as his son, and knocks Medea's poisoned draught out of his hand (Met. 7.419-23). (47) Ovid's Medea-Theseus narrative directly parallels Phaedra's story in Seneca's play: both are set in Athens (a Senecan innovation, apparently, since Euripides' Hippolytus is set in Troezen); both concern a baleful stepmother, an innocent stepson, an attempted crime (seduction, poison), and proof in the form of a sword. But Hippolytus's puritan dread of an unleashed feminine sexuality and fertility makes him measure the lustful stepmother, Phaedra, as maius malum, a "greater evil" than not only the Minotaur-spawning mother but also the murderous stepmother. Medea, at least, was consistently following her true nature as saeva (and venefica) noverca, while Phaedra's lust, Hippolytus seems to suggest, is a willful perversion even of that.
Hippolytus's climactic comparison of Phaedra to the "Colchian stepmother" is prepared for in his account of Iron Age corruption in the previous scene. There he first drew rhetorically on Medea--also as the measure of feminine evil, also alongside a reference to stepmothers (553-64):
tum scelera dempto fine per cunctas domes iere, nullum caruit exemplo nefas: a fratre frater, dextera nati parens cecidit, maritus coniugis Ferro facet perimuntque fetus impiae matres suos. taceo novercas: mitius nil sunt feris. sed dux malorum femina. haec scelerum artifex obsedit animos; huius incesti stupris fumant tot urbes, bella tot genies gerunt et versa ab imo regna tot populos premunt. sileantur aliae: sola coniunx Aegei, Medea, reddet feminas dirum genus. Then with limits gone, crimes ran through each home and no outrage lacked an example: brother falls by the hand of brother, parent by the hand of child, husband lies slain by a wife's sword, and unholy mothers destroy their own children. As to stepmothers I am silent: they are a thing no gentler than wild beasts. But woman is the leader of evils. This inventor of crimes besieges minds. So many cities lie smoking because of the sinful license of this corrupted creature, so many nations wage wars and kingdoms, overturned from their foundations, press down upon so many peoples. To say nothing of others, Aegeus's wife Medea alone will reveal women as a monstrous tribe.
In his hierarchy of human wickedness, Hippolytus makes Woman the ultimate agent, both "leader" (dux) and "author" (artifex). Her crimes (their nadir marked by child-killing mothers and bestial stepmothers) extend beyond the domestic into the political sphere; like attackers of cities, she "lays siege to minds" (559); and she generates, he concludes, the destruction of whole cities and civilization itself. Here, as noted earlier, Hippolytus juxtaposes tropes of silence with a rhetoric of proof: stepmothers' savagery is so patent it induces speechlessness (taceo novercas, 558); Pasiphae's "long-silent crime" (tacitum diu / crimen, 690-1) was proved (nota ... exhibuit ... arguit, 691-2) by the Minotaur; and finally, Medea, with a praeteritio mirroring that for novercae a few lines earlier (558), is the last word on feminine wickedness (563): sileantur aliae: sola coniunx Aegei (note that "Aegeus's wife" stresses her stepmaternal role and familial connection to Hippolytus himself). Epitomizing both the impia mater (556) and the fera noverca in Hippolytus's schema, Medea becomes the prototype of feminine criminality, the definitive dux tnalorum and scelerum artifex, proving and trumping the iniquity of the whole genus (564), a role that, as we have just seen, Hippolytus soon transfers to the unfortunate Phaedra (o scelere vincens omne femineum genus, 687ff.). As the arch-exemplum, subsuming or "silencing" all others (sileantur aliae), Medea exceeds, it would seem, the descriptive capacities of language itself.
One ironic consequence of Hippolytus's rhetorical invocation of Medea relates to the representation of Hippolytus himself. Hippolytus falls back on the power of the stereotype to masquerade as proof, to stake out a commonsense 'truth' that makes any particularity, any further elucidation, superfluous: "All stepmothers are evil because they are stepmothers; Medea is a woman; therefore all women are evil." His flawed logic is pointed out within the play itself by the Nurse: "Why are all blamed for the fault of few?" (565). For Hippolytus, generalizing about Medea serves to justify his panicky distrust of all women, the hysterical tenor of which is palpable in his response to the Nurse's question (566-73). But Seneca also links his misogyny and his hatred of Medea to a profound distrust of language (evidenced by words such as taceo or sileantur), to a desire to control meaning as it shifts shape and changes context. For Hippolytus, there can be no room for uncertainty, ambiguity, or double meaning--unlike for Phaedra, for whom ambiguity is a defining mode of speech and action (e.g., 604-5,639-40,890-3,1186-9). (48)
As the narrative plays out, Seneca demonstrates with mordant irony the hazards that accompany Hippolytus's narrowly literal (as opposed to literary) interpretation of the world. Already in the prologue, the language of Hippolytus's hunting song deviated from his innocent intent as Seneca contaminates it with an erotic Ovidianism, especially that of Phaedra herself in Heroides 4. (49) Similarly in the seduction scene, Hippolytus shows his sexual and rhetorical naivet by repeatedly failing to comprehend Phaedra's words, generating for the not-so-innocent reader an ambience of mounting dread. When he finally understands, he is shocked that his rigor could be interpreted, against his intentions, as materia for her desire (687). And finally, facing the sea-bull summoned by his father to kill him, Hippolytus confidently judges it an "empty terror," because "conquering bulls is my father's work" (haud frangit animum vanus hic terror meum / nam mihi paternus vincere est tauros labor, 1066-7). According to Hippolytus's rigidly analogical worldview, like father then surely like son. (50) Ironically, in this tragedy, father and son share a propensity, not for bull killing, but for misreading: just as Hippolytus is oblivious to the psychological and literary forces dictating his ruin, so later Theseus misinterprets Hippolytus's sword as proof that his son is a savage rapist and the stepmother an innocent victim, and ignores its prehistory in Ovid's Metamorphoses where it had proved Theseus himself as a true son and Medea as saeva noverca. (51) As with the stepmother motif, Hippolytus's use of Medea as exemplum ironically reveals the precariousness of a worldview that demands language to map neatly onto reality and generic roles to fit individuals. In activating the play's principal Ovidian intertext, the Medea-Theseus narrative of the Metamorphoses, Hippolytus's allusions to Medea set in motion a sequence of ominous errors or Ovidian misreadings which will ultimately prove fatal for both Hippolytus and Phaedra.
Medea has a more prominent literary identity, however, than Theseus's poisonous stepmother, an identity which, though not overtly mentioned in Phaedra, is difficult to ignore. Given that Seneca has already blurred the categories of stepmotherhood and motherhood in the play, is there a suggestion here of the other Medea, the ultimate murderous mother? One hint that the infanticidal Medea lurks behind the Ovidian stepmother evoked by Hippolytus is provided in Hippolytus's account of human decline, which first refers to child-killing mothers (impiae matres, 557), then stepmothers (558), and concludes with Medea, "Aegeus's wife." Ovid's description of the Iron Age in Met. 1.127ff. is a key intertext here; but although Ovid mentions stepmothers (Met. 1.147), he makes no reference to murderous mattes, pointing to its particular significance in Phaedra here and leading to the mention of Medea. (52) Another, perhaps more marked, trace of the other Medea occurs a few lines before Hippolytus's reference to Phaedra as "worse than the Colchian stepmother" (Coichide noverca maius hoc, maius maium est, 697), when he describes her as "worse than" her own mother Pasiphae: maius ausa matre monstrifera malum (689). This hyberbolic language is distinctively Senecan, (53) but the alliterative associations of maius, maleficence, monstrosity, and motherhood also make it unmistakably Medean. The point of departure for this association are the closing words of Ovid's Medea from Heroides 12 (Her. 12.208-9, 212), which Stephen Hinds has described as a metaliterary "trailer" for Ovid's own, lost, Medea tragedy that dealt with the infanticide: ingentes parturit ira minas ... nescioquid certe mens mea maius agit (My anger is giving birth to mighty threats; ... something greater, for sure, is playing in my mind). (54) But these two fleeting Ovidian motifs, of Medea giving birth to revenge and of that revenge becoming maius, an unparalleled criminal and creative enterprise, are reworked and amplified in Seneca's own Medea to become its programmatic topoi. From the prologue's intimations of a nascent revenge--effera ignota horrida ... mala ... mens intus agitat ... maiora lam me scelera post partus decent (Wild, unknown, savage evils ... my mind stirs up within me ... greater crimes befit me now that I have given birth, Med. 45-50)-to the Nurse's alliterative description of her machinations--maius his, maius parat / Medea monstrum (Greater than these, a greater monstrosity Medea is preparing, 674-5); from her exhortations to live up to her fearsome name--Medea nunc sum: crevit ingenium malls (Now I am Medea, my genius has grown through evils, 905-10)--to the warped logic she uses to justify killing her children--scelus est Jason genitor et maius scelus / Medea mater (Their crime is to have Jason as father, and a greater crime, Medea as mother, 933-5) again and again Seneca's play establishes rhetorically the primacy of Medea's motherhood as metaphor for her ability to generate greater and greater destruction." (55)
Beyond her own play, however, Medea occupies a unique place in Seneca's entire tragic corpus. As many critics have noted, all of Seneca's protagonists share a pervasive awareness of their own "literariness," as they motivate themselves to greater acts of rhetorical self-assertion and self-dramatization. (56) Stephen Hinds argues, however, that this pattern follows an Ovidian, but more specifically Medean, blueprint:
Seneca's tragedies generate a great deal of energy between and among one another: with issues of dating set aside, every protagonist in the oeuvre can be felt by the reader to gather momentum from every other protagonist in the oeuvre. ... More precisely, they are replicating two classic Ovidian moves: one whereby Medea herself "becomes Medea" (as so clearly at the end of Heroides 12, which reads as a kind of sphragis); and the other whereby, in the Heroides and in the midsection of the Metamorphoses ..., Ovid's other intertextual heroines "become Medeas" too. (57)
The self-referential, metaliterary vocabulary that Seneca's tragic protagonists all share--of maior and malum, of stirring up furor within themselves, greater than what has been (written) before--is also manifestly and self-consciously "Medean," originating in part, as we have seen, in the metaliterary tropes of Ovid's epistolary (and potentially tragic) Medea (Her. 12.208-12), and developed further by Seneca in his own Medea tragedy, where the infanticidal mother also becomes a poet-figure, instigating, or 'giving birth to' her own tragic plot.58 On this combined development of Ovidianism and what we might call "Medeanism" in Senecan drama, Hinds argues:
Seneca'S tragic heroes and heroines (from Medea herself to Phaedra, Oedipus and Atreus) are famously obsessed with realizing their full tragic potential, becoming themselves (Med. 910: Medea nuns sum; cf. the characterization of Oedipus at Oed. 926 ... suisque fatis simile); but in intertextual terms they are in a sense all it becoming Medeas. (2001, 26)
Hippolytus's rhetorical deployments of Medea in Phaedra thus activate (whether we think him aware of it or not) an allusive relationship, not only with Ovid's Metamorphoses, but also with Seneca's own Medea tragedy, in which Medea is not stepmother but infanticidal mother--a Medea who, moreover, becomes the paradigmatic figure, feminine or otherwise, of the Senecan tragic self. This relationship between the Phaedra and the Medea seems to be one of subtle echo or ambience, more the specter of an allusion than clear intertextual reference. But my concern here is less the intricate dynamics of intertertuality in Phaedra than its tropes and strategies of gender representation. From that perspective, the shadowy affiliation hinted at in Phaedra sets up a potential comparative reading of these two Senecan heroines as mutually illuminating, interanimating, and interbred. (59) In what follows, I consider first how far can we press a reading of Phaedra as ("worse than") a Senecan Medea, and, finally, what the implications of such a comparison might be, ethically and aesthetically, for Phaedra and other characters in the play.
Medea and Phaedra are Seneca's two most compelling and fully-realized tragic heroines and, as recent criticism has shown, they also constitute his most thorough dramatizations of psychological conflict. Yet on first glance they appear very different creations, both esthetically and morally. (60) Torn between her shame and illicit passion, the suicidal Phaedra seems far removed from Seneca's all-powerful mother-artist Medea, who revels in her furor, exhorting herself to greater heights of violent passion in order to bring about her triumphant revenge. (61) Unlike Phaedra, Seneca seems to have propelled his Medea to a supernatural realm beyond good and evil; there is no suggestion that she will suffer punishment for her crimes or even require an Aegeus-figure to provide refuge from the angry Corinthians. (62) Their relative agency and passivity aside, however, the representations of these two Senecan heroines are also thematically intertwined. In both plays, the heroine's subjective emotional states are intensely articulated; Seneca places her experience of passion, pain, and revenge center stage. Both tragedies are condensed explorations of familial dysfunction and sociopolitical power, pivoting around the problem of the two central feminine roles, wife and mother. Seneca's heroines are each forced to negotiate their unruly passions with these assigned social identities: Medea as Jason's rejected wife and mother of his children, Phaedra as consort of the absent Theseus and stepmother to her beloved Hippolytus. In addition, in both plays the heroines' psychic struggles are placed in the context of a larger, cosmic corruption, aligned with feminine and, in particular, maternal wickedness. As Seneca's highly literate milieu would surely have been aware, the chain of associations linking Phaedra to Medea extends to their very genealogy: Medea is related to Phaedra on both conjugal and natal sides (although Seneca's play does not mention the latter). Not only was Medea Theseus's stepmother, she is also connected to Phaedra by blood as fellow granddaughter of the Sun (Phaed. 124ff.; Med. 28-9), since her father Aeetes is Pasiphae's brother (Apollonius of Rhodes, Arg. 3.1074-6). As part of her own family history, then, Phaedra's Colchian cousin looms large alongside Pasiphae as yet another (maternal and stepmaternal) figure gone bad.
Given the permeability of their motifs and myths, it is odd that few critics have observed how the plot developments of their respective Senecan tragedies mirror each other. At the outset, both women are isolated, socially powerless, exiled from home, and abandoned by their philandering husbands, albeit Phaedra temporarily (Phaed. 89-98). Both are racked by uncontrollable waves of dolor (e.g., Phaed. 99-100; Med. 47ff.) and this furor, whether love (e.g., Phaed. 177-9, 184, 360ff.) or wrath (e.g., Med. 380ff.) and furor's fervor, is insistently connected to their gender (e.g., Med. 25-6, 50, 103-4, 267-8, 383, 579-82; Phaed. 112-3, 169-77, etc.). (63) During the course of each play, this searing feminine passion is stoked and nursed into an irresistible, elemental force (e.g., Phaed. 101-3: alitur et crescit malum / et ardet intus, qualis Aetnaeo vapor / exundat antro; Med. 46-7: mala / mens intus agitat; 405-6: numquam meus cessabit in poenas furor, / crescetque semper; also 671-5, 905-10), which seeks release in the annihilation of its (masculine) object, Jason and Hippolytus, respectively (64)--although Phaedra could perhaps also be called its victim, whereas Medea ultimately thrives on and exults in it. (65)
There is another, more specific element of cohesion, however, between Seneca's representations: both draw on Roman social conventions regarding the family and stereotypes of maternity. Just as Seneca gives Phaedra's predicament an ironic Roman color through the rhetoric of the noverca, so Medea's split with Jason is configured in terms that evoke a Roman-style divorce or repudium (a term used by Medea itself; cf. repudia, Med. 53). (66) Roman conventions are reinforced by the status of the children: Euripides' Medea follows Athenian tradition whereby the foreign Medea, reduced by Jason's new betrothal to an abandoned concubine, is expected to take her illegitimate children with her into exile; but in Seneca's play Roman custom is mimicked whereby the children of divorced parents automatically stay with their father, as if he is the only true parent. (67) When she begs Jason to let her take them, his refusal because they are his "reason for living" (546) reveals to Medea not only that they signify "the place to wound him" (550-1) but also that his parental love inevitably trumps hers. In the final horror scene, this same logic persuades her to commit the ultimate revenge:
Let them fall, since they are not mine; let them perish, since they are mine. ... Let them be lost to their father's kisses, they are lost to their mothers. ... If only I had born twice seven children! I had born twice seven children! I have been barren for revenge. (68)
Afterwards, Medea's final words to her ex-husband ironically re-invoke the juridical principle that the children of a divorce must go with their father, and its underlying logic that only he is the only true parens: "Now," she says to Jason from her chariot (some suggest she even tosses their corpses down to him), (69) "Take back your sons, parent" (recipe lam natos parens, 1024).
Seneca's Medea, Greek mythic heroine, powerful barbarian witch, murderer of her brother, and traitor to her father, is not uncomplicatedly presented as a wronged Roman coniunx. But just as in Phaedra the noverca motif exposes familial anxieties and uncertainties that the contemporary rhetorical stereotype and incest laws sought to control, so too Seneca's Medea, pursuing the rhetoric and procedures of a Roman marriage and divorce to its absurd extreme, ruptures the illusion that the mythic excesses of this Medea are aberrant or counter to a larger societal logic: they are revealed to be potentially continuous with it. (70) Set within this contemporary frame, Medea's crime is not so much a disavowal of her maternal role, as in Euripides' play, as it is a re-appropriation of it for her own ends; throughout her play, as we have seen, she rhetorically aligns her quintessentially Medean desire to avenge herself with her maternal function.
Like Hippolytus in Phaedra, the Chorus in Medea also identifies Medea as proof of the fall from Golden Age innocence, here instigated by the crime of the Argo that brought her from Colchis to Greece (Med. 329ff.): (71) maiusque marl Medea malum / merces prima digna carina (Medea, a greater evil than the sea, worthy merchandise for the first vessel, 362-3). The witch Medea, embodying both vengeful Nature and criminal human artifice, (72) seizes on the perception of her as uncivilized Other to fuel her violent self-mythicization in Seneca's play, which, as Cindy Benton (2003, 281) has noted, involves bringing "a bit of Colchis to Corinth" (Med. 43-5). "Every outrage that Phasis or Pontus saw, the Isthmus will see." (73) The barbarity of Phaedra's lust has already been pointed out by the Nurse (166-8: "Check these flames of unnatural love, I pray, this evil that no barbarian land has ever committed, not the Getae wandering the plains, nor the inhospitable Taurus nor the scattered Scythians." Once labeled, Phaedra will find it very hard, in poetic terms, to cast off his charge that she is, at least partly, a Cretan Medea. (74) Along with Pasiphae, the figure of Medea represents an ungovernable, unspeakable 'second nature' for her in Seneca's play; one mother's murderous rage complementing the other's perverse desire in a rhetorical and psychic continuum linking Cretan and Colchian, zoophilia and infanticide.
Yet once Hippolytus has introduced Medea into the play, the sequence of Medea-parallels stretches beyond Phaedra herself. As the Colchian stepmother defeated by Theseus, Medea also has resonances of another barbarian mother-figure who silently haunts the play: the Amazon Antiope, Hippolytus's dead mother, against whom Theseus also exercised his masculine supremacy, although this time unjustly, as the Nurse suggests (coniugi castae, 226-7). Theseus's own words hint at a shadowy symbolic equivalence between these two barbarian women from his past. Before blaming his son's lust on his maternal and Amazonian roots, Theseus first suggests Medea's home, "Colchian Phasis" (the only other mention of Colchis in the play), as the kind of wild, un-Greek land that could generate such savagery (906-8, 926-9):
hunc Graia tellus aluit an Taurus Scythes Colchusque Phasis? redit ad auctores genus stirpemque primam degener sanguis refert. iam iam uperno numini grates ago, quod icta nostra cecidit Antiope manu, quod non ad antra Stygia descendens tibi matrem reliqui. Did a Greek land nurture this man or Scythian Taurus or Colchian Phasis? The race returns to its origins and degenerate blood brings back first offspring ... Now, now I give thanks to the powers above that Antiope fell struck by my hand, that when I descended to the Stygian caverns I did not leave your mother with you.
As Theseus self-righteously reminds us, Hippolytus's "father's work" (1066-7) involved the conquest of not only bulls but also supposedly degenerate mother-figures. But this repressed violent past comes back to haunt both Theseus and his son, as the final tragedy unfolds, through a nexus of intertextual links with Medea. Most obviously, as I have shown, the sword that in Ovid prevented the stepmother's crime (Met. 7.421-3) and saved Theseus's life, is brought back by Seneca to propagate a stepmother's crime (Phaed. 896-900) and condemn Hippolytus to death. Yet Seneca's own Medea, the mother who murders her sons, the savage monstrum (Med. 190) and sea-borne "evil worse than the sea" (maius marl. malurn, Med. 363), also indirectly shadows Theseus, the father who brings about his son's murder, by means of another monstrum, also from the sea, also described as a "worse evil" (malum ... maths ... monstrum, Ph.1033-4).
Saeva noverca and impia mater, barbarian like Antiope, bestial like Pasiphae, embodiment of the elemental violence of natura (cf., e.g., Med. 411-4, 579-90), measure of feminine corruption, proof of humanity's decline, and, finally, paradigmatic figure for Senecan tragedy itself, Medea functions rhetorically in Phaedra as a silent yet immanent presence, defining the play's moral limits, haunting its protagonists like a half-forgotten nightmare, infusing with savage irony its narrative of familial prejudice, self-delusion, and manipulation. (75) So what is it about Medea, and why might she be, to adapt a term from feminist psychoanalysis, a "spectral mother" in this tragedy? (76)
In invoking Medea as rhetorical exemplum and analogue for Phaedra, Seneca mobilizes the way in which the mythic Medea, both child-killing mother and stepmother, emblematizes the function of the stepmother-type not simply as negative of the 'true mother: but as a screen for the repressed or censored figure of the bad mother. In her study of the Medea-Theseus myth, Christine Sourvinou-Inwood (1990, 410) explains: "The negative traits of the figure of the mother, the fear that she will not care for, and may even use her virtually unlimited powers to damage, her powerless small (male is what matters) children, have drifted to the figure of the stepmother." Medea's mythic persona--as daughter, wife, mother, or stepmother--localizes collective anxieties regarding the power of a woman in the domestic or family sphere to damage a man through his paternity, which is in a sense in her hands, even as she is defined by her relationship to it. Thus, Aeetes, Pelias, Jason, Creon, and finally Aegeus are all destroyed by Medea through their fatherhood. (77) To adapt another term of modern psychoanalysis, Medea could be said to serve as the paradigmatic "phallic mother" of antiquity: devourer of her kin and dux of her own fate, she threatens the fixed gender codes which write 'woman' and 'man as 'subordinate' and 'dominant: 'powerless' and 'powerful.' (78) E. A. Kaplan, studying maternal representation in modern melodrama and film, has argued (1992, 47) that the phallic mother "in fact represents strategies whereby the mother-as-constructed-in-patriarchy attempts to get something for herself [i.e. power] in a situation where that is not supposed to happen." (79) It must be noted, however, that, at the same time as Medea is a terrifying maternal aberration, in both Seneca's Phaedra and Medea she also necessarily functions as a kind of Everywoman. As the endpoint of the Argo's journey into the unknown, the silence-inducing exemplum that proves and measures humanity's decline, Medea emblematizes the wild space wherein patriarchy must locate women's wholegenus, designating them all the 'dark continent' of masculine civilization: (80) excessive and lawless as opposed to bounded and ordered, unknown to known, nature to culture. Medea's moral ambiguity--killer of her children and avenger of the sacred covenants of marriage and family--reinforces the misogynistic ideologies underpinning masculine moral and cultural supremacy and defies them. It is hardly surprising then that in Phaedra, a play obsessed with man's attempts to control nature in its most extreme forms, all roads, rhetorical or otherwise, seem to lead to Medea. (81)
One might assume that the casting of Medea as symbolic counterpart for Phaedra corroborated the traditional opinion of Seneca's heroine as a depraved, lustful liar, "a study in baseness" (compared to Euripides' more sympathetically presented Phaedra). (82) Yet there are profound and ironizing differences between the two characters, which their alignment in the play also brings to the fore. Riven with self-doubt, Phaedra never achieves the autonomous, untrammeled selfhood that Medea triumphantly attains in her play. Timothy Hill has emphasized that earlier debates over Phaedra's ethical status in fact pick up on persistent dissonances in her characterization: (83) while Medea, in her monologue near the end of her play, displays extreme but temporary self-division between her passions and social roles, mother and (ex)wife, this inner turmoil is expanded in Phaedra's case to show a woman radically conflicted from beginning to end between the social roles of stepmother and lover, furor and pudor. Phaedra tries on and casts off a whole series of different identities in her desperation not to he a noverca or an impia mater--in essence, not to be "Medea." Moreover, unlike Medea, Phaedra does not overtly confront the androcentric socio-political order that constrains and categorizes her. Rather, she tries to work within it, to find some way in which it might accommodate her aberrant and excessive desires, perhaps even (as she deludes herself at one point) legitimate them through marriage (Phaed. 597). (84) If Medea's 'madness' is that she pushes the punitive patriarchal logic imposed upon her as mother to its paradoxical, self-negating extreme, Phaedra's is that she believes that same logic is fluid and negotiable, that it will allow her to be what she wants to be.
So, while on one level Medea is constructed as the Senecan Phaedra's textual 'mother,' overdetermining the Cretan princess's attempts to present herself as Hippolytus's potential lover, on the other hand Hippolytus's judgment of Phaedra as "worse than" Medea makes her more consistently wicked, more of an agent in her wickedness, than Seneca's drama otherwise presents her. Charles Segal (1996, 96) has observed that Hippolytus's list of crimes against kin culminating in Medea (553-64) omits the very crimes that happen in his own family, which consist not of wife killing husband or mother killing child (555-7), but of husband killing wife (Antiope, 926-9) and father killing son (998ff.). The source and agent of this violence is not the mother, as Hippolytus's misogynistic fantasy would have it, but the father Theseus, self-appointed monster-killer, representative of civilized, social values. Phaedra's tragedy, then, is that she both is and is not a Medea. (85) She ends the play with an almost exemplary suicide, horrified at the destruction she has wrought on her kin and clinging to the vestiges of her pudor--quite the opposite of the narcissistic Medea, who displays a tyrannical disregard for communal values and, indeed, challenges the very moral category of criminality itself (e.g., Med. 564, 904ff.). But even in her moment of redemption, Phaedra compromises the ethical meaning of her death, since she is still uncertain of who--and for whom--she is supposed to be, virtuous wife of Theseus or doomed lover of Hippolytus: "If you are chaste, die for your husband; if unchaste, for your love" (morere si casta es, viro; / si incesta, amori, 1184-5). A few lines later, however, about to confess her guilt to Theseus, Phaedra adopts a final, definitive, and by now familiar rhetorical role: "Listen Athenians, and you, father worse than a murderous stepmother" (audite Athenae, tuque, funesta pater / peior noverca, 1190-1). Even if Phaedra does not fit the Medea model, the model, she is ironically aware, has made her fit it. However, we cannot escape the point that here, in the play's near-closing moments, Phaedra's--and the play's--bitterest irony is reserved for Theseus: he too has become "worse than" Medea, his own murderous stepmother.
I have shown how two rhetorical tropes, the noverca and Medea, frame and mediate the representation of Seneca's Phaedra, and have suggested that both motifs invoke contemporary Roman anxieties about gender in the familial and the public spheres. I now wish briefly to reprise the terms I invoked at the beginning of the article and consider what distance there might be between Seneca's tragic heroines and 'ordinary Roman women, and what distance from men.
Seneca's two dramas seem to draw a particularly perverse literary energy from the masculine horror surrounding the passionate mother-figure (and the feminized male), expressed and negotiated elsewhere in Roman culture (e.g., declamatory rhetoric). (86) Moreover, by giving Medea's and Phaedra's mythic predicaments a Roman cast, Seneca inches their monstrous, supposedly unmaternal acts unnervingly closer to a contemporary familial and institutional norm. In aesthetic terms, Seneca offers us no safety curtain from the excessive presence of these women, no hiding behind Euripidean literary devices such as writing-tablets and messenger speeches: both are made to commit their crimes in person and 'onstage' (regardless of questions of the plays' performance). In Phaedra this element of horrifying excess is reinforced by the rhetorical presence of every husband and father's nightmare, Medea. As the archetypal demolisher of families, Medea functions as an epitomizing figure not just for Phaedra's uncontrollable passion, but for all other forms of disorder the text elaborates--cosmic, moral, gendered, and generational.
Is Seneca suggesting there is something inevitably violent and destructive about maternity? It is not so simple. Contemporary discourses of stepmotherhood and stepkin incest are problematized rather than simply reproduced in Phaedra. The ironic ambiguity as to whether Phaedra is or is not a Roman saeva noverca, is or is not a Medea, and the general destabilization of masculine rhetorical and moral certainties in the play, posit larger questions about the juridical-rhetorical structures that shored up supposedly natural, given bonds in Roman society. Both plays seem to ask: What really makes a mother--blood, marriage, or both? Are all women 'intruders' into their conjugal families? (87) If a man is the only 'true' parent, does that make all mothers stepmothers? (88) Such tensions and conflicts of interest and obligation were ostensibly resolved in Roman society by its enshrinement of absolute legal and economic authority in the father, in the patria potestas. But by showing the mother's part as she struggles with her tragic dilemma and the persona she must inhabit, these tragedies suggest a paternal authority and legitimacy that is in a form of crisis. Medea, the rejected wife, is granted an exhilarating victory after she has 'castrated' the father, depriving him of his immortality through children, (89) while in Phaedra, the father, representative of justice, commits an act of unspeakable injustice (and of self-destruction) in annihilating his innocent son, himself approximating the savagery of a stepmother and a Medea. Believing Phaedra's fiction of rape, Theseus gets it half right when he argues that Hippolytus's supposed violence was really about him: "Were you keeping yourself for me? Did it please you to launch your manhood in my bed, with such a crime? (Phaed. 924-5). But his reading is also a misreading: rather than the normal patriarchal model of mimetic desire between rival males (father and son) with the mother merely as vessel for this desire, (90) in Phaedra violence against the son is engendered by the mother's desire and enacted through and by the father (whether Neptune or Theseus). In compounding the maternal paradigms of Phaedra and Medea in Phaedra to form a mother-stepmother 'super-paradigm,' Seneca mobilizes their iconic tragic furor to prize open, familiar, fixed assumptions about paternity and social roles, violently unsettling the authority of the masculine subject position.
Presenting Phaedra and Medea so compellingly, Senecan tragedy seems to intensify the "femininocentric shift" of Euripidean drama, whereby the world of the marginalized, especially of women, is made the stuff of tragedy: "Not real women perhaps, but ... women as symbols for emotional experiences, actions and energies that were culturally and ideologically prohibited to men" (Mendelsohn 2002, 224). Ennobled on the tragic stage, the subordinate position of women in Greek culture operated as a metaphor for the ignorant and abjected condition of men in the tragic universe. (91) If we read Seneca's heroines like this, what Roisman sees as their straightforward aesthetic and moral distance from ordinary women is, rather, a displacement onto these disruptive, extremist mothers of masculine anxieties, a way of reflecting on the civic, social, and metaphysical condition of Roman men--and, most particularly, on the meaning of individual paternal power in a society now ruled by a single monarch, pater patriae. From the point of view of gender, this tragic displacement has conflicting outcomes. In the first place, as metaphors for men, these tragic women are granted ethical substance and potential agency like men (as 'men') in the imaginary space of the text/theater; but on the other hand, it simultaneously reproduces the cultural tendency to scapegoat woman as Other--as vessels for all societal chaos and disorder. Feminist critics have shown that Euripides' treatment of feminine characters, however positive, is also predetermined by an androcentric agenda: their compelling voices and experiences disrupt masculine order, in the end to justify their subjugation in the name of the restoration of that order. (92) And indeed, literary women as tragic 'heroes' (note the masculine) could never be entirely representative of the human (male) condition, since the limitations and sufferings associated with women could never fully be equated with those inherent in being 'human: Their capacity for motherhood in particular marks them apart from men/humanity in this way--as irreconcilably alien and Other. In Seneca, this Otherness returns to wreak havoc on the structures of masculine power, and his tragic mode of perpetual excess offers little sense of any Euripidean restoration of hierarchy and order.
Recent historians have emphasized that the family became a politically-charged entity in imperial Rome in new ways: a man's relations with wife and children reflected on and shaped his public persona, but at the same time the entire political authority of the state was embodied in the emperor and his family. (93) With Augustan legislation on sexual behavior and the family, actions like incest, kindred, murder, and adultery could become political crimes as well as domestic or social transgressions (e.g., Tacitus, Ann. 3.24.2). Just as Seneca's Stoic concerns--freedom, autonomy, and withdrawal from the public sphere--reflect a larger contemporary political malaise, so his visceral depictions of families in turmoil channel immanent aristocratic paranoias, arising from social upheavals that accompany the change from oligarchy to autocracy, namely, the mixing up of social classes, the disempowerment and instability of the old elite, the momentous shift of authority to a single, absolute ruler whose authority was now a familial legacy, and the concomitant vulnerability of the elite male, in physical and social terms. (94) This anxiety, however, was frequently figured in literature in gendered terms, most potently through an intensified discourse of feminine immorality and vice, marking women out as loci of moral and social disorder. (95) In the same way that the outlandish scenarios between fathers, mothers, and sons in declamation offer little concrete information about individual Roman families, so the colossal passions of Medea and Phaedra cannot be said to represent anything specific about 'real-life; ordinary mothers and stepmothers. But neither are the two entirely extricable. Rather, the rhetoric of feminine representation in Seneca's dramas should be read, like declamation, as "seriously engaged with the psychic life of Rome" (Gunderson 2003, 18), especially with Roman conceptions of gender, maternity, and masculine power. Seneca may ensure that his tragic heroines are mythical, abjected, and Other, but he is no more able to draw a secure boundary between his aesthetic creations and ordinary women or men than Tacitus can between his villainous depictions of Agrippina, Livia, or Messalina and his own contemporary moral and political milieu. Both Greek and Roman, 'real' women and self-conscious literary constructs, female subjects and metaphors for men, Seneca's tragic heroines play a game of proximity and distance with his Roman audiences and with us. (96)
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(1.) Marti (1945) argued for the tragedies as illustrations of Stoic ideas; Dingel (1974, 97ff., 116f.), for total separation between poetry and philosophy (the plays were a "negation of Stoic principles"). On the tragedies as partly designed to teach Stoic ethical doctrine, see, e.g., Pratt 1983, Henry and Henry 1985, Rosenmeyer 1989; also Nussbaum 1997. On problems with linking the two oeuvres and on Stoic views of tragedy, see Armisen-Marchetti 1989, 347-71. For the passions in Senecan tragedy, see Schiesaro 2003, who nevertheless argues for the importance of aesthetic and literary concerns (genre, poetics, intertextuality, metaliterary concerns), as well as an audience's emotional identifications (over-moralizing or philosophical interpretations).
(2.) Various recent Stoic-inflected readings of Medea and/or Phaedra include Gill 1987, 1994, and 2006, 421-35; Nussbaum 1997; Littlewood 2004, 15-26, 37-40, 44-50; Hill 2004; Roisman 2005; Bartsch 2006, 255-81; Star 2006. The tradition of philosophical interpretations of Euripides' Medea goes back to antiquity: Dillon 1997; also Gill 1987, who compares Euripides' and Seneca's depictions from different philosophical perspectives.
(3.) Gill 1997, 215-8, 225-8 and 2006, 421-35; Bartsch 2006, 255-81; also Star 2006.
(4.) Gender is still an underexplored aspect of Senecan tragedy, although it features to varying degrees in Segal 1986, Guastella 2000 and 2001, Schiesaro 2003, Littlewood 2004 and 2008, and Roisman 2005. Not all philosophically-inflected criticism ignores the political ramifications of Seneca's radically autonomous and isolated tragic heroes in a Neronian context: e.g., Johnson 1988; Littlewood 2004; Bartsch 2006, esp. 225-9, 254. Braden (1985, 5-27) traces Stoicism's relationship with an "imperial pathology" expressed in the dramas.
(5.) For recent interventions in this debate, see the essays in Harrison 2000.
(6.) Noted in Watson 1995, 252.
(7.) It is commented on by Boyle 1987, 16. Watson (1995, 109-13) is the only detailed treatment of the noverca theme in Phaedra.
(8.) Despite a now waning tendency to emphasize his Greek models, Seneca's tragedies are imbued with the influence of Roman non-dramatic poetry, especially Augustan epic: see, e.g., Jakobi 1988, Schiesaro 2003, Littlewood 2004. However, Ovid's Heroides (themselves influenced by tragic monologues) are also key influences on Phaedra and Medea. For Augustan, especially Ovidian, poetic influence on Phaedra, see Boyle 1987, 15ff. et passim. Littlewood (2004, 259-301) is an important analysis of Phaedra's intertextual engagement with Heroides 4. Hinds (1993 and 2011) traces the Ovidian heritage of Seneca's Medea, as discussed further below.
(9.) The text used here is Showerman 1977. All texts of Senecan tragedy are taken from Zwierlein 1986 with divergences where indicated. Translations are adapted mainly from Fitch 2002.
(10.) Cf. Jerome, Ep. 54.15.4: omnes comoediae et mimographi et communes rhetorum loci in novercam saevissimam declamabunt. Quintilian (Inst. 2.10. 5) cites as an example of the exaggeration of declamation its fondness for saeviores tragicis novercas. On Roman stepmothers as a cultural type, Dixon 1988, 155-9; Rawson 2003, 238-9; and esp. Watson 1995. All compare the less malign reputation of stepfathers. Watson (1995, 92-134) collates and discusses examples of the wicked stepmother motif in Roman literature from Vergil and Horace onwards, attributing its popularity to declamation's influence (the stepmother type appears 21 times in the extant Roman declamatory collections). She concludes (1995, 50f) that the theme was present to a lesser degree in Greek culture. On Juno's portrayal as noverca, especially in Hercules Furens and the Hercules Oetaeus, Watson 1995, 113-28.
(11.) Watson (1995, 102) notes that it was "extremely uncommon" for the declaimer to take the part of the stepmother. For the noverca venefica in non-declamatory literature, cf., e.g., Vergil, G. 2. 128, 3.282-3 (though this may be a reference to love magic).
(12.) A tradition of Phaedra as suevu/venefica noverca had developed before Seneca: Propertius (2.1.51f.) describes Phaedra using erotic magic; Vergil (Aen. 7.765f.) states that Hippolytus died ante novercae; Ovid (Met. 15.499ff.) makes Phaedra's wickedness even more explicit: credulitate paths, sceteratae et fraude novercae.
(13.) On Augustan legislation against incestum between blood-relatives and certain non-blood ties, including steprelations: Gardner 1986, 35-7, 126; Treggiari 1991, 38, 281; Watson 1995, 136t1 In this context, the Ovidian (and Augustan) Phaedra's jokey dismissal of the incest taboo as rustiea pietas must have seemed not just morally shocking, but also politically risque.
(14.) Watson 1995, 109 note 49, 252; see also her 256-7 on a possible stepmother emphasis in Euripides' first Hippolytus. Ghiron-Bistaigne (1982, 44-6) notes that Euripides' tragedy only vaguely hints at an incest prohibition (Hipp. 765, 885,946) and suggests that the idea properly took root in the Hellenistic period. On stepmothers in Athenian culture, Watson 1995, 82ff.
(15.) Bradley 1991, 84-5, 92, citing Cicero's marriage to fifteen-year-old Publilia, when his daughter Terentia was about thirty, and Potnpey's fourth wife Julia, coeval with her stepson Sextus. Bradley (1991, 97) also notes "the arranged nature of most marriages: and "the relative unimportance of sentiment in compacting marital unions."
(16.) Watson (1995, 137) notes a famous Republican case of L. Gellius Poplicola, who accused his son of stuprum with his stepmother; the son was acquitted however. Like mother-son incest, the theme crops up in declamation: Seneca, Controv. 6.7.; Ps.-Quinlilian. Decl Min. 335. Cf. also Cato, Agr. 64.401ff.; Vergil, G. 3.282f; Martial 4.16; Apuleius, Met.10.2-12.
(17.) For the motif of winning over a stepmother, cf., eg., Propertius 4.11.86; Seneca, Mei 847; Seneca, Controv. 9.6.6 (with Watson 1995, 9ff.): habul filium lain bonum ut ilium imam posse etiam noverca.
(18.) Ovid's Phaedra further jokes that keeping it in the (step) family (i.e., incest) is the perfect way to get around the conventional elegiac barriers to illicit desire: the bolted door, the stern husband, the suspicious guard.
(19.) Seneca makes a point of aligning Helvia with Cornelia, a model of maternal restraint and strength in grief (Cons. Hely. 16.4-6, also Cons. Marc. 16.3). Written from exile, Seneca's construction of his mother as an old-fashioned, virtuous noblewoman also enhances his own ethical, familial, and political legitimacy: the mother's virtue becomes proof of the son's. On Cornelia, Hallett 2004 and 2006. On feminine virtus in Seneca's consolations, Wilcox 2006.
(20.) OLD, s.v. "noverca."
(21.) Watson 1995, 217-22.
(22.) On the "counterplotting" of emperors' mothers in Tacitus, see O'Gorman 2000, 122-43. On women's sexual behavior in Tacitus and Suetonius as a "withering of traditional morality," Lang-lands 2006, 348, chapter 7. On the importance of women in the transmission of Julio-Claudian power, Corbier 1995.
(23.) E.g. Ann. 1.1, 1.3-4, 1.6, 1.10.5, 4.57.3, 5.1, 12.2.1, 12.26.2, 12.65.2; Syme 1958, 306ff.; Viden 1993, 18-24; Watson 1995, 177ff. On Tacitus's use of gendered rhetorical stereotypes: Santoro I'Hoir 1992. See also McHugh's article in this volume for a more favorable view of Tacitus's depiction of Agrippina.
(24.) On Phaedra's suicide as a deluded attempt to reconcile her illicit passion and public persona, see Hill 2004, 159-74. On the influence of declamatory rhetoric on Senecan tragedy, Goldberg 1996. Hook (2000) presents a useful argument for the rhetorical basis of Seneca's characters, especially his use of colores.
(25.) Hill (2004, 174), for example, argues that events around Phaedra are "all effected by the deliberate attempts to reconcile the urgings of her passion with the limitations imposed upon her by the demands of her social persona," but the primary persona he conceives is chaste royal wife.
(26.) Bishop 1985, 255 and Lefevre 1990. Besides their limited interpretive value, such attempts are problematized by uncertainty over dates of composition.
(27.) Amongst others, Davis (1983), Boyle (1985), and Roisman (2000 and 2005) argue that Phaedra is not straightforwardly manipulative and evil (though she does manipulate language), while Hill (2004) and Gill (2006) emphasize her self-conflict. Seneca's play also compromises any view of Theseus as clear victim by emphasizing his sexual infidelities (Phaed. 91-8) and his previous cruelties, especially to Antiope (226-7); the impression of his savagery is reinforced by his quickness to condemn Hippolytus in absentia. See also Phaedra's description of him at 1164-7: "Ever brutal ... you destroy your house, destructive always," I discuss Hippolytus's saevitia below.
(28.) Hence Watson (1995, 113) contends that Seneca deploys the stereotype merely for "rhetorical and dramatic effect."
(29.) Recalling the account of loves power at Vergil, G. 3.282 (malae novercae); also G. 2.128 (saevae novercae) On this ode, Davis 1983.
(30.) The MSS' mitius nil est feris is surely corrupt, since its most obvious meaning is nonsensical: "There is nothing gentler than wild beasts." I have adopted the emendation of Hendry 1998 (with Segal 1987's translation) as the simplest solution. Fitch emends to mitior nulla est feris (not one of them is gentler than wild beasts), changing two words to Hendry's one.
(31.) Compare the similar stepmother paradoxes at Seneca, Controv. 6.7 and Heliodorus, Aeth. 1.9.
(32.) The entire confession scene is built around increasing tensions between speech and the unspeakable: Phaedra begins by exhorting herself to speak fearlessly, though she knows what she wants to say is nefanda (587, 593, 596); for a long time she cannot get the words out (602-8, 637); Hippolytus complains that she speaks cryptically (639-40); when he understands her words, he condemns her as nefas (678). On the relations between speech, silence, and pudor in Seneca's Phaedra, see Armstrong 2006, 146.
(33.) Braden 1970, 6 on Senecan tragic rhetoric: "It is the manipulation of rhetorical norms that allows us to project a psychology which we do not as yet fully comprehend, for a rhetoric both contains and hides certain motives and predispositions. When the norms crack, we get a look at what was inside. ... The philosophy must struggle against its need to be responsible to some common sense, but the plays are allowed simply to listen to the reverberations of their own speech, their rhetoric-ultimately, to let a certain linguistic subset declare itself completely, until the beast which it conceals becomes visible."
(34.) The sense of being responsible for the other's desire was a feminine predicament, redolent of Livy's Lucretia: see Langlands 2006, 80ff., 247ff. But Hippolytus also recalls the Senecan Oedipus's guilt at his unwitting incest; cf. Seneca, Oed. 10191; also Phoen. 451-3, 537-8. Both Seneca's Phaedra and Racine's Phedre rewrite elements of Oedipus's narrative: both hinge on an incestuous mother, a filial murder through 'error: and the subsequent revelation of the truth; but in Phaedra it is the father who mistakenly kills his innocent son, rather than son killing father. See Wygant 2000, esp. 62 and 65 on Oedipus and Phedre.
(35.) I follow MS A here in giving these lines to Phaedra, but E attributes them to Theseus and is followed by some editors (e.g., Leo, Zwierlein, and Boyle). Either way, the lines are brutally ironic, but they cohere more forcefully with Phaedra's proven self-awareness of her paradoxical identity as stepmother (especially shown just beforehand in her lines 1191-2, discussed below) and her contradictory moral position in relation to Theseus. Compare Medea's ironic last words to Jason (Med. 1024): recipe lam natos, parens.
(36.) At Her. 4.53-64, Ovid's Phaedra claims her desire is an inherited punishment from Venus for Phoebus's exposure of her adultery with Mars (Pasiphae was Phoebus's daughter). Seneca's Phaedra also claims that Venus has "burdened the whole tribe of Phoebus with unspeakable scandals: no daughter of Minos has found love light; it is always linked to sin" (124-8); see Segal 1986, 35 note 10. Littlewood (2004, 259-60) remarks that the chains of Venus are a figure for "the weight of literary tradition: in a very real sense Phaedra is fated to suffer the experience of other Cretan princesses." On the motif of hereditary crime in Senecan tragedy, see Rivoltella 1993. On the repetition of personal and literary history in Roman accounts of Pasiphae, Ariadne, and Phaedra, Armstrong 2006, 29ff. et passim.
(37.) Cf. Ovid, Her. 4.165-7. For Pasiphae, Vergil, 6.45-60 and Ovid, An am. 1.289-326.
(38.) The Nurse's language at 169-73 suggests that the transgression Phaedra desires would not simply be equivalent to intercourse between mother and son; rather, it is that the stepmother-in particular her womb (utero ... imply, 172)- would become the vessel for the mingling of father's and son's seed (miscere thalanzos patris et nati apparas, 171). In this it differs from Senecg representation of Oedipus's incest, the true horror of which is defined in terms of a "return" to the mother, to the womb that bore him (turpis maternos iterum revolutus in ortus, OS. 238; also 629-30, 636-7, 1039; Phoen. 270-3). In Phaedra incest between stepmother/stepson is represented chiefly as a threat to the father.
(39.) For the bull from the sea as a product of unholy desire like the Minotaur, see Boyle 1985, 1317-20; Segal 1986, 75; Littlewood 2004, 70. On the conspicuous sexual and birth imagery here, see Segal 1986, 39-40 and Purley 1993, who argues that this is unprecedented in the literary tradition.
(40.) Connolly (1998, 148) remarks of the rhetorical stereotypes of Woman in declamation (evil stepmother, adulterous wife, incestuous mother): "These figures have no dramatic persona, no character development; they are frozen into behavioral patterns of gender and class ... as object lessons in impropriety." But they had real oppressive power: "Due in part to the storks told by rhetorical theory and declamation about women and slaves, the two groups were trapped in a web of stereotypes that constrained them as completely as the legal and social laws that denied them legitimate authority" (1998, 149).
(41.) Phaedra's account of her own desire is an ironic counter to the Stoic argument that our flaws are not predetermined by nature: Seneca, 4.94.55-6. Hill (2004, 159) sees Seneca's Phaedra as showcasing the deleterious effects of "an inability to distinguish the innate from the desired' But the categories of innate/chosen, natural/unnatural, remain fundamentally ambiguous in the play, destabilizing any potential ethical point. Armstrong (2006, 290) identifies it as "another example of Seneca questioning the Stoic doctrine he elsewhere accepts Phaedra (at least sometimes) knows that she should be able to control herself, and knows equally clearly and painfully that she cannot" (original emphasis). Gill (2006, 426ff.) argues that, like Medea, Phaedra's surrender to passion generates self-division and madness; see Hill 2004, 159ff. on this self-division as between her pudor and amor/furor.
(42.) Fitch and McElduff (2002, 32-5) argue that throughout the play Phaedra tries on and casts off a series of personae, without committing herself fully to any of them.
(43.) Cf. Ovid, Her. 4.17-8, 31-2.
(44.) Segal (1986, 112): "In Phaedra's criminal lust the reproductive aspect is stressed equally with the erotic." This is corroborated by linguistic parallels: Phaedra's description of the name of mother as "too powerful" (609) echoes the Chorus's earlier description of Love as nimiumque potens (331f.). Later Theseus, on hearing of Hippolytus's gruesome death, uses it to describe parental nature itself (1114-5): o nimium potens / quanto parentes sanguinis vinclo tenes / Natural; cf. also 959f.
(45.) Segal (1986, 111-2) relates this to Hippolytus's need to repress the truth of sexual reproduction and to retain a "fantasied mother [Antiope] whom he imagines as impenetrable and inviolable, the diva virago (54)" (1986, 123).
(46.) Segal 1986, 130-1, 170-1, 211-2 and Hinds 2001, 7-8.
(47.) Other accounts include Callimachus, Hec. 232-3. For an analysis of Greek sources of the Medea-Theseus myth, Sourvinou-Inwood 1979 and 1990.
(48.) Hill 2003, 167: "Phaedra's means of reconciling and giving voice to her dilemma is finally to simultaneously veil and reveal her meaning, to defy immediate comprehension of her import, to allow all her words to admit of a double interpretation."
(49.) See Littlewood 2004, 269ff.
(50.) Segal (1986, 75) argues that the bull and its landscape symbolize the clash of Phaedra's and Hippolytus's distinctive realities: "the point of precarious unstable juncture between her fantasies and his terrors." But since it is also generated by Theseus' patriarchal rage, the monster is also a distorted link between father and son (cf. miscere thalamos patris et nati, 171), who never actually meet in Seneca's play.
(51.) On the significance of the sword in Phaedra, Segal 1983, 130-1, 150ff., 170-1, 211-2. That it is the same sword as Ovid's is signaled by the marked echoes between Phaed. 896-900 and Met. 7.421-3: Hinds 2011; Segal 1986, 171.
(52.) I owe this point to one of Helios's anonymous readers.
(53.) On the maius motif in Seneca, Seidensticker 1985. Other examples: Thy. 259, 266-70, 745; Ag. 29; Tro. 426; Phoen. 286. Boyle (1987, 178) lists more.
(54.) "Playing" is Hinds's nicely theatrical suggestion for agit (2011, 23). Hinds describes this as a "prequel" for Ovid's own maius opus, his lost Medea tragedy, and analyses how Seneca's Medea builds on these two Ovidian topoi. The influence of Ovid's Medea on Seneca's Medea (and on his other tragedies) is impossible to ascertain, but was surely significant. See also Bessone 1997 on correspondences between Heroides 12 and Seneca's Medea.
(55.) Nussbaum (1997, 223) notes how Medea's name is alliteratively strung onto other key words in the play, e.g. malum, magnum, major, mare, mens, metus, maenas, monstrum, and (though not noted by Nussbaum) mater. Medea's name etymologically suggests 'mental contriver': Medeia/medomai/metis (Segal 1982).
(56.) On the metaliterary aspect of Senecan drama, and how Senecan characters such as Atreus and Juno perform authorial functions, see Boyle 1997, 133-7; Schiesaro 2003, 16 et passim; Littlewood 2004, 103ff.
(57.) Hinds 2011, 26. Newlands (1997) discusses the way in which Ovid's Medea is dispersed into other heroines in the Metamorphoses, such as Procne, Scylla, and Althaea. Hinds (2011, 18) cites Daniel Curley's observation that Medea is transformed in Ovid into "the source of her own topoi," setting the standard not only for other Medeas who will come after her, but for subsequent Latin tragic (and quasi-tragic) protagonists, as both Ovidian and Medean.
(58.) On character as dramatist in Seneca, Schiesaro 2003, 16 et passim and Littlewood 2004, 103ff. Medea provides the prototype for the way in which, in several dramas, poetic creation and tragic furor are analogous to or originate in the distorted reproductive processes of the feminine body. In Thyestes, the secret cavern where Atreus dissects his brother's children (755-8) is configured as a womb-like space, a geographical analogue to the womb of his adulterous wife. In this fantasy feminine interior, Atreus not only 'proves' the paternity of his own offspring (1098-9) but also becomes the producer of his own dramatic plot, itself inspired by an infanticidal mother, Ovid's Procne, who functions in her own text as an avatar of Medea. See also the opening of the Underworld in Oed. 530-658, with Schiesaro 2003,8-12,89. On poetry in Seneca configured as "a painful birthing process," Schiesaro 2003,87-91.
(59.) The heuristic value of this comparison is not problematized by the prospect that Phaedra may have been written before Medea, according to Fitch's (1981) plausible but unverifiable relative dating of the tragedies: if Seneca was so fascinated by the literary potential of the infanticidal (and Ovidian) Medea to write his own version of her revenge tragedy, it is plausible to assume he was already interested in her while writing Phaedra.
(60.) Roisman 2005 and Gill 1997 and 2006 are the only recent joint treatments of Medea and Phaedra I have found.
(61.) For Phaedra as weak-willed, see Fitch 2002, 442. Critics have generally been divided over whether Phaedra is sincere victim or wanton manipulator; discussions include Flygt 1934; Davis 1983; Coffey and Mayer 1990, 27-8; Roisman 2000 and 2005.
(62.) Gill 2006, 426: "Whereas Seneca's Medea positively urges herself into a passionate state (of anger, hatred, and violence), Phaedra's initial entry into passion is more indirect, though it also involves some agency on her pare' In Euripides, Aegeus functions as an independent figure of moral authority whose respect and empathy for Medea direct the audience's sympathies toward her (Foley 1989, 83). Along with the Senecan Medea's enhanced witch-like aspect, Aegeus's absence in Seneca's play further marks her out as an isolated, outlandish, even monstrous figure. See also Durham 1984 and Roisman 2005.
(63.) For feminine furor, cf., e.g., Ovid, Ars am. 1.341-43; Vergil, Ed. 6.47 (Pasiphae) and Aim. 4.101; Propertius 1.13.20. Fantham (1975) notes that Seneca's descriptions of both heroines' tumultuous passions hark directly back to Dido. Dido herself suggests Medea as a possible model at Aen. 4.600. Gill (1997 and 2006) argues that the common element in Seneca's representation of Medea and Phaedra is "the way that surrender to passion generates internal conflict, madness, and psychological disintegration" (2006, 421).
(64.) In Stoic terms, as Nussbaum (1997) argues of Medea, both women are catastrophically overinvested in "external objects": their excessive attachment to Jason and Hippolytus is transformed into destructive anger and hate when that love is rejected.
(65.) See Merzlak 1983, 193 on Phaedra as victim of her own furor.
(66.) On Roman divorce, Treggiari 1991, 435-82.
(67.) Guastella (2000 and 2001) discusses the Roman resonances of Medea's predicament.
(68.) Analyses of Medea's soliloquy are numerous: the most useful discussions 1 have found are in Gill 1987 and 2006; Nussbaum 1994; Guastella 2001; Bartsch 2006, 255-81.
(69.) Hine 2000, 208. Euripides' Medea takes the children's bodies away with her to ensure proper burial (Med. 1378-83).
(70.) Medea also refers to the crimes she committed against her family for Jason as her dos (dowry), and asks him to "give it hack" (481-9). According to Roman law, the dowry was returned to the woman's natal family in divorce; see Treggiari 1991, 362-3.
(71.) Littlewood (2004, 153111) discusses the metaliterary implications of Medea as symbol of Golden Age decline.
(72.) Cf. machittatrix at Med. 266; also her incantation scene. Littlewood (2004, 153ff.) notes her paradoxical combination of Nature and artifice. He points out the equivalence between Medea and Nature in Seneca, Q. Nat. 3.27.2, where Nature's obliteration of cities is like the death of a once-nurtured child (note that Medea ends her play not only with infanticide but also with Corinth in flames). This correlation is also in Hippolytus's tirade, where Woman is both demolisher of cities and destroyer of her children.
(73.) Cl. also Med. 127-9.
(74.) There are also persistent literary parallels between Cretan Ariadne and Medea from Apollonius to Ovid; see Armstrong 2006, 32-7, 40-8, 197-200.
(75.) Medea is not mentioned at all in Euripides' Hippolytus, but is invoked in Racine's Phedre (as the source of the poison that Phedre uses to kill herself; act 5, scene 7, 1638). Wygant (2000) explores how this single allusion sets up a reading of Medea as the "embodiment of error" in Phedre.
(76.) Sprengnether (1990) discusses how the pre-oedipal mother is absent from Freudian psychoanalysis' focus on father and son but returns in repressed form to haunt and disrupt psychoanalytic theories and the structures of normative patriarchal ordering.
(77.) Sourvinou-lnwood 1990, 411, who notes that Medea "subverted the woman's role in the family in all possible ways."
(78.) "Phallic mother" is Kaplan's term (1992, 46-8, 107-23, Index, s.h.v.); also Ian 1996. Kaplan proposes three paradigms of motherhood in nineteenth-and twentieth-century melodrama: all-sacrificing "angel in the house overindulgent mother, and finally destructive, all-devouring (that is, phallic) mother (1992, 48, 107-23). Unsurprisingly, Kaplan's schema does not entirely fit Roman contexts: one encounters more often a starker binary between the virtuous, austere, and chaste Roman mother and the uncontrolled (impotens), devious, and destructive mother; see Dixon 1988. Nevertheless, some declamations (e.g., Ps.-Quintilian, Decl. min. 16) depict a mother's love as excessive, "destroying free relationships between men with its corrupt intensity" (Connolly 1998, 147). See also Seneca's (Prov. 2.4-5) account of masculine versus feminine parenting.
(79.) For an account of psychoanalytic theories of the devouring/attacking mother, see Kaplan 1992, 107-23; also the work of Melanie Klein (Mitchell 1986) and Kristeva 1982.
(80.) Freud in James Strachey (editor and translator), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. (London, 1957), vol. 20, p. 212.
(81.) On the motif of nature and human control in Phaedra, see Davis 1983 and Boyle 1985.
(82.) Flygt 1934, 513.
(83.) See Hill 2004, 161-3.
(84.) Segal (1986, 148-9) observes that while Medea claims to have regained (recepi, Med. 982) her Colchian sceptra herself at the end of her play, Phaedra shies from the masculine role of ruler, offering the sceptra to Hippolytus (recipe, 617). She later invokes it to condemn him to Theseus (868).
(85.) This qualifies Segal's (1986, 91) claim that "it is part of Hippolytus' blindness and Phaedra's heroism that Phaedra will ultimately refuse to be a Medea ... she turns back, as Medea does not, from completing the crime."
(86.) On the relation between declamation and social reality, see also Beard 1993.
(87.) Especially if they remained under their father's potestas after marriage (marriage sine mane), as seems to have been the norm by the late Republic; see Treggiari 1991, 34.
(88.) Suggested by Noy 1991 and by Parker 1998, 156 in his analysis of wives and slaves as "outsiders-within" the Roman household.
(89.) Seneca amplifies the transcendent aspect of her murder and escape, playing on the idea of Medea's ultimate victory as both sanctioned by literary precedent and a shocking and radically subversive moment. Cf. Medea to Jason (1021): sic fugere soleo, which may be translated as 'This is how I always escape: but also implies 'Remember how I always escape!
(90.) See Joplin 1990, 53 on Tarquin's rape of Lucretia in Livy.
(91.) Foley 2001, 4, 116, 118-20.
(92.) Though their potential for other, potentially subversive, meanings is not negated by this. On taking the "woman's part" in Euripidean drama, see Zeitlin 1996.
(93.) See Severy 2003 and Milnor 2005 on the changing ideologies of the family under the Principate.
(94.) E.g., Braden 1985; Segal 1986, 12, 224; Langlands 2006, 31911.; Fredrick 2003. Habinek (1998, 143-7) discusses how this is reflected in a gendered moral discourse of effeminacy/selfmastery in Seneca's philosophical prose. For a Lacanian account of the imperial subject in crisis, see now Alston and Spentzou 2011, esp. chapter 4 on the conjugal relationship.
(95.) Cf., e.g., Langlands 2006, chapter 7 on the discourse of female depravity in Tacitus and Suetonius.
(96.) The research, writing, and revision of this paper were enabled by the institutional support of the University of Cambridge and the University of Johannesburg. Earlier versions were presented to audiences at the Classical Association Conference in Glasgow, in Durban, and in Johannesburg; I am grateful to all these audiences for helpful comments. Thanks also to Hetios's editor and anonymous readers, whose criticisms were crucial in improving and refining the final argument. Special thanks to John Henderson for encouragement throughout, and to Stephen Hinds for generously allowing me to use his forthcoming article, "Seneca's Ovidian loci."
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|Title Annotation:||Seneca the Younger|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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