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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Reading 8: Roman Tragedy

TEXT: Seneca, Phaedra (selections)

Questions to Ponder Concerning This Text:

• Is this text "theatre"? Or is this a "closet drama" meant for private reading, or perhaps in small groups?

• Does Seneca follow Horace's advice about the "well-tempered" play? If so, how exactly? If not, how not and why not, and whose vision of the theatre do you think is more fruitful and enjoyable to watch?

• What are the technical requirements of this play? Especially, what sort of actors, sets and costumes seem necessary to its production?

• Is it possible to make this drama conform with what we know about the theatre in Rome? Would Phaedra work on the Roman stage? More important, would it work well? Does it take advantage of the benefits the Roman theatre offers a playwright and his audience?

• The tone of the play is overtly sexual and violent; Seneca is often criticized for an "obsession with gore and excessive passions and violence." Is the sex and violence in this play gratuitous? If so, why do you suppose Seneca includes it?

Introduction: The myth underlying this play is very old, going back far beyond even the classical Greeks. The story of a handsome young man who scorns the sexual advances of an older female—often his stepmother or a woman closely related to him—is found in various forms all over the Mediterranean area. In the Bible, for instance, this myth appears as the tale of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. The same narrative pattern also shows up in the confrontation of Gilgamesh and Ishtar in Mesopotamian epic. In ancient Greece, the story centers on Hippolytus ("Horse-break") and Phaedra ("Bright"), who are, respectively, the son and the (second) wife of Athens' great hero Theseus. We have studied the legends of Theseus earlier in the class [see above, Reading 1; see also Pasiphae's speech, one half of the agon in Euripides' The Cretans, which we read in Chapter 7; click here for a fuller version of this myth].

In Greek myth, Theseus was the Athenian hero most famous for killing the Minotaur, a monster that lived in a huge maze of buildings in the city of Knossus on Crete. This story was the subject of several classical tragedies, at least one by Sophocles and no fewer than two by Euripides. The latter's second Hippolytus has survived among his "select plays" and is now considered one of the most famous and enduring masterpieces of Western theater. But in its day it was, in fact, a toned-down version of his first Hippolytus, a tragedy so racy and explicit—Phaedra actually propositioned Hippolytus on stage!—it was censured by classical Athenian audiences and critics alike. That play is now lost. (Click here to read about Euripides' surviving play entitled Hippolytus Garlanded.)

Seneca, however, did not choose to follow the tamer and more famous version of the myth underlying Euripides' revised "second" Hippolytus. Instead, for whatever reason, the Roman playwright reverted to the plotline followed in Euripides' other "first" Hippolytus in which the lustful stepmother directly confronts Hippolytus before the viewers' eyes, the scene where we pick up the story in the selection below. As we join the action, Phaedra is on the verge of confessing her true feelings but balks at telling Hippolytus the truth. Unaware of her passion for him, he sees only that his stepmother seems to be failing in health while his father is abroad and he is in charge of the house.

PHAEDRA: Pity me! Hear the prayers of a heart kept silent! (hesitating) I want to speak, but I'm scared.

HIPPOLYTUS: (coming close to her) What is your problem?

PHAEDRA: (turning away from him) A problem you wouldn't think the traditional step-mother would have!

HIPPOLYTUS: (turning her face back toward his) You hurl words with double meaning, and confusing sense. Speak openly!

PHAEDRA: My heart . . . is mad. Fever and . . . love singe it. My body cruelly burns with a fire submerged and lurking in my veins, like a nimble flame that darts over a lofty roof.

HIPPOLYTUS: With love of Theseus, I'd guess,—a pure love!—you go mad. (she is silent) Don't you?

PHAEDRA: It's like this, Hippolytus. (rubbing her hand across his cheek) I love the face of Theseus, those young expressions that he wore once as a boy, when a beard first scarred his innocent cheeks, when he faced the blind maze of the Cretan monster and gathered long threads in a winding path. How he shone back then! (running her hands through his hair) Garlands pressed his hair. His tender face was stained with flames of modesty. (rubbing his arms) In his soft skin, strong muscles. The look of your Artemis, or my Apollo. Much like you—he was, indeed he was, when he pleased his enemy, my sister. (putting her hand under his chin) Like this, he held his head up high. In you, however, shines more careless beauty. There is much of your father to you, but all the same, some remnant of your savage mother dilutes your noble looks. In a Greek bloom, a branch of northern roughness grows. If with your father you had entered Cretan seas, for you my sister would have twisted her threads. (turning away from Hippolytus) O sister, you, I call on you, in whatever part of the starry heaven you shine, come be my witness. One family has ruined two daughters: the father you, and me . . . the son. (throwing herself at Hippolytus' feet) Look! A mourner lies, sprawled at your knees, the offspring of a royal house. Defiled by no sin, chaste and innocent, I would change all of that for you, and you alone.

(He recoils with horror as he suddenly realizes the meaning of her words.)

PHAEDRA (con't.): (rising to her feet) I made up my mind to stoop to these prayers for a reason: to end my suffering or my life today. Have pity on a lover!

HIPPOLYTUS: (looking away from her and up to heaven) O great ruler of the gods, do you hear this crime and do nothing? Do nothing, seeing this? When exactly do you plan to hurl down lightning then, or use your savage hand, if now the sky is clear? Shatter everything! Let heaven fall! Make clouds grow black and hide the day! And turning backwards send the stars atilt and twisted in their running flight! (pointing at the sun) And you, the star of stars, the beaming Titan, do you see the sickness of your stock? Shame your light! Retreat to shadows! Oh why, divine guide of gods and men, is your right hand empty and the world not plowed with the fire of your torches? (Pause.) Me, then! Strike me with thunder! Stick me! Burn me, shoot me with your rapid flames! I'm the one to blame, I deserve to die. For I have pleased a stepmother. (to Phaedra) So, what did I do to earn these advances? Did such a crime, you think, suit me alone? Or was I just an easy target? This is what my "roughness" grows for me? Oh, you are the best of a notable breed! You out-woman your mother in daring. (moving closer to her) With mere adultery she defiled herself and, although kept secret for so long, the child she bore wore the double brand of its crime and made known its mother's wickedness (right in her face) with its savage face, its double birth. That same womb bore you! (turning from her again) O three times, four times given to favorable fate are all of you devoured, destroyed, borne to death by hatred and treachery. Father, I envy you: worse than any stepmother is this woman. Even greater is her crime.

PHAEDRA: (calmly) I can see for myself my family's fate. What ought to be shunned, we seek. However, I'm not in control of myself. (trying to touch him again) I will follow you, even through fire, through raging seas, by cliffs and rivers which roaring waters snatch away. Wherever you bear your step, my madness will drive me. (as he turns away, she throws herself down in front of him and blocks his path) Again, proud man, I hurl myself at your knees.

HIPPOLYTUS: (trying to push her away) Get away! You're unclean! My body is chaste! Let go! Don't touch me!

(He finally casts her away from him. He turns to leave but she grabs him again and hangs on from behind.)

HIPPOLYTUS (con't.): What is this? Again, holding on to me?

(He draws his sword and turns on her.)

HIPPOLYTUS (con't.): (leaning over her) My sword is drawn. It will exact the pain you deserve. (reaching down and grabbing her by the hair) Behold a shameless thing! My hand is wrapped in her hair. Her head in my left hand, I bend her back. No more justly did ever any hearth see blood spilled to the bow-holding goddess!

(He raises his sword above her exposed neck.)

PHAEDRA: (with calm passion) Hippolytus, now I hold the power of my prayer. You heal my madness. (reaching up for his sword) I have something even greater than my prayers: with innocence intact, I die, I die in your arms.

(As she tries to pull his sword down on herself, he breaks away from her.)

HIPPOLYTUS: Go away, then! Live! And let your prayers be unfulfilled! (casting the sword away) This filthy sword will never touch my side again! What river can wash me clean? What lake, what barbarian water? Could all the ocean itself? No, not even the great god of the seas with all his streams could purge me of this crime! O forests! O beasts!

[Leaving his sword behind, Hippolytus rushes off into the forest to cleanse himself of his stepmother's embrace. The Nurse steps forward and saves a now distraught and suicidal Phaedra by suggesting the ploy that, should Theseus ever return, she falsely accuse Hippolytus of rape. In the next scene he does just that. Theseus returns from Hades and hears the sound of women grieving in this house—Phaedra's maids are lamenting her imminent suicide—and demands from her Nurse the reason for all the wailing.]

THESEUS: What cry of grief accosts my ears? (to the Nurse) Someone tell me! Remorse and tears and sorrow in my very doorway here? And the sounds of lamentation? How appropriate for someone coming back from Hell!

NURSE: Phaedra's bent on suicide and can't be turned aside. She spurns our cries of grief and hovers over death.

THESEUS: Why? Her husband's back! What's the point of dying now?

NURSE: That's the problem. That's why she wants to die.

THESEUS: I don't understand. But it sounds bad. Tell me frankly what's weighing on her mind.

NURSE: She won't tell anyone. Sorrowful, she keeps it hidden to herself and won't name the sin that drives her to the grave. (pulling him toward the doors of the palace) Come on, then, come! You need to hurry.

THESEUS: Peel back the locks, unseal these royal gates! (seeing Phaedra holding a sword) Companion of my bed, is this the way you greet your man's arrival, the husband's face you long for? Widow your hand of that sword and give me life again! And whatever's driven you from life, reveal!

PHAEDRA: I can't. I beseech by all you rule, great Theseus, by the promise of our sons and your safe return and my ashes soon to be, allow my end!

THESEUS: What's driving you to death?

PHAEDRA: If said, the reason merits nothing.

THESEUS: None will hear but I.

PHAEDRA: A wife should fear her husband's ear, none else.

THESEUS: Tell me! My heart's devout to secrets.

PHAEDRA: What you don't want known, first don't say.

THESEUS: I won't let this happen easily.

PHAEDRA: Those who seek their end, death cannot deny.

THESEUS: What deserves your death? Name the crime.

PHAEDRA: That I live.

THESEUS: My tears mean nothing then?

PHAEDRA: It's best to die lamented by your own.

THESEUS: (to the Nurse) She won't speak then? (seizing hold of the Nurse) With whip and chain this crone, your nurse, will tell me all her mistress won't. (to his servants) Put her in irons. The force of blows will draw the secrets from her mind.

PHAEDRA: No! I'll tell you.

THESEUS: (to the servants) Wait! (to Phaedra) Why do you avert your eyes in sorrow and try to hide the tears appearing on your cheeks by covering them with your veil?

PHAEDRA: (looking up) You, you the maker of heaven, be my witness! And you, bright radiance of airs above, whose seed begot my house, testify I tried, I begged, resisted! His angry sword and words broke no heart here. Only my body suffered violence. Any stain on purity, my blood will clean!

THESEUS: Who—say it!—has upended my honor?

PHAEDRA: The one you'd least expect.

THESEUS: I'm waiting for an answer.

PHAEDRA: (holding out Hippolytus' sword where Theseus can see it) This will speak, this sword. Frightened by the scene I made, he fled, the rapist. The crowd that gathered scared him off.

THESEUS: (looking at the sword) What atrocity, I ask, is this? What vision do I see? It's royal, studded with fine engraving, ivory on the shaft is shining. An Athenian artifact. (suddenly recognizing it as Hippolytus') Where is he? Did he run off?

PHAEDRA: These servants here stand witness. They saw him run away, with all his might.

[Having heard about his son's ignominious crime, Theseus calls on his own father, Neptune, the god of the seas, to avenge Hippolytus' crime. And so the god does, too, as Theseus learns from a messenger in the climax (the fourth act) of the play.]

CHORUS: But what news does this swift-running messenger bear? And why do his eyes bedew his tearful face?

MESSENGER: O Fortune bitter and adverse! A grave enslavement! Why call me to carry news of such unspeakable misfortune?

THESEUS: Be not afraid! Tell us boldly of your harsh calamities. I have a heart that's not unreadied for travail.

MESSENGER: (haltingly) My voice . . . from grief, my tongue denies my sorrow.

THESEUS: Come, say what lot weighs down this shattered house.

MESSENGER: Hippolytus . . . god help me! . . . has met a dismal end.

THESEUS: (obviously shaken, but holding on) As his father, I knew my son died long ago. Now the rapist is dead, too. His death, tell me how it happened.

MESSENGER: He fled the city like a refugee, with racing step, following a swift course on speeding feet, then quickly put his tramping horses underneath a lofty yoke and bound their mouths with reins chained tight beneath them. Muttering to himself and often cursing this, his homeland—he mentioned this father several times—he bitterly snapped at the reins and set off. All of a sudden, a rumble rolled across the open sea and pounded on the sky, without a breath of breeze across the deep. A hush, in no direction did heaven even heave a sigh. The silent waters in some internal storm were turning. Never so much did southern gales disturb the straits of Sicily, or the sea in its anger surge from a gulf, when ridden by the north-west wind, and rocks tremble with waves and white foam wash the crest of bleaching cliffs. The ocean rose immense, in one huge heap. It hung over the lands. A wave in no mean flood rolled forward. And something in its burdened womb this pregnant surge was bearing. Was it a new island about to be born? Was a new Delos rising? The cliffs to the west were hidden from view, those famous stones named for the god and the crime of Asclepius, the Skironides. So to the east was the isthmus of Corinth, enclosed by two seas, suddenly shut off from sight. While we wondered in silence at this—lo and behold!—the sea entire groaned. Everything, on all sides, the cliffs answered the cry! The top of the wave began to foam, salt water spewing forth. Now it sprays and now it vomits water intermittently, moving like some large fish in the deep water of Ocean, spitting back a wave from its mouth, some behemoth whale. It rose, stirred into a mass, a wave among waves, and finally discharged itself, bringing to land a fear outstripping terror. Neptune's water poured on shore and behind it, a monster of its own. (hesitating for a moment.) My heart is trembling. What a shape! It looked like some immense being, a bull, huge but with a sea-blue neck. His mane bristled way up in the air. His forehead was green. His ears stood straight up, and his eyes had different colors: one, what the head of a wild herd of bulls might have; the other, something from under the sea. One glistened like fire, the other reflected the clear-blue deep. Strong muscles lined a solid neck, and his nostrils gulped air, opening and closing with hisses. Algae clung to his chest, its dewlap was green, and all the way down his side, brown patches of seaweed dappled. And the back part formed into a tail so the huge scaly beast had to drag half itself along, the sort of sea-monster in faraway waters that chews up and swallows our swiftest ships. Trembling, in turn, racked the land. Shocked with fright, herds fled from field to field, and no herdsman even thought to round up his own. Animals everywhere poured from the forests, everywhere panicked, cold with fear. The hunters fled, too. One man alone, immune from taxes of fright, Hippolytus, his reins tight in his hands, held his horses back, kept them from bolting with the tone of his well-known voice. There is a high road to the fields, near a break in the cliffs. Along this runs a path, by places high above the sea. Here the monster stopped and sharpened its horns, feasting their anger. Then after whipping its spirits up and testing its aim out, a dry run at wrath, it flew forth rapidly down the road. Hardly touching—its feet moved so fast!—on the ground, it stopped right in front of the trembling horses and stared them down. Hippolytus, opposite, rose up from the chariot, threatening, frowning. Not a muscle moving in his face, he gravely intoned: "This does not break my spirit, this meaningless fright! It's my heritage to beat up bulls." Just then pulling against the reins, his horses took charge of the chariot, ran off the road and, wherever their madness and fear conveyed them, deranged they went, heading onto rocks. He was like a helmsman in a storm at sea, trying to restrain his boat, not turn his side to the surge, and with such skill elude the waves. Just like that, he steered his chariot. (enacting the scene) Now he pulls back, holds the reins pressed tight. Now their backs he whips over and over, with twisted blows. It follows relentlessly, his sea-mate. Now it runs by his side, now blocking him opposite goes in front but, no matter where it is, brings terror. There was nowhere to go. It was always face to face, the horrendous bull of the sea. At long last, his tramping horses went out of their minds with fright. They broke their vows as they struggled to break from their yokes, but succeeded only in throwing their burden out of his seat. Headlong, face first he spilled and entangled himself while he fell, in his reins which knotted about him. The more he fought, the tighter he tied them. His animals sensing misfortune—the chariot was lighter, with no master now!—wherever horror bid them, off they went . . . Far and wide he bloodies the fields. Dashing his head over stones, he bounces. Bramble-bushes steal his hair, his handsome face the spoil of callous rocks. From multiple contusions die his cursed looks. And even as he grasps the last of life, his speeding wheels drag back and forth his members. Finally, his middle caught on a sharpened spike, skewered through his groin on a stump that someone left standing, and for a moment the chariot, its master held fast, came to rest, the horses hung up on the wound. And then . . . (hesitating) . . . in a single thrust they broke their bonds and master all at once, halved and torn by thickets, bushes rough with thorns and brambles. Every stump can quote a piece of him. His friends are searching the fields, a gloomy band, through all those places where bits of Hippolytus lie, along a bloody trail. The path is marked out well. Sadly his dogs track their master's limbs, and still despite their howling, all their earnest effort, they can't account for all of him. Is this the reward of beauty? A man just now his father's bright companion, the heir undoubted of kingdoms, who shone as the stars do, this man from all sides is being assembled now for his final pyre. A crowd collects him for his funeral.

THESEUS: You have too much power. You hold onto fathers too tightly. O children, we love you in spite of ourselves. I wished death on a guilty man. Now that he's dead, I lament.

MESSENGER: Can anyone truly lament what he wished upon himself?

THESEUS: If that's true, this is the crown of all misery: misfortune makes the thing you loathe from what you love.

MESSENGER: So, if you hate him, why wet your cheeks with weeping?

THESEUS: Because I killed him? No! I weep, because I lost him.

[During the last choral interlude, Hippolytus' friends and servants begin bringing on stage his remnants, the body parts they've found scattered on the hillside. In the fifth and final act Phaedra confesses her role in Hippolytus' death. Theseus, in horror, curses her. She then stabs herself to death before his—and the audience's—eyes.

The Chorus encourages Theseus to put together the pieces of his life by doing the same for his son. He and they then begin collecting and assembling the boy's tattered ruins, examining them bit by bit.]

THESEUS: Here, here. Leave the remnants of his beloved body, his weight, his limbs, the scattershot collection. Set it down. (looking inside the bag) Hippolytus? He's in here? I guess I made a mistake. (talking to the bag's contents) I killed you, thoroughly it seems. It wasn't enough to do it once or on my own, I had to taunt, parent to parent, and involve my father, too. A father's duty, I suppose. Bereft am I, a pale blight on crushing age!

CHORUS: Put his parts together, what remains here of your son, wretched man, kneeling on his weeping chest, embrace him. Strewn his limbs . . . Restore the organs sluing from their place.

THESEUS: (pulling a hand from the bag) Here's his strong right hand. (pulling another hand from the bag) And here's his left, the one he used to steer the reins. I'll put it here. (pulling organs of some sort from the bag) This bears the signs of his left side. (looking inside the bag) But I don't think there's enough in here to weep about!

CHORUS: Be strong! Control your trembling hand and do your duty! Stop up those flowing tears, you thirsty eyes! Let a father take the census of his son's sinew and make a body.

THESEUS: (pulling more body parts out of the bag) This? What's this? This shapeless lump. Horrible-looking! Scarred and broken everywhere! What part of you it is, I don't know, but it's clearly something of yours.

CHORUS: Here, put it here. It's not its proper place, but it's empty.

THESEUS: (pulling Hippolytus' head out of the bag) Is this the face that outshone heaven's light, looking so askance and seeming to scream at me? Is this how beauty falls? . . . Take this last favor from your father, boy, to be buried several times. Ignite the fires and . . . let all Mopsopia ring out loud lament! You there, tinder up the flames of royal pyre and, you, head back into the fields and hunt his vagrant parts. (nearly tripping over Phaedra's body) Phaedra! Fie, bury her beneath a load of land and let the earth lie heavy on her wasting head!



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