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Home » , » Discuss the characteristics of a Senecan tragedy with reference to "Phaedra".
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman stoic philosopher and an eminent playwright. He wrote mine plays. The manner of his writing was different from that of the Greek dramatists. Almost all his plays deal with the theme of revenge. Moreover, he tried to show the horrible side of unbridled passion.Phaedra" is one of Seneca's great plays. The play narrates the disastrous consequence/of Phaedra's incestuous lave for Hippolytus. There is a revenge motif in this play. The cause of Phaedra's unnatural passion is the revengeful motive of Venus, Moreover Phaedra herself was willing to take revenge on Hippolytus because he did not pay any heed to her passionate love for him.
characteristics of a senecan tragedy

While writing plays, Seneca took materials from Greek myths legends and literature. In order to write "Phaedra" he borrowed facts slightly altered. In  Euripides' play, "Hippolytus" is a chilly and disappointing character. But Phaedra's character has great tragic appeal because of the struggle between her passion for her lover and her loyalty to her husband. However, in Seneca's play, Phaedra was not a very loyal wife. The tragedies of Seneca were not meant for public performance. perhaps Seneca did not have anything like public performance in mind when he wrote his adaptations of Greek tragedy. They resemble the closet drama which is treated as a dramatic poem intended for private reading rather than the performance on the stage. In fact, the unnatural passion of Phaedra and her committing suicide on the stage can not possibly be staged before the audience. The  messenger's report on Hippolytus' death is undoubtedly an instance of the narrative, rather than the dramatic, form. In this perspective, it should be mentioned that Aristotle has stated that any tragedy should be presented in dramatic, as opposed to narrative, form and in poetic rather than in prosaic language. Outwardly Seneca tries to follow the dramatic form. Still then are long speeches attributed to Theseus, Hippolytus, Phaedra and the nurse. These speeches have the appearance of monologues despite their presentation as dialogues.

Seneca's style of writing is different from that of the Greek tragedians. He used an exaggerated rhetoric. He has a tendency to use condensed pithy moralizing sayings. The Senecan bombast and declamation is not absent in "Phaedra" There are many rhetorical speeches in the play. Stichomythia has been uneconomically used in this play. In Act III some dialogues between Theseus and Phaedra are examples of stichomythia.A Senecan tragedy depicts the clash of conflicting emotions (as between Phaedra and Theseus) leading to crisis and catastrophe.In Phaedra", the Nurse tries her utmost but fails to make Hippolytus love Phaedra. He is like a rock that flings back the waves that come to strike it. As Phaedra has no chance of winning his love, she is in a crisis. The Senecan tragic climax is not similar to that of the Greek dramas. The swift and merciless destruction of Hippolytus, as the result of his father's hasty verdict, with no word spoken between than has a more awful grandeur than the same event in Euripides' play "Hippolytus, where the father and son confront each other in a noisy argument over the issue.Seneca employs the Chorus not so much for action, as for comment, information or lyrical effect. In "Phaedra" we meet it first at the end of Act I in which it sings of the power of Cupid. It speaks about the omnipotent nature of Cupid from whose arrows on one can escape. It also suggests about the coming events in the next Act. At the end of Act II, the Chorus showers praise on the beauty and other qualities of Hippolytus. It also hints about the coming danger of Hippolytus. In Act III the Chorus reveals to the audience how a heinous crime has been planned and covered by every art. At the end of the same Act it presents an excellent picture of reality which makes a man a mere plaything at the hand of fate. In Act IV, the Chorus facilitates the unfolding of a story through the question "Why does a messenger come hurrying hither with the tears of sorrow watering his cheeks" In the last Act the Chorus performs three functions; it reveals a universal tragedy, reminds one of one's duty and shows adequate sympathy to the loser through sorrow and lamentation. In a Senecan tragedy horror seems to be cultivated for horror's sake and there are references to rape, unlawful love, incest  and suicide. In "Phaedra" we meet horror piled on horror. It is very much blood curdling to hear the description of Hippolytus' painful and unnatural death. The pivotal element in the is Phaedra's unlawful love for his step-son. The play ends with Phaedra's death by suicide.

The use of set speeches is a remarkable feature of Senecan tragedy. Such speeches are marked by elaborate preparation, careful planning, impressive style and effective result. The play "Phaedra is strewn with various set pieces. Their content is so universal that they might be transposable from one play to another. In Act I we hear the set speech of a frustrated wife (Phaedra) because of her husband's absence. In the same Act, the Chorus in a set speech speaks about the power of love. In Act II the Chorus has recourse to a set speech in which it speaks about the ephemeral nature of beauty and the heavy price that its possessor has to pay. Seneca is noted for characters not treated as individuals with idiosyncratic traits but as types. Thus in "Phaedra" we find Phaedra as a giver of her all for the sake of love and a rebellious wife against the mastery of her husband, Hippolytus as an obedient, docile and respectful son and a hater of woman; and Theseus as an autocratic ruler and husband

Finally the action as employed in "Phradra" and other Senecan tragedies is different from that used in Greek tragedies. Action, in the  ordinary sense, (as used in drama) is activity which is display in the carrying on of the plot. In this sense action is not driving force of Seneca's technique. His action may be described as the creation of dramatic tension by words with the minimum of visual aid.It is for this that T.S. Eliot observed that Seneca's plays might be practical  models for the modern 'broadcasted' drama.


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