Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Seneca Comicus

No, this isn't about Seneca's one comic work, the Apocolocyntosis. Instead, it's about a couple of unintentionally funny passages from the Senecan tragedies. At least they're funny to me, with my perhaps perverted sense of humor. Translations are by John G. Fitch.

Hercules Oetaeus 181-184

In ancient tragedy, grief-stricken women often express their grief by beating their breasts. There is a rare medical condition called polymastia (or polymazia), in which a woman has an extra breast. Ann Boleyn, one of Henry VIII's wives, had this condition.

At any rate, Iole in Hercules Oetaeus wishes she had more than two breasts, the better to express her mourning:
What shall I mourn? What grieve for last?
I want to weep for all together,
but my sex did not grant me breasts enough
to resound with blows worthy of my fate.
Note: some scholars think Seneca did not write Hercules Oetaeus.

Phaedra 1256-1268

Hippolytus' father is Theseus, and his step-mother is Phaedra. Phaedra falls in love with Hippolytus, who does not reciprocate. Scorned, Phaedra falsely accuses Hippolytus of rape. Theseus begs the god Poseidon to destroy Hippolytus. Poseidon answers Theseus' prayer, and causes a bull to emerge from the sea to frighten Hippolytus' horses, which are drawing a chariot on the sea shore. Hippolytus falls from the chariot and gets tangled in the reins. The horses drag him to his death. There is nothing funny in all that.

But when Theseus learns the truth, he mourns Hippolytus' death and tries to reassemble the torn pieces of his body. This passage reminds me of someone trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle:
Arrange in order, father, his torn body's sundered limbs, put back in place the straying parts. This is the place for his strong right hand; here must be set his left hand, skilled in controlling the reins -- I recognize the signs of his left side. How great the part still lacking for my tears! Trembling hands, be firm for this sad service; eyes, be dry, check your copious tears, while the father is portioning out limbs to his son and fashioning his body. What is this ugly formless thing, that multiple wounds have severed on every side? What part it may be is uncertain, but it is part of you. Here, set it down here, in an empty place if not in its proper place.
In Seneca's defence, most scholars think that his plays were meant only to be recited or read, not acted on the stage.

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