185. Oedipus by Seneca (55 AD)

Plot:  Oedipus discovers that the plague devastating his kingdom of Thebes is a result of his unknowingly murdering his true father and marrying his mother. My version was from Seneca, The Complete Tragedies, published by University of Chicago Press and edited by Shadi Bartsch (Vol. 2, ISBN 9780226013602)

My thoughts :

It comes as a shock to return to these brutally described and gruesomely detailed tragedies after reading Seneca’s eloquent and rational arguments for stoicism in the face of anger, grief, misery and disaster in his letters and essays. In particular, the scenes in this play describing the unnatural entrails and gore of the sacrificed animals for augury, and where Oedipus gouges out his eyes in horror and remorse, are graphic and terrifying.

“with a groan and terrifying roar, he gouged his fingers deep into his face …. Greedily with hands like hooks he probes his sockets, rips and wrenches out entirely from their deepest roots, both his eyeballs … with fingernails scratching out the hollow spaces of the eyes and empty sockets. His rage is impotent, his frenzy out of bounds: so awful is the risk of daylight. He lifts his head, surveys the sky’s expanse with hollow eyeballs, and tests his night. He snaps the shreds still hanging from the mess of dug-out eyes and calls triumphantly to all the gods”

Messenger, Act 5, lines 961-975

The lengthy Chorus interludes between acts are still present, and I must confess to reading through them rapidly to get to the next Act. They probably deserve better than my impatience grants them. Also annoying is Seneca’s too-frequent use of aliases instead of direct naming of characters : Dis (Pluto/Hades), Lyaeus (Bacchus), ‘master of the winds’ (Neptune/Poseidon), the Cnossian King (Minos), all very poetic and probably obvious to the audiences of the time,  but send me scurrying repeatedly to the footnotes.

Again, Seneca has retold a Greek play, in this case Oedipus the King by Sophocles. I went back and read my post covering that play (https://chronolit.com/2016/03/21/39-oedipus-the-king-by-sophocles-429-bc/) and found the earlier version more satisfying and quotable. The Greek tragedies certainly continued to dominate theatre 400 years later, at least from what examples of Latin plays survive today.

Personal rating:  4/10

Next :  Agamemnon, again by Seneca


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