Introduction | Chapter Two

Seneca's Nightmare Rome

In terms of influence on early modern English authors, the pragmatics of history mean that the Romans are more important than the Greeks. Vergil, whose Aeneid is modeled carefully on the Iliad and the Odyssey, provides the transmission of the epic conventions of hauntings, but equally influential is the alternative model displayed in the tragedies of Seneca. Seneca's version of haunting, freed from the dignity and constraints of epic, explores and charts the horror that comes with interaction between the dead and the living.

Whether or not the rational containment of tragedy enacted by Aristotle's Poetics, with its careful codifications and rules, is ever fully successful, it does not give an audience any leverage on Seneca at all. Gordon Braden discusses the ways in which Seneca's philosophy and plays are warped and colored by the fantastic and irrational pressures of Nero's court, arguing that Seneca's Stoicism, like his tragedies, is formed by the inward-turning of the competitive drive that shaped classical culture, the same force that made the Julio-Claudians what they were (Braden 14). Vasily Rudich offers a vivid description of the Catch-22 in which Neronian authors were caught; due to the highly rhetoricized nature of Julio-Claudian literature, no text was safe from accusations of subversive innuendo (Rudich 13-16). Seneca's writing is at all levels a reflection of what it was like to survive in, and ultimately to fall prey to, the Neronian court.

Unlike the revenge tragedies I will examine in later chapters, these are plays of interiority, with only the most limited and cursory acknowledgment of a wider society. Seneca's villains--and it is hard to describe any character in Seneca as otherwise than villainous, or at best antiheroic--are creatures of monstrously swollen egotism; their universe is solipsistic to the nth degree. There is no community in Seneca's plays except the community of victims, and that in itself is a damning indictment of Neronian Rome.

Aemulatio, as R. J. Tarrant, points out, was the usual method for Augustan authors such as Vergil and Ovid to interact with their Greek predecessors (Tarrant 217-18). But as Braden's argument makes clear, by the time of Nero, aemulatio had become culturally carcinogenic; denied other victims, it turns on itself. For Seneca, horror depends on an ingrown, festering need for competition; the competitive ethos run wild leads inexorably to the absence of control and rationality, to the inability to maintain distinct categories, and that loss is what inevitably tips tragedy over into blood-boltered horror.

The distinctive quality of Seneca is most readily apparent, since we have no other Roman examples1, via comparison with the Greek playwright most similar to him: Euripides. In Hippolytus (of which each of them has a version), Seneca's sensibility emerges unmistakably at the end of the play. In Euripides, Hippolytus is brought back on stage still alive, still participating in the tragedy which is his, able to experience and enact closure with his death. Seneca's Hippolytus is literally non-closed, a jigsaw of body parts (carried on stage in a box) whose collection and arrangement make the witnesses of his tragedy coerced agents in the attempt to achieve closure.2 When the box is brought on stage, this coercion is extended to Theseus, to Phaedra, and to the audience, as we are presented directly with the messy remnants of what is no longer in any sense a private downfall. We are all implicated in the ultimately hopeless task of piecing Hippolytus together again, of trying to regain the classical restraint and dignity which Euripides presents and Seneca annihilates. Seneca refuses to allow tragedy and horror to be contained by the structures of drama.

At the same time, the other side of Seneca's extravagance is the undeniable fact that his tragedies always, deliberately, court falling over into the ludicrous and camp, tragedy and comedy being another categorical distinction refused by Senecan aesthetics.3 While bringing pieces of Hippolytus back on-stage in a box is horrifying, it is also blackly comic--which in turn feeds the sense of horror; as Stephen Greenblatt remarks in Hamlet in Purgatory, discussing the nightmares of Jews under the Third Reich, "The intimations of grotesque humor in several of the details ... do not detract from the horror ... in the dreams; if anything, the details intensify the terror by undermining the dignity of tragic pathos" (Greenblatt 166). Comedy and horror, in Seneca as in the nightmares Greenblatt discusses, are conjoined twins, inseparable. One cannot be understood without the other. Horror in Seneca is never quite straight; it is always self-conscious, always suspect. It is in this way most quintessentially abject, a categorical miasma, a breeding ground for secrets that will not stay hidden.

This quality is as apparent in his ghosts as in any other aspect of his plays. If ghosts habitually enact the return of the repressed, in Seneca they enact the return of the repressed which had never really left in the first place. Tantalus, in Thyestes, in his own spectral person is a revenant, but the evil which he represents is flourishing in Mycenae without him. Thyestes likewise in Agamemnon; he channels and focuses the audience's awareness of the connection current evil has to past evil, but he represents the return of something that is not gone. The problem in Troades is literally that of the object of repression refusing to be repressed. Achilles is dead, buried, and suitably honored, but he will not go away. He stands on the border between life and death, between truth and secret, and refuses to budge. And the ghosts in Octavia, the victims of crimes for which the murderer will not be brought to justice, are equally in the category of the abject, that which can be neither forgotten nor discussed.

Although Octavia is probably not by Seneca, it was attributed to him in the Renaissance, and thus is necessary for an examination of the Senecan tradition in early modern English theater. Unlike the other plays in his oeuvre, it concerns events of contemporary Rome; Seneca himself is a character in it. Moreover, the ghost of Agrippina, who appears in the middle of the play, accurately and with a wealth of detail "predicts" the death of Nero, an event which occurred three years after Seneca's own demise. These are all reasons to argue that it was not, in fact, written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

On the other hand, it is undeniably a Senecan play; there are ways in which it is rather different from Seneca's plays, which I will return to in a moment, but the world view it presents, its sensibilities, are perfectly of a piece with the other nine. Probably, to label it accurately, one would have to call it a very good pastiche: a work written in imitation of another author. The existence of Octavia therefore suggests that Seneca is the standard-bearer for a particular type of play--that which, when it is spotted in the Renaissance, gets called "Senecan tragedy," and which even in his own time was apparently perfectly recognizable as "Seneca's tragedies." In terms of influence on Renaissance playwrights, Octavia belongs in the canon just as much as Thyestes does. Therefore, even as a pastiche, Octavia is extremely important in a consideration of genre, because it tells us some of the markers Senecan tragedy creates itself to be known by. One of those markers is clearly the ghost.

Octavia is a play haunted on many levels both literal and metaphorical; all of the levels of haunting work together in a synergistic fashion. Before proceeding to unpack these layers, I am going to make a brief explanatory detour into the nightmarish soap opera of Imperial Roman family politics from which Octavia acquires its subject matter.

The Emperor Claudius had two children by his first wife Messalina. Those children are Octavia (the eponymous heroine) and Britannicus. Claudius got rid of Messalina and married Agrippina, who brought with her to this, her second marriage, her son Nero. She prevailed upon Claudius to adopt Nero; Agrippina and Nero then murdered Claudius and Britannicus, leaving Nero as the Emperor's heir. To cement his hold on the throne, Nero married his stepsister, Octavia. These events lie behind the play; Octavia itself focuses on Nero's determination to get rid of Octavia so that he can marry Poppaea, who is--unlike Octavia--morally a match for him. There is little action in the play proper; it is mostly concerned with all the events that have led up to it. It is haunted by them. The first level of haunting, then, is the play's haunting by its own past.

Equally importantly, Octavia is haunted by its literary predecessors. This intertextuality shows itself both in the imitation of Senecan tricks like stichomythia and in the way the characters persistently map their story onto the tragimythic exemplar of the house of Atreus. The frightening thing is how natural and obvious that mapping seems. It is difficult, reading Octavia, to remember that its characters and events are historical, that Nero and Agrippina really did these things. They seem just as over-the-top and implausible as the histrionic horrors of Atreus. The separation between reality and fiction, history and mythology, is breaking down. Incest, murder, adultery: the Julio-Claudians seem to be swerving back into the tangled darkness of Greek myth, not merely as models for their behavior, but as if they themselves could become the subjects of new myths. Claudius, like Augustus and Tiberius before him, was deified at his death, and pseudo-Seneca uses that fact relentlessly,4 pointing out again and again that Octavia is the daughter of a god. Octavia's nurse talks about "the house of Claudius" ("domum / stirpemque Claudi" [Octavia 37-38], literally "the house and stock of Claudius") in the same way that, in discussing mythology, one habitually refers to "the house of Atreus." Late in the play, Poppaea is specifically compared to Helen; as a data-point for Braden's aemulatio argument--the need of the Romans to out-Herod Herod in imitating the Greeks--she is conceived of as surpassing Helen:

formam Sparte iactet alumnae
licet et Phrygius praemia pastor
vincet vultus haec Tyndaridos
qui moverunt horrida bella
Phrygiaeque solo regne dedere.
(Octavia 773-77)
[let Sparta boast of the beauty of its adopted daughter, and the Phrygian shepherd of his prize. This countenance conquers that of Tyndarus's daughter, who incited that horrible war and brought down the entire Phrygian kingdom.]

Hard on the heels of this hubristic swagger, the Messenger comes running to tell everyone that the mob is destroying Rome, precisely because Poppaea's beauty has caused Nero to cast off Octavia. The play seems both to yearn towards and to be terrified of the mythic echoes it perceives in itself. It is eager to point out likenesses between the House of Claudius and the House of Atreus, to insist that Octavia is the daughter of a god, but those mythic echoes inevitably and dreadfully lead to destruction and death. Myth is dangerous.

Along with myth, the play is also haunted by the Roman past. The Chorus evokes the glory days of the Roman Republic, and specifically the heroic behavior characteristic of Romans then:

vera priorum virtus quondam
Romana fuit verumque genus
Martis in illis sanguisque viris.
illi reges hac expulerunt
urbe superbos ultique tuos
sunt bene manes,
(Octavia 291-97)
[Once true Roman strength belonged to our forebears, and the true lineage of Mars in their blood and sons. They expelled from this city arrogant kings, and they avenged your spirit well, maiden]

The virgo is, of course Virginia, whose father killed her to keep her from the foul embraces of Appius Claudius, and her evocation here emphasizes the failure of the living characters to avenge the dead in Octavia. This is far from the only point at which the great Roman past is called upon; Roman history forms a kind of counter to the equally omnipresent Atrides--the historical ghost of what Rome was once, rather than the literary/mythic ghost of what she seems to be becoming.

All of the women in Octavia are haunted. The male characters are not aware of ghosts, but the women's relationships with the dead seem to be far richer and more emotionally resonant than their relationships with the living. Octavia begins the play with a plea to her mother's ghost:

semper, genetrix, deflenda mihi,
prima meorum causa malorum,
tristes questus natae exaudi,
si quis remanet sensus in umbris.
(Octavia 10-13)
[Mother, always a cause of tears to me, first cause of my evils, hear the sad complaints of your daughter, if any compassion remains after death.]

She uses the word umbra about herself seventy lines later: "magni resto nominis umbra" [I remain the shadow of a great name] (Octavia 71). She then describes the way in which she herself is haunted:

quam saepe tristis umbra germani meis
offertur oculis, membra cum solvit quies
et fessa fletu lumina oppressit sopor.
modo facibus atris armat infirmas manus
oculosque et ora fratris infestus petit,
modo trepidus idem refugit in thalamos meos;
peresquitur hostis atque inhaerenti mihi
violentus ensem per latus nostrum rapit.
(Octavia 115-22)
[How often the ghost of my sad brother appears before my eyes at the time when rest loosens my limbs and sleep presses down upon my eyes, weary with weeping. Sometimes he arms his weak hands with black torches and in hostility attacks the eyes and mouth of his brother, sometimes the same one, fearful, flees back to my chambers; he is followed through them by the enemy, and as he clings to me, the violent one thrusts his sword through our sides.]

She is haunted by her brother Britannicus, who was murdered by Nero. Britannicus's ghost is completely ineffectual. It cannot save itself from its phantom pursuer; it cannot seem to goad its still living sister into any positive action. Likewise, when Octavia calls on her father's ghost to help her, the Nurse tells her it is no use (Octavia 137). Octavia dwells more among ghosts than among the living, and this is in part a marker of her own passivity and helplessness. She can defy neither the living Nero nor the one who pursues her spectral brother. Like Britannicus, she is trapped in an infinite recursion of his murder; her actual status as a living woman seems oddly irrelevant.

Octavia's rival, Poppaea, is also haunted. On her wedding night, she has a dream, which falls into two parts: the appearance of Agrippina's ghost and the murder of Crispinus by Nero. Poppaea's description of Crispinus's murder echoes Octavia's description of Britannicus's:

properat petere complexus meos
Crispinus, intermissa libare oscula;
irrupit intra tecta cum trepidus mea
ensemque iugulo condidit saevum Nero.
(Octavia 730-33)
[Crispinus hastens to seek my embraces, to take abandoned kisses; restless Nero bursts into my place of shelter and buries his cruel sword in his throat.]

Again, the dreamer/percipient is unable to save someone she loves from Nero's savagery.

Poppaea's dream of Agrippina echoes the actual appearance of Agrippina earlier in the play. Agrippina, like the living women, is obsessed with Nero, and like them, she is haunted:

Extinctus umbras agitat infestus meas
flammisque vultus noxios coniunx petit,
instat, minatur, imputat fatum mihi
tumulumque nati, poscit auctorem necis.
(Octavia 614-17)
[Hostile, my dead husband harries my ghost, and with torches seeks guilt in my face. He follows me closely, threatens me, blames me for his fate and his son's grave, demands the author of this murder.]

Even ghosts, in the world of Octavia, are not free from the reproaches of the past.

The function of women in the play is to be haunted by Nero's crimes, while Nero--providing what plot Octavia possesses--goes on committing more crimes without himself ever seeing a ghost. His guilt is displaced onto the women, who are themselves both his co-conspirators and, ultimately, his victims.

What, then, does Octavia tell us about Senecan ghosts and Senecan horror? It is, as it happens, atypical--not surprising if it is indeed a pastiche. It is the only "Senecan" play in which the ghost enters in the middle of the play as opposed to serving as the prologue, and the only one in which the characters seem to be actively haunted. As we will see shortly, Thyestes and Agamemnon give the ghost a more metatheatrical function, whereas in Troades the ghost does not technically haunt anyone. As I will argue about Titus Andronicus in Chapter Three, the overwhelming anxiety of Troades is to prevent the ghost from haunting, from appearing on stage.

The commonality between Octavia's ghosts and the ghosts of Thyestes, Agamemnon, and Troades is their function with regards to memory and the past. By their nature, ghosts are avatars of past events, but this quality can be utilized in different fashions by different artists. Octavia, which is trying to build a resonance between the House of Claudius and the House of Atreus, uses its ghosts in the same way Thyestes and Agamemnon do, as visible reminders of the horrors perpetrated in the past. The ghosts of Tantalus and Thyestes both appear at the beginning of their plays because Seneca the playwright is interested in showing how the crimes they committed during their lifetimes roll over onto their still-living descendants. Octavia cannot, no matter how hard it tries, generate the same crushing sense of generational history; the previous generation (Claudius) is deified, and the crimes under discussion were committed by a man who is still relatively young--Nero was only thirty-one when he died. This lack of history offers one reason for the number of ghosts in the play. The sense of scelus, of crime and evil, is still crushing, because the play shows us, by dragging out all his victims separately, how very busy Nero has been.

Octavia, then, is an attempt to apply the rubrics of Senecan drama to a history play (a project not unlike what I will argue in Chapter Three to be Shakespeare's project in Richard III). The close fit between form and content is one of the principal sources from which the play generates horror: the historical House of Claudius behaving in ways indistinguishable from the mythical exemplars of the House of Atreus. As Motto and Clark point out, this collapse between the mythic and the debased is a hallmark of Senecanism:

His dramas enact bifurcation at the very center of their actions: unheroic, feeble, and evil men retrace the steps of traditional heroes in the myths; ungodly men scrupulously perform religious ceremonies; and tragic dramas in the long Greco-Roman tradition are fragmented, debased, and emptied of their original meaning.
(Motto & Clark 41)

There is category violation here, not merely between art and life, but between art and the parody of art. This failure of separation is what powers Seneca's plays and their absolute rejection of decorum. This category violation, this simultaneous schism and elision, is a praxis which Octavia understands as fully and deeply as any of Seneca's own plays.

There are other ways that Octavia is a good exemplar of Senecanism. Although it is not as gleefully gory as Seneca's oeuvre, it has the same sense of implacable disaster, the same foreknowledge on the part of its audience that those disasters are going to keep accumulating until the word "tragedy" feels like an understatement, and even then the play will not so much stop as simply run down. It seems to me that the clearest trope for this in Octavia--which Seneca himself troped in the ultimate fate of Hippolytus--is the ghost of Claudius. Even after death, Octavia suggests, there is neither rest nor peace. The ghost of Agrippina is haunted by the ghost of Claudius, and one can imagine an endless recursion of ghosts haunting ghosts, until there is finally no one, either alive or dead, who is not haunted and burdened by the past. This is a theme which Seneca himself treats extensively, and it is conspicuous in the plays of his I intend to discuss, Thyestes, Agamemnon, and Troades. Most of my attention will be given to Thyestes, as it offers the best exemplar of Senecan horror; my discussions of Agamemnon and Troades will be briefer and focused more closely on the ghosts.

The plays Thyestes and Agamemnon both deal with the quintessential Greek tragic subject, the House of Atreus, a house whose bloody history ultimately only grinds to a halt at the end of the Oresteia, where the great festering guilt is finally displaced and dispersed. Seneca has the entire five-generation panorama (Tantalus-Pelops-Atreus-Agamemnon-Orestes) to pick and choose from in creating his plays. He chooses not to rewrite the Oresteia but instead to rework the two most incestuously homicidal chapters of the history of the House of Atreus--the two chapters which have the clearest parallels with Nero's Rome. Seneca is not interested in finding resolution and closure and harmonious balance. He is most interested in the moments of most extreme dysfunction.

Unlike Octavia, Thyestes has an extremely strong sense of place. The setting itself is a character, and a major contributor to the horror the play evokes. Tarrant discusses the way in which Seneca creates a world hybrid of Greek and Roman influences: "a Mycenae populated by Quirites, a royal palace protected by Lares and Penates, and a kingdom whose borders are threatened by Parthians and Plans" (Tarrant 226).6 This Mycenae is of Seneca's own creation and it is a dreadful place, rank with the madness of its ruling family. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Messenger's ekphrasis on the scene of Atreus's crime:

In arce summa Pelopiae pars est domus
conversa ad austros, cuius extremum latus
aequale monti crescit atque urbem premit
et contumacem regibus populum suis
habet sub ictu.
(Thyestes 641-45)
[At the height of the citadel, a part of the house of Plops faces south, of which the outermost wall rises flush with the mountain and oppresses the city, and has beneath its blow the people stubborn against their kings.]

The Messenger begins with a description of the citadel which is itself unnerving, the castle glaring down anthropomorphically at the contumacem populum, and the description picks up steam as it proceeds. The trees of the grove are themselves oppressive and oppressed: "sed taxus et cupressus et nigra ilice / obscura nutat silva, quam supra eminens / despectat alte quercus et vincit nemus" (Thyestes 654-56) [but yew and cyprus and holm-oak, the black and shadowed wood sways, above which a tall and singular oak sneers down at the conquered grove]. Victoria Tietze Larson notes that the verb despectare is normally used of people and can also mean "despise" (Tietze Larson 120), so that the oak repeats the image of the citadel looming over the town both spatially and in its uncomfortable nuances of personification.

The horror increases as the description penetrates deeper, from the vaguely ominous citadel, to the depressive trees within it, to the spring within the grove, a growing sense of evil evoked by persistent echoes made between the underworld and the grove (Thyestes 665-82). The spring is like the Styx both in the blackness of its water and in the stagnant, bog-like nature of its pool.7 Moreover, the dead walk in the grove, and something barks that sounds very much like Cerberus. The grove has its own eternal night, which Atreus's later crime will cause to spread to the rest of Mycenae. The description of the grove is, as Tietze Larson proves, part of the literary tradition of the locus horridus; she points particularly to the influence of Vergil and Ovid (Tietze Larson 87-89). The grove at the center of Atreus's palace is horrifying in its own right: a place where evil resides, distinct from, but also inextricably intertwined with the evil that will be performed there.

Also, from the moment Tantalus's Ghost appears on stage, the past looms over the play (and is a constant presence, due to its setting in the citadel), both the familial past of Tantalus and Pelops and the personal past between Atreus and Thyestes. A. J. Boyle's reading of Thyestes focuses on the overarching impact of Tantalus on the play, emphasizing the way the "the Tantalus images or motifs of hunger, thirst, eating, drinking, feasting, filling, emptying, satiety, limit, unlimit" permeate and govern the play ("Hic Epulis" 220-21). Boyle's argument is compelling; the feud between Atreus and Thyestes is inextricably intertwined with the crime of their grandfather, and, to a lesser extent, the crime of their father. The past dictates the present, and is moreover visible in the grove, which with its water and trees suggests the eternal torture of Tantalus, and which specifically holds the relics of Pelops's crime (Thyestes 659-61). The setting of Thyestes is a vital part of the play, precisely because the citadel of Mycenae is, in our modern terminology, a haunted house.

Mycenae is haunted primarily by the insanity of its inhabitants, but Seneca does not fail to provide a real ghost. The ghost of Tantalus, brought up from Hades by a Fury, tries to warn Atreus against his vendetta, but his conscious repudiation of evil is no match for the evil with which, Seneca suggests, his being is infused. Tantalus's presence, according to the Fury, compels the things around him to reflect his torment (Thyestes 101-14). His thirst will be translated to bloodlust, and his hunger will cause Thyestes to gorge himself on his children's flesh. Tantalus as a character, the ghost who is arguing with the Fury, can do nothing, but Tantalus as a presence, as a paranormal force, is extraordinarily potent.

Seneca also uses the ghost of Tantalus to perform a little literary sleight-of-hand. Beginning with the impassioned argument between Tantalus and the Fury, and the Chorus's desperate plea for some god to stop the house of Tantalus from continuing to feed on itself, Seneca sets up the situation so that it looks as if the play is going to present the conflict within Atreus, to act against Thyestes or to end the feud. Atreus's opening lines, however, show us quite a different picture, as he berates himself for having waited so long to wreak his revenge (Thyestes 176-80). Atreus is already, so to speak, open for business. One suspects he did not need Tantalus's encouragement at all, and the first 175 lines of the play are just a massive feint.

Littlewood argues the opposite, that Atreus stands in the same relationship to the Fury that Thyestes stands to Atreus (Littlewood 60), but his essay, in arguing for the play as a demonstration of Stoic principles, ignores the metatheatrical undercuttings and ironies, the intense investment in artifice, that are the hallmarks of Seneca's dramatic style. A similar difficulty emerges around 238-41, as Atreus describes Thyestes's theft of his wife and sacred ram. Littlewood points out that "one might expect Atreus to spend the rest of the tragedy trying to recapture the animal and the woman, but ... the real danger which threatens Atreus in 238-41 simply seems to evaporate" (Littlewood 63). He goes on to argue that this impression is "misleading" (Littlewood 63), but his torturous attempts to remap wife and ram onto Atreus's revenge do not ameliorate the disjunct between the narrative arc Seneca seems to suggest and the one he chooses to follow. Rather than attempting to argue that the disjunct is not a disjunct, I would argue that the disjunct is intentional and purposeful, and that its purpose has more to do with epistemology than ethical philosophy.

Bait-and-switch gestures of this type are quintessentially Senecan pieces of chicanery (a pastime, I might add, from which the Octavia is remarkably free), and part of their purpose is certainly to play a minor mind-game with the audience. But, especially those which toy with the idea of supernatural influence, they emphasize a recurrent theme in Seneca's plays of ambiguity about supernatural happenings, crystallized most succinctly at the end of Medea; as Medea is flying away in her patently supernatural dragon-drawn chariot, Jason shouts after her, "Per alta vade spatia sublimi aethere; / testare nullos esse, qua veheris, deos" (Medea 1026-27) [Go, through the vast extent of the dizzying upper air; wherever you go, testify that the gods do not exist]. The supernatural events in Seneca's plays are always at odds with the world-view of play and characters alike. There is no framework which makes them explicable. He finds horror, not in the idea that the gods are cruel or indifferent, but in the idea that they might not exist at all, that there is no order in the cosmos. Motto and Clark remark upon the fact that the plays are permeated with religious imagery while at the same time "the audience ... senses the death of the gods entirely" (Motto & Clark 39). The supernatural can neither be trusted nor discounted. Thus the ambiguities of the supernatural in Seneca's plays, the constant impulse to destabilize the order of the world, letting it rest neither in the "real" world of material causes and material consequences, nor in the paranormal world of gods and omens and vengeful spirits. Horror lies in the permeable boundaries between those two incompatible ways of explaining the world, in a fundamental category violation of what is possible and what is not.

Thyestes is very much about category violation: the deliberate refusal to acknowledge boundaries. Atreus's hubris literally knows no bounds; in later scenes, he glories in his belief--uncontested by the play--that the inhuman monstrosity of his actions has driven the gods from heaven. The ghost of Tantalus acts as a foreshadowing or warning concerning the instability of categories in the play. He also, like the ghosts in Octavia, is a marker of the inescapable pressure of the past which forces the living characters to behave as they do. Senecan ghosts perform the collapse of the boundaries between past and present, and that is very much the function of the ghost of Thyestes who opens Agamemnon.

Thyestes apparently comes up from Dis of his own accord; no Fury appears to goad him. Also unlike Tantalus, Thyestes as a ghost is contiguous with his character in Thyestes: self-pitying and full of over-blown rhetoric. Tantalus seems to have learned his lesson; he tries to stop Atreus. Thyestes, on the other hand, is not sated; he is urging Aegisthus on to bigger and better crimes. Structurally, he occupies the same place as Tantalus; most of Thyestes's speech is in fact an explanation for the audience, like a soap opera's synopsis of what happened in the previous episode. He announces the same purpose as the Fury gives for Tantalus: encouraging his descendent to bloodshed. But Aegisthus's need for prompting is no more obvious than Atreus's; he is as self-aware a villain as his uncle, although not as self-enamored. He agrees with Thyestes that the circumstances of his birth make him uniquely suited to villainy (Agamemnon 49-52, 229-33). It is not, however, in any sense necessary to believe that the ghost has influenced him, and the play does not offer certain evidence either way. The effect of the dead characters on the living--unlike the effect of the past on the present--is left ambiguous. Aegisthus may be influenced by his father's ghost, or he may simply be too morally depraved and weak-willed to resist Clytemnestra's vengeful fury. The play rejects the comfort--and it is a comfort, no matter how cold--of certainty.

Thyestes's ghost also serves several metadramatic functions. He accurately foretells the events of the play, emphasizing particularly the bloodshed--fair warning to the audience. Seneca knows that one way to increase horror is to make the audience wait for it. Also the last four lines of Thyestes's speech refer back to Thyestes and Atreus's bringing down night at noon:

Sed cur repente noctis aestivae vices
hiberna longa spatia producunt mora,
aut quid cadentes detinet stellas polo?
Phoebum moramur? redde iam mundo diem.
(Agamemnon 53-56)
[But why suddenly are summer nights stretched out across the long winter expanse, or what detains the sinking stars in the sky? Do we delay Phoebus? Now return the day to the world.]

These lines break the narrative illusion, calling attention to the length of his speech and to the convention that ghosts disappear at dawn. It reminds the audience, broadly, that they are watching a fiction in which the passage of time is at the mercy of the playwright. Again, Seneca chooses to undercut himself just at the moment when his rhetoric is at its highest pitch.

The ghost of Thyestes, like the ghost of Tantalus, embodies horror in two ways. One is that, again, the boundary between the world of the living and the dead, like the boundary between play and performance, or the boundary between categories like "father" and "husband," is permeable, subject to breach and invasion. The second way, which Thyestes gloats about, is the force of the past, like a juggernaut rolling across the present. This, too, is a category violation, suggesting that temporal progression, the division of time into linear units, is unreliable. Seneca is careful to include pointers about how the events of this play, in their turn, are going to become part of that juggernaut. He shows Orestes's escape and the conflict beginning between Electra and Clytemnestra. Seneca seems to imagine the history of the House of Atreus as some kind of diabolical series of dominoes. Once the first domino has fallen, the rest can only stand and watch their fate approaching. Agamemnon is also notable for the presence of Cassandra, for whom the boundary between present and future is as unstable as Seneca's ghosts suggest the boundary is between past and present. This intermingling of past and present, present and future, suggests both that the horrors of the past cannot be outlived and that the horrors of the future cannot be escaped. The present is beseiged on both sides; it is no wonder that it is nothing but disaster and death.

Troades looks at a different portion of the history of the House of Atreus--a branching line of dominoes, if you will; in fact, the Atrides are secondary in this play's focus. It is named for its chorus, the captive Trojan women, and it focuses on Andromache and Hecuba, the last survivors of the Trojan royal house. The ghost of this play, the ghost of Achilles, never appears on stage, and yet the force of his desires, and the Greeks' quaking terror of him, drives half the action.

Achilles refuses to accept his death. He breaks down the metaphorical wall between the living and the dead; in this play, that wall is more than metaphorical, as the violent natural upheavals that accompany Achilles attest. This ghost is less like Seneca's other ghosts, Thyestes, Tantalus, than he is like the sea-bull in Phaedra--or Atreus in Thyestes--a force so potent and unnatural that the natural world cannot contain it. Achilles is horrifying in himself as a character, bloodthirsty and brutal; horrifying as a ghost demanding yet more blood; and horrifying as a paranormal force who causes earthquakes without concern or remorse. Tantalus causes bloodshed without desiring it; Thyestes desires bloodshed but has only a dubious causal connection to it. Achilles both desires and causes bloodshed.

Achilles's greed is implacable. In himself, he becomes a category violation, something which cannot be bounded. He has been properly buried, with rites and honors and offerings, which according to Greek and Roman tradition was what ghosts needed in order to rest, but that is not enough for Achilles. He comes up with a new requirement, with more that the Greeks have to do to be rid of him, more the Trojans have to suffer. He refuses closure, refuses to allow a properly observed boundary to remain inviolate. The characters themselves find this monstrous (compare Agamemnon's remonstrances to Pyrrhus at ll. 293-300 and Hecuba's lament at ll. 955-57), but they have no options. There is no other way to placate Achilles.

What makes Achilles so monstrous as a ghost is the way in which--again unlike Thyestes and Tantalus--he remains unknowable. His motivations and thoughts are not available to either the living characters or the audience. He is as blind and unreasonable a force as Phaedra's sea-bull, only cloaked in human seeming. He represents most clearly of all Seneca's ghosts the horror inherent in the dead refusing to stay dead. Although Achilles never appears on stage, he is the most horrifying of Seneca's ghosts.

Seneca's ghosts trope the working of Seneca's plays. The ghosts are metonyms for the pain the living feel when faced with the demands of the dead, for the pressure that the past can bring to bear upon the present. The ghosts are representative of Seneca's interest in the gruesome and ghastly, while their metatheatrical self-awareness points to their playwright's constant toying with the boundary between fiction and reality. In Seneca's plays, ghosts, horror, and the theater are inextricably entwined.

Seneca's influence on early modern tragedy is pervasive and wide-ranging. Playwrights copied his rhetorical tricks and his formal structures, but more importantly the sensibility of Senecan tragedy translated itself readily into the idiom of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater. The love of excess, of metatheatricalism, the determination to imagine the unimaginable and represent it on stage: these are all qualities that may rightly be called Senecan in early modern drama. And through it all stalk the ghosts. Renaissance ghosts, as we will see, are more active, plot-bound creations than Seneca's, but they do the same work; they are metonyms for the past, for the pressure and weight of past evil which drags the living characters down into the murky chaos of revenge.


1. Although Tarrant makes a persuasive argument that it was Roman authors now lost to us with whom Seneca's own aemulatio would have engaged (Tarrant 219-23).

2. Boyle also notes the way in which Seneca has dismembered and reassembled two Euripidean plays, Hippolytus and The Bacchae, to create this ending (Tragic Seneca 87).

3. Coffey asserts that Seneca maintains tragic decorum and dignity except when "unfocussed and loose language ... disfigures his plays" (Coffey 92). I read Seneca's project in his tragedies as emphatically the opposite; "disfiguration" is their habitual gesture.

4. The real Seneca, of course, laughed it to scorn in the Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii.

5. All translations are my own.

6. Coffey points out the parallels between Seneca's Mycenae and Nero's extravagant domus transitoria (Coffey 83).

7. Compare the descent into Avernus in Aeneid 6, where the Styx is specifically called a palus (Aeneid 6.323).

Introduction | Chapter Two

© Sarah Monette 2004     Feel free to link to this academic trial-by-ordeal, but please do not reproduce it without permission.