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Four Tragedies and Octavia (Penguin Classics) Paperback – October 30, 1966
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Text: English (translation)
About the Author
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4BC-AD65) was born in Cordoba, Spain, where he was brought up studying the traditional virtues of republican Roman life. He became a teacher of rhetoric but attracted attention for his incisive style of writing. Closely linked to Nero, his death was ordered by the emperor in AD65. Seneca committed suicide.
E.F. Watling had translated many ancient classics for Penguin, including plays of Sophocles and Plautus. He died in 1990.
Top customer reviews
Even at a distance of 1900 years and in translation, these works can have a shattering emotional impact. What set Seneca apart from the Athenians was his dependence on rhetoric, his fascination with black magic and witchcraft, and the loving detail he gives to descriptions of the most horrendous atrocities. "Thyestes," with its cannibal banquet (a clear inspiration for Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus"), is pretty nasty but the other plays are less macabre, though still exhibiting a fondness for playing on the reader's nerves. Seneca's tragedies have long been deemed unstageable, but I'm not sure: a good director can stage anything, and "Oedipus" received a notable production in 1968 by Peter Brook with Sir John Gielgud in the title role. I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't discovered Seneca, since his tragedies, though wordy, are full of the gore demanded by teenage audiences. It's a shame neither Verdi nor Puccini ever discovered "Octavia": it would have made a splendid opera libretto.
T.S. Eliot compared the form of Seneca's tragedies to modern radio drama, but they also have affinities with Japanese no drama (particularly the reliance on ghosts). His influence in modern times can be seen in the works of dramatists as diverse as Richard Wagner, Eugene O'Neill, and Samuel Beckett. E.F. Watling's translations are mostly readable (though they contain occasional anachronisms) and have considerable poetic merit.
These powerful, gruesome plays give one an impression of the world of Seneca. It is a vicious, ruthless, cruel world of intrigue, murder, insane violence and heartless people doing shameful wrongs -- and getting away with it. These plays convey an underlying perception of life on earth that was at the heart of Stoic thinkers. Indeed, the Roman world was just such a place, and Stoic philosophy sought to provide more than solace, but direction and guidance away from the omnipresent despair that one might often feel. This is the world, lacking in any real redemptive hope, that Stoicism tries to teach followers to grapple with, accept, and live in with an inner dignity, and uprightness, despite the inevitable consequences of living in such moral and ethical squalor.
As plays and poetry, Seneca was a very accessible philosopher, but his writing style never won him any accolades. His plays are no more pleasant to read than his letters or other essays. They are all powerful, filled with meaning, not difficult to understand, but tedious in style. Along with Marcus Aurelius, he is one of the most easily accessible and commonly read Stoic philosophers.
The introduction and considerable endnotes are very valuable and well written. Readers interested in learning something of Seneca's profound influence on later Western (particularly English) writers will find the introduction and notes of considerable use.
Read _Thyestes_, and you'll have the underpinning for horror and suspense from Poe to Jim Thompson to the _Blair Witch Project_.
You could take my word for it, or you could listen to Seneca's admirers and imitators: Webster, Jonson, Shakespeare...