Seneca's Treatment of Evil in his tragedy Phaedra

Great tragedy happens not when good confronts an evil but when two good things confront each other. So the conflict between good and good is the essence of ‘true’ tragedy. But Seneca has violated this rule. He has recognized the conflict only between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and upheld the power of ‘evil’ to destroy ‘good’. He does not delay or complicate an issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ideas, as Aeschylus and Sophocles have done. In Aeschylus ‘Agamemnon’ we find the conflict between two truths. That ‘Agamemnon’ as a slayer must be slain, but as in slaying his daughter not his personal rather his national factor/interest is concerned, so this killing can be justified on the martial ground. And in Sophocles’s ‘The Oedipus Rex’ we see Oedipus suffering from untold suffering for his wrong-doing but his wrong-doing is fate-bound. So here also we have a conflict between two truths.

But such kinds of ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ situations are not present in Seneca’s Phaedra. Here we find the conflict between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and evil is always overriding good. After from her conversation we know that Phaedra is madly in love of Hippolytus, her step-son. To engage in such kind of relationship is not morally supported and surprisingly Phaedra is totally conscious it. Here we find the co-existence of two ambivalent feelings in Phaedra, namely passion and reason which stand for ‘evil’ and ‘good’ respectively. She freely admits the criminal nature of such kind of love she is pursuing but her moral consciousness is so obtuse that she feels no obligation to struggle against her passion or even to rationalize its criminal aspect. Madness rules her, as she herself express-

Unreason drives me into evil,
I walk upon the brink with open eyes,
Wise counsel calls, but I cannot turn back
To hear it.

She also continues-

What good can reason do? Unreason reigns

Phaedra’s eyes are open but she cannot bring herself rationally to consider the impossibility of seducing Hippolytus. She is driven by a passion that is reckless of everything but its own desire. So here we see that Phaedra’s willful passion to subdue her reason that evil destroy the good.

Throughout the act I we see a combat between the nurse and Phaedra over an illicit love. Here the nurse and Phaedra are the very personifications/embodiments of ‘good’ and willful ‘evil’ respectively. The nurse tries her best to resist Phaedra from her illicit love to her step-son Hippolytus. She appeals to Phaedra that she should stop thinking about the design of love. She should closer the good which is the first rule if life. The nurse says-

“Willful sin is a worse evil than unnatural passion,

That comes by fate, but sin comes from our nature.”

By the saying she reminds Phaedra that her mother also fell into such amoral love, but her love was fate- destined, whereas Phaedra’s love is wilful, as she is conscious about it. But all the efforts of the nurse breed nothing as at the end of the Act we find Phaedra to have the nurse bent to her will. She wins over the nurse to her side by a false resolve to commit suicide. Here once again we see the triumph of willful ‘evil’ over ‘good’.

But the ultimate destruction of good by evil is seen in the Act (III). Here we see the triumph of wicked Phaedra and ruin of the innocent Hippolytus. When Theseus comes from the underworld, he is informed that Hippolytus has deflowered his stepmother Phaedra.To this Theseus becomes very much shocked and in a long monologue calls upon his father Neptune to destroy Hippolytus. And in the Act (IV) the messenger comes with the report of the destruction of Hippolytus. In the final Act Phaedra confesses her guilt and commits suicide. Then Theseus understands his fault and laments for his son. He curses himself in the most extravagant manner. He accuses the gods that they are deaf to truths. In his language-

For ever…Ah, the gods are deaf to prayers-
Yet they would answer readily enough
If I were praying for some evil purpose.

That Theseus prayed for the destruction of his son, which was evil in nature and granted at once, but now he is praying to the gods for taking his life and his praying is not granted. So here he recognizes the influential power of evil.

So, considering all the events it will be justifiable to say that Seneca has only recognized the power of evil to destroy the good. But the thing contributed most in Seneca to develop such kind of outlook was his personal encounter with such kind of situations in his life. He has seen three heinous murders in his life. He has seen the murders of Claudius and the son of Claudius by Agrippina and finally that of Agrippina herself. And he has also seen Nero’s discarding of his wife Octavia. So the triumph of all the evil doings convinced Seneca to see only the dominant power of evil in society.