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‘Phaedra’ by Seneca as a Revenge Tragedy


The leap from Greek to Roman tragedy was marked by a philosopher tragedian named Seneca. Seneca was the pioneer of Roman tragedies, who in writing tragedies molded  the old Greek subjects of tragedies over once more. But in remodeling the old subjects, Seneca could not follow the classical codes of composing tragedies ,set by classical playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. So if we judge with absolute literary criteria, we shall find the plays of Seneca so far inferior to the Greek tragedies. However, in one respect his influence was supreme and it was in introducing ’revenge’ as the subject matter for tragedy.The ‘revenge tragedy’ was established by Seneca and had powerful influence upon the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights such as Thomas kyd, Shakespeare and Webster who composed such revenge tragedies as ‘The Spanish Tragedy’, Hamlet’ and ‘The Duchess of Mulfi’ respectively.

In ‘Phaedra’ Seneca used ‘revenge’ as the mainspring of action which often takes the from of a wild kind of justice.So the principal motive behind the action of this play is revenge,which is to be found in the actions of Hippolytus,Phaedra,Nurse and Theseus. Let us first of all turn to Hippolytus, a victim of Venus' revenge.

Hippolytus is a young man of extraordinary glamour. He is every atom a prince and a dream-man of young women.But from his speech we come to know that he is more interested in nature than in women.He prefers to pray the hunt-goddess Diana to Venus, the goddess of love. Venus and Diana are antithetical to each other. Venus loathes Diana,as she fails to evoke passion for love in the Virgin goddess Diana. Venus also becomes avengeful on Hippolytus for not engaging in any love affair with women and disliking them. And she provokes an illicit love in Phedra for Hippolytus. So the cause of the unnatural passion of Phaedra is the revengeful motive of Venus.

Besides this divine ‘revenge’, we also find the humans taking revenge for misdoings done on themselves. In Phaedra ,we recognize ‘revenge’ as the driving force for her action. Phaedra in spite of being a young woman is married to an old man notorious for maltreatment of his wives and is now deserted and betrayed. She is intensely miserable in her solicitude and wants to take ‘revenge’ on Theseus by making love with his beautiful son Hippolytus.So her resentment and loneliness finds an outlet in her revengeful wild love for Hippolytus.

     But the most successful and savage kind of ‘revenge’ is taken by Nurse, in collaboration with Phaedra against Hippolytus , when he refuses to comply with Phaedra’s request. Phaedra is incredibly selfish and shows no hesitation in making known her passion to Hippolytus. But when Hippolytus refuses her point-blank, the Nurse makes a false charge of violation against Hippolytus and Phaedra consents to act accordingly.And what the Nurse and Phaedra want by this false charge is to take revenge by denouncing Hippolytus to Theseus.So ,here the revenge motive in Phaedra comes from her sense of humiliation at her stepson’s refusal to accept her love.

 Revenge motive is also seen in Theseus' cursing of his son Hippolytus. When he is informed that his son has violated his wife,he is shocked beyond measure.He feels terribly outrage and curses Hippolytus in the most extravagant manner. He justifies his curse, as an avenging justice.

 Revenge also acts as a driving force in Phaedra’s suicide. When the dead body of Hipolytus is brought to the Palace, Phaedra’s grief knows no bound. She declares Hippolytus as the innocent boy charged with inchastity and her relentless feeling incites her to end her life. She kills herself to pay the dues of death.At least she takes revenge on herself too.

Concluding  our speech we can say that these are the elements which constitute ‘Phaedra’ as a revenge tragedy. But Seneca’s treatment of  ‘revenge’ is different from his Greek predecessors and successors. Before Seneca,Aeschylus and Euripides wrote two revenge tragedies such as ‘Agamemnon’ and ‘Medea’ respectively. In ‘Agamemnon’ Clytemnestra and in ‘Medea’ Medea take revenge for the wrongdoings done to then. So revenge is a kind of sacred duty to them and they have ethical ground for their revenge. But in case of Phaedra, revenge takes the form of a wild kind of justice. Her revenge is not only ethically ungrounded but also beastly. However, Seneca’s attempt to portray the elements of revenge is remarkable. Moreover, as a tragedian his influence is not undeniable as he established the revenge traditions which helped the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights to from the perfect model for revenge tragedy.

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