Showing posts with label Phaedra by Seneca. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Phaedra by Seneca. Show all posts

Saturday, November 23, 2013

‘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.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

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.

The Role of the Nurse in Seneca’s Phaedra

Nurse, an upholder of moral values as well as a personal attendant of ‘Phaedra’, is one of the leading characters in Seneca’s play “Phaedra”. Seneca has shown the Nurse to have a double-edged personality. At the beginning of the play we find the Nurse, as a foil to Phaedra to uphold the moral values, but as the play develops she becomes the very personification of ‘evil’. As an individual character she has little influence upon other characters. For examples- at the beginning of the play she tries to dissuade Phaedra from pursuing Hippolytus and in the Act(II) she induces Hippolytus to fall into Phaedra’s love but both times she fails. But her influence upon the plot of the play is great, as her persuasion to Phaedra and Hippolytus and forming the plan for denouncing Hipploytus bring the play to the point of climax in the Act (III).

As the play unfolds gradually we have a conversation between the Nurse and Phaedra, which furnishes the real exposition of the play. Phaedra in a long speech portrays the real picture of her mind, that banished from her motherland and now deserted by Theseus she is intensely miserable in her solitude. Her conversation with the Nurse also imparts us that an extremely powerful passion has and all her desires go unfulfilled. Though she does not disclose before us the real cause of her suffering, but the attitude of the Nurse shows that she is already acquainted with Phaedra’s passions. This act shows that there is a deep understanding between the Nurse and Phaedra like a true friend and caring guardian she can read the mind of Phaedra.

Nurse has known that Phaedra is madly in her step-son Hippolytus’s love and she tries her best to dissuade Phaedra from such evil thoughts and passions. She warns Phaedra about the fatal consequence of the kind of love, she is cherishing. She urges her to check her passions and uproot all the evil thoughts as soon as they come to the mind. Her first speech goes like-

“Cleanse your pure heart at once of such evil thoughts”.

She continues-
“Stand up to love and rout him
At the first assault, that is the surest way
To win without a fall”.

The Nurse in order to bring Phaedra to the right path injects some moral lessons into her mind. Like a stoic philosopher she preaches restraint and contingency. The first and best thing in the life of a human being is to choose the good and follow it throughout the life. And the next best thing is to possess shame and to bridle the sin in time.

The Nurse reminds Phaedra of her family reputation, saying that she is going to heap fresh infancy upon her house. She also says, willful sin is a worse evil than unnatural passion by referring her mother because her mother’s sin came by fate but her sin is wilful. She argues that though Theseus does not see her from the underworld, Phaedra’s father, and her mother’s father, who are overriding power, will not forgive her. Though Phaedra does not care about them and gods always choose to hide the forbidden love, but the penalty from within is more severe. She says-

Men may have sinned
With safety, none with conscious unperturbed.

In order to evoke hatred in Phaedra’s mind against this illicit love the Nurse says that this type of crime is not sanctioned even in the society of the barbarian. According to her, Phaedra cannot run the risk of being a common wife ‘of son and father’. But all the arguments fail to subdue Phaedra’s regal love.

Having failed to stifle Phaedra’s passion, the Nurse takes up a new strategy to despair Phaedra of Hippolytus. She informs her that Hippolytus is a stubborn and obstinate Youngman, devoted to the worship of Diana and indifferent to any persuasion. So systematically eliminates every possibility of committing such a crime successfully. But Phaedra does not hear her and by artfully threatening suicide, bends the nurse to her will. Here we come across a dramatic change of the Nurse attitude when Phaedra gets resolved to suicide if her desires are not satisfied. We are surprised when she assures Phaedra that she herself will induce Hippolytus to bend the stiffness of his stubborn will.

So from the Act (II) we find the Nurse totally different from the previous Act. Here she recourses to every craft to induce Hippolytus, as she has taken previously to dissuade Phaedra. She has to lose all her ethical teachings to the beastly will of Phaedra. She attempts to create the feeling of love in the mind of Hippolytus. She tells him that life without love is dull and meaningless. She says that solitude makes life distressed. In short, she takes all possible ways to allure the rigid Youngman but all her attempts end in failure. And finally when Hippolytus, frightened by the Phaedra crude advances, abandons his sword and flees as Phaedra pretends to swoon the nurse comes to her rescue. The nurse becomes furious to save Phaedra.In her speech:

“Crime must cover crime”.

So she plans a trap for Hippolytus. She decides to defame Hippolytus. As soon as the king Theseus returns from the underworld after a long sojourn, the Nurse through Phaedra lets him know that Hippolytus has deflowered Phaedra. The Nurse skillfully succeeds in intensifying the fire of the fury of Theseus. Thseus shocked by the news in a long monologue calls upon his father Neptune to destroy Hippolytus, so that no human being seeing the fortune of Hippolytus dares to commit such a blasphemous act. And this constitutes the climax of the play and practically the reversal of fortune for Hippolytus. He is destroyed by the curse given by his father. But sooth to say the Nurse is morally responsible for Hippolytus’s death.

It has been said that Seneca was involved in the kind of scene which he had so often composed for his characters. In the case of the nurse it is not otherwise. We can trace many of Seneca’s personal interests and experiences in the nurse. Seneca was the tutor of the Nero, the bloody ruler as well as a stoic philosopher. His various philosophic teachings are apparent from the speech of the nurse. Those speeches in which the nurse tries to dissuade Phaedra from pursuing Hippolytus read like a lecture of Seneca to his pupil Nero, urging him not to embark upon a career of crime. But all his efforts failed to stop Nero from going astray, as nurse’s speeches fail to stop Phaedra. And ultimately Seneca had to follow Nero’s wish, as the Nurse has to act according to Phaedra’s wish.

So, considering all the facts we can sum up that the role of the Nurse in Phaedra is a rational role, though her rationality loses its course due to her love to Phaedra. And through the character Nurse, Seneca’s own personal experiences as well as intellectual outlooks are vividly expressed.