Senecan tragedy

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Senecan tragedy

Senecan tragedy: A term used to refer both to (1) tragedies written by Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca), a first-century A.D. Roman playwright (who modeled his own work on that of the fifth-century B.C. Greek playwright Euripides); and (2) Renaissance tragedies written during the Elizabethan Age that were modeled on Seneca’s classical tragedies.

Seneca composed tragedies in five acts, a structure used more or less consistently by playwrights until the nineteenth century. He frequently employed bombast, a chorus, and a ghost; his plays showcased drastically conflicting emotions, emphasized violence and revenge, and inevitably ended in catastrophe. Seneca’s emphasis on highly charged human emotion has been cited by many critics as crucial to the development of English drama, which had previously been used merely to portray events in an allegorical or symbolic manner.

Elizabethan playwrights imitating Seneca used these same basic elements but changed the character of Seneca’s tragedies in two crucial ways. First, Elizabethan playwrights such as Thomas Kyd (The Spanish Tragedy [1586]) deliberately brought violence onstage; in Seneca’s tragedies, characters merely reported violent acts, which occurred offstage. Second, ignorant of the fact that Seneca’s tragedies were closet dramas (plays meant to be read or recited, not performed), they presented their plays using actors. Elizabethan playwrights also employed an even more rhetorical style than Seneca, who was himself noted for bombastic language. Aside from bombast, Elizabethans favored such devices as hyperbole, intensely dramatic and drawn-out soliloquies, and stichomythia. Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton’s Gorboduc (1562), commonly recognized as the first Elizabethan tragedy, was just such a Senecan tragedy.

As the Elizabethan Age progressed, two distinct forms of Senecan tragedy began to emerge. One, exemplified by Gorboduc, closely parallels Seneca’s tragedies and is learned, even pedantic, in spirit. The other, pitched at a broad audience and noted for its extreme emotion, blood, and gore, proved far more influential in the development of English literature and of English tragedy more specifically. This latter form, known as the revenge tragedy (or, in its most extreme manifestation, the tragedy of blood) mixed English medieval tragic tradition with classical Senecan tragedy, as exemplified by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602).