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Thyestes


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A: Lucius Annaeus Seneca W: ad 25–65 Tr: 1560 G: Latin trag. in 5 acts; verse S: The palace of Mycenae, in the mythical past C: 8m, 1f, chorus (m)The ghost of Tantalus is temporarily released from the torments of the underworld to warn his grandsons, Atreus and Thyestes, to abandon their violence towards each other in their struggle over their father's throne. Atreus at present rules in Mycenae but still wishes to be avenged on his brother for all the wrongs he has done him. He deceptively invites Thyestes and his three sons to return from exile and share power with him. Though cautious, Thyestes accepts Atreus' invitation, and they appear to be reconciled. Once in his power, Atreus ritually slaughters Thyestes' three sons, roasts their dismembered bodies, and serves them as a feast to their father. Jubilant at the success of his plan, Atreus reveals to Thyestes that he has murdered his sons, and when Thyestes begs for their bodies to bury them, Atreus tells him that Thyestes has eaten them himself. In despair, Thyestes can hope only that the gods will avenge this terrible crime.

A: Lucius Annaeus Seneca W: ad 25–65 Tr: 1560 G: Latin trag. in 5 acts; verse S: The palace of Mycenae, in the mythical past C: 8m, 1f, chorus (m)

Although a fragment of a Thyestes by Sophocles survives, it is likely that Seneca based his version on the Thyestes of L. Varius Rufus (29 bc). Seneca's play represents Latin tragedy at its most violent and melodramatic. There is no subtlety of characterization, no surprising twist in the plot, no moral dilemma explored. Atreus is committed to his plan of revenge without any psychological build-up to his evil plan, and most of the play is devoted to a powerfully poetic recital of the atrocity and its aftermath. Even Tantalus' exhortation to abandon the cycle of revenge is obscured by the violent narration, and one can have little faith that the gods, invoked by Thyestes, will intervene to right this terrible wrong. Thyestes, translated by Jasper Heywood in 1560, influenced the many bloody revenge tragedies of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and provided the source for the scene in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus in which children are baked in a pie for their parent to eat. Caryl Churchill wrote a version of Thyestes in 1994.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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