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A: Lucius Annaeus Seneca W: ad 25–65 Tr: 1563 G: Latin trag. in 5 acts; verse S: The palace at Thebes, in the mythical past C: 6m, 2f., chorus (m)The city of Thebes is devastated by the plague, and its king, Oedipus, himself has a sense of foreboding, since he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Creon arrives with a message from the oracle at Delphi that the killer of the former king, Laius, must be brought to justice. The seer Tiresias performs a sacrifice of a bull and a heifer in order to learn more, and then decides to summon Laius' ghost to give testimony. Creon reports that Laius' ghost has accused Oedipus of his murder. Oedipus accuses Creon of engineering a conspiracy to overthrow him and has him arrested. A messenger arrives to tell Oedipus that his supposed father has died. Since Oedipus is reluctant to return to his mother for fear of incest, the messenger reveals that Oedipus was a foundling and not her child. A shepherd confirms his story and identifies the real mother of the foundling as Oedipus' wife Jocasta. Horrified to learn the truth, Oedipus decides that suicide would be too easy an option and tears his eyes out of their sockets with his bare hands. Jocasta plunges a sword into her polluted womb, and Oedipus stumbles off blindly, calling on the Fates, Disease, and Pain to be his guides.

A: Lucius Annaeus Seneca W: ad 25–65 Tr: 1563 G: Latin trag. in 5 acts; verse S: The palace at Thebes, in the mythical past C: 6m, 2f., chorus (m)

Although based on Sophocles' play written some 500 years previously, and retelling the same story, Seneca's tragedy has a quite different character. Instead of the mounting dramatic tension of the Greek original, Seneca's piece is more like a dramatic poem – indeed, it is quite possible that Seneca's plays were never performed in ancient Rome but merely offered as recitals. Here Oedipus lacks the blithe confidence of the Sophoclean hero, already declaring at the start that ‘Fate is preparing…some blow for me’. The choral interludes offer linguistic embellishment rather than commenting on the action. Seneca's achievement lies less in the dramatic structure than in his powerful use of language, which was to be very influential on Renaissance dramatists and helped to engender the violent excesses of many Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, most notably Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. In philosophical terms, Seneca reproduces none of the moral dilemma of Sophocles (a virtuous man who commits evil in the very act of trying to avoid it). In Seneca, all is fated, there can be no escape. The only nobility rests in the fact that man can outdo the gods in their suffering. By causing his mother's death, Oedipus endures even more than Apollo has foretold. With a huge golden phallus as its centrepiece, Peter Brook directed a memorable production of Oedipus in a version by Ted Hughes in 1968.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

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