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Is Thyestes by Seneca: a Revenge Play or a Morality Play

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Thyestes is considered Seneca’s masterpiece and has been described as one amongst the most impactful plays. Thyestes is focused upon a plot encompassed by revenge, indeed mobilizes a fashion the standard connection between tragedy and viciousness, authority and sacrifice. Seneca was renowned as a stoic philosopher, praised for his philosophical works, and for his tragic plays. His writings established one of the most vital constituents of primary material for early Stoicism. His writings were the focal point from the Renaissance onwards, Revived by Italian humanists in the mid-16th century, they turned out to be the standard for the restoration of tragedy on the Renaissance stage. Seneca’s plays were adaptations predominantly of Euripides’ dramas, works of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Perhaps intended to be recited at elite congregations, differing from their originals prolonged narrative accounts of action. On the contrary, they abide by comprehensive narrations of atrocious conducts and comprise of extensive insightful monologues. Thyestes is one such example of Seneca’s literary marvels a first century AD Roman tragedy with a Greek subject. Thyestes is an adaptation of Euripides Greek play of the same name narrating the tale of Thyestes, who inadvertently consumed his begotten sons flesh who were slaughtered and served at a feast by his brother Atreus.

Atreus and Thyestes the descendants of the cursed bloodline of Tantalus, struggled for the throne of Argos. Thyestes employed seduction upon his brother’s wife to acquire the Ram with the Golden Fleece to capture the throne and was banished from Argos by Atreus, who then established himself as King. Atreus was white with vengeance and in order to avenge the seduction of his wife he pretended to hold a reconciliation with the vehement intention to eradicate a contender for the throne by rendering Thyestes unworthy an immoral in the sight of the people of Argos. In due course, Thyestes fell into the pitfalls of this plotting and sought forgiveness. Atreus under the umbrella of reconciliation endowed his vengeance upon his brother by murdering the two young sons of Thyestes and serving their flesh to their father at a feast given in honor of his arrival. Thyestes was sickened when he learned what he had feasted on. He cursed Atreus, all his off springs and absconded from Argos.

The dominant motif of the play is revenge as the action of this play begins with the revenge of Atreus upon his brother. It comprises of a profound construction of revenge tragedy as in the first act the grim and basic requisites of a revenge tragedy namely the presence of Ghosts, violence, brutality and Cannibalism. Seneca’s plays adhered to a V act narration punctuated by choral odes. Concerning Thyestes, it stood as a dark, static, menacing and excessively violence obsessed play. The initial phase of action is the appearance of the ghost and the Fury in Act I it mentioned the curse of tantalus and wicked descendant apprising him of the impending doom that awaits his progeny due to their immorality. This validates that immorality is manifest in their blood and they despite knowing the suffering of immoral and vehement actions pursue revenge as mentioned in fury’s verses

“Let blinding rage incite their minds, let parents’ madness linger and let their long cycle of crimes be passed onto their children…” (Thyestes, Act 1)

Madness is also highlighted in this exposition by hinting a reference to Tantalus madness and ferocity of sacrificing his son and feeding his flesh to the Gods which incurred him the displeasure of the gods. It also provides an insight to the impending heinous action of Atreus to inflict his brother and elucidates that each awaited revenge shall surpass the crime in itself and the one will be greater delinquency. ATREUS: Crime is limited when it is committed, not when the crime is repaid. (Thyestes, Act 5)

Atreus mentions in his confrontation with his adviser that killing his brother will be favor upon him compared to the suffering Atreus intend to inflict him with. This Play has been saturated with violence and further explores the psychological forces that trigger violence, consider Atreus anger that blinds him and makes him perform such an act of ferocity. The characters are self-reflective and introspective evident through their monologues but eventually seek motivation for their actions. Atreus is blind in vengeance despite his advisor’s warnings that his transgression will befall upon his people as well but he disdainfully mentions “A king that has recourse only to honest practice is poised to fall”( Thyestes, Act 2). This reflects the disastrous impact of emotions such as anger and lust. The dominant view of the play is un-stoic despite Seneca’s admiration of Stoic philosophy and his ethical works moral chaos predominates and evil triumphs over good. Indeed, a depiction of a godless realm in his plays is evident as Atreus is intoxicated with his power and considers his word above all morality “Kings may do as they please” (Thyestes, Act 2). All sorts of morality are defined by the one who seeks revenge as Atreus defies the concept of family Devotion upon his adviser’s enquiry and argues that his brother’s atrocious enactments were unpardonable hence Atreus was justified in all his transgressions according to the madness that encompassed his mind. Critics such as

Deceit and Cannibalism also strengthen the stake for revenge as Thyestes was lured by the acting of a clever deception, the conspiracy, concealing and pretending with which the revenger rendered his malicious resolve into frightful reality. The Elizabethan playwrights found Seneca’s themes of murderous retribution more amiable to English perception than his method. The first English tragedy, Gorboduc (1561), by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, is a series of carnage and reprisal an imitation of Seneca. The Senecan tragedy is also apparent in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; the vengeance theme, the corpse-strewn ending, and ghosts trace back to the Senecan model of Revenge tragedy. After performing the deed Atreus praises himself at the view of his brother’s despondency, a more fragile reference to the poem ‘now I praise my handiwork; now is the true palm won. I would have wasted my crime, if you weren’t suffering this much” (Thyestes, Act 4). The reference to such programmatic passages endorses the fact that Atreus perceives his activities as arty accomplishments comparable to those of celebrated poets even as he plans the final step of his revenge (Alessandro Schiesaro). Atreus recommends for Thyestes what the Fury had primarily communicated to Tantalus’ ghost “his sons’ mingled blood let the father drink” (Thyestes, Act 4) Thyestes recognizes Atreus’ exact intention due to his own failure to heed his own disordered but true presentiments. An evident cycle of revenge is ensured through personal justice Revenge doesn’t seize. It is a flag transferred ceaselessly from slaughterer to future murderer. In Thyestes, even the most heinous acts of violence were termed as justice. Numerous stories in which the cannibalism of one’s children serves as the sweetest revenge endorse the view of the play being a revenge play

Counterpointing all transgression is the Chorus, whose dialogues aid to establish a Stoic antiphony to the callous purpose and orotundity of the revenger. The desire that clutches Atreus at the beginning of Act II heads the index of his brother’s felonies approximately in fifty lines. This induces a dramatic prominence, explicitly, not on the motives for obsession but on the obsession itself. This precedence and the shocking superfluous emotion prompts that in Atreus’ lust for revenge lies the perpetual hunger of Tantalus. it can be supposed that Atreus’ growing rage by some means summons the loath ghost of Tantalus, the culprit of that earliest revulsion, and brings its rotten influence back into the world. The Fury, Megaera, is hence acting in retort to the malice that Atreus quests for. Atreus is The first victim of this connection. The ‘coming-in’ (Thyestes, Act 1) of the Ghost establishes itself in the success of evil in the revenger’s head consuming his own mortality. In Kyd and Marston this progression is protuberant; the shift from despairing grief to callous viciousness encompasses their heroes’ experience. In Thyestes, it is compressed into a few lines. Atreus is monstrous in intention virtually from the moment he first appears clearly, he lacks the kind of self-awareness about respiring an ancient role becoming, himself the model of crime. Revenge is the exertion of a rotten creative inventiveness. The victim, the audience, and all the generations to come will look upon the deed and say, ‘This is the worst.’

Alessandro defines that It is in this third and innermost level of the tragedy, where the revenge finally takes place, that Atreus doubles up, not unlike a cunning slave, as an actor in the play he has himself plotted. Nevertheless, the divinities seldom appear in these plays, ghosts and witches abound. It has been stated that Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus assassination of Tamora’s eldest son in a ritual of warfare induces rape and disfigurement of his daughter Lavinia. As his revenge, Titus slays Tamora’s sons, serve them as a feast this reference highlights inspiration from Senecan tragedy Thyestes and further reassures that such abhorrent actions necessitate a stern motive which in this case is revenge. Francis Bacon in his essay, ‘Of Revenge,” depicts ‘the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the Law out of Office”. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his Enemy. But in passing it over, he is Superior: For it is a prince’s part to Pardon.’

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The theme of revenge looms large in Thyestes, based on a premise that was prevalent in Roman drama and revenge plays, that evildoers are individually responsible for their actions, that they must be punished, and that they are always deserving of the punishment they receive, no matter from whom they receive it, or how horrific it is. Actions based upon of one’s free will and with full knowledge of their consequences are decidedly untragic. They possess neither of the points important to the tragedy which Brereton mentions in his attempt at a universal definition an ‘unforeseen or unrealized failure’ and an ‘ironical change of fortune’. Hounded by the Furies, who take revenge on behalf of those murdered by blood relatives also endorse Revenge as the dominant theme of this play. Cunliffe describes a small group of early dramas as ‘Senecan plays,’ and further describes the Senecan influence in other plays which might, in his opinion, that the Elizabethan drama owes its admittedly worst defects, namely, the violence of action and affectation of phrase, in any marked degree to the Roman playwright. T. S. Eliot, it is true, occasionally commends him for a happy phrase or line, but more writes in the familiar vein of condescension. He confesses it difficult to imagine why the Elizabethans held Roman tragedy in such esteem. Further evidence of Thyestes being a revenge play is the first fifty lines of Act Two of Thyestes inspired the Elizabethan playwrights is that wrong is avenged only by a worse. ( Scelera). The dreadful structures of Seneca were not the only features of his inscription to fascinate these Elizabethan translators and to incite them. His moralizing was also interesting despite being overshadowed by his graphic descriptions of emotions and enactments. According to (Rees) even Shakespeare’s Hamlet inspired by Senecan revenge tragedy was mostly entertainment with its centralized theme of Revenge, trapped with proficient grandiloquence, intrigue, and killings-and Ghost.

A predominantly political reading of the play opens up the possibility of a moralistic reading but tames its deeper emotional power. Atreus’ anger at the incestuous betrayal and his horror at the thought that the children are not his own are emotions readily shared by a Roman audience, and his revenge fulfils a profound if repressed truth that in a similar situation they too would want to exact similarly gruesome retribution. As Freud famously argues about Hamlet, a successful tragedy focuses on basic sentiments and instincts of the human condition (Nutell)

Thyestes gave us immense evil. And even though that evil was allowed to take place, the play-world was still a moral one – the Chorus deplored and condemned the actions of Atreus, describing them as an ‘Inhuman outrage’. If there’s evil, and we can see that evil, then we have something. Atreus’s revenge was not tragic for him because he equated it with justice, but the fruits of that revenge were very much tragedy for Thyestes. Atreus’s sacrifice of the children does result in peril, but not for Atreus – for Thyestes. Indeed, as Atreus makes the sacrifice to himself, to his own revenge-lust, he is elevated to god-like status – securing at once his revenge, his kingdom, and the last defeat of his brother. He is able to look on gleefully, as Thyestes is bent to his will

I walk among the stars! Above the world. My proud head reaches up to heaven’s height!…I have attained the summit of my wishes. (Thyestes, Act 5)

Despite some critic’s arguments that this play possessed elements of a morality play the whole play is dominated by vengeance and depicts a Godless world where evil triumphs over good at all instances. The Greek concept of hubris is referred to as the presumptuous arrogance of humans who hold themselves up as equals to the gods. Hubris is one of the worst traits and invariably brings the worst kind of destruction but Atreus at the end of the play rejoices. Atreus’s plan is meticulously carried out. He kills the children knowing full well what he is doing preparing them like a sacrifice. But this sacrifice is not to appease any deity, only Atreus’s thirst for vengeance:

Incense was used, and consecrated wine,

The salt and meal dropped from the butcher’s knife

Upon the victims’ heads, all solemn rites fulfilled… ( Thyestes, Act 4).

A tragedy such as Thyestes necessarily had been a substantial task for its self-declared Stoic author. Joe Park argued that this play is a product of not only of Stoic thought but of the social and political situation. However, the symbols of morality were there as mentioning of Hell and Heaven the punishment of one’s wrongdoings but still, Atreus ‘extravagant revenge plot is triumphant, and Thyestes’ less than persuasive actions to limitation and ethics fall short. Eventually in my view this presentation by revenge, by the deteriorating yearning for retribution which covers generations and encompasses human as well as superhuman aspects. despite the choral reinforcement of moral principles, this play in itself is a revenge plot constructed on trickery and fabrications, and the spectators are provided with an epistemic belvedere from the initial stage, how that dissemblance functions. It would be far more optimistic, to settle that this critical breach between morality and immorality is what guarantees the philosophical and moral practicality of dramas concerning an alarming range around rage, vehemence, nefas and dismay. Even an act as revolting as the killing of children and the serving their meat to their father is considered justice when established in the framework of vengeance. Even in the end, Thyestes seeks a curse to be laid upon Atreus for his gruesome enactments hence carrying forward the long bore torment of revenge.

Works Cited

  1. Schiesaro, Alessandro. The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  2. Cunliffe, J. W., The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy, 1893
  3. Crosbie, Christopher. Revenge Tragedy and Classical Philosophy on the Early Modern Stage. Edinburgh University Press, 2019.
  4. Eliot, T. S., The Tenne Tragedies of Seneca, translated by Thomas Newton, 1927
  5. Scelera non ulciscetis, nisi vincis. (Thyestes, 1956).
  6. Sanctitas pietas fides privata bona sunt; qua iuvat reges eant. (Thyestes, 218-9)
  7. Rees, B. R. “English Seneca: a Preamble.” Greece and Rome, vol. 16, no. 2, 1969, pp. 119–133., doi:10.1017/s0017383500016946.
  8. Norton, Thomas. Gorboduc. Rarebooksclub Com, 2012.
  9. Nuttall, A. D. “Freud and Shakespeare: Hamlet.” Shakespearean Continuities, 1997, pp. 123–137., doi:10.1007/978-1-349-26003-4_8.
  10. Poe, Joe Park. “An Analysis of Senecas Thyestes.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 100, 1969, pp. 355–376., doi:10.2307/2935921.
  11. Shakespeare, William, and George Rylands. Hamlet. Oxford University Press, 1993.
  12. Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus: a Tragedy in Five Acts. D.S. Maurice, 1819.
  13. Seneca, L. Annaeus, et al. Thyestes. Benn, 1982.

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