As I have gotten older I find that reading plays brings more enjoyment than it did in earlier years. Tragedies especially: the unformed mind has not yet been sufficiently battered by the winds and waves of fortune against the rocks, and is equipped with a merciful immunity to the pathos of existence. And yet, as the years roll on, beards and barnacles begin to replace the smooth, supple surfaces of youth; scars and aches accumulate; and the omnipresence of tragedy dawns on the maturing mind with a startling rapidity. The mind then calls for a tonic: it requires the writer to make sense of all this chaos, all this pain, and all this suffering. The struggle must be dignified with a sense of universal justice, and an ethic of enduring goodness. So the tragedian steps forward, and with his stylus attempts to perform this task.
The plays of Seneca were apparently intended for reading only; we do not hear of them having been performed in classical times. Some critics have not warmed to them, but I find them much underrated. The longest tragedy Seneca wrote—indeed, the longest tragedy to survive from antiquity—is his Hercules on Oeta. It is customary to extoll the dramatic skills of Euripides, and one cannot disagree with this custom. But of Seneca’s dramatic skills we hear nothing at all. I find him easier to read than the Greek tragedians; his characters seem to be more fully painted, more completely fleshed-out. We are not offended by his verbosity, or his adages and maxims that accumulate page after page; in fact, we long for more of them. Seneca’s characters say what is on their mind, and rely less on interpretive choruses to filter their sentiments. The effect is one of passionate immediacy, of seething emotion, and of bitter truths revealed.
The reader needs to be aware of the background to Hercules on Oeta. Hercules is married to the volatile Deianira, and is traveling through Greece, as heroic demigods are wont to do. When the couple come to a river (the River Evenus), Hercules permits a centaur named Nessus to carry Deianira across. But Nessus is treacherous, and tries to steal Hercules’s bride for himself; the enraged Hercules then kills the centaur with poison-tipped arrows, made lethal when Hercules dipped their points in the toxic blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Nessus dies, but makes one last attempt at revenge: he tells Deianira to save some of his own now-poisoned blood, to use it as a future weapon against Hercules should he ever be guilty of marital infidelities. He then dies. At some point in the future, Hercules becomes enamored with the beautiful Iole, from the city of Oechalia. Her father Eurytus makes the mistake of denying the hero his daughter, whereupon the enraged Hercules lays the city to waste, killing Iole’s father and brother. He forcibly carries off Iole and sends her to his domicile, where his wife also lives. This act, of course, arouses Deianira’s unmitigated jealously and sense of betrayal.
Powerful verses abound. In Act I, we read the following lines:
Vitam qui poterit reddere protinus,
Solus non poterit naufragium pati. [I.117]
Only someone who is willing to surrender his life can endure a shipwreck: meaning that the horrors and tragedies of life can only be endured by someone who refuses to become too attached to it. Elsewhere the sentiment is more personal:
O quam cruentus feminas stimulat furor,
Cum patuit una paelici et nuptae domus. [II.233]
What bloody fury arouses women when a single house is opened for a wife and a mistress, a sentiment that requires no explanation. And so Deianira will have her revenge on her husband. She informs the audience:
Maximum fieri scelus
Et ipsa fateor, sed dolor fieri iubet. [II.331]
I confess it to be the worst possible crime, but my anguish commands that it be done. She is inflamed with rage and betrayal, and this emotion must take its course. By the end of the play’s second act she has resolved to poison Hercules; so she sprinkles some of Nassus’s saved blood on a robe, and sends it to her husband using a messenger. Deianira’s female assistants, of course, express their approval of the plan and willingly cooperate. In act three Hercules has donned the robe, and been fatally affected by the poison; Deianira has now begun to regret her actions, knowing that her revenge was too extreme. But it is too late: just as Hercules permitted his passions to override his judgment when he destroyed Oechalia, so has Deianira allowed her rage to trigger a fateful chain of uncontrollable events. She contemplates—then carries out—suicide as Hercules is brought home, close to death. When he becomes aware that his death had been prophesized, he suddenly finds comfort and relief; his death thus acquires a new meaning, and is embossed with the seal of divine will. This knowledge allows him to face his end with Stoic calm and courage, and he asks that a funeral pyre be built for him on Mount Oeta.
In the final act, we hear a description of the hero’s fiery funeral on Oeta. The only remaining question is whether his spirit has ascended to heaven, to dwell among the gods, or has instead been consigned to the underworld. We learn the answer when Hercules’s spirit appears before his mourning mother Alcmene, to assure her that he now dwells among the gods. Despite his human faults, Hercules’s life was more characterized by virtue than by evil, and this is enough:
Virtus in asta tendit, in mortem timor [V.1971]
Virtue moves us towards the stars, and fear to death. Stated another way:
Sed locum virtus habet inter astra. [V.1564]
That is, virtue has a place among the stars. This is the same sentiment we find expressed in Cicero’s essay The Dream of Scipio: that is, a man’s great deeds will assure him immortality. It has always been so, and it always will be so.
Read more in Sallust: