Seneca: Hercules Furens
Neil Berstein
Bloomsbury
168pp, 15 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £65

The Bloomsbury Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy series offers excellent, short, accessible guides, written by experts, to the context, themes and reception of ancient tragedies. The latest title by Neil Bernstein, Professor of Classics and World Religions at Ohio University, is no exception.

Bernstein is the author of several works on Roman literature and identity including Ethics, Identity and Community in Later Roman Declamation, (OUP, 2013) and In the Image of the Ancestors: Narratives of Kinship in Flavian Epic, (University of Toronto Press, 2008). Now, he puts Hercules Furens (a gripping retelling of how Hercules killed his family)by Seneca, the Roman dramatist, Stoic philosopher and tutor to Nero, under the spotlight.

Though one of the most popular heroes in Graeco-Roman mythology, this troubling episode in Hercules' story is sometimes overlooked in modern versions of his Labours. It was, however, very well-known in antiquity and would have come as no surprise to Seneca's audience when he wrote the tragedy in the middle of the 1st century AD. As the modern reader may be unfamiliar with Hercules Furens, this guide opens with a helpful summary of the plot.

Bernstein then explores the tragedy's major themes and aspects that are typical of Seneca, such as an interest in rhetoric over dramatic tension (which comes not from potential unexpected outcomes but through characters dealing with their conflicts) and the retelling of an already well-known plot.

The most important conflict is Hercules' debate over whether or not he should kill himself, which prompts a look at the play against the back-drop of contemporary mores surrounding virtus (the concept of excellence in character, manliness and valour) in 1st-century Rome: for many in ancient Rome, suicide was the honourable thing to do. The elderly Seneca himself died by his own hand (on Nero's orders) in an act that has attracted the attention of artists ever since and has been hailed as an example of a Stoic suicide.

As well as suicide, other themes discussed include madness and the passions, courage and violence, ancestry and identity, and moralisation. There is a particularly fruitful look at Hercules as portrayed in other ancient literature, focusing on the different strands of his character: a monster-slaying hero, a model of exemplary morals, and a madman and child-killer.

Seneca's predecessors Homer, Euripides, Virgil, Aristophanes, Plautus, Horace and other writers are all considered, showing the development of different facets of the hero over the centuries and how Seneca drew selectively from earlier traditions in his depictions of Hercules and Juno. Also covered is how Hercules Furens ties in with its author's career and wider philosophy.

But Bernstein takes Hercules Furens beyond antiquity and examines the impact of Seneca's tragedy. More recent characterisations of Hercules, such as the delightful Disney film, Hercules (1997), show a tendency to shy away from his madness. As the author concludes: 'We prefer to watch a simpler Hercules in the 21st century rather than contemplate Seneca's grim insight that the hero can be remade into his own worst enemy.' This powerful 'grim insight' has not been altogether overlooked by dramatists through the centuries. For instance, aspects of the Senecan portrayal of Hercules' passions, guilt and madness seem to have had some influence on Shakespeare's King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet.

With all quotations given in translation, a chronology of key moments in Seneca's life and the reception of the play, adept handling of relevant recent scholarship, and a discussion on various elements concerning staging the tragedy, this book provides an invaluable overview of Hercules Furens; it is the go-to guide for newcomers with no knowledge of Latin.
Lucia Marchini

 

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