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  • Writer's pictureSam Baldwin

Bringing Seneca Into the conversation

This project was born from a curiosity about the identity of the hero, Heracles, who has been imagined and reimagined in so many ways. The Greeks themselves presented several different versions, and western civilization has since added countless more. With the Romans, he became "Hercules" instead, and that is the name that we best know him by today.

But who is the Roman Hercules?

From the cover of the compilation of Seneca's tragedies published by Oxford University Press

We're not able to tackle so big a question, but we can look at another source, in addition to Euripides' play, Heracles. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, playwright, philosopher, politician, and advisor to Nero, captured the same story in tragic form. And we've decided to consult that play, Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules), as we work to adapt this hero to our own time and place.

Seneca's drama is rather different than that of his Greek forebears. He really leans into not only the violence and the gore, but into the wild passion of his characters. Whereas Euripides' Heracles seems a victim of cruel fate, and ends the play on the path to a sort of redemption, Seneca puts a hallucinating Hercules, filled with ambitious bloodlust, right before our eyes. There is no messenger in Seneca's take on the story, recounting the horrid events that come from a singular set of circumstances that the deluded hero believes (as in Euripides). The madness begins as Hercules gazes at the constellations, and his deluded mind jumps all over the night sky. And then the slaughter comes, not offstage, but with us as the direct witness.

When Euripides' Heracles realizes what he has done, he hides himself in shame, unable to summon the will to live on. When Seneca's Hercules becomes aware, he attempts to continue his onslaught, with himself as the victim (he screams for his weapons, which were taken from him when he fell into post-murder unconsciousness). Instead of collapsing inward and shrouding himself, he flies into a whole new rage.

It's not the only difference. Seneca has Juno herself (the Roman name for Hera) begin the play in prologue, full of fury, instead of having Iris and Madness come in as proxies. And it is Amphytrion (the father), not Theseus (the friend), that convinces the hero to preserve his life. We also see the usurper, Lycus, propose marriage to Megara early in the play, instead of just determining to kill her and her children outright.

There are variations in plot, and variations in characters, and yet this is the same tragedy, unfolding on stage. Seneca did what we're doing. He adapted the story. He made his own Hercules. He wasn't just drawing from Euripides. John G. Fitch cites several other possible influences in his critical edition of the text, two of which are the poets Vergil and Ovid (who didn't tell THIS story but did contribute greatly to the Roman storytelling tradition). Seneca did, as we do now, have a great deal to consider, to include, to exclude, to invent. Who has this hero been? Who is this hero now?

Welcome to the discussion, Seneca!

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