restricted access Seneca in Elizabethan Translation
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[ 195 Seneca in Elizabethan Translation1 No author exercised a wider or deeper influence upon the Elizabethan mind or upon the Elizabethan form of tragedy than did Seneca. To present the Elizabethan translations of the tragedies in their proper setting, it is necessary to deal with three problems which at first may appear to be but slightly connected: (1) the character, virtues and vices of the Latin tragedies themselves ;(2)thedirectionsinwhichthesetragediesinfluencedourElizabethan drama; (3) the history of these translations, the part they played in extending the influence of Seneca, and their actual merit as translation and as poetry. There are here several questions which, with the greater number of important Tudor translations, do not arise. Most of the better-known translations are of authors whose intrinsic merit is unquestioned, and the translations derive some of their prestige from the merit and fame of the author translated; and most of the better-known prose translations have an easy beauty of style which arrests even the least prepared reader. But with the translations of the Tenne Tragedies2† (for they are by several hands) we are concerned first of all with a Latin poet whose reputation would deter anyreaderbutthemostcurious;withtranslationsofunequalmerit,because by different scholars; and with translation into a metre – the “fourteener ” – which is superficially a mere archaism, and which repels readers who have not the patience to accustom their ears and nerves to its beat.3 The translations have, as I hope to show, considerable poetic charm and quite adequate accuracy, with occasional flashes of real beauty; their literary value remains greater than that of any later translations of Seneca’s tragedies that I have examined, either in English or French. But the appreciation of the literary value of these translations is inseparably engaged with the appreciation of the original and of its historical importance; so that although at first sight a consideration of the historical problems may appear irrelevant, it should in the end enhance our enjoyment of the translations as literature. I IntheRenaissance,noLatinauthorwasmorehighlyesteemedthanSeneca; in modern times, few Latin authors have been more consistently damned. The prose Seneca, the “Seneca morale” of Dante,4 still enjoys a measure of 1927 196 ] tepidpraise,thoughhehasnoinfluence;butthepoetandtragedianreceives from the historians and critics of Latin literature the most universal reprobation . Latin literature provides poets for several tastes, but there is no taste for Seneca. Mackail, for instance, whose taste in Latin literature is almost catholic, dismisses Seneca with half a page of his Short History of Latin Literature, and a few of the usual adjectives such as “rhetorical.”5 Professor Mackail is inclined by his training and taste to enjoy the purer and more classical authors, and is inclined by his temperament to enjoy the more romantic: like Shenstone or some other eighteenth-century poets, Seneca falls between. Nisard, in his Poètes Latins de la decadence, devotes many pages and much patience to the difference of conditions which produced great tragedy in Athens, and only rhetorical declamation in Rome.6 Butler, after a more detailed and more tolerant examination from a more literary point of view (Post-Augustan Poetry), commits himself to the damaging statement that “to Seneca more than to any other man is due the excessive predominance of declamatory rhetoric, which has characterized the drama throughout Western Europe from the Renaissance down to the latter half of the nineteenth century.”7 The most recent critic, Mr. F. L. Lucas (Seneca and Elizabethan Tragedy), admits “the exasperatingly false rhetoric of the Senecan stage, with its far-fetched and frigid epigrams.”8 Yet this is a dramatist whom Scaliger preferred to Euripides, and whom the whole of Europe in the Renaissance delighted to honour.9 It is obviously a task of some difficulty to disentangle him from his reputation. We must admit, first, that the tragedies of Seneca deserve the censure that has been directed upon them. On the other hand, it may be true – I think it is true – that the critics, especially the English critics, have been often biased by Seneca’s real and supposed bad influence upon the Renaissance, that they have included the demerits of his admirers in his own faults. But before we proceed to what redemption of his fame is possible, it is expedient to resume those universally admitted strictures and limitations which have become commonplaces of Senecan criticism. First, it is pretty generally agreed that the plays of Seneca were composed, not for stage performance, but for private declamation.10 * This theory attenuates the supposed “horrors” of the...


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