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  • Specters of MedeaThe Rhetoric of Stepmotherhood and Motherhood in Seneca’s Phaedra
  • Mairéad McAuley (bio)

Recent criticism on Senecan drama has moved on from polarized debates over whether the plays are pro- or anti-Stoic, to the consideration of more complex, nuanced, and unexpected ways in which Seneca’s depictions of tragic passions and psychological conflict are informed by Stoic doctrine.1 Unsurprisingly, Seneca’s two most tormented and passionate characters, Medea and Phaedra, have received most attention in this regard.2 Christopher Gill, for example, has argued that surrender to passion leads both women to self-division and madness, reflecting distinctively Stoic ideas about the collapse and disintegration of character. Shadi Bartsch and others have pointed to a more ambiguous Stoic influence: Medea uses recognizably Stoic rhetoric and techniques of self-molding to exhort herself, not towards self-improvement, but towards committing evil acts and living up to her fearsome mythic name. The authentic and consistent ‘Medea that she becomes’ (Medea nunc sum, Med. 910) is thus a horrifying distortion of the autonomous and virtuous Stoic sapiens.3

Yet, though it has generated important insights, this focus on a privatized, philosophical ‘self’ (by default, male) risks occluding other, socio-political dimensions in the tragedies, particularly gender.4 Thus, in the concern to show that Medea is rhetorically (if not ethically) Stoic, it hardly seems to matter that she is also a woman, and that her crime, that of a mother killing her children, is profoundly gendered on both cultural and ethical grounds. Few Stoic-inflected interpretations, though coherent on their own terms, reflect on what point Seneca might be making to his (probably mostly male) audience about the larger implications of erotic passion and furor as human vices that, in his dramas at least, assumes their most exemplary destructive form in women. When gender is addressed, as for example by modern scholars like Hanna Roisman, the conclusion is that Medea and Phaedra are such extreme illustrations of the Stoic belief in the dangers of passion that they have no relation to “ordinary” femininity or any social context:

Seneca’s characterization of his heroines locates evil in the rule of passion, but not necessarily in the essence of women. Passion may make his heroines bestial [End Page 37] and drive them to madness, but not all women are bestial or mad. Indeed, in distancing his heroines from both his inner and outer audience and denying them sympathy for their misdeeds, Seneca draws a clear line between them and ordinary women, who, he implies, would not do the terrible deeds that his heroines do.

(Roisman 2005, 87–8)

Roisman argues for a secure aesthetic and moral distance between Seneca’s tragic divas and “ordinary women”—although, problematically, she does not discuss what kind of ordinary women, what external audience(s) she believes the plays may have been written for, of what gender, and in what performative context (the latter a question extensively debated by others).5

In what follows, I consider ways in which Seneca’s Phaedra might, rather, be problematizing or destabilizing the very idea of a “clear line” (Roisman) between his dramatic heroine and “ordinary Roman women” (and men). Rather than reading the play as directly reflecting a specific social reality, I argue that Seneca’s tragedy plays on the ambiguities of Phaedra’s literary and cultural contexts, and her familial and social roles, to raise questions about contemporary Roman gender relations and about the larger socio-political and aesthetic implications of women’s representation in tragedy. To this end, I trace the development of two interconnected rhetorical motifs. In the first section, I analyze a distinctive aspect of Phaedra that chimes with, and complicates, contemporary Roman kinship concerns and gender stereotypes: her description as stepmother (noverca) and her concomitant association with uncontrolled, monstrous motherhood through her own mother, Pasiphaë. This activates a cascading chain of anxieties in Seneca’s play, at symbolic, poetic, and narrative levels, regarding maternity and stepmaternity. In the second section, I trace the source of these negative maternal and stepmaternal motifs to another rhetorical figure in Phaedra: the ultimate murderous stepmother and murderous mother, Medea, cited in Phaedra as rhetorical “proof ” of...


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pp. 37-72
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