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The Seneca Perspective and The Shakespearean Poetic R. J. Kaufmann Look upon my steadiness and scorn not the sickness of my fortune. John Ford Marx observed, “ Me, I’m not a Marxist.” Similarly, the Roman stoic sage, politician and dramatist, Seneca could say, “ Me, I’m not a Senecan,” for the critical tradition has reduced him to quirks of style and critical truisms, lost him behind a blood-thirsty progeny of imitators. Little read, he is caught in a web of conditioned responses, as the sponsor of unactable dramas of fateful blood vengeance and florid mythic refurbishment. Posterity has had vengeance upon him. Hence it is now difficult to see him as he appeared to 16th and 17th century minds of the first-quality, when men like Montaigne, Shake­ speare and Webster took him seriously. In this essay I will be specu­ lating on “ their” Seneca. His inner thought patterns are fascinating in themselves, but I am equally interested in his possible formative influence on the thematic preoccupations, the imaginative strategies and the particular tone of the Shakespearean drama. We can take for granted that the influence of Roman thought, Roman codifications and Roman literary devices on the literature of the English Renaissance was immense, and that beyond these bor­ rowed appurtenances of form and fossils of thought, the monographic value of Roman lives was pervasive. But in this pattern we can find instructive points of sympathy and, equally instructive, instances of a cultural incapacity to assimilate the work of Roman figures now sympathetic to us. For example, in the mid-twentieth century, Tacitus speaks direct to our condition as Ovid and Livy do not. We find a disciplined modernity in Tacitus, whose sternly attenuated romanticism is an uneasy counterweight to Tacitus’s knowledge of what is required of men if the hard, compromised business of government is to continue. Reading him we find it enviable to be so wise and yet to carry illusions and nostalgia with sculpted dignity. In his Annals we find a way of accepting indignity with dignity— the lesson long subjection to power teaches the historically confined, good man. We respond to Tacitus, because, profoundly immersed in political fife, writing with matchless directness of political scenes, he is precisely non-political. He is a 182 R. J. Kaufmann 183 moralist, a social psychologist, with style. These same things, with some downward scaling, and with allowance for a more oblique nature can be said of Seneca. Seneca and Tacitus have much in common. It required a substantial communal effort in the English Renaissance before Seneca’s cues to art and experience could be effectively utilized. The assimilation of a mature but alien culture proceeds in a fairly predictable pattern. The more the recipient culture needs the knowl­ edge and sophistication of the richer culture the less likely it is to absorb them promptly. The debtor culture may suppose it is imi­ tating accurately but the sense of tone will be wrong, the ethical apprehension imperfect, the handling awkward, until by a gradually strengthened taste this filial role can be changed for something nearer objective acquisition and imitation. As Whitehead remarks, “ The philosopher cannot seriously put to himself questions that his civiliza­ tion has not lived.” The available facts suggest that the richer part of Seneca was not accessible to the English mind until the early years of the 17th century. The advance into a mature Elizabethan drama as we move from, say 1585 to 1615 is marked by the development of psychological and poetic idioms that qualify each other. The dramatists had to build a verse able to track and annotate powerful emotion in the making. A gradual comprehension of Seneca evidently helped to supply this psychological syntax. Titus Andronicus (c. 1590) is a Senecan play in about the same sense that Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanquery is a hona fide replication of Ibsen’s intentions. The appeal to specific modes of sensationalism are similar, but all the rest, and it the most important, differs. Titus Andronicus is perhaps best understood as an attempt at Seneca by a man whose sympathies still were with Ovid and the play’s tone is correspondingly determined. Shakespeare, I...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 182-198
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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