- Lucius Annaeus Seneca: The Complete Tragedies. Volume I: Medea, The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, The Trojan Women, Octavia ed. by Shadi Bartsch, and: Lucius Annaeus Seneca: The Complete Tragedies. Volume II: Oedipus, Hercules Mad, Hercules on Oeta, Thyestes, Agamemnon ed. by Shadi Bartsch
Seneca’s tragedies were popular in the early modern period, but then dismissed as crudely melodramatic, because they did not fit the aesthetic and literary norms of twentieth-century Anglo-America. More recently, the focus in Senecan tragedy on conflicted identities, spectacular physical and verbal violence, desperate, masochistic hunger for power, and excessive displays of consumption has taken on a new sense of urgency, and we are now learning to read these texts for their multilayered, sometimes contradictory approach to emotion, autonomy, power, and desire, and for their fascinatingly ambivalent relationship to Seneca’s prose work.
In this context, there is a real need for a new complete translation of all the tragedies. In English, the only complete recent translation of the tragedies is the Loeb by John G. Fitch (Cambridge and London 2004), which is written in clear, workperson-like prose and has useful short introductions to each play. There is also my own verse translation of Six Tragedies of Seneca (Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford 2010). To keep to a viable length for a single paperback volume, I was forced by the publishers to omit Agamemnon and Phoenician Women, as well as the (probably non-Senecan) Hercules Oetaeus, and the post-Senecan Octavia. Non-classicists who want to read all of these plays will therefore turn gratefully to this new two-volume set, edited by Shadi Bartsch, translated by Bartsch herself and several distinguished collaborators, and published as part of Chicago’s translations of Seneca’s complete works.
The introductory matter and notes in these volumes are of the high quality one would expect. The short general introduction gives a brief overview of the author’s life, and a quick run-through of Stoicism in general, Senecan Stoicism in particular, some key themes of Senecan tragedy, and the later reception of the plays. A particularly welcome feature is the inclusion of insightful introductions to each play by the individual translators; these usually provide an account of how each play relates to earlier Greek (and, where appropriate, Roman) models and grapple with some essential interpretative and literary questions, such as the echoes of the Stoic sage in problematic or monstrous characters like Medea, Thyestes, or Phaedra; Seneca’s metatheatricality; key sequences of imagery; and often, brief discussions of the play’s later reception.
The Editor’s Note promises that the translations themselves will use “blank verse,” but this turns out to be a totally misleading claim. The term “blank verse” is usually used to refer to non-rhyming iambic pentameter. In fact, the translations are laid out like verse, but they have no regular rhythm, and the translators do not seem to have turned their minds or ears to questions of sound. This is, of course, a defensible choice, but it is odd that the editors do not seem to realize that they have made it. It is a pity to translate an author whose verse style and linguistic music are so distinctive into a flat and non-rhythmical English, [End Page 283] especially since the clear contemporary English prose version by Fitch already exists. I suspect that the lack of poetic or literary ambition may also limit these translations’ potential as scripts for dramatic performance. The translations sometimes succeed in using direct language to vivid effect: “No happiness lasts long!” in Susanna Braund’s Agamemnon contrasts favorably with Fitch’s stiffer version of the same line, “Oh, the transience of happiness!” (Agamemnon 928...