Friday, 11 August 2017

Oedipus by Seneca.

One of my favourite things about reading Seneca is that in doing so I revisit or am reminded at least of some of the great Greek plays of the 5th Century B.C. Thyestes recalled Aeschylus' Orestia, and Phaedra Euripides' Hippolytus, and this week Oedipus is a return to Sophocles' Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. I can't honestly say that I prefer Seneca to any of these greats, but still I do very much enjoy these plays not just for the reminder of the olds, but simply for the plays themselves. 

Oedipus, as I say, is a re-telling of Sophocles' Theban Plays, focusing on Oedipus Rex. It begins with a lengthy monologue by Oedipus, full of dark portents and omens:
The night is at an end; but dimply yet
The Lord Sun shows his face - a dull glow rising
Out of a dusky cloud. It is a torch
Of evil omen, this pale fire he brings
With which to scan our plague-polluted homes...
He goes on to describe how all is not well in Thebes, and how he came to be in Thebes; how he "escaped from the domain / Of Polybus my father, free in exile...". He recalls a prophecy from Apollo that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and in leaving Polybus' kingdom of Corinth he avoided this fate. But Thebes is suffering, apparently from the wrath of the gods, and he wonders if it wouldn't be best if he returned to Corinth. His wife Jocasta however persuades him to remain - 
... I believe a king
Should grasp misfortune with a steady hand;
The more unsure his state, more imminent
His fall from sovereignty, so much the more
Should he be resolute to stand upright.
He is no man who turns his back on fate.
And so he remains, and they learn from Creon, Jocasta's brother, that in order for Thebes to recover they must avenge the death of the former king Laius. The prophet Tiresias summons Laius' spirit to name the killer, and, as Creon reluctantly reveals, his killer was in fact Oedipus. Creon describes Laius having been summoned:
... How can I tell you - how forlorn he looked
As he stood there, blood streaming down his limbs,
His hair disordered and begrimed. He spoke,
As one deranged, and this is what he said:
'O you wild women of the house of Cadmus,
Lusting for kindred blood, go shake the thyrsus,
But in your orgies let it be your sons
You mutilate; away with mother-love.
It is the cardinal sin of Thebes. O Thebes,
By sin, not by the anger of the gods,
You are destroyed. Your plague has not been borught
By the dry breath of the rain-thirsty earth,
Nor by the south wind's scourge; but by a king
With blood upon his hands, who claimed a throne
As his reward for murder and defiled
His father's marriage-bed: unnatural son,
And yet more infamous a father he,
Who by incestuous rape did violate
The womb which gave him birth, against all law -
A thing scarce any animal will do -
Begat from his own mother sons of shame,
Children to be his brothers! Vile confusion,
Monstrous complexity of sin, more subtle
Than that shrewd Sphinx he boasts of. Murderer!
Oedipus however does not believe Creon, and suspecting a plot to oust him, has him arrested, despite a memory of killing a man on his way from Corinth to Thebes. He then learns that Polybus is dead and that he should return to Corinth to claim the throne, but he refuses, still in fear that he would marry his mother. The messenger, a shepherd, then tells him the queen was not in fact his mother: his mother is in fact his wife Jocasta. In his torment, deciding suicide is not bad enough for him, he blinds himself. Jocasta, horrified, commits suicide.

Seneca's play is far darker than Sophocles' and a great deal more violent. I've read that this is considered the weaker of Seneca's plays, but it is so very forceful, and has the bleak, bloody atmosphere of Aeschylus (who I've so far considered the absolute master of atmosphere) and Shakespeare. It is a great story, and some of the speeches in this are outstanding. I very recommend this, it's not weak in the slightest!

And that was my 32nd title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall by Thomas Hardy.

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