The Phoenician Women by Seneca the Younger.

Oedipus and Antigone by Camille Félix Bellanger.
The Phoenician Women (Phoenissae) is a play by Seneca the Younger written around 65 A.D., around the same time as Thyestes. Now, before I go on, I must say a note on the text I read - I don't own a copy of The Phoenician Women so I had to read it online, and I hate reading books online. Though I am grateful that I could, it did make the whole thing rather a chore. So if this is a tepid review, that is why. I love Seneca, and I did my best!

The play is based on the plays from Euripides - The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι; 411-08 B.C.) and the 'Theban Plays' by Sophocles, which in turn are based on the Oedipus myth: Oedipus, the King of Thebes, learns that his wife Jocasta is actually his mother and he had killed his father Laius, not knowing that Laius was his father. He blinds himself, leaves Thebes with his daughter Antigone, and lives as a beggar whilst Jocasta hangs herself and his sons Eteocles and Polynices eventually kill each other in battle as they fight for the crown. Seneca's play begins with Oedipus in exile with Antigone. He says,
Thou guide of thy blind father’s steps, his weary side’s sole stay, daughter, whose getting, even so, was worth the cost to me, quit thou thy heaven-cursed sire. Why into right paths wouldst turn aside my wandering feet? Let me stumble on; better alone shall I find the way I seek, the way which from this life shall deliver me and free heaven and earth from sight of this impious head. How little did I accomplish with this hand! I do not see the light, witness of my crime, but I am seen. Therefore, now unclasp thy clinging hand and let my sightless feet wander where they will. I’ll go, I’ll go where my own Cithaeron lifts his rugged crags; where, speeding over the mountain’s rocky ways, Actaeon lay at last, strange quarry for his own hounds; where, through the dim grove and woods of the dusky glade, a mother led her sisters, by the god impelled, and, rejoicing in the crime, bore in advance the head fixed on a quivering thyrsus; or where Zethus’ bull rushed along, dragging a mangled corpse, while through the thorny brambles the mad creature’s flight was traceable in blood; or where Ino’s cliff juts out into the deep sea with towering peak, where, fleeting strange crime and yet strange crime committing, a mother leaped into the strait to sink both son and self. Oh, happy they whose better fortune has given such kindly mothers!
Antigone remains by his side refusing to leave him or let him put an end to his life. She reveals that Jocasta is still alive and that Eteocles and Polynices are on the brink of fighting each other. The scene then shifts and we see Jocasta attempting to bring peace between the brothers which, as we know, she fails to do.

It's a rather strange play, and I think I can say that with some confidence despite having had the joyless experience of reading it online. Euripides' play was so-called because of the chorus of Phoenician Women, who are barely in it in Seneca's play. It feels incomplete; in fact, it feels almost like a draft that promises something more but is thus far absent. It's left hanging, which may be deliberate and if so it works - the audience would have known the myth very well and could be safely left to imagine the deaths of Jocasta, Eteocles, and Polynices, though there's also evidence to suggest Seneca would have finished on the deaths of the three. Other than that it's a good play (I think I would have loved to read a modern translation - if I ever can I certainly will). Through the great speeches we learn more of the complexities of emotions than we did from the earlier plays offering a new perspective on what was an old myth. I do love Seneca, and I'm sorry to have finished reading his plays. I wish there was more.

And that was my 28th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The Sphinx by Oscar Wilde.


  1. it's probably Nero's fault, making him commit suicide before he could finish it... i'm not generally if favor of ereaders, but i have two, and they actually provide access to many books that i couldn't otherwise get... just saying...

    1. I didn't think of that at all - yes, you're probably right, it probably was Nero's fault. Poor Seneca.


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