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Atreus' Indecision in Seneca's Thyestes

Isabella Reinhardt

University of Pennsylvania

This paper is an investigation of a puzzling speech in Seneca’s Thyestes, in which Atreus debates with himself whether to include Menelaus and Agamemnon in his planned revenge (321-333). After arguing with his satelles about whether to tell his sons about the revenge plot in which they will be participants, Atreus changes his mind three times. He has previously told the satelles that his sons should know (309), but now resolves to keep them unaware, before deciding to tell them, and finally concluding that his plot will remain a secret. Why did Seneca include this passage? Such vacillation is strange in a character like Atreus, who is otherwise confident and consistent. If, however, we consider the speech within the context of the scene in which it occurs, Atreus’ indecision begins to look more like conscious revision. Atreus is not insecure, he is refining his priorities in order to secure what matters most: revenge. In the process of constructing his plot, Atreus gradually subordinates the motivation for his revenge, his sons, in favor of the successful enactment of the revenge itself.

Drawing on Schiesaro’s metadramatic analysis, I argue that over the course of the satelles scene, Atreus is drawing up plans for his own revenge play, specifically by defining who will be allowed to participate; this is Atreus’ casting call. Schiesaro has placed this scene in the second of three structural levels of the Thyestes: in the first level, Tantalus and the Fury frame the action of the play; in the second, Atreus constructs his own play, engineering the performance of his revenge; in the third, Atreus and Thyestes are actors within the performance of the plot (Schiesaro, 49). In defining his cast of characters, Atreus must not only set boundaries on his poetic world and the other people in it, but engage in self-construction as well, since he is to be the lead actor in this performance. Atreus’ self-construction includes definition of the self in opposition to others (namely, Thyestes), in a process that frequently contributes to the tragic events of other Senecan dramas (Fitch & McElduff, 174).

Over the course of the scene, Atreus moves from definition of his play and its cast to a narrower focus on definition of his own role and that of his opponent, Thyestes. As Atreus refines his creation, unnecessary and unwelcome actors (such as Pietas) are removed from the world of the play, until only the characters who will further the revenge plot remain. While stripping away unnecessary participates, Atreus must simultaneously create a role for himself: that of the triumphant tyrant. In constructing himself as the hero, Atreus places Thyestes in the role of anti-self, the brother who is not a brother. Fas est in illo quidquid in fratre est nefas. “It is right to do to that one whatever is wrong to do to a brother” (220). Atreus locks himself in a polar relationship with Thyestes, in which any pain to the latter is a benefit to the former. The famous pronouncement, that the house itself may fall on him so long as it falls on Thyestes too (191), makes Atreus’ position clear. Atreus will only gain by the destruction of his brother, and by this logic, his brother is the most important figure in the world. Atreus’ final decision to exclude Atreus and Menelaus indicates that they are less important than the revenge. Although Atreus wants to assure himself of his paternity, this assurance must take second place to Thyestes’ punishment. While this paper focuses on Atreus’ puzzling speech, my conclusions have repercussions for our understanding of the play as a whole. Atreus is not depicted as insecure, nor is he engaging in illogical or emotional argument. Instead, he is rationally creating a revenge plot in which only the participants essential to success are included.

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Forms of Drama

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