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Seneca Tragicus?: Comic Elements in Seneca’s Troades

Andrew R. Lund

University of Cincinnati

Seneca Tragicus?: Comic Elements in Seneca’s Troades

Although scholars have long appreciated Roman literature’s affinity for blending genres, Senecan tragedy’s reception of New Comedy has largely gone unstudied, apart from looking at so-called “black humor” (Meltzer 1988) or dramaturgical similarities (Tarrant 1978).  Trinacty (forthcoming) breaks new ground, however, in his survey of Seneca’s interest in and engagement with comedy.  In particular, he draws attention to the characteristics of New Comedy’s servus callidus in the Troades’ Ulysses and thus sets the stage for a wider reconsideration of Seneca’s engagement with New Comedy.  This paper aims to be the next chapter in such a reconsideration through a sustained analysis of Seneca’s comic entanglements in the Troades.  Through a series of close readings, I argue that Seneca weaves comic elements throughout the play in order to combine the disparate storylines surrounding Polyxena, Astyanax, and the traffic of Trojan women into a cohesive, balanced, and incredibly tragic play.

Act II of the Troades features Seneca’s only scene change within an act.  The seemingly random departure of Talthybius and entrance of Pyrrhus and Agamemnon leads some to view the scene as being imperfect or “detached” from the plot (e.g. Fantham 1982: 241).  I argue, however, that this scene works to foreshadow the comic characterization of Ulysses in Act III by hinting at a(nother) stock comic relatinoship: the rash adulescens and the moralizing father-figure.  Agamemnon’s opening line, iuuenile uitium est regere non posse impetum (Tro. 250), resembles a Terentian sententia, such as the pater Demea at the end of the Adelphoe (992-5).  Additional comic elements can be detected in Agamemnon’s mention of the “furtive rape of a virgo” (ex uirginis concepte furtiuo stupro, Tro. 342; cf. Pl. Pers. 521-2) and Pyrrhus’ description of Thetis disguising her son: exuit matris dolos | falsasque uestes (Tro. 213-14).  Alison Sharrock (2009) has identified dolus as a key part of comic language which stresses the artful cleverness of New Comedy’s tricksters, and Ulysses employs this same word when describing his own callidus nature: simulata remoue uerba; non facile est tibi | decipere Ulixem: uicimus matrum dolos | etiam dearum (Tro. 568-70).  And indeed it is a mother’s trickery (Andromache hiding away Astyanax) which is Act III’s focus, wherein the previous allusions to comedy foreground further allusions later in the battle of wits between Ulysses and (importantly) Andromache over who is the most callidus (e.g.Tro. 613-18).  Though bested by Ulysses, Andromache’s exposure to the king of servi callidi is instructive, as she is subsequently able to detect Helen’s attempt to trick Polyxena.  Taken together, these comic elements in the Troades suggest Seneca’s deliberate and sustained interaction with comedy.

 But as Seneca reminds his audience of these stock comic elements, he simultaneously perverts or inverts their comic nature in his tragic setting, and it is this disruption of familiarity which contributes to the tragedy of the play.  Whereas comedy sees the union of adulescens and virgo, in Seneca’s hands the virgo is slaughtered by the young man; whereas comedy sees the recognition of the lost child through tokens, in Seneca’s hands the child is stripped of royal trappings that identify him (Tro. 712-17) and destroyed; whereas in comedy slaves are physically and verbally abused, in Seneca’s hands royal women now face similar torture (Tro. 578-88).  Through the manipulation of comic elements, tragedy summits its tragic peak and the quotidian is replaced by the horrific and surreal.

Through a sustained analysis of comic elements in the Troades, this paper aims to break new ground in the study of Senecan dramaturgy.  In addition to displaying Seneca’s skills as a dramatist in crafting a highly structured and genre-conscious play, recognition of the comic elements in the Troades makes an important contribution to our understanding of Senecan intertextuality as well as to our knowledge of the vitality and influence of comedy in the first century CE.

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Forms of Drama

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