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Fear, Hope, and Resignation in Seneca’s Troades

Michelle Currie

Colby College

This paper builds on previous analyses of emotions that bridge Senecan philosophy and tragedy (e.g., Staley 1975 and 1982, Schiesaro 1997 and 2003, Rodríguez Cidre 2000, Guastella 2001, Galán 2003, Budzowska 2012: 123-40) by offering a case study of hope and fear in Troades. In general, the play uses a “cyclical and symmetrical” organization featuring hopeful and fearful episodes in alternating fashion to juxtapose these emotions (Keulen 2001: 12; cf. Draper 1990, González Vázquez 1996). I focus here on how Hecuba and Andromache confront these emotions and attempt to control their fear. These characters are one of the ‘doublets’ of Troades (Lawall 1982: 250): they are both female leading Trojans grieving for their dead husbands and facing a child’s imminent death. But they are opposites in how they react to their shared situation (Corsaro 1991: 64). I argue that Seneca uses the women to model different ways of controlling fear and judges the efficacy of each method: Hecuba eschews hope and uses resignation to constrain her fear, while Andromache maintains hope, which renders her susceptible to fear but also limits its potency.

In Stoic philosophy, hope and fear are connected (Wacht 1998: 532ff., Citti 2004: 52-53). They are both directed at the future, but anticipate either good or bad things respectively (Graver 1997: 53-59). Stoics claimed that in order to avoid experiencing fear, one must abandon hope (Sen. Ep. 5.7). Fear can only exist when one has hope of avoiding future adversities; without such hope, fear becomes resignation as one is reconciled to what must be endured. Though less ideal than true understanding and acceptance of anticipated events, resignation offers one method of avoiding the worst problems of fear.

Hope creates great misery, as it allows for fear to develop. There are, however, both positive and negative varieties of hope (Dingel 2015: 501-503). While only the sapiens experiences the truly acceptable type of hope, the other hope too may provide limited benefits. Seneca suggests that people may “temper fear with hope” (Ep. 13.12) to limit fear’s negative effects. Though Stoics believed emotions should ideally be eliminated, Seneca does allow for using one emotion to control another in certain extraordinary circumstances when other therapies fail (Ira1.10.1, 3.1.2). As fear causes more significant problems than hope, the latter is preferable in practical terms. Though hope makes fear possible in the first place, it also offers an imperfect therapy for moderating fear’s effects.

Hecuba and Andromache each adopt a different therapy for their fear, with varied results. Hecuba avoids hope and instead expresses resignation with her fate rather than fearing it. She has acclimated to the Trojans’ situation and maintains her resigned demeanor even in the face of her allotment to Ulysses and Polyxena’s death. She does not deny or try to avoid what she knows is coming, but instead acknowledges that fear will not improve her situation. She still suffers much grief, but she largely avoids the more grievous emotion of fear and enjoys some degree of emotional resilience. In a similar situation, Andromache illustrates how hope exposes one to fear yet also mitigates its effects. She refers to Astyanax as “the lone hope of the Trojans” (462), envisioning him rising up as the avenger of the Trojans and becoming a great leader for their reestablished people. This hope renders Andromache susceptible to fear, as she now worries about her son’s survival. While her hope for Astyanax’s future inspires her fears for him, it also eases some of her other sufferings. But overall, Seneca portrays her therapy as even less effective than resignation for dealing with fear. 

Ultimately, Seneca’s tragedy echoes the sentiments of his philosophy: avoiding emotions like fear entirely is ideal. But for those who cannot, alternative therapies can provide limited relief in exceptional circumstances. Using two parallel characters to explore the therapeutic options of hope and resignation lets Seneca more effectively compare these possibilities.

Session/Panel Title

Tragic Tradition

Session/Paper Number

9.4

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