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Cannibals, Cats, and Coteries: Wright's 1674 Mock-Thyestes

Maria Haley

University of Leeds

Following Jasper Heywood’s landmark translation of Seneca’s Thyestes in 1560, a trend of Thyestes translations emerged throughout the period. As Spearing makes clear, prefaces and dedications often accompanied these texts, as with Thomas Marsh’s 1581 edition. Heywood himself includes a playful prologue to his Thyestes in which he suggests that Seneca appeared to him in a dream. Thereafter translations of Thyestes were produced in the Inns of court, accompanied with dedications and referring to preceding translations from Heywood onwards. Yet Wright’s 1674 translation of Seneca’s Thyestes includes a creative re-writing of Seneca’s tragic Thyestes as a comedy. This work has thus far been neglected because, as O’Keefe has noted, most struggle to gain access to this text.

Produced as a gift edition dedicated to Lord Salusbury, the work is prefaced in rhyming verse presenting a playful invitation to the intended reader. Wright’s Mock Thyestes is described as a travesty or burlesque, in which Thyestes’ sons are replaced with cats turning the tragedy to farce. This paper will consider how the parody of Seneca’s tragedy formed part of its reception in coterie texts addressed to specific recipients.

The edition for Lord Salusbury is housed in the Special Collections of Leeds’ Brotherton Library and is clearly produced as a pocket-sized gift edition with gilt pages, a ribbon bookmark and embellished print work. Far from reflecting the philosophical or scientific uses of Seneca, this text is an oddity of Senecan book history. This paper will examine the extent to which Wright’s parody is affected by his translation of Seneca’s original and his relationship with Salusbury himself. Later scholar Genest rejected this work as “written for school boys and well-calculated for their capacity”, but the innovation is pitched in a gift edition, thus may well present a private joke for an inner circle, particularly given the tradition of Seneca translations in circulation at the Inns of court. This is particularly pertinent, given that Seneca’s Thyestes has been critiqued as his most darkly comic tragedy, given the heavy irony of the feast episode.

Ultimately, this paper will assess how Wright’s bizarre burlesque of Seneca’s Thyestes claims a place in the Early Modern reception tradition of Seneca’s work and interacts with Wright’s translation of the text.

 

Session/Panel Title

Seneca in the Renaissance

Session/Paper Number

71.1

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