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Seneca's collected works include eight complete tragedies, two fragments of tragic plays, and one complete piece in the same styie, but posterior to the author. The eight dramas are: “Hercules Furens,' * Thyestes, ' Phædra, Edipus,'
Edipus, the · Troades, ' 'Medea,’ ‘Agamemnon,' and `Hercules upon Mount ta.' The fragments of an Edipus at Colonus and a Phænissæ have been pieced together to make up a • Thebais.' The later play, belonging to Seneca's tradition, is a tragedy upon the subject of Octavia. With the exception of the last, all these so-called dramas are a rhetorician's reproduction of Greek tragedies. Sophocles and Euripides, familiar to that rhetorician's learned audience, have been laid under contribution. But he has invented for himself a sphere of treatment, apart from the real drama, and apart from translation. It was Seneca's method to rehandle the world-worn matter of the Greek tragedians in the form of a dramatic commentary. Instead of placing characters upon the stage in conflict, he used his persons as mere mouthpieces for declamation and appropriate reflection. Instead of developing the fable by action, he expanded the part of the Messenger, and gave the rein to his descriptive faculty. For a Roman audience, in the age of Nero, this new species of dramatic poetry furnished a fresh kind of literary pleasure. They had the old situations of Greek tragedy presented to them indirectly, in long monologues adorned with sophistical embroidery, in laboured descriptions, where the art of the narrator brought events familiar to all students of Greek plays and Græco-Roman painting forth in a new vehicle of polished verse. Rhetoric and the idyll, philosophical
analysis and plastic art, forensic eloquence and scholastic disputation, were skilfully applied to touch at a dramatic point the intellectual sense of men and women trained by education and the habits of imperial Roman life to all these forms. It is more than doubtful whether the pseudo-tragedies produced upon this plan were intended for scenical representation. We have rather reason to believe that they found utterance in those fashionable recitations, of which the Satirists have left sufficient notices. Roman ladies and gentlemen assembled at each other's houses, in each other's gardens, in clubs and cöteries, to applaud a Statius declaiming his hexameters, or the school of Seneca reciting their master's studies from the Attic drama. An audience which could appreciate whole books of the Pharsalia' or the · Thebais’ at a sitting, may have gladly enough accepted one of Seneca's orations in two hundred iambics. A tragedy recited was anyhow less tedious than a declaimed epic.
Such, however, being the nature of Seneca's tra-gedies—regarding them, as we are bound to do, in the light of a decadent, pedantic, reproductive period of art—ascribing their originality and merit to the author's sympathy with very special intellectual conditions of his age—it follows that we must condemn them as pernicious models for incipient literature. Pernicious undoubtedly they were in their effect
the Italian theatre. At its very outset the authority of Seneca stifled tragedy and set tragedians on an utterly false scent. The society of Italy in the sixteenth century had certain points in common with that of Neronian Rome. There was the same taste for pedantic studies, the same appreciation of forensic oratory, the same tendency to verbal criticism, the same confinement of the higher literature to coteries. Meeting, then, with a congenial soil and atmosphere, Seneca's mannerism took root and flourished in Italy. It is not a little amusing to find Giraldi openly expressing his opinion that Seneca had improved upon the Greek tragedians, and to notice how playwrights thought they were obeying Aristotle, when they made servile copies of the Corduban's dramatic commentaries,
Between the years 1559 and 1566, five English authors applied themselves to the task of translating Seneca. The · Troades,' • Thyestes,' and · Hercules Furens' were done by Jasper Heywood ; the (Edipus' by Alexander Nevyle; the Medea,' · Agamemnon,' 'Phædra,' and 'Hercules on (Eta' by John Studley; the · Octavia' by Thomas Nuce ; and the · Thebais' by Thomas Newton. These ten plays, collected and printed together in 1581, remain a monument of English poets' zeal in studying the Roman pedagogue. In all of these versions rhymed measures were used ; and the translators allowed themselves considerable latitude of treatment, adding here and there, and altering according to their fancy.
The impulse thus given, was soon felt in the production of a great variety of classical or classical-Italian plays. Only two of these call for special notice. But
| Scaliger's and Malherbe's opinions might be quoted to prove that this strange preference of Seneca was not contined to Italy.
before I proceed to their consideration, it will be well to pass this chapter in the literary history of our Drama in rapid review, and to notice some of its more prominent personalities.
George Gascoigne was a gentleman by birth and education, a member of Gray's Inn, and the author of many excellent works in prose and verse. In the year 1566, the society of which he was a member performed two of his dramatic essays in their hall of Gray's Inn. These were a translation of Ariosto's 'Suppositi,' and a version of Lodovico Dolce's Giocasta.' The first of these plays has special interest, since it was the earliest known comedy in English prose.
The ‘Jocasta' has hitherto been accepted by historians of our Drama, following Collier's authority, as a free transcript from the Phænissæ' of Euripides. This it is in substance. But critics have generally omitted to notice that before the · Phænissæ’ came into the hands of Gascoigne, it had passed through those of Dolce. There is no reason to suppose that Gascoigne was a learned poet ; and the merit of having adapted a tragedy from the Greek must, I think, be denied him. If Collier had paid attention to his own quotations from ‘Jocasta,' the point would have been clear. He extracts the speech of a person named Bailo at the opening of the first act. Bailo is the Italian translation of the Greek word Paidagogos; and what this Bailo says in English, is a tolerably close rendering of Dolce's addition to the tutor's part in the · Phænissæ' of Euripides. Again, in the speech of the Messenger, Gascoigne follows Dolce, where Dolce has departed from Euripides. My excuse for insisting upon so insignificant a matter, must be that this · Jocasta'is the only early English play for which a Greek source has been claimed. The truth appears to be that, like the rest of the classical dramas of that period, it had an Italian derivation.
| See Teatro Antico Italiano, vol. vi. for Dolce's Giocasta.
The study of Seneca made itself apparent in two tragedies by Fulke Grevile, Lord Brooke. These are 'Alaham' and 'Mustapha ;'-Oriental fables treated in the strictest pseudo-classic style, with conscientious observance of the unities and other rules for depriving tragedy of movement. A ghost of one of the old kings of Ormus prologises in ‘Alaham.' A Chorus of Good and Evil Spirits, Furies and Vices, comments on the action. In ‘Mustapha' the Chorus varies : at one time it consists of Pashas and Cadis ; then of Mohammedan Priests ; again of Time and Eternity ; lastly, of Converts to Mohammedanism. These plays, though printed in Brooke's works as late as 1633, were certainly composed at a much earlier period. It is curious that both are written in elaborate rhymed structure. They had no influence over the development of the English Drama, and must be regarded in the light of ponderous literary studies.
Upon the close of the century, Samuel Daniel, the sweet lyrist of Delia, set himself in opposition to the current of popular taste; and blaming “the idle fictions' and 'gross follies' with which men abused their leisure
i It ought in this connection to be noted that the Plutus of Aristophanes is said to have been performed in Greek before Queen Elizabeth.