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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Decoding Senecan innovation to tragic genre tropes through anagrams, the failure of passion-restraint, and a broken play Brady, Christian


This thesis shows how changes to conventional tragic structure and stories—like the number of acts, the victor of the passion-restraint scene, or the characters’ foreknowledge about future actions in the play—affects the play’s content, influence outcomes, and shape characters’ worldviews. In Hercules Furens, I examine how the Caesars’ darling hero Hercules manages to upset the tragic plot in two ways: by failing to properly express his motivations for falling into madness (in other plays explained explicitly by god characters) and failing to die honorably in just self-punishment. The play profiles a hero with divine lineage, whose power is suddenly rendered questionable by a coup in Thebes, and a town full of people who are similarly skeptical about the extent of their hero’s powers. Phaedra, in contrast, turns the lens away from the deeds of the hero and to the collateral damage wrought against the family in the process. The dissolution of the house of Theseus and the transmogrification of Phaedra into an incestuous, adulterous mother, are prompted by the Nurse’s hyperconscious remarks about the barriers to bad behavior. The Nurse ultimately undermines her own advice and instructs Phaedra on how to get away with crimes without being held morally accountable. Phoenissae’s multiple stylistic idiosyncrasies signal a unified artistic vision that Tarrant implies is diluted through the process of adaptation in the other Senecan tragedies. In this play, characters’ heightened knowledge about their future allows them to formulate advice for their children with a high degree of ironic self-referentiality. The conclusions reached by the two parents, Jocasta and Oedipus, of children at war contrasts violently with one another, although they agree on the fundamental truths of the tragic blueprint for their lives. What unites the three plays discussed throughout this thesis is the heightened level of consciousness that characters have about their own stories and the dramatic tropes of telling their story, and further, the ultimately skeptical conclusions that are implied by these unifying principles: the failure of reason to contain passion, the impotence of the world-conqueror, the tragic inevitability of fratricidal war.

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