home contact

Seneca's Tragedies and the Elizabethan Drama

From The Elizabethan Translations of Seneca's Tragedies. E. M. Spearing. Cambridge: W. Hefper & Sons.

In the sixteenth century the popularity of Seneca's tragedies was immense. To English dramatists, struggling to impose form and order on the shapeless, though vigorous, native drama, Seneca seemed to offer an admirable model. His tragedies contained abundance of melodrama to suit the popular taste, whilst his sententious philosophy and moral maxims appealed to the more learned, and all was arranged in a clear-cut form, of which the principle of construction was easy to grasp. The great Greek tragedians were little studied by the Elizabethans. Greek was still unfamiliar to a large number of students; and it may be doubted whether in any case Aeschylus or Sophocles would have been appreciated by the Elizabethan public. The Senecan drama, crude, and melodramatic as it seems to us, appealed far more strongly to the robust Englishmen of the sixteenth century, whose animal instincts were as yet only half subdued by civilization.

The importance of the influence exercised by Senecan tragedy upon the development of the Elizabethan drama is now generally admitted. The extent of this influence has been demonstrated by J. W. Cunliffe in his Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy, and by R. Fischer in Kunstentwicklung der englischen Tragodie. It affected both the substance and the form of the drama. The division into five acts, and the introduction of the Chorus, as in Gorboduc, The Misfortunes of Arthur, and Catiline, may be taken as examples of the influence of Seneca on the form of the Elizabethan drama, whilst in regard to matter and treatment Senecan influence was yet more important.

It was seen in the treatment of the supernatural, in the selection of horrible and sensational themes, in the tendency to insert long rhetorical and descriptive passages, in the use of stichomythia, in the introduction of moralising common-places, and in the spirit of philosophic fatalism.

Under these circumstances it was but natural that students who read Seneca's tragedies with delight, and had perhaps taken part in the performances which were frequently given in the colleges of their own University, (Footnote 1) should wish to make him known to their less learned fellow countrymen, and to win fame for themselves by translating into the best English verse at their command an author who seemed to them so well fitted both to please and to instruct. Thus one of the translators states that it was at the "ernest requeste" of "certaine familiar frendes" that he had "thus rashly attempted so great an enterprise," and continues:
They ... willed me not to hyde and kepe to my selfe that small talent which god hath lente vnto me to serue my countrey withall, but rather to applye it to the vse of suche yonge Studentes as therby myght take some commoditie. (Footnote 2)
During the reign of Elizabeth all the ten tragedies then ascribed to Seneca were translated into English verse. Three of these -- Troas, Thyestes, and Hercules Furens -- were translated by Jasper Heywood, younger son of John Heywood the epigrammatist, and fellow of All Souls' College, Oxford. Alexander Neville, a Cambridge student and a friend of George Gascoigne, translated Oedipus. John Studley, scholar and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, was responsible for the versions of Agamemnon, Medea, Hercules Oetaeus, (Footnote 3) and Hippolytus. Thomas Nuce, fellow of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, translated Octavia; and the remaining play, or rather fragments of two plays, Thebais, or as it is sometimes called Phoenissae, was rendered into English by Thomas Newton, who had been a student at both Oxford and Cambridge.

To Heywood belongs the credit of being the pioneer in this work. His Troas was published in an octavo edition in 1559, and his Thyestes, also in octavo, in 1560. His Hercules Furens appeared in octavo in 1561. Neville's Oedipus was written, so he tells us, in his sixteenth year, i.e. in 1560, but it was not published till 1563 when it appeared in octavo -- Nuce's version of Octavia is in quarto; it is undated, but there is an entry which probably refers to it in the Stationers' Register for the year July 1566 -- July 1567.

Studley's Agamemnon appeared in octavo in 1566, and his Medea, also in octavo, later in the same year. No separate editions are extant of his Hercules Oetceus and Hippolytus, but two entries in the Stationers' Register for the year 1566-7 make it probable that these two translations appeared in quick succession to Agamemnon and Medea. In 1581 Thomas Newton collected all these versions of separate plays, and published them, together with his own Thebais, added to make the edition complete in a quarto volume entitled "Seneca His Tenne Tragedies. Translated into Englysh."

Contemporary references show us that the translations were widely read and highly esteemed. Some lines by a certain T. B., prefixed to Studley's version of Agamemnon (published 1566) indicate that Haywood's Troas had enjoyed striking success -- a success which apparently exceeded its merits in T. B.'s estimation. (Footnote 4)
When Heiwood did in perfect verse, and dolfull tune set out, And by hys smouth and fyled style declared had aboute, What roughe reproche the Troyans of the hardy Grekes receyued, When they of towne, of goods, and lyues togyther were depryued. How wel did then hys freindes requite his trauayle and hys paine, When vnto hym they haue [?gaue] as due ten thousand thankes agayne? What greater prayse might Virgill get? what more renoume then this, Could haue ben gyuen unto hym, for wrytyng verse of hys?...
Ascham in his attack on rime in the Scholemaster (published 1570, but written before 1568) includes the translators of "Ouide, Palingenius, and Seneca" together with "Chauser, Th. Norton of Bristow, my L. of Surrey, M. Wiat, Th. Phaer" as examples of writers who "have gonne as farre to their great praise as the copie they followed could cary them," and considers that "if soch good wittes and forward diligence had bene directed to follow the best examples, and not haue bene caryed by tyme and custome to content themselues with that barbarous and rude Ryming, emonges their other worthy praises, which they haue iustly deserued, this had not bene the least, to be counted emonges men of learning and skill more like vnto the Grecians than vnto the Gothians in handling of their verse." (Footnote 5)

William Webbe in his Discourse of English Poetrie (1586), mentions "the laudable Authors of Seneca in English," and Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia (1598) says "these versifiers for their learned translations are of good note among us, Phaer for Virgils Aeneads, Golding for Ovid's Metamorphosis .... the translators of Senecaes Tragedies."

Nash's well-known passage in his preface "To the Gentlemen Students of both Universities" prefixed to Greene's Menaphon (published 1589) is worth quoting in this connection:--
It is a common practise now a daies amongst a sort of shifting companions, that runne through every arte and thrive by none, to leave the trade of Noverint, whereto they were borne, and busie themselves with the indevors of Art, that could scarcely latinize their necke-verse if they should have neede; yet English Seneca read by candle light yeeldes manie good sentences, as Bloud is a begger, and so foorth; and, if you intreate him faire in a frostie morning, he will affoord you whole Hamlets, I should say handfulls of tragical speaches. But O griefe! tempus edax rerum, what's that will last alwaies? The sea exhaled by droppes will in continuance be drie, and Seneca let bloud line by line and page by page at length must needes die to our stage: which makes his famisht followers to imitate the Kidde in Aesop, who, enamored with the Foxes newfangles, forsooke all hopes of life to leape into a new occupation, and these men, renowncing all possibilities of credit or estimation, to intermeddle with Italian translations.
This passage from Nash seems to indicate that these translations of Seneca proved of great use to the popular playwrights, and especially to Kyd, at whom the satire was probably aimed. (Footnote 6) The Spanish Tragedy contains paraphrases of passages from Seneca (e.g. Act III, Sc. i, 11. 1-11, an adaptation of Agam. 11. 57-73), but these do not show clearly the influence of the translations, and the Latin quotations from Seneca which abound in Act III, Sc. xiii of the same play indicate that Kyd may have gone straight to the original.

As with Kyd, so with the other Elizabethan dramatists it is almost impossible to distinguish how much of the debt which they undoubtedly owe to Seneca is due to the plays in the original, and how much to the translations. As Cunliffe observes, the more learned dramatists would not need the help of translations, while the less learned who were glad of the aid afforded by Heywood and his fellow-translators, would prefer to disguise their obligations by not quoting verbatim. Undoubtedly these translations must have done much to spread a general knowledge of Seneca, and to inspire interest in his treatment of the drama, and in all probability their influence was much greater than any examination merely of parallel passages in them and in Elizabethan plays would lead us to suspect. (Footnote 7)

Though it is in this influence that their chief value lies, the plays have a certain interest of their own. Much of the verse is mere doggerel, but the style of the translators has a racy and vigorous character which often makes the reader forget its metrical imperfections. In the sixth and seventh decades of the sixteenth century Englishmen had not yet found a fitting mode of expression for the new life surging within them. Yet the life was there, however grotesquely and clumsily it might show itself, and even its early manifestations are worthy of attention.

Moreover these translations afford valuable testimony as to the grammar, metre, and vocabulary used by men of classical learning at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign. Some of the words employed are very curious and interesting, and the various grammatical forms deserve careful study.

At the same time it must be admitted that the intrinsic dramatic worth of the plays is small. The translators had before them an original which, highly as they esteemed it, was utterly lacking in true dramatic quality, and though they felt themselves at liberty to alter and adapt it on occasions, their alterations show that they had no perception of the essentials of great drama.

Seneca's plays are hardly drama at all in the true sense of the word. They show rhetoric, eloquence, and a facility for epigrams, but, in the main, have little action and less development of character. Seneca's utter inferiority to the Greek dramatists, when handling the same themes, is abundantly illustrated by the Medea. In certain other plays, e.g. in the Hippolytus, Seneca has altered the story in such a way as completely to ruin its tragic beauty, but in the Medea he has followed Euripides almost exactly in the construction of the plot, and yet has contrived to vulgarise and degrade the whole conception.

In the first scene Medea appears as almost a raving maniac, calling down vengeance on her husband, and her language is as wild and extravagant at the beginning of the play as at the end. There is none of the subtle development of character which we find in Euripides, who shows us Medea as a woman whose latent barbaric instincts gradually assert themselves under the injuries heaped on her, till at last the loving wife and mother becomes the furious savage. In Euripides' play, she is by no means wholly horrible; at first we sympathise with her against her foes, and though at last we shudder at her crime, we feel that the guilt is Jason's as much, nay perhaps more, than hers. But in Seneca's play she awakens no sympathy, for she is nothing but a savage from beginning to end, except perhaps in one interview with Jason.

In the very first scene she announces her intention of murdering her children, and thus the sense of gradually growing horror with which Euripides leads up to that resolve, is entirely lost. The beautiful scene in which she suddenly bursts into tears before Jason over her children, is wanting in Seneca, and finally she kills the children on the stage before their father's eyes -- a gratuitous piece of theatrical horror carefully avoided by Euripides. It can hardly be said that the Elizabethan translators show any greater sense of dramatic fitness than does Seneca himself; in fact, they often accentuate his faults and obscure his merits.

Seneca's speeches, though not well adapted to the characters in whose mouths they are put, are generally effective from a rhetorical point of view, containing much eloquence and many striking epigrams. Unfortunately Studley and his companions exaggerated Seneca's eloquence till it became mere rant, and elaborated and explained his epigrams till they lost all their point. Two examples will show the translators' tendency to exaggerate the violence of the original....

It is unnecessary to linger over the dramatic weakness of the Tenne Tragedies. From one point of view their very faults are a merit. The imperfections of Senecan tragedy did good service hy preventing unduly close imitation. Had the masterpieces of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides become the models of Elizabethan playwrights, we might have lost our national drama, for the English genius is far removed from the Greek in character. As it was, when the Elizabethans had learnt what they could from Seneca, they realised the dramatic weakness of his tragedies and struck out a new line for themselves. It is curious to remember that only thirty years elapsed between the publication of even the earliest of these translations and that of Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Faustus, and that within fifteen years of the appearance of the collected edition, Shakespeare had written Romeo and Juliet. (Footnote 8)

It throws a light on the extraordinarily rapid development of the English drama in those thirty or forty years. It seems a far cry from the broken-backed lines, bombastic rhetoric, and puppet figures of these Senecan translations to the perfect harmony of thought and expression, to the ageless and deathless creations of Shakespeare's plays; but great poets can never be isolated from their predecessors, and every one of the forces which had been at work in English literature had its part in the perfecting of the Elizabethan drama. Even Shakespeare might not have been quite himself as we know him, had it not been for the work of the obscure translators of Seneca.

Footnotes (*Numbers have been adjusted.)

1. Professor G. C. Moore Smith in his article Plays performed in Cambridge Colleges before 1585 in Fasciculus J. W. Clark dicatus, pp. 267-270, states that though the records of Cambridge Colleges are most imperfect during the early part of Elizabeth's reign, he has been able to ascertain that Troas was acted at Trinity College in 1551-2, and again in 1560-1, Oedipus in 1559-60, and Medea in 1560-1, and that Medea was also acted at Queens' in 1563.

2. John Studley. Agamemnon. (1566.) Preface to the Reader [omitted in the Tenne Tragedies.] See also the passage quoted infra, p. 27, from Neville's dedicatory epistle to Dr. Wotton.

3. The Bodleian Library contains a fragment of an unpublished translation of Hercules Oetaeus which is attributed to Queen Elizabeth.

4. Some allowance must be made for the fact that Heywood was an Oxford man, while Stanley and his friends were from Cambridge.

5. Scholemaster, Bk. II, Sect. V.

6. See F. S. Boas, The Works of Thomas Kyd. Introd., pp.xxiv. Professor Boas states as his opinion that "though Nash grossly exaggerates Kyd's debt to 'English Seneca,' it had a strong influence upon his dramatic work." (p. xxiv.)

7. Cp. Camb. Hist, of Eng. Lit., Vol. V. p. 80. "In any case, their influence upon writers for the popular stage is beyond doubt."

8. It should be remembered that as late as the production of Hamlet, Shakespeare was in touch with the Senecan tradition. There is a close parallel between the Ghost in Hamlet and the Ghost of Thyestes in Seneca's Agamemnon, who rises at the beginning of the play to incite his son, Aegisthus to revenge the wrongs inflicted on him by his brother Atreus.

How to Cite this Article
Spearing, E. M. The Elizabethan Translations of Seneca's Tragedies. Cambridge: W. Hefper & Sons. 1912. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. < >.


More Resources

 Daily Life in Shakespeare's London
 Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
 Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
 Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?

 Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
 Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]
 An Elizabethan Christmas
 Clothing in Elizabethan England

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

 Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
 Publishing in Elizabethan England
 Shakespeare's Audience
 Religion in Shakespeare's England

 Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 London's First Public Playhouse
 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time

More to Explore

 Hamlet: The Complete Play with Explanatory Notes
 Hamlet Basics
 The Hamlet and Ophelia Subplot
 The Norway Subplot in Hamlet
 Deception in Hamlet

 Hamlet: Problem Play and Revenge Tragedy
 The Purpose of The Murder of Gonzago
 Study Questions on Laertes and Ophelia
 The Dumb-Show: Why Hamlet Reveals his Knowledge to Claudius

 Detailed Plot Summary of Hamlet
 Analysis of the Characters in Hamlet
 Hamlet's Antic Disposition: Is Hamlet's Madness Real?
 Sewing in my closet: Ophelia's Meeting with Hamlet
 Hamlet's Relationship with the Ghost


Do You Agree? ... "Shakespeare's business was not to explain Hamlet's irresolution, not even necessarily to understand it, but merely to make us accept it as real. The world has been more interested in this than in any other play, and in Hamlet than in any other figure of drama for centuries; and it is in consequence of the strength and universality of that interest that the desire to find a psychological explanation arises. To put the question is natural and legitimate; to answer it may even be useful, in so far as it removes an obstacle to the fullness of our aesthetic experience of the play. But we must not give it any higher value than that." Claude C. H. Williamson. International Journal of Ethics. Vol. 33


 Philological Examination Questions on Hamlet
 Quotations from Hamlet (with commentary)
 Hamlet Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
 Analysis of I am sick at heart (1.1)
 Hamlet: Q & A

 Soliloquy Analysis: O this too too... (1.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!... (2.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: To be, or not to be... (3.1)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Tis now the very witching time of night... (3.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Now might I do it pat... (3.3)
 Soliloquy Analysis: How all occasions do inform against me... (4.4)

 Ophelia's Burial and Christian Rituals
 The Baker's Daughter: Ophelia's Nursery Rhymes
 Hamlet as National Hero
 The Elder Hamlet: The Kingship of Hamlet's Father
 Claudius and the Condition of Denmark

 In Secret Conference: The Meeting Between Claudius and Laertes
 O Jephthah - Toying with Polonius
 The Death of Polonius and its Impact on Hamlet's Character
 Blank Verse and Diction in Shakespeare's Hamlet

 Hamlet's Silence
 An Excuse for Doing Nothing: Hamlet's Delay
 Foul Deeds Will Rise: Hamlet and Divine Justice
 Defending Claudius - The Charges Against the King
 Shakespeare's Fools: The Grave-Diggers in Hamlet

 Hamlet's Humor: The Wit of Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark
 All About Yorick
 Hamlet's Melancholy: The Transformation of the Prince

 The Significance of the Ghost in Armor
 The Significance of Ophelia's Flowers
 Ophelia and Laertes
 Mistrusted Love: Ophelia and Polonius

 Divine Providence in Hamlet
 What is Tragic Irony?
 Seneca's Tragedies and the Elizabethan Drama
 Shakespeare's Sources for Hamlet

 Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers