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Four Tragedies and Octavia

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  761 Ratings  ·  29 Reviews
Based on the legends used in Greek drama, Seneca's plays are notable for the exuberant ruthlessness with which disastrous events are foretold and then pursued to their tragic and often bloodthirsty ends. Thyestes depicts the menace of an ancestral curse hanging over two feuding brothers, while Phaedra portrays a woman tormented by fatal passion for her stepson. In The Troj ...more
Paperback, 319 pages
Published February 24th 2005 by Penguin Classics (first published January 1st 64)
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Bill  Kerwin
Mar 09, 2016 rated it really liked it

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a tutor and advisor to the Emperor Nero, the foremost Stoic philosopher of his age, and the author of highly rhetorical tragedies, filled with horror and revenge, which would later profoundly influence the playwrights of the Elizabethan era.

Many who have studied both his consolatory essays and his plays have had difficulty reconciling the philosopher with the dramatist. How could the serene man of these wise essays also be the writer of those overwrought verses decorat
I grew my beard out and wore my mourning toga while I read these plays. Seneca doesn't hold back, does he? He seemed to enjoy describing the gory moments more than the greeks did.

Here are some parts that I liked a lot:

"[Enter Phaedra]

THESEUS: What is this madness, woman, crazed with grief,
Why come you with a sword and loud lament Over a body which you hate?

PHAEDRA: On me, On me let the deep ocean’s angry lord Let fall his wrath!
Let all the blue sea’s monsters,
All that were ever brought to
Jan 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Seneca's tragedies are principally derided for their quality of seeming to consist entirely of monologues. This is a slight exaggeration - there is some excellent repartee on display, and besides, the monologues are finely crafted, not nearly as overwrought or full of rhetorical verbiage as some would have you believe. In fact, the reason why these are probably not highly regarded anymore is because the rhetoric encases Stoic wisdom. Stoicism, with its distrust of the emotions, hardly seems the ...more
Sep 15, 2009 rated it liked it
This is not a corner of literature into which people wander by mistake or for a lark; if you're reading this book, you're an aficionado or, more likely, a student. Which is as it should be, because these plays are all irritatingly padded out with really dull, academic-feeling displays of mythological literacy. But the dramas themselves are actually entertainingly over-the-top in their depiction of terrible events - usually gory and involving the murder of children. The heightened (and not always ...more
Anthony Bello
Jul 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: classics, theatre
I bought this book mainly because it had a play about people that Seneca would have known, "Octavia." Unfortunately, as the introduction explains, Seneca could not have written it.

Also, I was sorely disappointed that, as the introduction also explains, these tragedies would not have been performed before Roman audiences. Rather, they would have been read and recited at small gatherings of the leisured classes.

Having said all that, this collection contains tragedies that very effectively observe
Simon Mcleish
May 03, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: owned
Originally published on my blog here in July 1999.


Seneca's tragedies had a similar influence on sixteenth century tragedy to that of Plautus on the comedy of the same period. Yet Seneca's reputation has suffered a comparative eclipse since then, and is now (as Watling observes) the first century Latin writer least likely to be known to modern readers.

Thyestes illustrates some of the reasons for this quite clearly (as do other plays in this volume). It differs from the other tragedies tra
Apr 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: drama
27. FOUR TRAGEDIES AND OCTAVIA. (c. 30A.D.) Seneca. ****.
These tragedies of Seneca (4B.C. – 65 A.D.) are like none others that have come down to us from the Roman theater. E. F. Watling, the translator and writer of the introduction, believes that these plays were never performed on stage. Although their lines were a good source of quotations – especially for Elizabethan playwrights – they were almost too difficult to actually stage. It seems that Seneca dwelt closely with the macabre and the go
J.W.D. Nicolello
Feb 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Seneca does for theatre what Leopardi does for me with poetry. Perhaps I should seriously consider staging these plays should I come upon some recognition.
Jul 06, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: classics, drama
It's so hard for me to judge these plays on their own merit. I think I enjoyed "Thyestes" the most because its Greek counterparts haven't survived thus it's easier to appreciate its strengths. The play succeeds in horrifying the reader/audience (learn from my mistake and avoid snacking while reading). Euripides' "Hippolytus" is underrated in my opinion; Seneca's "Phaedra" on the other hand... its divergence from the plot of Euripides' tragedy leads to a much less sympathetic Phaedra hence less e ...more
James Miller
Apr 01, 2016 rated it liked it
Listening to the In Our Time on Agrippina reminded me that I hadn't read Seneca's Octavia for years and had forgotten much of it. Seneca is not admired as a dramatist any more (he was in the Elizabethan period), but this is a short play and by picking up the horrors of Octavia's life it does pick out the considerable pathos.

It is one of the few texts in which the obvious questions around the parentage of Messalina's children are raised as surely they must have been:

l.532ff Ner.
Incesta genetrix
Feb 11, 2012 rated it it was ok
For the uninitiated reader, these are curious plays. There should be no surprise that there is misfortune in self-styled tragedies, but the extravagance of the gore and breast-beating is such that it seems as though Seneca revels in the diasters taking place. This may fit with the underlying themes that inevitable tragedy befalls the mighty, and that lower people should enjoy the freedoms and the lack of responsibility and fear that come with power (see the ruminations of Atreus and Hippolytus). ...more
Tara Calaby
Jul 21, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: classics, own, mythology, plays
Seneca's tragedies are often overlooked in favour of the great Greek tragedies upon which his own work is based. While this is understandable, there is much merit to be found in Seneca's dramas - melodramatic, over-the-top merit, but merit nonetheless. He really captures the horror and the gleeful violence of these well-known stories.

The Octavia, actually by pseudo-Seneca, sits uneasily with the other plays in this selection. It is a story that could easily be portrayed as high tragedy, but here
Feb 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
The main reason I have read Seneca was for a class that I am taking in university. The first play, Thyestes, has been my favorite so far. Seneca has a talent of being illusive and yet bold at the same time. There is also alot of classical imagery which he uses that, unless you know your greek myth, takes a little background information. However even without the greek myth information the plays are still captivating and easy to follow.
Aug 09, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
You can see my thoughts on Seneca in these reviews of other translations:

Overall, I think this is a good working translation with an informative preface. I like the examples of Elizabethan translations at the end.
Oct 15, 2012 rated it liked it
stylistically different to the playwirghts I've been reading. A touch violent for violence's sake but excellent adaptions of the older Greek stuff and philosophically well worth reading (trying to read in his Stoicism is kinda hard)
Jun 17, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Classicists
Recommended to Howard by: Nobody
Somebody has to read this stuff.
Jul 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: greek-roman
Seneca took from the Greek plays and interjected something more Roman. I still prefer the Greek plays but I am cutting hairs.
Oct 04, 2013 marked it as to-read
Seneca takes on Euripides' Hippolytos, and then later on Racine does it too. Neato.
Trevor Kroger
Apr 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Philosophical essays masquerading as raw splatterpunk.
Oct 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
So creepy and yet so amazing. If you're looking for plot, stick with the Greek versions, but if you want the emotional shock, horror, and awe, go with Seneca.
Aug 17, 2009 marked it as to-read
This was another book I bought for class to only have a switch of teachers. On my list of "to reads"
Tom Sutton
Mar 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
What I like about Seneca is the deep influence you can see in Elizabethan drama.
Charles Cavazos
Mar 08, 2015 rated it it was ok
I was disappointed by Seneca's dramas. I don't feel that he contributed anything to the stories.
Roman Clodia
Jun 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
Seneca was tutor to Nero and we can see in these sometimes bizarre, but always compelling, tragedies an attempt to educate the young emperor in the lessons of good rulership: the fragility of power, the importance of clemency, the concern with the ethics of a good life (and death) reappear again and again.

But Seneca is also writing himself belatedly into an essentially Greek tradition, and the intertextual readings of epic and tragedy are crucial to an understanding of these plays. Negotiating t
Holly Angus
Feb 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
i actually only read the play Octavia but couldn't find it on here but this is the book i read it out of, so it'll have to do!!! i really loved this actually, after getting all the historical pre context from my prof and having him analyze it with us in class it was such a great read that was full of murder and betrayal... i feel so awful saying i loved it... oopsies hahahah
Iván Leija
Oct 22, 2016 rated it liked it
Dos cosas le gustan a Séneca: los aforismos y despedazar gente; a los romanos, casarse y matarse entre familia.
Shivachandrakanth G
rated it it was amazing
Dec 05, 2015
rated it it was amazing
Sep 29, 2015
Mandeep Kalra
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Apr 10, 2013
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Jun 30, 2013
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  • The Comedies
  • The Rope and Other Plays
  • Menander: The Plays and Fragments
  • The Cid / Cinna / The Theatrical Illusion
  • Selected Letters
  • Epigrams
  • Orestes and Other Plays
  • Guide to Greece: Central Greece (Guide to Greece, #1)
  • The Poems
  • The Eclogues
  • Heroides
  • Rome and Italy: Books VI-X of the History of Rome from its Foundation
  • The Letters of the Younger Pliny
  • Three Plays: The Wasps / The Poet and the Women / The Frogs
  • Sophocles II: Ajax/Women of Trachis/Electra/Philoctetes (Complete Greek Tragedies 4)
  • The Sixteen Satires
  • Natural History: A Selection
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (often known simply as Seneca) (ca. 4 BC – 65 AD) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and in one work humorist, of the Silver Age of Latin literature. He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero. While he was later forced to commit suicide for alleged complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, he may ...more
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