Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65) was a Roman statesman, philosopher and playwright. His highly popular and widely influential bloodthirsty tragedies were written in Latin and based on Greek mythology. They were circulating in Europe as early as the 13th century, and were being regularly performed by the late 15th century in European theatres, universities and Inns of Court.

Seneca His Tenne Tragedies (1581) is the first printed collection of Seneca’s plays in English. Thomas Newton brought together translations of the ten plays then thought to be by Seneca (two have since been discredited), seven of which had been published individually in the 1550s and 60s.

Seneca’s plays have a number of distinctive features. These include the use of soliloquy; supernatural elements such as ghosts and witches; spectacle; violence and blood; cruelty and revenge; elevated rhetoric; self-reflection and self-consciousness; moral commentary; and explorations of the passions and their restraint based on the stoic belief that emotions are destructive and should be overcome with self-control and reason.

Seneca’s influence on Shakespeare and English drama

The plays had a strong influence on drama in Elizabethan England (both directly and via works from the later Middle Ages that had also assimilated Senecan tropes). This influence is particularly evident in the genre of revenge tragedy, an early example of which is Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587). The centrality of Seneca to English tragedy of the period is felt when Polonius singles out the Roman playwright in his description of the travelling players: ‘Seneca cannot be too heavy’ (Hamlet, 2.2.400).

Shakespeare’s early plays show clear familiarity with Seneca’s Latin texts. Verbal echoes can be seen in, for example, Titus Andronicus and Richard III. But there is also a more indirect and creative influence felt throughout the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. This is well summed up by T S Eliot as ‘the penetration of Senecan sensibility’.

This influence is so widespread it can even be detected in non-tragic works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which contains verbal echoes and dramatic parody, for example in Bottom’s attempt at ‘Ercles’ (Hercules) in Act 1, Scene 2. Seneca was also one of the primary models for the five-act structure of Renaissance drama.

Seneca’s Medea and Shakespeare’s Macbeth

The digitised extract is the opening speech from John Studley’s translation of Medea, a play in which the title character – a noblewoman and witch – kills her own children to avenge herself on her husband Jason, who betrayed her. In this speech, Medea invokes Hecate to help her get revenge by killing Jason and his line. She visualizes the slaying of her own children, urging herself to courage by banishing her femininity: ‘Exile all foolish Female feare’. The scene ends with an image of Medea’s bloody hands. There are parallel ideas, images and emotions in Lady Macbeth’s invocation to the spirits to unsex her and fill her with cruelty (Macbeth, 1.5.40–54), and her incitement of her husband to courage by her fantasy of child murder (1.7.54–59).

Studley’s translation is written in ‘fourteeners’, a poetic form consisting of rhymed couplets of 14-syllable lines. The form was popular for translations of Latin verse in the early Tudor period, but it is long-winded and unwieldy and was not adopted on the English stage, which preferred blank verse.