Neil Bernstein

Bloomsbury (2017) h/b 151pp £58.50 (ISBN 9781474254922)

This splendid short book is the latest in the successful series of ‘Bloomsbury Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy’ and reading this book makes one wonder why the play is not read more often.

‘What is the worst misfortune that could strike the world’s greatest hero in his moment of ultimate triumph?’ is the opening sentence, and B. goes on to unpack and explore the meaning of heroism and how Seneca reassesses the familiar tale and retells it for a Roman audience. The book is helpfully laid out: the five chapters all adding to the analysis while building on what has gone before.

The book begins with a summary of the essentials:  the plot, an outline of the themes, and the elements of dramaturgy and social mores which modern readers need to be told before reading a Roman tragedy.

Chapter two takes us in more detail through the themes which make this play such a thought-provoking piece. Virtus is key to the play and to the Stoic ethical philosophy behind it. One particular area of interest is the degree to which the hero is (not) responsible for what happens to him and to his family. There is a similarity here with Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, where a character, wrongly imprisoned, refuses to plead guilty and so to take the parole which would help his struggling family who are awaiting his release—showing that to do the right thing may not always be the right thing to do. The nobility of Amphitryon’s (foster-paternal) love is also well explored as challenging the Roman aristocratic focus on lineage—and the contrast with the upstart arriviste Lycus is well set in a political and psychological landscape.

Chapter three (‘Monster-slayer, Moral Exemplar and Madman: Hercules’ Ancient Roles’) reminds us that Seneca was writing for a learned audience, and points out the intertextual links between this play and other accounts of the madness of Hercules in Euripides, Plautus, Virgil and Ovid. Myth is far from being set in stone, and the theatrical image of Hercules ranges from the drunken buffoon in Frogs to the victorious hero in Alcestis to the suffering man of steel in Heracles. It is a pity that B. did not find space to bring in the fascinating portrayal of the hero in Sophocles Trachiniae where the playwright explores the family theme from a very different angle—or his transforming appearance at the end of Philoctetes. B. constantly shows how Seneca’s choice of this story fitted his own protreptic purposes as seen in the letters and the essays, as well as being a good vehicle for the exploration of Roman values in the 1st century AD, as B. shows further in chapter four (‘Hercules Furens and Seneca’s Career’).

Chapter five finally takes us on a tour of the reception and performance history of the play, taking in the scope it afforded to Thespian Roman emperors such as Caligula as well as to Marlowe and Shakespeare, ending with Walt Disney. Hercules’ heroic madness remains a gift for the actor and it is not surprising that it has inspired directors through the centuries.  Hercules Furens is in many respects a nostos play and the image of the lonely conquering hero coming home and finding it hard to adjust to society and not always succeeding is one which has been adapted many times in the theatre and in the cinema.

All Latin and Greek are cited in translation, which is good for increasing the target audience but which thereby neglects the poetry of the play, but in a slim volume hard decisions have to be taken, and this is one which is at least consistently applied.  The thrust of the book is to see the play as rooted in Seneca’s thought and his times and to show how and why this play, for all its divine machinery and the rhetorical character of the text, remains highly relevant to us all.

John Godwin

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