SENECA: AGAMEMNON

A.J. Boyle (ed., with Intro., Trans. and Comm.)

OUP (2019) h/b 600pp £120.00. (ISBN 9780198810827)

This play has rightly been called the most experimental of all of Seneca’s tragedies, and it is certainly a very different beast from Aeschylus’ play of the same name.  Seneca’s title character only makes his (brief) appearance at line 778 and his murder is recounted (867-909) by Cassandra in a clairvoyant vision while the grisly event happens off stage: the play opens with the prophetic ghost of Thyestes and ends with the death of the prophetic Cassandra, whose demise leaves the play without formal closure in the cycle of violence which is paused rather than ended.  The final scene switches attention to Electra and little Orestes, before Cassandra herself is despatched violently (furiosa morere! [‘Rage and die!] shouts Clytemnestra) at the very end of the play as the hapless Trojan prophetess goes Stoically (see p. cxv) to her death while her murderers rant in a state of very un-Stoic passion.   The play has a wonderfully long and graphic messenger speech from Eurybates (421-578) detailing the storm at sea which beset the returning Greeks—a scene which B. calls ‘one of the most powerful “high-spots” of any of Seneca’s plays’ (p.275) and which dominates the central act of the play.  Cassandra is given many of the best lines of the play, and it is interesting to watch Seneca using changes of metre (such as that from iambic trimeters to iambic lyrics at 759) and registers of language to show her increasing mental collapse and emotional volatility.

B. seems to be working his way through the entire Senecan dramatic corpus in fine editions such as this from OUP: Agamemnon is his fifth play, after wonderful editions of Octavia (2008) Oedipus (2011) Medea (2014) and Thyestes (2017).  There already exists a ground-breaking edition of this play by Richard Tarrant (Cambridge, 1976) (and B. is generous in acknowledging his debt to his predecessor) but it has to be said that B.’s edition is suited to a wider audience than that of the Cambridge ‘Orange’ series.  This edition is aimed at readers with little (or even no) Latin as much as scholars, although readers need to be familiar with metrical terminology to get the most out of B.’s detailed and perceptive analysis of the verse.  The lengthy introduction to this volume uses and adapts some general material from the introductions to his other editions in this series (most obviously on matters such as ‘Seneca and Rome’ and the ‘Roman Theatre’) but there are excellent original sections pertaining to this play, its myth and its reception.  

The apparatus criticus is not presented in footnote form but confined to nine separate pages (78-87) away from the text, followed by a list of the 58 places where B.’s text differs from Zwierlein’s OCT, differences which are all discussed in the commentary.  The translation facing the text is intended to be performable as well as faithful and is set out in lines matching (where possible) the lines of text facing them; B. also adds his own full and imaginative stage-directions to the translation.  The lemmata in the commentary are links to the text and translation simultaneously, thus keeping the Latinless reader in the loop, and all Latin and Greek quotations are translated in the notes. Due attention is paid throughout to the reception of the play—see for instance his interesting comments on the links between this play and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (cxxviii-cxxix) and his comments on fortuna in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama (p. 143), as well as some sensitive comparisons between this play and grand opera (e.g. p. 248).  The commentary deals well with Stoic matters (e.g. 34-6 on natura) and on factual matters (such as the nature of the Roman trumpet at 428) as well as stylistic effects (he is especially helpful on the metre throughout, as well as on literary effects such as alliteration [643-4] and he uses a discussion of the use of stichomythia and antilabe to argue that these texts were composed for performance rather than merely recitation [pp. 187-8]):  he also discusses (pp. 139-140) vital staging issues such as where the chorus would stand in a Roman (unlike a Greek) theatre and how this alters their profile as part of the drama (‘their dancing and movement were reduced in scale  from the chorus of the fifth-century Attic theatre’) but also lends them greater flexibility in contrast to the static old men of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.  Scenes such as the ‘Hercules ode’ (808-66) show B.’s massive strengths as a commentator:  he unpacks the importance of Hercules in previous literature and also in more recent Roman history and also dissects the language of the ode with a mastery of the tradition and the originality of Seneca’s verse. Seneca was a sophisticated and self-conscious dramatist, much given to metatheatrical effects—see for example B.’s excellent notes on the ‘internal audience’ (pp. 389-90) and its use in later drama and see also pp. cxvii-cxviii for more on the theatricality expected and indulged by this most artful of Roman dramatists. B. is always alert to the sensitivities of the Roman audience and has some excellent things to say about the topic of regicide before a Roman audience ‘whose cultural memory included the assassination of the “Agamemnonian” Pompey, Julius Caesar, (almost certainly) Caligula and possibly (but probably not) Claudius.  If the play is Claudian, regicide committed by a ruler’s wife would have been disturbingly prophetic.’ (p.cxvi)  This is the sort of discussion which at once raises the edition to a higher level of awareness than we have any right to demand of an editor but which B. supplies time and again.

It is hard to imagine this edition being superseded and (with introductory matter, at 745 pages) one cannot really demand any more from an editor.  The level of detail is enormous but does not feel cumbersome, and the reader is guided in every aspect of this play by B.’s friendly and enthusiastic authority.  There are 48 pages of ‘select’ bibliography, an index of Latin words, an index of passages from other plays in the Senecan corpus and a general index.  The book is superbly produced and edited, and while it is expensive in its hardback form it is to be hoped that a paperback version will in due course be issued to bring it to the wider audience it deserves. 

John Godwin

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room