Seneca’s Phaedra was modeled on Euripides’ Hippolytus, which told roughly the same story. It is not clear whether Phaedra was ever performed on stage in Seneca’s time. It seems likely that it was meant instead purely for recitation, as would befit its emphasis on long speeches, its small cast of characters, and its relative brevity when compared to certain Greek tragedies from which it clearly draws.
Despite this seemingly anti-dramatic quality of Seneca’s play, Phaedra, along with other Seneca tragedies, exerted a great deal of influence on the European theater that followed. For example, Seneca used the Chorus not merely as a rhetorical tool or a character of its own but as a de facto method of organization; his plays often depict five discrete events or turns of the plot, each separated from the other by a lengthy Chorus interjection. Thus, the Chorus suggests a five-act structure, later adopted by the Renaissance stage – which, of course, did away with the Chorus for the most part.
Much of the power of Phaedra in particular stems from the tension between the high emotionality, the violence and passion, of its storyline and the eloquent discourse through which Seneca, a famed orator, rhetorician, and Stoic philosopher, communicates the narrative. The characters are all figures of Greek mythology: Hippolytus famed for his beauty and his love of the hunt, Phaedra known as the daughter of King Minos of Crete and Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur. Theseus, of course, is the best-known of the play’s cast, celebrated as the brave young man who rid Athens of crime, invented wrestling, and slew the Minotaur. In Phaedra, however, his best years lie behind him; he is in Seneca’s vision a battered man, having crawled out from the underworld to find his palace beset by troubles. He is rash, hotheaded, and vengeful, with a terrible fury he does not know how to check. His wife, Phaedra, is not entirely sympathetic, but she does seem a victim of her own emotions, and Seneca even goes so far as to imply that her tormented feelings and confusion may stem in part from Theseus’ harshness as a husband.
Today, Phaedra is one of Seneca’s most widely-read works. Tight and compact, following Aristotelian form but even more elliptical in its design, it is a work of high passion reined in by carefully constructed language, one of the simplest and most brutal of ancient tragedies.