Historical context and reception

During his life, Seneca (4-5 B.C.E.-65 C.E.) was famous for his writings on Stoic philosophy and rhetoric and became "one of the most influential men in Rome" when his student, Nero, was named emperor in 54 C.E.[3] Phaedra is thought to be one of Seneca's earlier works, most likely written before 54 C.E.[1] Historians generally agree that Seneca did not intend for his plays to be performed in the public theaters of Rome, but rather privately recited for gatherings of fashionable and educated audiences. Since Phaedra was not meant to be acted, historian F.L. Lucas states that Seneca's writing, "tends to have less and less action, and the whole burden is thrown upon the language."[5]

The structure and style of Senecan tragedies such as Phaedra have exerted great influence on drama throughout the ages, particularly on tragedy in the time of Shakespeare. Technical devices such as asides and soliloquies, in addition to a focus on the supernatural and the destructive power of obsessive emotions can all be traced back to Seneca.[3] The influence of Phaedra in particular can further be seen in dramas of 16th and 17th century France with Robert Garnier's Hippolyte (1573) and Racine's Phèdre (1677). According to historian Helen Slaney, Senecan tragedy "virtually disappeared" in the 18th century as drama became more regulated and "sensibility supplanted horror."[6] Seneca's Phaedra saw a resurgence of influence in the 20th century with productions of Tony Harrison's Phaedra Britannica (1975), Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love (1996). According to Slaney, today the dramas of Seneca "remain a touchstone for creative practitioners seeking to represent the unrepresentable."[6]

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