Only one specimen of Roman tragedy has come down to us, and it would be unfair to form from it a judgement of the lost works of other times. This is in the tragedies which pass under the name of Seneca. Even his claim to their authorship seems to be very ambiguous, and perhaps is grounded mainly on a circumstance which ought rather to have led to a contrary conclusion, namely, that Seneca himself is among the dramatis personæ in one of them, the Octavia. The learned are divided in their opinions on the subject. Some assign the dramas that pass by his name partly to the philosopher and partly to his father, the rhetorician; others assume the existence of a poet named Seneca, distinct from both. On this point, however, all are agreed, that the plays are not entirely from one hand, but belong even to different ages. For the honor of Roman taste one would fain hold them to be after-births of a very late era of antiquity, but Quintilian quotes a verse from the Medea, which we actually find in the extant piece of that name, so that the plea will not hold good for this play, which seems, moreover, not to be greatly superior to the rest. We find also in Lucan, a contemporary of Nero, the very same style of bombast, which distorts every thing really great until it is converted into nonsense. The state of constant disturbance in which Rome was kept by a series of blood-thirsty tyrants led to similar outrages in rhetoric and poetry, and the same phenomenon has been observed in epochs of modern history. On the other hand, under the wise and mild government of a Vespasian and a Titus, and still more of a Trajan, the Romans returned to a purer taste.
But to whatever age these tragedies of Seneca may belong, they are beyond all description bombastic and frigid, utterly devoid of nature in character and action, full of the most revolting violations of propriety, and so barren of all theatrical effect that they were probably never intended to leave the schools of the rhetoricians for the stage. With the old tragedies, the highest of the creations of Greek poetical genius, these have nothing in common but the name, the exterior form and the mythological matter, and yet they set themselves up beside them in the evident intention of surpassing them, in which attempt they appear like a hollow hyperbole contrasted with a heart-felt truth. All is sacrificed for phrase, even the expressions of the simplest thoughts being forced and stilted. Every common-place of tragedy is pressed into service, and an utter poverty of mind is tricked out with a semblance of wit and acuteness. They have fancy too, or at least a phantom of it, while of the abuses of that faculty one may look to these plays for a speaking example. Their persons are neither ideal nor real, but misshapen giants and puppets, and the wire that sets them a-going is at one time an unnatural heroism, at another a passion alike unnatural, which no atrocity of guilt can appall.
In a sketch, therefore, of dramatic art, we might have wholly passed by the tragedies of Seneca, but that the fondness for all that remains to us from the ancient classics has attracted many imitators to these compositions. They were earlier and more generally known than the Greek tragedies. Scholars by no means destitute of poetical taste have judged favorably of them, nay, have preferred them to Greek tragedies, and great poets have deemed them worth perusing. The influence, for example, of Seneca on Corneille's notion of tragedy is too plain to be overlooked; Racine deigned to borrow much from him in his Phèdre, including nearly the whole of the scene in which the heroine declares her passion. And the same may be said without discredit of other modern dramatists who have acquired fame in their art, whether such fame be due to the thereby-imparted strength of limpidity and versatility of their styles.
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