The Tragic Model of the Day

And I’m not talking Kate Moss. … I’m talking Senecan Tragedy.

Seneca (the Younger) was a Roman playwright (as well as politician and philosopher), who worked in the first century A.D.  Some of his plays reworked stories of earlier Greek writers (like Sophocles), but in his hands, the plays had a greater focus on the terrible deeds that precipitate the tragic hero’s fall.  Sometimes witches and ghosts were employed to bring about actions (or reactions) by the characters, often prompting them to revenge.

So what does a first century Roman playwright have to do with Titus Andronicus?

and, no, Seneca did not write an earlier version of Titus

His works had been lost to history until the mid-sixteenth century, when his manuscripts were uncovered.  This discovery led to a resurgence of tragedy as a popular genre of plays, and influenced many Elizabethan playwrights.  A notable example is Thomas Kyd, who in the late 1580s, wrote a play called The Spanish Tragedy, which was filled with revenge and death (plus a ghost and a play-within-a-play… elements not used here, but which would be employed later by Shakespeare later, in a little play we like to call Hamlet).

The Spanish Tragedy became one of the biggest hits of the day.  And what’s a young playwright like Shakespeare to do, but to go with the prevailing trend (remember Francis Coppola directed Dementia 13 before The Godfather, and James Cameron Piranha Part Two: The Spawning [and is that a great title, or what!?!] before The Terminator).  Think of it as a bold land-grab for attention, a way for a young playwright to show his stuff, work in a genre that would be more likely to hit, and to play with the conventions of the genre.

Mission accomplished:

  • Shakespeare, after working neo-classic farce in The Comedy of Errors, was able to show a little versatility with this neo-Senecan horrorshow called Titus.
  • It was the first big hit of his career: Titus was one of his first plays published, which meant other theater companies were interested in mounting productions… and media companies (then and today) like to make money and are loathe to risk that money on unproven entities (both scripts AND writers).
  • Titus is filled with both Senecan and Kyd-ian horrors and revenge… but it also plays with broad (though sick) comedy.

Shakespeare won’t write another tragedy for another five years or so, when he tackles Romeo and Juliet (another play with lil’-bit-o’ revenge), and then not another until the turn of the century with Julius Caesar (with great Caesar’s ghost) and Hamlet (ghost? check. revenge? check. huge climactic body count? check.).

Later this month, we’ll take a look how this tragedy isn’t like the rest of his work… but that’s later.  For now, let’s just thank Seneca and Kyd (or blame them, depending on your view of Titus) for the inspiration.

Thanks, guys.