Oedipus of Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Michael Rutenberg's Translation's of Seneca's Oedipus

Oedipus and the Sphinx
Oedipus and the Sphinx. Clipart.com
I feel at this very moment,
the Fates are planning
some savage stroke against me.
What else should I think
when the blight that ravages Thebes
seem only to spare me
and those closest to me.
For what punishment am I reserved
that I remain unscathed amidst the devastation
that lays waste to everything in its path?

- Act I Oedipus

Oedipus of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, freely translated by Michael Rutenberg, makes Nero's advisor, the Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and his drama about the unlucky king who killed his father and married his mother, accessible to modern audiences.

The first quarter of the slim volume is devoted to locating Seneca in the history of philosophy and the genre of tragedy. The rest, a modern translation, with photographs from a production based on Rutenberg's adaptation, strips the ancient play of its arcane references to show the ancient legend's relevance for today.

Principles of Drama

Rutenberg stresses that Seneca follows both Aristotle's and Horace's dicta on tragic style. The five-act play has unity of action, time and place. A chorus separates each act. Since tragedy was out of vogue in Rome in Seneca's time, it is thought the play was performed privately for a court audience. For such a small production, taking the liberty of making the chorus a single actor makes sense, although this is an innovation of Rutenberg's. Going further, Rutenberg replaces abstruse references to mythology in the chorus' speeches with information on Stoic philosophy from Seneca's dialogues.

While Plato would seem to be in the camp of those advocates of television ratings and banning violence from the screen, Aristotle believed on-stage violence is cathartic.

In this, too, Seneca follows Aristotle by giving free reign to the bloody acts of mutilation and sacrifice. Rutenberg prefers to hold the sacrifices offstage. He says:

Rome's penchant for bloody stage events does nothing to further the action.
But that doesn't keep Rutenberg's drama from being gruesomely explicit:
[Chorus] All waited in terror for the inevitable moment --
the first irreversible sign
The legs weaken and go limp...
Red pustules appear upon the skin...
open and ooze their purulent filth
Burning, rushing fever swells the body.
Black blood bursts through the mouth and nose.
The eyes no longer see.

Differences Between Tragedies of Seneca and Sophocles

Comparing the tragedies of Seneca and Sophocles, Rutenberg points out two major differences.
  1. For Seneca, fate is inexorable and man is helpless against destiny:
    Of all the fortuitous ornaments that surround us --
    our children,
    positions of honor,
    a noble name,
    a beautiful wife,
    a multitude of friends --
    Each is dependent on the uncertain and capricious
    whims of Chance and Fate.
    while for Sophocles, tragedy is the result of a tragic flaw. This leads to the second difference.
  2. While both heroes suffer from hubris, Seneca's hero is guilt-ridden and open from the beginning to the notion that he may be implicated in the great Theban plague; whereas Sophocles' Oedipus is proud and imperious, practically having to be hit over the head with the truth before he'll admit his involvement.


For catharsis, the audience must experience pity and fear. Sophocles accomplishes this with a suspenseful plot, but Seneca goes one better, by adding mood:
It is Seneca's unique ability to create a pervasive and claustrophobic mood hovering over his characters like a blanket of thick smoke, choking them and us with the pain of recognition -- much like nuclear fallout after an exploded atom bomb, unstoppable devastation on its way, a modern god of vengeance visiting us on the wind -- that gives his plays such modern relevance.


Photos and text suggest ways to modernize or even futurize the drama while preserving the immortal message. Oedipus, whose feet were permanently swollen by an iron bar punched through them when he was an infant, wears orthopedic shoes. The 1999 Hunter College/Michael Rutenberg production was staged in an underground bunker with decontamination chamber. Laser weapons replaced swords. Rutenberg also provides stage directions for those interested in presenting the drama in the manner of wall paintings from 1st century A.D. Pompeii that may represent Senecan costume and drama.