Thyestes: Crossing into Tyranny
Illustrated by Marianne Lavergne
Two weeks ago I went to see the ancient tragedy Thyestes, organized by McGill University’s Classics department. The play, written by the dramatist and philosopher Seneca the Younger (4 BCE – 65 CE), tells of the revenge that Atreus, king of Mycenae, exacts on his treacherous brother Thyestes. The play is a dark interpretation of an equally dark Greek myth. In Seneca’s version, we learn that Thyestes committed adultery with Atreus’ wife and usurped the throne, only to be later banished by his brother. Fuming at the dishonour which has been done to him, Atreus hatches a diabolical plot to avenge himself: he calls Thyestes back from exile under the pretext of wishing to rule as a joint king with him; however, unbeknownst to Thyestes, Atreus butchers the former’s sons, and then serves their flesh and blood to their unsuspecting father at a banquet. After Thyestes has finished his foul meal, the dreadful truth is revealed to him. Day turns to night and the stars disappear as the unholy deed is revealed. The play ends with a horrified and grief-stricken Thyestes pleading to the gods for their divine intercession.
The atmosphere throughout the play is oppressive – one could even say claustrophobic – and Seneca’s language, though undoubtedly elegant, is frequently gruesome. For instance, when recounting the murder of Thyestes’ sons, a messenger from the palace exclaims to the audience: “O crime incredible to any age, which coming generations will deny – torn from the still living breasts the vitals quiver; the lungs still breathe and the fluttering heart still beats. But he handles the organs and enquires the fates, and notes the markings of the still warm entrails” (ll. 753-758). Lines such as these are meant to evoke the heinousness of Atreus’ action, which is even more despicable given that the victims are his nephews. Ultimately, Seneca is demonstrating that when passion overcomes reason, man is prey to the worst kind of excesses. When the borders between reason and madness are crossed, humanity is lost. As evidence of this, by the end of the play, the remorseless Atreus remains unsatisfied, saying that “even this [i.e. the murders and the banquet] is not enough for [him]” (l. 1053).
Although such cruelty can be disturbing, we must understand the context of the play’s composition. Seneca worked as an advisor to Emperor Nero. The violence and sheer madness of Thyestes can thus be seen as an echo of the political atmosphere of the time. Embedded within the complex dialogue is also a critique of unjust authority. For example, upon learning of Atreus’ intentions, one of his attendants shrewdly remarks: “Where [there] is no shame, no care for right, no honour, virtue [nor] faith, sovereignty is insecure” (ll. 255-257). Given the background of the author, we cannot help but see in this statement a comment on the instability and tyranny of Nero’s regime.
The pessimism is what ultimately struck me the most when watching the play. The devouring hatred of a brooding brother, the murders, the cannibalism, the darkening of the skies, all of these contribute to its bleak tone. But there is one additional detail which I have not yet mentioned: before shifting to the story of Atreus and Thyestes, the play begins in the Underworld, where a Fury, or deity of retribution, is tormenting the ghost of the titan Tantalus. Now, Tantalus is the grandfather of Atreus and Thyestes, damned to eternal starvation and thirst by the gods of Olympus for having sacrificed his son Pelops and offered his mutilated body to the gods at a feast (sound familiar?). As a punishment, Tantalus is made to stand in a pool of water with a fruit-laden branch hanging overhead: every time he stretches his arm to pick a fruit, the tree vanishes, and every time he bends to drink from the pool, the water dries up (hence our verb ‘to tantalize’ in the sense of keeping someone in a state of prolonged and vain expectation). In this first scene, the Fury curses the Titan’s descendants, and rejoices at the destruction she will bring. Initially, Tantalus desires to have no part in the curse, but in the end, he must bow to the Fury’s wishes and witness the undoing of his kin. In the following scene, when Atreus is possessed by vengeance, it is the spirits of Tantalus and of the Fury which spur him on.
The overwhelming quality of Thyestes is obviously a result of all this dark material. Another factor is the manner of the actual storytelling. Although he is dealing with a relatively short story, Seneca brilliantly brings out its inherent tension and emotion, juxtaposing scenes in such a fashion as to create great suspense. One such instance is placing the banquet scene immediately after the slaying of Thyestes’ sons. The audience, still reeling from the graphic descriptions of the murders, uneasily awaits the moment of revelation, and cringes at Atreus’ double entendres. Additional elements such as the speeches of the chorus (the group of men and women in ancient drama which provide context and comment on the action) as well as Thyestes’ “meditative soliloquies” increase the all-round feeling of anguish. Finally, the frequent occurrence of stichomythia, a rhetorical technique that contrasts short, alternating verses, helps highlight Atreus’ insatiable desire for vengeance, as can be seen in the following exchange from the beginning of the play, in which Atreus reveals his grim designs to one of his attendants:
What strange design does thy mad soul intend?
Naught that the measure of accustomed rage can hold; no crime will I leave undone, and no crime is enough.
‘Tis not enough.
Still not enough.
What weapon, pray, will thy great anguish use?
This plague is worse than passion.
I do confess it. (ll. 254-250)
The same sense of wicked delight is also evident in the closing dialogue between Atreus and his brother:
What was my children’s sin?
That they were thine.
Sons to the father –
Yea, and what gives me joy, surely thy sons.
I call on the gods who guard the innocent.
Why not the marriage-gods?
The gods will be present to avenge; to them for punishment my prayers deliver thee.
To thy sons for punishment do I deliver thee. (ll. 1100-1112)
Overall, what really surprised me was how different Thyestes, a Roman play, was from the traditional Greek tragedies I had studied in school. In Aeschylus or Sophocles, for example, the protagonist’s fall is precipitated by his tragic flaw, hybris, a kind of irreverent arrogance. In contrast, Seneca’s Thyestes is pitted against an implacable fate, doomed from the very beginning by forces greater than him. While I appreciate the powerful effect that this has, I would argue that the Greek model of self-destruction is ultimately more compelling. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Seneca’s plays enjoyed an immense popularity during the Renaissance, and elements of the dramatist’s style, such as his emphasis on crime, revenge and the supernatural, made their way into Shakespeare’s work (most notably, Titus Andronicus and Hamlet). All things considered, I enjoyed my experience and thought that the amateur troupe did a good job at bringing the story of Thyestes to life. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go see (or read) any one of Seneca’s tragedies.
Arkins, Brian. “Heavy Seneca: His Influence on Shakespeare’s Tragedies.” Classic Ireland 2 (1995): 1-16.
Gill, N.S. “Oedipus of Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Michael Rutenberg’s Translation of Seneca’s Oedipus.” ancienthistory.about.com.
Seneca. Thyestes. Trans. Frank Justus Miller. 1917. <http://www.theoi.com/Text/SenecaThyestes.html>
The original Latin version can be found here: