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Title: Echoes of the Republican past : Seneca's tragic chorus and earlier Latin literature
Author: Allendorf, Tobias Simon
ISNI:       0000 0004 7232 6552
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2017
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The chorus in tragedy is one means by which memories of the past and of things external to the play's main action are introduced into the tragic experience. Moreover, according to Schlegel's influential characterisation of the chorus's role in Greek tragedy, the chorus represents the 'idealised spectators' of tragedy. As one of its key functions, the chorus performs, Schlegel posits, the role of 'virtual', intra-textual spectators of the tragedies, and provides guidance for the actual, extra-textual spectators of the plays, assumed to be thrown into a state of emotional turmoil by the dramatic action. In other words, the chorus initiates a dialectic that is central to the experience of tragedy: that between affective participation and cognitive distance. The chorus would thus fulfil its highest potential when it sings (recites, and speaks) from a position of detached spectatorship, leading the audience to contemplation of something more abstract – something greater – beyond the depths of tragic despair. Citing Schlegel at the outset of a study of Senecan tragedy may be a rather bold move given his influential negative attitude towards the plays, a view that was to help shape – and hinder – scholarship on Seneca's tragedies for decades to come. His views on the Greek chorus, however, throw one crucial aspect about Seneca's tragic poetics into relief: if the chorus fulfilled the role of 'idealised spectators' at the beginning of Graeco-Roman drama, the picture is different at the end of the extant tradition, in the Roman tragedies of the poet and philosopher Seneca the Younger. Scholars have long noted the many peculiarities in Seneca's handling of the chorus. To many, the chorus has seemed far from central to the Senecan tragedies, 'designed to fade from view as necessary and to yield priority to the actors'. If the chorus in Greek tragedy provided pathways to contemplation and reflection from a position of spectatorship that was distanced from the dramatic action, one of the curious mechanisms of the Senecan chorus's distance towards the tragic action would be one of blatant ignorance: although interested in and affected by the action, the chorus often seems unaware of what is happening during the spoken episodes. A case in point is the fourth choral ode in Thyestes, where the chorus, in a state of anxiety and bewilderment, sings about the end of the world – without even showing any awareness of Atreus' atrocious murders narrated by the messenger in the previous act. As Hill puts it in his analysis of Seneca's chorus, 'the ode ... dwells on thoughts that must be imagined to have been felt by remoter onlookers, not privileged, like the audience, with full information'. Or, to give another example, the second chorus in Troades, whose assumptions about death are, scholars have argued, curiously at odds with the previous dramatic action. When it comes to the chorus's role as potentially 'idealised' spectators, guiding the reactions of audiences and readers, the Senecan chorus, despite moralising and more philosophically-inspired odes, ultimately fails. The second component Schlegel brought out as a key function of the Greek chorus is to represent 'above all and first of all the common spirit of the nation'. According to him, the chorus in Attic tragedy was vital as the voice of the popular collective. This feature of the chorus is not too dissimilar in Senecan tragedy, where the chorus also represents the voice of the collective in the face of the tragic protagonists. In a recent article, Tarrant suggests that 'the disjunction that is often visible between the perspective of the chorus and that of the protagonists is a deliberate choice by Seneca, and that it reflects the position of the Roman people in an imperial environment'. The present thesis will be concerned with both features – the chorus's (non-)distance as spectators of the tragic action and various forms of its function as a collective of citizens recalling the Republican past – as foci through which one can better understand the role of the chorus in Senecan tragedy. My study arrives at these two crucial features in Seneca's choral odes through reading the Senecan chorus from the perspective of literary history, employing the methodology of allusion and intertextuality. In this area, the role of the chorus in Senecan poetics and intertextuality is at least as important as the dialogic parts of the plays. It is, however, not the aim of the present study to attempt a systematic description of all of Seneca's choral odes. Nor is this a study which describes comprehensively the dramatic function of Seneca's choruses and their respective relationships to the surrounding dramatic action. What will be revealed in my analysis of key moments from several of Seneca's choral odes is one central characteristic of the Senecan chorus: by approaching Seneca's odes via their engagement with earlier Latin literature, one can see how the chorus, far from watching and speaking from a detached vantage point, very often displays no distance from the dramatic action. They are as engaged in the unfolding of the tragedies as the other characters in the plays. Theirs is not usually a worked-through, lyric version of emotions to 'ease' the audience's 'impression of a deeply unsettling or deeply moving representation', as Schlegel put it about the Greek chorus. There are two implications of such a dramatic construction for the actual audience and readers: either they remain in confusion and emotional disarray like the involved chorus or they realise, through the chorus as the didactic instrument of a negative example, that the rational response to tragedy would be to create distance and detachment, to avoid emotional involvement like that of the Senecan chorus.
Supervisor: Harrison, Stephen ; Reinhardt, Tobias Sponsor: Arts and Humanities Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available