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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IV. Early English Tragedy

§ 14. Popular translation of the Ten Tragedies of Seneca

It seems unnecessary to pursue the fortunes of the academic drama further here; it had given to the stage standards of regularity and dignity of which that stage was sorely in need, and it had bestowed upon tragedy the blank verse which was to become its recognised means of expression. We must now turn our attention to those players of “common Interludes in the Englishe tongue” who were continually harried by the London civic authorities, and alternately repressed and encouraged by the queen. The organisation of strolling players and noblemen’s servants into regular companies, and the building of the first theatres, gave the drama the standing of a profession, and attracted to it university wits, who were soon to raise it to the dignity of an art. Whatever might be the amount of their Latin, popular dramatists were not without respect, according to their lights, for the authority of Seneca; they probably studied the tragedies at school, and were, perhaps, taught as Hoole, one of the masters at Rotherham, recommended, “how and wherein they may imitate them, and borrow something out of them.” The translation of Tenne Tragedies published in 1581 gave even those devoid of classical lore the chance of making themselves acquainted with some, at least, of Seneca’s characteristics. Troas had appeared as early as 1559, and all the other plays except Thebais by 1566. Some, at any rate, of the versions were intended, as Nevyle says of Oedipus, for “tragicall and pompous showe upon stage,” but it is not known whether they were ever acted. In any case, their influence upon writers for the popular stage is beyond doubt. It was not against the dramatists of the inns of court (they were university men and went to the original Latin, as their versions show) that Thomas Nashe, in the prefatory epistle to Greene’s Menaphon (1589), directed his jibe, “Seneca let bloud line by line and page by page, at length must needes die to our stage”: it was against “a sort of shifting companions … that could scarcelie latinize their neckeverse if they should have neede.” To these

  • English Seneca read by candle light yeeldes manie good sentences, as Bloud is a begger, and so foorth: and if you intreate him faire in a frostie morning, he will affoord you whole Hamlets, I should say handfulls of tragical speaches.
  • It is not easy to give chapter and verse in support of Nashe’s accusation—he was too reckless a controversialist to be able always to prove his statements by detailed evidence—but the general inference to be made from his attack upon contemporary dramatists is beyond question. Kyd, Marlowe and Marston saved their credit as scholars by quoting Seneca in the original, but the first-named—and he is probably the particular object of Nashe’s invective—also copied from Seneca without acknowledgment. All three were indebted to him for the type of sensational and rhetorical tragedy which they made popular, and smaller men, whose work has now perished, would be no less affected. Elizabethan tragedy adopted not only Seneca’s five acts, and occasionally his choruses, his stock characters—especially the prologuising ghost—and his philosophical commonplaces, but his exaggerated passions, his crude horrors and his exuberant rhetoric. In the induction to A Warning for Faire Women (1599)—a play which, itself, is an example of the faults it condemns—the typical Elizabethan tragedy is described as telling
  • How some damn’d tyrant to obtain a crown
  • Stabs, hangs, impoisons, smothers, cutteth throats:
  • And then a Chorus, too, comes howling in
  • And tells us of the worrying of a cat:
  • Then, too, a filthy whining ghost,
  • Lapt in some foul sheet, or a leather pilch,
  • Comes screaming like a pig half stick’d,
  • And cries, Vindicta!—Revenge, Revenge!