Seneca’s Phaedra; An analysis of the play and its production highlights

Seneca’s Phaedra

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Seneca’s Phaedra


Seneca’s Phaedra is one of the most besought classical plays of all time that has survived getting awash with civilization and new-age cultures and traditions. Even though the entire story is based on Euripides’ Hippolytus that was termed as too raciness and explicit to the audience at the time, it reveals the character of Phaedra in a more human way. Her errs are depicted to be part of human nature and focus is shifted from her actual atrocious act to the circumstances leading up-to her actions. Seneca did a great job at bringing to light various worthy themes as depicted in the play which may include: women, lust, love, civilization and beauty. The use of the Chorus in the play played a hug part in directed the attention of the audience and making them empathize with all the characters; most importantly, Hippolytus, Theseus and Phaedra who retained the spotlight of the play. The monologue of the Chorus helps us follow the story step by step and offers a smooth transition from one act to the next. The play therefore, follows a concise chronological order of events that is enthralling to the audience and captivating to their attention. The conservative nature of the dialogue maintained in scenes such as Phaedra’s confession of undying love to Hippolytus is appealing to the conservatives while still maintaining the depth of graveness with which her actions implied. Seneca also alludes to Greek mythology in some instances which makes the play adaptable in both Roman and Greek audiences. The nature of adaptability of this play, alongside its authentic and raw nature of delivery has enabled it retain relevance even in the world today. Despite the guiles of human evolution and increase of immorality today, this text remains an object of extensive knowledge, history and morality hence its adoption in most schools’ curriculum. In this paper, we shall give an overview of Seneca’s Phaedra, its interpretation and relevance today, as well as the means of production I would employ to direct the play based on various scenes.

Overview of Seneca’s Phaedra

The play begins with Hippolytus and a band of huntsmen preparing for a hunt. In this preamble, he is portrayed as a brave hunter and a great leader to his men. As the men head out on the hunt, Phaedra is shown lamenting at how forlorn she is, since her husband and king, Theseus has left to accompany his friend, Pirithous, to the underworld in pursuit of the king’s wife, Proserpina, in order to marry her. It has been 4 years since Theseus left and Phaedra is beginning to have unchaste thought of her stepson, Hippolytus. In this scene, we understand the source of her lust to be a curse placed on her lineage beginning from her mother. Phaedra has been trying to contain these thoughts of adultery within her and she tires only to lament to her Nurse about it. The Nurse tries to reason with Phaedra – but since Phaedra is adamant to listen and prefers death as a last resort – she decides to help her by talking to Hippolytus. Credence is given to Cupid, son to Venus whose arrows of love have been shot and scattered all over, even affecting the gods themselves who concede to the power of love.

The Nurse goes to the altar of goddess Diana and is seen to pray to her to change the heart of Hippolytus and implore his heart to soften towards women. Coincidentally, Hippolytus is at the same altar offering sacrifice and is surprised to see the Nurse, questioning her on her reasons for visiting the altar. The Nurse deflects and begins to question Hippolytus on the reasons for his hatred for women yet he is the first male seed of an Amazonian race. While doing this, she tries cajoling him into enjoying his youthful energy. Hippolytus tells her off while alluding to the deceitfulness of women, the peacefulness of nature before civilization and the fulfilling nature of his lonesome life in the wild. He is somewhat glad that his mother died so he can now hate all women. When Hippolytus comes back to the palace, he meets Phaedra dressed in the guise of an Amazonian woman. In this scene, Phaedra eventually confesses her love to Hippolytus who, on hearing that chastises her with his words and shuns her thoughts and actions as immoral. He takes his sword and is about to slay Phaedra who is happy to die by his hand, but when she claims so, Hippolytus leaves in a fit of rage. The Nurse enacts her plan to save her queen and calls onto the servants and residents of the king’s court claiming that Hippolytus raped Phaedra and left his sword.

In the last part of this play, Theseus acquires his freedom and comes back to the palace to find news of his son taking advantage of his stepmother. He curses Hippolytus and later a messenger brings news of his death brought about by a sea creature and he gets caught up in his reins to be tore apart piece by piece. Theseus is sad but chooses not to show his sadness due to Hippolytus’ actions towards his stepmother. When Hippolytus corpse is brought before them, Phaedra is consumed with sorrow and remorse. She confesses of her immoral actions and is ashamed to the point of slaying herself using Hippolytus’ sword. Theseus holds a worthy cremation burial ceremony for his deceased son Hippolytus on realization of the truth. Theseus orders that his wife’s body be buried in an unworthy manner saying, “As for the woman, dig a grave and cover her body with soil – may the earth weigh heavily upon her wicked soul.” This was a shameful burial according to Roman customs and traditions.

Interpretation and Relevance

The play, Phaedra, by Seneca offers invaluable knowledge and virtues necessary during its time as well as in the world today. The play alludes to a patriarchal system of rule where kings ruled kingdoms and men claimed women as their rightful prizes after war. Even though Phaedra’s actions are not justified, it is clear that she has no control over her emotions. Her impure thoughts are as a result of a lineage curse due to her mother’s indiscretions. Pasiphae fulfilled her desire giving birth to Minotaur – a half-man, half-bull and was the object of scorn that led to the curse. Seneca highlighted these instances that led up-to Phaedra’s actions and depicted her as a woman that had desires, tried to pursue them making grave mistakes and later bemoaning her decisions and taking her own life due to her shame.

The play is relevant to the world today as it refers to the Bible story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. The actions of Phaedra are alike in several ways to this Bible story and some scholars infer the incident in the Bible to originate from Seneca’s Phaedra. Intimate relations between family members is frowned upon by most communities in the world today. It is termed as a taboo and most people with such desires are forced to withhold them to avoid public shaming. While it is not entirely proper to indulge in incest we cannot deny the great power of love, lust and desire. It is overwhelming and may result in poor judgement even by the greatest people by societal standards. The play seeks to encourage virtues of temperament where great desire seeks to destroy the natural order of things. Love is powerful but strong self-will will always prevail if we desire to god.

Production of the play

Stage setting

Stage lighting

The play, Phaedra, by Seneca holds a melancholic mood in major scenes all through the play. The characters seem to harbour reservations as appertaining to the decisions and actions surrounding Phaedra’s uncanny yearnings. As such, I would employ sombre dim lighting to envision such scenes. The set would portray the disappointment of both man and nature in the wavering self-will of Phaedra to the point of disgracing herself in public. It would also show the unrequited death that befalls Hippolytus after Phaedra’s accusations through her Nurse. The burial of Phaedra would be shrouded in grief and shame for her actions and eventual demise.

Stage clothing and adornment

The Romans had a unique nature of dressing and adornment that was unique compared to peoples of other nations. Persons of royal blood were usually dressed in robes dyed in purple and gold. Such an instance of dressing is illustrated when Phaedra laments from the upper balcony about how frustrated she is due to her lust for her stepson Hippolytus. It is also clear that she wears necklaces and snow-white pearls on her ears. Her locks are usually braided and properly done. Consequently, the actor playing Phaedra shall wear attire befitting a queen – purple and golden robes, with a necklace and pearl earrings. The cast of the play will all be dressed in traditional Roman clothing. Such may include: loose robes for the subjects while skirts and steel armoured ornaments would be worn by soldiers.

In order for the cast to emulate the ideal Roman setting and enable the audience envision the play through the Romans’ point of view, I would dress the actors in neoclassical robes with Roman origin. Being a play depicting a host of tragic events, I would have the actors dress in old robes loosely worn around them for dramatic flair and a captivating performance. Makeup would be caked on the women’s faces to mimic the Romanian women with their hair braided up and covered. The men would be made to look tanned since the play’s setting dictates that they are hunters and warlords who, in essence, spend most of their time in the fields and forests. Subsequently, they have been exposed to the sunlight creating a brown tan on their skins.

Staging instances that have a huge bearing on the decision for a Roman setting

This play by Seneca is based upon the Roman traditions and cultures which stem from the Greek mythology of gods and goddesses. In essence, it puts into perspective the driving forces of the human life which are: love, lust, beauty and women. Based on the following instances in the play I decided that I would stage it in a Roman/Greek amphitheatre.

Example 1:

The beginning of the play gives credence to the Greek/Roman way of life where brave men/soldiers went out to hunt or for war. Hippolytus in this scene, urges his men forward ordering them to go to distant lands and conquer. While, the words in the play show that they are going out to hunt, the text may also imply that they were preparing to go to war. In the prologue, it is clear that Theseus sired Hippolytus after an act of war. Therefore, I would stage this play in a Roman/Greek amphitheatre in order to take advantage of the aspect of war, bravery and conquer present. The props used would also constitute garments of war, in essence, body armour.

Example 2:

Seneca’s Phaedra uses numerous inferences to the Greek gods like: Venus, Jupiter, and Hercules among others. On a Greek stage, such characters would be appreciated by the use of visual figures that show such power and greatness. Theseus prays to his father, Neptune when he comes back home to hear that his son ravished his wife. In answer to Theseus’ prayer, Neptune sends a sea-monster that results in Hippolytus’ death. As such, a Greek stage, would be ideal for the production of this play.

Example 3:

During the burial ceremonies for both Phaedra and Hippolytus, Roman traditions were enacted. A befitting burial for a Roman is done for Hippolytus once Theseus realizes the rashness of his actions towards his own son. He shows remorse and offers his son the best send-off while denying the same privilege to his wife. Instead, he orders that Phaedra be buried and sand heaped on her body as an eternal torment and punishment for her actions. A Roman stage would therefore, be the best fit for this play.

After great consideration of all the factors surrounding the production of this play, I would stage it on a Roma stage. Even though some major scenes involving Greek mythology may be present, the Roman amphitheatre may offer more advantage to the enactment of the play due to its Roman origins.


Seneca’s Phaedra is a play that offers some of the most deliberately sensual and yet relevant aspects of modern-day living. It has proved to be an invaluable teaching resource in both formal and informal learning hence becoming the subject of great admiration and conservation. Through the language in the conveyance of the message through the chorus and song scenes in the play, the audience’s attention is held and this offers great suspense as to what happens next in the play. Consequently, Phaedra by Seneca is knowledge-filled resource that is as relevant now, as it was in its time.


Seneca. Phaedra and Other Plays. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by R. Scott Smith. Penguin Books


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