Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

'Take Up the Body': Early Modern English Translations of Seneca's Corpses

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

'Take Up the Body': Early Modern English Translations of Seneca's Corpses

Article excerpt

For years, scholars have demonstrated the debt that Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and others owe to Seneca for his plot devices, stock figures, language, and form.1 While many have noted Seneca's sensational 'stage indecencies' - including the 'horrible and bloody acts' that T. S. Eliot claimed had influenced the Elizabethan 'Tragedy of Blood' - few have looked to the aftermath of such violence, namely the presence and staging of the corpse in Seneca.2 This lack of critical attention to Seneca's corpses is more apparent when one looks to the early modern English translations of Seneca's plays, which stylistically emphasise the dead body and afford it an agency beyond its death. As I will argue, these English translators' embellishments of Seneca afford the corpse additional theatrical efficacy in that it acts beyond its death, thereby revealing an early modern sensitivity to what is nascent in Seneca - that is, the performative power of the corpse as achieved through its physical and active presence on the stage. In this way, early modern translators dramatise the contentious stability of the body after death, which ultimately reflects early modern England's cultural fascination over the corpse.3

The body is a fascinating subject to both early modern audiences and scholars of the period. The sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries in England are situated uneasily between two distinct epistemologies of the body: a dying, if not defunct, sacramental theology, and a nascent and dim scientific empiricism.4 The rise of the commercial theatre in the sixteenth century coincides with a period in which the body's meanings were being called into doubt and the theatre becomes the cultural site where it is possible to revisit, test, challenge, and transform religious, scientific, cultural, and political ideologies concerning the body.

Scholars have investigated how the religious and political upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulted in a heightened awareness of the body's signifying capacities. The work of Susan Zimmerman and Hillary Nunn specifically endeavours to demonstrate how Protestantism, anatomy, and drama were engaged over the meaning attached to the material body, focusing their studies on the corpse's relationship to early modern conceptions of subjectivity through Renaissance anatomical treatises and modern psychoanalytic theory.5 My analysis of the English translations of Seneca's corpses extends to that conversation in that it provides an early foundational text that inspired the playwrights discussed by Nunn and Zimmerman and illustrates both the legacy of classical drama as well as the influence of a culture very much concerned with how bodies signify through performance on and offthe stage.

Originally published in the 1560s and reprinted collectively in the 1580s, the early modern English translations of Seneca adapt, alter, and embellish the Roman poet's dramas and, in doing so, emphasise the theatrical corpse and its material significance. While I will consider several of the plays translated by Jasper Heywood and John Studley, my analysis here will pay particular attention to Thyestes (translated by Heywood and originally published in 1560) and Hippolytus (Seneca's Phaedra, translated by Studley and originally published in 1567), both of which reappear in Newton's 1581 anthology, Seneca His Tenne Tragedies Translated into English.6 I concentrate on these plays specifically because of their immense influence on later early modern dramatists and because they focus on the violent treatment of bodies, thereby highlighting the early modern English translators' compulsion to elaborate upon Seneca's treatment of the corpse7. My study begins with a consideration of bodies in Seneca's plays. Then, I provide a brief overview of translation during the early modern period before fully examining Heywood's and Studley's adaptations and extensions of the corpse in their translations of Seneca.

In Seneca's dramas there is an undeniable focus on the body, its inner and outer parts, as well as their penetration and dismemberment; the ideal of self-containment juxtaposed with the chaotic fracturing of the body. …

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