’Shame need not deter me;
Daylight is gone. Yes…I need have no fear
While heaven itself is empty; gods have fled’ (V.893-895)
Thyestes was written by the much underrated Roman playwright Seneca between 30BC-65BC. It is remarkable for its treatment of morality and the relationship between divine law and humankind. Furthermore, Seneca's use of language is both beautiful and disturbing given the plays often bloody and unnerving subject matter.
It is unlikely that the story of Thyestes was originally created by Seneca. A fragment of a Thyestes play exists, written by the famed Greek playwright, Sophocles. Moreover, another Roman playwright wrote a Thyestes that was performed in 29BC and this was performed at that years games, given to celebrate the Roman victory of Actium. If the story wasn't originally Senecas, then he at least succeeded in making it his own through his treatment of it and his focus on the questionable existence of the gods. A bit of Greek mythological history is necessary to set the scene for the plot of the play (all this would have been well-known by the Roman audience). Zeus, the top God as it were, had a son called Tantalus, who in turn had a son called Pelops. However, Tantalus made the common mistake of murdering his own son and then serving him up at a banquet for the Gods. Zeus was none to happy when he found this out and so brought Pelops back to life. Unfortunately, Pelops turned out to be not much better than his father. Through treacherous and ruthless acts he established a grand empire and established the House of Pelops. He also had two sons, Atreus (father of Agamemnon) and Thyestes. They inherited their father's and grandfather's traits and were in constant battle with each other for control of the empire after their father's death. The play begins with Atreus in a position of power and Thyestes exiled, but posing a potential threat to Atreus.
The first scene of the play serves as something of a prelude to the main events. Tantalus returns in the form of a ghost and speaks to the Furies who inform him of some of what is to come to his descendents. The use of ghosts in this way became commonplace during Renaissance and Elizabethan drama, but Seneca’s usage of ghosts was most innovative at the time. It can be noted that there is a similarity between his usage here and the way Shakespeare used ghosts in Hamlet for example, especially at the beginning of the play. The Furies in this first scene know what is to come and hint at it, both for Tantalus’ and the audience’s benefit:
Thyestes does not know his children’s fate.
Now light the fire and make the cauldron boil!
Divide the bodies into little pieces!
Splash blood on the paternal hearth! Draw up,
And serve the banquet! Here will be one guest
Not unaccustomed to such villainies. (I.54-59)
Furthermore, they are used as a quick an easy way to remind the audience of the history of the family (very relevant to this story):
Tantalus’ infant son was infamously
Put to the sword, while running to kiss his father,
Slaughtered, a baby victim upon the alter,
By his own father’s hand, and cut to pieces,
Served as a dish to grace the godly table,
The consequences of this repast was hunger,
Hunger and thirst for all eternity. (I.139-145)
Such is Tantalus’ punishment for his original crime, that he must have an insatiable thirst and hunger forever.
Running throughout the play are themes of sin and punishment. The established ideas of morality are brought into question. Atreus muses about the possibility of Thyestes returning from his exile in order to overthrow him. He therefore decides to destroy Thyestes, mentally and spiritually by repeating his grandfather’s crime through murdering Thyestes’ sons and feeding them to him. In coming to this decision he must overcome the belief in the power of the gods and reject moral absolutism. He tells one of his ministers of his plan, who then states:
To harm a brother, even a guilty brother,
Must be a sin. (II.209-210)
Then later he asks, ‘Is nothing sacred?’ (II.253). In doing so, Seneca sets the minister up as the moral foil to Atreus who acts not immorally, but amorally, creating his own set of values as he progresses. Indeed, at the beginning of Act III, Atreus says, almost questioningly, ‘If there be any gods’ (III.5). The Chorus echoes Atreus’ move beyond religion and the gods:
Atreus alone, intent upon his purpose
Remained immovable, even defiant
Against the menacing gods (IV.709-711)
But the gods are no longer menacing. The power and confidence of human society in the time of Seneca has moved on to such a degree from the Ancient Greek societies that we now actually see the gods’ laws actively and deliberately violated.
Atreus carries out his plan, inviting Thyestes back from exile in the pretence that he now wishes to share the empire with him. He then slaughters the three sons mercilessly with Seneca likening him to first a tiger, then a lion, hungry for its prey. Seneca revels in the opportunity to describe the gory process and the murders, and then the cooking of the flesh:
The banquet for his brother; hacked the bodies
Limb from limb – detached the outstretched arms
Close to the shoulders – severed the ligaments
That tie the elbow joints – stripped every part
And roughly wrenched each separate bone away –
All this he did himself; only the faces,
And trusting suppliant hands, he left intact. (IV.774-780)
Thyestes is then severed with the unholy banquet and feasts on the flesh of his own sons. Atreus then happily reveals the decapitated heads he had saved and gleefully watches as Thyestes realises what has happened and what he has eaten. The play then closes with Thyestes leaving Atreus’ punishment to the gods. But the absence of any punishment within the play indicates that perhaps there will be no punishment for Atreus and it should also be noted that the gods do not intervene at any point. Atreus has taken fate into his own hands and the gods are dead (nearly two thousand years before Nietzsche
). A very controversial and shocking ending, especially when put in the context of Roman mythological society.