Monday, February 20, 2017

Polonius on the Tiber

My essay on essays a couple weeks ago prompted me to revisit a few essayists who have languished on my shelves. First up was the playwright, Roman statesman, Stoic philosopher, and pedagogue Seneca (1 BCE – 65 CE), who should not be judged too harshly for having had Nero as a student.

I occasionally (meaning every few years) revisit one or more of Seneca’s plays. The critical consensus regarding his tragedies has varied considerably over the centuries along with changing fashions. They are dark, gory, and melodramatic, which suits some eras better than others. I rather like them including Octavia, which he might or might not have written. Modern scholars tend to doubt his authorship of Octavia because its subject matter (Nero’s ill-treatment of his wife) would have been politically indiscreet to put it mildly; I consider this argument against his authorship persuasive but not definitive as he could have squirreled the play away to be published posthumously. As that may be, enough decades went by since I read any of his other writings for me to have forgotten any earlier opinion of them. Having revisited his essays at last, I now recall why I left them on my shelf untouched for so long. (Hume has proved a merrier re-read, amazingly enough, but perhaps more on that another time.)

As a rule, Stoic philosophers aren’t much fun. Their “do your duty” and “straighten up and fly right” admonitions tend to come off as trite and preachy. That doesn’t make them wrong, but it makes them unpleasant. Seneca is no exception. Shakespeare, who was familiar with the works of Seneca, surely had him in mind when he crafted the pompous platitudinous Polonius in Hamlet. As an example, in Consolation to Marcia Seneca “consoles” Marcia, whose son died at 14, by opining that the quality of life matters more than the quantity. He then reminds her that adults can be tempted to disgrace themselves, and now her son won’t have the chance to do that. He asks, “For how do you know it was in his interest to have a longer life, or if this death came as a benefit to him?” It’s hard not to want to bark back at him, “Oh, shut up!” In On the Tranquility of the Mind he tells us of the value of moderation. In On Mercy he tells us he’s for it. He’s against anger though (On Anger). Oh, (re: On Earthquakes) he tells us we can’t prevent earthquakes.

I’m not saying Nero was right to order Seneca to commit suicide. I’m just saying I understand.

Bill Murray as Polonius


  1. Ok I've never studied Seneca, but I know a bit about him, and your connection to Polonius is perfect. I bet that was intentional. I've never seen the 2000 version of "Hamlet" but that clip convinced me to give it a shot. Murray is pretty good in the role!

    1. It would be fun to know what Shakespeare's staging of "Hamlet" was like. Uncut, it runs over four hours, so almost nobody stages it (or almost any other of his plays) uncut -- except Ken Branagh in 1996. William himself didn't. We don't have his stage notes, so we don't know what he cut. He just hated to edit his work for publishing.