Styling Hair, Styling Character: Female Habitus in Seneca's Tragedies

Kathryn E. Balsley

Stanford University

This study of Seneca's tragedies shall examine the dramatic function of female hairstyling in the Medea, Phaedra, Agamemon, and Troades. Through a close analysis of the female characters in these texts, I shall demonstrate that a woman's hairstyle is not an isolated physical attribute but rather an act of control in response to uncontrollable events. By identifying two ways control is lost and regained through hairstyling, my analysis shall both bridge and modify two important areas of Senecan scholarship: the relationship between Seneca's philosophical and tragic texts and the extensive presence of metadrama in his tragedies. The habitus of Seneca's philosophical texts becomes a medium for metadramatic directing as women change their hairstyle in order to change their role.

The first loss of control I shall examine is of one's physical appearance. In Seneca's tragedies, women like Phaedra and Medea unwillingly reveal intense emotions such as ira and furor upon their face. This uncontrollable manifestation of emotions, clearly outlined in Seneca's De Ira, is often cited as an element of Stoic philosophy within his tragedies. These analyses, however, of female descriptions (e.g. Marti 1945, Evans 1950, Larson 1994) tend to isolate facial expression and they fail to recognize fully the close relationship I believe exists between facial expressions and hairstyling. While a woman cannot control the emotions revealed on her face, she can control the image portrayed by her hairstyle. I further contend that Senecan women control their image by employing hairstyle tropes, specific hairstyles that have become representative of specific characters or roles. By binding their hair up in a knot, in fillets, or unbinding it, they can become a huntress, priestess, or woman in mourning. Control of their physical habitus thus allows for control of their role.

I shall then demonstrate that this intentional choice of a role through hairstyling is also often in response to the second type of uncontrollable circumstances, the events of the tragedy itself. By analyzing the cases of Hecuba, Andromache and others, I shall show that when women become powerless over the events within their tragedy, they turn inwards, focusing upon both themselves and the women around them, to control their responses to these uncontrollable happenings.  Through the employment of hairstyle tropes, Senecan women can choose roles that either match or contradict the mythological role demanded by the circumstances, or precedent, of the play. This awareness and choice of role causes or allows Senecan women to engage in metadramatic 'directing'; they 'direct' both themselves and women around them into new or different roles through the medium of hair. While previous scholarship on this trope of metadramatic directing in Seneca's tragedies has described Medea as choosing "to create and represent a tragedy," my analysis of female directing reveals that neither Medea nor any Senecan woman sets out to direct a tragedy (Schiesaro, 17, 2003). The female characters of Seneca's tragedies direct responses to action rather than the action itself.

The unique dramatic function of female hairstyling in Seneca's tragedies, giving women control when their appearance and the events around them seem uncontrollable, creates a need to reevaluate these texts and to give greater importance to the seemingly superficial question, "Does my hair look better up or down?"


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