Now You See Her, Now You Don't: Megara in Seneca's Hercules Furens

Thomas D. Kohn

University of North Carolina, Greensboro

It is uncertain whether Roman tragedy was required to follow the so-called "Rule of Three Actors." Zwierlein (Die Rezitationsdramen Senecas, 1966) perceived that Seneca tragicus often broke from this tradition, while Sutton (Seneca on the Stage, 1986) showed that most of Zwierlein's violations actually adhere to the "Rule," assuming in some cases the use of a mute Actor. One example involves the on-stage presence of Megara in Acts 2 and 3 of Seneca's Hercules Furens. This paper argues that neither a fourth speaker nor a mute Actor is necessary; in fact, Megara exits earlier than either scholar believes. Further, this staging issue affects the interpretation of the play.

In Act 2 of the HF, Amphitryo, Megara, wife of Hercules, and Lycus, tyrant of Thebes, are all on-stage. At the end of the episode, Lycus exits to the palace, and Megara has taken refuge at an altar, presumably on-stage. Amphitryo clearly remains on-stage through a Choral passage; in Act 3 he speaks with Hercules and Theseus, who have returned from the Underworld. Zwierlein  assumes Megara remains on-stage as well, thus violating the "Rule" (47-8). Sutton thinks the Actor playing Megara exits and then re-enters to take on the speaking role of Theseus; a "mute supernumerary" plays Megara (29, 33, 45-6). This exchange of roles, however, is both awkward and unprecedented.

But some extraordinary staging seems necessary, since Hercules, shortly after entering, asks his father why his wife is dressed in mourning clothes (HF 626-7). He then tells Megara to postpone her welcoming embraces while he goes to kill Lycus (HF 639). Hercules, however, could be hallucinating. Juno, in the prologue, proclaims her intent to drive Hercules mad (HF 84-124). Later, a sign of this madness will be Hercules seeing the constellations run amok in the sky (HF 939-52) and mistaking his wife and children for his enemies (HF 1001-2, 1018-20). So, rather than having a play which shows Hercules' sudden descent into madness (as Fitch, Seneca's Hercules Furens, 1987, 24-33, maintains), the audience sees a Hercules who has been mad from the very moment he emerged from the Underworld.

Theseus complicates matters when he addresses Megara and tells her to cheer up (HF 640-1). But shortly afterwards, Theseus states that after so long in the Underworld his vision is not to be trusted (HF 651-3). So his address does not necessarily prove Megara's presence.

But if Megara is no longer on-stage in Act 3, where did she go, and when? Lycus, before his exit, advises her to keep clinging to an altar for safety, and then orders his servants to set fire to the shrine in which she is hiding. Fitch, in his Loeb translation (47), assumes the altar to be in front of the center door which represents the palace, as it does in the Agamemnon and the Oedipus. But in the Troades, one episode uses the main door as the tomb of Hector. Andromache hides Astyanax from Ulysses in this tomb, until the Ithacan threatens to tear it down, which would ironically cause the child to be killed by his own sanctuary. Similarly in the HF, the center door represents the temple into which Megara flees for safety, but which offers her no sanctuary, as it is first threatened by Lycus, and later stormed by Hercules. So, Megara exits through the center door, shortly before Lycus' exit.


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