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

Nicola Imbracsio


Many scholars have noted the influence of Seneca’s dramas on early modern playwrights, pointing to the poet’s characteristic language, style, and plot devices. However, few have looked to Seneca’s distinctive treatment of the corpse as a performative object—one that despite its lifeless state remains active in and influential to the drama; in other words, a “theatrical corpse.” In order to illustrate the early modern articulation of the theatrical corpse as an active dramatic agent this essay investigates two of Seneca’s dramas—Thyestes and Hippolytus—translated into English in the early sixteenth-century and later collected in Newton’s Seneca His Tenne Tragedies (1581).

Considering the practice of translation in the early modern period, I illustrate how Jasper Heywood’s and John Studley’s translations emphasize, elaborate, and further activate Seneca’s corpses. With these translations, Seneca’s corpses were later received and transformed by playwrights such as Kyd, Shakespeare, and Marlowe. My analysis demonstrates the acute attention the translators paid to the corpse in Seneca’s dramas, but also suggests how such works insinuate ongoing post-Reformation concerns about the body’s status after death. In so doing, this essay provides a deeper understanding of the presence of the body—especially the corpse—in early modern English drama by looking at Heywood, Studley’s theatrical corpses. Overall, I argue that we can see how the dead body functions as dramatic device: reflecting not only the influence of Seneca, but also early modern England’s cultural fascination over the corpse and the potential for the theatre to stage such concerns spectacularly.


Seneca, translation, corpses, Heywood, Studley

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