English Revenge Tragedy and the Spanish Revival of Seneca: Race and Empire on the Early Modern Stage
The classical philosopher and tragedian, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (ca. 1 BCE – 65 CE), was born in Roman Cordoba in Hispania Baetica. Following the Reconquest of Iberia from Moorish rule, Spain’s Catholic Monarchs accentuated Seneca’s Spanishness, whitewashing history through appeals to Roman civilization. The Crown also began ethnically cleansing by enacting blood purity laws, expelling Jews and Moriscos, and creating a colonial racial caste system. By contrast, in rival Reformed England, dramatic depictions of Seneca the Spaniard were imbricated with references to Spanish empire-building. Tragedians used Iberian stoic characters to associate Seneca’s famous stoic philosophy advocating emotional restraint with the documented cruelty of the conquistadors. Alleging blood corruption, a belief system that Spain itself had propagated, these dramatists further argued that Spaniards were exceptionally cruel owing to their historical practice of intermarriage or mestizaje with non-white groups. Such condemnations of Spanish imperialism intended to justify English piracy and aggression against Spain, and more broadly England’s own nascent imperialism, as divinely willed. In documenting the Spanish revival of Seneca in both Spain and England as informed by ideas of racial purity, this book thus exposes anti-black racism, anti-indigenous, anti-Semitic, and anti-Islamic prejudice in each empire’s self-fashioning as a world savior.
A preview of this project is forthcoming in the Sixteenth Century Journal (anticipated 2024).
Image: Title page of Seneca His Tenne Tragedies, translated into Englysh (London: Thomas Marsh, 1581). Folger Shakespeare Library. Creative Commons (CC).