One, None and a Hundred-Thousand. The Nutrix in Seneca’s Phaedra: a Blend of Roles and Literary Genres


  • Ivan Spurio Venarucci Sapienza Università di Roma



Among the dramatis personae of Seneca’s Phaedra, the Nurse is perhaps the most complex and multifaceted. In Euripides’ Hippolytus the Nurse does not lack a central role and three-dimensional stance, especially because of her oratory skills, but she does not differ excessively from the stereotyped character of tragedy. On the other hand, the role and function of the Nurse are expanded by Seneca. She does not simply embody the ‘voice of reason’ (however imbued with Stoic philosophy) against Phaedra’s furor: she is the moving force of the tragedy. She takes up an authorial role akin to that of Plautus’ slave; she turns into a comic lena in order to lead Hippolytus to the realms of Venus; she improvises as a priestess while delivering a prayer to Diana; she is also a skilled philosopher and declaimer. Nevertheless, she does not truly fulfill any of these roles and ends up being the humble servant of her queen. Each of her transformations is a failure; but, on closer examination, they are a failure from Phaedra’s perspective. Resigning her authorial role, de facto the Nurse becomes an instrument of the real ‘author’ of the drama, that is, Nature. Phaedra is a tragedy of Nature and the limits it imposes on human beings. Through her apparently disastrous choices, the Nurse helps Nature establish its undisputed dominion.

Keywords: Nurse; Seneca; Phaedra; Nature; Roman tragedy; authorial role; metatheatre






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