Pseudo-Seneca: Octavia (transl. 1561)

Where: Wolfson College Buttery
When: Friday, April 26 2024 at 1.15.

David Wiles (Emeritus Professor of Drama, University of Exeter) is performing the pseudo-Senecan Roman history play Octavia in the exuberant rhetorical language of the 1561 translation by Thomas Nuce with a group of players from Iffley and the University of Oxford.

  • Octavia, daughter of Claudius, wife of Nero – Imogen Lewis
  • Agrippina, wife and killer of Claudius, now dead – Laurence Nagy
  • Nero, son of Agrippina, now Emperor, killed his mother – Abigail Pole
  • Poppaea, mistress of Nero – Priya Toberman
  • Octavia’s nurse – Laura Laubeova
  • Seneca – Alex Marshall
  • Prefect – Andrew Stilborn
  • Messenger– Ivana Kuric
  • Chorus of Roman citizens – members of the company
  • Violin – Jessica Qiao
  • Director – David Wiles

Production sponsored by the Ancient World Research Cluster, Wolfson College Oxford.

Performance filmed by Henrike Lähnemann at Iffley Church Hall on April 21st.

The tragedy of Octavia is a unique example of the Roman history play, and survives because it was bound up with the tragedies of Seneca. The chorus, unlike those of Seneca, is engaged in the action as it rises up in rebellion against Nero. We are performing the play in the student translation of c.1561. Elizabeth had recently come to the throne, and in a polarised world the performance of religious plays seemed increasingly problematic. It was logical to turn to the classics, but the question arose, how to render Seneca in an equivalent English. It was not a matter of searching out what the words meant, but rather of forging a language with an equivalent rhetorical force, which in the Erasmus age meant a more copious language. The translator, Thomas Nuce, had an ear for performance, and did not attempt to find any pedantic metrical equivalence for the Latin. We have stripped the text down to a half-hour version, and have relished playing with the rhythms, rhymes and alliteration. Parsing the Latinate grammar was often a challenge.    

The story was scarcely a safe choice in 1561. It tells how Nero cast off his first wife, Octavia, whom he had married for domestic reasons, and contracted a love match. Henry VIII had likewise terminated a dynastic marriage, to the great displeasure of his people, and the fruit of that love match had just come to the throne.     

We are a mixed cast of students and community players, and on four occasions have worked on mediaeval plays for the festival at St Edmund Hall. The present production was put together for the annual conference of the Classical Association in Warwick on 24 March. If you are interested in participating in a production at St Edmund Hall in 2025, please contact David Wiles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *