Euripides's Hippolytus (428 b.c.e.) is, first and foremost, a play about suffering. Every character in the play suffers to some degree. Indeed, it is their suffering that serves, on one level at least, to create a community that is organized as a kind of counterpoint to the other community in the play—that of the gods who weigh in upon the lives of the characters. Significantly, it is the intersection of these two communities that proves problematic in the play, as the supernatural figure of Aphrodite, in particular, steps forward as a force that must be appeased in her desire for followers.
At another level, though, Hippolytus is a play that speaks directly to the cultural and philosophic concerns of more modern times. The play asks many of the tough questions that philosophers and writers have struggled with for millennia. Is there a higher power ordering this world as a kind of transcendent guide to a right and good life? Is there such a thing as a just world or truthful world? What are the powers and limitations of reason and intelligence in dealing with this world? And finally, is it possible to live an ethical or moral life given these questions? If so, how? As Robert Bagg's 1973 translation (titled Hippolytos) underscores, these questions are offered and answered with a deep and respectful sense of the power of language.
As is often the case for classical writers, the details surrounding the birth of Euripides are open to debate. The consensus is that Euripides was born on September 23, 480 b.c.e. in Salamis, though it is speculated by some that his birth date was closer to 485 b.c.e.. Mnesarchus or Mnesarchides was his father's name, and Euripides's mother was believed to be named Cleito. Although few solid details of his childhood survive, there is evidence that Euripides was greatly influenced in his youthful reading by such writers as Protagoras (c. 490 b.c.e.—420 b.c.e.) and Socrates (c. 470 b.c.e.—399 b.c.e.).
Euripides was reportedly married twice, once to a woman named Choerile and also to a woman named Melito, though it is unclear which woman was his first wife and which woman was his second. Very little is known of his life beyond his work as a tragedian (writer of tragedies). He is considered the last of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, along with Aeschylus (524 b.c.e.—456 b.c.e.) and Sophocles (495 b.c.e.—406 b.c.e.). Euripides entered a play in the Dionysia (the most famous of Athenian drama festivals) for the first time in 455 b.c.e., and placed third in the competition that year. He continued to compete in the festival regularly, winning prizes four times during his lifetime. Hippolytus took first prize in 428 b.c.e., having been revised from an earlier version of the play that was not particularly successful with audiences. Euripides was also awarded one posthumous victory for his play The Bacchae. Given that Aeschylus reportedly won more than a dozen of these competitions, and Sophocles carried off eighteen victories, it is understandable that Euripides might have become disheartened in defeat. Whatever the reason, Eurpides left Athens in either 407 b.c.e. or 408 b.c.e., when the king of Macedon urged him to come live and write in that country.
Euripides reportedly died in Macedonia during the winter of 406 b.c.e.. Many of his plays were freely revised by Seneca (c. 4 b.c.e.—65 a.d.), the Roman tragedian who was drawn to the rhetoric and violence that were found in the plays of his Greek antecedent.
- The Department of Classics at the University of Otago in New Zealand produced a video version of the traditional Greek staging of Hippolytus in 1996.
Ancient manuscripts of the Greek plays do not supply stage directions in the sense that modern readers have come to expect them. References in this plot summary are derived from comments by ancient writers, who often provided relevant information about the staging of the plays, as well as from more recent scholarly inferences about Greek theatrical conventions. Accordingly, mention of stage directions in the Plot Summary has been kept to a minimum.
The play opens in front of the palace of Theseus in Troizen, with the statues of Artemis (goddess of the hunt) and Aphrodite (goddess of love, lust, and beauty) placed on opposing sides of the stage. The living goddess Aphrodite appears, and in the prologue to the main action declares her intention to punish Hippolytus, the chaste son of Theseus, who chooses to worship Artemis rather than Aphrodite.
Aphrodite's plan has already been put into action as the play opens. She has placed a love for Hippolytus into the heart of Phaidra, the wife of Theseus and stepmother of Hippolytus. Her hope is that Theseus, upon discovery of this love, will kill his son using one of the three fatal wishes that he has been granted by Poseidon (god of the sea and of earthquakes).
Hippolytus enters the stage with his entourage of huntsmen leading dogs and carrying weapons from the hunt. He praises the statue of Artemis, placing a garland upon her head as a tribute to her. A servant suggests that Hippolytus might want to honor Aphrodite in the same manner, but the young hunter ignores the advice, thereby completing his insult of the powerful goddess.
The Chorus of townswomen enters, telling the story of the love-sick Phaidra. They wonder at the cause of her illness, positing that she might have gone mad or is responding to some slight from her husband. Or, the chorus suggests, perhaps her sickness is simply evidence of the weakness of woman's nature.
The love-sick Phaidra enters the stage, accompanied by numerous servants and her own Nurse. The Nurse initially talks her queen into confessing to the chorus both the source of her sickness and her resolve to die rather than to continue suffering. The Nurse then turns to comforting the suffering queen, suggesting that Phaidra act on her love rather than allowing herself to be consumed slowly and painfully. Finally, the Nurse promises to assist Phaidra by concocting a special medicine that is strong enough to change the course of love. What she needs in order to complete this antidote, the Nurse explains, is a piece of hair or clothing from Hippolytus. As Phaidra contemplates her decision, she also implores the Nurse never to reveal the truth behind her sickness to Hippolytus.
As the Nurse leaves the stage to secure the token that she needs, she whispers a prayer to Aphrodite, betraying herself as a supporter of the goddess's plan to punish Hippolytus. As Phaidra listens at the door, she hears a commotion within, telling her that the Nurse has betrayed her secret to her stepson. Hippolytus bursts onto the stage, with loud declarations of his horror and dismay at the revelation.
Venting his anger, Hippolytus goes into an extended tirade against the weaknesses of women, calling them "a huge natural calamity" among many other slights, most of which focus on their sexual appetites and what Hippolytus derides generally as their lewdness.
Phaidra raises little defense to these charges, though she does claim that all women "are violated by destiny," creating a hurt that "never leaves." Turning on the Nurse, Phaidra attacks her verbally for her inability to keep a secret and for her lack of loyalty to a queen that has treated her so well. Exhausted and suffering, Phaidra resolves once again to die. As Phaidra exits the stage, the Chorus recounts in detail how Aphrodite has assisted the queen in fulfilling her wish for death. Phaidra hangs herself off stage.
As the townswomen talk about the hanging, Theseus enters the stage, crowned with flowers and demanding to know what event has brought his palace into such an uproar. Informed that his wife is dead, he mourns openly at the suicide as the Chorus announces that the palace has been doomed by these recent events. Examining the corpse of his wife, Theseus sees a tablet "gripped tensely" in her hand. Taking the tablet from her hand, he explodes in horror as he reads the words it holds: that Phaidra was raped by Hippolytus. Theseus calls the god Poseidon, who owes the king "three mortal curses," to murder his son for the crime that has been reported in the tablet. Despite the pleadings of Koryphaios, the leader of the Chorus, Theseus persists in his wish for the murder of Hippolytus.
Hippolytus arrives, drawn by the uproar of his father. The exchange between the two men is powerful drama as the father at first attacks his son verbally before explaining to him the source of his rage. Theseus sentences Hippolytus to exile without trial: "I would drive you beyond the confines of the known world—the Black Sea, the Pillars of Herakles—if I had power enough, my son, I hate you so much." The men exchange angry words, as Hippolytus attempts to argue for his innocence, an effort that proves futile. Turning to the statue of Artemis, Hippolytus departs into exile.
The Chorus intervenes briefly before a messenger arrives with the news that Hippolytus has been trampled to death by his horses, which had been panicked by monstrous geysers and a mammoth bull sent by Neptune at the solicitation of Aphrodite. Theseus iterates his hatred of his son, noting that the story of Hippolytus's suffering has filled him with satisfaction but not pleasure in any form. The messenger asks Theseus of his orders for Hippolytus's body. Theseus orders the body brought to him so he can see the evidence of the death and of his own power in dealing with his transgressive son.
The Chorus speaks briefly, chastising Aphrodite for her role in this tragedy. Artemis appears suddenly, revealing the entire story of Aphrodite's plan to Theseus and criticizes the King for calling the curse of Poseidon upon the head of pure Hippolytus. As Theseus hears the story, he begs with Artemis to let him die in shame.
Koryphaios announces that Hippolytus, still alive but tragically bloodied and disfigured, is being carried to his father on the arms of his friends. He converses with Artemis, who consoles him with the promise that she will avenge his death by killing one of Aphrodite's favorites. The goddess exits the stage, explaining to Hippolytus that she cannot stay to witness his death. Gods and goddesses must "not be touched with the pollution of last agonies and gaspings," she explains.
Theseus and Hippolytus embrace as the son dies, and the King closes the play with a rejection of the influence of Aphrodite: "I have no heart for your graces. I remember forever only your savagery."
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, sometimes referred to in the play as Cypris (the island of her birth, now known as Cyprus). She represents sexual love, which is seen often in Greek drama as an uncontrollable, destructive force that tends to overwhelm the decorum of rational, moral conduct. Contrasted in the opening scene of the play with the influence of Artemis, Aphrodite is proud and vengeful, especially in her dealings with the chaste Hippolytus, who turns away from sexual relationships in order to live his life, he believes, free from such base desires.
Aphrodite is the catalyst for the deaths of both Phaidra and Hippolytus, placing each of them in a situation that is beyond both the moral and legal powers of their mortal culture to deal with justly and fairly.
Artemis is the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and she is primarily understood as the goddess of the hunt and of wild animals. Artemis is associated with the moon, as her twin brother Apollo is associated with the sun. Artemis stands in direct contrast to Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love, as Artemis was often called the virgin goddess, and many of her followers took vows of chastity. She is the primary guide in the life of the young Hippolytus. Although she shows it only in her final promise to Hippolytus to wreck vengeance on Aphrodite, Artemis is known, too, for her willingness to inflict punishment on mortals who offend her.
The Chorus is comprised of women from the town of Troizen, where the play is set. The Chorus offers a variety of background or summary information to help the audience follow the performance, commenting on main themes, and guiding the audience to react in an ideal way to the play as it is being staged. The Chorus expresses the fears or secrets that the main characters cannot, or will not, speak aloud in the play.
Hippolytus is the son of Theseus by the Amazon queen Hippolyte. He opens the play marking his devotion to a statue of Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt. Ignoring a servant's suggestion to show equal respect for Aphrodite (his first mistake in the play), Hippolytus angers the goddess of sexual love to the point that she vows revenge, setting in motion the tragic sequence of events that leads to the deaths of Phaidra and her stepson.
Charged with the rape of his stepmother Phaidra, Hippolytus argues his innocence repeatedly, but is forced into exile by his father Theseus. Thought dead by an accident at sea, Hippolytus turns out to be only fatally injured. After being brought back to his father's palace, Hippolytus lives long enough to forgive his father. Hippolytus ends the play, however, reaffirming his devotion to Artemis, remaining unaware of the connection between his unwavering (and unbalanced) attachment to the cult of chastity and his own death.
In the character of Hippolytus, Euripides creates a deeply flawed tragic figure. A victim of both Aphrodite's vengeful spirit and Theseus's misguided abuse of his power as king, Hippolytus himself is not without complicity in the tragedy of the play. Unsympathetically puritan in his opening rejection of Artemis's suggestion to balance his life somewhere between her influence and that of Aphrodite, Hippolytus is also openly misogynistic (exhibiting a deep hatred of women) in his verbal attacks on his stepmother Phaidra.
Koryphaios is the leader of the Chorus and serves throughout the play as a commentator on the action that occurs throughout the play.
The Messenger is one of the more eloquent rhetorical figures in the play, who carries to Theseus the story of Hippolytus's death at sea as well as the conditions of his exile.
The Nurse serves Phaidra; she is a figure whose key reversal in the early stages of the play sets the series of events into motion. At the opening of the play she is dedicated to the well being of her queen, but she later tells Hippolytus of the lustful thoughts of his stepmother. It is this sudden change in loyalty that leads to the suicide of Phaidra.
Phaidra is the wife of Theseus and stepmother to Hippolytus. She is targeted by Aphrodite as part of the revenge for her stepson's rejection of the cult of sexual love in favor of a life lived in chastity. Made sick with a lust for her stepson, Phaidra initially seeks the assistance of her trusted Nurse, who ignores the queen's admonition to keep the secret of the unnatural desires. Phaidra's admission to her Nurse, though a trivial mistake, has disproportionately serious consequences, for when the Nurse undergoes a significant reversal (telling Hippolytus of his stepmother's desires), Phaidra is targeted by Hippolytus in his verbal attacks. Rather than face her husband and deal with the disgrace that will weigh in upon her, Phaidra turns Hippolytus's loathing and her own self-hatred inwards, launching into a tirade of her own about the weakness and vanity of women. Without hope, and destroyed by her own words, Phaidra hangs herself.
In Phaidra, Euripides successfully creates a tragic contrast to the unsympathetic and misguided male characters of the play. She is a sympathetic character seen as struggling honorably against overwhelming odds (put in place by the vengeful goddess Aphrodite) to do the right thing for the good of herself and the benefit of her community. Despite her best effort to act and think prudently, Phaidra finds her spirit (though not her body) yielding to her physical passion, and it is in her ravings about finding freedom in nature (which serve only to intensify her sense of shame and guilt) that audiences come to recognize the depth of her struggles. She is, quite literally, a woman trapped, unable to act out her passions and unable to contain them in socially acceptable ways.
Hippolytus's servant appears throughout the play.
Theseus is the king of Athens, famous in Greek mythology for killing the minotaur. A powerful but gullible man, he believes without question the story that surfaces concerning Hippolytus's alleged rape of Phaidra. Ignoring his son's plea for a due and just process, Theseus rules single-handedly to exile the accused. He also calls on Poseidon to deliver a fatal curse to Hippolytus to punish him. Later in the play, Theseus learns of the error of his judgment, and begs Hippolytus for forgiveness, which his son grants him.
The Psychology of Suffering
Euripides was innovative in his deeply held and complex interest in the effects of repeated injustice or continued suffering on his characters. Whereas Sophocles often uses his plays to explore the lives of aggressive heroes, who meet their fates as the result of asserting the power of their individual will, Euripides tends to present passive victims, who suffer not because of what they do but because they are trapped in a world that is out of their control. Often, as in the case of Phaidra, these victims will only act when they find themselves pushed to a point of disaster, at which point they react badly or misguidedly, often with tragic results. Instead of more typical portrayals of larger-than-life heroes of Greek tragedy (Sophocles's Oedipus, for example), Euripides focuses upon the weakness of human nature and the tragedy inherent in the human condition.
Other tragedies focus on the relationship between mortals and gods, the nature of human knowledge, and the question of human freedom, but Hippolytus explores the suffering of a woman overwhelmed by an incestuous love for her stepson. The tragic suffering of the play has been internalized (rather than played out communally or nationally) and made a matter of psychology rather than of politics. Phaidra's struggle illustrates a division between the intellectual and the emotional woman, the woman who knows what to do in her situation but has no idea how to take the actions necessary. She is trapped, in the language of her time, between the forces of nomos (the knowledge that her desire is morally wrong) and physis (the physical drive to act on her desires). Her plight suggests that the source of human suffering is not a constellation of force brought to bear by some external force but an intensely powerful division within each individual.
Morality and Knowledge
Stripped of the conventions of traditional tragedy (particularly the traditional mythological explanations of human suffering), Euripides shows an innovative interest in the relationship between the question of moral behavior that concerns itself with sound-mindedness or implied intelligence. The vocabulary of ancient Greece was influenced deeply by the radical ideas of Plato's writings about Socrates (c. 469 b.c.e.—399 b.c.e.). These works put forward a series of propositions (known as the Socratic Paradoxes) that argue that the ancient concept of virtue is aligned powerfully with knowledge, and that no individual ever commits a morally wrong act knowingly. Socrates, as described by Plato, went on to make the striking statement that he would rather suffer a wrong at someone else's hands than commit one himself, which was seen by his contemporaries as the talk of a coward.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- The characters in Hippolytus enter into debates regularly in the play. Are the rhetorical skills necessary in these debates represented as positive or negative in the world of the play? Put another way, are these skills liberating or dangerous in the life of the individual? Write an essay that addresses these topics.
- Research the conventions of classic Greek tragedy, making a checklist of what can be expected when approaching a play such as Hippolytus. Present your checklist to the class, noting in what ways Hippolytus does or does not meet the items on your list.
- One of the most interesting conventions of classical Greek tragedy is the role of the Chorus as a source of supplemental and analytical comments on the events of the play. Imagine a conversation that you might overhear on an average day (between friends, in a store, at school) and write a supplemental commentary in the tradition of a classic Greek chorus.
- Research Greek culture at the time that Euripides was alive. What did the architecture look like? What was the average family structure? What type of government was in power? Find anything and everything you can on ancient Greece and give a class presentation, with visual aids, summarizing your discoveries.
Pushing contemporary thought in new directions, though, Plato explains Socrates's paradoxes by expounding a doctrine of the soul as an immortal entity that is harmed by immoral action and that suffers in the next life for crimes committed in this one. (Recall Artemis's exit at the end of the play in order to avoid being polluted by the death of Hippolytus.) According to this paradox, the souls of villainous individuals suffer a form of eternal damnation, while the souls of average people are sentenced to another life on earth. Returning to earth, these people find themselves in a social position that suits their behavior in their previous life. The souls of the virtuous, however, eventually are sufficiently purified to escape the cycle of rebirth and enjoy eternal blessedness in the other world. It was thus maintained that any person who understood the true nature of his life would avoid immoral behavior, subordinating their suffering to the greater concern, which was the health of their souls. Thus, anyone who committed a wrong did so, ultimately, out of ignorance, not understanding that the long term consequences of such an act were far more dire than any immediate loss or humiliation that they might suffer. According to this philosophy, all human behavior is governed by conscious choice and rational decision. A person's behavior is determined, in large part, by the intelligence of the choices made.
An important theme in Hippolytus is that of moderation as a guiding principle of a good and balanced life. (In Greek, the term sophrosyne was often used to signal this state of balance.) In political terms, the idea was used in support of a pattern of deferral, iterating the need to know and understand one's right and proper place in the social structure of the day. (Tragedy is filled with characters who try to rise above their station, thereby disrupting the social order.) In the context of the morality of the day, moderation applied most obviously to a belief in such ideals as chastity or abstinence (for the unmarried) or to monogamy (limiting sexual relationship to only one's husband or wife) for a married person.
This last understanding of moderation proves particularly relevant within Euripides's play. It is Hippolytus's exclusion of sexual love from his worldview, despite Artemis's suggestion, that insults Aphrodite and leads to her revenge. Ironically, Hippolytus remains unwavering in his own immoderate behavior even as the events unfold around him. His diatribe against the wanton ways of women, for instance, is replete with references to the inability of women to contain their lustful ways. Later, in both his passionate defense before Theseus and his final death scene, Hippolytus repeatedly asserts his chastity and his purity as the most powerful proof of his innocence. "There is one practice that I have never touched," he explains to his father, "though it's exactly what you attack me for: physical love. Until now I've never been to bed with a woman. All I know of sex is what I hear, or find in pictures."
At the same time as he reveals Hippolytus's passionate devotion to chastity and purity, Euripides shows in Phaidra a woman of more balanced demeanor who is suddenly and tragically vulnerable to charges of immoderate behavior. In her desire to suppress her passion for her stepson, Phaidra is, indeed, a woman of chaste mind and body, despite the best efforts of Aphrodite. Phaidra has no desire to break the codes of sophrosyne or to be a hypocrite who abides to the ideal only when it is convenient. "I hate those women," she says, "who speak with chaste discretion while reckless lechery warms their secret lives." Indeed, she is praised by the Chorus early in the play for her virtue and her attention to the necessities of the social good.
The dilemma facing Phaidra, though, is that regardless how chaste she remains, it will never be enough to appease the gods (Aphrodite) or the men (Hippolytus and Theseus) who dominate the world in which she lives. By even admitting her unnatural thoughts to her Nurse, Phaidra gives in to the emotional forces at work within her. Breaching the decorum of moderation in her thoughts is enough to set the world of the play into chaos, as Hippolytus's immoderate response (most notably, his diatribe against women) and Theseus's immoderate ruling (exile without appeal to evidence) make clear.
As Euripides makes clear, the ideals associated with sophrosyne are without problems for those attempting to live their lives to such high standards. Does Hippolytus excel at moderation or is he narrow minded in his approach to life? Is Phaidra a weak immoderate, or a virtuous woman trapped in a world she cannot control? For all his purity there is something tragically immoderate about Hippolytus and the world he stands for. His is a one-sided life that is, to his own mind at least, being lived in terms of higher ideals and values than those around him.
As Hippolytus underscores, the cult of Artemis, like that of Aphrodite, can be at once a positive and a negative influence on the world of human beings. To attach oneself wholly to one is as dangerous as attaching oneself uncritically to the other, rendering the world a place of extremes rather than a balanced system in which justice and civil order can find fertile ground to set root. In the end, Euripides suggests, Hippolytus has denied himself an important element of what it means to be human, and in that conscious decision lies, arguably, the deepest tragedy of this play.
A common convention in Greek tragedy is the role of reversal, or a change in direction taken by one or more characters during the course of the play. The most obvious case in Hippolytus is the reversal of Phaidra's Nurse, who begins the play iterating her devotion to saving Phaidra's life but whose announcement to Hippolytus of his stepmother's desire all but guarantees Phaidra's death. In this sense, a reversal is not so much tied to the change in fortune that defines tragedy as it is to the continuation of a chain of events that unfold across the course of the play.
Very often in Greek tragedy, the reversal is linked intimately to a character's recognition or sudden enlightenment surrounding one of the key issues of the play. Theseus's reversal at the end of the play (asking his son for forgiveness) would be an example of one such moment. Often overlooked is the fact that this late reversal is paralleled much earlier in the play when Theseus, arriving home garlanded for celebration and expecting a great welcome, is greeted with the news of his son's alleged rape and the sight of his wife's corpse.
Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion through the use of spoken language, was a primary concern of the Greek tragedians, including Euripides, who were fascinated with the means and devices a speaker would bring into play in order to persuade a listener of his or her ideas. In the broadest sense, then, rhetoric can be understood as the exploration of the persuasive effects of language and the means by which those effects are accomplished by a speaker.
Taking their cues from Aristotle's Poetics, classical writers were particularly interested in three components of persuasive speech: invention (the finding of arguments), disposition (the arrangement of arguments), and style (the choice of words and use of figurative language). Rhetoricians from this period also designated three classes of persuasion, which they called deliberative (to persuade an audience to approve or disprove of public policy), forensic (to condemn or approve of an individual or individual's behavior), and epideictic (used for ceremony or ceremonial occasions).
Hippolytus is remarkable for its blend of all three classes of rhetoric as a means of providing both thematic content (the story) and meaningful juxtapositions of that content. The Chorus of townswomen, for instance, enter the stage to provide a rhetorically ornate song, the theme of which is the gossip that has been overheard while doing laundry. Similarly impressive rhetorical moments occur in the speeches of the messenger and in the debate between Hippolytus and Theseus over the nature of crime, punishment, and justice.
Women and Sexuality
Of the great tragedians, Euripides is particularly interested in issues regarding women. Ironically, he was represented by many of his contemporaries as being a misogynist (a man with a deep hatred of women), but his representations of women and the pressures weighing upon them in Athenian society seem to counter this claim. In Hippolytus, Euripides explores the almost casual contempt that Greek men have for the women in Athenian society as well as the intense and often contradictory pressures placed upon respectable women within this culture, especially as such pressure weighs in on issues pertaining to sexual conduct and attitudes.
Hippolytus's vehement attacks on women expose the extremism that informed Greek culture, marking women variously as "insatiably lewd," "a huge natural calamity," and, as Phaidra herself states, "contemptible … vicious, brainless." The crux of these denunciations, as this play makes clear, is the threat of female sexuality, which is seen as a powerful force in Greek society that was at once recognized and feared. As Hippolytus underscores, the lustfulness of a woman is uncontrollable or at best barely controllable (Phaidra knows that she should not give in to her desire, but is in constant struggle not to act upon it) and intensely destructive if released or acted upon. Accordingly, tragedy presents female sexuality as a potent threat to the social order, an energy that needs to be understood and contained for peace and good government to prevail. Any breach in the decorum of the day would end, inevitably, in chaos (at least) or more likely in tragedy.
The term tragedy as it came to be applied to Greek drama arose from a form of theatre defined by Aristotle as being characterized by a serious tone, a sense of dignity, and involving a great person who experiences a dramatic and often fatal turn of fortune. Although Aristotle does allow for such a turn to mark a movement from bad to good, he does argue that the fall from good to bad (as in Hippolytus) is preferable for the tragedian because it evokes a deeply felt sense of pity and fear within the audience. This reversal of fortune must be caused, Aristotle also argued, by the tragic figure's crucial mistake (called a hamaratia), which might or might not be related to some deeply rooted character flaw. Technically, this turn of fortune must be brought into the protagonist's own decision making rather than the direct influence of a higher power.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 428 b.c.e.: Ancient Greek culture was polytheistic, a term that came from the Greek compound poly (many) and theoi (gods). Greeks believed in multiple gods and deities, each of which was linked to at least one natural element or event, each with personal traits and individual skills, needs, desires, and complex histories.
Today: Although polytheistic cultures do exist, most of the world has shifted to a monotheistic belief system, in that many of the major world religions are characterized by belief in a single deity or God.
- 428 b.c.e.: Ancient Greek culture was defined by openly misogynistic attitudes that would often erupt, as it did in Hippolytus's verbal attacks on Phaidra, around issues of sexual behavior, moral codes, and political power.
Today: While overt misogyny does still occur in the contemporary world, such attitudes are no longer considered the norm but are seen as aberrations from more inclusive and democratic standards of conduct.
- 428 b.c.e.: Although there are many stories of incestuous relationships (between family members) in Greek mythology, such tales are focused primarily on establishing rules and beliefs that make such relationships unacceptable. As Phaidra is quick to establish, her lustful feelings for her stepson Hippolytus are never to be acted upon despite her desire to do so.
Today: In most of the Western world, while incestuous relationships are generally forbidden by custom and/or law, there are still some variations as to the level of acceptance. Within the United States, for instance, marriage between first cousins is illegal in some states, but not in others.
To Aristotle, well-written tragedy was used to bring about a catharsis (or purgation or cleansing) for the audience. He believed that most tragic performances left the audience feeling relieved rather than depressed or frightened. Watching tragedy, Artistotle theorized, is a kind of emotional and cultural corrective, that allowed an audience to feel these powerful emotions at proper levels and at safe distances.
Although such later playwrights as William Shakespeare (1564-1616) would build many of his most powerful tragedies on this Greek model, more contemporary theater recognizes a much less precise definition of the term itself. The most fundamental change has been the idea that great tragedy must focus on protagonists who begin the play with power and high status. Such seminal plays as Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879), Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), and Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana (1961) all focus on what might be considered the tragic circumstances haunting middle-class people and relationships.
With this shift in focus from powerful to more ordinary characters came a shift, too, from an emphasis on the classic concept of hamaratia to a focus on more modern ideas of self-control, individual freedom, and the pressures of oppressive institutions or attitudes on the lives of free-spirited (and often creative) individuals.
As Gary S. Meltzer suggests in Euripides and the Poetics of Nostalgia, "critics from ancient to contemporary times have generally considered Euripides a partisan of the intellectual revolution" that was moving through Greece during his lifetime. In his famous comedy Frogs, for instance, Aristophanes includes characters representing Aeschylus and Euripides as playwrights vying for recognition as poet laureate of the underworld.
As Ann Norris Michelini summarizes in Euripides and the Tragic Tradition, critics have been of two voices in dealing with the plays of Euripides, with opinions oscillating between those who see in the playwright the genesis of a new generation of dramatic tragedy and those who mark in his plays the end of Greek tragedy as it had come to maturity with the words of Sophocles and Aeschylus. Despite such reservations, Hippolytus has consistently been recognized as an exemplary play within the Euripidean tradition. Michelini explains that the play has long "impressed critics as being ‘richer’ in language play than other works by Euripides" and by extension is rich in the rhetoric of drama and tragedy that marks only the best of Greek drama. At the same time, James Morwood has argued more recently in The Plays of Euripides, that Hippolytus is also a play that "offers a devastating exposition of the fallibility of words." So profound is the failure of language in this play, Morwood notes in a representative argument, that characters collapse in all attempts to communicate with each other. In the end, these characters are driven "into a state of isolation, or arrested development" that ends tragically in a silent, darkened stage.
Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on fiction, poetry, film, and television. He is also a freelance university teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In this essay on Hippolytus, he discusses the play as a tragic reflection of the faltering ideals of justice and truth in a world that is increasingly defined by political and personal tension as well as damaging self-interest.
One of the defining themes in Euripidean tragedy is a deeply felt political and philosophic longing for the appearance or reappearance of the voice of balanced justice in a world clearly in decay. Hippolytus delivers a message that is clear and unflinching: in a world ruled by passion it is the dynamic of self-interest (looking after one's own interest over the common good) that regularly prevails over the high-minded concepts of truth and justice. While all of the leading characters of the play express a belief, and to some degree a trust, in the ideals of truth and justice, the play itself casts serious doubt on whether these ideals can find fertile soil in the culture in which Euripides sets his play.
As most viewers of Hippolytus will recognize immediately, it is Theseus, the most powerful political figure in the play, who is the embodiment of this tension. A powerful yet gullible man, he opens the play as a man wrongly convinced that his wife has been raped by his son. Trapped in his rage, Theseus confronts Hippolytus, wishing openly for a means of assessing clearly the truthfulness of what has happened, what his son says, and the reports that he has been hearing from those around him: "Ahh, if only we men had command of an infallible instrument," he laments, "and with it could probe our dearest friends' sincerity!" His longing is deep and heartfelt, as he acknowledges to himself, his people, and his audience that humans "need a perfect path into the heart, [so] that one could tell, as clear as a heartbeat, a faithful loving friend from one who is false." Theseus knows that justice and truth are intimately linked, and that without a stable and reliable measure of truth there will never be a stable and reliable source of justice.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Of the eighteen surviving plays written by Euripides, the Bacchae (c. 405 b.c.e.) is most often discussed as a natural pairing with Hippolytus.
- For readers interested in other forms of tragic drama, Shakespeare's Othello (first published in 1622) is an essential addition to any reading list. Focusing on sexual politics, obsessive jealousy, and the power of language to alter the optics of reality, Othello has interesting parallels with plays from the classic Greek tragedians.
- Aristotle's Poetics (c. 350 b.c.e.) is essential background for readers interested in the classical, and still influential, writings on poetry and drama.
- T. P. Wiseman's Classics in Progress: Essays on Ancient Greece and Rome (2002) is a provocative and rewarding review and revitalization of many of the ideas that came from ancient Greece and that continue to shape the contemporary world.
- Given that many of the great Greek tragedies explored the spectacle of justice as it was enacted hundreds of years ago, Marilyn Church and Lou Young's Art of Justice: An Eyewitness View of Thirty Infamous Trials (2006) offers a unique perspective on the theater of justice as it plays out in real courtrooms across the United States.
The irony of Theseus's opening struggle is significant, given that he has already ignored justice in order to judge Hippolytus guilty of the crime of rape and arranged for Hippolytus's exile from the kingdom. Theseus's decision is hasty and ill-judged but passionately firm: "I banish him beyond our borders … [and] this land will never see him again, as he drifts, begging his way into an alien existence." Significantly, Theseus delivers his punishment without respect for the traditional means of measuring guilt or innocence. He relies instead, as Hippolytus points out, on a "rough justice" that ignores the very ideals of justice and balance that the King longs for. As Hippolytus asks, upon hearing of his father's decision: "You will throw me out? Without a trial? Without looking hard at my oath, without waiting to hear advice from shrewd and farsighted men?" As Hippolytus iterates, his future is, ideally, not to be decided in silence but in an open and transparent debate of the evidence as it is brought forward: "Your decision, I can see, is sealed," Hippolytus laments. "The worst has come, and yet I am blocked from speaking truth."
Theseus's references to just words and worlds resonate throughout the play, establishing Hippolytus as a sustained debate about the possibility of justice, about the power of truthfulness, and about the clarity of reason in an unreasonable world. Despite Hippolytus's pleading for his father to allow him "time [to] lay the facts" out in defense of the charges, Theseus casts aside the precepts of justice and the right of an individual to have his voice heard. "We have a born wizard on our hands," Theseus states accusingly, "whose magic would whisk away" the horrors of the crimes of which he has been accused.
In Theseus's view, the evidence carried on Phaidra's tablet when combined with the sight of her dead body convincingly outweighs any defense that Hippolytus might raise. Indeed, Theseus dismisses his son's verbal defense as "oracular ambiquity." Asking that his words be weighed and measured, as justice demands, Hippolytus is dismissed with charges of duplicity, hypocrisy, and self-worship. Rather than listening and assessing the words of his son, Theseus chooses instead to privilege silence (the body, the tablet) over the powers of rhetoric and oral evidence, which are the traditional values of Greek culture. "Why should I grapple with any of your arguments?" Theseus demands of his son. "Her corpse disposes of them all, and drives home your guilt each time my eyes touch her body." The voice of justice, in other words, is tragically inverted in the play, removed from the world of communal, living language of rhetoric and debate, and replaced by the interpretive skills of a single, powerful man whose own limitations are all too clearly underscored with each decision that he makes.
As the play moves towards its close, Theseus comes to regret condemning his son to exile and to death. Confessing the error of his interpretation, Theseus sets the stage for Hippolytus to forgive his father in a dramatic exchange that seems, on the surface at least, to recover the integrity of a just ideal in the play. But this recovery is, at best, tinged by tragic irony, for it is only on his deathbed that Hippolytus finally shows to his father the power of his innocence and the depth of his nobility. As Hippolytus dies, his voice is silenced in perpetuity, recoverable only through memory and lament.
At the same time, the dying gesture of forgiveness does little to lift Hippolytus's misguided loyalty to Artemis. Even as he lays dying, he remains loyal to Artemis as the source of order and meaningfulness in his world, which ironically iterates the reason for his punishment by Aphrodite. The lessons of the play are left unlearned.
Relying on the fallible tools of his own intellect, Theseus turns away from the ideals of justice that have guided him to this point, most notably the processes of balanced deliberation and rational enquiry. Allowing himself to slip towards a skepticism that proves, in the end, tragically unworkable in the practical world of the play, Theseus underscores the paradoxical position of the Euripidean world. For those individuals who believe faithfully in the truthfulness of the signs delivered from the gods is to open the world to manipulation from above, as is the case in Aphrodite's revenge against the young Hippolytus. To believe in the power of intellect and reason is, as Theseus reveals, to allow self-interest and petty politics to hold sway.
Instead of reaffirming the possibility of a just voice returning the world of the play to a thoughtful and just balance, the return of Hippolytus from his wrongful exile does little to right the tragic wrongs of the play. In the end, the play denies any promise of a balanced and thoughtful justice. In the mortal world, the aristocratic potentials of Hippolytus and Phaidra have been silenced by death, and the powerful Theseus has proven himself at once tragically gullible and irresponsibly self-interested. In the higher-order world of the gods, deep tensions offer little reassurance of a return to peace or even of a flash of progressive insight. As the play ends, Artemis exits the stage, unable to witness the death of Hippolytus, but with a promise to revenge his mistreatment by Aphrodite with another death. Even in the mythic world of gods and goddesses, the mechanisms of justice have been replaced by a simple promise of retribution and revenge.
The great tragedy of Hippolytus, then, is that the play demonstrates the impossibility of a just voice finding a place in the new world imagined by Euripides. Justice as both philosophic ideal and political practice cannot correct the mistakes and limitations of the play. Justice is left exposed in the final scene, forever vulnerable to deception, manipulation, and the all-too-familiar quest for personal glory and power.
More tragic still is the recognition that the play offers no clear or practical means of bridging this space between a world of idealized justice and one of misguided passion and politics. The innocent Hippolytus dies, the victim of a silencing father (the figure of mortal justice) and a vengeful Aphrodite (the judge from the mythic world). Gone are the days of justice being dispensed by an all-knowing Zeus, and yet to come are the promises of a fully realized democracy in which the power of one man is mediated by the collective will and wisdoms of the many. Hippolytus is not a play of restoration or reaffirmation; it is a play of darkening realities and a play of deep divisions, of tragic miscommunications that challenge the belief in a just and ordered world. It is a play, more tellingly, in which the ideals of truth and justice have been reduced to a metaphoric construct open to both thoughtful interpretation but also to tragic manipulation. As the stage falls into silence, the ideals of justice and truthfulness are left perpetually clouded, detached from the philosophy of the new world that Euripides imagines and from the political realities of a social structure in transition.
Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on Hippolytus, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following chapter, Morwood argues that Hippolytus is a profound exploration of how words cannot adequately shape a stable political state or contain the chaos that perpetually threatens a society.
In drama as in life, words are inescapably the main means of communication, and in Hippolytus it is not only the leading characters who pour them out. Phaedra's tablet, with its false evidence against Hippolytus, signifies, fawns, speaks, shouts, sings, accuses. A corpse is the clearest of witnesses. Phaedra imagines the beams of a house giving voice; Hippolytus wishes that the palace might speak out as a witness. At the story's climactic moment, the whole land sounds forth a terrifying noise as it echoes the voice of the bull.
Yet the play offers a devastating exposition of the fallibility of words. The characters' most confident speeches are set in a context which reveals the limitations of what they are saying. Hippolytus' opening monologue conveys the beauty of the huntsman's life he has chosen but also, and here we have been prompted by Cypris' (i.e. Aphrodite's) prologue, its priggish incompleteness. Determined to stay silent, Phaedra places no trust in words, yet when she does speak, she sounds eminently reasonable as she charts the course of her disastrous passion; even so it can be hard to pin down what she means and a certain sense of hysteria hints at the volcano that seethes beneath. The speech of the Nurse which follows is supremely assured and plausible, yet profoundly corrupting, and her speaking to Hippolytus, which she confidently expects will solve the situation, leads to disaster. It also reduces Phaedra to the humiliating and passive status of an eavesdropper. Later, Theseus' great public pronouncement against Hippolytus is based on false information and delivered in an evil passion. He speaks for the tragedy as a whole when he cries out for a way to tell whether a voice is speaking what is just or not:
All humans should have two voices, an honest voice and the one they would have had anyway so that the one that speaks dishonest thoughts might be convicted by the honest one—and then we should not be deceived.
For all the good that words do the characters, we can sympathise with Phaedra's magnificent injunction: ‘Stop talking!’
If plain words prove a catastrophic medium for communication between the tragic figures, what are the alternatives? To add authority to words through oaths proves ineffective. Blinded by his rage, Theseus brushes aside Hippolytus' compelling imprecations; and the vows of the chorus of women of Trozen and of Hippolytus to keep silent about Phaedra's passion rule out any chance of persuading Theseus that he is wrong to trust Phaedra's words. If oaths are found to be damaging, what about writing? (This, by the way, is the only complete Greek tragedy that talks about spelling.) But Phaedra's tablets make it clear that the authority added by writing only increases the danger inherent in words which are merely spoken. The audience will surely respond with sympathy to the sentiment, so splendidly dismissive of the written word, with which the Messenger concludes his great speech. He says he wouldn't believe Theseus' allegation against Hippolytus even if someone filled all the pinewood on Mount Ida full of writing.
If words and writing are found disastrously wanting, can silence prove a viable refuge, as Hippolytus appears to envisage when he states his view that only voiceless beasts should wait upon women and that this would block the channels of evil communication? The theme of silence is clearly fundamental to the play. In his first version of Hippolytus, now lost (we have the second version which won first prize in 428), Phaedra, it seems, openly declared her love for her stepson. Now it is the Nurse who tells Hippolytus of it off-stage as the visible Phaedra listens appalled. Yet her silence in the second version will have no less disastrous an outcome than her speaking in the first; and Hippolytus' silence about the true situation seals his doom while the dead and therefore silent Phaedra is the most devastating of witnesses. Silence proves as inadequate as speech when confronted with the tragic world of Hippolytus.
The failure of language to enable the characters to communicate with each other drives them into a state of isolation, or arrested development in the case of Hippolytus, frozen as he is in his adolescent companionship of young huntsmen and his verbal, though not visual communion with the goddess of chastity. Unable to relate to each other in a mature way, the protagonists attempt to define their identities, but even as they insist on their personal integrity, they undermine it. Phaedra's almost obsessive concern with her nobility and her good name is irretrievably subverted by the shameful vindictiveness with which she tries to preserve them in her death by laying her charge against Hippolytus. Theseus sees himself as the decisive man of action and there can be no doubt that he does care about his kingdom, but he is destroyed by his impulsive violence. The worldly-wise old Nurse, impelled by love to help her mistress, causes disaster because that love is linked with a fatal arrogance which makes her believe that she can solve any problem through any means, however morally depraved. Arguing that Phaedra would be sensible to give in to her love for Hippolytus, she counsels against unreal perfectionism:
You would not make a totally precise and finished job of the roof with which you cover your house.
Yet interestingly enough, the sculptures for the pediments of the recently completed Parthenon were perfectly finished. The craftsmanship of the areas which it was thought would never be seen is in no way inferior to what was visible. The Nurse's corrupting moral relativism is exposed by a building only a stone's throw from the theatre of Dionysus.
As for Hippolytus himself, there is something self-regarding and narcissistic about his stance as a good man. Lines 1078-9 are revealing here:
If only I could stand facing myself and look at myself, so that I could have wept for the ills I am suffering.
Good he undoubtedly is, but the emphasis with which he insists on this is unappealingly self-righteous. In addition, he gives us a disconcerting hint that he would be prepared to abandon his moral high ground if he felt that it would be of any practical use to do so.
Thus these four deeply flawed characters flounder in a quicksands of non-communication. It is not surprising that they long to escape, Hippolytus to his woods, Phaedra to join him there or on the sands, or to find refuge in death. Even the morally adaptable Nurse says that she will kill herself because of Phaedra's love, and Artemis addresses Theseus in particularly revealing lines:
Why do you not hide your body in the depths of Tartarus in your shame, or change to a bird and fly upwards and soar above this woe?
The chorus hauntingly encapsulate this poignant theme of escape in some of their finest lyrics.
But the play insists remorselessly that there is no escape. The chorus find themselves reduced to a naked rage against the gods, a feeling echoed by Hippolytus. This tragedy is unique in the way that it is framed by two different gods. At the start Cypris chillingly lays bare her vindictive plans, while at the end Artemis can offer Hippolytus only the consolation that she will exact vengeance for his fate upon a human loved by Cypris, and she proves unable to be close to her favourite at his death. The gods are cruel indeed. And the elemental forces of earth, air and the sun upon which the characters so repeatedly cry prove of no avail to them. The fourth element, water, tends to be viewed by the play—and by Hippolytus—as an escape, as something apart from human torment. Yet the great sea-god Poseidon proves the agent of unjust human vengeance. From the sea comes the bull. The characters inhabit a dark and comfortless world in which the horror represented by that bull is the fundamental reality.
Summing up recent approaches to characterisation in Euripides in 1981, C. Collard suggested that this poet had ‘a unique, precocious ability to project personality and its workings in ways which anticipate modern psychoanalysis’. Looking back to Phaedra's recollection of her mother's monstrous love for the bull that fathered the Minotaur, the bull from the sea seems particularly Freudian in its significance, and its symbolic evocation of rampant male fertility suggests that Hippolytus is being destroyed by the very force which he has so determinedly repressed. In this sense it can surely be viewed as something inside Hippolytus as well as an external force. After the Messenger's tremendous speech, the chorus sing an ode not to Poseidon, the god who sent the bull, but to Cypris, the goddess of love. This is surely more than a simple recognition that that goddess has controlled the action. Hippolytus' denial of physical love imposes a terrible violence on his nature and rouses a correspondingly terrible force within him.
So, despite the appearances of the gods at the beginning and end of the play, we are presented with what is essentially a human action in which flawed and isolated human beings attempt to shape their lives at the mercy of forces which they cannot comprehend and act from no rational motivation but rather from a disastrous impulsiveness. The Nurse crazily misunderstands Hippolytus' essential nature as she gambles all on telling him of Phaedra's love. Phaedra fails to grasp his deep sense of honour when, despite his oath of silence, she aims to undermine any allegations he may make against her by accusing him of rape. Theseus at times seems hardly to know him, scornfully denouncing this mass meat-killer and -consumer as a vegetarian. And Hippolytus loses contact with rational human discourse not only when he contemplates breaking his oath but more significantly in his hysterical rant against women.
Operating ‘in a mist’ (the phrase is from John Webster's Duchess of Malfi), the characters encompass their own and each other's destruction, and—ironically enough—their thoughtless rashness causes the fulfilment of Cypris' determined plan. Yet, despite its profound pessimism about the human condition, the tragedy focuses at its conclusion on the love of a son and father for each other. A goddess' love is evanescent—‘How easily you take leave of our long companionship,’ says Hippolytus to Artemis—but amid the shipwreck of their lives Theseus and his dying son are united in a profound love. Euripides had denied them stichomythia (in which the characters speak in single lines) in their terrible scene of confrontation, reserving it for the play's end where it sounds with a deeply moving intimacy. As father and son at last find the words through which they can speak the truth to each other, they finally communicate, and they communicate in words of love. In this tragedy above all, that represents a triumph of the human spirit.
Source: James Morwood, "Hippolytus," in The Plays of Euripides, Classical World Series, Bristol Classical Press, 2002, pp. 20-24.
Sten G. Flygt
In the following excerpt, Flygt compares the characters of Hippolytus and Phaedra as they are portrayed in the Hippolytus of the Greek Euripides and the Phaedra of the Roman Seneca. Flygt finds that the differences reveal a fundamental split between the worldview of the Greeks and that of the Romans, and that Hippolytus may be a more compelling play as a result.
Although it is generally accepted that Euripides' dramatic writings do not exhibit the mystic grandeur and universality to be found in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, a comparison of a play by Euripides with the corresponding play by Seneca leads to the conclusion that Euripides had not lost the tragic spirit that was Greek. I believe that the basic difference between Euripides' Hippolytus and Seneca's play on the same subject lies in a differing conception of the tragic. The tragic spirit of the two men makes itself felt in style, structure, and character portrayal, but it is particularly in the conception of character that it allows itself to be detected and examined. If, then we compare … the … main characters in Euripides' Hippolytus with the corresponding character in Seneca's Phaedra, we may be able to discover and analyze a difference that is fundamental and typical for the two playwrights.
I think there can be no doubt that in Hippolytus Euripides wished to portray a type of genuine devotion to the ideal of chastity. It would be a misconception to believe that Hippolytus' horror of the nurse's proposal is affectation and that his misogyny is a pose concealing lewdness; for the speech of Artemis in the epilogue would alone be sufficient evidence for the sincerity of Hippolytus' feelings, even were this not apparent from his speech and action. But Hippolytus is not a thoroughly attractive character, for he is too conscious of his devotion to his ideals of virtue and of his own perfect chastity. When he offers the wreath to Artemis he cannot refrain from expressing pride and satisfaction in the unique privileges which are his because of his virtue. When Theseus is reviling him and falsely accusing him, this habit of self-consciousness causes him to wish that he might see himself with his own eyes in order to bewail the sorrows that he is enduring. This wish brings from Theseus the just reproach that it is his nature to honor himself more than his parents. Even in the midst of the greatest danger and pain he cannot forget that he is not as other men are; for the messenger reports that while the frightened horses were dragging him along the shore he exclaimed that they were destroying the best of men, and with his dying breath he calls Zeus to witness that a man who surpassed all others in purity is about to perish. This extreme self-consciousness indicates that he is a fanatical ascetic on the points of sex and honor. He has allowed his ideals to control him to such an extent that he has fallen a prey to them and his mind has become diseased. It is for this reason that he bursts into such violent expressions of horror at the suggestions of the nurse, and it is for this reason that he inveighs so bitterly and blindly against all women. With Euripides' Hippolytus chastity is a mania.
Seneca's Hippolytus is also genuinely chaste, but the roots of his chastity are not diseased as is the case with his prototype. He is far less self-conscious, and his praise of himself is not at all conspicuous. He finds it only natural that he should adhere to the ideal of chastity, for it has probably never occurred to him to do otherwise. He is a man of much simpler mind with slight habits of meditation …
But it is perhaps in the conception of Phaedra that the fundamental difference in viewpoint between the two dramatists is most clearly shown. Each of the characters in the Roman tragedy has been only a degraded parallel of the corresponding character in the Greek play; but the transformation suffered by Phaedra at the hands of Seneca reveals a divergent view of life.
I believe it is safe to say that Euripides' heroine is a study of a conflict in character. Phaedra is naturally and normally a woman of unquestionable chastity and self-control. She tells how, when the madness seized her, she made repeated efforts to quell her passion, but to no avail, until she was forced into a resolution to die rather than dishonor herself. In character she is as chaste … as Hippolytus himself; but it is chastity of a different sort. Hippolytus is driven by an obsession; but in Phaedra's usual self there is none of the psychopathic, as is evidenced by her married life with Theseus, which we can only assume to have been normal and happy. To this fundamental chastity is added an overwhelming and guilty passion. Here it must carefully be noted that it is a fated madness brought upon her by the goddess Aphrodite, who uses the woman as a tool in her scheme to destroy Hippolytus. Euripides has portrayed for us the spectacle of a normally pure-minded woman suddenly and unaccountably smitten with forbidden love. This fated passion is so powerful that it can break her control. The madness has been suppressed and checked by her will and reason, and utterance has not been given to it; but despite suppression or through suppression it has grown so strong that it commences to overthrow her reason. Phaedra raves and utters hints concerning her malady, but an unconsciously exercised check prevents self-betrayal. She recovers her senses, and now, worn out by the dreadful struggles, is attacked by the searching questions of the nurse. At the mention of the name Hippolytus, the name that has been resounding in her mind until it has driven her frantic, she gives an involuntary start. The opening once made, her pent-up feelings begin to break through, at first gradually and then with force increasing to violence. Her natural reason and will have been exhausted by the long effort; they can no longer maintain concealment of her secret. Her fated madness has so far prevailed over her that she faintly hopes—at the same time that she fears—that the nurse will intervene successfully. But once the declaration has been made to Hippolytus and once he has repulsed her, sanity returns and the madness nearly vanishes. There is now no possibility for the woman of chaste soul to live on with this blot upon her. Death is the only course possible and herein does chastity triumph. But her fatal madness also celebrates a triumph, for her violent love has been transformed into as violent a desire to ruin Hippolytus. The power of the Cyprian works through death.
Whereas Euripides portrays a good woman who is ruined by circumstances over which she has no control, Seneca portrays a woman whose lust brings destruction upon others and finally upon herself. We have seen that the Greek Phaedra is a study of conflict in character; the Roman Phaedra is a study in baseness …
It might be said that Euripides' play violates the unity of character by a shift in interest from Phaedra to Hippolytus and that Seneca's play, since interest is patently centered in Phaedra, exhibits a closer adherence to this unity. But I believe that the foregoing character analysis will help to show that the apparent shift in interest in Euripides' play was made necessary by the author's conception of the characters, and that it is therefore indicative of artistry in maintaining the unity of Phaedra as a consistent character. In his play Euripides is interested equally in Phaedra and in Hippolytus as contrasting in their attitudes toward sex. They exhibit different types of sex-madness: Hippolytus, fanatical chastity, and Phaedra, overwhelming passion. If they did not have opposite attitudes toward the same question, no tragedy would be possible. But it must be admitted that, of the two characters, Phaedra is the more interesting to us, since she is the more complex. Two forces struggle within her soul; Hippolytus is dominated by a single obsession. Now I think it can be said that, since Euripides' interest in the two characters seems to have been about equal, there is no real violation of the unity of character, even though Phaedra physically leaves the action early in the play; for they represent conflicting aspects of the same problem. From the point of view of plot Hippolytus is the main character, since the play is concerned with the exposition of how Aphrodite takes vengeance upon him, and Phaedra is only the tool of the goddess. But from the viewpoint of character, the man and the woman are of equal importance. The development of interest in these characters follows a peculiar path. Hippolytus, offering a garland to Artemis and ignoring the goddess of love, is introduced as the object of Aphrodite's wrath. But interest is then concentrated upon Phaedra as the means of Hippolytus' downfall and as a fresh and different aspect of the sex problem. It is a brilliant study in a short space. But for reasons of consistency in character it becomes necessary that Phaedra be removed from the stage. Smitten by a fatal and fated passion, Phaedra, by nature as chaste as Hippolytus himself, cannot remain alive after the revelation of her secret. To live is for her a moral impossibility. That is, she cannot continue to live and be the same Phaedra. But although she cannot live, her very death directs the course of the subsequent action. The dead Phaedra is as much the tool of Aphrodite as the living Phaedra, and if our criterion of reality is the ability to produce effects, the dead Phaedra is just as real to Euripides as ever was the living Phaedra. It is Phaedra's death, the very event that causes the apparent shift in interest, that maintains the unity of character and the unity of action.
In general, Seneca has very largely taken the play out of the realm of the mystic and exalted. He shows a shift toward realism in the treatment of his characters, but he does not display great skill in subtle psychological analysis. There are, to be sure, shrewd strokes of penetration, as when Phaedra faints in Hippolytus' arms; but they are rather broad and obvious. I think it may be said that, although Seneca's characters approximate realistic standards in portraying more common types of people from daily life, they give an impression of shallowness. They are individuals, lacking in significance beyond themselves. Seneca's world is one of free will, moral responsibility, and guilt. The men and women in it, through flaws of character and lack of self-control, directly involve themselves and others in the consequences of their transgressions. Euripides' world, in the Hippolytus, is one where guilt and moral responsibility do not really exist, because man's life is not in his own control. Things happen to human beings that are out of all proportion to their deserts, and humanity is at the mercy of whatever forces control the universe. Their desires, their efforts, their merits are of no significance in the cosmic scheme. This is what Euripides seems to be saying in this play, for his characters are not so much individuals as universals, sublimated types of helpless, suffering humanity …
Source: Sten G. Flygt, "Treatment of Character in Euripides and Seneca: The Hippolytus," in Classical Journal, Vol. 29, No. 7, April 1934, pp. 507-16.
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A diverse collection of essays from a range of scholarly approaches dealing with the eighteen known plays by Euripides. An invaluable resource for all levels of students.
Pomeroy, Sarah B., Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert, Ancient Greece: A Political, Social and Cultural History, Oxford University Press, 2007.
A sophisticated yet accessible introduction for students with little or no knowledge of Greece, this book is enhanced by text boxes featuring excerpts from ancient documents, an extensive glossary, and a timeline and general introduction that provide an overview of Greek history.
Segal, Erich, ed., Euripides: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1968.
This comprehensive collection of critical essays on Euripides and his work provides a great introduction for interested students.
Wallace, Jennifer, The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
This very readable introduction explores the relationship between tragic experience and tragic representation. After giving an overview of the tragic theatre canon, including a chapter on the Greek tradition of tragedy, Wallace looks at the contribution that philosophers have brought to this subject, before ranging across other art-forms and areas of debate.