- Hippolytus is a mortal prince who prefers chastity and hunting to the pursuits under Aphrodite’s purview. He therefore worships Artemis, goddess of the hunt and virginity, to the exclusion of Aphrodite, goddess of love.
- Furious at this slight, Aphrodite avenges her honor by causing Hippolytus’ stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. When the horrified Hippolytus rejects Phaedra, she hangs herself out of shame, but not before writing a letter accusing her stepson of ****** her.
- Upon reading the note, Hippolytus’ father, Theseus, curses his son, which leads to Hippolytus’ death.
- In the last scene, Artemis appears to reveal the truth to Theseus and comfort her dying protégé. Before she vanishes, Artemis promises to avenge Hippolytus’ death by inflicting a comparable punishment on Aphrodite’s next mortal favorite.
- This play, titled Hippolytos Stephanophoros (Hippolytus Crowned) or simply Hippolytus, is generally believed to have corrected the characterizations that made the first version so unpopular. This belief originated with Aristophanes of Byzantium, and many modern scholars continue to hold this view.In this reading, both Phaedra and Hippolytus remain chaste and share some of the responsibility for their tragic fates. Instead of a brazen Phaedra propositioning Hippolytus, the nurse betrays her mistress, which results in the downfall of these two characters. Ultimately, all characters seem to be absolved of their moral responsibilities. Rather, Aphrodite receives blame for the deaths of Hippolytus and Phaedra, and the conclusion of the play establishes ongoing strife between the goddess of love and the goddess of chastity. Athenian audiences responded more positively to this reworked version of the Hippolytus myth. Hippolytus was first performed for the City Dionysia in 428 B.C.E. and won first prize.
Theseus is the king of Athens. He is in Troezen with his wife Phaedra serving a year of voluntary exile for murdering the Pallantids, who are nobles of Attica, the region around Athens. His illegitimate son Hippolytus also lives in Troezen. At the beginning of the play, Theseus is absent, having gone to Delphi to visit the oracle. When he returns to Troezen, he finds that his wife has committed suicide and has implicated Hippolytus. He curses his son, who dies as a result.
Theseus plays an important role throughout Greek mythology. Most myths tell that he has two fathers, Poseidon (the god of the sea) and Aigeus (a mortal), both of whom slept with his mother, Aethra. Theseus therefore has both divine and mortal characteristics, much like other Greek heroes. As an adult, he unified the Attica region under the throne of Athens. Like Heracles, he performed a number of heroic feats, as related in several primary sources, including Apollodorus’ Bibliotheke. He is particularly famous today for killing the Minotaur in the labyrinth in Crete. He also plays a role in Sophocles’ work Oedipus at Colonus, one of the plays in the Theban trilogy.
Hippolytus is the illegitimate son of Theseus and the Amazon Antiope (alternately Hippolyte). As a child, he was sent to Troezen to be raised by his great-grandfather Pittheus. Theseus hoped that when Pittheus died, Hippolytus would inherit the rule of Troezen while his legitimate children would rule over Athens.
Hippolytus worships Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, to the exclusion of the other gods. He is committed to remaining chaste, which angers Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Angry at his refusal to honor her, Aphrodite plots against him, causing his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. When he rejects Phaedra’s desire, she commits suicide and accuses him of ****** her. When Theseus discovers Phaedra’s accusations, he curses Hippolytus, who dies because of the curse.
Phaedra is the wife of Theseus and therefore Queen of Athens. She is the daughter of Minos, king of Crete, and came to Athens after Theseus killed the Minotaur. After marrying Theseus, she falls in love with his illegitimate son Hippolytus. Aphrodite causes Phaedra’s desire in order to further her plot to destroy Hippolytus.
Phaedra tells her nurse about her passion for her stepson, who then reveals this to Hippolytus. In order to preserve her honor, Phaedra commits suicide by hanging herself, but not before writing a letter accusing Hippolytus of ****** her. Most critics (including Aristophanes) agree that Phaedra and not Hippolytus is the principal character in this play.
The chorus of palace women + the nurse
The Chorus of Palace Women
The chorus is composed of women who live in Troezen. As is typical in Greek drama, the chorus provides context, continuity, and commentary for those viewing the play. They also provide a more universal perspective on the action.
The nurse is Phaedra’s confidante, but she reveals her mistress’ illicit desire to Hippolytus, causing Phaedra’s suicide.
Aphrodite + Artemis
Aphrodite is the goddess of love. In contrast with the typical portrayal of a sensual and benign goddess, Euripides depicts Aphrodite as a terrifying and vengeful goddess with immense power. Though she appears only in the prologue, she is essentially the mastermind of the entire narrative. Infuriated over Hippolytus’ refusal to worship her, she concocts a plot of revenge. Aphrodite causes Phaedra to fall in love with Hippolytus, which ultimately causes his downfall.
Artemis is the virginal goddess of the hunt, chastity, and childbirth. She is often depicted as a hunter, carrying a bow and arrow. In the play, she is the patron of Hippolytus, who prefers to remain chaste and enjoys hunting. After Aphrodite destroys her favorite, Artemis vows to avenge his death. She appears only in the epilogue to reveal the truth of what has happened over the course of the play.
Lust & Continence
- Framing the action of Hippolytus is a prologue and an epilogue, each spoken by a goddess. Within the play, these goddesses are Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Artemis, goddess of chastity.
- We can allegorize the representations of these goddesses and read the drama as a conflict between lust and continence, played out by Phaedra (lust) and Hippolytus (continence).
- Euripides refuses, however, to turn this conflict into a moral commentary, condemning either lust or continence, which we, as a modern audience, might expect.
- Rather, he depicts both Phaedra’s illicit desire and Hippolytus’ chastity as monstrous. Although we cannot know whether Greece in the fifth century would have considered such a sexual relationship between stepmother and stepson incestuous, such a union would be an obvious violation of the father’s trust.
- Similarly, the audience would have seen Hippolytus’ insistence on chastity as a gross perversion at the time of the play’s first performance. Instead of a moral commentary, the two conflicting elements simply reveal the power that passion holds over humans.
- At the heart of the conflict in Hippolytus is the theme of betrayal, which threatens nearly every human relationship in the play. Phaedra’s desire for her stepson, for example, violates her marriage vows with Theseus and betrays his trust. While she struggles to overcome her lust, she explains her troubles to the nurse, from whom she exacts a promise never to reveal the cause of her suffering. Hoping that it will alleviate Phaedra’s pain, the nurse breaks her vow and informs Hippolytus of Phaedra’s desire, which not only leads to Phaedra’s suicide but the destruction of Hippolytus as well. In death, Phaedra betrays her stepson, leaving behind a letter that falsely accuses him of ****** her. Upon returning home, Theseus discovers the letter and assumes his son has betrayed him. In his outrage, he curses his son in a violation of the bond between father and son, which duly leads to Hippolytus’ death. It is interesting to note that Hippolytus is the only character who manages to avoid the act of betrayal. By not acting on his stepmother’s desire, he remains faithful to his father, and further, he upholds his oath to the nurse, even when being accused of treachery by his father. To an extent, this loyalty redeems his perverse insistence on chastity, which is the cause of the play’s conflict.
Jealousy & Revenge
Hippolytus is the particular devotee of Artemis, which we are to realize means that he worships this goddess to the exclusion of the other gods. Aphrodite takes particular offense to this slight since Hippolytus’ vow of chastity is in direct conflict with her purview of ****** love. Jealous of his exclusive worship of Artemis, Aphrodite concocts a plot to avenge Hippolytus’ wrongs against her. Revenge is thus the root of the play’s action.
These themes also characterize interactions between the play’s mortal characters. Hurt by Hippolytus’ reaction to the nurse’s revelation, Phaedra commits suicide to preserve her honor but not before composing a letter that accusing Hippolytus of ****** her. Although the text indicates that Phaedra writes the letter to avoid the shame that public knowledge of her desire would bring, we can also read this as an act of revenge against the man who so cruelly rejects her. When Theseus discovers Phaedra’s letter, he assumes she is telling the truth, and he too exacts revenge against Hippolytus, both cursing him and exiling him from the kingdom.
The play concludes with a final promise of revenge from Artemis. Infuriated by Aphrodite’s destruction of her favorite, Artemis pledges to avenge Hippolytus’ death by punishing the next mortal favored by her rival goddess.
Relationship between man and gods
- The central conflict of the play, specifically Aphrodite’s desire for revenge, derives from confusion over the proper relationship between man and the gods.
- It may not be readily obvious to readers today, but fifth-century Greek audiences would have recognized that Hippolytus’ refusal to worship Aphrodite was a violation of the proper reverence due a goddess of her stature.
- People customarily worshiped all of the gods rather than choose whom they wanted to obey.
- A patron god or goddess would have been acceptable; indeed, heroes with specific patrons populate many Greek myths.
- However, insulting a god by refusing to worship him would have been suicide, which the play so aptly demonstrates.
Relationship between the gods
Euripides’ nuanced portrayal of the gods is a defining characteristic of his tragedies, and his depiction of Aphrodite and Artemis in Hippolytus is no exception. Unlike the voluptuous goddess of love in visual representations, Euripides’ Aphrodite is vindictive and vengeful. Wrath similarly defines Euripides’ interpretation of Artemis, though this is hardly original ground. One of the more famous myths about Artemis features the goddess punishing a mortal man, Actaeon, who sees her bathing. Due to the similarities between the goddesses, we can read them as foils for each other: one sexualized and the other virginal.
Euripides depicts Aphrodite and Artemis in competition, and although Artemis could not interfere directly in Aphrodite’s affairs, her vow at the end of the play emphasizes the deadliness of their rivalry. Their interaction typifies the relationships between the gods, which range in disposition from tolerant to hostile. Susceptible to human emotions such as jealousy and anger, the gods seem little different than the mortals who worship them.
Role of women in society
- In many of his plays, Euripides explores the role of women in Greek society. He seems particularly interested in perverse or monstrous women (perhaps most memorably depicted in Medea’s slaughter of her children), and in Hippolytus, Phaedra’s incestuous desire represents a perversion of her wifely obligations.
- Whether or not a fifth-century Greek audience would have considered a sexual relationship between mother and stepson incest, we can easily understand that Phaedra’s lust for Hippolytus is a gross violation of her husband’s trust.
- Yet Phaedra’s impropriety extends beyond her illicit desire. During this period, a wife’s principal duties involved managing the household and raising the children, and Phaedra’s mania prevents her from performing these tasks.
- Even her appearance betrays her impropriety. When she emerges from the palace in the second scene, she leaves her hair loose and uncovered, which, as we can interpret from the nurse’s reaction, would have been immodest in fifth-century Greece.
- Just as it is throughout the corpus of Greek mythology, honor (timê) is a primary concern of Euripides’ characters.
- When Phaedra falls in love with Hippolytus, she resolves to conceal her passion so as not to bring shame and the community’s censure upon herself.
- Upon the revelation of her lust, Phaedra’s immediate fear is for her reputation. Worried that Hippolytus will dishonor her by sharing her story, she commits suicide and leaves the letter accusing Hippolytus of **** to ensure that Troezen remembers her virtue and honor.
- The alleged **** of his wife naturally offends Theseus’ honor, and he consequently punishes his son for causing this shame.
- Of course, the action of the entire play hinges on Aphrodite’s scheme to destroy Hippolytus, whose refusal to worship the goddess of love dishonors her.
“I would hold in my hand a spear with a steel point.”
Phaedra, Line 221
- At this point in the play, Phaedra is raving manically about her desire to escape to the mountains are partake in masculine pursuits such as hunting.
- Phaedra’s wildness here reflects her inner struggle to overcome her desire for Hippolytus although she refuses to explain the cause of her mania. Her words, however, betray her passion.
- The spear is blatantly phallic, and her invocation of a weapon used in the hunt alludes to Hippolytus, whose favorite pastime is hunting. This expressed longing to hold in her hand the “spear” so clearly linked with Hippolytus is a graphic illustration of Phaedra’s lust for her stepson.
“That husband has the easiest life whose wife is a mere nothingness, a simple fool, uselessly sitting by the fireside. I hate a clever woman—God forbid that I should ever have a wife at home with more than woman’s wits! Lust breeds mischief in the clever ones. The limits of their minds deny the stupid lecherous delights.”
- Hippolytus’ description of the ideal woman appears in the midst of his misogynistic tirade, but Athenian audiences would have seen the flaws in his preference for a foolish wife.
- Women had to raise children as well as manage the household, which included the family stores and capital.
- A stupid wife would be incapable of adequately managing the household. Furthermore, husbands and wives had to work together for the benefit of the family: the man in outdoor or public pursuits and the wife in the home.
“I free you from all guilt in this.”
Hippolytus, Line 1449
- Hippolytus’ absolution of his father’s culpability is the final act that redeems his character. Though he has shown himself to be an honorable man, refusing to break his oath to the nurse and obeying his father’s commands both with unpleasant consequences, Euripides does not show Hippolytus’ obedience to the gods until the epilogue.
- Although we learn of Hippolytus’ pious devotion to Artemis, his refusal to revere Aphrodite suggests a disregard for the authority of the gods.
- By obeying Artemis’ command that he forgive his father, Hippolytus demonstrates his redemption.