Euripides’ play Hippolytus, performed in 428 b.c.e., is one of the few to win him first prize. It begins at Theseus’ palace at Troezen where Aphrodite (a.k.a. Cypris) is complaining about the son of Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta (a.k.a. Antiopê). Hippolytus is sworn against love and marriage (as his Amazonian mother had renounced men). Aphrodite has harsh plans to teach him a bitter lesson. She has caused Theseus’ current wife, Phaedra, to fall in love with her step-son. “To the lady Phaedra I grant a death that saves her honour, yet she must die” (138).
Hippolytus enters and, while fairly irreverent to the gods in general, absolutely refuses to honor the love goddess: “No goddess worshipped by night wins my respect” (140). He is instead a devotee to Artemis the chaste. After a Chorus of Troezenian women sing a song, Phaedra is carried in, accompanied by her Nurse, who laments, “It’s nothing but pain, this life of ours; we’re born to suffer and there’s no end to it” (141). Phaedra (daughter of Minos and sister of Ariadne — both grossly unlucky in love) is distraught but won’t confess why. She hasn’t eaten in days and seems suicidal. She wishes she were in the forest, hunting with her hounds and spear (in a passage that may have been influential to Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
The Nurse guesses at various evils, not realizing that love is the problem here. Eventually the Nurse mentions Hippolytus. Phaedra freaks out. “One I love is my destroyer — not of his choice or mine” (144). So the Nurse ferrets out the identity of the object of Phaedra’s lust. Phaedra rails about her sex: “I was well aware of being a woman, something hated by all men. Whatever woman first set about playing the adulteress, may all the world’s curses fall upon her shameless head! It was in well-born families that this evil first infected womankind; when noble ladies sanction acts of shame in their own lives, the low-born will think their behavior respectable, mark my words…. how can they share their husbands’ beds and meet their eyes without shuddering at the thought of the darkness and roof beams, accomplices in their acts, voicing what they witnessed” (147-148).
Despite a lot of ostensible shock and horror, the Nurse drums up some sophistry indicating that one should not deny one’s passions as she tries to calm Phaedra: “You’re in love; what’s so strange about that? So is half the world” (148). “It’s a god’s will” (149).
The Nurse claims to have a charm that will cure Phaedra if a token from Hippolytus could be obtained. She’s lying, unable to answer if the charm is “an ointment or a potion” (150). After Phaedra further contemplates her death, Hippolytus enters, badgered by and disgusted with the Nurse. He rants about how horrible women are: “O Zeus, why did you allow women to live in the light of the sun and plague mankind with their counterfeit looks? If you wished to propagate the race of men, it wasn’t from women you should have provided this; no, men ought to enter your temples and their purchase children at a valuation … and then live in freedom in their homes without women. Here’s your proof that woman is a dangerous pest: her father, who gave her life and raised her up, puts down a dowry for her and sends her to another home to rid himself of his trouble…. For the Cyprian breeds evil more often in clever women; the helpless ones are saved from promiscuous urges by their lack of brains” (153). Before rushing offstage, he adds, “I curse you all! Never will I have my fill of hating women, even though they say I never cease to speak of them” (154).
Phaedra places a gag-order on the Chorus and fears that Hippolytus will rat her out to Theseus, so she positions a noose and hangs herself in her bedroom. The Nurse shrieks, and the Chorus women have a weird exchange. “What shall we do, friends? Do you think we should go into the palace and free the queen from the tightened noose?” “Why? Aren’t there young men in there attending on her? It’s always risky to meddle like that” (157).
Theseus comes home, pissed off that he hasn’t gotten a fine greeting. The Chorus-Leader reports the death, and Theseus throws himself a pity-party. From a suicide note found in Phaedra’s hand, Theseus interprets that Hippolytus had come on to her and she has killed herself for shame. (This is a folklore motif exemplified also in the story of Joseph by “Potiphar’s wife.”) “Hippolytus has dared to violate my wife, flouting the sacred eye of Zeus” (159). Theseus calls on Poseidon to damn Hippolytus to Hades, or else he will at least be banished. Hippolytus arrives and knows nothing while being cursed by his father: “Oh, yes, preen yourself now, play the exhibitionist with that vegetable diet of yours [!], take Orpheus for your master and join him in that frenzied dance” (161). (Sounds like father/son conversations in the 1960s.) Hippolytus declares himself a virgin and tries to reason with Theseus: it’s not like she was so hot, and bedding her would have been no way to inherit! Hippolytus recommends consulting a seer, but Theseus responds, “As for the birds that fly overhead, I couldn’t care less about them” (163). Hippolytus mournfully sets off in banishment.
It is reported to Theseus that Hippolytus has been almost killed. As he rode his chariot by the sea, Poseidon sent up a giant earthquake and giant wave and giant bull. The spooked horses threw Hippolytus off the chariot, but he was tangled in the reins and dragged over rocks until nearly dead. The messenger asserts that he will never believe the accusations against Hippolytus, “not even if the whole female sex should hang itself and all the trees on Ida go to make writing material” (168).
Artemis reveals the truth to Theseus and blames Aphrodite’s spite. Hippolytus’ broken and disfigured body is brought forth for a death scene with daddy. He is in excruciating pain and declares his life to have been “pointless” (171). Artemis is kind and blames Aphrodite for the destruction of all three of the family. She hopes Theseus can forgive himself and vows to destroy one whom Aphrodite will love (Adonis). Father and son are reconciled, and Hippolytus dies.
Euripides’ innovation in his Hippolytus is to cast the woman as a sympathetic character, Aphrodite’s helpless victim caught in a divine plan to destroy Hippolytus. His audience expects to see the wicked woman vilified and the virtuous youth exalted; that is the tradition. Instead, Euripides portrays his Phaedra as a highly moral woman struggling against the shame of her passion, while Hippolytus is an intolerant prig. (Powell 411).
Euripides. Hippolytus. Trans. Arthur S. Way. An Anthology of Greek Drama. Ed. C.A. Robinson, Jr. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1965. 183-226.
—. Hippolytus In Medea and Other Plays. Trans. John Davie. NY: Penguin Classics, 1996. 129-174, 186-192. Page references above to this edition.
Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.