Hippolytus Study Guide

Euripides twice treated the Hippolytus myth in dramatic form, which was unusual for a Greek tragedian. This is, in fact, the only known instance of a Greek dramatist composing two tragedies on the same mythic source. It therefore seems likely that Euripides was deeply interested in this narrative. His first treatment, entitled Hippolytos Kalyptomenos (Hippolytus Veiled), was met by the disfavor of the Athenian audience. Though only a brief fragment of this play survives, scholars generally agree that this text portrayed Phaedra as sexually voracious. This representation of Phaedra as a lustful woman who directly propositions Hippolytus likely offended Athenian audiences who would have been appalled by the portrayal of illicit female desire. The play likely portrayed Hippolytus as an innocent youth so overwhelmed with shame after Phaedra’s sexual advances that he veils his face.

Euripides’ initial failure at the City Dionysia may have motivated him to revisit the Hippolytus myth. The extant dramatization, 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.

Euripides’ tragedy forms the basis of a number of later adaptations of the Hippolytus myth, most notably Racine’s seventeenth-century drama Phèdre (composed in French).