“I would hold in my hand a spear with a steel point.”
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.
“Love distills desire upon the eyes, love brings bewitching grace into the heart of those he would destroy. I pray that love may never come to me with murderous intent [...]”
Here the chorus provides commentary on the terrifying power of erotic love. Phaedra has just revealed her desire for Hippolytus, and the nurse and chorus have concluded that Phaedra’s perverse passion is a curse from Aphrodite. The chorus’ expressed fear of love and its potential for malevolence emphasizes Euripides’ depiction of erotic love as a consuming and destructive force. The viciousness of love plays out in the rest of the drama as Aphrodite destroys the lives of Phaedra, Hippolytus, and, by extension, Theseus.
“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’ll hate you women [...]. Some say that I talk of this eternally, yes, but eternal, too, is woman’s wickedness. Either let someone teach them to be chaste, or suffer me to trample on them forever.”
Hippolytus’ misogyny is a problem in the play, complicating interpretations of his character. One of the most confusing elements of his misogyny is the fact that his “patron” goddess Artemis is technically a woman. Her divinity and chastity exempt her from Hippolytus’ hate. However, while her patronage of the traditionally male sport of hunting gives her certain masculine characteristics, she is also the goddess of virgins and childbirth. It seems, therefore, that Euripides challenges his audience to reconcile Hippolytus’ misogynistic attitude with his devotion to Artemis.
“The shame of her cruel fate has conquered. She has chosen good name rather than life: she is easing her heart of its bitter load of love.”
Honor is a central theme of Euripides’ tragedy, and this quotation illustrates the importance of honor over life. Worried that Hippolytus will make public her desire, Phaedra commits suicide rather than face dishonor. Fear of shame motivates characters throughout Hippolytus. Hippolytus chooses his father’s pain and his own exile rather than proclaiming his innocence and thereby breaking his oath to the nurse. His honorable decision results in his death.
“You are the veritable holy man! You walked with Gods in chastity immaculate! I’ll not believe your boasts of God’s companionship [...]”
Theseus’ words accuse Hippolytus of hypocrisy. Convinced of his son’s guilt by Phaedra’s suicide note, Theseus assumes that his son’s protestations of chastity and love for the goddess Artemis are false. Unlike the impassioned speech of Phaedra, Theseus’ accusations are mechanical as if this were a rhetorical exercise. Euripides gives no sense of Theseus’ interiority or personal outrage at his son’s betrayal. Theseus instead relies on Hippolytus’ two defining characteristics, virginity and love of Artemis, which in light of Phaedra’s rape prove his son false. This speech illustrates the problem Euripides faced after killing Phaedra halfway through the play. Although he must resolve Hippolytus’ storyline, his interest in doing so is purely academic, and the writing loses its spark.
“[Y]ou will tell me that this frantic folly is inborn in a woman’s nature; man is different: but I know that young men are no more to be trusted than a woman which love disturbs the youthful blood in them.”
This speech presents a more balanced view of women and men in relation to erotic desire. While Hippolytus accuses solely women of lecherous pursuits, Theseus argues that all humans are subject to the madness that love can cause. Embedded in this speech is the very heart of the play’s tragedy and Aphrodite’s cause for revenge. Hippolytus refuses to believe that he is subject to love, preferring to think that only women are thus afflicted. It is for this mistaken belief that Aphrodite seeks vengeance against Hippolytus and for which he dies.
“No one may fly in the face of another’s wish: we remain aloof and neutral. Else, I assure you, had I not feared Zeus, I never would have endured such shame as this—my best friend among men killed, and I could do nothing.”
Artemis’ role at the end of the play is problematic. She is merely a plot device, a deus ex machina that Euripides employs to resolve the play neatly. She reveals the truth to Theseus and Hippolytus, and here she explains why she could not prevent the death of her favorite. She claims that the rules of the gods forbade her from interfering. This seems like a bit of an evasion on Euripides’ part: a cop-out ending to avoid having to deal with Artemis from the outset. The reason Artemis cites for her refusal to intercede is particularly problematic when we consider that numerous myths depict the gods intervening on behalf of their favorites.
“You shall not be unavenged, Cypris shall find the angry shafts she hurled against you for your piety and innocence shall cost her dear. I’ll wait until she loves a mortal next time, and with this hand—with these unerring arrows I’ll punish him.”
Artemis’ promise of revenge provides the chilling conclusion of play and suggests an ongoing struggle between the goddesses of love and chastity. Her declaration reminds the audience of the often-beleaguered relationships between the gods. The gods use mortals for the surrogates for their anger, unable to punish each other without upsetting the delicate balance on Mount Olympus. Euripides seems to be warning his audience to honor the gods but maintain a safe distance from their affairs.
“I free you from all guilt in this.”
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.
Hippolytus Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Hippolytus is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.