The scene opens with Phaedra standing near the central door of the palace. She is clearly listening to a conversation occurring offstage. Reacting to what she overhears, Phaedra exclaims in anger and disgust that she faces ruin. The chorus excitedly speculates on what could be causing Phaedra’s outburst. Phaedra explains that the nurse has betrayed her and revealed the truth to Hippolytus. She also indicates that though the revelation was supposed to cure Phaedra’s illness, it has now caused her death. She alludes to a plan to commit suicide and exits the stage. Phaedra listens to the conversation between the nurse and Hippolytus from behind the palace door.
Hippolytus and the nurse enter. Before having told Hippolytus about Phaedra’s passion, the nurse made him swear an oath not to reveal the truth to anyone else, but the news of Phaedra’s desire outrages him. Though he menaces the nurse, she implores him not to break his oath.
Hippolytus begins a misogynistic tirade about the nature of women. In an apostrophe addressed to Zeus, Hippolytus wonders why Zeus made women the progenitors of men. He observes the financial strain a woman places on the household: initially to her father who must raise her and give her a dowry in order to marry her off, and later to her husband who must heap gifts on her.
He goes on to claim that simple wives are best for men and that he hates clever women. Lust, he says, only affects clever women whose minds delight in the mischief that desire causes. By contrast, stupid women cannot find enjoyment in lechery. Hippolytus then directs his anger at the nurse, claiming that Phaedra has plotted against him while the nurse spreads this mischief in an attempt to undermine the sanctity of Theseus’ marriage.
Hippolytus then asserts that it is only because of his piety that he will refrain from speaking of Phaedra’s desire; had an oath not bound him, he would have no qualms about sharing the truth with Theseus. He warns that he will watch Phaedra and the nurse closely and concludes his rant by cursing all women. Hippolytus then exits.
Phaedra returns to the stage, bemoaning her unhappy fate. The chorus observes that the nurse’s schemes have failed and that Phaedra is ruined. The nurse then enters, and Phaedra berates her for her betrayal. She then voices her worries about her honor. She assumes that Hippolytus will tell Theseus and Pittheus about her desire and that news of her dishonor will spread throughout the country.
The nurse interjects, attempting to salvage her standing with her mistress. She claims that she simply wanted the best for Phaedra and that she sought a remedy for Phaedra’s illness. Had the disclosure to Hippolytus cured Phaedra, the nurse would have received thanks rather than accusations for being a traitor. The nurse then tries to convince Phaedra that she can still escape from her plight. Tired of the nurse’s advice, Phaedra dismisses her, and the nurse exits.
Phaedra asks that the chorus remain silent about what has transpired, and the chorus leader swears never to shame or dishonor Phaedra. Phaedra then announces her plan to die. In death, she expects to destroy Hippolytus for his cruel rejection and bring delight to Aphrodite. Phaedra exits.
The chorus relates the story of Phaedra’s life, from her childhood in Crete to her journey to Athens and wedding with Theseus to Aphrodite’s curse. The women then begin to narrate Phaedra’s death. Phaedra hangs herself in the room she shares with Theseus, choosing honor over life. Offstage the nurse calls out, asking someone help to cut the queen from her noose. The scene ends with various members of the chorus discussing the death of Phaedra and speculating about Theseus’ reaction.
In the third scene, Euripides explores differing attitudes towards women. Of particular interest is Hippolytus’ misogynistic tirade about women. Hippolytus’ hatred for women is two-fold: they place a financial burden on their fathers and husbands and clever women are mischievous and lustful. The first refers to the tradition of a father providing dowries for his daughter at her marriage and a husband having to pay for the upkeep of his wife. The second is Hippolytus’ own perception of women, which his vow of chastity colors. According to his view, stupid women are too docile to have lustful desire while clever women use lust to manipulate men.
Hippolytus’ misogyny echoes the words of Pericles in the history of Thucydides: “If it is necessary that I say anything about a woman’s excellence, I could sum it up in the words: great is her renown whose name is least upon the lips of men either for good or for ill.” Though these words could have been a general statement about attitudes towards women in Athenian society during the fifth century B.C.E., we can clearly see that many playwrights, including Euripides, were interested in the role of women in society. Some of the best-developed and most compelling characters on the Athenian stage were women: Phaedra and Medea (Euripides); Clytemnestra, Cassandra, and Electra (Aeschylus); and Antigone and Deianeira (Sophocles).
Hippolytus’ misogynistic attitude creates an interpretive problem, complicating our understanding 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’ charges against women. 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 is therefore a challenge to reconcile Hippolytus’ misogynistic attitude with his devotion to Artemis.
In either case, Euripides clearly portrays Hippolytus as a negative character who does not fully understand his familial or religious obligations. Consequently, we can safely assume that Hippolytus’ attitudes do not reflect those of Euripides, particularly in light of his nuanced portrayal of Phaedra.
Phaedra finally commits suicide at the end of the third scene. Her suicide is the culmination of her struggle to overcome her desire for Hippolytus. By killing herself, she ensures that she can never act on her lust and that the denizens of Troezen remember her virtue and honor.