A messenger enters, bringing Theseus news of an accident that has fatally wounded Hippolytus. He explains that the prince’s own horses threw him from his chariot in fulfillment of Theseus’s curse. Pleased to hear that Poseidon honored his request, Theseus asks the messenger to describe Hippolytus’ death.
The messenger relates the gruesome tale. Hippolytus and his men were by the shore, readying their horses and preparing to leave. Though the prince had initially bemoaned his exile, he came to accept his fate and mounted his chariot. Before departing, he prayed to Zeus, asking that if he were truly guilty, that he be destroyed. He then set off with his servants following him.
Upon crossing the border of Troezen, the earth began to rumble. The horses pricked their ears and all the men became nervous. As they looked to the waves crashing on the shore, they saw an enormous wave appear. The wave grew so large that it blotted out the view of the coast. Just before the wave broke upon the coast, it took the shape of a bull. The bull bellowed, shaking the earth and spooking the horses.
Attempting to calm the horses, Hippolytus pulled on the reins. Although Hippolytus was used to controlling his horses, the horses bolted. They charged towards the cliffs, and when the bull came galloping along the road, the chariot overturned. The chariot broke apart, and Hippolytus became entangled in the reins. The horses dragged his body for a great distance. The servants tried to help him but could not catch up. Somehow, Hippolytus managed to extricate himself but had mortal wounds.
Once he finishes his story, the messenger indicates that he had always believed in the prince’s innocence, despite Phaedra’s death and the accusations in her letter. The chorus leader observes that Aphrodite’s curse has come to fruition and that one cannot escape fate.
Theseus is pleased that Hippolytus has received punishment for his sins but refuses to rejoice because Hippolytus is still his son. The messenger asks the king what they should do with the prince and begs him not to be harsh with his son as he lies dying. Theseus commands that they bring Hippolytus to him so that he can see his son’s face.
The chorus concludes the scene with an apostrophe to Aphrodite. They say that she holds power over the hearts of men and Gods and that love has the power to bewitch all creatures of the earth.
After the death of Phaedra, this is perhaps the only scene that we can imagine Euripides enjoyed writing, with its dramatic description of Hippolytus’ fatal wounding. In this scene, Aphrodite finally gets her revenge: Hippolytus’ own horses destroy him, even though he had always had great control over them. The manner in which Hippolytus dies further explains his name. Significantly, “Hippolytus” means “destroyed by horses.”
Of course, Poseidon’s bull spooks the horses and causes them to bolt, dragging Hippolytus to his death. When Theseus hears of Hippolytus’ death, he seems surprised that Poseidon granted his wish, saying, “Poseidon, you are then truly my father!” Poseidon is, in fact, a father to Theseus; according to a number of myths, he slept with Theseus’ mother Aethra on the night of her wedding to Aegeus. Theseus thus has double-fatherhood: one mortal and one immortal. Poseidon gives his son three curses, and when Theseus calls on his father to kill Hippolytus, Poseidon destroys his own grandson. Instead of questioning his son’s decision, Poseidon acts out of love for his son, suggesting that Theseus violated his fatherly role and should have shown Hippolytus the same respect and trust that Poseidon showed him.
Hippolytus’ death compounds rather than resolves the ambiguity of his guilt. Before departing in exile, Hippolytus prays to Zeus, asking him to “let me die now, if I have been guilty! Let my father know that he has done me wrong.” Soon afterwards, Hippolytus receives fatal wounds. While he is certainly guilty of slighting Aphrodite, Phaedra clearly fabricates her accusation. However, the timing of Hippolytus’ death implicates him in his stepmother’s destruction. Had he shown Aphrodite proper respect, the goddess might have spared Phaedra; however, as Artemis states in the epilogue, “It was fate that you should die so,” suggesting that it was also fate that Phaedra would die as she did. The ambiguity of moral responsibility reinforces the notion that Euripides was the father of the modern psychological drama.
Though Hippolytus’ guilt remains ambiguous, his devotion and obedience to his father helps to redeem him. Though initially distraught, he accepts his exile and resolves to persevere, saying “It is my father who has commanded and I must obey him.” His insistence on obeying his father adds to our understanding of his sense of honor. Not only does he refuse to break his oath when faced with an unpleasant situation, but he also honors his father’s authority.