Artemis enters and demands to speak with Theseus. She berates him for violating the laws of nature by murdering his son. She indicates that he drew the wrong conclusions from the lies in Phaedra’s letter and points to the destruction he caused by believing her accusations. She informs him that for his behavior, he should hide himself under the earth and that he has no place among good men.
Artemis explains that she has come to Troezen to prove Hippolytus’ innocence. She then reveals to Theseus the truth of what transpired. She describes Phaedra’s illicit desire and claims that Aphrodite caused Phaedra’s passion for Hippolytus. Despite efforts to overcome this desire, Phaedra becomes a victim to the nurse’s schemes. After the nurse revealed Phaedra’s passion to Hippolytus, the prince refused to break his oath, even as Theseus cursed him. Fearing dishonor, Phaedra lied in her letter and convinced Theseus of Hippolytus’ treachery.
Artemis then scolds Theseus for using one of Poseidon’s curses to avenge Phaedra’s death; he should have saved it to use against an enemy. Poseidon granted Theseus’ request out of love for his progeny, but Theseus offended both Poseidon and Artemis by destroying Hippolytus without waiting to determine the truth of what had happened.
Artemis goes on to say that despite his sins, Theseus may yet receive pardon because the blame ultimately rests with Aphrodite. Artemis explains that Aphrodite’s attempt to gratify her anger against Hippolytus is the settled way of the gods, and consequently Artemis could not interfere to save Hippolytus. Artemis claims that Theseus’ ignorance absolves him of his role in Hippolytus’ death and that she and Theseus are the ones who have suffered the most from Aphrodite’s schemes.
Hippolytus enters, lamenting his fate. Artemis comforts the dying prince and alleviates his suffering with her heavenly presence. She reveals that Aphrodite caused his misfortunes in hatred of his chastity. Artemis promises the grieving father and dying prince that she will avenge their sorrows: when Aphrodite next falls in love with a mortal, Artemis will punish him just as the goddess of love destroyed Hippolytus.
Artemis then urges Theseus and Hippolytus to reconcile. She advises Theseus that he cannot blame himself for his mistake because Aphrodite blinded him, and she tells Hippolytus not to blame his father for he was fated to die in this manner. The goddess exits.
Hippolytus obeys Artemis’s commands and absolves his father of all culpability. The king thanks his son for remaining noble and honorable. Theseus holds Hippolytus as he dies. The chorus concludes the play with a final lament.
The use of a deus ex machina (meaning “god out of the machine,” a deus ex machina is a plot device in which a person or thing appears unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently unsolvable problem) is a common feature in Euripidean tragedy. In the case of Hippolytus, the deus ex machina is Artemis, quite literally a goddess. She appears in the epilogue to explain the truth to Theseus and Aphrodite’s anger to Hippolytus. Perhaps most importantly for the audience, she indicates why she refused to help her favorite: “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.” As is typical of the deus ex machina, Artemis resolves many of the lingering problems at the conclusion of the play.
First, Artemis absolves Theseus of his culpability in Hippolytus’ death. She explains that his ignorance and his wife’s lies acquit him of responsibility. Furthermore, Phaedra’s suicide convinced him of his son’s guilt while the oaths of Hippolytus and the chorus leader kept him from hearing the truth. Secondly, before she exits, she urges her favorite to forgive his father and that the two men reconcile before Hippolytus dies.
Hippolytus obeys the goddess’ commands and forgives his father: “I free you from all guilt in this.” Euripides gives Hippolytus a sympathetic final scene, depicting his death onstage, unlike with Phaedra. Hippolytus’ willingness to forgive his father and the tenderness of his final moments redeems him for his offenses.
While Hippolytus dies honored by his father and his patron goddess, Euripides does not accord Phaedra the same respect. Though Theseus vows to avenge her death when he first discovers her body, Artemis’ revelation of the truth dishonors Phaedra in death. The play ends with Artemis’ accusations of Phaedra’s treachery. Euripides thus achieves a balance in his portrayal of the play’s two main characters. Neither is fully guilty, yet neither is fully innocent.
At the end of the play, Euripides leaves the audience with a grim sense of the terrifying power of erotic love as Hippolytus lies in his death throes. However, the chilling promise that foreshadows Artemis’ revenge against Aphrodite reinforces a religious moral: humans should perform their duties to the gods but avoid their companionship for fear of their destructive power.