Hippolytus is set in Troezen, a city in the northeastern Peloponnese. Theseus is in Troezen serving a year of voluntary exile for murdering the Pallantids (nobles of Attica, the region around Athens). With him is his wife Phaedra. When Theseus married Phaedra, he sent Hippolytus, his son by his former mistress Antiope (alternately Hippolyte), to be raised by his great-grandfather Pittheus, who ruled Troezen. Theseus hoped that when Pittheus died, Hippolytus would inherit the kingdom of Troezen while Phaedra’s children would rule in Athens.
The play opens with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, speaking the prologue. She begins by enumerating her powers. She explains that she expects all of humanity to worship her and that she punishes those who refuse to honor her. She then relates the context of the play.
Hippolytus has sworn an oath of chastity, rejecting both the beds of love and marriage. He therefore refuses to honor Aphrodite, “counting [her] vilest of the Gods in Heaven.” He instead reveres Artemis, the goddess of chastity and the hunt. Because Hippolytus has blasphemed against her, Aphrodite has formulated a plan to exact revenge.
Prior to the action of the play, Aphrodite caused Phaedra to fall in love with Hippolytus during a visit to Athens. Now that Phaedra is living in Troezen, in close proximity to Hippolytus, “the goads of love prick her cruelly.”
Her desire for Hippolytus has made her ill, but out of shame, she refuses to explain to cause of her affliction to the servants. Aphrodite explains that during the course of the play, Hippolytus and Theseus will learn of Phaedra’s illicit love, an in anger, Theseus will curse Hippolytus, causing Hippolytus’ death.
Although Phaedra has not sinned against the goddess of love, she must die so that Aphrodite can preserve her own honor by punishing her enemies.
Aphrodite concludes the prologue by setting the scene and notes that Hippolytus approaches, singing praises for Artemis after finishing a hunting trip. She observes that he does not know that he is to die by the following morning.
Spoken by the goddess Aphrodite, Euripides’ prologue performs several functions within the structure of Hippolytus. Not only does the prologue presents an explanation of the play’s back story, detailing Hippolytus’ offenses against Aphrodite and the familial relationships between Hippolytus, Theseus, and Phaedra, but it also gives an overview of the action that will be presented during the play. The prologue further introduces many of the major themes that characterize the development of the play. This interplay between summary and thematic material would have guided the audience’s understanding of Euripides’ religious and moral commentary and provides us with an interpretive lens through which we can examine the play.
Euripides portrays Aphrodite as a terrifying and vindictive deity, unlike the voluptuous woman often depicted in visual art. Her opening monologue conveys an imperious attitude, and she sees the world and its people as her domain. Because Aphrodite is the goddess of love, her perception of the world seems reasonable, since her power extends to the everyday lives of the mortals over whom she rules. This is not, however, the benign emotion that today we might associate with the word “love.” Rather, Euripides depicts erotic love as a consuming and destructive force. As Aphrodite states, those who fail to accord the proper respect to her will face obliteration. The terrifying power of love is essential to understanding Aphrodite’s anger at Hippolytus and the development of the play.
Aphrodite directs her fury at Hippolytus because he refuses to worship her. He is, as he explains in Scene I, not interested in erotic love and consequently reveres the goddess of love “from a long way off.” He instead remains chaste and worships Artemis exclusively. This, of course, infuriates Aphrodite who vows to punish him for his blasphemy. Because he will not honor erotic love, she decides that its power will destroy him, thereby proving her supremacy over humanity to all those who hear of Hippolytus’ destruction. Her vehicle for punishing him is Phaedra, his stepmother, who thus becomes a victim of love.
Phaedra’s position in the play as the agent through whom Aphrodite exacts her revenge creates an ethical problem. According to Aphrodite’s scheme, Phaedra must die, but unlike Hippolytus, she has not committed any offenses against the goddess of love. Phaedra therefore becomes a victim of love’s power, a pawn bewitched into loving her stepson who then commits suicide out of shame. Yet as Aphrodite explains, “Her suffering does not weight in the scale so much that I should let my enemies go untouched.” Reconciling Aphrodite’s need for revenge and Phaedra’s innocence is an interpretive challenge of the play, and Euripides does not provide an easy answer.
Out of this tension arises a central conflict of the play, specifically concerning the relationship between men and gods during the period in which Euripides wrote. This relationship seems tenuous at best and bears little resemblance to modern perspectives on religion. As such, an essential question to consider is what responsibilities gods had to people and people to gods. Euripides’s tragedy offers a few insights into this relationship. As evidenced by Aphrodite’s reaction to Hippolytus’ exclusive devotion to Artemis, humans were to worship all of the gods. This relationship, however, does not seem reciprocal. Rather, Aphrodite’s manipulation of Phaedra indicates that the gods had few obligations to humans. Free from the burdens of protecting men, the gods used men as their playthings while humans had to worship the gods to placate them and avoid incurring their wrath.