Framing the action of Hippolytus is a prologue and an epilogue, each spoken by a goddess. Within the play, these goddesses are Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Artemis, goddess of chastity. We can allegorize the representations of these goddesses and read the drama as a conflict between lust and continence, played out by Phaedra (lust) and Hippolytus (continence). Euripides refuses, however, to turn this conflict into a moral commentary, condemning either lust or continence, which we, as a modern audience, might expect. Rather, he depicts both Phaedra’s illicit desire and Hippolytus’ chastity as monstrous. Although we cannot know whether Greece in the fifth century would have considered such a sexual relationship between stepmother and stepson incestuous, such a union would be an obvious violation of the father’s trust. Similarly, the audience would have seen Hippolytus’ insistence on chastity as a gross perversion at the time of the play’s first performance. Instead of a moral commentary, the two conflicting elements simply reveal the power that passion holds over humans.
At the heart of the conflict in Hippolytus is the theme of betrayal, which threatens nearly every human relationship in the play. Phaedra’s desire for her stepson, for example, violates her marriage vows with Theseus and betrays his trust. While she struggles to overcome her lust, she explains her troubles to the nurse, from whom she exacts a promise never to reveal the cause of her suffering. Hoping that it will alleviate Phaedra’s pain, the nurse breaks her vow and informs Hippolytus of Phaedra’s desire, which not only leads to Phaedra’s suicide but the destruction of Hippolytus as well. In death, Phaedra betrays her stepson, leaving behind a letter that falsely accuses him of raping her. Upon returning home, Theseus discovers the letter and assumes his son has betrayed him. In his outrage, he curses his son in a violation of the bond between father and son, which duly leads to Hippolytus’ death. It is interesting to note that Hippolytus is the only character who manages to avoid the act of betrayal. By not acting on his stepmother’s desire, he remains faithful to his father, and further, he upholds his oath to the nurse, even when being accused of treachery by his father. To an extent, this loyalty redeems his perverse insistence on chastity, which is the cause of the play’s conflict.
Jealousy and Revenge
In order to appreciate the impact that jealousy and revenge have on the action of the play, we must first understand the prologue and Aphrodite’s anger at Hippolytus. Hippolytus is the particular devotee of Artemis, which we are to realize means that he worships this goddess to the exclusion of the other gods. Aphrodite takes particular offense to this slight since Hippolytus’ vow of chastity is in direct conflict with her purview of erotic love. Jealous of his exclusive worship of Artemis, Aphrodite concocts a plot to avenge Hippolytus’ wrongs against her. Revenge is thus the root of the play’s action.
These themes also characterize interactions between the play’s mortal characters. Hurt by Hippolytus’ reaction to the nurse’s revelation, Phaedra commits suicide to preserve her honor but not before composing a letter that accusing Hippolytus of raping her. Although the text indicates that Phaedra writes the letter to avoid the shame that public knowledge of her desire would bring, we can also read this as an act of revenge against the man who so cruelly rejects her. When Theseus discovers Phaedra’s letter, he assumes she is telling the truth, and he too exacts revenge against Hippolytus, both cursing him and exiling him from the kingdom.
The play concludes with a final promise of revenge from Artemis. Infuriated by Aphrodite’s destruction of her favorite, Artemis pledges to avenge Hippolytus’ death by punishing the next mortal favored by her rival goddess.
The Relationship between Man and the Gods
The central conflict of the play, specifically Aphrodite’s desire for revenge, derives from confusion over the proper relationship between man and the gods. It may not be readily obvious to readers today, but fifth-century Greek audiences would have recognized that Hippolytus’ refusal to worship Aphrodite was a violation of the proper reverence due a goddess of her stature. People customarily worshiped all of the gods rather than choose whom they wanted to obey. A patron god or goddess would have been acceptable; indeed, heroes with specific patrons populate many Greek myths. However, insulting a god by refusing to worship him would have been suicide, which the play so aptly demonstrates.
The Relationship between the Gods
Euripides’ nuanced portrayal of the gods is a defining characteristic of his tragedies, and his depiction of Aphrodite and Artemis in Hippolytus is no exception. Unlike the voluptuous goddess of love in visual representations, Euripides’ Aphrodite is vindictive and vengeful. Wrath similarly defines Euripides’ interpretation of Artemis, though this is hardly original ground. One of the more famous myths about Artemis features the goddess punishing a mortal man, Actaeon, who sees her bathing. Due to the similarities between the goddesses, we can read them as foils for each other: one sexualized and the other virginal.
This reading can help us understand how the two goddesses relate to each other and, more generally, about the relationships between the Olympian gods. Euripides depicts Aphrodite and Artemis in competition, and although Artemis could not interfere directly in Aphrodite’s affairs, her vow at the end of the play emphasizes the deadliness of their rivalry. Their interaction typifies the relationships between the gods, which range in disposition from tolerant to hostile. Susceptible to human emotions such as jealousy and anger, the gods seem little different than the mortals who worship them.
The Role of Women in Society
In many of his plays, Euripides explores the role of women in Greek society. He seems particularly interested in perverse or monstrous women (perhaps most memorably depicted in Medea’s slaughter of her children), and in Hippolytus, Phaedra’s incestuous desire represents a perversion of her wifely obligations. Whether or not a fifth-century Greek audience would have considered a sexual relationship between mother and stepson incest, we can easily understand that Phaedra’s lust for Hippolytus is a gross violation of her husband’s trust. Yet Phaedra’s impropriety extends beyond her illicit desire. During this period, a wife’s principal duties involved managing the household and raising the children, and Phaedra’s mania prevents her from performing these tasks. Even her appearance betrays her impropriety. When she emerges from the palace in the second scene, she leaves her hair loose and uncovered, which, as we can interpret from the nurse’s reaction, would have been immodest in fifth-century Greece.
Just as it is throughout the corpus of Greek mythology, honor (timê) is a primary concern of Euripides’ characters. When Phaedra falls in love with Hippolytus, she resolves to conceal her passion so as not to bring shame and the community’s censure upon herself. Upon the revelation of her lust, Phaedra’s immediate fear is for her reputation. Worried that Hippolytus will dishonor her by sharing her story, she commits suicide and leaves the letter accusing Hippolytus of rape to ensure that Troezen remembers her virtue and honor. The alleged rape of his wife naturally offends Theseus’ honor, and he consequently punishes his son for causing this shame. Of course, the action of the entire play hinges on Aphrodite’s scheme to destroy Hippolytus, whose refusal to worship the goddess of love dishonors her.
Hippolytus Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Hippolytus is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.