Phaedra is a domestic drama, detailing the horrors that befall a seemingly stable household. One can read Greek (and Latin) tragedy as a counterpoint to the glories of Greek mythology. The mythology, in addition to describing the various tragic outcomes, emphasizes the exploits of its heroes: Theseus slays the Minotaur and travels into the Underworld; Hercules accomplishes his impossible tasks; Jason obtains the Golden Fleece. The plays, however, tend to focus solely on what happens when the hero returns from his adventures. Perhaps the stage was set with Homer’s emphasis on the bloodshed and brutal reckoning that followed Odysseus’ return home. In such works as Agamemnon, Medea, and Phaedra, a king or hero regains his abode only to find carnage (or to unwittingly create it).
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is perhaps the most famous example. Oedipus is well-known in mythology as the wise king who solved the Sphinx’s riddle. The play, however, does not concern itself with Oedipus’ accomplishment; it concerns itself only with what comes afterward. Oedipus, striving to stave off ill omens that loom over his kingdom, finds that he has married his own mother, and long ago killed his father. In despair, he gouges out his eyes and exiles himself.
Oedipus’ is the quintessential domestic tragedy. The story of Phaedra was originally set on-stage by Euripides, in Hippolytus. Seneca drew heavily on this model in creating his own version; the French tragedian Racine adapted the story again years later. Here again we see the returning hero, whose great achievements lie in the past, and who now must face turmoil within his own house. Theseus learns that his wife lusts after his stepson – or, as Phaedra originally spins it, that his stepson has raped his wife. His resulting wrath only brings about further calamity.
Long-gone is the heroic Theseus of legend; we have instead a hotheaded and murderous man with a terrible temper problem. Time and again, Greek and Roman dramas cast characters their audiences already knew and subverted their heroic personae, rendering these godlike warriors thoughtless and frighteningly rash human beings. Glimmers of the old glory remain, as in the eloquent words Seneca allows Theseus to deliver, but far more present are the flaws. Theseus may have slain the Minotaur, Jason may have overcome tremendous obstacles and Oedipus may have outwitted the Sphinx: but now, before our eyes, these men are but helpless fools, doomed to sow the seeds of their own destruction.