The play begins as Hippolytus, son of King Theseus of Athens, exits the palace courts at the break of dawn with a company of hunters and hunting dogs. The offspring of Theseus and Antiope, an Amazon whom Theseus had wed and subsequently slain, Hippolytus loves hunting, and he invokes Diana for guidance and issues orders to his company to scour the “forest glades” in search of the wild boar.
After he leaves, Phaedra, wife of Theseus and daughter of King Minos of Crete, appears in front of the palace, bemoaning her fate. Her husband has been gone for years after having left with his old friend Pirithous to capture Persephone from the underworld. Phaedra has been left alone to tend the palace, and has lately felt stricken by some sort of illness: “A malady feeds and grows within my heart, and it burns there hot as the stream that wells from Aetna’s caverns,” she says. She finds herself unwilling to do her daily service in honor of Athena (placing offerings in the temple, praying, etc.), and finds herself instead pining for the forests and the hunt: “My joy is to follow in pursuit of the startled beasts and with soft hand to hurl stiff javelins.” Wondering where “this mad love of forest glades” comes from, she reflects on her mother, Pasiphae, daughter of Apollo. As Apollo exposed the love between Venus and Mars, Venus has “[loaded] the whole race of Phoebus with shame unspeakable”; thus, Pasiphae was doomed to fall in love with a bull and mate with him, giving birth to the Minotaur. Thankfully, the wise Daedalus built a labyrinth to conceal the Minotaur; in Phaedra’s case, however, Daedalus would be unable to help her: “Though he himself should return, mighty in Attic cunning, who shut our monster in the dark labyrinth, he could afford no help to my calamity.”
Phaedra’s aged nurse, standing by her side, interjects that Phaedra should control the passions she feels, for love can be terribly destructive. “Whoever at the outset has resisted and routed love,” she tells Phaedra, “has been safe and conqueror; but whoso by dalliance has fed the sweet torment, too late refuses to bear the accepted yoke.” She warns that Phaedra is on the brink of committing a terrible crime, more sinful in a way than the “monstrous passion” that gripped her mother, and that she should be wary of her actions. Just because Theseus is in the underworld does not mean Phaedra’s crime will “go concealed”; her father Minos and her ancestor Apollo will see to it that the deed is exposed.
“I know, nurse, that what thou sayest is true,” Phaedra concedes, “but passion forces me to take the worser path.” She explains that she is gripped by a lust she cannot control, and that reason has been defeated by passion. Her nurse reflects that such love is a “deadly pest” that seems to strike the wealthy more often than the poor. Cupid, son of Venus, may be the “least of gods” but nonetheless “holds such mighty empire.”
As their conversation continues, it quickly becomes clear who is the object of Phaedra’s uncontrollable desire: Hippolytus. The nurse warns Phaedra to “fear and respect” her husband. Phaedra counters that Theseus is probably forever trapped in the underworld. The nurse replies that he has a way with escaping from difficult situations. “He will give indulgence to my love, perchance,” Phaedra notes. “Harsh was he even to a virtuous wife,” the nurse answers, referring to Antiope.
Theseus is not the only problem, however. Hippolytus himself detests the race of women – in particular Phaedra (who is perhaps the cause of his hatred of the opposite sex). He avoids women, prefers to stay single and hunt, thereby betraying his “Amazonian” roots. Nonetheless, Phaedra vows to follow him. Every argument the nurse makes, Phaedra shoots down: Hippolytus may shun all women, but that means Phaedra need “fear no rival”; Minos may learn of this, but “he will be kind.” Try as the nurse may to persuade her, Phaedra cannot be reasoned with: “I yield, dear nurse,” she says, before declaring that she will commit suicide. At this, the nurse switches her tack, pleading Phaedra not to end her life. She promises to help, proclaiming before entering the palace with Phaedra: “Mine is the task to approach the savage youth and bend the cruel man’s relentless will.”
The Chorus proceeds to wax lyrical about love’s power. Cupid is “reckless alike with torches and with arrows,” his shafts affecting all living beings – humans and animals alike – and driving victims to delirious ends. Even the gods are not immune – the Chorus mentions Zeus’ propensity to don earthly disguises in order to possess the objects of his affection or lust, and Diana leaving her lunar perch in order to seek love with the shepherd Endymion. Then the nurse reappears and, upon request, informs the Chorus that Phaedra is in a hopeless state, awash in tears and overwhelmed by her emotions, without “care for food or health.” She behaves as though dying, her “old-time sprightliness” long gone, while “her eyes, which once shone like Phoebus’ torch, no longer gleam with their ancestral fire.”
At that moment, Phaedra reappears, casting away her servants and their offerings of garments: “Away, ye slaves, with robes bedecked with purple and with gold; away, scarlet of the Tyrian shell, the webs which the far-off Seres gather from the trees.” She wants her hair loose, her bindings gone; she wants to steal away into the woods, her left hand “busied with a quiver” and her right wielding “a Thessalian spear,” as though she herself were an Amazonian. Her nurse invokes Diana, begging the goddess to soften Hippolytus’ heart and make him fall in love with Phaedra.
This section, which presents the central problem of the play – Phaedra’s love for her stepson – and thereby sets tragedy into motion, begins and ends with an invocation of Diana, goddess of the hunt – and, ironically, the goddess of chastity. Wild animals loom large over the proceedings, both figuratively and literally. Hippolytus enters the stage prepared to hunt the boar, and he himself is often described in terms that might befit an untamed beast: “savage”, “fierce.” He is an Amazonian, son of Antiope, and thus feels a kinship to the wilderness. From the little we see of him, we can infer that he is more comfortable careening through the woods than within the walls of the palace. He is “stern” and “hates the very name of woman,” in the words of Phaedra’s nurse. “Wild is he,” Phaedra concedes, “but wild things, we have learned, can be o’ercome by love.” Thus, Hippolytus is not so much a prince of Athens as a formidable thing that needs to be “o’ercome” or tamed, just as does the boar he hunts.
In other words, Hippolytus’ hunt is answered by that of Phaedra and her nurse. The nurse’s call to Diana is not so different from Hippolytus’, in that she too is seeking to conquer a living being. Phaedra speaks of escaping into the woods and pursuing Hippolytus, just as though he were prey and she the predator: “Though he keep him to the peaks of snowy hills,” she says, “though he course swiftly 'mongst the ragged rocks, still through the deep forests, over the mountains, ‘tis my resolve to follow him.”
Phaedra herself has the remnants of a wild beast in her blood – and in a far more literal fashion that Hippolytus. Her mother Pasiphae is a well-known figure of Greek mythology; cursed by Venus, Pasiphae fell madly in love with a bull and mated with it, thereby giving birth to the infamous Minotaur. This deed is, in a way, the original sin that plagues Phaedra: “I recognize my wretched mother’s fatal curse,” she says. “[Her] love and mine know how to sin in forest depths.” There is the sense in these lines of love as engine of fate. Phaedra falls for Hippolytus not by choice, but because she is doomed to do so. Her tragic flaw was borne with her mother – or even earlier, with Apollo’s decision to expose Venus’ love for Mars.
As is evident in this history, as well as in the continual allusions to Cupid as a merciless hunter of his own, preying on the hearts of all living beings, love is depicted in Phaedra not as a boon but as a burden. It is a “deadly pest,” a calamity that fells reason and drives victims to rash deeds. Every nook and cranny of the storyline bears witness to this vision: Theseus is on a crazed quest to steal away Persephone from the underworld; Phaedra’s blood-line is cursed by “monstrous passion”; even Diana is susceptible to love’s power, as evident by her reckless affection for the shepherd Endymion.
Intriguingly, however, the nurse, old in years and in many ways the voice of wisdom in the play, argues that love’s troubles hit the rich more often than the poor. “Why steals this deadly pest more rarely into humble homes, choosing rather the homes of daintiness?” she asks. “Why doth hallowed love dwell ’neath lowly roofs and the general throng have wholesome impulses? Why hath modest fortune self-control? Why, on the other hand, do rich men, propped on empire, ever grasp at more than heaven allows?” These questions are, to a degree, rhetorical. The answer lies with the form of Greek tragedy itself, which invariably focuses on the fall of the powerful. Those who are higher up can plummet more dramatically, and it is their plight that serves as subject matter to the great tragedians. “He who is too powerful seeks power beyond his power,” the nurse concludes. Here, love is equated with “seeking power”; it is a conquest, a hunt, a battle. Love is bellicose – and just as destructive as war.