Hippolytus returns from hunting and, seeing Phaedra’s nurse, asks her why she looks so sullen and worried. The nurse replies that there is no need to worry, that the “realm is in prosperous state,” and that Hippolytus should “show [him]self less harsh.” He is too stern, the nurse argues, too austere; he should enjoy his happiness, rather than waste it; he should seek the company of women, share his bed, regale himself. Hippolytus responds that life at its most innocent and free is life spent in the wild. He reflects on the men and women of “the primal age,” who lived “in friendly intercourse with gods.” They did not thirst for power; they found all they needed in the nature that surrounded them, and they lived in peace. Civilization changed everything; with it came crime and warfare, and with those two evils, centuries of bloodshed. Hippolytus then alludes to Phaedra briefly, saying that stepmothers “are no whit more merciful than beasts”; he goes on to declare woman as “the leader of all wickedness” and points to Medea (Aegeus’ wife, who killed her own children) as an example.
“Why make the crime of few the blame of all?” the nurse asks. She then argues that “Love” can often change stubborn dispositions, causing people to question even their most deeply-held beliefs. Hippolytus himself was, after all, spared by his mother Antiope, when the Amazons traditionally killed any male infants; Antiope’s love for Theseus is the very reason for Hippolytus’ existence. Still, her arguments fall on deaf ears; Hippolytus maintains his steadfast hatred of womankind, and the nurse comments aside that her efforts are in vain.
At that point, Phaedra appears, swoons, and collapses. When Hippolytus awakes her, she bemoans no longer being unconscious. When asked why she is so miserable, she decides (as revealed to us in an aside) that she will confess to Hippolytus, hoping that her words might sway him: she must “follow up” what she has started, for “success makes some sins honest.”
After ensuring that no else is watching or listening, Phaedra tries to subtly suggest Hippolytus should take his father’s place. Theseus will likely never return from the underworld, and “it is no woman’s task to watch o’er royal cities.” Thus, Hippolytus should assume Theseus’ mantle. Hippolytus takes the bait, offering to fill his father’s shoes while awaiting his return (in which he continues to have faith). Phaedra sees her opportunity and kneels at his feet, declaring her love for him. At this, Hippolytus is aghast. He cries out that he is “guilty,” for he has “stirred [his] stepmother to love.” Then he pins the blame back on Phaedra, railing against what he perceives as her terrible crime. “O thou, who hast outshined the whole race of women,” he says, “who hast dared a greater evil than thy monster-bearing mother, thou worse than she who bore thee!”
He draws his sword to kill Phaedra, but upon realizing this is what she wants, he casts the weapon away and flees into the forest, crying out: “Not great Father Neptune’s self, with his whole ocean, could wash away so much of guilt.”
“Crime must be concealed by crime,” the nurse decides. The plan is to accuse Hippolytus of incestuous lust; since Phaedra’s confession was made in secret, it will be Hippolytus’ word against hers. “Help, Athens, help!” she shouts. “The ravisher, Hippolytus, with vile, lustful intent, is after us; he is upon us and threatens us with death; with the sword he is terrifying our chaste queen – ah! he has rushed headlong forth and, dazed, in panic flight, has left his sword.”
The Chorus interjects, praising Hippolytus’ beauty but noting that beauty is subject to the wiles of time; it slips away “swiftly on quick foot” and is but “a fleeting thing.” Therefore, Hippolytus should enjoy his beauty while it lasts, because even the wilderness to which he now retreats will not preserve it indefinitely. The Chorus then condemns Phaedra’s wicked scheme: “What would the woman’s headlong madness leave undared? She is preparing outrageous charges against this guileless youth. Behold her guilty wiles!”
It is then that Theseus appears, freshly returned from the underworld, his countenance “deathly pale” but his “head borne high.”
The centerpiece of Seneca’s play, the heated encounter between Hippolytus and Phaedra, in which stepson almost kills stepmother, further delineates the division between wilderness and civilization suggested in earlier passages. Hippolytus returns from the woods and then flees back to them; civilization presents him with an unsupportable quandary. His stepmother is reduced to a position of base servitude because of her uncontrollable feelings; the “wild” impulses that rage within her are met with fear and scorn by the wilderness-loving Hippolytus. Love dissolves into violence, or at least the threat thereof, when Hippolytus draws his sword and prepares to slay Phaedra; he mentions both Pasiphae and Medea – whose sin was quite the opposite from Phaedra’s, since instead of falling in love with her sons she murdered them.
When Hippolytus argues with Phaedra’s nurse, before Phaedra appears on the scene, about the relative merits of city-bound or forest-bound life, nature is invoked by both parties as a model to follow. In the nurse’s perspective, it is nature’s way for humans to make use of their gifts and their happiness, even if doing so means retreating from “nature” as a geographical terrain (i.e. the wilderness) and returning to the comforts of civilization: “Follow, then, nature as life’s guide; frequent the city; seek out the haunts of men,” she advises Hippolytus. In other words, it is natural to be civilized.
Hippolytus counters with the opposite claim – that the natural lies not in comfort but in being free and innocent, things which the city cannot provide: “There is no life so free and innocent, none which better cherishes the ancient ways, than that which, forsaking cities, loves the woods.” The use of the word “innocent” is telling, of course, as the entire play is concerned with the notion of sinful passion and what constitutes transgression. Is Phaedra doing the right thing by respecting her “natural” impulses and declaring her love for Hippolytus, rather than suppress those emotions? If so, Hippolytus’s view of nature as benevolent connotes a more geographical interpretation of said “nature” than a metaphorical one.
What is also intriguing about Hippolytus’ speech to the nurse is that in it he identifies “lust” – though, specifically, lust for power – as one of mankind’s original sins and one of the flaws that precipitated a fall from grace after the pre-civilization “primal age” of peace and bliss: “Unholy passion for gain broke up this peaceful life, headlong wrath, and lust which sets men’s hearts aflame.” The use of the words “passion” and “lust” (albeit translated from the Latin) is significant; “unholy passion,” indeed, could easily refer specifically to Pasiphae’s love for a bull or Phaedra’s love for her stepson. Moreover, Hippolytus’ reasoning for pointing the blame at women above all is that women are prone to adultery: “’tis by her foul adulteries so many cities smoke, so many nations war, so many peoples lie crushed beneath the ruins of their kingdoms, utterly o’erthrown.” Thus, lust once again serves as catalyst of destruction, and lies at the root cause of civilization’s evils.
When the face-off between stepson and stepmother finally occurs, it bristles with tension. It is a moment of high drama, but also one tinged with profound confusion. Much of Greek tragedy, from which Seneca borrowed, is deeply concerned with familial ties and the responsibilities that come with them; these responsibilities often breed calamity, and thus most tragedy is domestic, occurring not so much between houses as within a single house. (Consider Medea, driven to slay her own children; or Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother.) Phaedra, modeled after the original Greek tale and Euripides’ version of it (titled Hippolytus), is no exception, and the title character’s confession of her love to Hippolytus betrays an impossible desire to do away with family ties. (Nowhere but in Greek tragedy does the notion of “family ties” continually ring with so much foreboding.) When called “mother” by Hippolytus, Phaedra makes as if she feels unworthy of the name – but she is also just as clearly trying to escape the shackles the name represents. As mother to Hippolytus, she cannot love him; as his “slave,” she can. Family ties are inextricably wound up and confused in these passages: Hippolytus, when resuscitating Phaedra from her swoon, calls her “my daughter,” and Phaedra later asks him to call her “sister.”
The larger point is that the love between stepmother and stepson has confounded and blurred the boundaries of their relationship, as defined by precise nomenclature. In the following passage, consider the ways in which Phaedra strives to define a new identity for herself and a new name for her relationship to her object of her lust: “Mother – that name is too proud and high; a humbler name better suits my feelings. Call me sister, Hippolytus, or slave – yes, slave is better; I will endure servitude.” Her tragedy lies, therefore, precisely in her role – as dictated more by civilization than by biology in this case, since she did not give birth to Hippolytus – as mother.