Appearing in front of the palace, Theseus proclaims that he has escaped the underworld but has lost his “old-time vigor.” His steps faltering, his voice wavering, he asks: “But what is this tearful outcry that strikes my ears?” The nurse comes to inform him of Phaedra’s plight: “she scorns our tears,” she says, “and is on the very edge of death.”
Theseus demands why Phaedra has resolved to die, especially now that her long-gone husband has come back to her. The nurse explains that Phaedra is telling no one the cause of her grief. Theseus opens the doors to the palace and sees Phaedra clutching a sword, ready to slay herself. He asks her why she is in such a state, but she responds only with vague, epigrammatic quips, alluding to a “sin” she has committed. Theseus asks to know what that sin is. “That I still live,” comes the reply.
Rash, brimming with emotion, Theseus orders the nurse to be bound in chains and tormented with the “scourge” until she confesses her mistress’s secret. Phaedra intervenes, telling her husband that she has been raped and that the “destroyer of [her] honor” is the one whom Theseus would least expect. She then points to the sword Hippolytus left behind.
“Ah me!” Theseus cries. “What villainy do I behold?” After Phaedra tells him that Hippolytus was last seen “speeding away in headlong flight,” Theseus, in a rage, summons his father Neptune to destroy the young man. (He notes that his father granted him three wishes, two of which he has already used; the third will be used against his own child.) “Now, now I give thanks to the heavenly powers that Antiope fell stricken by my hand,” he says, before calling out to Hippolytus: “Fugitive, through all thy hiding-places untiringly will I pursue thee; regions remote, blocked, hidden away, far separate, trackless, will I traverse, and no place shall stop me – thou knowest whence I am returned.”
The Chorus responds with a query directed to the heavens: “O Nature, mighty mother of the gods, and thou, fire-bearing Olympus’ lord,” it cries out, “why dost thou dwell afar, all too indifferent to men, not anxious to bring blessing to the good, and to the evil, bane?” The Chorus continues by arguing that the world order is skewed, that the good are punished and the wicked rewarded, that “wretched poverty dogs the pure, and the adulterer, strong in wickedness, reigns supreme.”
Only moments later, a Messenger arrives to inform Theseus that Hippolytus is dead. As the Messenger tells us, a great storm broke out and out of the ocean’s depths arose a monstrous beast, its sights aimed on Hippolytus. “A bull it was,” the Messenger recounts, “towering high with a dark blue neck, and he reared a high mane upon his verdant crest; his shaggy ears stood up; his eyes flashed with changing colour, now such as the lord of the wild herd might have, now such as one born beneath the sea – now his eyes dart flame, now they flash wondrous with cerulean gleam.” We learn that Hippolytus, steering several horses, kept his calm and tried to control the situation; his horses, however, broke from his grasp and scattered about in a frenzy, terrified by the monster. Hippolytus’ limbs became entwined in the reins, and his body was torn asunder; dragged through the forest, he was impaled by tree branches and sliced by rocks. He lies now, a battered corpse, parts of his body still strewn about the fields.
Upon hearing the news, Theseus breaks into tears. Although he wished this death upon his son, bearing with his own ears and eyes the result of the prayer wracks him with despair. “Truly I deem this the crowning woe of woes, if fortune makes what we must loathe that we must long for,” he says. The Chorus proclaims that the gods target most readily the mortals of wealth of power, those men and women who scale the heights, while “the low-roofed, common home ne’er feels [Jove’s] mighty blasts.”
Phaedra reappears, again with a drawn sword. She condemns Theseus for his harshness and turns to Hippolytus’ mangled corpse, limbs missing and blood dripping. She bemoans the young man’s fate: “whither is thy glorious beauty fled,” she asks, “and thine eyes, my stars?” Then she directs her rage back at her husband, revealing to him the truth – that she had falsely accused of Hippolytus of her own crime. With that, she falls on her sword and dies.
Ye jaws of wan Avernus, ye Taenarean caves, ye waves of Lethe, welcome to the wretched, ye sluggish pools, hide ye in my impious self, plunge deep and bury me in unending woes,” Theseus cries. He looks upon his son’s body and calls for his missing parts to be assembled, so that Hippolytus may be given a proper burial. “[Let] all Athens with loud laments resound,” he declares. Then, pointing to Phaedra’s corpse, he utters the play’s closing line: “As for her, let her be buried deep in earth, and heavy may the soil lie on her unholy head!”
As is so often the case in Greek tragedy, rashness and unchecked emotion spell doom for the characters of Phaedra. Phaedra herself lets herself be overwhelmed by lust; Theseus does not stop to question his wife’s accusations, but instead readily calls for the death of his own son, so great is his rage. Even Hippolytus draws a sword on his own stepmother, merely because of her love for him; he then plunges into the forest, without considering the consequences of his hasty departure, and how his flight may be used against him to cover up Phaedra’s guilt. Compare these quick-acting, shoot-first-ask-questions-later characters to Shakespeare’s rational philosopher-princes; there could not be a starker contrast than that between Seneca’s Theseus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is perhaps the central revolution of the Elizabethan stage to posit characters whose tragic flaw is a propensity to think too much, as opposed to the earlier Greek model (upon which Seneca draws heavily) of tragedy by virtue of unchecked passion.
Ironically, however, Seneca himself was known perhaps more as an orator, thinker, and political philosopher than as a playwright. As a result, many of his plays can be seen as academic exercises, less pieces of storytelling than frameworks through which he can debate certain issues or establish certain theses in regards to human behavior. Seneca is a cool rationalist, and he views his passionate characters from a distance, while loading them with lengthy speeches and eloquent soliloquies.
Some critics charge that Seneca’s take on Greek myths such as Phaedra tends to be heavy on speechifying and low on drama; I would argue, however, that in the speeches lies the drama. Seneca’s characters wield language as a weapon. Phaedra does not physically try to smother Hippolytus with kisses or tear off his clothes; she instead expresses her longing through words, and it is her words that inflame him so. Likewise, Phaedra exacts her final revenge on Theseus not by drawing the sword on him, but by simply telling him the truth; her account of what actually happened is her most efficient way of crushing him. Even Theseus himself slays his son not by his own hands but by a speech – an invocation to Neptune to destroy the fled fugitive.
What constitutes much of the tension in Phaedra is the juxtaposition between rash deeds and the rationality of language. The tragic result is that Theseus is forced to describe his son’s body as though he were checking off the various pieces of a puzzle or the bricks of a house. The full extent of Theseus’ hasty and thoughtless decision is communicated via the words Seneca places in his mouth: “What is this shapeless, ugly piece, with many a wound torn on every side?” the once-great king asks, in a passage as moving as any in Western drama. “What part it is of thee, I know not; but it is a part of thee. Here, here lay it down, not in its own but in an empty place. Is this that face which once gleamed with fire as of the stars, which turned his enemy’s eyes aside? Has his beauty fallen to this? O dire fate, O cruel favour of the gods! Thus comes back son to father in answer to his prayer?”
Indeed, the tragic culmination of the play is an “answer” to the questions posed at the outset: Phaedra’s love and where it would lead; Theseus’ potential return and what would be his reaction. Seneca strips the theatrical form down to its essence and reduces drama to its most fundamental component: rhetoric. The play is a prolonged question-answer dialogue, acted out within the prism of Greek mythology. Shorter than the average Greek play, with fewer characters and fewer twists in the narrative, Seneca’s work is one of absolute simplicity, bounding its crazed characters within a tightly controlled framework. Therein lies the tension, and therein lies the tragedy, echoed in formal terms by the playwright’s exacting method.