The story of the Hippolytus–Phaedra relationship is derived from one of several ancient Greek myths revolving around archetypal Athenian hero, Theseus. The Greek playwright Euripides wrote two versions of the tragedy, the lost Hippolytus Veiled and the extant Hippolytus (428 B.C.E.). The generally accepted historical assumption is that Hippolytus Veiled was not favorably received in a tragic competition due to its portrayal of Phaedra as brazen and forward in her pursuit of her stepson. Many historians believe that Euripides wrote Hippolytus in order to correct this characterization, and to present Phaedra as chaste, and suffering at the hands of the gods.
While historians believe that Phaedra was heavily influenced by Euripides' Hippolytus, there are several differences in plot and tone. Literary scholar Albert S. Gérard states that, unlike the Phaedra of Hippolytus, Seneca's Phaedra is a thoughtful and intelligent character that acknowledges the improper and amoral nature of her feelings towards her stepson, yet still pursues him. In Euripides' iteration of the play, Phaedra is passive in her lustful anguish, and it is the Nurse that informs Hippolytus of Phaedra's love for him. In Seneca's version, Phaedra personally conveys her desires to her stepson. Gérard claims that by transferring much of the scheming, "cynical insights," and "pragmatic advice" from the Nurse to Phaedra, Seneca implies that Phaedra is responsible for her actions, and she is aware that her behavior deviates from accepted principles of human morality. In another departure from Euripides' Hippolytus, Phaedra, rather than committing suicide immediately after Hippolytus rejects her advances, is filled with remorse after Hippolytus has been killed and stabs herself. Gérard claims that these plot differences show a historical shift from the Greek "shame culture" priority of preserving one's reputation, to the Roman "guilt culture" priority of repentance.