Theseus is the king of Athens. He is in Troezen with his wife Phaedra serving a year of voluntary exile for murdering the Pallantids, who are nobles of Attica, the region around Athens. His illegitimate son Hippolytus also lives in Troezen. At the beginning of the play, Theseus is absent, having gone to Delphi to visit the oracle. When he returns to Troezen, he finds that his wife has committed suicide and has implicated Hippolytus. He curses his son, who dies as a result.
Theseus plays an important role throughout Greek mythology. Most myths tell that he has two fathers, Poseidon (the god of the sea) and Aigeus (a mortal), both of whom slept with his mother, Aethra. Theseus therefore has both divine and mortal characteristics, much like other Greek heroes. As an adult, he unified the Attica region under the throne of Athens. Like Heracles, he performed a number of heroic feats, as related in several primary sources, including Apollodorus’ Bibliotheke. He is particularly famous today for killing the Minotaur in the labyrinth in Crete. He also plays a role in Sophocles’ work Oedipus at Colonus, one of the plays in the Theban trilogy.
Hippolytus is the illegitimate son of Theseus and the Amazon Antiope (alternately Hippolyte). As a child, he was sent to Troezen to be raised by his great-grandfather Pittheus. Theseus hoped that when Pittheus died, Hippolytus would inherit the rule of Troezen while his legitimate children would rule over Athens.
Hippolytus worships Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, to the exclusion of the other gods. He is committed to remaining chaste, which angers Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Angry at his refusal to honor her, Aphrodite plots against him, causing his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. When he rejects Phaedra’s desire, she commits suicide and accuses him of raping her. When Theseus discovers Phaedra’s accusations, he curses Hippolytus, who dies because of the curse.
Phaedra is the wife of Theseus and therefore Queen of Athens. She is the daughter of Minos, king of Crete, and came to Athens after Theseus killed the Minotaur. After marrying Theseus, she falls in love with his illegitimate son Hippolytus. Aphrodite causes Phaedra’s desire in order to further her plot to destroy Hippolytus. Phaedra tells her nurse about her passion for her stepson, who then reveals this to Hippolytus. In order to preserve her honor, Phaedra commits suicide by hanging herself, but not before writing a letter accusing Hippolytus of raping her. Most critics (including Aristophanes) agree that Phaedra and not Hippolytus is the principal character in this play.
The Chorus of Palace Women
The chorus is composed of women who live in Troezen. As is typical in Greek drama, the chorus provides context, continuity, and commentary for those viewing the play. They also provide a more universal perspective on the action.
The nurse is Phaedra’s confidante, but she reveals her mistress’ illicit desire to Hippolytus, causing Phaedra’s suicide.
The Goddess Aphrodite
Aphrodite is the goddess of love. In contrast with the typical portrayal of a sensual and benign goddess, Euripides depicts Aphrodite as a terrifying and vengeful goddess with immense power. Though she appears only in the prologue, she is essentially the mastermind of the entire narrative. Infuriated over Hippolytus’ refusal to worship her, she concocts a plot of revenge. Aphrodite causes Phaedra to fall in love with Hippolytus, which ultimately causes his downfall.
In the play, Aphrodite also goes by the name “Cypris,” a name that refers to her birthplace on the island of Cyprus. (Different myths, however, posit other locations for her birthplace.)
The Goddess Artemis
Artemis is the virginal goddess of the hunt, chastity, and childbirth. She is often depicted as a hunter, carrying a bow and arrow. In the play, she is the patron of Hippolytus, who prefers to remain chaste and enjoys hunting. After Aphrodite destroys her favorite, Artemis vows to avenge his death. She appears only in the epilogue to reveal the truth of what has happened over the course of the play.
Hippolytus Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Hippolytus is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.