Hippolytus Summary and Analysis of Scene II


The nurse enters supporting Phaedra. The nurse reflects on what to do to help Phaedra, who has been discontented and restless. Phaedra begins to rave at the servants, removing her hat and letting her hair loose. In this fit of wildness, she invokes Artemis and declares her desire to go up to the mountains to hunt.

The nurse tries to calm Phaedra, explaining that all mortals must suffer as a part of the human condition. Phaedra stops ranting, regretting her manic words. She expresses her misery, and in guilt and shame, she asks the nurse to cover her face again. The nurse does as she asks.

The chorus leader asks the nurse to explain the cause of Phaedra’s ailment. The nurse indicates that Phaedra refuses to reveal anything about her illness. The chorus leader speculates that Phaedra is either going mad or hoping to die. She then wonders why Theseus allows Phaedra to conceal her troubles, and the nurse responds that Theseus is not at home. The chorus leader convinces the nurse that in Theseus’ absence, the nurse must determine the cause of Phaedra’s sickness.

The nurse again attempts to coax Phaedra into revealing the source of her mania. Instead of simply asking her about her ailments, she tries a different tactic to manipulate Phaedra into speaking. The nurse claims that if Phaedra dies, she will betray her children, who will lose their right to the Athenian throne to Hippolytus.

After the nurse mentions Hippolytus, Phaedra explains that her heart is the problem. The nurse continues to wear down Phaedra’s resolve. Phaedra alludes to her own illicit desire by referring to other forbidden romances, one of which affected her own family: her mother’s love for a bull (which resulted in the birth of the Minotaur) and Semele’s affair with Zeus (which resulted in Semele’s death).

Phaedra then reveals her love for Hippolytus, and the nurse and chorus are appalled. Phaedra indicates that she initially planned to endure her passion in silence, and when that plan failed, she resolved to starve herself to death in order to preserve her honor.

The nurse explains that, in anger, Aphrodite has smitten Phaedra and that she must not submit to her love. The nurse suggests that Phaedra turn to magic love charms or enchantments to mitigate her desire. Phaedra demurs, but the nurse tells Phaedra that she has a love charm that will end her troubles. Phaedra expresses her concerns about the potion but agrees to take the nurse’s advice but first secures the nurse’s promise not to reveal the truth to Hippolytus.

The chorus concludes the scene with a discussion of the perils of love. They allude to several mythological incidents of the harm love can cause, including the misery of Heracles’ wife and the death of Semele.


The second scene marks Phaedra’s first appearance on the stage, and from Euripides’ complex portrayal, we can easily see that Phaedra and not Hippolytus is the play’s central character. The changes in Phaedra’s behavior best support this theory, which Aristophanes first proposed. She is initially wild and unkempt, expressing her desire to leave the city and escape to the mountains. When the nurse chides her for her frenzied words, Phaedra becomes contrite and covers herself up. The wildness of Phaedra’s physical appearance reflects her inner struggle to overcome her desire for Hippolytus. When she does reveal her passion to the women of Troezen, she speaks with eloquence that Euripides denies all of the other characters. Her nuanced defense of her actions and resolution to die demonstrate Euripides’ development of her interiority. We can therefore understand the assertion that Euripides marks the beginning of the modern psychological tragedy.

The scene further illustrates how far Aphrodite’s curse has pulled Phaedra from her normal course. The more perverse her crime, the less it seems that Phaedra is responsible for her actions. Her eloquent defense of her behavior gives us the best sense of the “real” Phaedra, initially resigned to suffering in silence and later committed to self-annihilation. These efforts to resist her lust for Hippolytus indicate a woman whose sense of morality and honor remains uncompromised despite Aphrodite’s sabotage.

Although Phaedra’s sense of morality remains intact, she does engage in inappropriate behavior, which illustrates her struggle to overcome her desire. When Phaedra first enters the stage, she appears disheveled, her hair loose and her head uncovered. This reflects a violation of social norms, which dictated that a woman appearing in public kept her head covered. This initial willingness to flout the rules of decorum demonstrates the perversity of her passion. She then rants about her desire to engage in masculine pursuits such as hunting. Phaedra’s expressed yearning to assume a male role (appearing publicly and participating in the hunt) suggests her discontent with her womanly obligations, and we can even read this as a desire for the sexual liberation afforded men. After this brief outburst, she embraces feminine modesty, covering her head and speaking less manically.

Euripides further clarifies the perilous power of love in this scene. In her lament for her own illicit desire, Phaedra refers to other tragic romances, one of which affected her mother. She first speaks of her mother, Pasiphaë, who Poseidon cursed to lust after a white bull. In some mythic traditions, she had Daedalus construct a wooden cow in order to trick the bull into copulating with her. Impregnated by the bull, she bore the Minotaur.

The second tragic love affair to which Phaedra refers is that of Zeus and Semele. Zeus impregnates her without revealing his divine nature, and when Hera finds out, she reveals to Semele that Zeus is her lover and convinces the mortal girl to ask Zeus to appear to her in his divine glory. Although mortals cannot look upon Zeus’ true form without perishing, Zeus reluctantly obeys Semele’s request, and flames consume her. (However, Zeus manages to rescue her fetus by sewing him into his thigh, and the god Dionysus is later born from his thigh.)