Hippolytus Summary and Analysis of Scene V


Theseus enters. He begins by railing at fate for its cruel treatment of him and his family. He speaks in an apostrophe to Phaedra, wondering what could have driven his wife to her death. He concludes that a god must be punishing him for some sin of his ancestors. Though the chorus leader tries to comfort him, Theseus remains distraught. Phaedra’s death, he says, has killed him, too, and he laments for his orphaned children.

Theseus then discovers a tablet on Phaedra’s body. He speculates that in the letter Phaedra might have asked him to care for their children or contain her concerns about another woman. He assures Phaedra that no other woman could take her place. When he opens the letter, however, he discovers that Phaedra has accused Hippolytus of raping her and thereby leaving her no choice but suicide.

In a rage, he invokes Poseidon who once promised him three curses. He asks that one of these curses destroy Hippolytus, killing his son in revenge for Phaedra’s death. The chorus leader urges Theseus to swallow his curses, but he refuses. Instead, he banishes Hippolytus as well, just in case Poseidon’s curse fails. Thus, Hippolytus will either die or live in exile.

Upon hearing Theseus’s cries, Hippolytus enters, wanting to know the cause of his father’s woes. When he sees Phaedra’s body, he demands to know what happened. Theseus’ silence causes Hippolytus to become more vociferous. Assuming that Hippolytus is feigning his concern, Theseus responds cryptically. Believing that Theseus is mad with grief, Hippolytus asks his father to clarify. Theseus then accuses his son of treachery.

Hippolytus defends himself, claiming that someone must have poisoned Theseus against him. Theseus explains Hippolytus’ sins against him. He accuses his son of being a hypocrite, feigning chastity while assaulting his stepmother, and observes that despite Hippolytus’ expression of concern, he must have rejoiced at Phaedra’s death because it would conceal his treachery. Theseus concludes his speech by informing Hippolytus of his exile.

Hippolytus attempts to defend himself against these accusations, protesting his innocence. He declares that he remains a virgin, and when this fails to convince his father, he uses logic, observing that only a fool would seduce the king’s wife and take his father’s throne. Hippolytus then swears to Zeus that he never betrayed his father. However, he does not reveal the truth to Theseus and honors the oath he swore to the nurse.

Because he believes Phaedra’s accusation, Theseus refuses to listen to his son’s arguments. He reiterates his decision to banish Hippolytus and expresses his wish that he could banish his son from the limits of the known world. Hippolytus protests that he has not had a trial, but Theseus decides that Phaedra’s letter is proof enough. Hippolytus invokes Artemis, asking her to remain his companion in exile. He says farewell to Troezen and gathers his attendants before exiting.

The chorus concludes the scene by singing a lament for the banished Hippolytus. Upon finishing the song, the chorus observes Hippolytus’ servant hastily approaching the palace. He appears sorrowful.


In this scene, Hippolytus finds himself in an impossible situation. He must either defend himself against the charge of raping his father’s wife while breaking his oath of silence or remain silent and submit to Theseus’ punishment. He upholds his honor, deciding not to violate his vow to the nurse, which redeems him to an extent. By choosing not to break his oath, however, Hippolytus unknowingly dooms himself to death. Of course, as Phaedra’s suicide demonstrates, Euripides’ characters would prefer to die honorably than live in dishonor and shame.

Theseus ensures that he avenges Phaedra’s rape and death by twice cursing Hippolytus. He first uses the curses given to him by Poseidon and asks for his son’s death. Just in case Poseidon’s curse fails, he then exiles his son from the lands over which he rules. On the surface, this seems extreme. It is important to keep in mind, however, that Theseus is not simply condemning his son in a murderous rage. Rather, Euripides depicts an honor-based society, in which Phaedra and Hippolytus would rather die than face dishonor, and Theseus’ honor has been offended. Not only has his son raped his wife, he has violated the bonds of affection and trust between father and son. Theseus’ only option is to punish Hippolytus for dishonoring him.

Some of the play’s weaknesses begin to emerge at this point. As we have seen, Euripides is primarily concerned with Phaedra and less so with Hippolytus. When Phaedra dies halfway through the play, Euripides has the problem of resolving the play without its main character. He must show Theseus’ rage, narrate Hippolytus’ death, and give Artemis her vow of revenge, but his interest in the denouement is purely academic.

In this scene, Euripides’ depicts Hippolytus’ “trial,” over which Theseus presides as judge, jury, and executioner. Rather than emotional protestations of innocence and the psychological pain of a father whose son has betrayed him, Euripides portrayal of the trial is somewhat mechanical. The argument between father and son seems rhetorical and utterly lacks the interiority that characterizes Phaedra’s defense in the second scene.

One of the interesting features of this scene is Theseus’ protestation that no woman could take Phaedra’s place. While there are few, if any, myths that discuss Theseus’ relationships after the death of Phaedra, he did have a number of relationships prior to his marriage. Hippolytus, for example, is the issue of his relationship with the Amazon Antiope (or with her sister Hippolyte; different myths convey this story). Theseus also had a relationship with Phaedra’s older sister Ariadne, who gave Theseus the string with which he found his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur.