Phaedra Themes


Phaedra’s lust for Hippolytus is the play’s catalyst, the engine that drives the tragedy. But lust appears in other guises throughout the narrative, sometimes more subtly. The Chorus expounds on examples of lust throughout history, pointing in particular to Diana – the goddess of chastity, no less – driven to abandon her lunar perch to seek love with the shepherd Endymion. If the goddess of chastity can fall victim to Cupid’s arrows, then anyone can. Phaedra’s mother mated with a bull, less by choice than by a mad desire to do so which she could not control; Theseus married the Amazonian Antiope, then killed her, then married Phaedra, then abandoned her to pursue Persephone in the depths of the underworld. Lust drives these characters and their gods and goddesses, and more often than not it spells calamity.


Phaedra might be considered an heir to the tradition of scheming, wicked women in Greek mythology, chief among them Medea, who is frequently referred to in Seneca’s play. Yet, she is undeniably presented as an empathetic character, more victim than victimizer. If anything, it is her nurse who receives the brunt of the play’s blame, for it is she, despite her age and perceived wisdom, who first hatches the plan to accuse Hippolytus of raping his stepmother. That said, to view Phaedra as a story about innocent men deceived and attacked by women, is simplistic at best. Theseus succumbs to a passion far more destructive than Phaedra’s – the passion for revenge, the desire to kill. Without stopping to think, he calls on Neptune to kill his own stepson. At the play’s close, Phaedra condemns him for his “harshness” – the same harshness that led him, we learn, to kill his former wife, Antiope, Hippolytus’ mother. Villainy runs across the sexes.

Nature v. Civilization

The drama in Phaedra occurs in two distinct locations – the palace in Athens, and the woods bordering the city. Civilization and wilderness are clearly pitted against one another, and although the on-stage action is restricted to Athens, the vision of the outlying forest looms large. We learn of Hippolytus’ preference for the wild over the urban, and Phaedra is often on the brink of racing into the woods after her loved one, donning Amazonian garb. Ironically, however, Hippolytus, though compared to a wild beast at times, behaves more rationally than his peers; he rejects Phaedra’s lust, and then falls victim to Theseus’ deluded wrath. The Athenians fall prey to their own emotions, while the Amazonian, though he does perhaps behave rashly by fleeing into the forest, is comparatively reasoned in his actions. Civilization corrupts, as Hippolytus himself argues in a speech to the wet-nurse; the “primal age” was a time of peace, and with the rise of the city has come warfare and crime. It is doubly ironic, then, that Hippolytus’ bloody death should come not by way of the city, not by way of manmade weapons, but by way of frenzied horses, a monstrous bull, and the merciless forest terrain. Hippolytus’ beloved nature ultimately does him in.


Seneca was renowned as an orator, and Phaedra is filled with eloquent monologues and clever pieces of rhetoric. The characters wield language as a weapon, as when Phaedra deceives her husband, then rubs the cruel truth in his face. Language can also be used to muddle, as when Theseus calls a response from the wet-nurse “riddling words” and demands she “speak plainly.”


Phaedra begins with a man setting out to hunt, and proceeds to examine various ways in which the notion of hunting might manifest itself within the walls of a city. Phaedra and her nurse seek to seduce Hippolytus, luring him to satisfy Phaedra’s designs; they emerge as predators, he as prey. Phaedra, however, is likewise prey – prey to Cupid, that merciless hunter who targets all living beings with his arrows. At the end of the play, Hippolytus sees his role as hunter reversed, a bull from the sea plummeting toward him and his horses, eyes locked on the target ahead. Seneca portrays the machinations that accompany love as games akin to a forest hunt, replete with traps, snares, feints, and unexpected reversals.

The Gods

Though the gods never appear in person in Phaedra, they are continually invoked. Phaedra blames Venus and Apollo for her and her mother’s impure lusts; Neptune follows Theseus’ directive and slays Hippolytus, via a monstrous sea-bull. The Chorus notes, in one of the play’s most intriguing passages, that the gods target those mortals of whom they can feel jealous. The poor and “humble” rarely feel the gods’ wrath; instead, it is those in power who fall prey to the heavens. The passage is a sort of meta-moment, reflecting on the very stuff of tragedy – that is, the fall of great men and women.


Hippolytus’ beauty drives Phaedra wild with desire, then forsakes her. Gazing upon the young man’s corpse, she cries: “O Hippolytus, is it such I see thy face, such have I made it? What savage Sinis, what Procrustes, has scattered thy members so, or what Cretan bull, fierce, two-formed monster, filling the labyrinth of Daedalus with his huge bellowings, has torn thee asunder with his horns? Ah, woe is me! whither is thy glorious beauty fled, and thine eyes, my stars?” Hippolytus’ tragic end is in fact foreshadowed by the Chorus’ ominous allusion to beauty’s fragility and the caprice of time: “O beauty, doubtful boon to mortals, brief gift for but a little time, how swiftly on quick foot thou dost slip away! […] Beauty is a fleeting thing. Who that is wise would trust so frail a blessing? Enjoy it while thou mayest. Time is silently undermining thee, and an hour, worse than the last, is ever creeping on.”