The Story of Hippolytus and Phaedra As Recounted By Euripides, Seneca and Racine
Posted by jennine lanouette on Monday, December 24th, 2012
Those who advocate the spurious theory that literature consists of a finite number of dramatic situations, which each generation of writers can only repackage, may be tempted to utilize the story of Phaedra’s love for her stepson Hippolytus as a defining case in point. With origins in both the Greek myths and the biblical story of Potiphar and his wife, the fate of Phaedra and Hippolytus has been recounted by numerous playwrights throughout history. However, a close look at three such plays reveals that, while the characters and basic plot elements may be the same or similar, the stories told and themes explored in each case are of quite a different nature. Indeed, much can be understood about the evolution of drama through a comparative study of Euripides’ Hippolytus, Seneca’s Phaedra and Racine’s Phedre.
The original myth, on which all subsequent works are based, tells the story of Hippolytus, the bastard son of Theseus, king of Athens, and his devotion to Artemis, goddess of the hunt, which angered Aphrodite, goddess of love, due to his resulting neglect of her. As punishment, Aphrodite caused Hippolytus’ stepmother Phaedra to fall in love with him. When Phaedra’s unsatisfied desire caused her to begin wasting away, her nurse figured out the truth and advised her to send Hippolytus a letter. Phaedra wrote to him, confessing her love and suggesting he pay homage to Aphrodite with her. Hippolytus was horrified at the letter and marched into her chamber in anger. Being rejected by him, Phaedra created a scene of molestation and called for help. She then hung herself, leaving a note accusing Hippolytus of sexual crimes.
On receiving the note, Theseus ordered Hippolytus banished from Athens and then called upon Poseidon to grant the last of his three wishes by destroying his son. As Hippolytus drove along the shore towards Troezen, a great wave rose up throwing a bull-like monster onto the shore. The monster chased Hippolytus, causing his horses to stampede, the chariot to crash and Hippolytus to be caught in the reins and dragged along the ground to his death. Artemis then commanded the Troezenians to pay Hippolytus divine honors, and all Troezenian brides to cut off a lock of their hair and dedicate it to him.
It’s not difficult to understand why Euripides would take on this story containing as it does themes of love, betrayal, passion, transgression, revenge and human vs. divine will, as well as a spectacular action scene at the climax. But Euripides was more than simply an exploiter of good material. As described by John Ferguson, he was “a restless modernist, a propagandist with a genius for poetry and drama. He has been compared with Bernard Shaw; there is the same iconoclasm, the same dramatic genius, the same dedicated revolt.” Given this demonstrated tendency to use his drama to challenge the status quo, what were Euripides’ intentions in his dramatic portrayal of Hippolytus and Phaedra?
According to ancient records, Euripides wrote two versions of this story, of which it is the second that survives. The first, called “Hippolytos who veils his head,” generally translated as Hippolytus Veiled, is known only in fragments and is surmised to be the source of much of Seneca’s plot for Phaedra. The second, known to us as simply Hippolytus, was originally called “Hippolytos the wreath bearer,” or Hippolytus Crowned.
The difference between these two titles gives an indication of Euripides intentions in each play. Without having the first play available to us, we can’t say definitively what its theme was, but the shrouded, humbled, perhaps blinded, quality of its title prepares one for a different play than the glorified, even exalted, character of the second play’s title. Indeed, there is much in the original myth that suggests Hippolytus is in a state of being veiled, in the sense of being blinded to what is happening around him. Hippolytus’ moral purity may make him look good on the surface, but it is also what inspires the wrath of Aphrodite. It is his unwillingness to see this that triggers the story’s tragic events and ultimately his own ruin.
Classics scholar Philip Whaley Harsh points out that in the course of the extant play, Hippolytus’ character remains consistently self-righteous. In the opening scene, Hippolytus confidently proclaims his virtuousness in remaining pure of sexual love and, at the end, he still does not question his own innocence in the events that have lead him to his death. In dramatic terms, this means that Hippolytus is not the one providing the driving force of the drama.
However, for the ancient Greek audience, the carefully maintained moral purity in Hippolytus’ character did serve to tell the story of how he came to be a worshipped cult figure in the city of Troezen. As Harsh explains it, “Such conceit is proper to the semi-divinity which he has now become. The whole characterization of Hippolytus, indeed, has been designed to be compatible with his eventual status as a god or hero.” Thus, we have a fable to explain how Hippolytus came to be crowned.
However, without Artemis’ glorifying decree that henceforth the Troezenians will pay Hippolytus divine honors, this play could easily resemble a story of comeuppance. He is arrogant, rigid, excessively faultless and his disregard for Aphrodite is even a little shocking. For all his piety and righteousness, he seems incapable of any real human warmth or affection. If ever there were a character due to be knocked off a pedestal, this is he. And if ever there were a playwright who delighted in knocking things off pedestals, it was Euripides.
It is possible that in the first play Euripides focused on the real consequences of Hippolytus’ blindness, which may not have been well received by his cult-worshipping contemporaries. It would follow then that Euripides would have had an ironic intent in titling the second version Hippolytus Crowned, as if to say, “and that’s how the zebra got his stripes. But if you believe this, you must be idiots.”
Still, a Greek tragedy must have a tragic hero, and Hippolytus, with his excessive virtue and ultimate lack of remorse, does not fit the mold. Therefore, Euripides must draw upon Phaedra and Theseus to fill out the requisite elements of a classical tragic drama. Happily, they offer at least as much material as Hippolytus since they, too, suffer from unnatural and misdirected passions. Hippolytus has an unnatural passion against women and sexual love, Phaedra has an unnatural passion for her stepson and Theseus succumbs to an unnatural passion to destroy his own son. In this regard, all three characters are equal, but each serves a different function in the story.
In order for a tragedy to engage an audience’s interest, there must be introduced at the beginning a character for whom the audience can feel sympathy. Since we aren’t likely to be sympathetic towards Hippolytus, with all his aloofness, we are provided with Phaedra, a truly unwitting victim of Aphrodite’s vengeful manipulations. We see her struggling against the spell that Aphrodite has cast upon her and we see her victimized a second time by her nurse’s incompetent attempt to help. Phaedra nobly sacrifices her own life to save her husband and children from shame.
Phaedra’s death is a startling event since she is the character to whom we have become attached. In fact, it threatens to derail the whole drama until we learn that in her passing she has falsely accused Hippolytus. Our good feeling for Phaedra evaporates as we become invested in Hippolytus’ fate, being that he is now the one who has been undeniably wronged and is deserving of our sympathies. Theseus takes the part of persecutor and Hippolytus is unjustly sentenced to death.
Now the playwright has the problem that the story of a victim being sent to his demise is also not dramatically interesting, unless we have a moment of redemption, transcendence or newly gained awareness. But, again, this is not going to happen to Hippolytus, who must remain morally uncompromised for his hero status. He can’t admit to any mistakes, faults or errors in judgment.
This is where Theseus serves his dramatic function, in his recognition of the mistake he made in condemning his own son without a fair hearing. In fact, Theseus’ crimes are the gravest of all. Whereas Phaedra’s crime was simply an illicit love which she tried vainly to resist acting on, Theseus not only failed to moderate his vengeful passion, but he also used the last wish granted him by Poseidon against his own son. It is the actions of Theseus that bring the drama to its highest state of tension, which is then released in resolution. We see him viciously act out the mistakes we know he will regret, and then tragically confront the truth of his errors. With the help of Artemis, he and Hippolytus are reconciled before Hippolytus’ death, and Hippolytus ascends to cult hero status.
Thus, we are brought into the tragedy through our sympathy towards Phaedra, we are carried to its climax through an investment in the fate of Hippolytus, and then we are able to have a feeling of resolution in Theseus’ recognition of his error in judgment. All this occurring as the background to a literal, and therefore ironic, depiction of how Hippolytus came to be revered as a cult figure.
In purely dramatic terms, Seneca’s Phaedra has nothing close to the resonance of Euripides’ Hippolytus. Some scholars argue that it is unfair to measure Seneca exclusively by a standard of dramatic literature since he was foremost a philosopher and rhetorician. It should, therefore, not be assumed that his primary purpose in writing plays was a dramatic one. Likewise, it is widely believed that Seneca’s plays were not written to be acted on stage, but rather for individual reading or recitation by a single speaker, in view of which much of the clumsiness of dialogue and characterization should be excused.
Nonetheless, Seneca’s tragedies were taken quite seriously as drama by subsequent generations of playwrights, most notably the Elizabethans in England but also not inconsiderably the Italians and the French. European culture in the Renaissance, having subsisted on a diet of Medieval morality plays for more than a millennium, was desperate for another point of view. It is not hard to imagine that the Renaissance mentality could more easily assimilate the Greek plot lines, offering a welcomed larger-than-life tragic nobility, filtered through Seneca’s Stoicism, resembling as it does a Christian morality. The question remains, though, as to what lessons the Renaissance playwrights were able to take from Seneca on the nature of drama.
Being that he was a philosopher, Seneca’s overriding interest was in portraying dramatically the Stoic view that man should put aside passion and indulgence and conform his actions to reason in order to harmonize himself with the world at large. And, indeed, the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus provides an effective platform from which to espouse this view, incorporating as it does all manner of human passion, indulgence and excess. This intention is first reflected in Seneca’s title—choosing not the character name of Hippolytus since, as demonstrated in Euripides’ version, he is the relative straight arrow of the bunch. Instead, Seneca names his work Phaedra, signaling that it is in this character that his Stoic lesson is to be found.
From the start, Phaedra is presented as ruled by her passions. She is angry at her husband Theseus for accompanying Pirithous to the underworld in pursuit of Persephone, leaving her confined to her house while he “hunts for fornication or the chance to rape.” But, even more than that. she is suffering from a fire inside her that “erupts and scalds like a volcano’s smoky waves.” Her nurse implores her to “smother the flames of your incestuous love.”
In the agonistic exchange that follows, Seneca uses the characters of Phaedra and the nurse to lay out his argument of reason vs. passion. Phaedra concedes that the nurse is right in her admonitions to Phaedra not to act out her desires, but claims she can’t help herself:
What power has guiding reason? Victory
goes to the passions, they’re now in control,
their potent god is master of my mind.
To which the nurse counters:
Lust in its craving for debauchery
invented the idea of love as god.
It gave passion this fake divinity,
this title of respectability,
so it could be freer to rove at will.
As the debate goes on, Phaedra has an answer for every one of the nurse’s objections until the nurse finally begs her to control her passion, telling her, “Wanting a cure is part of getting well.” Phaedra agrees to obey her, but in the end the nurse loses. Phaedra claims if she cannot act on her passion she must kill herself, and the nurse agrees to help her win Hippolytus.
Thus, Seneca has set up his philosophical lesson. From this point on, the main function of the drama is to reveal the inevitable tragic consequences of giving in to unreasonable passion. But, as the edifying story unfolds, it does not do so without utilizing a few capable dramatic techniques along the way.
In the very next scene, we learn that Phaedra’s physical condition is worsening. This serves to humanize her, in that it is making the formerly selfish and indulgent character more pitiable, as well as to raise the stakes, similar to introducing a ticking clock into the drama. As the nurse goes off to accomplish her task with Hippolytus, we are reminded that if Phaedra doesn’t get what she wants, she will die, whether it be by her own hand or from lovesick wasting away.
The nurse rather tentatively and weakly speaks to Hippolytus of the pleasures of sexuality, and is met not only by a paean to the pleasures of woodland life, but also a tirade against the evils of womankind. With this the playwright has significantly raised the bar over which the nurse and, ultimately, Phaedra must leap to win the interest of Hippolytus. Their task is no longer simply to get him interested in Phaedra, they must first convince him of the merits of women in general. An obstacle has been presented which increases the dramatic tension.
In the following scene, Seneca makes effective use of suspense when Phaedra feigns a fainting spell to get Hippolytus’ attention. We know what he does not—that she is scheming to seduce him. Then we see a quick series of reverses: Rather than seducing, she lunges at him. Rather than recoiling, he draws his sword to attack. Rather than fleeing, she ecstatically welcomes the chance to die at his hand. Rather than following through, he refuses to gratify her. And finally, rather than being accused, the nurse immediately conspires to accuse Hippolytus of the crime.
Now Phaedra and the nurse have gotten themselves in deep. And Seneca is well on his way in his illustration of the evils of human passion. It is necessary at this point to bring Theseus back from the underworld, where he has been incarcerated as a result of his own giving in to passion. The nurse creates the drama of the ensuing scene by announcing Phaedra’s intention to kill herself. Phaedra claims she has been wronged but proceeds to coyly draw out the revelation of the perpetrator until Theseus cuts to the chase by threatening to torture it out of the nurse. Phaedra produces Hippolytus’ sword and Theseus explodes in yet another passion of anger and revenge, calling upon Neptune to destroy his son.
Seneca then fully exploits the action/adventure entertainment value in the messenger’s story of Hippolytus’ demise under attack from the bull-like sea monster. There is nothing in this account that adds to the reason vs. passion debate, but it is necessary to provide an effective dynamic climax within a fundamentally didactic story.
However, from this point on the drama degenerates into a disjointed sequence of regret and recrimination. Wracked with grief and guilt, Phaedra admits her crime, accuses Theseus of doing worse than her, and then kills herself to be with Hippolytus in death. Theseus asks why he has been brought back from the dead to bear such misfortune and begs the gods to take him. When nothing happens, he tries to piece Hippolytus’ body back together, again to no avail.
Seneca has succeeded at illustrating his philosophical point in the context of an engaging and diverting drama. In fact, he has more than adequately fulfilled Horace’s admonition to both entertain and instruct. But in this narrowness of purpose, he fails to achieve the layers of meaning that can be discovered in Euripides’ work, and that make the difference between a moral lesson and a work of art.
Racine, on the other hand, in his treatment of the Phaedra and Hippolytus story manages to fall somewhere between Seneca’s moralizing and Euripides brilliant thematic resonance. Having been raised in the Jansenist sect of the Catholic church, which believed in the natural perversity of the human will that can only be overcome by individuals who are predestined by divine grace, Racine never left behind the need to offer moral instruction. He makes this aim clear in his preface to Phedre: “What I can assert is that no play of mine so celebrates virtue as this one does. . . . To do thus is the proper end which every man who writes for the public should propose to himself.” Yet, he is not willing to do so at the sacrifice of artistry, as an analysis of his dramatic structure reveals.
Curiously, despite Racine’s strict adherence to the classical requirements put forth by Horace dictating that a play should have five acts, the structure of Phedre, in terms of how the events are set up, build to their climax, and resolve, conforms rather well to the present-day model, which identifies a three part structure as the basis for effective drama.
The first three scenes of Phedre set up the story and the two main characters. First, Hippolytus is introduced as feeling restless and confined, wanting to go look for his missing father, and unwilling to admit that he’s in love with his father’s enemy Aricia. In being presented this way, he is less faultless than in Euripides’ and Seneca’s versions. He even has the potential to be the sympathetic character, until we meet his stepmother Phaedra who is sick with an illicit love for him that she is working desperately to resist. In fact, she would rather kill herself than act on it. On balance, her problems appear greater than Hippolytus’ such that she is the character in whose fate we become invested. We want to see her demonstrated virtue prevail. Of course, according to Jansenist belief, her fundamental human perversity can’t be overcome (since she is not one of those who are predestined), and it is the consequences of this that we will see unfold in the course of the drama.
The point of attack in the story comes with the news that Theseus is dead. This sets off the succession struggle through which Racine externalizes and motivates Phaedra’s decision to confess her love to Hippolytus. Now she must make a political alliance with him for the sake of her son, who is Theseus’ legitimate heir. In addition, Hippolytus now has the opportunity to approach Aricia without betraying his father. The first “act” ends when Phaedra decides to take Oenone’s advice to win over Hippolytus for the purpose of joining forces against Aricia. This launches the second “act” in which Phaedra will have to bear the consequences of this.
The second act begins with Aricia confessing to Ismene her love for Hippolytus. This introduces tension since it puts Phaedra at a disadvantage. When Hippolytus professes his love to Aricia and is received favorably by her, the tension builds. Phaedra’s disadvantage is increasing, making her more and more vulnerable, even though as Theseus’ widow she is in the greater position of power. When Phaedra then reveals her love to Hippolytus and is violently rebuffed by him, she becomes profoundly vulnerable. Ironically, immediately after this Theramenes brings the news that Phaedra’s son has been chosen by the people as Theseus’ successor, solidifying Phaedra’s power.
With the announcement of Theseus’ return, Phaedra sees undeniably how compromised she is, and Hippolytus is no longer free to be with Aricia. This marks the mid-point, a nearly cataclysmic event in the middle of the story that shifts the internal balance of the main character. Indeed, Phaedra immediately changes from lovesick pursuer to scheming avenger. Oenone conceives of a preemptive strike against Hippolytus even though we learn in the next scene that he has no thoughts of exposing Phaedra. He is simply trying to figure how to keep in his father’s good graces.
While it is Oenone who does the dirty work of accusing Hippolytus of trying to rape Phaedra, there is no question that Phaedra is the one falling from grace throughout the second half of the second act. She is responsible for Theseus’ rage at Hippolytus that leads to his banishment and the curse of Neptune upon him. When Phaedra tries to undo what she has done, begging Theseus not to harm him, Theseus lets out that Hippolytus claimed to be in love with Aricia. This makes Phaedra all the more vicious, resolving not to defend a man who has spurned her, lashing out at Oenone and cruelly sending her away. Her moral bankruptcy is complete, marking the end of the second act.
The third “act” is all about Theseus’ growing doubt. In this, Racine’s ending is superior to Euripides’. Rather than depending on a god such as Artemis to come down from the sky and reveal to Theseus the truth of what Phaedra has done, Racine carefully weaves in a series of events that plausibly increase Theseus’ questioning of his hasty prosecution of Hippolytus. First is his own natural regret at the loss of his son. Then he sees Phaedra’s strange reversal in suddenly asking Theseus not to harm Hippolytus. He prays to the gods for a clearer understanding and observes that Aricia is holding herself back from telling him something. He sends for Oenone to get more information and his doubt is sealed when he learns that she has killed herself and Phaedra is wanting to die, writing letters and tearing them up.
As in Euripides’ and Seneca’s versions, Racine’s drama also reaches its climax with the reported account of the bull-monster being thrown out of the sea and chasing Hippolytus to his death. This time, though, there is the added element of his dying words, asking Theseus to be lenient on Aricia and Aricia falling unconscious beside him. With this proof of the one point Hippolytus made in his own defense – that he was in love with Aricia – Theseus accuses Phaedra of wrongdoing and she confesses. The drama resolves with Phaedra’s death (of poison so she can die on stage) and Theseus’ promise to treat Aricia as his own daughter. Innocent though Phaedra was of intentional malice, her natural human perversity plays out to its inevitable destructive conclusion.
Such a brief examination as this into the themes and dramatic functioning of these three plays can only provide a superficial glimpse of their complexity. Much more could be said of each one. What becomes clear, however, in even the most cursory analysis, is the great difference of thematic statement and dramatic effect achieved in each treatment of the same story. Euripides uses the myth to critique the lack of questioning in Greek society of the power and virtue of the gods. Seneca uses the character of Phaedra to present his Stoic argument for the superiority of reason over passion. And Racine fashions a cautionary tale on the destructiveness of human perversity around the unfortunate fates of not only Phaedra, but Hippolytus and Theseus as well. While Racine’s tight, orderly structure is far more effective dramatically than Seneca’s undisciplined rant, neither of these comes close to the structural brilliance and thematic richness of Euripides.
 The Greek Myths, Robert Graves (New York: Penguin, 1955), 356-357.
 A Companion to Greek Tragedy, John Ferguson (University of Texas Press, 1972), 237.
 Scenes from Greek Drama, Bruno Snell (University of California Press, 1964), 24-25.
 A Handbook of Classical Drama, Philip Whaley Harsh (Stanford Univ. Press, 1944), 185.
 Ibid., 185.
 Ibid., 402-408.
 Ibid., 404.
 The Nature of Senecan Drama, Thos, F. Curley (Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1986), 14.
 The Greek Myths, 363.
 Seneca: Three Tragedies, trans. Frederick Ahl (Cornell University Press, 1986), 187.
 Ibid., 187.
 Ibid., 191.
 Ibid., 192.
 Ibid., 192.
 Ibid., 195.
 Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, v. 28, James E. Person, ed. (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1995), 290.
 Phaedra, Jean Racine, trans. Richard Wilbur (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1986), 5.
 The Art and Craft of Playwriting, Jeffrey Hatcher (Cinc.: Story Press, 1996), 79-92.
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