40. Hippolytus, by Euripides (428 BC)

Plot: Seeking revenge on Hippolytus, the bastard son of King Theseus, for his insults and contempt, the goddess Aphrodite instils an overwhelming love for Hippolytus in the heart of Theseus’ innocent wife Phaedra. The nurse attending the sickening Phaedra betrays her confession of love to young Hippolytus who disdainfully and coldly rejects Phaedra and all women. Rather than bring dishonour to her family, Phaedra hangs herself but leaves a note accusing Hippolytus of ravishing her, in revenge for his dismissal of her pain.

Theseus will not believe Hippolytus’ protests of innocence and uses one of the favours promised by his father Poseidon to kill Hippolytus. A  huge wave rises from the sea and from it emerges a monstrous bull which spooks Hippolytus’s chariot horses and causes his body to be dragged and pummeled through the rocks of the seashore.

As Hippolytus lays dying, Artemis appears and reveals the truth to the anguished Theseus, including the role of Aphrodite as the instigator of the tragedy, and promises to seek revenge by striking down Aphrodite’s most beloved mortal Adonis.

Again, my copy is the Penguin Classics translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 014044031). Maybe I should be getting a royalty from them 🙂

My thoughts: Hippolytus is a popular young man who worships only the maiden goddess Artemis and dismisses Aphrodite and the pursuit of sexual love to live chaste and focused on his love of hunting and chariot racing. He is proud and cold, insolently dismissing advice from his elderly servant and viciously maligning women in general. Only his innocence of the crime he is accused of, and the violence of his death generates my sympathy for his character.

Hippolytus is sometimes cited to demonstrate the concept of sophrosyne, a state of “excellence of character and soundness of mind, which when combined in one well-balanced individual leads to other qualities, such as temperance, moderation, prudence, purity, and self-control”. Hippolytus may be pure from sexual desires, but his woman-hating speech does not strike me as temperate or showing an excellence of character, but a wilful and self-indulgent love of himself and his narrow field of interests.

Phaedra strives to overcome the unnatural love she has been afflicted with, and intends to starve herself to death and protect her honour, before her nurse unwisely betrays Phaedra’s obsession to Hippolytus in public. His overreaction forces Phaedra to not only hang herself but also write the lies which doom him. I think Phaedra is very ill-used by Aphrodite as the tool of the goddess’ plot against Hippolytus, as Phaedra is not only innocent, but had already built a temple dedicated to Aphrodite.

I hoped that Artemis might intervene to save Phaedra or at least Hippolytus, but of course it wouldn’t be a tragedy then. Artemis does appear late in the play, to tell Theseus the truth and berate him for his hasty and heartless actions. She also explains …

“Aphrodite willed all this to happen, to appease her anger, and this law holds among gods, that none seeks to oppose another’s purpose ; rather We stand aloof”  page 124

although I’m sure this could be argued using some of The Iliad‘s events as proof otherwise.

Favourite lines/passages:  There were many passages that stood out for me

Theseus’ grief at Phaedra’s death

“I strain despairing eyes over my sea of misery, hope vanishes, the shore is out of sight, Disaster is a wave I cannot surmount”                                                            page 108

Hippolytus’ death scene

“Come, black irresistible darkness, come in your cruelty and lay me to sleep in death”                                                                                                                                     page 125

and even the Nurse’s reflective if rather self-centered soliloquy

“Since everyone must die, it would be better that friends should set a limit to affection, and never open their hearts’ depths to each other. The ties of love ought to lie loosely on us, easy to slip or tighten. For one heart to endure the pain of two, as I suffer for her, is a cruel burden.”                                                                        page 90

Phaedra’s explanation of human nature

“… though knowledge and judgement tell us what is good, we don’t act on our knowledge – some through indolence, others through valuing some other pleasure more than goodness; and our life offers us many pleasures”                     page 95

But to leave you with some beauty, a description of where Hippolytus gathered flowers for a garland for Artemis

“Fresh from a virgin meadow, where no shepherd dares to graze his flock, nor ever yet the scythe swept, but bees thread the spring air over the maiden meadow. There with clear stream-water Chastity tends the flowers …”                             page 85

Diversions/digressions: Lots of tangents to explore from this play for mythology lovers. Looking back

  • How did Theseus earn the three boons of Poseidon?
  • The backstory of Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta
  • The fates of Phaedra’s mother Pasiphae and sister Ariadne

and looking forward

  • Artemis’ vow to strike down Aphrodite’s most beloved in retaliation (Adonis)
  • Will Theseus strive to seek revenge on the goddess Aphrodite?

Personal rating : A very strong tragedy which builds in scale yet never loses focus on the characters. Also many beautiful and memorable passages : easily a 7.

Next: Staying with Euripides, the next play is Andromache, dated around 425 BC.




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