180. Phaedra by Seneca (c.50 AD)

Plot:   Phaedra, second wife of King Theseus, falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who haughtily rejects her advances. In retaliation she tells Theseus that Hippolytus raped her, and Theseus calls down the wrath of Neptune on the youth.

My version was in Seneca, The Complete Tragedies, published by University of Chicago Press and edited by Shadi Bartsch (Vol. 1, ISBN 9780226748238)

My thoughts :  A familiar tale in the ancient world, told by Euripides amongst others (see my earlier post https://chronolit.com/2016/03/25/40-hippolytus-by-euripides-428-bc/ )

Seneca leaves out certain parts of the story, probably assuming his audience knew the story well enough. Phaedra is driven mad with lust for Hippolytus by Venus, as revenge for Phaedra’s father (the sun god Phoebus) revealing Venus’s affair with Mars. Phaedra knows her feelings for her stepson are wrong, but cannot help herself, recalling how her mother Pasiphae had unnatural relations with a bull resulting in the birth of the Minotaur, and reasoning the inheritance of some moral weakness in her family.

Hippolytus is initially concerned for Phaedra’s crazed grief, but on hearing her reluctant confession of love, rejects her quite coldly and arrogantly. He is the original misogynist, hating all women and only interested in hunting and living in the wild.

Hippolytus : “I consider this the only solace of my mother’s death, that now I can despise all women”  Act II, line 578-579.

Theseus has three wishes owing to him by Neptune, and uses the first to call down the God’s fury on Hippolytus. A great sea-bull emerges from the waves and spooks Hippolytus’ chariot horses and Hippolytus is tangled in the reins, falling and being torn to pieces along the rock-strewn beach. Phaedra confesses her lie before taking her own life, leaving Theseus to regret his precipitate action and mourn the loss of his son.

This version is very poetic, and foreshadows the beauty and style of Elizabethan drama.

Favourite lines/passages:

Phaedra (on the verge of tragedy): “My mouth won’t grant a passage to the speech I’ve started : a great force makes me speak, a greater holds me back. I call all of you to witness, gods: I don’t want the thing I want”   Act II, lines 601-605

Theseus (after he learns the truth): “My prayers do not move the gods, but if I prayed for evil, how ready they would be!” Act V, lines 1242-1243.

Digressions/diversions: The quite natty art deco style artwork above is by Georges Barbier (1882-1932). Well worth a Google.

Personal rating:  5/10

Also in these years (from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978)

  • Jesus Christ is hailed as the Messiah, and crucified for sedition by the Romans c.30 AD.
  • Succeeding Augustus, Rome has a series of emperors : Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.
  • Romans invade Britain again and fortify the site of London c. 43 AD.
  • Buddhism reaches China.

Other reading:   Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie. Came pretty close to solving the various crimes, but not following all of the Dame’s clues and logic.

Next :  Another retelling from Seneca, the fury and horror of Medea

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