The Hippolytus is a Greek Tragedy first performed in 428 BCE. Hippolytus, the young son of the hero Theseus (famous for slaying the Minotaur) is a fanatical devotee of Artemis, the virginal goddess of the woodlands. As such, he has treated Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love with disdain. The scene is set throughout outside Theseus’ palace at Trozen In the prologue Aphrodite, expresses her anger at Hippolytus’ attitude towards her and announces that she will destroy Hippolytus and, in so doing, cause the death of Phaedra, his stepmother.
The next scene opens on Hippolytus with his huntsmen returning from the hunt and praising Artemis. Hippolytus’ old servant warns Hippolytus that he should not ignore Aphrodite altogether but should pay her the respect due to her as a goddess. Hippolytus ignores the old man’s advice, declaring that Aphrodite is nothing to him. Privately, the servant prays that the goddess may forgive the youth his foolishness and arrogance. There is irony in this, both because the audience knows Aphrodite will not forgive Hippolytus and that an old slave should naively expect a goddess to act according to human standards of reason and compassion. Euripides did not see the gods as providing a moral example for humans.
We then meet the Chorus of Trozenian Women; slave women of Theseus’ household. They lament the strange decline of their mistress Phaedra who has taken to her bed without food or drink. They speculate as to the cause of her sickness; wondering whether she has offended one of the gods or if her husband Theseus has taken a mistress or whether she is merely pregnant. Phaedra’s old nurse then appears, bringing Phaedra out with her. Phaedra raves that she longs to be out in the forest hunting. Coming to herself, she is aghast and ashamed at her loss of control. The Nurse then determines to persuade Phaedra to tell her what is wrong. She is horrified when she finally hears the truth: Phaedra is consumed with passion for her own stepson Hippolytus. For Phaedra, the only solution is to pine away and die with honour. Her nurse however, once she has got over her shock, is determined to save Phaedra’s life and pragmatically decides they must tell Hippolytus and persuade him to requite her passion. Phaedra is horrified and orders the nurse never to suggest this again. The nurse pretends to agree and leaves Phaedra, saying she will get her some medicine. The Chorus sings of the power and terror of Aphrodite until Phaedra calls for silence; she can hear uproar within the house. Hippolytus is raging at the nurse in anger and disgust at her suggestion that he sleep with his stepmother. The nurse implores him to keep quiet, reminding him that he had promised secrecy. He replies famously that his tongue swore the oath, not his heart. Hippolytus then launches into an impassioned misogynist rant expressing the wish that human reproduction could take place without need of women.
He does however, grudgingly admit that he has sworn an oath of secrecy and will not tell Theseus. After Hippolytus has stormed off, Phaedra turns on her nurse and cursing her, orders her away. She then tells the Chorus that she has thought of a way in which she and her sons will keep their honour and that Hippolytus’ cruelty will be avenged. The Chorus sing of the longing to escape; to be turned into a bird and fly to a far off place. There is a cry from inside the palace; Phaedra has indeed been found hanging from a beam. Just then, Theseus returns from his travels. He is told of his wife’s death and shown the body. As he mourns over her, he sees a letter attached to her corpse. He is devastated to read Phaedra’s claim that she killed herself after being raped by Hippolytus. Theseus then invokes one of three curses previously given to him by Poseidon, god of the sea, demanding that his son will die this very day. He furthermore pronounces banishment upon him. Hippolytus now appears, having heard his father’s cry. He seems awkwardly surprised by Phaedra’s death and answers his father’s accusations in measured tones that only enrage him further, patiently explaining that he would not have done anything of the kind as he is a very chaste young man indeed. To Theseus, this seems like the most revolting hypocrisy. Although devastated by his father’s sentence of banishment, Hippolytus considers himself still bound by his oath to the nurse and although he protests his innocence, will not tell his father what really happened. Hippolytus sadly leaves. The Chorus sings of the uncertainty of human life and reproaches the gods for bringing misfortune upon the guiltless. A messenger comes running in. He brings news of Hippolytus’ fate. As Hippolytus rode along the seashore in his chariot, a monstrous bull arose out of the sea. The panic stricken horses bolted so that Hippolytus was thrown from his chariot and, tangled in the reins, was dragged along the ground and mangled. Theseus allows his dying son to be brought forth. Artemis now appears. She tells the full story of what has happened. Theseus begs his son’s forgiveness and Hippolytus grants it at the goddess’ behest. Artemis will not be in the presence of death. She disappears leaving Hippolytus to die, reconciled with his father.