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Hippolytus (play)

From Academic Kids

Euripides wrote two tragedies dealing with the myth of Hippolytus, which in ancient times were distinguished as:

  • Hippolytus Veiled, or Hippolytos Kalyptomenos, or Hippolytos with his head covered
  • Hippolytus Bearer of the Garland, or Hippolytos Stephanephoros, or Hippolytus with a garland

Only the latter survives. It was first produced in 428 BC when it won the first prize as part of a trilogy. It is likely that the earlier Hippolytus Veiled presented a more conventional treatment of the myth, in which the dangerously impassioned Phaedra tries to lead the honourable and chaste Hippolytus astray. In the surviving play, however, we see a much more even handed and psychologically complex treatment of the characters.

The gods play a very important role in Hippolytus, framing the action. Aphrodite appears at the beginning and Artemis at the end, and they were possibly represented onstage throughout the action in the form of statues. These two goddesses can be taken as representing the conflicting emotions of passion and chastity.

The action of the play is at Troezen, near Athens. Theseus, the king of Athens, has been away for a year in order to atone for a crime. He left behind his wife Phaedra, their young children (who never appear onstage), and his illegitimate son Hippolytus (whose mother is an Amazon).

At the opening of the play Aphrodite appears and explains that Hippolytus has sworn chastity, hates the idea of sex, and refuses to revere her. This has led her to plan vengeance on Hippolytus, since even gods are proud and delight in being honored. As part of her plan, she has inspired Phaedra, Hippolytus' stepmother, to fall in love with him.

Hippolytus appears bearing a garland (hence the title given by ancient scholars) with his followers, and shows reverence to a statue of Artemis. An servant warns him about his dismissal of Aphrodite, but Hippolytus refuses to listen to him.

The chorus, consisting of young married women of Troezen, enters, describing how Phaedra is not eating or sleeping. Phaedra, sickly and struggling to suppress her desire for Hippolytus, appears with her Nurse. After an agonized discussion, Phaedra finally gives into her nurse's demands and confesses her love for Hippolytus. The Nurse and the Chorus are shocked. Phaedra explains that she must starve herself and die with her honor intact, but the Nurse decides to look at the situation pragmatically. She thinks they must try to talk to Hippolytus.

The nurse tells Hippolytus of Phaedra’s desire, making him swear an oath that he will not tell anyone else. He reacts with a furious, misogynistic tirade on the “poisonous” nature of women. Since the secret is out, Phaedra believes she is ruined. After making the Chorus swear secrecy, she goes inside and hangs herself.

Theseus returns and discovers his wife's dead body; since the Chorus is sworn to secrecy, they cannot tell Theseus why Phaedra is dead. Then Theseus discovers a letter on Phaedra's body, accusing Hippolytus of raping her. Enraged, Theseus curses his son and calls upon Poseidon to enforce the curse. Hippolytus enters and protests his innocence, but cannot tell the truth because of his binding oath. Theseus exiles his son as the Chorus sings a lament for Hippolytus.

A messenger enters and describes a gruesome scene that just transpired: as Hippolytus got in his chariot to leave the kingdom, a bull roared up out of the sea, frightening his horses, which dashed the chariot among the rocks. Hippolytus is badly injured and does not look likely to live. The Chorus acknowledges that love, not chastity, must ultimately win.

Theseus is pleased, until Artemis appears to clear Hippolytus' name. She scolds Theseus for his rash decision, explains the true version of events, and regrets that she could not intervene. However, she plans to take revenge on Aphrodite by killing one of her favorites sometime soon. Hippolytus is carried in half-alive and, at Artemis' urging, is reconciled to his father before he dies.

In many ways this play is surprising in its even-handed approach to the two main characters, neither being presented in a wholly favorable light. Euripides has often been accused of misogyny in his presentations of characters such as Medea and Electra. However, Hippolytus seems unsympathetically puritan and misogynist, though he is partially redeemed by his refusal to break his oath to the nurse. Similarly, Phaedra is initially presented as sympathetic, honourably struggling against overwhelming odds to do the right thing, though our regard for her is reduced by her indictment of Hippolytus.

External links

nl:Hippolytos (Euripides)

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