The son of Theseus and Antiope who was falsely accused by his stepmother, Phaedra, of raping her after he had rejected her advances and who was killed by Poseidon in response to the plea of Theseus.

The legend is the subject of plays by Euripides, Seneca, and Racine.



      see Greek and Roman Mythology

The most significant event that happens to the title character Hippolytus of Euripides's play is his death. In the very last lines, Theseus, the father, embraces his dying son. But this is no typical grieving ceremony. You see the son's last words promise forgiveness to his father. Why would a father be guilty of the murder of his son and end up regretting it? Why would his son forgive his murderer at the moment of his death? As this is a Greek tragedy, none of these questions can be answered with reference purely to the humans. It is the gods that provide us with the key pieces to putting together this puzzle.

The son's murder, though ordered by the father, seemed to be an accident but one scary enough to hint at the involvement of the gods. "A wave unearthly, crested in the sky, broke ... and roar of gasping sea and spray flung far, ... in the white crest .. of three lines of wave.. a wild sea bull was flung to the shore." A monster carried on the crest of a humongous wave drove the horses of Hippolytus's chariot to panic. The horses fled and the charioteer, caught in his reins, was thrown off the chariot and bled upon landing on sharp rocks. The whole fatal scene is described in gloriously beautiful poetic language and it is so majestic precisely because it was no accident. The event was a testament to the power of the almighty god Poseidon or Neptune who orchestrated the death of the son upon the request of the father.

But the divine intervention does not stop there. The very reason that Theseus decided that his son deserved to die can be traced back to a vengeful plot of another god, Venus or Aphrodite. Venus, the goddess of love, was seething with hatred for Hippolytus because he would not worship her; he abhorred love and women and didn't offer any sacrifices to the goddess of this domain at her shrine. (The young man, an avid hunter, did honor the goddess of hunting and chastity, Artemis or Diana.) The gall for a mortal to disdain a goddess does not go unnoticed; hence Venus decided to force Hippolytus to submit to her power, but in a rather cruel way. She kindled a desperate, obsessive flame of love for him in the heart of his stepmother, Phaedra.

However, when Hippolytus learns of Phaedra's infatuation for him through her nurse, instead of submitting himself to the rule of Venus, he denounces the goddess and her kingdom of love. Conceiving of women as a curse to men and wishing for a women-free world, he cries out: "O God, why hast Thou made this gleaming snare, woman, to dog us on the happy earth? Was it Thy will to make man, why his birth, through love and woman?" As for Phaedra herself, he is simply disgusted by her. "O Mother Earth, O Sun that makest clean, What poison have I heard, what speechless sin!" he exclaims in reference to the amorous designs of his disgraceful and abased stepmother.

With his utter lack of sympathy towards a love-stricken woman, Hippolytus has once again shown Venus that he has no respect for the highly obsessive passion that characterizes the subjects of her kingdom. And no one is a better representative of that vulnerable and pained yearning than Phaedra herself. Shattered to the core by the sinfulness of her inappropriate desire, Phaedra reaches the depths of despair. Fasting for days in a fit of self-hatred, she has set herself on a steady course to death to avoid dishonoring her family through the double crime of adultery and incest. Initially she tries to ignore her yearnings - "my first thought was to be still and hide my sickness for there in no trust in man's tongue." Then she tries to use her mind and her reason to talk herself out of the obsessive love - "after that I would my madness bravely bear, and try to conquer by mine own heart's purity." Finally, when silence and self-persuasion fail to do the trick, she decides on death. "My third mind, when these two availed me naught. To quell love was to die."

One of the key points in the play is that Phaedra has negligible free will as regards her passion for Hippolytus; she is merely a plaything in Aphrodite's quest to subjugate and punish the impetuous young man that dares to flout the goddess's authority. However, ironically enough, Phaedra realizes that her free will has been usurped by the madness of passion precisely because she is a pawn in the game of a god. At one point she says: "Did I fall into some God's snare? Veil my head and blind my eyes sick with shame.... The name of madness in an awful thing."

The nurse's failed attempt to save her beloved Phaedra by arranging for a tryst with Hippolytus sets in motion the final stage of Venus's fatal vengeance against Hippolytus. As Phaedra hangs herself, she leaves a note charging that Hippolytus raped her. It is in response to this note that Theseus, Phaedra's husband and Hippolytus's father, condemns his son to death: "Poseidon! Thou didst grant me for mine own three prayers; for one of these, slay now my son, Hippolytus; let him not outlive this day. If true thy promise was! Lo, thus I pray."

At the end of this play, we are left with several important questions. Is Hippolytus responsible for Phaedra's death; was he callous to the incredible pains she suffered as a result of her love for him? Should he have shown her compassion and tried to talk her out of ending her life? Or on the other hand, was the goddess Venus or Aphrodite evil and vicious in hoisting the burden of Phaedra's suffering on the shoulders of Hippolytus and using it to test his willingness to understand the workings of romantic love? That latter interpretation is affirmed by the goddess Artemis who reconciles the dying son with the father by blaming the scheming Aphrodite for the father's filicide and for Phaedra's death.1 

But the most important question of all is whether it is right to accept love as an all-powerful force that renders its subjects helpless when in its thrall. On the one hand, Phaedra retains enough distance from her romantic obsession to be able to critically reflect upon it. On the other hand, she seems unable to shift or expel the passion lodged in her by the goddess. Phaedra's mother could not either; Venus had her fall in love with a bull, but unlike Phaedra, Pasiphae actually satisfied her romantic urges. For both mother and daughter, it was a burning desire. As Phaedra exclaims early in the play during a conversation with her nurse: "Mother, poor Mother, that didst love so sore!"


1 Hippolytus forgives his father because he accepts Artemis's explanation that "a plotting goddess tripped him (Theseus) and he fell."


Bibliography:

Euripides. Hippolytus/The Bacchae. Trans. Gilbert Murray. Project Gutenberg. Web. 20 May 2012.

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