HIPPOLYTUS

A summary and analysis of the play by Euripides

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 70-78.

Of the extant plays of Euripides, the Hippolytus, which took the first prize at its reproduction in 428 B.C., deserves the highest place. In the prologue, Aphrodite declares herself resolved to punish the chaste Hippolytus, son of Theseus, who disdains her and pays his worship to Artemis. With this design she has put into the heart of Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, a love for her stepson. This Theseus will learn, and then will destroy his son by one of three fatal wishes which Poseidon has promised to fulfill. This will involve the ruin of Phaedra too, but for that there is no help, the goddess caring first for her honor and herself. Presently Hippolytus enters; he lauds his lady Artemis and consecrates to her a garland. An attendant suggests that he should in like manner honor Aphrodite, whose statue also stands at the entrance to the palace. Hippolytus, deaf to advice, persists in ignoring the goddess, and therein lies his offense.

When he has left the stage the love-sick Phaedra enters with her nurse, to whom, with great difficulty, she is induced to make confession, declaring to the chorus her resolve to die. Meantime the nurse seeks to comfort her, and bids her give her love free course, rather than let herself be consumed by an inexpressible woe. She promises to aid her, but gives no details of the plan. Phaedra anxiously enjoins her in no case to tell the truth to Hippolytus; but she evades the question and hurries away into the house where Hippolytus lives. The unhappy Phaedra remains behind, but soon learns from the tumult within that the nurse has betrayed her secret and that Hippolytus has received the disclosure with horror and dismay. He comes out with the nurse, and bursts into loud imprecations on the female sex. Phaedra sees that the misplaced zeal of the nurse has ruined all; she covers her with reproaches, and again resolves to die. Her resolution is instantly fulfilled.

The theme of the following chorus is similar to one quoted from the Medea:

O love! O love! whose shafts of fire
Invade the soul with sweet surprise,
Through the soft dews of young desire
Trembling in beauty's azure eyes!
Condemn not me the pangs to share
Thy too impassioned votaries bear,
That on the mind their stamp impress,
Indelible and measureless.
For not the sun's descending dart,
Nor yet the lightning brand of Jove,
Falls like the shaft that strikes the heart,
Thrown by the mightier hand of love.
 
Oh! vainly, where by Letrian plains,
Tow'rd Dian's dome Alpheus bends,
And from Apollo's Pythian fanes,
The steam of hecatombs ascends;
While not to love our altars blaze,
To love, whose tyrant power arrays
Against mankind each form of woe
That hopeless anguish bleeds to know:
To love who keeps the golden key,
That, when more favored lips implore,
Unlocks the sacred mystery
Of youthful beauty's bridal door.

The servants are still running to and fro in wild distraction, when Theseus enters and is told the news. He sees the corpse, and in its hand a letter which represents Hippolytus as the cause of the bloody deed; at once there comes to his lips the fatal wish for his son's death. Then Hippolytus himself appears and sees what has happened. From his father's mouth he receives at once a declaration of the suspicion resting on him, and a sentence of exile. It is useless to attempt to right himself, for he is too generous to tell his father the truth. Theseus mistakes his son's plain words for artful lies, and thus provokes the tragic retort, that, were he in his father's place, he should think nothing could expiate such crime but death. With an appeal to Artemis he departs into exile. A choral ode intervenes, and then a messenger arrives with news of the grievous disaster that has overtaken him, for he has been dashed to pieces by his own steeds, frightened by the sea-monsters which Neptune has sent against him at the solicitation of Aphrodite.

There is a headland on the further side,
Where the Saronic gulf comes first in view;
From this a subterranean rumbling rose,
With sounds like thunder, terrible to hear.
The horses raised their heads and pricked their ears;
We, overwhelmed with fright, stood wondering
What the dread sound could be; when, as we looked
Towards the beach, behold a mighty wave
That rose heaven high, and from my sight shut out
Tall Scyrus' cliffs, while Isthmus, and the rock
That bears Asclepias' name, were lost to view.
Then, swelling to portentous size, and capped
With angry foam belched the roaring sea,
Onward it rolled to where the chariot stood,
And as it broke, a torrent flood of brine,
It cast forth on the beach a monstrous bull,
Whose bellowing filled the shores around and woke
Appalling echoes, to all present there
A spectacle on which they feared to look.
The steeds at once were filled with wild affright.
Their master, whom long practice with the ways
Of horses made familiar, grasped the reins,
And pulled them, as a rower pulls his oar,
Throwing his body back upon their thongs.
But his scared steeds, the bits between their teeth,
Ran headlong, heedless of the guiding hand,
Ungovernable by the bit or rein,
And reckless of the car. Oft as he tried
To steer them toward the soft and sandy beach,
The bull would cross their front and from their course
With maddening apparition drive the team.
But when towards the rocks they wildly rushed,
The bull would close upon them silently,
Until at last upon a point of rock,
Dashing its wheel, the car was overturned.
Then all was wreck and ruin; from the wheels
The naves, the linchpins from the axles flew,
While hopelessly entangled in their reins,
Was dragged along the luckless charioteer,
Dashing his head against the cruel rocks,
Tearing his flesh and uttering piteous cries.

The poetic beauty of the whole play is truly remarkable. With the utmost delicacy the dramatist avoids all personal collision between Phaedra and Hippolytus, all contact, even by word, between the two; so that the hero shall preserve to the last the charm of his modest youth. Very skillful is the delineation of the unhappy Phaedra's unavailing struggle with passion, and the shame with which she at length suffers the decisive word to pass her lips. But when she sees her love despised, and that naught but shame and humiliation awaits her, then even her love itself grows cold; in despair she flies to death, and with that design drags Hippolytus to a common doom. This action is psychologically correct, if we choose, with Euripides, to represent the capacity of women for this kind of dæmoniac possession. Phaedra, a victim of despair, acts without reflection, and therefore instinctively. It is worth noticing how Euripides has been able, with delicate discrimination, to paint Phaedra's fatal resolution in one short stroke. This is a point to which most modern readers would take objection, since they have a different conception of the sex, and would fail to discover here any adequate motive for the woman's conduct. Of one thing we may be sure, that any change of detail would be made at the expense of the beauty of the poet's conception.

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