Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Hippolytus by Euripides.

Phaedra by Alexandre Cabanel (1880).
Hippolytus (Ἱππόλυτος) is a Greek tragedy by Euripides, first performed in 428 BC, and the second tragedy by Euripides on the theme of Hippolytus, the first being Hippolytus Veiled (Ἱππόλυτος καλυπτόμενος), now lost. 

N.B. This post contains spoilers.

The play, set in Troezen, Greece, begins with a monologue by Aphrodite. She says,
Theseus' child, Hippolytus, the boy he fathered by the Amazon and gave to Pittheus the pure of heart to raise, is the only one among the citizens of this land of Troezen to call me the foulest of divinities. He scorns the bed of love, rejecting wedlock, and pays tribute to Phoebus' sister, to Artemis, daughter of Zeus - she is his queen of heaven. He never leaves her side - a chaste union this - and through the green forest he and his swift hounds strip the earth of game to hunt, mortal man and goddess in ill-matched partnership. I do not grudge them these pastimes; why should I? But for his crimes against me I'll have my revenge on Hippolytus this day. My plans have been well advanced for some time now and little further effort is required.
Her revenge, she reveals, was to make Phaedra, Theseus' wife, to fall in love with her stepson Hippolytus:
When he [Hippolytus] went once from Pittheus' home to the land of Pandion to witness and participate in the holy mysteries there, his father's royal bride, Phaedra, saw him, and my scheming caused a terrible longing to seize her heart. 
And so, in love with her stepson, she keeps her secret and, meanwhile, Hippolytus shows disdain to Aphrodite despite being warned by his servants:
Hɪᴘᴘᴏʟʏᴛᴜs: No god worshipped by night wins my respect.
Sᴇʀᴠᴀɴᴛ: Gods must have their worship, boy.
Phaedra of course is suffering greatly. The chorus ("fifteen young married women of Troezen") tell of her pain:
... how she wastes away on a bed of sickness and keeps to the palace, her blonde head shaded by fine-spun veils. This is the third day, I hear, that she had let no food pass her lips and kept her body pure of Demeter's grain. Some unspoken trouble prompts her to bring her craft to rest on death's unhappy strand. 
Unable to cope with her pain, she eventually confesses to her nurse:
Nᴜʀsᴇ: What's that? You're in love, my girl? Who on earth is he?
Pʜᴀᴇᴅʀᴀ: Whoever would he be? Is it that one, the Amazon's...
Nᴜʀsᴇ: Hippolytus, you mean?
Pʜᴀᴇᴅʀᴀ: You spoke that name, not I.
Nᴜʀsᴇ: No! No! What will you say next, girl? You've finished me! [Turning to the Cʜᴏʀᴜs:] Ladies, it's unbearable! I won't live on now! I hate the sight of day, hate its light! I'll throw myself down, jump clear to my death! Farewell! I'm dying, as good as dead! For good and faithful wives have sinful desires - it's not their own wish but still they have them. She's no goddess, then, the Cyprian [Aphrodite], but something greater - call it what you will - bringing ruin on this women, on me and on this house.
Phaedra addresses the Chorus, telling them of her pain, her struggle, and her torment; that she tried to resist, and when she couldn't, she tried to die. The nurse then recovers from her shock and she promises to help Phaedra. She tells her,
Charms exist and spells with power to bewitch; a remedy for this illness will come to light. We are women, after all, and will find a way; it would be a long wait to rely on a man.
She encourages Phaedra to sleep with Hippolytus - "Better to do the deed and stay alive than bask in your good name and die". Phaedra is horrified but unable to resist. The nurse prays to Aphrodite then leaves Phaedra in her terror whilst she goes to talk to Hippolytus (whilst Phaedra listenes). He, the worshipper of Artemis the Chaste, reacts with fury and refuses to keep his oath of secrecy - "It was my tongue that swore, not my heart." The nurse defends Phaedra, and Hippolytus launches into a bitter tirade against women and the nurse:
I curse you all! Never will I have my fill of hating women, even though they say I never cease to speak of them. Do they ever cease from sinning? Let someone teach them to control their desires or leave me to trample them underfoot for ever!
Phaedra, heartbroken and fearful, turns on her nurse - "You vile old witch! Destroyer of your friends! Look what you have done to me!". She begs the chorus to keep her secret then returns to the palace where she hangs herself. Her husband Theseus arrives home to find his wife dead. Bereft he talks with the Chorus who keep Phaedra's secret, however he finds a suicide note in which Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of raping her. He vows to either kill or exile Hippolytus and when he confronts him and, mindful of the oath of secrecy he swore. He is exiled, and shortly after a messenger appears and tells Theseus of Hippolytus' death:
There it was that a rumbling from the earth swelled, like Zeus' thunder, into a deep roar, terrifying to our ears. The horses lifted up their heads skywards, pricking up their ears, while we in a real panic wondered where the sound could be coming from. We looked out to where the sea broke on the shore and saw an awesome sight - a wave set fast in the sky, blocking Sciron's coast from my eye. The Isthmus, too, and Asclepius' rock were hidden from view. And then, swelling up and spouting thick foam around as the sea was blown high, it advanced on the shore, where his four horses stood in harness. And just at the moment when it broke with a huge surge, the wave sent forth a bull, a wild and wondrous beast. The whole land was filled with its bellowing, returning an echo that made us tremble, and to our staring eyes it seemed a sight beyond endurance.
It is in this struggle, the messenger says, that Hippolytus is killed. Theseus is pleased until Artemis appears to him and tells the truth - that Phaedra hung herself not because Hippolytus raped her but because she was in love with him. Hippolytus, alive but mortally wounded returns, forgives his father, and then dies.

The Death of Hippolytus by Rubens (1611-13).
This is a great play, and a perfect one to start of my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge. It is not only a play about lust (personified by Aphrodite) and the conflict with chastity, honour, and virtue (personified by Artemis), but also about gods and goddesses intervening with the mortal world to seek vengeance (as Aphrodite did) and, ultimately, getting things wrong (as Poseidon did). These are destructive, jealous, and sometimes misinformed gods. The power of love is central, with the Chorus remarking,
Eros, Eros, you who distil your drops of longing on the eyes of lovers and fill with sweet joys the hearts of those you set out to conquer, never, I pray, show yourself in anger to me or come beyond measure! For neither shaft of fire nor beam of the stars is stronger than Aphrodite's dart shot from the hands of Eros, son of Zeus.
Phaedra and Hippolytus are the two great tragic figures in this: they are the victims of the wrathful Aphrodite, particularly Phaedra who is innocent: at the very least, Hippolytus provoked Aphrodite's rage. Her pain is moving, and though initially Hippolytus is not a likeable character in the least (his hatred of women is especially vile) his death is undeniably tragic too. Aphrodite, essentially, has won this round but in the final speech of Artemis she promises revenge:
Not even in the darkness of the earth below it shall go unpunished, this wilful anger of the goddess Cypris [Aphrodite] that attacks your body; this much I owe to your poety and righteous heart. With these unerring arrows shot from this hand I will take revenge on another, one of hers, whatever man she loves most on earth.
This revenge is not portrayed in this play, but what she promises here is the death of Adonis (Aphrodite's beloved, a demi-god of beauty and desire), who will be killed by a wild boar. 

Hippolytus is a very fast-paced play; exciting and gripping, and I'm glad I've come to love it. My first read (several years ago) wasn't so successful, but this second read has made it a firm favourite! This play went on to partly inspire Racine's 1677 play Phèdre (I'll be writing about this on Friday), which in turn went on to inspire Émile Zola's The Kill (1872).


Some figures mentioned in Hippolytus:
  • AphroditeThe goddess of love, beauty, and procreation (her Roman equivalent is Venus). Referred to also as "the Cyprian" and "the goddess Cypris".
  • Artemis: Sister of Phoebus, virginal goddess of chastity, childbirth, and the hunt (Roman equivalent of Diana).
  • Cephalus and Dawn: Dawn is the goddess of the dawn, who fell in love with the mortal Cephalus and kidnapped him.
  • Demeter: The goddess of fertility in nature, mother of Persephone.
  • Eros: The personification of Love, whose Roman equivalent is Cupid.
  • Hippolyta: Mother of Hippolytus. Referred to as "the Amazon".
  • Phoebus: His Roman equivalent is Apollo, god of sun, light, music, and truth (among other things). He is the son of Zeus and the brother of Artemis.
  • Pittheus: The king of Troezen.
  • Poseidon: God of the sea, one of two fathers of Theseus.
  • Semele: The mortal beloved of Zeus, and the mother of Dionysus (Bacchus).
  • Theseus: The first king of Athens, son of Poseidon and Aegeus.
  • Zeus: The king of the gods, god of the sky, thunder, lightening, and justice. 

The Plays of Euripides

Alcestis | Medea  | Heracleidae | Hippolytus Andromache | Hecuba


  1. I really like how you included the characters at the end of your post, O. They pop up so many other places, that it's good to see them listed many times and then when we get to them, we should know who they are instead of having to figure it all out at once.

    I'm glad to hear that you've had a positive experience with your first Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge book!

    1. Thanks Cleo - I hope I can try put a list together for each Greek play I write about, but I think actually *learning* it might be quite the challenge! :)

  2. Very interesting! Whenever I have read Greek tragedy, I wrestle with keeping an important consideration in mind: the gods seem odd to us, but they were very familiar to the Greeks.

    1. Thanks RT, and yes, the Greek gods are quite bizarre and a law unto themselves, but I do like seeing them as characters in these plays rather than references in novels as I'm more used to :)

  3. R.T. has hit upon something interesting. The Greeks' perspective on gods can teach us a lot about human nature (then and now). By the way, the presence of God in literature is my special focus at my new blog, God and the American Writer. Your posting reminds me that I need to consider American writers' awareness of the ancient POVs.

    1. Yes, I'll be interested to read about that line on your blog :)


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