(Disaster ensues when Phaedra falls for her stepson!)
The gods will have their play, and we piteous humans must suffer in double jeopardy. First, vice will eventually bring destruction, and yet we are by nature weak and prone to vice. Second, everyone is subject to fate, which is not kinder to good people than to bad. So we are doomed—we cannot be virtuous as we want to be, and so we are in trouble; and yet even if we could be virtuous we would get smacked anyway by the vicissitudes of fate! Hence Euripides’ fist-waving at the gods… yet he manages to preserve some reverence. Artemis tells us that the pious are still much more highly regarded by the gods than the impious. When the impious person suffers, the gods nod “take that!”, whereas the faithful incur their favor, which can bring some benefit. So, given our sad lot in life, it is better to be suffering and good than suffering and evil. Or that is Euripides’ line anyway. In this play we see how this web of cosmic influences plays out in the life of a chaste and honorable man destined for greatness by rights, when (through no fault of his own) his stepmother takes an improper liking to him.
Hippolytus (Ἱππολυτος), the handsome son of King Theseus (Θησευς) of Troezen and the Amazon Hippolyta (sometimes Antiope), is faithful to the virgin huntress god Artemis, and does not bother to hide his poor regard for Aphrodite the goddess of romantic love. But Aphrodite (often for Euripides Cypris because the residents of Cyprus claim her to have been born off the shore of their island) will not be snubbed. King Theseus is now married to another woman, Phaedra (Φαίδρα), and Aphrodite makes her fall in love with Hippolytus. Phaedra is virtuous, however, and so wracked with guilt. She resolves to endure her temptation without succumbing. Unfortunately she confides in her unprincipled, nihilistic nurse, who is quick to tell Hippolytus about the situation. Hippolytus proves terribly harsh and uncompassionate. He shows no mercy in dealing with Phaedra, and condemns her and all women along with her. However, he has sworn an oath not to reveal the matter to anyone, so he keeps it a secret.
In true Euripidean style we have a rich combination of themes here: the willy-nilly actions of the gods, throwing mortal lives about; the fickleness and injustice of fate; the uncertainty of reward for good deeds; and the heavy burden of temptation and sin. No character in the play is entirely good, which attests to the subtlety and realism of Euripides’ understanding of human nature. Hippolytus is impressive in what we might call his inward morality—he is chaste, and also he will suffer banishment and death rather than break an oath. Very high personal standards, however, can tempt one to become harsh and merciless towards others when those standards are projected outward, and Hippolytus has fallen into this vice. As for Phaedra, her passion is not right, as she realizes, but she commits to keeping it under control; and when she is dishonored by her stepson, the strength of her character becomes the gravity of her burden, from which only death can relieve her. Nevertheless she will inflict retribution on the man who scorned her. Romantic love is not the opposite of hate; in fact the two will sometimes sit perilously close to each other, a mere tissue between them. As passionate was Phaedra’s love, just as passionate was her revenge, and so she takes Hippolytus down with her into Hades. Simpler but no less dialectical is the character of Theseus, whose anger permits him to act blindly as Phaedra’s tool of death, despite the love for his son that is sorrowfully evident at the end. Thus one of Euripides’ great achievements in this play, as in others, is his portrayal of the complexity of moral psychology—a remarkable ability also justifiably attributed to Tolstoy. This compliment is often repeated. Perhaps less well known, though, is that both authors actually struggled with portraying this depth when it came to their more ardent female protagonists. Euripides wrote an earlier version of Hippolytus, now lost, that was harsher on Phaedra for her scandalous affection; and Tolstoy’s earlier versions of Anna Karenina likewise more uniformly condemned Anna for the infidelity that forms the basis for that novel. Both authors revised their texts to make their leading women more complex and understandable, and in so doing, both created masterpieces. Hippolytus triumphed in the Athenian dramatic competition of 428 BC, and Anna Karenina is frequently hailed as the greatest novel of all time.
The greatness of Euripides goes further than this, however (as does that of Tolstoy of course, but we’ll leave him for another time). I am even more impressed with the way this playwright, and the ancient Greek tragedians more generally, juggle the three forces that guide the course of human lives: fate, the gods, and human intention. The first is indiscriminate, impersonal, and inexorable. The second is powerful and conscious, yet acting from a mixture of justice and caprice. The third is the only force within our grasp, but is only partly efficacious because of the other two forces as well as conflicts within ourselves. Lesser playwrights, like lesser writers today not only in literature but in natural and social science, the humanities, and politics, would rather choose a favorite one of these, or perhaps two if the writers are endowed with sufficient imagination, and paint their characters in terms of simple drivers, with at most a straightforward interaction between two causes, and otherwise assuming mutual exclusivity among them. Either x action was A’s fault or else A had a difficult childhood. Either God did y or y was an product of natural forces. Either we evolved to be like z or we choose to be like z. There is no such rigid simplicity of cause in Hippolytus, though—we somehow know that at least
Phaedra was doomed to die (it is a tragedy, after all), that the gods are having their battles in everything we observe (Aphrodite tells us this at the very opening), and yet that the characters are responsible for their actions (otherwise what would be the use of portraying subtle moral psychologies?). If more modern scientists and philosophers had read Euripides closely, the public understanding of human nature might not have become hampered with such facile nature/nurture and free will/determinism dichotomies. Granted, nobody has yet figured out a consistent way to hold determinism, chance, human will, and (for those who believe in it) divine providence in our understanding simultaneously. But Euripides seems content with letting the difficulty stand, as if to say that it is not the province of the playwright to solve such problems, but rather to exhibit the causal richness and its outcomes. All of the greatest playwrights bid you sit, show you human interaction and complexity, and thus fertilize your own thought. And when, after giving you this gift, they climb up on stage and bow at the end of the performance, they are saying “you’re welcome” as much as or more than they are saying “thank you”.
MNOP (Mythological Nerds Only, Please)—you’ve been warned, spoilers and geeky attention to detail from here on out:
I have never encountered Hippolytus outside of this legend, apart from an after-death scenario where his name is changed, and so I have no idea why his name means “unleasher of horses”, unless it presages his demise, which would be slightly incorrect and rather unfortunate. Anyway, we have a few other representations of the Hippolytus-Phaedra-Theseus story in literature. Euripides’ rival Sophocles wrote a play Phaedra that exists only in fragments; hundreds of years later Seneca the Younger wrote his own Phaedra, and this tradition inspired what is perhaps the greatest play of the seventeenth century neoclassical tragedian Jean Racine, Phèdre. These are the major sources of the legend, although there are multiple twentieth century versions such as Swinburne’s Phaedra and O’Neill’s more interpretive Desire Under the Elms. Sophocles, who probably wrote his Phaedra between the two Euripides versions, in an interesting twist, removes Theseus from the situation by having him presumed dead, which decreases Phaedra’s guilt… but then he comes back, prompting her suicide. Seneca presents Phaedra more naturalistically in the sense that the gods are not as influential. By this and other alterations he makes her love more scandalous: she realizes the moral issue but decides to go for it anyway, taking the place of the nurse in Hippolytus, and approaching her stepson herself; but Seneca also gives her the opportunity to admit and apologize to Theseus, rather than Artemis doing it after her suicide as in Euripides. Racine follows Sophocles, except that he introduces Aricia as the woman Hippolytus really loves, creating a rivalry between her and Phaedra. Racine also has Phaedra admit her guilt and Hippolytus’ innocence to Theseus; and, in a very poignant scene, she is alive to learn of Hippolytus’ death.
As with most of the Greek tragedies, this myth is embedded in a network of other legends. Theseus, of course, is the guy who slayed the minotaur, and is also known like Hercules as having performed a bunch of labors during his travels; he even joined up as an Argonaut in the quest for the Golden Fleece. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales tells these stories, as do the more encyclopedic authors like Edith Hamilton and Robert Bridges, the latter two drawing rather strictly from ancient sources. The most complete ancient account of Theseus is by Plutarch in his collection of Lives. Although Poseidon appears as Theseus’ father in Hippolytus, he is meant as the “divine” father, as opposed to his earthly father who was King Aegeus of Athens. Phaedra was the daughter of King Minos of Crete (later the judge of the dead in the Underworld, according to the Odyssey), and his wife Pasiphaë. Pasiphaë was rather uncomfortably involved with a bull that Zeus sent down for the purpose, and gave birth to the minotaur, a dude usually represented with the body of a man and the head of a bull (although occasionally the other way around). Minos stuck this monster in the mazey labyrinth and, when Theseus arrived one day to kill it, Minos’ other daughter Ariadne held a thread so Theseus could find his way out afterwards, which he did. When they left Crete together, Theseus accidentally (or intentionally?) left Ariadne behind on Naxos to be munched on by beasts, and later married her sister Phaedra! Actually the accidental idea fits better, because as he’s sailing back home from Crete it’s Theseus’ mourning the loss of his newfound love that distracts him from the fact that he’s supposed to replace the black sails for white to let his father King Aegeus know that he’s coming back alive. As is turns out, Aegeus sees the black sails, thinks his son is dead, and throws himself from a cliff to his death in the water; hence the Aegean Sea. The story has a silver lining, though: Ariadne by some accounts didn’t die on that island—Poseidon hitched up with her and made her immortal.
Knowing this background permits a greater appreciation of a seldom-discussed but very skillful fictional letter, one of several Ovid wrote from mythical heroines to their lovers, collected as Heroides. The fourth letter is from Phaedra to Hippolytus. Ovid writes it in an emotional, anguished, very sympathetic and believable way. At one point, Phaedra wonders whether there is something Olympian in what she is going through: “It may be this love is a debt I am paying, due to the destiny of my line, and that Venus [the Roman Aphrodite] is exacting tribute of me for all my race” (iv.53). She also connects Hippolytus’ careless treatment of her love with Theseus’ neglect of Ariadne: “…your beauty has captured my heart, my sister’s heart was captured by your father. Theseus’ son and Theseus have been the undoing of sisters twain—rear ye a double trophy at our house’s fall!” (iv.65-66). One more connection—to Pasiphaë this time: “Bend, O cruel one, your spirit! My mother could pervert a bull; will you be fiercer than a savage beast? Spare me, by Venus I pray, who is chiefest with me now.” (iv.165-166). I don’t know if “hey, it’s not as bad as bestiality” would be the most effective way to break Hippolytus’ moral resolve… but I suppose Phaedra was at her wits’ end, and besides she was the minotaur’s half sister (eww).
Hippolytus’ story does not actually end with his death. A cult grew up around Troezen (the setting of Hippolytus, in the northeast of the Peloponnese), claiming that Asclepius god of healing raised him from the dead. Then Artemis (later Diana for the Romans) transported him to Italy to a grove named Aricia in Latium (recall Aricia as the rival woman in Racine’s play), where he was known as a forest god called Virbius (literally, “man twice).
Tidbits of Significance
(translated from the Greek by David Kovacs; numbers are line numbers).
I like no god whose worship is at night.
…gods should be wiser than mortals.
…the life of mortals is wholly trouble, and there is no rest from toil. Anything we might love more than life is hid in a surrounding cloud of darkness, and we show ourselves unhappy lovers of whatver light there is that shines on earth because we are ignorant of another life, and the world below is not revealed to us. We are aimless borne along by mere tales.
-Nurse, to Phaedra, 189-197.
Mortals should mix the cup of their affection to one another in moderation. It should not sink to their very marrow, but the affection that binds their hearts should be easy to loosen, easy either to cast aside or draw tightly to them. It is a grievous burdern that one soul should so travail over two as I grieve for her. Men say that an unswerving way of life leads more to a fall than to satisfaction and is more hurtful to health. That is why I have much less praise for excess than for moderation. The wise will bear me out.
-Nurse, to Phaedra, 250-266.
I have pondered before now in other circumstances in the night’s long watches how it is that the lives of mortals have been ruined. I think that it is not owing to the nature of their wits that they fare badly, since many people possess good sense. Rather, one must look at it this way: what we know and understand to be noble we fail to carry out, some from laziness, others because they give precedence to some other pleasure than honor.
-Phaedra, 375-383.[Are lines 380-381 quoted by Paul in Romans 7:18b? It’s always fun to look for quotes of ancient writers in the Bible, especially in Paul as he was a learned guy. But a quick look rules that out. The two passages don’t share a single word. For instance, Paul uses καλὸν (kalon), the beautiful, noble, good; whereas Euripides has χρήστος (chreistos), useful, appropriate, right. Still, the sentiment is very similar:
- Euripides: τὰ χρήστ᾽ ἐπιστάμεσθα καὶ γιγνώσκομεν, οὐκ ἐκπονοῦμεν δ᾽
(we know and perceive what is right but we don’t bring it to completion)
- Paul: τὸ γὰρ θέλειν παράκειταί μοι, τὸ δὲ κατεργάζεσθαι τὸ καλὸν οὔ·
(the wish for the good is present in me, but the achievement of it is not)
Of course, what they’re both talking about is a ubiquitous human experience and so we shouldn’t be surprised to see multiple ancient representions of it.]
…the tongue is not to be trusted: it knows well how to admonish the thoughts of others but gets from itself a great deal of trouble.
…just as I would not have my good deeds unknown, so may I not have a throng of witnesses to my shameful ones!
…when those of noble station resolve on base acts, surely the base-born will regard such acts as good.
…I hate women who are chaste in word but in secret possess an ignoble daring. How, O Cypris, Lady of the Sea, how can these women look into the faces of their husbands? How can they not be afraid that the darkness, the accomplice, and the timbers of the house will break into speech?
One thing only, they say, competes in value with life: the possession of a heart blameless and good. But as for the base among mortals, they are exposed, late or soon, by Time, who holds up to them, as to a young girl, a mirror. In their number may I never be found!
Oh, what a fine thing is chastity everywhere, and how splendid is the repute it gains among mortals!
Do not, by the gods (for your words are fair but their meaning base) do not, I beg of you, go any further! My soul is all made ready by desire, and if you continue to champion dishonor eloquently, I shall give way completely to what I now flee!
-Phaedra, to the nurse, 503-506.
I fear you’ll prove too clever for my good.
-Phaedra, to the nurse, 518.
…neither the shafts of fire nor of stars are more powerful than that of Aphrodite, which Eros, Zeus’ son, hurls from his hand.
She is terrible, her breath blows over all and she flits and hovers like a bee.
Forgive! To err is mankind’s lot.
-nurse to Hippolytus, 615.
That man has it easiest whose wife is a nothing– although a woman who sits in the house in her folly causes harm. But a clever woman– that I loathe! May there never be in my house a woman with more intelligence than befits a woman! For Cypris engenders more mischief in the clever ones. The woman without ability is kept from indiscretion by the slenderness of her wit.
I shall pour running water into my ears to wash away your proposals!
-Hippolytus to the nurse, 653-654.
How luckless, how ill-starred, is the fate of women! What craft do we have, what words, once we have faltered, that can undo the noose?
…our wisdom varies with the outcome.
O that I could live in the secret clefts of the mountains, and that there a god might make me a winged bird amid the flying flocks!
Oh, there ought to be for mortals some reliable test for friends, some way to know their minds, which of them is a true friend and which is not, and each man ought to have two voices, the one a voice of justice, the other whatever he chanced to have, so that the voice that thinks unjust thoughts would be convicted of falsehood by the just voice, and in this way we should never be deceived!
Oh, the heart of mortals, how far will it go? What limit can be set to audacity and brazenness? If it grow great in the course of a man’s life, and he who comes after overtops his predecessor in knavery, the gods will have to add another land to the world to hold the criminal and the vile!
Whenever thoughts about the gods come into my mind, they greatly relieve my pain. But anyone who hopes for understanding fails to find it as he looks amid the fortunes and the deeds of mortals. From one quarter comes one thing and from another another, and men’s life is a shifting thing, ever unstable.
The gods do not rejoice at the death of the godly, but the wicked we destroy, children, house, and all.
Would that the race of men could curse the gods!
…when the gods so ordain, it is to be expected that men will make disastrous mistakes.
…tales of grief about the great have greater power to move.
-Chorus, 1465-1466 (final lines).
READ THIS WHEN…
…you want some commiseration in the knowledge that nobody is perfect, and that everybody suffers because of it;
…you want a quick-moving short drama of temptation, rage, and revenge.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’D ALSO LIKE:
(For the Greek tragedian:)
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon (458 BC)
- Sophocles, Antigone (441 BC)
- Euripides, Medea (431 BC)
- Sophocles, Oedipus the King (c.428 BC)
(For the observer of human frailty and self-destructive vice:)
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1602)
- Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749)
- Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942)
- Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1952)
FIND THIS BOOK:
I am a doulos (slave) to the Loebs…. this is the Greek with the Kovacs translation:
But here is a poetic translation! (by David Grene– Kovacs’ above is prose)
This is the David Grene translation, an expert poetic version: