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Euripides' Hippolytus
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

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The Mythological Background to Euripides' Hippolytus

The basic theme of Hippolytus is one that appears in many societies: the innocent young man who attracts the lustful attention of an older married woman (cf. Joseph and Potiphar's wife at Genesis 39, Bellerophon and Proetus' wife at Iliad 6.156ff., Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate). One of the things you will want to consider in reading the play is the curious wrinkle that Euripides adds to the traditional story pattern.

Hippolytus was the son of the Athenian king, Theseus, and the Amazon queen Antiope (or Hippolyte or Melanippe — the traditions vary on this and other points to follow). The latter was captured by Theseus on an expedition against the Amazon homeland on the southern shore of the Black Sea and was taken back with him to Athens. The Amazons led an expedition against Athens but were soundly defeated. In the course of these events, Antiope died, but not before giving birth to Hippolytus, a chaste youth who forswore sex and the pursuits of Aphrodite in favor of the life of a huntsman as a devotee of Artemis, the virginal huntress goddess. After perhaps one or two other marriages, Theseus wed Phaedra, daughter of King Minos of Crete. Phaedra bore Theseus two other sons; to avoid possible rivalry between the illegitimate Hippolytus and Theseus' new bride, Hippolytus was shipped off to Troezen (on the eastern coast of the Peloponnese, across the Saronic Gulf from Athens) to be raised by his grandfather Pittheus. In the course of time, Theseus was compelled to leave Athens for a year in order to expiate his killing of the sons of Pallas, and went, along with Phaedra, to live in Troezen. At the beginning of our play, Theseus has been absent for some time, consulting an oracle. [FN 1] In the meanwhile, Phaedra, who had seen Hippolytus briefly when the latter visited Athens, has fallen madly in love with her step-son. During Theseus' absence, she has come to Troezen, where she has fallen ill as a result of her passion, which she knows to be wrong and is struggling desperately to keep hidden.

The women of Phaedra's family were not happy in love. Her mother was Pasiphae, whose love for a bull led to the birth of the Minotaur. Her sister was Ariadne, who had earlier been seduced and deserted by Theseus. (Links are to the relevants sections of the Course Notes on The Iliad and the Greek Bronze Age.)

Our Hippolytus, produced in 428 B.C., was Euripides' second play on this theme. His first Hippolytus (which inspired the Roman playwright Seneca's Phaedra and, through Seneca, the French playwright Racine's Phèdre) presented a more traditional Phaedra who brazenly declared her love to Hippolytus in person and, when rejected by him, told Theseus that he had raped her at sword point. On Hippolytus' death, in this version, Phaedra committed suicide in remorse for having killed him. Contrast the Phaedra of our play.

Read Hippolytus.


Euripides as a Playwright

For background on Euripides' life and works, see s.v. "Euripides" in the on-line Perseus Project's encyclopedia.

Euripides is a witty, often irreverent and provocative poet of ideas, a playwright who directly imports contemporary intellectual issues into his plays and challenges received views of religion, morality, and social custom. In contrast to Sophocles, who explores and reinterprets myth, Euripides frequently challenges the mythic tradition, using it to illustrate views that contradict or actually undermine the very basis of the myths he is presenting. Thus, where Sophocles reinterprets myth, Euripides often actively subverts it. In this and in many other respects Euripides is a product of the Sophistic Age. He is a complex and often contradictory playwright: his works are at once refreshingly realistic and extraordinarily artificial, deeply tragic and blatantly sensationalistic, moving and academic.

Two features of Euripides' work make him particularly popular today:

Psychology. Euripides is especially interested in the effects of repeated injustice or continued suffering on his characters. Where Sophocles presents aggressive heroes who meet their fates as the result of actively asserting their will and their individuality, Euripides tends to present passive victims, who suffer not because of what they do but because they are trapped. Often, as in the case of Phaedra, these victims will only act when they find themselves with their backs against the wall (so to speak), whereupon they lash out, often with deadly effect. Instead of Sophocles' idealistic portrayals of larger than life heroes reminiscent of those of Homer (e.g., Sophocles' Oedipus), Euripides focuses upon human weaknesses and failings, a tendency that makes him seem more "modern" in his approach to tragedy. Aristotle, in his Poetics, records a famous anecdote (probably apocryphal) that notes this difference: Sophocles is said to have remarked that while he portrayed people as they should be, Euripides portrayed them as they were. Notice the difference in the plots and themes of Oedipus and Hippolytus: the one focuses on humankind's relation to the gods, the nature of human knowledge, the question of human freedom; the other examines the plight of a woman overwhelmed by an incestuous love for her step-son. In Oedipus the hero's tragedy stems from his inability to fathom the inscrutable forces that govern this world; there is no question of Oedipus being divided in his desires or intentions, he simply lacks sufficient knowledge or insight to accomplish those intentions successfully. In Hippolytus the tragedy has been internalized and made a matter of psychology: Phaedra knows exactly what she should do, and tells us so; she simply is unable to bring it to pass. Phaedra's plight illustrates a division between the cognitive and the emotional "self" and suggests that the source of human suffering is not some inscrutable external force but a more troubling division within ourselves. In his tendency to focus on the psychology of the human animal, stripped of the trappings of convention (particularly the traditional mythological/religious explanations of human behavior), Euripides shows an affinity to the anthropological/psychological interests of the sophists and (as we shall see) to Thucydides' approach to history. Note in particular the way in which Phaedra's plight is cast as an opposition between nomos and physis: nomos tells Phaedra that it is morally wrong to commit adultery with her step-son, but her natural desires (physis) drive her to it nonetheless. Physis inevitably wins out: compare the passage by the sophist Antiphon in the Couse Notes on Sophocles' Oedipus and the Greek Enlightenment.

Some scholars have detected a more particular context which, they argue, informs Euripides' portrayal of Phaedra and his questioning of the relationship between knowledge and moral behavior. The Greeks had always identified morally correct behavior with sound-mindedness, criminal or amoral behavior with folly or stupidity. Thus, e.g., the moral vocabulary of Greek is riddled with terms that imply intelligence or the lack thereof. In the latter 5th-century the philosopher *Socrates (469-399 B.C.) seems to have developed this generally accepted notion into a radically new conception of moral behavior (if, that is, we accept this feature of Plato's portrayal of Socrates as historical, a problem that we will address when we turn to Aristophanes' Clouds). Plato's Socrates puts forward two propositions that are known as *the Socratic Paradoxes: (1) Virtue (aretê) is knowledge; (2) No one commits a wrong knowingly. The first thing to note is the way in which aretê has been translated as "virtue" in the first of these paradoxes: the old association of aretê with competition and success — with that quality that allows one to excel and so win timê — is beginning to be challenged and to be replaced with categories of thought that operate within the realm of cooperative values, emphasizing morally correct action over success. You can see this tendency in the second paradox. The Golden Rule of "help friends, harm enemies" did not concern itself with means but with ends: the important thing was to save face by ensuring that no one got the better of you or those with whom you were associated. It was all too clear to outside observers that questions of morality or legality often were ignored in the struggles that inevitably took place, and that many people did commit wrongs knowingly. The idea that wrong action, rather than failure or disgrace, was what people sought to avoid simply was not borne out by the facts. Moreover, Socrates went on to make the striking statement, in a sort of corollary to his second paradox, that he would rather suffer a wrong at someone else's hands than commit one himself: this was the talk of a coward, or a fool. Socrates' curious attitude toward moral behavior would have puzzled his contemporaries, but the further equation of aretê with knowledge would have been altogether mystifying to them. The Platonic Socrates explains these paradoxes by expounding a doctrine of the soul as an immortal entity that is harmed by immoral action and that suffers in the next life for crimes committed in this one. That is, the souls of utterly villainous individuals suffer a form of eternal damnation (similar to the traditional tales of "sinners" like Sisyphus and Tantalus), while the souls of average people are sentenced to another life on earth, in a station that suits their behavior in their previous life. The souls of the virtuous, however, eventually are sufficiently purified to escape the cycle of rebirth and enjoy eternal blessedness in the other world. The Platonic Socrates maintained that anyone who understood the true nature of this life and of the soul would avoid immoral behavior, subordinating their immediate suffering to the greater concern, the health of their souls. Thus, anyone who committed a wrong did so, ultimately, out of ignorance, not understanding that the long term consequences of such an act were far more dire than any immediate loss or humiliation that they might suffer. For the Platonic Socrates, then, all human behavior is governed by conscious choice and rational decision: one's behavior is determined, to a large degree, by the intelligence of one's choices. (Cf. the Course Notes on Plato's Euthyphro.) As in Sophocles' Oedipus, the issue is knowledge. How might Euripides' presentation of Phaedra's plight be viewed as a response to this position? (Note that this question assumes that the historical Socrates was voicing these views, or something like them, in the early 420s.)


Social issues. Euripides is equally interested in society's failings, in "man's injustice to man." Often the individual character's plight will be presented in such a way as to highlight inequities in Greek/Athenian society or politics and to question the status quo. Euripides is particularly interested in women's issues. In antiquity he was mocked as a misogynist, yet he presents some very compelling and sympathetic portrayals of women and their position in Athenian society. His Medea, about Medea's betrayal at the hands of Jason and her subsequent murder of her own children (see the relevant section of the unit on Herodotus), is often read today as a feminist tract, while the portrayal of Phaedra and her plight in Hippolytus (particularly in contrast to the portrayal of Phaedra in Euripides' first Hippolytus) questions the casual contempt for women often displayed by the Greek male and presents a sympathetic picture of the constraints placed upon "respectable" women in Athenian society. To a certain extent, this interest in women is part and parcel of Euripides' interest in suffering and pathos: the focus on women and on more private themes affords him wider scope for pathetic scenes than do, say, an Achilles or an Oedipus. Again, the social relevance of the issues Euripides addresses makes his works seem more modern than those of Sophocles and adds to the impression of realism. In this regard Euripides is often said to have brought tragedy down to earth. Particularly notable in this context is Euripides' tendency to afford a prominence and authority to minor characters of humble status: contrast Hippolytus' Servant and Phaedra's Nurse in Hippolytus with the herdsmen of Oedipus. In his willingness to "deconstruct" social hierarchies and to challenge the status quo, Euripides again reveals an affinity with the sophists.

Abstraction and artifice. Despite his deep interest in matters of the human psyche, Euripides frequently is quite artificial in his presentation of character and much less organic than is Sophocles. Whereas in Sophocles an individual character's personality emerges out of what he/she says or does, Euripidean characters frequently tell us directly about themselves in abstract terms (e.g., Phaedra's speech at 373ff.). The result is a much more "intellectual" type of drama — less organic, often exploiting the individual character and his/her situation to address larger philosophical issues. Thus, for example, Euripides was criticized in antiquity for the fact that, in his plays, anyone can step forward and deliver a polished speech on philosophical "issues of the day," even slaves, women, and "barbarians," all employing a rhetorical ingenuity that many feel is intended more to win the applause of the audience than to further the concerns of the play. And while Euripides is noted for presenting scenes of everyday life and everyday concerns in his plays, there is frequently a curious dissonance between the mundane content of a passage and its poetic form. Note, e.g., the "washer-women" parodos of Hippolytus, where the women of the chorus enter singing an elaborately ornate song (more extravagant than what one tends to find in Sophocles), the subject of which is the gossip they heard while they were down doing their laundry. Notice, as well, the contrast between the women doing their laundry and the play's prologue, which has the goddess Aphrodite appearing in person to introduce the play. Sophocles is often said to be the most "Homeric" of the Athenian playwrights in outlook and particularly in his approach to characterization; for all of the importance placed upon the gods in his plays, however, they appear on stage relatively infrequently. By contrast, Euripides often begins and ends his plays with gods popping up, very much as in the Iliad. The casual appearance of gods, the use of folk tale motifs (Theseus' three wishes), the references to miraculous events (e.g., the messenger's account of Hippolytus' death) and their enactment on stage (e.g., at the end of her play Medea departs in a chariot pulled by winged dragons) all add an element of fantasy and artifice, as well as sheer theatricality, to Euripides' works that is lacking in Oedipus, where there are allusions to miraculous elements in the Oedipus myth (e.g., the Sphinx) but only as the background to the on-stage action. [FN 2]


Rhetoric. One of the most notable and most artificial features of Euripidean drama is its penchant for rhetorical displays, mentioned above. Thus the formal rhetorical debate or *agon (lit. "contest") has a prominence in his works that it rarely finds in Aeschylus or Sophocles, often seeming to exist for its own sake. It is here that Euripides' sophistic leanings become most apparent, particularly in the seeming delight with which he will make the lesser argument appear to be stronger. In antiquity Euripides was notorious for subverting traditional morality in the manner of the sophists. In his lost Cretans, for example, he had Pasiphae engage in an agon with her husband Minos where she justified her passion for the bull and the subsequent birth of the Minotaur. In Hippolytus the figure of the Nurse is clearly marked as a sophist. Re-read lines 176-524: What do you find in her various speeches that substantiates this statement?

Formal elements. The fact that Hippolytus has a formal prologue deserves note: the opening scene of Oedipus is scarcely realistic (Oedipus should not need to be informed as to why the group of suppliants in front of his palace is distraught) but it does allow for a dynamic and relatively naturalistic introduction to the play; Euripides has a character come on and address the audience directly, filling them in on the background to the play and the nature of the coming action. Again, the effect is to distance the audience from the on-stage action and, to a certain degree, to encourage abstract analysis rather than empathetic participation. The structure of the play reveals a similar tendency toward abstraction. The plot of Hippolytus breaks in two. The first half of the play focuses on Phaedra, a woman overwhelmed by an incestuous passion that she can't control; the second half focuses on Hippolytus, a young man who has rejected sexual passion altogether. The play is introduced by Aphrodite, goddess of sex; its resolution is effected by the appearance of Artemis, the chaste huntress, near the end. (These two goddesses may also be represented by statues on either side of the stage: see lines 71ff. and 97ff.) Euripides seems consciously to present the audience with a series of polarities and to structure his work in such a way that those polarities appear in sharpest contrast. What is he up to? (Compare and contrast the structure of Oedipus.)


An important theme to consider in this regard is that of *sophrosyne. Sophrosyne (along with the related adjective, sophron, and the verb, sophronein) is a term that appears a number of times in the play and that seems to hold a clue to Euripides' purposes. Sophrosyne is variously translated (see The World of Athens 3.17): "prudence," "reasonableness," or "moderation" give a good general definition. In its broadest sense the term refers to the outlook encouraged by the Delphic Maxims and displayed, e.g., by Herodotus' Tellus (1.30): a balanced, cautious, reasonable attitude to life and one's place in the world. The term is used in a variety of specific contexts, however, where its meaning is more limited. In political contexts, for example, it often refers to a willingness to defer to authority, to "know one's place." In reference to moral behavior it frequently indicates sexual purity or "chastity" (that is, abstinence or — in the case, e.g., of a married woman — restricting oneself to lawful sexual relations with one's husband).

In this last sense, sophrosyne is a quality much treasured by the chaste young Hippolytus, who sees it as an integral part of his character and something that distinguishes him from the vulgar mob (see lines 71ff.: the reference to "Chastity" at 81 represents Grene's translation of the notion here under discussion). Significantly, it is the lack of women's ability to practice sophrosyne that forms the conclusion of Hippolytus' diatribe against women's wanton ways at 616ff. (see 667). When Theseus thinks that Hippolytus has raped Phaedra, he mocks Hippolytus' claims to sophrosyne (949) as a pious sham designed to provide a cover for his vile lusts and, in response, Hippolytus repeatedly reasserts his sophrosyne (i.e., his chaste purity) in his defense before Theseus and in his final death scene (994, 1007, 1014, 1035, 1100, 1366; cf. 1402 (Artemis)). It is Phaedra's inability to abide by the dictates of sophrosyne in this sense that lands her in trouble. In her desire to suppress her illicit passion for Hippolytus, Phaedra is indeed "chaste." She has no desire to be a hypocrite, like those who pay mere lip-service to sophrosyne (413), and she wins praise from the chorus at 431 for this attitude (translated as "virtue"). The trouble is that Phaedra's rational resolve to remain "chaste" is not enough: she specifically tells us that her attempt to conquer her passion by means of sophrosyne (399: translated as "discretion and good sense") failed miserably, and at 494 the Nurse specifically says that if Phaedra could practice sophrosyne ("be prudent") then her (i.e., the Nurse's) schemes to consummate the affair would not be needed. There are emotional forces at work in people that drive them to do things that they find abhorrent from a moral standpoint. This is made clear by the Nurse at 358-59 when she says that the "chaste" love vice against their will. The notion appears again at 1034 in Hippolytus' enigmatic summary of Phaedra's behavior: unable to tell Theseus the truth because of his oath, Hippolytus contents himself by noting (rather cruelly) that Phaedra did yield to the demands of sophrosyne ("was virtuous" — i.e. in killing herself) even though (unlike him) she could not practice sophrosyne in life ("although not virtuous").

The above passages demonstrate how the action of the play becomes, in part, the occasion for a debate over sophrosyne, which turns out to be a more problematic concept than the audience may have assumed. Defined strictly as "chastity" it is a virtue at which Hippolytus excels and in which Phaedra is sorely lacking. Or is she? Re-read Hippolytus' diatribe against women at 616ff. This is the sort of speech that won Euripides his reputation as a misogynist, and it is very effective — a good example of Euripides' theatrical use of rhetoric. (The speech is unlike anything that we find in Oedipus. Consider, for example, the degree to which this speech suits Hippolytus' character as a chaste young bachelor who knows nothing of women or sex and who spends his time worshipping Artemis in the woods: here he sounds more like a petulant husband. To a certain degree the speech could be detached from its specific context and performed in isolation. Hippolytus runs through the standard charges against women in the Greek misogynistic tradition: what are they and how do they reflect the role of women in Athenian society?) In the context of the debate over sophrosyne, however, the charge that stands out is the familiar one of women being prey to their lusts, unable to control their desires (whether they be for food, drink, or sex). To what degree is this a fair charge to level against the Phaedra of our play? (Compare, especially, her speech at 373ff.)

For all of his "purity," there is something unattractive about Hippolytus — a one-sidedness and a sterility that is troubling, particularly in the context of a debate over sophrosyne. Remember: in its broadest sense sophrosyne refers to a reasonable moderation in one's approach to life: Hippolytus seems to have denied an important element of what it is to be human. Re-read the curious account of Hippolytus' death at 1173ff. and consider the images that occur there. Is Euripides merely composing an exciting messenger speech, or is the account intended to be symbolic in some way?

Consider as well the central scene in the play at 682-731, where Phaedra finally decides to kill herself and where the two "halves" of the play meet. Earlier in the play Phaedra was a helpless victim of Aphrodite, unable to conquer her passion for Hippolytus, unable to overcome her shame at that passion (not only can she not approach Hippolytus, she can't even bring herself to mention her problem to the Nurse (re-read 311-352)), equally unable to kill herself and save her reputation. Yet at 706ff. Phaedra suddenly becomes as tough as nails and determines to doom both herself and Hippolytus How is this change in Phaedra motivated? Some things to consider: (1) Where is Phaedra during Hippolytus' diatribe 616ff.? (Remember: Grene's stage directions are merely the result of his own reading of the scene.) (2) Re-read Phaedra's final words at 727ff.: What other female character in the play does she recall in her angry determination to get revenge on Hippolytus? (3) Phaedra's last words ("learn of chastity in moderation") in the Greek read "he will learn to practice sophrosyne." How might this be significant? (Cf. Hippolytus at 79-82 and 667.)

Finally: notice how Euripides has taken a familiar tale and, to a certain degree, stood it on its head. The notorious Phaedra of tradition, who seems to have appeared in all of her malevolent glory in Euripides' first Hippolytus, here becomes a figure of sympathy. Euripides, the cunning subverter of tradition, is putting into effect Protagoras' famous dictum that there are two "arguments" for any situation.


[FN 1] In Sophocles' lost play Phaedra it would appear that Theseus was off with his friend Peiritho&0uml;s, son of the notorious Lapith king, Ixion (who had attempted to rape Hera and was punished by being tied to a spinning wheel in Hades for all eternity). According to the traditional version of the legend, the two first kidnapped Helen (who was only 10 or 12 years old at the time) to be Theseus' wife (yet another one!). They left Helen with Theseus' mother Aethra (Helen's brothers rescued her and took Aethra to be her nurse) and went off to kidnap Persephone for Peritho&0uml;s. Persephone was the daughter of the grain goddess Demeter and was married to Hades, god of the underworld. Hades invited the two heroes to be seated: when they were, they discovered that, for whatever reason (the traditions vary), they could not get up again but were trapped in the underworld. Theseus' friend Heracles (Latin: Hercules) eventually happened by on one of his twelve labors and freed Theseus. In Sophocles' version, then, it would appear that Phaedra contemplated a liaison with Hippolytus in part because she believed that Theseus was dead. [Return to text]

[FN 2] On the whole, Euripides is more theatrical than Sophocles. He tends to go out of his way to seek less well-known myths and to present them in striking ways upon the stage. Thus there is often more of an element of suspense in Euripides' works (particularly in his later plays), a greater emphasis on plot and an effort to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. [Return to text]

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