Hippolytus | Study Guide

Euripides

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Hippolytus | Episode 1 | Summary

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Summary

The nurse has been watching Phaedra suffer for days, but the queen will not tell her why. "There's no content for you in what you have," she tells Phaedra. The nurse forces her to go outside, where she appears constantly restless. Phaedra wants to drink pure water from the spring. She wants to lie on the grass below the trees. She wants to go to the mountains to hunt "and poise the Thessalian javelin drawing it back." She calls out to Artemis, wanting to gallop freely in nature. The nurse thinks Phaedra is going mad. She suggests that maybe some god has afflicted the queen to make her act so strangely. Phaedra agrees and says she feels ashamed of the way she has been acting. The Chorus of Women asks the nurse if she knows what is ailing Phaedra. They urge her to find out before it is too late.

As she presses Phaedra for information, the nurse mentions Theseus's older son Hippolytus, Phaedra's stepson. Phaedra reacts harshly: "Never again speak about that man to me." When the nurse realizes Phaedra is in love with Hippolytus, she is shocked and distressed. She knows this will mean the end for Phaedra and herself. She thinks Aphrodite has something to do with this: "Chaste and temperate people—not of their own will— / fall in love, badly." She declares Aphrodite stronger than a god to be able to do what she has done, which will ruin everyone in Theseus's house.

Phaedra addresses the Chorus, describing the shame she has endured. She planned to be silent about her feelings and felt she could conquer this love. But when it persisted, she knew only death could save her and preserve her honor. She rails against noble women who have lovers and pretend to be pure: "lip-worshippers of purity and temperance, who / own lecherous daring when they have privacy." She cannot bear the thought of being seen as "a traitor to my husband and my children." The nurse tells Phaedra that to die for love seems a poor solution, and Phaedra cannot resist the powerful curse of Aphrodite because mere mortals cannot beat the gods. She suggests she should simply tell the truth rather than kill herself. The queen strongly disagrees—being truthful will only make matters worse. The nurse has another idea: there are magic love charms that could help her stop these feelings for Hippolytus. But the nurse will need a lock of Hippolytus's hair or a piece of his clothing to make the spell work. Phaedra makes the nurse promise not to tell her secret to anyone—especially Hippolytus.

Analysis

Aphrodite's curse has made Phaedra physically and psychologically ill. The nurse, whose job it is to care for the queen, is frustrated because Phaedra will not say what is causing this. Phaedra's desire to drink pure spring water and lay beneath the trees and hunt are all things associated with Artemis, the goddess of chastity, suggesting Phaedra yearns for the simple love she knew as a wife and mother. Her words also hint at her love for Hippolytus—the play's protagonist and Phaedra's stepson who is a master hunter and has chosen to lead a life of purity. When the nurse learns of Phaedra's love for Hippolytus, she is outraged. She threatens to throw herself off a cliff. The nurse knows that if such an immoral love as this becomes public, everyone in the house of Theseus will suffer unbearable shame.

To protect her reputation, the futures of her two children, and the king, Phaedra decides her only answer is to kill herself. She knows how society views women in general—"object of hate to all"—and understands that if her secret gets out, no matter what she says, she will be scorned. Phaedra's rant about noble women taking lovers and hypocritically claiming they are pure and temperate may be Euripides's direct comment on such goings on in Athenian society. Phaedra asks Aphrodite how these women can do such things and still look their husbands in the face. The scene would have an impact on the Athenian audiences of the time, perhaps causing some reflection on the plight of women, whose great attraction to men is their love of them, but at the same time that love is a powerful and overruling emotion.

Knowing Aphrodite has done this to Phaedra, the nurse confirms what Phaedra told the Chorus—no mere mortal will be able to fight such a powerful god's curse. The nurse understands that by protecting Phaedra, she protects herself from this horrible news. Her job is to care for the queen, so she urges Phaedra not to kill herself. The nurse knows the queen is a good person at heart.

Phaedra is torn between the love she feels for her stepson and knowing it is wrong and can only bring shame to her family. The nurse suggests she should just tell the truth and hope her good nature prevails. It's a reasonable suggestion for a temperate person who is pure of heart—like Phaedra. But Phaedra hates the idea because she knows her name would forever be ruined no matter how pure she really is. Her fear for her children runs deep.

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