Hippolytus | Study Guide

Euripides

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Hippolytus | Episode 2 | Summary

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Summary

Phaedra is listening at the door when she hears the nurse reveal her secret to Hippolytus. The nurse "has ruined me" Phaedra exclaims. "She was my doctor / but her cure has made my illness fatal now." The Chorus wants to know what she will do. Phaedra says there's only one cure for her disease: she must kill herself.

Hippolytus emerges raging at the nurse for what she has told him. Hippolytus says she tricked him into swearing an oath of silence and then rants about how despicable he finds women. He asks Zeus why he brought women into the world. Then, to prove how horrible women are, Hippolytus points out that fathers have to pay a dowry to another man to take their daughters away. He rants about hating clever women and he hopes he never has a wife. Clever women are mischievous; stupid women are too dumb to cheat on their husbands. He accuses the nurse of trying to make a bargain with his father's marriage bed. Because he is so pure of heart, he'll have to go wash his ears out to purge the filth he has heard. Before he leaves he tells the nurse, "it is my piety that saves you." He agrees to keep silent even though he was tricked into the promise. But he will keep an eye on the nurse and Phaedra.

The nurse admits to Phaedra that her plan of telling the truth failed. The queen tears into the nurse, blaming her for the ruin of Theseus's house: "Did I not say to you, 'Breathe not a word of this?'" She hopes Zeus strikes the nurse dead with thunderbolts. Phaedra says she needs a plan because she's sure Hippolytus will tell his father. The nurse apologizes and says Phaedra can flee Athens to escape the consequences. The queen sends the nurse away. Then, she asks the Chorus of Women to keep what they've heard silent. She admits she simply cannot face the king over this accusation. But she thinks her plan for killing herself will please Aphrodite: "I shall delight the goddess who destroys me." Phaedra vows to bring sorrow to Hippolytus, "that his high heart / may know no arrogant joy at my life's shipwreck," and that he will "learn to be more temperate himself."

Analysis

This scene reveals a much darker side of Hippolytus. In Episode 1 he praises nature and expresses his devotion to the goddess Artemis, shunning another goddess—Aphrodite—for her "nocturnal prowess." He proclaims his chastity and appears to be in some ways an innocent. However, in Episode 2 the audience learns he is quite arrogant and prudish and his disdain for Aphrodite extends to his furious hatred of mortal women. Euripides creates a complex hero in Hippolytus; one who is so devoted to chastity that he finds ample blame to place upon women, who threaten to disturb such vows. In this, he shares similar feelings with the young men of Athens (and Sparta) whose culture separates the spheres of men (public life) and women (private life), a point the playwright may have wanted to make.

For Phaedra, her death by her own hand is a certainty now. She is sure Hippolytus will tell his father and realizes she is utterly ruined and her name will be forever dishonored—as will her children and King Theseus—if she does not do something to salvage her reputation. The nurse suggests she flee Athens to escape dishonor but remain alive. Phaedra wants nothing to do with the nurse and her ideas and sends her away.

In an example of dramatic irony, the plan Phaedra devises for her suicide will please Aphrodite—the god who cursed her and brought her to this horrible decision. The queen understands that Aphrodite was after revenge on Hippolytus for his disrespectful attitude toward her, and her plan will help ensure the goddess achieves vengeance. But Hippolytus greatly offended Phaedra as well by his hateful and violent attitude and statements about women—women like Phaedra. The queen wants her own revenge on her stepson, whom she finds arrogant and overly pious. If she must suffer this "life's shipwreck," so must Hippolytus.

The audience learns a great deal about Phaedra in this scene: while she is an unfortunate mortal being used by Aphrodite to exact revenge on a man, she is also an honorable and smart woman who resents the attitudes of self-proclaimed moral men like Hippolytus toward women. Like Aphrodite, Phaedra is also capable of plotting to hurt someone. The audience is seeing the Chorus's cautionary tales of Eros's "dread calamities" when he enters human hearts and love's destructive abilities in Stasimon 1 playing out in Episode 2.

Hippolytus's rant against women deserves additional attention. Euripides was alleged to be a misogynist, to the point where other playwrights made fun of this element in his plays in their own plays. But many scholars point out that he created numerous extremely memorable heroines in his plays (e.g., Medea, Hecuba, Iphigenia) and depicted the poor treatment women experienced in society and during wartime. Regardless, Hippolytus's vindictive and violent indictment of women depicts, at the very least, the hateful nature of this allegedly chaste and temperate young Athenian.

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