Hippolytus | Study Guide


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Hippolytus | Episode 3 | Summary



The nurse discovers Phaedra's dead body and cuts her down, laying her on the bed. Theseus enters. He has just returned from a trip and heard wailing from within the house. He is worried something has happened to his elderly father or his children. The Chorus tells him Phaedra has hanged herself, and he tosses the crown of flowers he is wearing that he received from the oracle who predicted good things for him. He wonders if it is loneliness that has caused her to do this as he is so often away from home at war. He demands to see "this bitter sight, my wife / who killed me in her own death."

Upon seeing Phaedra, Theseus is distraught: Has fate done this to him? Was it a sin of his ancestors that the gods are now taking their vengeance on him? His pain is overwhelming. "I am a dead man," he says. "My house is empty and my children orphaned." He vows he will never take another wife. Then Theseus finds a note in Phaedra's hand. He reads the note Phaedra has written and is devastated: his son Hippolytus raped Phaedra. Theseus invokes the god Poseidon, who has promised the king three curses, to kill Hippolytus on this very day. The Chorus urges the king to take back the curse or he will regret his wrongdoing later on. Theseus refuses, declaring he is exiling his son from Athens—either Poseidon will kill him or he will live a beggar's life.

Hippolytus enters and is shocked: "But a few moments since / I left her ... and just now she was still alive." Theseus accuses Hippolytus of raping Phaedra. He sarcastically reminds his son that he is supposedly a holy man of nature—but neither Theseus nor the gods believe his arrogant boasts. The king warns his people to avoid such holy men as his son: "they hunt their prey / with holy-seeming words, but their designs/are black and ugly." He banishes his son from Athens while Hippolytus claims his innocence: "there lives no man more pure / or temperate than I, though you deny it." Hippolytus swears an oath to Zeus that he did not rape Phaedra and says if their roles were reversed, he would not banish Theseus if he thought he'd touched his wife—he would kill his father immediately. Theseus says a quick death is too easy for a man who has done this to his wife. His son pleads for there to be a trial to prove his innocence. For Theseus, Phaedra's note is all the proof he needs. Before he leaves Hippolytus turns to Artemis for help: he knows the truth about Phaedra's feelings for him, but he promised he wouldn't tell anyone. He says goodbye to Artemis, his home, and his city of Athens and leaves.


Theseus's first appearance in the play is when he returns to Athens from fighting a war, and is one familiar to the audiences of the play who have endured the seemingly unending conflict of the Peloponnesian War. He is wearing a crown of flowers—an indication that he received good responses to the questions he asked the oracle. Unlike the crown of flowers Hippolytus put on the statue of Artemis in the Prologue, which celebrated and honored the goddess of nature, Theseus's crown is a cruel example of dramatic irony as he returns home to learn his wife has hanged herself. When he reads the note Phaedra left, the audience learns what she meant at the end of Episode 2 when she said her plan "will delight the goddess who destroys me" and she will "bring sorrow / upon another, too." Phaedra's suicide ensures two acts of vengeance: Aphrodite's against Hippolytus for dishonoring her, and the queen's against Hippolytus for being so arrogant and overly pious.

The Chorus warns Theseus not to invoke one of the curses granted to him by Poseidon to kill his son because they know Hippolytus is innocent. They understand the king is blinded by his sorrow and anger and will ultimately regret what he has done. (The Chorus can comment on the action in Greek tragedy, but it cannot intervene in the actions of the story.) When Hippolytus enters and sees Phaedra has killed herself, he unwittingly makes the evidence against him seem worse when he says it has been "but a few moments since / I left her ... And just now she was still alive." The exchange between Theseus and Hippolytus before the king directly accuses his son of rape can be read as a comment by the playwright Euripides on the complex nature of humans. They are capable of doing both good deeds and morally horrible acts. Theseus's antagonistic mocking of his son's "holy" arrogance—claiming purity and aligning himself with benevolent gods like Artemis—can also be interpreted as Euripides's comment on the moralists and "holy" men of ancient Greek society. They attract followers with their ideas of purity and faith, but they too often act in despicable ways.

Euripides returns to the subject of woman's nature when Theseus asks Hippolytus—who the king knows prefers to avoid mortal women—if he is going to try to blame Phaedra's death on the follow of her gender. The king (and Euripides) doesn't buy the reason: "I know that young men / are no more to be trusted than are women / when [Aphrodite] disturbs the youthful blood in them." What's confusing is that in the very next line, Theseus says, "But the very male in [young men] helps and protects them," which would seem to suggest that Euripides feels men are somehow less susceptible to certain lustful urges than women.

Hippolytus makes an earnest defense for why he is innocent, arrogantly claiming he is more pure and temperate than all other men, he honors the gods above all humans, and he is a kind and true friend. He tells his father that he remains a virgin—"I'm ignorant of the deed, for I've a maiden soul"—and neither Phaedra's beauty, his father's wealth, nor the king's crown are desires that would make him do such a horrible thing. His oath to Zeus to kill him if he is guilty puts Theseus in an incredibly difficult situation: he knows his son pursues a pious life—he just accused Hippolytus of using it as a façade—and the severe oath for Zeus to make a judgment on him is something the king knows no mortal (especially his son) would evoke lightly.

Theseus is faced with a moral dilemma. He can't imagine that his wife would make up such a heinous offense against her stepson. But he is so affected by his sorrow and anger that he can only believe what he sees. He even refuses to let there be time for an investigation and trial. Theseus wants justice immediately, even against the son he loves.

Theseus is a hero of Greek mythology, and Euripides seems to have created this complex moral dilemma to show how even great leaders are subject to influences of the heart over reason. Even as Hippolytus pleads with his father to allow time to learn what really happened and to consider his pious nature, the king must steel himself against a father's emotional instinct to carry out his decision: "Yes, in self-worship you are certainly practiced. / You are more at home there than in the other virtues, / justice, for instance, and duty toward father." As he leaves, Hippolytus appeals to Artemis. He knows how Phaedra felt about him—immoral feelings in Hippolytus's eyes—but he promised not to tell anyone. His fidelity to keeping his word leads him into exile.

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