Hippolytus | Study Guide

Euripides

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Hippolytus | Exodos | Summary

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Summary

A messenger arrives to tell Theseus that Hippolytus has had an accident and is near death. His own horses trampled him, the messenger says. The messenger confirms Poseidon has honored Theseus's curse to kill Hippolytus, and Theseus is pleased. The messenger explains even though Hippolytus was tearful about leaving Athens, he knew he must obey his father. As he drove along the shore, there was an earthquake that created great waves, and from one of those waves there appeared a monstrous bull that scared Hippolytus's horses. The animals panicked and sped away, dragging Hippolytus behind them; he was caught in the reins and was pounded against the large rocks as the horses fled, leaving him near death. As a servant to Theseus's for many years, the messenger refuses to believe Hippolytus did the wicked deed he was accused of. Theseus admits he cannot rejoice in what befell his son, but because he believes Hippolytus raped his stepmother, he is glad justice was done. He commands the messenger to bring Hippolytus to him.

Suddenly, Artemis appears on the roof of Theseus's house. She reveals Hippolytus was innocent and Phaedra lied about being raped. Artemis describes how Aphrodite cursed Phaedra to fall in love with Hippolytus. The queen never acted on her feelings, and it was the nurse who revealed the secret to his son, who promised not to tell anyone—even his father, who reviled him. Phaedra was so afraid of the king learning about her feelings that she wrote the false letter and "killed your son by treachery." Artemis says both she and Poseidon feel the king acted wickedly by condemning Hippolytus to death without an investigation or trial.

Theseus is aghast: "I am destroyed," he tells Artemis. The goddess says there may be a way for him to gain forgiveness. She explains it is a custom of the gods not to interfere with other gods' wishes. If she wasn't so afraid of what Zeus might have done, she would have intervened to keep "my best friend among men" alive despite Aphrodite's deadly curse. Artemis says despite his ignorance and actions, Theseus is the one who suffers most by losing his wife and son, and the gods do not rejoice when the pious die. The gods destroy the wicked, their children, and their homes.

Hippolytus, barely alive and in great pain, is brought to Theseus. He blames his father for doing this to him. Then he appeals to Zeus, asking if all his piety and innocence was for nothing, to die in this horrible way. Hippolytus tells Theseus that his death must unfairly be a result of some ancient murder in their family. Artemis soothes Hippolytus, telling him that his honor and nobility proved to be his downfall when he didn't tell his father about Phaedra's feelings for him. The goddess tells him it was Aphrodite's curse that caused his death—and Phaedra's, and the horrible life facing his father Theseus. Hippolytus says he is sorry for his father's suffering. Theseus now tells Hippolytus he wished it were him who was dying. Artemis promises to avenge Hippolytus's death by killing a mortal Aphrodite loves dearly. She tells Hippolytus not to bear a grudge against his father and forgive him. She sees Hippolytus nearing death and must leave so her "eye must not be polluted by the last / gaspings for breath." Hippolytus says farewell to Artemis. He will obey her command to free his father "from all guilt in this." Theseus is humbled by his son's noble actions, and before Hippolytus passes, he wishes the king's "trueborn sons will prove as good." Theseus says Athens has lost a great man, and he'll never forget what Aphrodite has done to him and his family.

Analysis

The Exodos is the final scene, where the moral of the play is discussed. Euripides usually ended his plays with a god or gods appearing to deliver important information about the action of the play and provide a tidy ending. This plot device is called deus ex machina (god from the machine), and it refers to the fact that these gods in Greek drama would appear as if coming down from the sky, lowered to the stage from above by a type of crane.

The Exodos begins when a messenger enters and describes the events leading up to Hippolytus's injury. In this eyewitness account, the messenger describes a raging bull that scared Hippolytus's horses. This may be Euripides making reference to the Minotaur, a half man-half bull figure from a previous myth where Theseus killed the Minotaur in its labyrinth. Later in the Exodos, Hippolytus wonders if his death is related to a past murder by one of his ancestors. This may be the playwright connecting Theseus's slaying of the Minotaur to killing his own son.

When the messenger exits to retrieve dying Hippolytus, the goddess Artemis appears to Theseus, as was customary in Euripides's plays, to reveal important truths to the characters. Though the audience has known what forces were at play throughout the story, Artemis reveals to Theseus that his wife Phaedra lied about Hippolytus raping her. The king acted too hastily in calling on Poseidon to kill his son without investigating the crime or holding a trial. Artemis describes Aphrodite's vengeful curse that brought about both deaths. She reveals that Phaedra's lie was based in pride. She didn't want others to think poorly of her, nor of her children. Also, she was angered by Hippolytus's arrogant attitude and claims of such perfect piety. Artemis explains his son knew how Phaedra felt about him but did not tell the king because he promised not to tell anyone. She passes judgment on Theseus for his very human actions, and she lets him know his father Poseidon also believes he has acted wickedly.

Artemis also tells Theseus and all those gathered that allowing such tragedies as this to happen is "settled custom of the gods: / No one may fly in the face of another's wish: / we remain aloof and neutral." This appears to be Euripides's criticism of the god mythology and religion in general: how could such omniscient and powerful gods watch and allow such horrible things to happen to mortals? Euripides also seems to poke fun at Artemis (and perhaps the gods in general) regarding her claims of chasteness and purity. Artemis promises to get even with Aphrodite by killing a mortal she loves, as Aphrodite did to her, and she'll do it "with these unerring arrows / shot from my own hand." Yet right before Hippolytus dies, Artemis says she has to leave because "she must not look upon the dead," and her "eyes must not be polluted by the last / gaspings for breath." How is it that a goddess who will personally kill a mortal with her own hands in vengeance cannot bear to see a dead mortal? Euripides seems to suggest that the gods are as morally inconsistent and complicated as the mortals they claim superiority to.

Hippolytus learns from Artemis the tragedy that befalls his family is the result of Aphrodite's anger at him for blaspheming her. The servant's warning to him in the Prologue to honor all the gods so as not to offend them has caused his demise. The goddess helps him understand how much Theseus has suffered—he's now lost two of his most beloved because of a hateful god. Hippolytus is genuinely sorry for his father's loss of his wife. But when Theseus admits he wishes he never summoned Poseidon to curse his son, Hippolytus does not believe it: his father was so angry he still would've killed him. "Gods tripped up my judgment," Theseus tells Hippolytus, who replies "O, if only men might be a curse to gods!" Artemis provides the tidy ending to the play by telling both men to reconcile. Theseus lifts his son into his arms and apologizes; Hippolytus absolves his father of guilt for his death.

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