Hippolytus | Study Guide

Euripides

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Hippolytus | Plot Summary

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Summary

Prologos

Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love and beauty, appears before King Theseus's house in Troezen, a city across the Saronic Gulf from Athens. Here stand two statues: one of Aphrodite and one of Artemis, the goddess of chastity, animals, and hunting. Aphrodite says she will avenge herself against a mortal who doesn't honor her as a god. She then explains that Hippolytus, who worships Artemis as the greatest of all divinities, has blasphemed Aphrodite, claiming she is the vilest of the gods. Aphrodite has already set a plan in motion to get revenge on the young noble: she has caused Phaedra, the current wife of King Theseus, to fall in love with Hippolytus, her stepson. Aphrodite already knows that Phaedra cannot bear these dreadful feelings she has toward Hippolytus, and the queen will take her own life. The goddess intends to make sure that Phaedra's suicide leads Theseus to kill his own son.

Hippolytus enters with his huntsmen and they sing a dedication to the statue of Artemis. Hippolytus places a crown he wove from flowers he had picked from a meadow on the statue's head and swears his loyalty to her purity. He promises to protect the wilds from those who are impure. A servant suggests Hippolytus should pay respect to the statue of Aphrodite, as the gods do not like to be ignored by mortals. Hippolytus ignores the advice and says an impure god like Aphrodite is not his god. Hippolytus and his huntsmen go into the king's house to feast. The servant makes a plea to Aphrodite to be forgiving of such a young and foolish heart as Hippolytus.

Episode 1 and Stasimon 1

The Chorus of Women enter and describe Queen Phaedra's state: she lies in bed with sickness, feverish and eating nothing. They wonder why she is so distressed. Has she received bad news of her husband the king, who is away from Athens? Has the king been unfaithful to her?

Phaedra, lying on her bed, enters with her nurse. The nurse helps Phaedra from her bed and walks her outside. The older woman doesn't know what is going on with Phaedra—nothing seems to make her happy, and she acts erratically, causing the nurse to wonder if the queen has gone mad. The Chorus questions the nurse, and the nurse continues to question Phaedra. At one point the nurse mentions Hippolytus's name, and Phaedra reacts. She asks the nurse not to mention the king's son ever again. The nurse grabs the queen by the hands and will not let go of her until she unburdens herself. Eventually, Phaedra confesses her love of Hippolytus. The nurse is aghast—she feels this news will be the death of her simply because she knows it. She assumes this kind of love is the work of Aphrodite and curses the goddess for ruining the king's house.

Phaedra tells the story of how she has tried to deal with her intense love for her stepson and the shame she feels. At first she tried to ignore it, thinking she could overcome it. She tried to keep it secret. But now she thinks her only solution is to kill herself to prevent anything scandalous from dishonoring her name, the king's reputation, and the future of their two sons, Demophon and Acamas.

The nurse is convinced Aphrodite did this to the queen. She suggests that death is not the only option for Phaedra. The queen should tell the king and Hippolytus the truth to save her life. Phaedra refuses. This leads the nurse to make another suggestion: they could try a charm or a spell to break her lovesickness. But for the charm to work, she will need a lock of Hippolytus's hair or a piece of his clothing. Phaedra makes the nurse promise not to tell Hippolytus her reason for acquiring this item.

The nurse's exit into the house introduces the first stasimon. The Chorus sings of Eros, Aphrodite's son and the god of love, and the powers he has over mortals, sometimes ending in calamity for them. They tell the story of one of Aphrodite's other vengeful curses. She made the young woman Iole fall in love with the Greek hero Heracles, who was going to take her as his wife. Instead, Heracles decided to marry another woman, Deianira. Later, Deianira became suspicious that Heracles was falling in love with Iole. His wife gave him a shirt dipped in poison blood. The poison began to eat his flesh when he put the shirt on. To stop the pain, Heracles lay on a pyre and burned to death.

Episode 2 and Stasimon 2

Phaedra is listening at the door where the nurse and Hippolytus are talking. She can't hear what's being said, but she senses something terrible is happening. Soon she can hear Hippolytus yelling at the nurse, and she knows her secret is out. The Chorus wants to know what she will do now that she has been betrayed by her nurse. Phaedra says death is her only answer.

Hippolytus and the nurse come outside—he is furious about what she has told him. The nurse begs him not to tell anyone, and he promises to keep the secret. But Hippolytus isn't sure he can keep such dreadful news to himself. In an epic rant, he declares that women are deceitful and questions why Zeus even created women for all the evils they bring to the world. He turns on the nurse and accuses her of trying to make a sinful bargain with him against his father. Just knowing this information makes him feel impure. But because he is a man of honor and he gave the nurse his word, he will remain silent. Nevertheless, he will be watching the nurse and Phaedra closely. He leaves, cursing woman's wickedness.

Phaedra again says death is her only salvation. The nurse admits that her plan to tell Hippolytus failed and now they are both ruined. Phaedra angrily scolds the nurse for disobeying her wishes. She is sure Hippolytus will tell his father, and the nurse will also be cursed because of what she did. The nurse apologizes and suggests Phaedra still has another option: she can flee the city. Phaedra tells the nurse to leave with her bad advice. She has come up with a plan to preserve her honor and her name for her children's sake. She reveals to the Chorus that she will kill herself, but she will do it in a way that will bring great sorrow to Hippolytus—and make Aphrodite, who cursed her to exact revenge on Hippolytus, very happy.

The Chorus laments Phaedra's plight in Stasimon 2. She came to Athens from her homeland of Crete, bore the king two children, and now faced a terrible fate. They describe how she hangs herself from a noose above her marriage bed to preserve her name and ease her bitter heart.

Episode 3 and Stasimon 3

The nurse discovers Phaedra's hanged body and cuts her down, laying her out on the bed. Theseus enters—he has just returned to the city and heard a disturbance in his house. When he learns from the Chorus that Phaedra has killed herself, he cannot bear it. He blames fate and wonders if it is vengeance from the gods for a sin of his ancestors. He notices the tablet in Phaedra's hand and reads it. In it, Phaedra claims Hippolytus raped her. The king is furious. He calls on his father Poseidon, the sea god, to kill Hippolytus, his son. The Chorus warns that he will regret killing his son if he finds out Hippolytus did not touch the queen. The king is determined and banishes his son from Athens.

Hippolytus hears his father's lamenting and enters. He is shocked by Phaedra's death. Theseus accuses Hippolytus of the crime Phaedra described in her note. He mocks his son's alleged innocence and piety, calling him a holy fraud. Theseus orders Hippolytus to leave Athens and its lands forever. Hippolytus claims his innocence. He tells his father that he remains a virgin to this very day, so he could not have done such a terrible act. He would have no reason—he didn't want for money or to be king. He swears to Zeus that he did not rape Phaedra.

Theseus thinks Hippolytus is trying to talk his way out of punishment. Hippolytus tells his father that if their roles were switched, he wouldn't banish Theseus if he really believed he raped his wife—he'd kill him immediately. Theseus says killing Hippolytus quickly would be too easy. He wants his son to suffer for his actions. Hippolytus asks his father to hold a trial to prove his guilt, but Phaedra's note is enough proof for Theseus. Hippolytus appeals to the gods in an aside, questioning whether he should honor his promise to the nurse to keep Phaedra's love for him secret.

Theseus tells Hippolytus to leave the land immediately. Hippolytus says goodbye to the statue of Artemis, his huntsmen and friends, and the city of Athens.

The Chorus of Huntsmen sings of man's ever-shifting fortunes, though never have they seen one of Athens' brightest young men banished by his father's anger. The Chorus of Women pray the gods to grant them lives of purity, happiness, and freedom from anguish. They lament all Hippolytus must give up in his banishment, closing their song by expressing their anger at the gods for letting an innocent man be banished.

Exodos

A messenger arrives at Theseus's house to inform him that Hippolytus is near death because of the king's curse and describes in detail the events he witnessed. Hippolytus was near the sea in his chariot on his way out of Athens when the ground began to shake. A huge, violent wave appeared and hit land, carrying a monstrous bull that scared the horses. Hippolytus could not control the horses and the chariot tipped with Hippolytus still attached. He was dragged violently over the rocks along the shore. Hippolytus was barely alive when the messenger left.

Theseus is glad justice was done, though he admits it was unfortunate such a terrible thing happened to his son. He asks the messenger to bring Hippolytus to him so he may use his death at the hands of the gods as proof his son is guilty of rape.

The messenger exits, and Artemis appears on the roof of the house. She tells Theseus he has wrongly murdered his son because Phaedra had lied. It was Aphrodite who put the curse of love on Phaedra to avenge Hippolytus for his dishonor. Artemis tells Theseus his son knew about Phaedra's cursed feelings of love for him. The nurse revealed Phaedra's secret to Hippolytus and he was furious. Still, he kept his oath to stay silent while his own father accused him of raping his stepmother. Artemis explains that Phaedra had feared Hippolytus would tell the king her secret, so she made up the terrible lie to punish Hippolytus and save her own reputation. She relays her and Poseidon's disgust with Theseus for cursing his son without first investigating the crime or conducting a trial.

The dying Hippolytus is brought in. He curses Aphrodite and his father and appeals to Zeus to see what happens to a pious man. Artemis consoles him in his death, saying he is beloved by her and that she will avenge his death on Aphrodite by killing a mortal she reveres. Hippolytus sees his father has been tricked, and Theseus proclaims his regret. Artemis says Hippolytus will be honored by unwed women—they will cut their hair the day before they are married. She tells the king to hold his dying son and instructs Hippolytus not to hold a grudge against his father, as men often err when tricked by the gods. Hippolytus forgives his father. Theseus grieves and curses Aphrodite for what she has done to his family.

Hippolytus Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Hippolytus angers Aphrodite by not showing her respect.

Rising Action

2 Aphrodite curses Hippolytus's stepmother Phaedra as revenge.

3 Phaedra is sick over her intense love for Hippolytus.

4 Hippolytus learns Phaedra's secret and is infuriated.

5 Phaedra plans to kill herself and get even with Hippolytus.

6 Theseus finds Phaedra's note accusing Hippolytus of rape.

7 Theseus asks Poseidon to kill his son Hippolytus.

8 Hippolytus claims he is innocent, but Theseus banishes him.

Climax

9 Poseidon unleashes his fury and brings Hippolytus near death.

Falling Action

10 Artemis tells Theseus of Aphrodite's plot and Phaedra's lie.

11 Artemis tells Hippolytus that she will forever honor him.

Resolution

12 Hippolytus forgives Theseus and then dies.

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