Hippolytus | Study Guide

Euripides

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Hippolytus | Prologos | Summary

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Summary

Euripides does not designate acts or scene breaks in Hippolytus. The play is arranged according to the basic dramatic structure for Greek tragedies: Prologos, Parados, Episodes 1–3, each followed by a stasimon (Stasimons 1–3), and the Exodos.

Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, fertility, and sexual love, enters. She is in front of King Theseus's house in Troezen, a city located outside of Athens. Standing in front of the palace are two statues: one of the goddess Artemis and one of Aphrodite. Speaking directly to the audience, she declares that she honors all who worship her power but punishes those who do not. She explains that Hippolytus, son of King Theseus and an Amazon queen, has called Aphrodite the "vilest of the gods in heaven." Hippolytus has claimed no interest in love or marriage and worships Artemis, goddess of the hunt, nature, animals, and chastity.

Aphrodite reveals she has already put a plan in motion to punish Hippolytus: she's cursed Theseus's wife Phaedra—Hippolytus's stepmother—to fall deeply in love with the young noble. Phaedra is already suffering from this forbidden love and wishes to die and take her secret with her. But Aphrodite will not let it happen: she'll make sure Theseus finds out and, in anger, kills his own son. Poseidon, the god of the seas, promised Theseus three curses, and he will use one to bring his son to death. Aphrodite knows Phaedra's death will be renowned, but the goddess spares no one when exacting revenge.

Hippolytus enters with his huntsmen, singing a song praising Artemis. He places a crown of flowers upon the statue of Artemis's head and extols purity and promises to watch over her meadows and woods. A servant suggests Hippolytus say a word of praise to the goddess Aphrodite, whose statue stands nearby. Hippolytus refuses and explains he worships Aphrodite from afar because she is not pure. The servant warns that he shouldn't dishonor such a respected goddess. Hippolytus then invites his men into the king's house for a feast, but the servant stays behind. He pleads with Aphrodite to be forgiving of such a young man who speaks so foolishly. Gods "should be wiser than mortals," he reminds Aphrodite.

Analysis

In Greek tragedy the Prologos, or Prologue, introduces the plot and main ideas of the play. But in Hippolytus, Aphrodite does more in her opening monologue. Essentially, Aphrodite's opening speech is a spoiler for the plot. In telling about Hippolytus denouncing her as his god and her plan for exacting revenge against Hippolytus for this offense, she reveals to the audience the outcome of the plot: Phaedra will kill herself and Theseus will curse his own son Hippolytus to die also. The first audiences of this play, the Greek citizens of Athens, already were quite familiar with the story of how Hippolytus had been unjustly dealt with by Aphrodite and consequently raised to deification by Artemis.

Important themes in the play are also introduced in the Prologos. Aphrodite may be the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility—these are qualities that suggest gentleness—but upset her and the powerful goddess is all but soft. Aphrodite's speech hints at the theme of indifference when it comes to the relationship between the gods and humans. Early on in her monologue she says, "those who worship my power in all humility / I exalt in honor." But she contradicts this statement later on when she reveals Phaedra's role in her plot against Hippolytus despite the fact she recognizes Phaedra as her devotee. Aphrodite has used Phaedra's life as a pawn in her act of vengeance—another theme explored in the play. However, Phaedra lends herself to being ruled by the intense and unreasoning emotions of love precisely because she is devoted to Aphrodite.

Hippolytus's entrance extolling the wonders of Artemis advances the plot as outlined by Aphrodite. The servant asks him why he ignores the statue of Aphrodite in front of Theseus's house, knowing that the gods are offended when mortals do not honor them properly. Hippolytus's answer of "she is not pure" is a severe offense, especially to a powerful goddess like Aphrodite. When Hippolytus and his men go into the house to feast, the servant makes a plea to Aphrodite to forgive the young man for his "foolish words." The experienced servant understands that Hippolytus' youthful offense put him at mortal risk from Aphrodite.

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