Hippolytus | Study Guide


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Hippolytus | Symbols


The Sea

Euripides uses the sea as a symbol of nature and destruction, though he leans more on the destructive element in Hippolytus. Aphrodite, known as the god of beauty, sexual love, and fertility, was born of the sea, and she is associated with water. Theseus's father is Poseidon, the god of the sea known for his violent demeanor. It is no wonder that when Theseus wants to kill his son and asks Poseidon to grant one of the three curses he promised Theseus, the curse Poseidon delivers involves the sea. There is an earthquake—Poseidon is also the god of earthquakes—and it creates a massive wave that surges toward the shore where the banished Hippolytus rides in his chariot. The huge wave reveals a monstrous bull. The beast frightens Hippolytus's horses. They flee and drag Hippolytus violently against the shore rocks, leaving him near death.

Statues of Artemis and Aphrodite

Much of the play's action takes place in front of King Theseus's house, where there stands two statues on opposite sides: one of the goddess Artemis and one of the goddess Aphrodite. Euripides uses these statues to set the Olympian poles of the play: Artemis is the goddess of nature, the hunt, chastity, and childbirth, whereas Aphrodite is the goddess of beauty, love, sexual pleasure, and fertility. Innocence and purity clash with love and sexuality in the play, the duality embodied primarily by Hippolytus, a pious devotee of Artemis, and Phaedra, a woman and mother who is cursed with lustful feelings for her stepson Hippolytus.

In the Prologos, Aphrodite opens the play by describing her vengeful plan and how Phaedra's sexual yearnings for Hippolytus will lead to his and her deaths. Artemis appears in the Exodos to explain to Theseus what happened to his wife and son and call for forgiveness between father and son. Though neither goddess appears anywhere else in the play, both their spirits recur throughout, either in the characters' direct appeal to them or by the unfortunate and tragic actions of the play.

Marriage Bed

Though not overtly prominent in the play, the marriage bed serves as a symbol of birth, love, and death. Phaedra and Theseus are married and they have two sons, Demophon and Acamas, presumably a result of their passion. It is clear they love each other, as Phaedra is fearful of her husband finding out about her feelings for his son Hippolytus, and Theseus is overwhelmed when he learns of his wife's death: "I cannot bear it. I am a dead man." The bed is also the place where Phaedra takes her own life, hanging herself from the rafters above their bed: "It is done," sings the Chorus of Women, "she is hanged in the dangling rope." When Theseus first sees her corpse, she is lying on the bed, where the nurse—Phaedra's confidant and caretaker—has laid her out after cutting her down. Their bed, a place of respite and rest, has been tainted by the tragedy of suicide.

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