Hippolytus | Study Guide

Euripides

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Hippolytus | Themes

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Gods and Mortals

Euripides explores the interactions between gods and mortals in many of his plays. In Hippolytus he examines how close the relationship should be between humans and gods and how indifferent the gods can be toward humans.

As the play opens, Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility, describes her anger at Hippolytus for blaspheming her and reveals her plan to get revenge on him. Her plot places Phaedra, Hippolytus's stepmother and a follower of Aphrodite, as a pawn in Hippolytus's demise. Phaedra will fall hopelessly in love with Hippolytus and will take her own life because of her shame. The goddess's scheme means her own devoted worshipper will have to die, but Aphrodite doesn't seem all that affected by necessitating Phaedra's death so long as she can destroy Hippolytus. Hippolytus worships Artemis, the goddess of fertility, chastity, animals, and nature, in an excessive way. He claims not to be interested in marrying and only wants to serve and celebrate the pure Artemis and the natural world she inhabits. In return Artemis considers Hippolytus to be unique among men in his piousness and dedication to her. But as Hippolytus nears death at the play's end, Artemis essentially throws up her hands and says there's nothing she can do because she can't interfere with another god's wishes. She promises to avenge his death, but she did nothing to stop him from getting killed.

Euripides viewed the gods and mortals as actors on two separate planes. Men cannot understand what or why the gods do what they do, and men do act on their own free will—unless a god directly intervenes. Aphrodite did put a curse on Phaedra, but Phaedra acted on her own to accuse Hippolytus of rape, thus hastening his death by his father's wishes.

Pride and Arrogance

Many of the characters display pride, arrogance, or both in the play, which contributes to their suffering. It is pride that makes the goddess of love, Aphrodite, so angry at Hippolytus for not paying her the respect she feels she deserves, which sets off the main plot force of the play. Hippolytus is proud of his piety and unique relationship with the goddess of fertility, Artemis, to the point of arrogance, as he feels he is better than most men because of the purity by which he lives. His diatribe about the wickedness of women is not only misogynistic but extremely arrogant as well: he sets himself above all women and most men because he is so chaste and unaffected by base and carnal desires. His arrogance is one of the main reasons why Phaedra, his stepmother—cursed by Aphrodite to love Hippolytus—wants him to suffer in her suicide. She subsequently accuses him of raping her.

Phaedra's pride is hurt after Hippolytus learns of her feelings for him. She does not want her family name or the good name of her two children to be tainted by what has been revealed, so her solution is to kill herself and accuse her stepson of driving her to such an act by his deplorable, violent deed. Theseus's pride is unleashed as well after he reads Phaedra's dishonest note accusing his son Hippolytus of rape. The king does not want his family name besmirched by this scandal, and the fact his own son would act in such an immoral way affects Theseus so deeply he asks his father Poseidon, the god of seas, to kill his own son. Clearly Euripides counts pride as one of mankind's least attractive and most damaging emotions.

Vengeance

Vengeance is the recurring motivation in Hippolytus. The story begins with Aphrodite's need to take revenge on Hippolytus for calling her the "vilest of the gods in heaven," and her vengeance plan is the driving plot force for the whole play. After Hippolytus learns of his stepmother Phaedra's feelings for him, and he decries the wickedness of all women and wishes they didn't exist, Phaedra comes up with her own plan to make sure Hippolytus suffers for his attitude and hate toward her and all women. Her revenge occurs in the note she leaves for her husband Theseus claiming his son raping her is why she killed herself. And Theseus, aghast and infuriated by what he has learned, immediately asks Poseidon to kill Hippolytus to avenge Phaedra's death. Even Artemis—the goddess of the hunt and of virginity to whom Hippolytus has fully devoted himself—is not above revenge. She promises Hippolytus that she will kill one of Aphrodite's favorite mortals as an act of vengeance against the goddess. Euripides seems to be making the point that revenge is a thoroughly destructive—even fatal—reaction that both mortals and the gods are too easily capable of.

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