In this lesson we explore the Greek tragedy, ‘Hippolytus.’ Through the play about unrequited love, we gain a better understanding of Greek attitudes toward women.
Relationships and love are a tricky business. Most people, at some point in their life, have been in the painful position of loving someone who does not feel the same way about them or in the awkward reverse position. Most of us try to move on, find someone else, or perhaps even dive headfirst into work with the hope of forgetting about the ordeal altogether – that is, assuming you are not a character in a Greek tragedy.The Greek tragedy Hippolytus is a case where rather than moving on, the characters all act on their desires, ending badly for all involved. The author, Euripides, wrote the play as part of a trilogy for a contest in the fifth century B.
The play’s main character, Hippolytus, is the son of the Athenian hero, Theseus. Theseus’ wife and Hippolytus’ stepmother, Phaedra, harbors a secret love for Hippolytus. This love was unnatural; it was fostered by the goddess of love, Aphrodite, as revenge against Hippolytus. As a result Phaedra falls into a deep sickness when she realizes her marriage to Theseus means she and Hippolytus can never truly be together.
Phaedra, due to her unrequited love for Hippolytus, resolves to starve herself to death. However, after a series of prying conversations, Phaedra confesses her forbidden love to her nurse. The nurse tells Phaedra she can cure her, but instead the meddling nurse tells Hippolytus of his stepmother’s love for him. When Phaedra learns this, she hangs herself, but not before leaving a note to Theseus claiming Hippolytus raped her.
When Theseus returns from a year of exile and discovers the body of his wife and the note, he is understandably enraged. He banishes his son from the land, by punishment of death should Hippolytus return, and curses Hippolytus in the name of his father, Poseidon. As Hippolytus is preparing his chariot to leave, an enormous bull appears from the sea, sent by Poseidon, frightening the horses and catching Hippolytus off guard. The horses flee, dragging the unsuspecting Hippolytus behind them, mortally wounding the protagonist.Theseus is more than happy with this turn of events, until the goddess Artemis appears and explains to Theseus that Phaedra’s letter was a lie.
Hippolytus, now dying, is brought before Theseus, and the two forgive each other just prior to Hippolytus’ death.
Common Themes and Conclusions
A common theme which runs throughout the entire play is the treachery of women. This misogynistic conclusion is characteristic of Greek plays – both women and goddesses are often portrayed in Greek plays as jealous, deceitful souls often given to acting on their basest desires. Euripides’ Hippolytus is no different and surely portrays common Greek attitudes about women – after all, it won the playwright first prize in the contest.
Once you are finished, you should be able to:
- Summarize the storyline of Hippolytus
- Discuss the theme found in Hippolytus and how it reflects ancient Greek society