Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Hippolytus was part of only five trilogies for which Euripides was awarded first prize. One of the reasons for the success of this play may be that the Hippolytus is far more traditional in structure than many other Euripidean tragedies. For example, both Theseus and Hippolytus himself follow the pattern of the tragic hero described by Aristotle in Poetics: They are neither perfectly good nor purely evil but, while generally virtuous, suffer because of a flaw in character or by committing some mistake. Moreover, the play’s emphasis upon the need for restraint in all human endeavor echoes the sentiment of the widely quoted Greek proverb, “Nothing too much.” Theseus and Hippolytus are thus guilty of hubris (usually defined as excessive pride, insolence, and self-righteousness), which would have been regarded, even by the most conservative of Euripides’ critics, as a fatal flaw of character.
Nevertheless, Euripides has made several important innovations in this work. First, his view of the gods is not at all the same as that found in traditional Greek religion. Aphrodite and Artemis, although they appear on stage in human form, are largely personifications of lust and chastity. It is the conflict between these competing forces that brings about the tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolytus; the inability of these characters to find a balance between the desires represented by Aphrodite and the goals represented by Artemis...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Aphrodite becomes angry because Hippolytus, the offspring of an illicit union between Theseus and Hippolyta, alone among the citizens of Troezen refuses to do her homage. Instead, the youth, who has been tutored by the holy Pittheus, honors Artemis, goddess of the chase and of spiritual love. Aphrodite, jealous of Artemis and incensed at his neglect of her altars, vows revenge: She will reveal to Theseus the love his wife, Phaedra, has for her stepson.
Some time before, Hippolytus went to the country of Pandion to be initiated into the holy mysteries. Phaedra, seeing the handsome youth, fell in love with him, and because her heart was filled with longing she dedicated a temple to the Cyprian goddess. Poseidon, ruler of the sea, once promised Theseus that three of his prayers to the sea god would be answered. Aphrodite plans to use that promise to accomplish her revenge.
Now it happens that Theseus had killed a kinsman, and as punishment for his crime he was exiled for a year in Troezen. Hippolytus, returning from the chase, pays his respects with song and garlands before the altar of Artemis. Reminded by a servant that an image of Aphrodite stands nearby, he answers impatiently that he acknowledges the power of the Cyprian goddess, but from afar. He is dedicated to chastity and has no desire to become her devotee. After Hippolytus leaves the shrine, the attendant asks Aphrodite to indulge the young man’s foolish pride.
Phaedra, who accompanied her husband when he left Athens, mopes in her hopeless passion for the young prince, so much so that her servants express deep concern over her illness and wonder what strange malady affects her. A nurse, alarmed at Phaedra’s restiveness and petulance, is the most concerned of all. When her mistress expresses a desire to hunt wild beasts in the hills and to gallop horses on the sands, the nurse decides that Phaedra is lightheaded because she has not eaten for three days. The nurse swears by the Amazon queen who bore Theseus a son that Phaedra will be a traitor to her own children if she lets herself sicken and die. At the mention of Hippolytus’s name, Phaedra starts; then she moans pitifully. Thinking how horrible it is that she has been stricken with love for her husband’s son, she bewails the unnatural passions of her Cretan house. Urged by the nurse, she finally confesses her true feelings for her stepson. The nurse is horrified at the thought of the possible consequences of such a sinful passion, and the attendants mourn at what the future seems to hold for all concerned. Phaedra tells them that she is determined to take her own life in order to preserve her virtue and to save Theseus from shame....
(The entire section is 1097 words.)