Hippolytus is an intriguing play from both a religious and a psychological standpoint. Euripides dramatizes the traditional rivalry in Greek religion between Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Artemis, the goddess of chastity. The three major characters—Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Theseus—are caught in that antagonism and must suffer for it. Just as a statue of each goddess frames the stage, so the dramatic action is set between the appearance of Aphrodite in the prologue and the appearance of Artemis at the end. The contrast between these two, as Euripides shows it, however, is not between carnal love and spiritual love, but between uncontrolled passion and artificial restraint.
Aphrodite is an intense, volatile goddess who does not hesitate to destroy her own devotee, Phaedra, in order to wreak vengeance on Hippolytus, who, she believes, has deeply offended her by his conduct and attitude. Artemis appears as the revealer of truth and the calm reconciler of father and son. Once passion is spent, there remains a clear-eyed, sobering, and immeasurably sad view of things.
The goddess of passion works her will through two violently emotional people, Phaedra and Theseus. Although perhaps not technically incestuous, Phaedra’s love for the young man is clearly immoral and wrong. However, the intensity of her feelings, which are obviously beyond her control, and the sincerity of her guilt and anguish make her the most sympathetic and...
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