Study Guide

Phaedra

by Jean Racine

Phaedra Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Phaedra is the most problematic tragedy written by Racine. Ever since its first publication in 1677, critics have been proposing the most diverse interpretations for this tragedy. As Phaedra begins, Hippolytus announces his intention of leaving his homeland, although he is unwilling to explain the reasons for his decision. In the following scene, Oenone, who is Phaedra’s confidant, informs Hippolytus that Hippolytus’s stepmother, Phaedra, is exceedingly depressed and cannot receive visitors. When she is alone with Oenone, Phaedra speaks of her fatalistic view of the world. She believes that “everything is conspiring to harm” her. Although she realizes that it is wrong for her to feel passion for her stepson because her husband is still alive, Phaedra cannot resist this forbidden love, which she describes as “Venus completely attached to her prey.” Spectators and readers of Phaedra can never determine with any certainty if Phaedra is deceiving Oenone or if she truly considers herself to be a victim of love and fate. Phaedra is a marvelously ambiguous tragedy.

Near the end of act 1, a false report is given that Theseus has died during his travels. Oenone suggests that the death of Theseus renders legitimate Phaedra’s passion for Hippolytus, but there are two major obstacles. First, Hippolytus loves and wishes to marry Aricia, a royal princess from Athens. Racine describes Hippolytus and Aricia as sympathetic...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Phaedra Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

After the death of his Amazon queen, Thésée marries Phèdre, the young daughter of the king of Crete. Phèdre, seeing in her stepson, Hippolyte, all the bravery and virtue of his heroic father, but in more youthful guise, falls in love with him. In an attempt to conceal her passion for the son of Thésée, slayer of the Minotaur, she treats him in an aloof and spiteful manner until at last Hippolyte decides to leave Troezen and search for his father, who is absent from the kingdom. To his tutor, Théramène, he confides his desire to avoid both his stepmother and Aricie, an Athenian princess who is the daughter of a family that opposes Thésée. Phèdre confesses to Oenone, her nurse, her guilty passion for Hippolyte, saying that she merely pretends unkindness to him to hide her real feelings.

Word comes to Troezen that Thésée is dead. Oenone talks to Phèdre in an attempt to convince the queen that her own son, not Hippolyte, should be chosen as the new king of Athens. Aricie hopes that she will be chosen to rule. Hippolyte, a fair-minded young man, tells Aricie that he will support her for the rule of Athens. He feels that Phèdre’s son should inherit Crete and that he himself should remain master of Troezen. He also admits his love for Aricie, but says that he fears the gods will never allow it to be brought to completion. When he tries to explain his intentions to his stepmother, she in turn drops her pretense of hatred and distrust and ends by betraying her love for Hippolyte. Shocked, he repulses her, and she threatens to take her own life.

The people of Athens, however, choose Phèdre’s son to rule over them, to the disappointment of Aricie. There are also rumors that Thésée still lives. Hippolyte gives orders that a...

(The entire section is 719 words.)