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.)