Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1097
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...
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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 nurse reconsiders, however, and advises her mistress to let matters take a natural course; she would offend Aphrodite if she were to resist her love for Hippolytus. Phaedra is quite scandalized when the nurse suggests that she see Hippolytus. The nurse says that she has a love charm that would end Phaedra’s malady, but that the potion is ineffectual without a word from Hippolytus’s mouth or an item of his clothing or personal belongings.
Phaedra’s attendants melodically invoke Aphrodite not to look askance upon them in their concern for their mistress. The nurse, eager to aid the lovesick woman, goes to Hippolytus and tells him of Phaedra’s love. The young huntsman is shocked, and he rebukes the nurse for a bawd and expresses his dislike for all mortal womankind. Phaedra, having overheard her stepson’s angry reproaches and his condemnation of all women, fears that her secret will be revealed. To make Hippolytus suffer remorse for her death, she hangs herself.
Theseus, who has been away on a journey, is grief-stricken to discover that Phaedra has taken her life. His grief turns to rage, however, when he reads a letter clenched in his dead wife’s hand, which claims that Hippolytus had caused her death by his attempts to rape her. Wild with sorrow and rage, Theseus calls on Poseidon to grant the first of his requests: that the god destroy Hippolytus that very day. His attendants implore him to be calm, to consider the welfare of his house, and to withdraw his request.
Hippolytus, returning at that moment, encounters his father and is mystified by Theseus’s passionate words. Standing over the body of his dead wife, the king reviles his bastard son and shows him the letter Phaedra had written. Hippolytus proudly defends his innocence, saying that he has never looked with carnal desire upon any woman. Theseus, refusing to believe his son’s protestations, banishes the young man from his sight. Hippolytus departs, still insisting to his friends that he is innocent.
Going down to the seashore, Hippolytus enters his chariot after invoking Zeus to strike him dead if he has sinned. As he drives along the strand on the road leading to Argos, an enormous wave rises out of the sea and from the whirling waters emerges a savage, monstrous bull, whose bellowing echoes along the shore. The horses drawing Hippolytus’s chariot panic and run away, the bull in pursuit. Suddenly, one of the chariot wheels strikes a rock and the car overturns. Hippolytus is dragged across the rocks and mortally injured.
When Theseus learns that his son still lives, he is indifferent but consents to have him brought back to the palace. While he waits, Artemis appears and tells him of his son’s innocence and of Phaedra’s guilty passion for Hippolytus. Aphrodite, she declares, contrived the young hunter’s death to satisfy her anger at his neglect of her shrines.
Hippolytus, his body maimed and broken, is carried on a litter into his father’s presence. Still maintaining his innocence, he moans with shameless self-pity and laments that one so pure and chaste should meet death because of his frightened horses. They are, he says, the principal means by which he has always honored Artemis, goddess of the hunt. When she tells him that Aphrodite has been the cause of his fatal injuries, he declares that he, his father, and Artemis are all victims of the Cyprian’s evil designs.
Knowing the truth at last, Hippolytus takes pity on the brokenhearted Theseus and forgives his father for his misunderstanding and rage. Theseus arises from the side of the dead prince. Miserably he faces the prospect of living on after having caused the destruction of his innocent, beloved son.