Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 676
Hippolytus (hih-POL-ih-tuhs), the son of Theseus by Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. Because he pays exclusive worship to the virgin goddess Artemis, Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love, determines to punish him by making Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, fall in love with her stepson. Phaedra is dying of her guilty passion; when her nurse reveals her state to Hippolytus, after swearing him to secrecy, he is horrified. Phaedra kills herself out of shame, but because Hippolytus has shown no pity for her plight she leaves a tablet saying that she has killed herself because Hippolytus had raped her. Theseus, calling down on his son one of the infallible curses granted him by Poseidon, asks that Hippolytus be killed that day; in addition, he pronounces a sentence of exile against him. In the subsequent interview with his father, Hippolytus reveals the same inability to show affection, understanding, and tact that he had exhibited earlier in the interview with the nurse. He cannot reveal the truth, and his defense becomes an unpleasant exhibition of ostentatious purity and a long catalog of all his virtues: his piety, his seriousness, his modesty, and his chastity. His aloofness and self-satisfaction can be related to his illegitimacy, which is emphasized repeatedly; abandoned by his father and ashamed of his mother, he has cultivated his aloofness, revolted against the passion of love, and cut himself off from life itself. Hippolytus is mortally wounded as he prepares to leave the country. A tidal wave delivers a miraculous bull to frighten the horses that draw his chariot, and he is dragged behind the panic-stricken animals. When he is brought before his father, Artemis reveals his innocence. Hippolytus releases Theseus from blood-guilt, and the two are reconciled.
Phaedra (FEE-druh), Theseus’ wife and the means of Aphrodite’s vengeance on her stepson Hippolytus. She is introduced in the last stages of voluntary starvation, weak and delirious. The nurse is able to wring a confession of her passion for Hippolytus from her, but she fails to forbid absolutely any action on the part of the nurse. After Hippolytus refuses the nurse’s plea for help, Phaedra feels that she must kill herself to preserve the honor of her children. It is Hippolytus’ shocked brutality that leads her to a desire for personal vengeance. She is not entirely guiltless and hopes that Hippolytus will learn true modesty.
Theseus (THEE-see-uhs), the king of Athens. His hasty temperament causes passion and jealousy to blind him to anything but Phaedra’s accusation; he fails to understand, or to make any real effort to understand, his son. In fact, his attack on Hippolytus’ virtues is brutal and unfair. His undue haste is his chief weakness.
Aphrodite (a-froh-DI-tee), the goddess of beauty and patroness of love. She speaks the prologue and reveals her plan to punish Hippolytus. Her presence is felt throughout the drama as a personification of one of the forces in conflict that give the play universal significance.
Artemis (AHR-teh-mihs), the virgin goddess and goddess of the chase. She is worshiped by Hippolytus, reveals his innocence to Theseus at the close of the play, and vows revenge on Aphrodite. She is not as clear-cut a representation of one quality as Aphrodite, but she is presented as a form of beauty. Hippolytus’ prayers to her reveal his ability to put into words those feelings he cannot express for Theseus or Phaedra.
The nurse, Phaedra’s devoted servant. Although cynical by nature, she is at first shocked by Phaedra’s confession of passion for Hippolytus. Later, she deliberately tries to persuade her mistress to give way to her passion and abandon her plan of suicide. She reveals Phaedra’s passion to Hippolytus but does so in the hope of preventing Phaedra’s death.
The Chorus, palace women who announce the arrival of various characters.
A servant of Hippolytus
A servant of Hippolytus, who, in his attempt to rebuke his master for failing to acknowledge properly the powers of Aphrodite, reveals Hippolytus’ insolence to her.