Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413
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 moving figure in the play. Hippolytus is innocent of any wrongdoing, but his self-righteous moralism and abnormally rigid sexual behavior not only render him personally unsympathetic but also, more important, are major stimulants to the sequence of actions that leads to the final catastrophe. Theseus’s impulsive vengeance adds the third element to the drama. Uncontrollable passion, arrogant self-righteousness, and mindless revenge combine to create a multiple tragedy.
From a dramatic standpoint, there is one problem in that Phaedra, the most important character in the play, dies when the plot is little more than half over. With her death, the intensity of the play flags. The debate between Theseus and Hippolytus over the causes of her death and Theseus’s subsequent condemnation of Hippolytus lack the feelings that make Phaedra’s scenes so vital, although they do resolve the action and grant to the father and son a measure of sympathy and tragic stature they had previously lacked. It is, however, the vividness, intensity, and tragic ambiguity of Phaedra’s character that makes Hippolytus one of Euripides’ greatest and most provocative plays.