Phaedra, the young wife of the legendary Athenian king Theseus, falls passionately in love with her puritanical stepson, Hippolytus, and the ensuing conflict leads to the death of both parties, as well as to the emotional devastation of the king himself.
Aphrodite personally sets the plot in motion by formally announcing her intention to destroy Hippolytus as punishment for his sexual continence and for his inordinate devotion to the virginal goddess of the hunt, Artemis. Exercising her prerogatives as the goddess of love, Aphrodite causes Phaedra to become romantically obsessed with Hippolytus. Despite her moral qualms over this illicit passion, Phaedra agrees to let her maid act as an intermediary for the purpose of informing Hippolytus of her love for him. After learning that he had indignantly rebuffed her advances, Phaedra hangs herself. To protect her own honor, she leaves a letter behind accusing Hippolytus of having raped her.
Hippolytus defends himself eloquently even though he never reveals the content of his conversation with Phaedra’s maid, since he swore a sacred oath of secrecy. Theseus refuses to accept his son’s innocence and orders him into exile. Driving along the shore, Hippolytus is thrown from his chariot and mortally injured when his team of horses is frightened by a monstrous bull that suddenly emerges from the sea. This event occurs as the direct result of Theseus’ plea to Poseidon that his son be annihilated. Meanwhile Artemis herself appears before Theseus and establishes his son’s innocence. The dying Hippolytus is then brought home and thereupon has a tearful reconciliation with his remorseful father.
Since Hippolytus was the son of an Amazon mother and Phaedra was the daughter of the queen of Crete who gave birth to the minotaur, their disparate sexual proclivities were to some extent determined by heredity. Either extreme, however, constituted a gross violation of the Greek ideal of moderation as it was subsequently formulated in the Aristotelian doctrine of the golden mean.
Euripides. Hippolytus. Translated by Robert Bagg. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. In his translator’s introduction, Bagg claims that Hippolytus’ possession by Artemis can be explained by the concept of sophrosyne, a strength of character so free of guilt and clear of mind that the individual is not even tempted to commit a wrong, weak, or greedy action.
Euripides. Hippolytus. Edited by W. S. Barret. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1964. Scholarly edition of the play, which includes a discussion of the legend and cult of Hippolytus, evidence for lost plays on the subject, the history of the text in antiquity and the middle ages, and a commentary on the play.
Euripides. Hippolytus. In Three Plays by Euripedes, translated by Philip Vellacott. 1953. Reprint. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1974. In his introduction, Vellacott points out two major themes in Hippolytus, that of syngnome, or pardon, which differs from forgiveness in its emotional detachment and lack of religious implications, and that of the deep gulf of misunderstanding between men and women.
Kitto, H. D. F. “Euripidean Tragedy: The Hippolytus.” In Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study. 1939. Reprint. London: Methuen, 1978. Focuses on such issues as the contrast in character development in Phaedra and Hippolytus; the seeming lack of unity in the play; and the role of the goddesses, especially Aphrodite.
Lattimore, Richard. Introduction to Hippolytus, by Euripides, edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore. 1955. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. Explains the interest Greek audiences had in women and their place in society. Discusses how the play hinges on the monstrousness of the relationship Phaedra desires and points out the weakness of the somewhat mechanical denouement.