(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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....

(The entire section is 596 words.)