Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 970
Jean Racine’s 1677 play Phaedra reprises the ancient Greek play Hippolytus by the famed playwright Euripides; however, Racine’s version of events shifts the focus from the tragically-fated Hippolytus to the equally ill-fated Phaedra. Originally written and performed in French, the play melds ancient Greek conventions with seventeenth-century French literary traditions to create a unique reinterpretation of a classic myth.
The five-act play opens as Hippolytus speaks to his tutor, Theramenes, about his father, Theseus, who has been missing for some time. Hippolytus declares his desire to search for his father. Theramenes attempts to dissuade him, as he assumes that his pupil only wishes to leave to avoid his stepmother, Phaedra, who seems to dislike her new stepson and treats him poorly.
However, Hippolytus reveals that it is not his dislike of Phaedra that motivates him; instead, it is love for the gentle Aricia, the sister of the wicked sons of Pallas, Theseus’s sworn enemies. Because of her family tie to enemies of the crown, Hippolytus's love must forever remain unrequited; as such, he wishes to leave the royal courts of Troezen to dull the aching love for Aricia, whom he can never have.
The scene turns to the ailing Phaedra, whose health and mental state have dramatically declined. In her confusion, she speaks of a secret she wishes to take to her grave, but her maid, Oenone, presses her mistress to confide in her. Phaedra reveals the nature of her illness: she pines for Hippolytus, and the guilt of her obsession with her husband’s son has sickened her. As the women discuss Phaedra’s perverse desires, Panope—one of Phaedra’s many servants—arrives bearing the news of Theseus’ death. With his death officially confirmed, Panope warns, a power struggle for the throne of Athens looms. She names Hippolytus and Aricia as claimants for the throne and adds that Phaedra’s life and position are in danger.
After Phaedra sends Panope away, she and Oenone consider her position. With her husband dead, her lust for Hippolytus is no longer the moral lapse it once was; indeed, in the wake of Theseus’ passing, their union is the most reasonable path forward. Oenone argues that Athens stands to benefit from the union of the widow and son of the previous king, and Phaedra is readily convinced.
Act two begins as Aricia and her friend, Ismene, discuss the news of the king’s death. Aricia confides in Ismene that she fears Hippolytus will see her as a threat to his birthright; however, Ismene reassures her that such an outcome is unlikely, as she knows that Hippolytus is secretly infatuated with Aricia. Ismene’s claim is proven true when the young prince arrives, frees Aricia of her disgraced status, and offers to unite their claims and share the throne. When Aricia praises his ability to set aside his hatred for her in the name of Athens, Hippolytus professes that love motivates him, not necessity. Aricia is stunned, but before she can reply, Theramenes arrives, warning his pupil that his stepmother has summoned him.
Emboldened by her husband’s death, Phaedra professes her love to Hippolytus; understandably, he is appalled and rejects her advances. As Theramenes approaches, Oenone tears her ranting mistress away from the unwilling object of her affection, fearful of the shame her interest might bring. Hippolytus tells Theramenes that they must leave; in turn, Theramenes informs him that Phaedra’s son has been crowned king by the people of Athens but adds that there are rumors that Theseus is still alive in Epirus.
Act three opens as Oenone leaves Phaedra in her misery. However, she returns shortly after with the news...
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of Theseus’ return; this compounds Phaedra’s guilt, and she cannot imagine facing her husband. Oenone suggests a solution: to save herself, Phaedra must name Hippolytus as the instigator and accuse him of making sexual advances toward her. She is uneasy with the scheme but agrees. Theseus arrives at her chambers, greeting her warmly; she rejects him, warning him that she is unclean. The king is confused at the strange welcome and asks Hippolytus to shed light on his wife’s words. However, his son refuses to explain. His silence proves a mistake because Oenone takes the opportunity to twist the story as she sees fit, telling Theseus that Hippolytus assaulted Phaedra.
Enraged at the accusations, Theseus confronts his son, who indignantly denies Oenone’s claims and reveals his love for Aricia. His father refuses to believe him and banishes him from Troezen. Phaedra overhears Theseus’ outburst and is overcome by the prospect of Hippolytus's banishment, unwilling to lose the man whom she still pines after; Theseus tells her of his son’s infatuation with Aricia, and Phaedra is inconsolable. Act four ends as Phaedra, angered by the bad advice Oenone has given her, banishes her servant from her presence.
At the start of act five, Hippolytus and Aricia discuss their respective fates and agree to wed in secret. The scene turns back to the royal chambers as Theseus learns that Oenone—whom Phaedra has banished—cast herself into the sea and perished. Theseus, worried that he has misread the situation, exclaims to his servants, begging them to call back his son. However, his uncertainty dawns too late: Theramenes arrives with awful news and tells Theseus of Hippolytus's gruesome death at the hands of his horses, who, frightened by a sea monster, dragged him to his death.
Overcome with emotion, Phaedra confesses her deceit, telling her grieving husband that it was she and not Hippolytus who was to blame. As she confesses, the poison she ingested before the conversation takes effect; Phaedra dies, feeling purified in death. Theseus mourns his son's destruction and his wife's betrayal and then vows to adopt Aricia per his son’s dying wishes.