By focusing exclusively on the passionate actions of the human characters, and by reducing the role of the gods so that they become mere instruments of Theseus’s bitter rage against his son, Seneca’s Phaedra becomes a moving study of the force of human emotions.
Pursuing his passion for the hunt with a determination worthy of his mother, the Amazon queen Antiope, young Hippolytus energetically readies his men and his hounds for a chase across the face of the known earth. After he and his teams are gone, Phaedra appears, bitterly scolding Theseus, who married her after Antiope’s death, for leaving her in order to explore the underworld. Partly because she is dissatisfied with her lonely life, Phaedra now overtly acknowledges her forbidden love for Hippolytus.
From her first soliloquy to her ensuing discussion with her old Nurse, who tries to reason her out of her mad love but finally decides to help her, Phaedra remains painfully self-conscious of both the clearly dangerous consequences of her passions and her reason’s inability to check her emotions. Intensely aware of her heritage as the daughter of the Cretan queen Pasiphae, whose love for a bull created the Minotaur, Phaedra knowingly, yet also helplessly, embraces disaster. By giving her such a painful insight into her quandary, Seneca creates a complex, introspective character whose spiritual offspring can be found, for example, in William Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.
After the Chorus reiterates the theme of Cupid’s power, the Nurse tries to persuade Hippolytus, who has returned to Athens, to love a woman rather than to...
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