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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667

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...

(The entire section contains 667 words.)

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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 spend his time with men and dogs. In lines that fascinated the sonneteers of the Renaissance, the Nurse in vain evokes the pleasures of love. Unmoved, Hippolytus is met by Phaedra, who cunningly swoons and falls into his arms. Gradually confessing her love for him, Phaedra encounters first disbelief, then violent reaction and total rejection from her stepson. Imploring the gods, Hippolytus achieves tragic status by sensing that Phaedra’s actions spell his own doom. “I am guilty, I have earned . . . death./ For I aroused my stepmother’s desire.” Ready to kill Phaedra as she flings herself at him, Hippolytus draws his sword but angrily throws it away once Phaedra tells him that, for her, to die at his hands would signify the consummation of her love. Acting quickly, the Nurse retrieves the sword and decides to save Phaedra from Theseus’s wrath by having her accuse her stepson of rape and using his weapon as evidence. Now, even the Chorus’s praise for Hippolytus cannot save him.

As Theseus returns, the Nurse’s plot develops according to plan, and Theseus is roused to a violent denunciation of his son. Full of anger and hatred, a slave to blind passion, he orders the gods to kill Hippolytus. In the face of this immense injustice, the Chorus, in hauntingly modern terms, criticizes the gods for the distance from humanity that keeps them from positive intervention. Hippolytus’s death is rendered in graphic detail by a messenger, telling of a sea monster that frightened his horses, who in turn dragged the hunter to his death over tree stumps and rocks. The horror of the act is increased further when his bloodied remains are brought on stage, and Theseus collapses with grief; even the Chorus is stunned.

When Phaedra appears and sees what is left of Hippolytus, she is raised to realize how badly both adults have failed him by giving in to their passions. Intensely pained, she accuses her husband: “I am a stepmother, and I bring death,/ but you, a father, are much worse than I.” As a punishment for his rash, harsh, and false judgment, Theseus is left alive, while Phaedra stabs herself with Hippolytus’s sword. Trembling with sorrow, he orders “a royal pyre” for his son’s funeral and demands that Phaedra’s corpse be thrown into a ditch and covered with earth, as one would dispose of a dead animal.

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