Last Updated November 3, 2023.
The King of Athens, Theseus, is a famous hero of Greek mythology; his youthful exploits earned him the honor of the throne, which he shares with his second wife, Phaedra. His eldest son, Hippolytus, is the product of his first marriage to Antiope, the Queen of the Amazons. Theseus is beloved by his citizens and family but is quick to anger and slow to listen, which ultimately leads to the play’s disastrous culmination. He loves his son and wife, but this love blinds him, leaving Theseus unable to discern the truth about those dearest to him.
Phaedra is the play’s eponymous character; as such, Phaedra is largely concerned with her turbulent emotional state. Although she is married to Theseus, she finds herself enamored with her stepson, Hippolytus. Tortured by this misplaced passion, she tries to cure herself using various methods, including praying to Venus and treating Hippolytus cruelly. However, nothing works. Phaedra is a passionate woman with strong emotions; she has a strong resolve and stands by her convictions, resolving to commit suicide to murder the illicit love that she cannot shake.
Upon learning of her husband’s death, Phaedra changes tactics, intending to pursue her once-forbidden love and act on her desires. Fundamentally, Phaedra is a good woman with a strong grasp of moral feeling. Unfortunately, she finds herself gripped by the “madness” of a love she does not want, so her convictions fall to the wayside, abandoned in the pursuit of her passion. As a result, she often makes regrettable and occasionally morally-questionable decisions. Despite this, she is a pitiable character, as her monologues often linger in self-deprecation and sorrow.
The son of Theseus and his first wife, Antiope, Hippolytus, is a quintessential Greek hero. He is handsome, heroic, and deeply enmeshed in a doomed love affair with a woman he cannot have. Despite his misplaced love for Aricia, the sister of two traitors to the Athenian crown, Hippolytus is a good-hearted man with a deep respect for his father. When his virtue is questioned, and he is accused of assaulting his stepmother, Hippolytus does not plead his case; instead, he accepts his unearned punishment and leaves Athens. His quiet acceptance reveals his measured temperament and integrity, while the battle that ensues during his voyage indicates his strength and courage. Indeed, Hippolytus is a balanced man who is both physically and emotionally strong. However, Hippolytus's virtues are ultimately irrelevant, as his story ends with his gruesome death at the hands of a sea monster.
Aricia is a beautiful Athenian princess. She has the misfortune of sharing blood with two men who attempted to usurp the Athenian throne. By virtue of her relation to these traitors, she is also viewed as a traitor. She imagines that this status is what inspires Hippolytus to treat her poorly but is shocked to learn that his cruelty is a warped expression of his suppressed love. Aricia is a sweet and gentle soul who is receptive to Hippolytus's advances and quickly accepts his proposal of their union. She is a loyal advocate for her lover and attempts to beg his pardon from the immovable Theseus.
Oenone is Phaedra’s nurse. She also acts as the queen’s loyal confidant, although she seems to take her role too seriously. Oenone has significant influence over the play’s events. Following her advice, Phaedra pursues Hippolytus, which proves to be a mistake. To hide her shame, Phaedra agrees to Oenone’s plan to blame Hippolytus for her incestuous desires. Ultimately, Oenone’s advice leads Phaedra down a dark and maddening path, so the queen accuses Oenone...
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of intentionally orchestrating Phaedra’s dire circumstances and dismisses her from her position. The nurse, devastated by the loss of her position and dearest friend, commits suicide. She is an interesting character, as she operates as something of an extension of Phaedra, discussing her interests, sharing her sins, and joining in on the chaotic exchange of love and death.
Hippolytus's tutor, Theramenes, is a wise and loyal older man who seeks to shape his young pupil into a kind and intelligent future ruler. After Hippolytus’s banishment from Athens, Theramenes witnesses his pupil’s heroic but ultimately futile battle with the sea monster that brings about his death. Devastated by the loss, Theramenes returns to Athens and eloquently relays Hippolytus’s courage to a grief-stricken Theseus.
Ismene is a close friend and confidant of Aricia. The pair share many secrets, and Ismene is responsible for emboldening Aricia to accept Hippolytus’s proposal of marriage.
As the Athenian Queen, Phaedra has many servants. However, only one (aside from her nurse, Oenone) is given a name. Panope is a recurring servant who appears throughout the play. She is responsible for falsely informing Phaedra of Theseus’s death.