Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698
In this drama, Phedra, the young wife of the legendary Athenian king Theseus, struggles valiantly, albeit unsuccessfully, to control an illicit passion for her stepson, Hippolytus, and his unresponsiveness leads to the tragic death of both principals.
As the play opens, Theseus has been absent from his domain for more than six months. During this period, Hippolytus, who enjoys a reputation for being indifferent to women, discovers that he is in love. The object of his affection is Aricia, the sole surviving child of Theseus’ archrival for the kingship of Athens. He dares not make a proposal of marriage, since Theseus has decreed that she must remain unwed to safeguard the dynastic rights of his own children by Phedra. At the same time, Phedra herself is struggling to repress her own romantic obsession with Hippolytus.
The situation changes abruptly when news of Theseus’ purported death arrives. Hippolytus declares his love for Aricia, and Phedra, at the prompting of her maid, confesses her own love to Hippolytus. While Aricia is receptive, Hippolytus reacts with indignation. To everyone’s surprise, Theseus now appears, and Phedra’s maid feels obliged to protect her mistress’s honor by informing him that Hippolytus had attempted to seduce the queen. In defending himself, Hippolytus chooses not to betray Phedra’s confidence, but informs his father that he is really in love with Aricia. Refusing to accept his son’s innocence, Theseus banishes Hippolytus and calls upon Neptune to annihilate him.
Phedra herself is now on the point of admitting the truth to Theseus. When her husband informs her of Hippolytus’ claim to be in love with Aricia, however, she remains silent out of jealousy. Hippolytus, meanwhile, has been thrown from his chariot and dragged to death after his horses were frightened by a sea monster as he drove along the shore. When his corpse is returned home, Phedra is stricken with remorse and takes poison. Before expiring, she confesses her guilt to Theseus. To appease the shade of Hippolytus, Theseus announces that he will henceforth treat Aricia as though she were his very own daughter.
Phedra is by no means wicked, for she struggles fiercely to control her emotions. From a pagan perspective, she is simply a victim of Venus. There is, however, every reason to believe that Racine himself viewed her in terms of the Jansenist theology of predestination. She was, in short, an essentially virtuous person from whom redeeming grace had been withheld.
One of the singular beauties of the play lies in its use of rhymed alexandrine couplets to establish a Baroque tension between content and form.
Abraham, Claude. “Phèdre.” In Jean Racine. Boston: Twayne, 1977. This chapter in Abraham’s book focuses on Racine’s radical alterations of the characterizations from his sources, Euripides and Seneca. He also emphasizes the musicality of Racine’s language and his emphasis on the importance of eyes.
Clark, A. F. B. “Phèdre.” In Jean Racine. New York: Octagon Books, 1969. An overview of Racine’s work that includes chapters on the age of Racine, classical tragedy before Racine, Racine’s life, and each of his plays. Clark demonstrates that Phaedra marks Racine’s transition from secular to sacred plays as the protagonist is a “Greek woman with a Jansenist conscience,” full of the consciousness of her sin.
Mourgues, Odette de. Racine: Or, The Triumph of Relevance. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967. This study focuses on the patterns created by the interdependence and function of Racine’s tragic components. Mourgues praises Racine’s poetic depth and asserts that, in his tragedies, language reigns supreme.
Weinberg, Bernard. “Phèdre.” In The Art of Jean Racine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Weinberg’s book contains one chapter for each of Racine’s plays. He declares Phaedra to be the author’s most completely achieved drama because of its originality, unity, and characterization.
Yarrow, Philip John. “From Mithridate to Phèdre.” In Racine. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1978. In this chapter of his exhaustive study of Racine’s oeuvre, Yarrow examines Racine’s motivations for writing Phaedra, explores Racine’s debt to Euripides and Seneca, and proclaims that the play is the culmination of Racine’s work.