Analysis

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Phaedra is a play in verse written by the French playwright Jean Racine. It tells the familiar mythological tale of Phaedra, Cretan wife of Theseus, who is overcome with love for her stepson, Hippolytus. The same story is told in Seneca's Latin play, Phaedra , and, before that, in Euripides'...

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Phaedra is a play in verse written by the French playwright Jean Racine. It tells the familiar mythological tale of Phaedra, Cretan wife of Theseus, who is overcome with love for her stepson, Hippolytus. The same story is told in Seneca's Latin play, Phaedra, and, before that, in Euripides' Greek play, Hippolytus. Phaedra is the daughter of King Minos of Crete and Pasiphaë, a daughter of Apollo who was cursed to love a bull and produce the Minotaur. Phaedra tries to seduce her stepson, Hippolytus (son of Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta). When Hippolytus refuses her advances, she claims to Theseus that his son tried to rape her. Theseus thus invokes the sea god Neptune's aid in killing Hippolytus. Hippolytus ultimately dies while driving his chariot, which is attacked by a monster at sea. Racine's version of events explores the effects of jealousy, and employs significant moments of dramatic irony.

There are important differences between Racine's and the other works, which impart special meaning to the play. First, Euripides has Phaedra dying before Hippolytus' death, while Racine allows his protagonist to live to see her stepson's death. Furthermore, she nearly confesses her false allegation of rape to Theseus, until learning of Hippolytus' actual love for another woman, Aricia. Her jealously proves too much for Phaedra to bring a confession, which she delays until Hippolytus is dead.

Phaedra's nurse, Oenone, has a prominent role in Racine's version of events. She in fact concocts the story surrounding Hippolytus' alleged rape. When Phaedra resents her for this decision and banishes her from service, Oenone kills herself, as Phaedra will. Theseus suspects cunning on the part of Phaedra, but Oenone dies before he can question her. Theseus is also presumed dead during the first acts of the play, which inspires Phaedra to confess her incestuous love to his stepson. Thus dramatic irony is employed more richly in Racine's play than in the ancient counterparts.

Places Discussed

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*Troezen

*Troezen (TREE-zun). Greek town in the Peloponnesus, on the Saronic Gulf, opposite Athens, that is the birthplace of Theseus, king of Athens, as well as his son Hippolytus’s childhood home. Troezen is a “gentle province” removed from “the blaze of Athens’s brawling protocol.” However, Hippolytus’s return to Troezen to live under the same roof as Phaedra during Theseus’s absence makes the province seethe with forbidden desires.

*Athens

*Athens. Theseus’s seat of government. Before Theseus’s reign, Athens’s subordination to Crete required an annual tribute of fourteen young people to be devoured by the Cretan Minotaur.

*Crete

*Crete (kreet). Fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, located southeast of the Greek mainland. There, in a mazelike labyrinth at Knossos, lives the Minotaur, the creature born from Queen Pasiphaë’s coupling with a white bull that the sea god Poseidon gave to her husband, King Minos. Theseus killed the Minotaur with the help of Princess Ariadne, then married her sister Phaedra. Phaedra’s Cretan origins establish not only her foreignness in Athens—in contrast to Princess Aricia’s pure Athenian blood—but also her heritage of monstrous passion, embodied at play’s end in the bull-dragon from the sea that kills Hippolytus.

*Scythia

*Scythia (SIHTH-ee-ah). Area in southeastern Europe, around the region northeast of the Black Sea in what is now Moldava, Ukraine, and western Russia. The Greeks considered the Scythians and their Amazon neighbors, a female warrior society, barbarians. Hippolytus, as the son of Antiope, an Amazon whom Theseus carried off to Athens, is both an illegitimate heir and a despised alien.

*Naxos

*Naxos. Largest and most fertile of Greece’s Cyclades Islands, almost at the center of the Aegean Sea. There, Theseus abandons Ariadne before kidnapping Antiope and marrying Phaedra.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 263

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.

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