Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Jean Racine’s Phaedra retells the classic tale of unwanted incestuous love and the dire consequences of jealousy and betrayal. His 1677 play begins as the titular character, Phaedra, monologues about the perverse love of which she cannot rid herself.
I hate my life, and hold my love in horror.
Dying I wish'd to keep my fame unsullied,
And bury in the grave a guilty passion;
But I have been unable to withstand
Tears and entreaties, I have told you all;
Content, if only, as my end draws near,
You do not vex me with unjust reproaches,
Nor with vain efforts seek to snatch from death
The last faint lingering sparks of vital breath.
Embarrassed by her immoral desires, Phaedra explains to her nurse, Oenone, that she wishes to commit suicide, as the shame of her lust is too much to bear. The burden of her love for her stepson, Hippolytus, has destroyed her, and she feels she has no other option. This scene reveals love’s torments and shows Phaedra to be a woman of conscience who would rather die than live with her shameful desires. However, before she acts on her desperate wish to end her life, a servant arrives and mistakenly informs Phaedra that her husband, Theseus, has died.
With her husband dead and her throne in jeopardy, Phaedra—with the encouragement of Oenone—chooses to show her hand. She propositions Hippolytus, arguing that joining their houses might bring unity to Athens. To her horror, he swifty rejects her. However, the humiliation of his scorn is brief, as Phaedra soon faces bigger problems. Theseus, who did not die at sea, returns home, and she must determine how to move forward. Rather than speaking honestly, Phaedra lies, telling her husband that Hippolytus assaulted her. The conscience that plagued her so painfully at the beginning of the play disappears, lost to anger and jealousy, and Phaedra allows her husband to banish his son on false charges. Hippolytus accepts his banishment, leaving Athens to meet his fate.
Meanwhile upon the watery plain there rises
A mountain billow with a mighty crest
Of foam, that shoreward rolls, and, as it breaks
Before our eyes vomits a furious monster.
With formidable horns its brow is arm'd,
And all its body clothed with yellow scales,
In front a savage bull, behind a dragon
Turning and twisting in impatient rage.
Its long continued bellowings make the shore
Tremble; the sky seems horror-struck to see it;
The earth with terror quakes; its poisonous breath
Infects the air.
In poignant, painful detail, Theramenes tells the story of the courageous Hippolytus’s battle with a sea monster he encountered on the road from Athens. While his companions ran, taking refuge in a nearby temple, Hippolytus stood firm to the last. Theramenes’s descriptions are beautiful and vivid, filling in details to which neither the audience nor the characters bore witness. Later in the passage, Theramenes describes how the monster, wounded by Hippolytus:
…shows a fiery throat
That covers them [the horses drawing his chariot] with flames, and blood, and smoke
Theramenes continues, adding that the gods were unfairly complicit in Hippolytus’s death. Indeed, he tells Theseus that he recalls seeing a god “prick” the flank of the brave hero’s horses. Startled by the prod, they ran wildly, crashed the chariot to pieces, and dragged Hippolytus to his death. The older man grows emotional as he recounts his final moments with his young pupil.
I come, I call him. Stretching forth his hand,
He opens his dying eyes, soon closed again. "The gods have robb'd me of a guiltless life,"
I hear him say:...
(This entire section contains 892 words.)
"Take care of sad Aricia When I am dead.
Dear friend, if e'er my father Mourn, undeceived, his son's unhappy fate
Falsely accused; to give my spirit peace,
Tell him to treat his captive tenderly, And to restore—" With that the hero's breath
Fails, and a mangled corpse lies in my arms,
A piteous object, trophy of the wrath
Of Heav'n—so changed, his father would not know him.
Theramenes, finishing his speech, repeats Hippolytus’s dying avowals of his innocence. Broken by the news of his son’s death, Theseus reconsiders his assumptions of Hippolytus’s guilt. Later, he attempts to discuss the events with Phaedra, and she reveals the truth.
Twas I who cast an eye of lawless passion
On chaste and dutiful Hippolytus.
Heav'n in my bosom kindled baleful fire,
And vile Oenone's cunning did the rest.
She fear'd Hippolytus, knowing my madness
Would make that passion known which he regarded
With horror; so advantage of my weakness
She took, and hasten'd to accuse him first.
For that she has been punish'd, tho' too mildly;
Seeking to shun my wrath she cast herself
Beneath the waves.
In an act of cowardly reparation, Phaedra has poisoned herself, striking her heart with a “fatal chill.” She confesses her crime of incestuous passion in an emotional speech, but her confession is marred by the knowledge that her death will allow her to escape earthly punishment. Although she blames Oenone for originating the plan to accuse Hippolytus of assault, Phaedra takes responsibility for the chaotic events that led to his death. The play ends with the death of both Phaedra and Hippolytus, leaving Theseus alone to mend the tattered shreds of his life and his city.