Last Updated November 3, 2023.
The Immutability of Fate
Classical mythology is complex and deeply interconnected. The famous tales of ill-fated heroes, doomed love, and misadventure are often linked, woven into a tangled chronology of familial and divine ties. Well-known myths often follow a familiar format, creating a generational history that connects one myth to the next. In the case of Phaedra, this pattern holds true.
The titular character is the daughter of King Minos of Crete and his wife, Pasiphaë. Phaedra’s unfortunate parentage invites a slew of issues. Indeed, she is dualistically (and diametrically) motivated. Although she wishes to be a paragon of virtue and strives to be a good woman, her perverse lust for her stepson, Hippolytus, undercuts her efforts. This duality is Phaedra’s birthright, a set of character traits that extend from the respective myths of her parents. After his death, King Minos became a judge of Hades, responsible for determining the fate of the dead. From Minos, Phaedra inherited a desire for order and perfection and a deep-seated fear of judgment. As such, she is constantly assaulted by a barrage of internal conflict, feeling immense guilt and shame for her passions. Her lust, however, cannot be helped.
Phaedra’s mother, Pasiphaë, was cursed by the goddess Aphrodite to lust after a bull, with whom she created the Minotaur, the half-man and half-bull monster who lived in Daedalus’s maze. Pasiphaë’s desires, like Minos’s harsh judgment, are evident in Phaedra, creating a set of opposite desires that lead her forever into conflict. Moreover, the ultimate decline of her marriage to Theseus is equally burdened by her parentage; the most popular story attributed to Theseus is his cleverness in navigating Daedalus’s maze and defeating the Minotaur. From the beginning, Theseus, the arbiter of the Minotaur's downfall, and Phaedra, the daughter of its lustful creator, operate at odds.
Indeed, Phaedra’s downfall is not simply the result of poor choices or immoral actions. Although her decisions are her own, they are also the product of a mythological inheritance that, by necessity, forces her to succumb to her family's failures and reprise the familiar patterns of these tangled stories. In the world of classical mythology—even in Racine’s seventeenth-century retelling—one’s fate is predetermined, set in stone by a divine structure of cruel inheritance.
The Beautiful and the Obscene
Phaedra is a classic tragedy written and rewritten by the master tragedians of their respective eras. Jean Racine’s seventeenth-century retelling of this familiar myth reprises the broad flows of desire and destructiveness as they appear in Euripides and Seneca’s originals, but it reorders certain elements to drive home the thin margin that separates the beautiful from the obscene. In the style of French Classicism, Racine uses precise, emotionally-charged language to indicate each character’s internal state. Nowhere is this cutting insight more important than in tragic scenes, such as the revelation of Hippolytus’s innocence and his gruesome, undeserved death.
As Theramenes regales the court with the intimate details of Hippolytus’s demise, there exists a perverse beauty in his passing. Theramenes praises his courage, describing his pupil’s movements lovingly and lingering on the beauty of a man racing at full speed to meet his fate. Even in the description of Hippolytus’s mutilated body, Theramenes romanticizes the grotesque. The image of a corpse rendered unrecognizable by the force of uncaring elements conjures another image of tender youth and masculine beauty torn from life too soon. These two interpretations battle for supremacy, creating a dualistic vision of death as both lovely and terrifying.
Racine reprises the overlap of beauty and obscenity in his exploration of the nature of love. In a reversal of his...
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vision of death—in which he sources unexpected beauty—Racine’s description of love lingers in its terrifying and obsessive elements. Phaedra’s experience of love distorts the traditional interpretation of the emotion into something grotesque and motivated by the desire for possession and ownership. These overarching themes—love and death—offer key sites in which Racine disrupts literary and social conventions of beauty and obscenity. In so doing, he romanticizes themes often considered obscene and distorts those assumed to be beautiful, highlighting the negligible line that divides one from the other.
The Effect of Jealousy
Phaedra lingers in the folly of misplaced desire, illustrating the consequences of love gone wrong. The titular character, Phaedra, longs for a man she cannot have and should not want. Her lust for her stepson, Hippolytus, disgusts her, yet she cannot seem to rid herself of these unwanted desires. Although she tries to appear cold and cruel, her callous visage hides a deep well of unrequited feelings. After mistakenly learning of her husband's death, Phaedra feels that her desires, which she has kept well hidden, might finally be satisfied. However, the revelation of Hippolytus’s love for Aricia, a beautiful Athenian princess, upends Phaedra's romanticized idealization and sends her reeling. Infuriated by Hippolytus’s rejection and driven mad by the knowledge of a competitor, Phaedra’s anger and embarrassment lead her down immoral paths.
Jealousy and unrequited love are the driving forces motivating the critical action in the play. These intense emotions consume Phaedra’s mind, driving her to tout blatant lies as truth, accuse innocent men of horrible crimes, and unintentionally orchestrate death and destruction. For the simple crime of not returning her affections and loving another, Hippolytus dies a painful death. His lover, Aricia, is bereft, stricken with grief for the life they might have shared. Theseus, who stubbornly refused to listen to his son's declarations of innocence, must share the burden of Hippolytus's death. Phaedra’s jealousy eroded her connection to morality, permitting her to act in ways that do not align with her code of values. At the end of the play, she takes her own life out of shame and guilt, knowing that she acted out of vengeful envy. It is a didactic message, warning readers about the dangers of acting irrationally in response to such strong, anger-fueled emotions.