(Disaster follows when Phaedra falls for her stepson!)
All text except quotations is copyright 1999 by David Lahti, and represents his views alone. Please comment on this page in my guestbook.
Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Artemis, goddess of chastity, are at odds in this play. Or, to put it psychologically, Phaedra is wracked with guilt at the fact that she has fallen in love with Hippolytus, her husband's son by a previous wife. She is virtuous, however, and resolves to endure her temptation without succumbing to it. She confides in her unprincipled, nihilistic nurse, however, who is quick to tell Hippolytus. Hippolytus is chaste, but terribly harsh and uncompassionate. He shows no mercy in dealing with Phaedra, and condemns her for what the nurse told him.
[Don't read this paragraph unless you want the ending revealed:] Phaedra sees no escape from her shame except suicide, which she commits. Her husband Theseus finds her and reads her suicide note, which exacts revenge on Hippolytus by claiming that he violated her. Theseus curses his son to die that day and banishes him. By the time Artemis tells him the true story it is too late.
The gods have their play, Euripides tells us, and we pitiful humans must suffer because of a double jeopardy: vice surely brings destruction eventually, and yet we are weak and prone to vice by nature. Moreover, we are subject to fate, which is not kinder to good people than bad. So it seems that no one can maintain perfect virtue, and so we're doomed-- but even if we could be virtuous, we'd get smacked anyway by the vicissitudes of fate! The message is surely one of frustration and fist-waving at the gods, although Euripides does it with some reverence. Above all, Artemis tells us that the pious person is still much more highly regarded by the gods than the impious. When an impious person suffers, the gods nod as if to say "take that!". So, given our sad lot in life, it is better to be suffering and good than suffering and evil. Or that's Euripides' line anyway.
No one in the play is completely good, which attests to the complexity and reality of Euripides’ understanding of human nature. One might more quickly notice the vices of the Nurse and Hippolytus, but Phaedra and Theseus are to blame for the evil that resulted from their actions as well. In fact, Euripides changed this play before presenting it in the form we have today, to make this point more strongly.
The following are the main themes of the play:
-The willy-nilly actions of the gods, throwing mortal lives about
-The fickleness and injustice of fate
-Goodness is not necessarily rewarded
-The heavy burden of temptation and sin
"Man's life from birth to death is sorrow and pain,
With never pause or relief;
And when we are dead, is there a happier world?
Knowledge is hidden from us in clouds and darkness.
Since we can know no other kind of life,
Since the world of the dead is a mystery,
It seems we must blindly love, for what it is worth,
Our little gleam of light
And follow our foolish course content with tales."
-Nurse, to Phaedra in opening scene
"Since we must die, it would be better,
In making friends, never to go too far,
Or open the depths of our heart to anyone.
The ties of love ought to lie loosely on us,
Easy to break or bind.
For one heart to endure the pain of two,
As I suffer for her, is a cruel burden.
They say that steadfast devotion
Brings with it more trouble than pleasure,
And is an enemy to life and health.
So I think that in this as in other things
It is best not to go too far;
And any wise man will say the same."
-Nurse, to Phaedra in opening scene
"I am finding a way to bring honour out of shame."
-Phaedra, to Nurse
"Aphrodite is no goddess! No! She has brought this disaster on Phaedra and on me and on the royal house,-- she is something more than a goddess-- something greater!"
"...we know and see what is right, yet fail to carry it out. Some fail through sloth, others through valuing some pleasure more than goodness; and life offers us many pleasures."
"...there is no trusting the tongue, which knows how to instruct others in wisdom, but invites disaster by its own folly."
"...when the great choose dishonour, the common herd will do the same."
"I hate women whose tongues talk of chastity, who in secret are bold in every sin!"
"Only an upright heart and a clear conscience, they say, gives a man strength to wrestle with life; while those whose hearts are evil, sooner or later-- as a young girl sees the truth in her glass-- so they, when Time holds up his mirror, find their own sin revealed."
"It is true: virtue, whenever it appears, is a beautiful thing; and the fruit of virtue in this life is a good name."
"Why, the true wisdom for mortals is to keep faults well hidden. A builder doesn't plane and polish the rafters in the roof! and it's not for us mortals to struggle after a tiresome perfection."
"What you say is plausible, but vile."
"How terrible is the advent of Aphrodite!
...For the breath of her terror is felt in every land,
And swift as a bee's flight
Is the path of her power."
"She did it for love, to cure my suffering; but it was wrong!"
"O Zeus! Why have you plagued this world with so vile and worthless a thing as woman? If it was your pleasure to plant a mortal stock, why must women be the renewers of the race? Better that men should come to your temples and put down a price, each what he could afford, to buy themselves children in embryo for gold or silver and get their money's worth; then they could live at home like free men, without women!"
"After all, wisdom is only happening to guess right."
"He would certainly be a clever instructor who could drive sense into a fool."
"Oh, there should be somewhere a touchstone of human hearts, which men could trust to tell them the truth about their friends, who is loyal and who is treacherous! Every man should have two voices, the one truthful, the other-- natural; so that his lying voice might be refuted by the true; and we should not be duped."
"The heart of man! Is there any vileness it will turn from? Will barefaced wickedness ever find its limit? If crime is to bulk bigger with each new generation, new depths of villainy be revealed age after age, the gods will need to create a second earth to house liars and lechers."
"So, now flaunt your purity! Play the quack with your fleshless diets!"
"Well I know that young men are no steadier than women, when Aphrodite stirs the hot blood in them. Indeed, their sex makes them even more headstrong."
"I have not known a woman. I know nothing of such matters, more than I have heard men tell, or seen in pictures; which I have little desire to look at, for my mind is virgin."
"When I remember that the gods take thought
For human life, often in hours of grief
To me this faith has brought
Comfort and heart's relief.
Yet, though deep in my hope perception lies
Wistful, experience grows and faith recedes:
Men's fortunes fall and rise
Not answering to their deeds."
"For a good man's death is no joy to the gods; but the impious man we utterly destroy, and his house and children with him."
"Oh, if only a man's curse could touch a god!"
"...men may well sin,
When the god so ordain."
...you want some commiseration in the knowledge that nobody's perfect-- and everybody suffers because of it; or you want a quick-moving short drama of temptation, rage, and revenge.
(For the Greek tragedian:)
-Aeschylus, Agamemnon (458 BC)
-Sophocles, Antigone (441 BC)
-Euripides, Medea (431 BC)
-Sophocles, Oedipus the King (c.428 BC)
(For the observer of human frailty and self-destructive vice:)
-William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1602)
-Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749)
-Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942)
-Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1952)
(click on paperback or hardcover)