Ancient Literature and Language
Chapter 9: Euripides and Hippolytus
I. Euripides and the Background to Hippolytus
Euripides was born in Attica between the Persian Wars (ca. 485 BCE). Living almost all of his life in Athens, he died in Macedonia early in 406 BCE. Though not among the super-rich as Sophocles was, Euripides' family left him well enough off to spend his entire life without having to work at anything other than writing plays.
About Euripides' dramatic career, ancient sources provide us only a few highlights. He first presented a trilogy of tragedies at the Dionysia in 455 BCE—the year after Aeschylus' death who therefore never saw a play by Euripides produced there—but Euripides had to wait well over a decade, until 441 BCE, to secure a first prize. Of the eighty or so plays he wrote, nineteen survive, more than twice the number of either Sophocles or Aeschylus.
Some information about Euripides' life has come down to us, mostly from contemporary and later comic playwrights who were fascinated with the great master of drama. For instance, the ancient comic poet Aristophanes makes fun of the fact that Euripides' mother was a green-grocer—a confusing joke unintelligible today—and from other comic poets we learn his home life was as tempestuous as the family lives of the characters in his tragedies. It's also said that he composed his tragedies in a cave on the island Salamis just off Athens. What exactly can be trusted in this information is unclear, except that behind it lies a picture of an unconvivial loner largely uninvolved in civic life—very different from the politician-playwright Sophocles—probably not a person easy to get along with, either, uninterested in currying popular favor with his dramas or otherwise, and a fiercely independent thinker.
His solitary habits, no doubt, encouraged the exploration of both sides of issues, a characteristic which pervades his work. No matter the circumstances, Euripides seems able to argue for or against any cause like some lawyer-for-hire, only he appears to do it not for the money nor to defend the innocent nor even to pursue some higher justice but mainly to provoke his audience into thinking about something in a new light. Judging from the reaction of his contemporaries, one must conclude that his audiences didn't fully appreciate this extraordinary talent for presenting both sides of issues with equal force. Thus, they rewarded him rather rarely with a first prize, which didn't stop either him or them from producing his plays again and again at the Dionysia.
Today Euripides is often listed third among Greek tragedians after Aeschylus and Sophocles, but it's misleading to do so either in terms of chronology or the quality of his writing. Though younger than Aeschylus, he and Sophocles were all but exact contemporaries—Sophocles, in fact, died a few months after Euripides—thus, they must have contended against one another at the Dionysia probably more than once. And if Sophocles won far more first prizes there, it bears little upon Euripides' dramatic talents and skill.
To be precise, although Euripides entered the playwrights' competition more than twenty times, ancient sources tell us that he was awarded first prize only four times over the course of his long career. He won once more with a final trilogy presented after his death, but that couldn't have been very satisfying to him. Indeed, if handing someone a victory can be an insult, this was. In the end, Euripides' constant provocation of the Athenians' basic preconceptions about life and his criticism of the fundamental postulates structuring their society—particularly, his portrayal of the gods as wantonly vicious and cruel super-beings who toy maliciously with humankind—must have grated on them, but his drama was eminently watchable, perhaps the most of any Greek tragedian. He fascinated and at the same time frustrated his contemporaries.
Athens' most prominent hero in classical mythology is Theseus and, like many such characters upon whom legends and stories have accreted over time, the tales of his life encompass many different adventures. The story of Hippolytus is set near the end of Theseus' life when he has already been abroad and married several times, slain all sorts of dangerous beasts, become the king of Athens and even visited the underworld. For those seeking a brilliant modern retelling of Theseus' mythic history—and some gripping reading, to boot—I recommend Mary Renault's The King Must Die and its sequel, The Bull From The Sea.
Theseus' story begins with his parents. When his father Aegeus married his mother Aethra, the princess of Athens, they at first had no children. In answer to their fervent prayers, the sea-god Poseidon slept with Aethra from which union she bore a son whom she named Theseus and Aegeus later believed to be his own. He had good reason for doing so because at the time of the child's conception he had, in fact, recently slept with his wife. Thus, Theseus ended up with two fathers, one mortal and one immortal, both guiding his destiny in different ways.
All this took place in Troezen, a coastal town near Athens. After bedding Aethra, Aegeus had left a sword and sandals under a rock and said to her that, if she bore a child and it was a son, she should tell him about these tokens belonging to his father and, when he was old enough to move the rock, that he should come to Athens bearing the sword and wearing the sandals so that Aegeus would recognize him. When grown, Theseus did exactly this, exterminating a half dozen monsters and madmen along the way.
After Theseus arrived in Athens, Aegeus recognized him but, to secure for himself the throne of Athens, the young man had to prove his might and courage by performing a pair of labors. The first and lesser by far was the capture and sacrifice of a rogue bull which was at that moment ravaging Marathon, an area near Athens. This he did expeditiously. The second was to slay the Cretan Minotaur ("Minos' Bull"), a half-bull half-man people-eating monster. As it turned out, these labors were closely linked because the Minotaur was the offspring of the Bull of Marathon. Thus, Theseus killed the father and then the son.
The mother of the Minotaur was the former queen of Crete, a woman named Pasiphae ("All-shining"), whose myth is among the more bizarre in classical myth. She had procreated her hideous offspring because of the hubris of her husband, Minos the king of Crete. His crime was that Poseidon had sent him a beautiful, white bull which according to ancient tradition he should have sacrificed back to the god but didn't, wishing to keep it for himself. Angered by Minos' selfishness, Poseidon punished the king by making his wife fall in love with the bull.
Their sexual union posed some challenges engineering-wise. Fortuitously, however, there happened to be a Greek inventor Daedalus ("Intricate") living in Crete at the time, so Pasiphae solicited his help in consummating her desire for the bull. The ingenious Daedalus devised a "wicker cow," into which Pasiphae climbed and achieved her goal, after which she gave birth to the Minotaur.
When at long last Minos discovered all this, the clever Greek was forced to flee because of his involvement in the affair—few societies look fondly upon inter-special liaisons—and trapped as he was on an island, Daedalus had to employ his ingenuity again. To escape, he devised two pairs of wings, fashioned out of feathers and wax. One pair he wore, and the other he gave to his son Icarus.
Together they flew from Crete and headed west toward Italy, but both unfortunately didn't make it. Elated by the experience of flying, Icarus went too high in the air despite his father's stern warnings not to do so. When he passed close to the sun, the wax in Icarus' wings melted and the feathers fell away, plunging the boy into the sea where he died. After arriving in Italy, Daedalus grief-stricken set up a memorial to his deceased son.
Back in Crete, what happened to Pasiphae after Minos learned what she'd done isn't clear but she disappears from the story, indeed from all myth. The Minotaur does not, however. Having at some point developed a taste for human flesh, the monster proved useful to Minos who decided to keep it around in order to intimidate surrounding nations. For instance, Minos decided to impose on Athens, one of the subject states in his large maritime empire, a fine of seven boys and seven girls every year to be fed to the Minotaur as recompense for the accidental death of one of Minos' sons in Athens.
By now the monster had been situated in the bowels of the huge palace-complex where Minos lived, the Labyrinth. Yet another of Daedalus' inventions, this was an enormous maze inside of which Minos locked those sentenced to die. There they wandered around in the dark until the Minotaur stumbled across them and feasted.
To spread the allotment of this horrible fine more evenly over the whole population, the Athenians used lots to determine which hapless children were to be condemned as bull fodder. When Theseus heard about this, he volunteered to go. Although Aegeus begged him not to, Theseus insisted but conceded to his anxious father that, if he succeeded, he would raise a white sail on his return to signal his safe passage home from Crete. If not, he would tell the sailors to leave up the black sail normally used.
Upon his arrival in Crete, Theseus' good looks—are leading men ever pocked and deformed?—caught the eye of the princess Ariadne, one of the daughters of Minos and Pasiphae. She met with him in secret and devised a plan to help him defeat and kill her half-man half-bull half-brother. She gave Theseus a sword and a spool of thread. With the former she told him to sneak up on the Minotaur and slit its throat. He would be able to tie one end of the latter to the hinges of the door leading into the Labyrinth and unwind it as he walked about in the maze of rooms. This way he could retrace his steps and escape after killing the monster.
This he did and, when he was done, he and Ariadne stole a boat and fled Crete. But the fickle Theseus dumped her after a brief overnight stay on the island Naxos. In some stories she died of grief; in others she did better without him. The god Dionysus found and married her. Either way she left the picture and the myth.
Theseus proceeded to Athens alone, but in the excitement of the Minotaur's defeat and Ariadne's abandonment he forgot to change his sail to white. When his father saw a black sail on Theseus' ship returning, he assumed his son was dead, threw himself into the sea off Athens and drowned. That part of the ocean was henceforth named the Aegean Sea in his honor. On landing, then, Theseus became the king of Athens.
His trials, however, hardly ended there. During his reign the Amazons, a race of dreaded and fierce warrior-maidens, attacked Athens. In the ensuing battle Theseus met and fell in love with their queen Hippolyta. After defeating her in hand-to-hand combat, he seduced—or in some stories, raped—and impregnated her. She subsequently gave birth to a boy, Hippolytus ("Horse-break"), and died soon after, according to some stories in childbirth.
During the time this son of an Athenian hero and an Amazon warrior was growing up—by Greek standards Hippolytus was almost as much of a hybrid as the Minotaur—Theseus went back to Crete for some reason where he arranged a wedding with Ariadne's younger sister, Phaedra ("Shining"). She came to live with her new husband in his kingdom and their marriage, given the circumstances, turned out to be an unexpectedly happy one.
As the years passed, they had two sons, younger half-brothers of Hippolytus who was by then serving as a priest in the cult of Artemis. That made him a hunter of sorts who was sworn to celibacy. This choice of professions revealed in him an odd predilection for his long-dead mother, the Amazon—like her son, Hippolyta had been formidable with a bow and averse to sexual contact—and a certain distaste for his father, which was unusual in a Greek man. It's at this point in the myth that Euripides' play is set.
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A. Introduction: Two Hippolytuses and a Phaedra
This play has been a particular favorite of many readers and theatre-goers over time, myself included. Though it's one of Euripides' earliest surviving plays, it's far from an immature work or even a play written early in his life. He produced it in 428 BCE when he was almost sixty years old and had been a producing playwright for almost three decades. It shows the hand of a master storyteller ably re-crafting a traditional tale.
The myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra follows a very old story pattern found in various forms across many different cultures. Its manifold charms—lust, youth, beauty, chastity, incest, revenge, suicide, oaths, violence, miracles, misery—have universal appeal. Those who know the Bible will recognize here an echo of the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. The variations on this ancient tale are hardly restricted to ancient societies, however. Many a modern soap opera has done a variation on this plot.
The core of the tale in most forms is this:
1. A step-mother (usually, an older husband's younger wife) falls in love with her husband's chaste and pious son, not her own child but one of her husband's by an earlier marriage or affair.
2. She offers herself to him, and he haughtily rebuffs her.
3. In anger and fear, she goes to her husband and falsely accuses the son of rape.
4. The father curses his son who dies most horribly (or barely escapes death).
5. In anguish and remorse, the wife confesses all and commits suicide.
1. Euripides' Hippolytus Veiled
By the time Euripides wrote the play we're about to read, the legend had already served as the subject of several tragedies produced at the Dionysia, including one by Euripides himself. Sophocles, for instance, had staged a play entitled Phaedra, probably shortly before Euripides' Hippolytus, and Euripides himself had composed an earlier Hippolytus, called in antiquity Hippolytus Veiled for a famous scene in which Hippolytus covers himself with a veil after Phaedra has approached and propositioned him. Both Hippolytus Veiled and Sophocles' Phaedra are now lost, but we can gather something of their content from references to these plays and pieces of dialogue which happen to have been preserved.
For example, we know Hippolytus Veiled scandalized the Athenian audience because Phaedra threw herself at Hippolytos right on stage in front of the audience. Such an explicitly sexual scene was unheard of in the day, a typical Euripidean gesture pointing up the biases in his audience who, in fact, enjoyed watching this sort of explicit sexuality but didn't want to admit it in public. This Phaedra—probably the first ever to stride the stage but certainly not the last—was a wanton vixen invested with barbarian morals. Although her old nurse tries to restrain Phaedra's passion, the lustful queen confronts Hippolytus directly, as shown in a snippet of their dialogue which happens to have been preserved:
|Phaedra:||People who run from love too much
Are sick, just like those look for it too much. . .
|Hippolytus:||I wish that Holy Shame, who lives among
All men, would strip away all shameless thoughts.
After he rejects her, Phaedra lies to Theseus that Hippolytus has raped her and somehow falsifies evidence of a violent assault. Theseus angrily tells Hippolytus about Phaedra's accusation, and for some reason the young man is unable to defend himself. After Theseus lays on him a curse and he dies horribly, the father learns the terrible truth about what really happened to his son. At the end of the play, a report comes that Phaedra has killed herself. Appalled by Euripides' violent, lustful portrayal of their ancestors, the Athenians did as they did so often, they gave the winner's crown to some other playwright.
2. Sophocles' Phaedra
Some time later, Sophocles made a stab at staging the same myth but, if it's fair to judge from the title of the play, he focused on the queen instead of Hippolytus. In Phaedra, he attempted to reform the central character by making a good and decent woman of her—no mean feat!—as he did with Oedipus and other classical villains. While our understanding of the play is far from complete, it's possible to grasp the basic outline of Sophocles' story.
Part of the general mythology of Theseus included a trip to the underworld. It was during this exploit that Sophocles decided to set his play. As the drama opens, rumors have come to Athens that Theseus is in the underworld, missing in action and presumed dead. Hippolytus is accorded the throne over Phaedra's sons who are still too young to rule. Frightened that because she's a foreigner her sons will ultimately be denied their rightful kingdom and torn by both love and fear of Hippolytus, Phaedra goes to him and suggests that they form a legal liaison. She almost certainly argued that, if they did, Theseus' children who were also Hippolytus' half-brothers would be assured their rightful place in their father's kingdom and the throne would pass without bloodshed to the next generation. After all, Hippolytus, the chaste priest, will never have children of his own to inherit his crown. At some point in this exchange, she says, "To a mother, children are the anchors of life." But Hippolytus perceives her intentions as sexual and rebuffs her soundly. Someone, perhaps the chorus, says: "He spat away her words!"
Next, the unexpected happens. Theseus returns from the underworld. Phaedra panics, having good reason to imagine Hippolytus will accuse her of adultery, or at least lechery. To protect herself and her children, she accuses him of rape—and also trying to take over the city by forcing her to marry him in Theseus' absence?— and when Theseus confronts Hippolytus with this, he says:
Nor would any city be safe ever
In which what is just and temperate
Is trampled under foot, and a twittering fool of a man
Takes a villainous whip in hand and gains the city.
There is nothing worse for a man to have
Than a evil wife and nothing better than
A temperate one.
Per the traditional story, Hippolytus is cursed and dies. Seeing what disaster she has caused, Phaedra commits suicide, no doubt, never having pursued sex with Hippolytus openly, and Sophocles, no doubt, won one of his many crowns with this more modest effort than Euripides'.
3. Euripides' Hippolytus Garlanded
That alone may have provoked Euripides to stage another version of the Hippolytus and Phaedra story, a rare event in Greek tragedy. As far as we know, few Greek tragedians ever staged two versions of the very same episode in myth—it probably looked like the playwright was correcting himself in public—but in this second effort called Hippolytus Garlanded, Euripides proved that he had learned from both his failure and his rival's success. At the same time, however, he managed not to abandon completely his challenging, revolutionary nature.
For instance, he toned down Phaedra's lechery without making her the confused victim of a fateful misunderstanding as Sophocles had. Instead, he made her character weaker and more human, which rendered a very sympathetic figure on stage, a person torn between what she knows is right to do and the strength of her illicit passion. He also altered drastically the nature of Phaedra's Nurse, who now abetted in Phaedra's lust rather than restraining it. This shifted some of the guilt and blame off Phaedra to another person, making her appear more innocent. Finally, Euripides also rearranged the story elements—not by much but brilliantly, as we'll see below—and, in what must be the most surprising change of all, he won first prize at the Dionysia with this revised and updated Hippolytus.
Begin reading Euripides' Hippolytus, with one eye on the notes below.
Line Numbers (in Euripides)
1-57 Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love, introduces the play; Artemis, the virgin huntress, closes it. Their appearances stand like pillars at the beginning and end of the play. This arrangement both reinforces the conflict which underlies the entire play and gives a wider context to the mortal action which constitutes the majority of the drama.
Each goddess is in her own way unusually cruel to the human characters. Aphrodite uses Phaedra to get revenge on Hippolytus and then discards her. At the end of the play Artemis offers Hippolytus, her faithful worshipper, cold consolation when she promises to avenge his death by killing someone beloved of Aphrodite. It's this sort of attitude toward the gods that earned Euripides the suspicion and enmity of many in his audience.
58-175 The play moves swiftly through different levels. It begins in the sphere of the gods with Aphrodite's prologue, then descends to a sort of "heaven on earth," what Hippolytus calls in his prayer the "inviolate meadow." With the entrance of the chorus, the focus of the drama then changes to the realm of mortal women, finally settling in the sickbed of one barbarian woman where it comes to rest for a long time, a clear sequence of steps down the ancient Greek social ladder: from gods to their male attendants to mortal women and finally a single foreign woman who is politically, spiritually and physically trapped by forces beyond her control. Despite these changes in focus, however, there is throughout the play a strong connection between the various levels of the tragedy, which takes place simultaneously on all these different levels.
In much the same way, the tragedy will later work its way back up the human and divine ladder, from women to men to the gods, and spread its suffering literally over the entire universe.
176-731 The most interesting of these levels by far is that of mortal women, a class of character Euripides was very adept at depicting in various states of mental perturbation. Phaedra is certainly one of his best "deranged" women, basically a good person who's been driven crazy by Aphrodite and forced to feel an attraction to her own step-son—shades of Aphrodite compelling Helen into bed with Paris in The Iliad (3.380-461)—and much like Homer's Helen, Phaedra attempts to resist the goddess but in vain.
Given this, Phaedra decides she would rather end her life than surrender to such a sinful attraction, so she refuses to get out of bed and starves herself, hoping to drive the madness away. She tells no one what's wrong with her, not even her faithful old Nurse who long ago had accompanied her to Athens from Crete. But her attempts to resist Aphrodite only weaken her physically, making her all the more susceptible to the goddess. Starving and impassioned, she goes mad, but even so she still tries to repress and hide her scandalous feelings.
The long confrontation between Phaedra and her Nurse leading up to the former's suicide is fascinatingly modern in its psychology. Ranging through at least seven discrete scenes, its course is worth noting in detail.
1. 176-197: Phaedra first appears on stage in a mad frenzy, with her Nurse following close behind her. The Nurse, who has been tending Phaedra for many days now, is fed up with her. Phaedra is getting sicker and sicker but won't say what's wrong. Nothing helps, nothing makes her comfortable, nothing relieves her pain.
At the beginning of their scene together, the Nurse has lost all patience with her patient. Her first words are sharp, "So, you want to go outside? Here's the sun. Now you don't want it. What you want is whatever you don't have." In her naive disgust, the Nurse comes terribly close to the truth, that Phaedra indeed wants what she doesn't have, what she can't have. In the course of this tirade, the Nurse delivers some of the most memorable lines in the play:It's better to be sick than be a nurse.
Being sick is one thing but nursing means
Mental anguish and hard work besides. (186-188)
In spite of Phaedra's horrible sickness, the scene is almost comical. The Nurse rambles on, bemoaning the miseries of mortals and the meaninglessness of life and making other generally unhelpful notations on the human condition.
2. 198-249: Phaedra suddenly speaks. Now she wants to move about freely, to run with her hair loose about her shoulders, to drink from pure springs by soft meadows. The Nurse tries to calm her down, but Phaedra leaps up, fantasizing she's off on a hunt, chasing and spearing a wild beast, breaking wild horses sacred to Artemis.
While her meaning is clear to us—Hippolytus, "Horse-break," is the wild horse she wants to ride!—the Nurse is confused. "First you want to hunt, then ride horses? It would take a prophet to interpret your crazy words!" But when her words are said back to her, Phaedra knows full well what she meant and how close she came to confessing her horrible passion. Shame overwhelms her, as her madness subsides again. She lies down on her bed, covers her head in grief, and refuses to speak. In his new and innovation version of the story, it's Phaedra, not Hippolytus, who is veiled, Euripides reminds us.
3. 250-361: The chorus of women, who have come to help their ailing queen, ask what's wrong with her. The Nurse says she doesn't know and, when Phaedra won't answer, says, "All right! If you won't talk and say what's wrong with you, I'll talk and try to put some sense in your head." She starts rambling on about all the unhappiness Phaedra will cause if she dies. What about her little children, bereft of their mother? Would she leave them alone in this world, without friends, to be ruled by that son of the Amazon, Hippolytus?
Phaedra gasps. The Nurse perks up: "That got her!" Phaedra says: "Don't mention him to me!" But the nurse persists with her questions. Phaedra is physically weak and emotionally drained. She lets it slip that her problem has to do with love. The Nurse says, "Of whom?" Phaedra says, "A man, whose mother was an Amazon, . . ." The Nurse suddenly realizes the situation and leaps up in shock: "Aphrodite, you're not a god! You're something greater than a god. You're the ruin of all of us!" And she runs off in terror inside the house.
4. 362-432: Like anyone who's held a terrible secret inside for a long time and finally let it out, Phaedra suddenly feels much better. For the first time in who knows how long—definitely the first time in the play—her thoughts are clear. Sanity returned, she addresses the chorus and announces a new plan to deal as rationally as possible with her mad passion. By now we've seen her go mad twice, once when she kept silent about her feelings and once when she let them free, but for this moment she feels safe and sound of mind.
5. 433-524: The Nurse returns, no longer as distraught as she was before. Euripides gives her another memorable line (436), "Second thoughts in some way are wiser." The Nurse says she was shocked at first by Phaedra's confession, but now she has a plan, a way for Phaedra to cure her lovesickness for Hippolytus, if that's what she wants. The plan begins with a startling rationalization, one worthy of the craftiest philosopher. If the gods marry their own siblings and family members, why shouldn't humans? Self-righteous people like Hippolytus are always saying we should be more like the gods.
But, the Nurse adds, even if Hippolytus doesn't buy this argument, we're still not lost. Women have their ways of coercing men with charms and magic. Phaedra warns her not to tell Hippolytus anything about his step-mother's passion for him. The chaste priest wouldn't like to hear that. As the Nurse goes back inside the house, she winks and says she and Aphrodite will handle everything.
6. 525-668: The chorus sing an exquisite ode to the Power of Love, but before they can cap their song with an epode ("after-song"), Phaedra who has remained on stage listening by the door tells them to hush up. She hears something inside. It's someone yelling. It's Hippolytus, and he's cursing a female servant!
Hippolytus comes crashing out of the palace, with the Nurse hanging onto him, begging him not to say anything, not to break the oath to Artemis she made him swear before she shared her secret with him. Outraged that anyone would make such an indecent suggestion to him, a chaste priest, Hippolytus launches into a venomous tirade against all women, one of Euripides' finest speeches, rhetorically perfect and perfectly transparent. Clearly anyone that upset about something is suppressing his own passions.
Hippolytus denounces the entire female species, cataloguing their evils one by one, and ends by screaming at the Nurse and the chorus:Damn you all! I'll never get my fill of hating
Women. And if someone says that's all I ever talk about,
It is. Because they're always up to no good.
So either let someone teach them temperance,
Or get out of my way and let me trample them forever! (663-668)
Then he "tramples" offstage.
Euripides leaves open an interesting question about the staging here. Where does Phaedra go during Hippolytus' tirade? Since she says nothing at all, it would appear she's not on stage, as many modern translations of the play suggest. But that's not her only avenue of flight. She might also run down into the chorus and, as is perfectly natural, hide there among the other women, her allies.
The question really is whether or not Hippolytus sees her, when he enters. He certainly doesn't address her by name, but he acts like he's aware she's listening, since he threatens her almost directly: "But now at home the mistress plots the mischief, and the maid carries it abroad." Moreover, after he leaves, she acts as if he knows that she's heard everything he said. If she does, in fact, stay on stage throughout his speech, it's a wonderful touch on Euripides' part to show that Hippolytus' contempt for Phaedra is so great he won't deign to speak to her directly, even when they're standing face to face—indeed, they never converse once during the entire play—instead, he veils his extreme hatred of her in a general condemnation of all women and threats directed at her Nurse.7. 669-731: At his exit, Hippolytus leaves behind a desolate Phaedra. With good cause, she doesn't believe Hippolytus will keep his oath of silence and not tell Theseus about her indecent passion and the proposition made to him. She dismisses the Nurse curtly and swears the chorus to silence. She leaves, speaking ominously of her own demise. This is her third and final mad-scene. As she had first entered mad, she leaves mad, but this time with a passion not for love but death.
732-775 The chorus sings another exquisitely beautiful song, one that's called an escape ode, a prayer to be lifted up and carried away from the present sorrows. The sequence of images is stunning. First, the women of the chorus wish to be birds flying across western seas to the home of twilight where gods dwell. From there they envision the ship "that flew over the sea" bringing Phaedra to her bridegroom Theseus. From the cable which moored Phaedra's wedding-ship to the dock in Athens, they end their song by conjuring up an image of the rope now winding around Phaedra's neck as she hangs herself. An incredibly powerful series of mental pictures fused with lyrics of extraordinary beauty!
776-789 But Euripides has more than loveliness up his tragic sleeve. Here he takes some freedom with the traditional story and pulls off a masterful stroke of dramatic innovation. Despite Phaedra's threats and the chorus' gloomy visions, the Athenian audience surely expected that Phaedra wouldn't kill herself at this point in the story but, as was traditional, at the end of the play when in remorse for Hippolytus' death she confesses all to Theseus. That's the way this story usually ran.
More than that, Euripides was infamous in Athens for misleading his audiences into believing he was about to effect something unusual and untraditional in a myth but then not do it. In other words, he often threw in "red herrings" as they're called today, that is, false plot leads. At this moment in Hippolytus, much of Euripides' original audience probably expected something like this to happen in the next scene: Phaedra walks out of the house, having changed her mind about suicide because she'd contrived a way to save herself, which is to accuse Hippolytus of rape, as was customary in the tale. That was, after all, exactly what the Nurse had just done when she'd run off in shock upon first learning about Phaedra's passion. She returned calmly in the next scene with a new plan for handling the problem.
But unexpectedly the Nurse screams and cries of grief issue from inside the house. Because such laments are never used in Greek tragedy to announce a death when it hasn't happened, Phaedra must really be dead. "But wait!," the viewers surely thought to themselves, "How can she then accuse Hippolytus of rape, as the traditional story goes? Where's Euripides going with this? This is what we get for letting liberals, intellectuals, perverts and loners like him produce plays. I wonder what's going to happen next?"
790-901 Phaedra's body is brought outside the house, just as Theseus enters. In shock and grief, he mourns his beloved wife and grieves for their children, now orphaned of their mother. While touching and arranging her body, he finds a little writing tablet attached to her wrist. He opens it and silently reads her final words, a false condemnation of Hippolytus for raping her. Her accusation is now a curse from the grave!
It's also a brilliant change to have made in the plot! Instead of serving as a rather pointless appendage to the end of the story, Phaedra's suicide now reinforces the charge of rape. Theseus can hardly fail to believe her accusation when the victim has gone to such extremes—as we all know, "Dead men tell no tales!"—and so, without even hearing Hippolytus' side of the story, Theseus brings down the curse of Poseidon down on his hapless, innocent son. Though Hippolytus attempts in the next scene to defend himself, the audience knows he's already doomed to death before he even walks on the stage.
902-1101 Hippolytus enters, knowing nothing of Phaedra's suicide. He greets his father, who's so filled with rage he can't even speak to accuse his son. Hippolytus babbles for a line or two and then sees the corpse. Naively he asks what's happened: "Just a moment ago I saw her alive."
At that, Theseus erupts angrily, thinking Hippolytus' innocence is a ruse to hide his relief that Phaedra is dead and can't charge him in person with raping her. As is typical of Euripidean drama, a bitter agon ensues, one which Hippolytus could resolve in a second by breaking his oath and telling Theseus the whole truth, but he swore by Artemis not to tell what the Nurse said to him and adamantly he stands by his word to the goddess to whom he's devoted his life. He refuses to say that Phaedra was in love with him, preferring to be exiled rather than besmirch the good name of his beloved Artemis.
1102-1281 A brief chorus (1102-1150) covers a long break in the action. A messenger comes on stage to report what happened to Hippolytus, one of the most exciting action sequences in all of Greek tragedy.
Exiled and cursed by his father, Hippolytus drove off in his chariot down to the beach near Troezen. In response to his son Theseus' prayer, Poseidon sent a monstrous bull from the sea to chase Hippolytus. While the man remained calm, his horses went wild with panic and he couldn't control them. They ran up the beach and over the rocks, where the chariot broke apart.
As chariot drivers in antiquity often did, Hippolytus had tied his hands to the reins and, when his chariot crashed on the rocks, he was dragged for miles, just like Oenomaus (see Oenomaus in Chapter 7). A young and hardy man, Hippolytus didn't die in the accident itself but sustained fatal injuries. Stung by the news yet unmoved to grief, Theseus still believes Hippolytus raped Phaedra and deserved this fate.
The irony of Hippolytus' name meaning "horse-break" comes home to bear at this moment, because the Greek can betoken either "breaker of horses" (cf. bronco-buster) or "broken by horses." Here it's obviously both. Also, horses are often used in antiquity as symbols of male potency. Thus, the name points to the fact that Hippolytus' own horses, the symbol of his uncontrollable passions, "break" him, the very thing that he was so proud of mastering.
1282-1346 Artemis appears and tells Theseus the whole truth, how Aphrodite used Phaedra and him to avenge herself on the chaste Hippolytus. Theseus is crushed that he brought about the death of his innocent son.
1347-1443 The battered Hippolytus is escorted on stage by his friends. Although his body is broken and death is near, his fierce personality and haughty demeanor remain unbowed. He reproaches his father for believing Phaedra and condemning an innocent man to death. Theseus is devastated.
Then Hippolytus senses Artemis' presence—by her smell, an extraordinary image!—and the goddess intercedes, explaining the whole affair as Aphrodite's doing. She promises to avenge Hippolytus' unjust demise by destroying someone beloved of Aphrodite, meaning Adonis. She then bids Hippolytus forgive his father and leaves abruptly, claiming gods must not be around when mortals are dying:
|Artemis:||So farewell, for me it's uncustomary to
look upon the dead
And defile my face with the rattle of mortals dying.
I can see you're near that and bad off.
|And farewell to you as you depart,
You leave a long alliance easily. (1437-1441)
The goddess of the hunt—the deity who demanded among other things that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia—she can't stand by and watch death? This pathetic excuse Euripides puts in her mouth, such an unlikely reason for exiting, is yet another example of his condemnation and abuse of the gods.
1444-1466 All this somehow changes Hippolytus in his final moments on stage and on earth. Either seeing the approach of death or Artemis' cold treatment—she offers such small consolations in return for all that he has given her, his very life, in fact—for whatever reason, Hippolytus suddenly starts to act more human, more humane, no longer just the pretentious prig or the living embodiment of purity. Unexpectedly, he doesn't use his final breaths to curse his father but forgives him, not without letting loose with one last barb, of course (1453): "Pray to heaven for legitimate sons like me!" Bidding his father farewell, he asks him to cover his face—finally, this Hippolytus is veiled!—and dies.
This little moment after Artemis has left the stage, all of fifteen lines exchanged between Hippolytus and Theseus, is worth its weight in gold. The "broken" Horse-break, just as he stands on the brink of death, learns the real meaning of life, that it's best for a man to live like a man, not like a god. The tragedy is that only as he passes into death does he see the true meat of human life: compromise, compassion, consideration and forgiveness.
C. Conclusion: The Structure of Greek Tragedy
Euripides revised the Hippolytus story by moving Phaedra's suicide forward and having Theseus curse Hippolytus before he could defend himself, both brilliant touches, making Phaedra's suicide no longer a gratuitous epilogue to the main action but supporting her accusation of rape and rendering Hippolytus' attempt to defend himself in front of Theseus ultimately futile since he was at that moment already cursed. How did Euripides engineer such an ingenious restructuring of these stories? In general, how did tragedy build from what came before to model even better narrative, more complex and imaginative?
We've seen that Book 1 of The Iliad is divided into episodes arranged symmetrically around the central scene, the meeting of Achilles and Thetis (see Chapter 4, Ring Composition). The same ABCBA pattern appears in Sappho's Ode to Anactoria (see Chapter 5). It can also be seen in Aeschylus' Agamemnon:
|1. The Watchman (1-39): The Long Wait for Agamemnon to return from Troy|
|2. VENGEANCE (83-350): Agamemnon's Victory in Troy|
|3. Herald and Clytemnestra (503-680): Clytemnestra learns about Agamemnon's recent past|
|4. AGAMEMNON AND CLYTEMNESTRA (783-974): Husband and Wife, after ten years of war|
|5. Clytemnestra and Cassandra (1035-1330): Cassandra sees Agamemnon's immediate future|
|6. VENGEANCE: Clytemnestra's Success in Argos (1372-1576)|
|7. Aegisthus (1577-1673): The Long Wait for Thyestes' Revenge in Argos|
Agamemnon opens with (1) the faithful Watchman waiting for his master to return home to Argos from Troy; it ends with (7) the faithless Aegisthus crowing in glee, having waited for many years to avenge his father Thyestes on Atreus' son Agamemnon, now at last assassinated. One step inside these, the next scenes both feature Clytemnestra and the chorus, contrasting (2) Agamemnon's murderous success at Troy to (6) Clytemnestra's murderous success at home. Another step further inside reveals Clytemnestra confronting first (3) the Herald with the good news of Agamemnon's success and imminent return from Troy and later (5) Cassandra who bears evil tidings when she predicts Agamemnon's imminent demise in Argos. From neither does Clytemnestra hears news she likes. At the center of the play stands (4) the great "purple-carpet" scene, the confrontation between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. In this truly pivotal moment in the play, Clytemnestra's fortunes turn up as Agamemnon's go down. The balanced structure Aeschylus contrived for this play is, however, fairly simple and straightforward, with relatively few scenes and only a moderate amount of stage action.
A generation later, Euripides' plays exhibit greater structural complexity, though they're still built around a balanced geometric design.
|2. PHAEDRA'S TRAGEDY (170-524)|
|3. FIRST CURSE: Hippolytus curses Women (564-668)|
|4. Phaedra and Nurse (on stage): Phaedra's Fate is Sealed (669-731)|
|ESCAPE ODE (732-775): Phaedra's Suicide is envisioned by the Chorus|
|6. Phaedra and Nurse (off stage): Phaedra's Death is Announced (776-789)|
|7. SECOND CURSE: Theseus curses Hippolytus (790-888)|
|8. HIPPOLYTUS' TRAGEDY (889-1267)|
The diagram above illustrates how Euripides has renovated the plot. He's moved Phaedra's suicide from the end of the play to its exact center, where it now serves as a bridge linking the two great conflicts (agons): the confrontation between Phaedra and the Nurse, and that of Hippolytus and Theseus.
Moreover, the individual episodes are quite complex, too, involving subsections, that is, twists and turns in the plot and more than one red herring. Phaedra goes mad but doesn't confess her secret. She goes mad again and this time does confess. When she learns Phaedra's secret, the Nurse runs off aghast and then changes her mind and returns. The Nurse goes off again and returns with Hippolytus. Phaedra goes mad yet one more time and runs off threatening to kill herself, which unexpectedly she does. In this way Euripides creates tension not by prolonging scenes but by adding stage action and taking the plot slowly, step by step, through a series of actions and reactions, threats averted and fulfilled. Thus, Greek tragedy represents not only a new way of telling stories; it also advances the narrative arts.
In sum, it's clear the tragedians owed a great deal to Homeric epic, not only the basic cast of characters and myths which gave form to their art but also the technique of arranging the action in symmetrical fashion. As the earliest of the three, Aeschylus was most aware of this, purportedly calling his plays "morsels from the banquet of Homer."
The presence of "ring composition" in tragedy raises an interesting question, however. Unlike Homer and the oral poets, the dramatists of the Classical Age wrote out their plays prior to performance. In that case, a balanced structure didn't serve as a mnemonic device the way it did in oral poetry—though the actors might have been glad for it—so, why is it there at all?
Perhaps, the early playwrights of Aeschylus' generation discovered that a symmetrical structure is a good way to focus the dramatic action. No doubt, ring composition also held some appeal for the audience just as "bookend scenes" in movies do today—a good example is the way Dorothy's journey to Oz in The Wizard of Oz begins and ends in Kansas—if so, the classical tragedians' adoption and adaptation of the narrative symmetry seen so often in epic constitute a brilliant re-use of a traditional device, both forward- and backward-looking at the same time.
All in all, the transition from oral epic to drama may not have involved as violent a disruption in the literary and narrative arts as it might seem on the surface. The tragic poets' job was to keep their audience's attention and interest on the story being told, and a great part of that task entailed balancing the familiar and the new. Geometric plot structures like those seen in Agamemnon and Hippolytus imported much that was ingrained in the viewers' minds and gave it new meaning through theatre, their revolutionary and innovative form of entertainment.
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