Delahoyde & Hughes


Euripides' play Hippolytus, performed in 428 b.c.e., is one of the few to win him first prize. It begins at Theseus' palace at Troezen where Aphrodite is complaining about the son of Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta (a.k.a. Antiopê). Hippolytus is sworn against love and marriage (as his Amazonian mother had renounced men). Aphrodite has harsh plans to teach him a bitter lesson.

Hippolytus enters and refuses to honor the love goddess; he is instead a devotee to Artemis the chaste. After a Chorus of Troezenian women sing a song, Hippolytus' step-mother Phaedra enters with her Nurse and others. Phaedra (daughter of Minos and sister of Ariadne) is distraught but won't confess why. She hasn't eaten in days and seems suicidal. The Nurse guesses at various evils, not realizing that love is the problem here, and Phaedra moans about the clash between lust and female virtue. Eventually the Nurse ferrets out the identity of the object of Phaedra's lust, and despite a lot of ostensible shock and horror, the Nurse drums up some sophistry indicating that one should not deny one's passions. Phaedra permits the Nurse to report the matter to Hippolytus. After being sworn to secrecy about this, Hippolytus hears the revelation and is disgusted by the adulterous overture; he rants about how horrible women are. He even acknowledges his "woman-hate" (203).

Phaedra fears that Hippolytus will rat her out to Theseus, so she positions a noose and hangs herself in her bedroom. Her suicide note claims that Hippolytus had come on to her and she has killed herself for shame. (This is a folklore motif exemplified also in the story of Joseph by "Potiphar's wife.") Theseus returns home and is distraught and curses his son, so as Hippolytus rides his chariot by the sea, Poseidon sends up a giant bull. The horses throw Hippolytus off the chariot, but he is tangled in the reins and dragged over rocks until nearly dead. Artemis reveals the truth to Theseus and blames Aphrodite's spite. Hippolytus' broken body is brought forth for a death scene with daddy. Artemis hopes Theseus can forgive himself.

Euripides' innovation in his Hippolytus is to cast the woman as a sympathetic character, Aphrodite's helpless victim caught in a divine plan to destroy Hippolytus. His audience expects to see the wicked woman vilified and the virtuous youth exalted; that is the tradition. Instead, Euripides portrays his Phaedra as a highly moral woman struggling against the shame of her passion, while Hippolytus is an intolerant prig. (Powell 411).

Works Cited

Euripides. Hippolytus. Trans. Arthur S. Way. An Anthology of Greek Drama. Ed. C.A. Robinson, Jr. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1965. 183-226.

Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.


Orpheus: Greek Plays