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Euripides' Tragedy Hippolytus; a Summary

Sarah has a PhD in classical civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the ancient world and other topics.

The remains of the theatre of Epidauros, where plays such as Hippolytus were performed before vast audiences.

The remains of the theatre of Epidauros, where plays such as Hippolytus were performed before vast audiences.

The First Performance of Euripides' Hippolytus

The Hippolytus is one of the most famous and controversial of the tragedies of Euripides (c485-406BCE). Through the ages, the play has provoked strongly differing responses and interpretations, with scholars still arguing about what kind of message the audience is supposed to take away with them.

The Hippolytus was first performed in 428 BCE at the dramatic festival called the Greater Dionysia, which was held each year in Athens in March/April.

It appears that Euripides had already produced a play on the subject of Phaedra's passion for her stepson some years previously. Although this earlier play has not survived, there is evidence that it was not well received by the audience. This play then, is Euripides' second attempt at approaching the story of Hippolytus.

Aphrodite, Goddess of Love

Aphrodite, Goddess of Love

Aphrodite's Prologue

The play opens with the Goddess Aphrodite speaking the prologue from outside Theseus' palace in Troezen. She describes an outbreak of rivalry between two powerful and remorseless Goddesses; Aphrodite, herself, Goddess of Love and Artemis, the virginal Goddess of the woodlands.

Hippolytus, the son of Theseus, King of Athens, is a passionate devotee of Artemis and delights in spending his days accompanying her out hunting in the woods. Hippolytus does not merely prefer Artemis to Aphrodite, but speaks of the Goddess of Love with disdain, feeling nothing but disgust for the idea of love and marriage.

It is for this contempt that Hippolytus must pay. Aphrodite describes how she has put in train a series of events that will lead to the miserable destruction of Hippolytus. It will incidentally mean the death of an innocent bystander, Hippolytus' stepmother Phaedra, but Aphrodite sees this as unavoidable collateral damage in the process of restoring her wounded honour. Having set the scene, Aphrodite exits the stage, leaving her plans to unfold before our eyes.

Hippolytus - detail from a mosaic at The House of Dionysus, Paphos Archeological Park.

Hippolytus - detail from a mosaic at The House of Dionysus, Paphos Archeological Park.

Enter Hippolytus

Hippolytus then appears outside the palace with his attendants, having just returned from hunting. He makes an offering to Artemis of a garland of flowers from a virgin meadow, speaking her praises as he does so.

His slave asks him if he might offer him some advice, which Hippolytus is willing to hear. The slave suggests that Hippolytus ought to honour Aphrodite as well as Artemis, as the Gods appreciate respect just as mortals do. Hippolytus replies that he is entitled to have a favourite amongst the Gods and greets Aphrodite from a distance. He's no time for a deity who is honoured at night.

After Hippolytus has left, the slave lingers to say a quick prayer before the statue of Aphrodite. Unlike his master, he doesn't want to make the mistake of offending the Goddess. He prays to Aphrodite to have patience with Hippolytus' youth and arrogance. This is a moment of irony, as the audience, having heard the prologue, knows that Aphrodite is beyond appeasement and the slave's hope that a Goddess might brush aside the insult of a foolish youth suggests that Gods and mortals operate on a different level of morality.

Enter the Chorus of Troezan Women

The Chorus of palace servent women now appear. They sing of the news that their mistress Phaedra has taken to her bed with some mysterious malady and has lain for three days without taking food. Together they speculate on the cause of her sickness. They wonder whether she is being punished for neglecting to sacrifice to one of the Gods, not imagining that she is being punished, not for her own neglect of the Gods, but as a consequence of her stepson's offence to Aphrodite.

They go on to wonder whether her husband Theseus has been unfaithful, or whether she has had bad news from her home in Crete or whether she is afflicted with some depression related to childbirth or unknown passion. They would pray to Artemis for succour if that was their trouble.

Phaedra and her Nurse from a Pompeian Fresco

Phaedra and her Nurse from a Pompeian Fresco

Enter the Nurse and Phaedra

Phaedra's Nurse now brings Phaedra outside and with the help of her women, settles her on a couch. The Nurse then launches into a complaint about the hardship of dealing with her sick and troublesome mistress, who one moment asks to be taken out, the next is liable to want to go back inside. Life is full of misery, comments the Nurse, but we cling on to it because we know nothing of anything beyond it.

Phaedra now cries out, raving and tossing and turning on the couch. She asks her serving women to take off her veil, which is too heavy, and then dips in and out of a fantasy of hunting in the woods with Artemis and drinking from a mountain stream. Her Nurse begs her to control herself.

A moment later, Phaedra seems to come back to her right mind. She is overcome with shame for her confused ramblings and asks the women to replace her veil.

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Encouraged by the Chorus, the Nurse tries once again to coax Phaedra into telling her what is wrong.

Her efforts meet with silence, until the Nurse, in an attempt to provoke her from her silence, tells her that if she dies, she will be betraying her children as it will be Hippolytus, son of the horseriding Amazon queen who will inherit from Theseus, instead of her children by him.

The mention of Hippolytus draws a cry from Phaedra, and the Nurse redoubles her efforts to get Phaedra to reveal the source of her woes. When she grasps Phaedra's knees as a suppliant, Phaedra is unable to refuse her plea, though she says the truth will be the death of her. She begins by listing the women of her family who were afflicted with illicit passion.

Her mother, Pasiphae had a passion for a bull, and with the help of Daedalus, coupled with the animal to give birth to the Minotaur. Her sister, Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and was abandoned by him, later to be chosen as the bride of Dionysus. Now she is the third to suffer. When the anguished Nurse begs her to reveal who she is in love with, Phaedra can only allude to the Amazon's son, leaving it to the Nurse to speak the name of Hippolytus.

Phedre, by Alexandre Cabanel, 1880

Phedre, by Alexandre Cabanel, 1880

Phaedra's Secret is Out

When the Nurse learns the truth, that her mistress is dying for the unrequited love of her young stepson Hippolytus, she is devastated. The Chorus too express their fear and horror at the revelation.

Phaedra goes on to describe her reactions when she realised she had fallen in love with her stepson. She first resolved to suffer in silence, telling her trouble to no one but striving to overcome her feelings through willpower. When she found herself unable to shake the passion that gripped her, Phaedra then made up her mind to simply die of her love in silence, preserving her honour. She speaks with visceral disgust of those women who are unfaithful to their husbands, wondering at how they could practise such deceit or bring such shame on their children.

Phaedra's Nurse Takes Control

Having heard Phaedra's determination to silently pine away of her love for her stepson, her Nurse's initial horror at her secret turns to a determination to save Phaedra's life at whatever the cost. She begins to argue that Love is too powerful a passion to be fought. The only way to gain relief is to yield to it. Zeus was subject to his love for Semele, so why should Phaedra, a mere mortal think she should be any better? Phaedra needs to have more realistic expectations for herself, the Nurse argues. Husbands and fathers are often willing to turn a blind eye to love affairs and human weakness is no great shame. Phaedra is guilty of pride in refusing to yield to a power that has vanquished Gods.

Both Phaedra and the Chorus respond with disapproval to the Nurse's persuasions.

The Nurse dismisses their scruples. If it were not a matter of life and death, she argues, she would agree that Phaedra should fight against her passion, but she refuses to let Phaedra die for her pride. Hippolytus should be told of his stepmother's passion for him and an assignation arranged.

Phaedra, of course, is horrified by the suggestion and forbids her Nurse to speak more of it. The Nurse appears to agree, and tells her that, instead, she will go into the house and get her a charm which will cure her lovesickness. Phaedra is suspicious, but the Nurse assures her that all will be well.

As the Nurse goes into the house, the Chorus sings an ode to the fearful power of Love, giving the examples of Deinaira, whom Heracles won for his bride from the River God Alcaeus, but who later was the cause of his death, and Semele who was killed by the lightening bolt Zeus wore when he came to her as her lover.

Hippolytus Responds to the Nurse's proposal

The Choral song is brought to an end by Phaedra's cry of anguish.

From within the house, Phaedra can hear Hippolytus bitterly upbraiding her Nurse, and realises that her secret has been betrayed. The Chorus also react with horror at the news. Phaedra proclaims that the only escape from this situation now is her instant death.

Hippolytus and the Nurse now appear on stage. The Nurse is begging Hippolytus not to betray her mistresse's secret, in accordance with his promise. He sarcastically asks why she wants it kept a secret if there is nothing wrong in her proposal.

Hippolytus then launches into a prolonged tirade on the evils of women. He suggests it would be better if women did not exist and men could simply buy children for cash. The worst and most dangerous kind of woman is the clever woman, who can devise all kinds of schemes to facilitate her adulteries, and use servants as her go-betweens. Wives should be tended by savage beasts, not human servants. At the end of his speech, Hippolytus says he will keep his oath, though reluctantly, and will stay out of Phaedra's way, but when Theseus returns, he will be there and see whether Phaedra and her Nurse have the audacity to face him. Hippolytus then leaves.

Phaedra Driven to Desperation

Having heard Hippolytus' tirade, Phaedra is driven to despair. Despite his oath, Phaedra doesn't trust Hippolytus to keep the Nurse's outrageous proposal a secret. It is not enough now for Phaedra to die; she must come up with an additional plan to ensure her reputation is safe for the sake of her children.

When her Nurse returns to her, Phaedra berates her mercilessly for her betrayal and sends her away, though the Nurse is still clutching at straws, trying to find a way to save the situation and Phaedra's life.

Phaedra then asks the Chorus to keep her secret, and tells them she is resolved upon death, but will also bring another down with her.

The Chorus sing of the wish for escape, to be a bird flying far and freely through the air away from such mortal troubles.

Phaedra hands over the letter accusing Hippolytus. Pompeian fresco.

Phaedra hands over the letter accusing Hippolytus. Pompeian fresco.

The Death of Phaedra and the Return of Theseus

The Chorus' song is interrupted by the Nurse rushing up crying out that Phaedra is hanging in her chamber and begging their help in cutting her down. The Chorus decide that it is best not to get involved and make no move to enter the palace.

The Nurse then confirms that Phaedra is dead and her corpse is being laid out.

Just at that moment, Theseus returns to the palace. He enquires why he is being greeted by the sound of mourning and is devastated to be told that his wife has hanged herself. Approaching the body, he finds that Phaedra has a letter still clasped in her hand.

Reading it, Theseus cries out in rage and grief. The letter accuses Hippolytus of having raped his stepmother.

Hippolytus by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema

Hippolytus by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema

Poseidon's Curse: The Doom of Hippolytus

Theseus immediately calls down a deadly curse on his son, praying to his father, the God Poseidon to grant him one of three boons he had promised to fulfil and cause his son to die that very day. The Chorus beg Theseus to take back his words, telling him he will learn he was in error. They are unable to tell him the truth, however, bound by the promise they made to Phaedra. Theseus is implacable, and further decrees that Hippolytus be banished from the kingdom forthwith.

At that moment, Hippolytus turns up; he is shocked to see the corpse of Phaedra and enquires what has happened. His apparently feigned ignorance drives his father to fury and he launches on a tirade against the hypocrisy of Hippolytus' much vaunted chastity and holiness. Hippolytus' measured reply in which he confidently reasserts his own sexual purity and sanctity only enrages Theseus further. One gets the impression that Theseus had always been somewhat alienated by his son's aloofness and purity.

When Hippolytus realises that his father is set upon banishing him, he cries out in anguish and frustration that he cannot exculpate himself because of his oath and expresses the wish that the palace itself should cry out as witness.

Driven from the palace, Hippolytus departs in sorrow, while the Chorus sing of the injustice of his fate, blaming the Gods for allowing this to happen.

A Messenger, one of Hippolytus' servants then approaches, with news for Theseus.

Hippolytus had been making his way into exile in his chariot along the seashore, when a sound as of an earthquake was heard and a great wave brought forth a monstrous, bellowing bull from out of the sea.

Hippolytus' horses were naturally terrified by this and, despite Hippolytus' superlative horsemanship, he fell from the chariot and was dragged, tangled in the reins for some distance and now lies grievously injured and close to death. Hippolytus' servant asks Theseus if his son may be brought back to the palace to die and Theseus agrees.

Artemis, Virgin Goddess of the Woodlands.

Artemis, Virgin Goddess of the Woodlands.

Artemis Explains All: Reconciliation

Before Hippolytus is brought in, the Goddess Artemis appears. She condemns Theseus for expressing satisfaction at his son's impending death. She explains to Theseus that Hippolytus was in fact completely innocent and that Phaedra acted as she did in an attempt to save her honour. Although Poseidon had no choice but to fulfill Theseus' curse against Hippolytus, both he and Artemis are angry at Theseus. It was his choice to act hastily in pronouncing the curse rather than waiting to investigate the truth of the letter's claims.

Nonetheless, Theseus is forgiven; he acted in ignorance and played his part in the doom that Aphrodite had fated for Hippolytus. Gods are not able to interfere in actions brought about by other Gods so there was nothing Artemis could do to prevent the tragedy unfolding. He has been hurt worst of all by his decision though Artemis too is somewhat grieved by the death of Hippolytus.

The dying Hippolytus is now brought in. He is in great agony and prays for death to take him. The sight of his beloved Goddess silences his groans and the two of them take their farewell. Artemis explains that though she is sad, she cannot weep as Immortals are unable to shed tears. She also explains to Hippolytus that it was the doing of Aphrodite that brought him, Theseus and Phaedra to their destruction. Artemis offers Hippolytus the consolation that she will have her revenge on Aphrodite by destroying a mortal beloved to her. She instructs Hippolytus to be reconciled with his father and then says she must leave as Hippolytus is near death and a God cannot be in the presence of death.

Artemis vanishes, leaving the two mortals father and son to face each other. Before he dies in his father's arms, Hippolytus absolves Theseus of the blood-guilt of his murder.

© 2014 SarahLMaguire


SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on July 15, 2014:

It's one that's always stuck with me too, Laura. Thanks for commenting!

Laura from Florida on July 15, 2014:

One of my favorite stories from that time!

SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on July 10, 2014:

Thanks, Carolyn! :)

Carolyn Emerick on July 10, 2014:

Just gave this a quick scan because I'm late for work, lol. But I enjoy that you write so knowledgeably on this topic, and I am making a note to read more thoroughly later tonight. Upvoted and sharing here and elsewhere :-)

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