The Character of Phaedra

In the play Hippolytus, Euripides depicts characters in a realistic fashion by displaying their warring emotions in the wake of dramatic events, as well as their deceit in achieving their objectives. A prime example of such tactics is the character Phaedra, who is content to suffer until death due to the shame of her forbidden desires for her stepson. However, when the nurse unveils her secret, Phaedra devises a scheme to ruin his reputation to save her own. Up to the creation of the letter for the stepson’s downfall, Euripides has the audience sympathize with Phaedra, leading us to understand her grieving over her love-stricken heart. At first, Phaedra yearns for the same nature and hunt that she knows Hippolytus is partaking in, largely because of the common desire to be near the person that one loves. Phaedra then becomes more conscious of her rapture and is consumed by shame for wanting Hippolytus. Afterward, the audience is allowed to watch her go back and forth regarding the question of whether her sinful desires are results of the sins of the women in her family or are prompted by the Goddess Cypris. Lastly, Phaedra uses deceit to protect her reputation from being tarnished after she dies. Therefore, Euripides uses natural characteristics of humans — uncontrollable desire, shame, the need to find explanations, and the survival of one’s good reputation — to make Phaedra a dynamic character and to invoke sympathy in the audience for Phaedra.

In the opening act of Hippolytus, Hippolytus is hunting “wild beasts with his fleet hounds” (31) and honoring the Goddess Artemis with a “…woven wreath, culled from a virgin meadow…” (32). Immediately following this scene, the audience observes Phaedra pining for a similar meadow, place among pine trees “…where hounds pursue the prey, hard on the scent of dappled fawns…”, and to also “…hark them on, to grasp the barbed dart, to poise Thessalian hunting-spears close to [her] golden hair, then let them fly…” (34). Phaedra’s eagerness to be at such a place and partake in the same hunt that Hippolytus does is an indication that she wants to be near and interact with Hippolytus due to her desire for him. Euripides introduces this natural yearning as her first depiction of love for him most likely because it is the easiest symptom of love that many can identify with themselves. In turn, this causes the audience to see themselves in Phaedra and feel as if this could have easily been one of them struck by Aphrodite’s power and uncontrollably in love with someone they shouldn’t.

As Phaedra comes to her senses and realizes her infatuation has been dictating her thoughts, she is filled with shame multiple times; she says, “…the tire on my head is too heavy to wear…” (34) and “Shame fills me for the words I have spoken. Hide me then; from my eyes the tear-drops stream, and for very shame I turn them away” (35). Due to her disgust with her desires, Phaedra becomes a figure of pity; she knows her love for her stepson is wrong and would rather suffer and shame herself than act upon it. This strong quality of choosing death over forbidden love makes Phaedra admirable to the audience.

In response to her unjust fate in the universe, Phaedra begins to imagine why she may have possibly deserved such an end. She explores different angles of her reasoning, and the audience sympathizes with trying to understand why something bad might happen to someone, accessing the thoroughly human instinct to find an origin for unexplained tragedies. Phaedra contemplates that it is because of her mother’s “love for the bull” (37) which cursed her sister and made her become “the third to suffer” (37). This “curse from time long past” (37) is not the only reason she thinks may have caused her fate. Phaedra also blames Goddess Cypris when she says that she has gone “Mad! Mad! Stricken by some demon’s curse!” (35) and asks Aphrodite, “How can these [sinners]…e’er look their husbands in the face? do they never feel one guilty thrill that their accomplice, night, or the chambers of their house will find a voice and speak?” (38). With these lines, Euripides gives the audience the dilemma of choosing whether it is truly due to Aphrodite or the sins of Phaedra’s mother.

After Phaedra mentions the possible chance of the chambers of a woman’s home finding a voice and speaking of sinful affairs, the worst possible alternative befalls Phaedra when the nurse tells Hippolytus of his stepmother’s desires. After hearing Hippolytus’ harsh reply, the audience feels pity for Phaedra because she has not acted on her passion and had resigned herself to death before being unfaithful; however, she will soon endure a tarnished reputation because of her servant’s lack of honesty. Therefore, when Phaedra commits suicide and ruins her stepson’s reputation with a letter that “loudly tells a hideous tale” (46) to save her own, the audience does not condemn her for her desperate actions though they are not excusable either.

In demonstrating the natural characteristics of humans, especially when it comes to love and the survival of their reputation, Euripides creates a character who is changes in reaction to her fate. Though Phaedra performs a harrowing deed, the audience still sympathizes with her uncontrollable desire, shame, and quest to find reason between man or the Gods for her fate. We can understand, at least, her desperate need to protect her reputation.

Works Cited

Euripides. The Trojan Women and Hippolytus. Trans. Edward P. Coleridge. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002. Print.

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