Greek Tragedy: Hippolytus of Euripides

I read Hippolytus and The Bacchae as part of a single volume, translated by Gilbert Murray, who also translated my copy of Medea.

Of the three plays, I found Hippolytus to be the most forgettable.  I’m not really sure what makes it a Great Book.  Phaedra, the young wife of Theseus, has fallen in love with Hippolytus, Theseus’ bastard son.  She first attempts to stay loyal to Theseus but then gives up and tries to make advances to Hippolytus.  Hippolytus, who has chosen a life of voluntary celibacy, is horrified at the idea of an affair with his father’s wife and chastises her at length.  Phaedra then commits suicide, leaving  note that falsely accuses Hippolytus of raping her.  The enraged Theseus banishes Hippolytus and calls down a curse on him which results in his death.  A plot with this much human interest would have been a fertile field for any tragedian, but Euripides’ efforts are underwhelming.

The two most important characters, Phaedra and Hippolytus, are underdeveloped.  Phaedra only falls in love with Hippolytus through the powers of Aphrodite, which is convenient but adds much less plot interest than a less arbitrary romance would. There is no foreshadowing of Phaedra’s suicide note; none of her dialogue indicates that she blames him for the situation or wishes to punish him.  Until the point where she writes the note and hangs herself, she is a completely passive character, little more than a tool in the real conflict, which is between Aphrodite and Hippolytus.

Phaedra in a fresco at Pompeii [photo byFinn Bjørklid, CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia]

Phaedra in a fresco at Pompeii [photo by Finn Bjørklid, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia]

As for Hippolytus, none of his motivations are developed.  Why is he celibate?  The only reason we are given is that he is a follower of Artemis, who was a patron goddess of virgins, but did not normally demand celibacy of her followers.  He would be a more interesting character if he showed that he was at least a little bit tempted by Phaedra, but he clearly isn’t.  Alternately, the author could have given him a back-story about why he is distrustful of women, or why he has chosen to worship Artemis in this particular way.  Again, there is no depth and the the character seems unresolved.

And speaking of Artemis, if Hippolytus is so devout, why can’t she protect him from Aphrodite?  Artemis’ explanation, when she finally does take the stage to comfort the dying Hippolytus, seems a bit weak:

Artemis:
...'Twas the will
  Of Cypris that these evil things should be,
  Sating her wrath. And this immutably
  Hath Zeus ordained in heaven: no God may thwart
  A God's fixed will; we grieve but stand apart.
  Else, but for fear of the Great Father's blame,
  Never had I to such extreme of shame
  Bowed me, be sure, as here to stand and see
  Slain him I loved best of mortality!

After all, Aphrodite is already interfering with Artemis. Why isn’t she standing up for herself or appealing to Zeus?

The device of using Aphrodite at all seems like lazy plotting. Granted, the core theme of Greek Tragedy is man’s final helplessness in the face of destiny. Aphrodite is used more as the embodiment of a universal force than a character. The characters are destined to be destroyed by Love, and there is no escape. But the script doesn’t quite work, and a playwright of Euripides’ stature should have found a way to fix it.

Venus and Amor, Hans Balung [public domain via Wikimedia]

Venus and Amor, Hans Balung [public domain via Wikimedia]

This play was written towards the middle of Euripides’ career.  Possibly, we are just seeing an example of mid-career burn-out.  Maybe he needed a play for the festival that year and didn’t have any good ideas, so he dusted off a script from the slush pile.  There is no way to know.

I don’t hate this play, but it doesn’t seem to belong with the other fifteen tragedies I’ve read so far in this project.  I suppose I’m probably missing something.  Hippolytus shows up on many Great Books lists, so others must have seen something in it that I don’t.

Luckily, I do not have the same objections to the next play on my list, The Bacchae.

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