The story is as follows: Theseus, King of Athens has an illegitimate son by an Amazonian woman, named Hippolytus, who is sworn by his love for Artemis to a life of chastity. Some time later Theseus takes a Cretan wife named Phaedra, and it is not long before Phaedra, under the unfortunate spell of Aphrodite, is struck with Cupid's arrow and overcome with heartsickness over her unrequited love for Hippolytus. Although she recognizes the perfidy of this feeling of love, she is unable to continue living with the hopelessness of misplaced affection.
According to David Grene (1942) unlike other traditions, such as the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, where the woman figures only as a one-dimensional temptress, "Euripides has gone with great sympathy into the feelings of Phaedra, a helpless victim of her passions (Aphrodite) whose mind clings despite all its integrity. Hippolytus too has his ideals. His seraphic love for the unattainable Artemis displays at the same time his admiration for beauty and his dislike of sex. But the quarrel between sacred and profane love, represented by Artemis and Aphrodite, thwarts the good purpose of the human persons and wrecks both lives."
The play opens with a prologue by Aphrodite:
"I am called the Goddess Cypris: I am mighty among men and they honor me by many names...Such as worship my power in all humility, I exalt in honor. But those whose pride is stiff-necked against me I lay by the heels..."
Hippolytus would fall in the "stiff-necked" category. Not only does he reserve no honor for her, but he actually goes so far as to blaspheme her, counting her "vilest of the Gods in Heaven." Rather than love and romance etc. he would rather spend his days with Artemis, the Maiden Goddess, hunting and running through the green, "mortal and immortal in companionship." Many things about this particular relationship infuriates Aphrodite, so she make it her personal goal to destroy him. But not only destroy him, Aphrodite would like to have as much carnage as possible in the wake of Hippolytus' destruction, so she includes a few curses into the mix of her cocktail of misery.
First, Phaedra, the unsuspecting victim and step-mother will be stricken with the bitterness of love for her stepson. "The goads of love" will prick her cruelly and continuously until she kills herself. And second, Theseus, not believing his sons innocence will "slay the son with curses" before realizing they have all been hopelessly caught in the snare of an angry fouler.
As the prologue ends, Aphrodite spits her last bitter lines, the abhorrence dripping from every word:
"Look, here is the son of Theseus, Hippolytus! He has just left his hunting. I must go away. See the great crowd that throngs upon his heels and shouts praise of Artemis in hymns?! He does not know that the doors of death are open for him, that he is looking at his last sun."
Enter Hippolytus, singing platonic love songs to his best friend/goddess Artemis. "Maiden Goddess most beautiful of all the Heavenly Host that live in Olympus..." You can almost see Aphrodite becoming more and more apoplectic. Peppered throughout his ode to Artemis, Hippolytus is sure to include stanzas devoted to his chastity. His love for Artemis is pure and unsullied by the degrading physical act of love.
Scene II. We are introduced to Phaedra's misery as her nurse tries to comfort her with such uplifting tidbits like the misery and hopelessness of childbirth and the suspicious mercurial nature of love:
Nurse: "...The life of a man entire is misery: he finds no resting place, no haven from calamity. But something other dearer still than life the darkness hides and mist encompasses; we are proved luckless lovers of this thing that glitters in the underworld: no man can tell us of the stuff of it, expounding what is, and what is not: we know nothing of it. Idly we drift, on idle stories carried."
While Phaedra, in agony, her spirit crushed by the weight of her unfortunate love, her nurse again cautions: "Love must not touch the marrow of the soul. Our affections must be breakable chains that we can cast off or tighten them." But the chains of Cupid are less tensile than ordinary love and uneasily cast off.
Finally as Phaedra wastes away, ("the tides of love, at its full surge are not withstandable") the nurse concocts a terrible scheme, but the only one she hopes will save her mistress. She will go to Hippolytus and try to persuade him to carry out the only deed certain to save Phaedra's life. Hippolytus, as expected is offended and disgusted. He has promised not to reveal his stepmother's shameful secret, but that's the only compliance he makes and as he turns to leave the nurse grabs a hold of his robe, an interesting parallel to the Joseph story.
At last, Phaedra has no other option than to kill herself, but she takes the time to write a note for Theseus to find, accusing Hippolytus of raping her and setting in motion the avalanche that will lead to the consummation of Aphrodite's curse.