Voltaire considered Racine's Phaedra a "masterpiece of the human mind"...I was a little skeptical at first of such high praise considering this play is just a revision of the Greek tragedies written by Seneca and Euripides (Hippolytus.) How could a revision be better than the original? But from the first moments, the first sentences, there was a stark and penetrating difference.
Euripides opens his play with a monologue given by Venus describing her annoyance with Hippolytus at his choosing a life of chastity and devotion to Artemis. She is resolved to destroy him and those closest to him will get swept up in the maelstrom of her rage. Next comes Hippolytus swooning over his love for Artemis and almost vindicating Venus' wrath. Euripides creates caricatures of his subjects, they are one dimensional beings, each wrestling with the concept of love and agency in a world dictated by those in another realm. When we finally meet Phaedra she is overcome by the poison of love, shot by the deadly and forever penetrating arrow of Cupid and contemplates the best way to kill herself.
Racine's play opens with Hippolytus, presuming his father is dead, deciding to make his way home despite being banished by his father's wife, his step-mother Phaedra.
Hippolytus: It is resolved, Theramenes. I go. I will depart from Troezen's pleasant land. Torn by uncertainty about the King, I am ashamed of standing idly by. For over half a year I have not heard of my dear father Theseus' destiny nor even by what far sky he is concealed. (1-7)
As he discusses his plans with Theramenes, we learn that although he has previously disdained love and has chosen a life of austere chastity...he has without reason or inclination, found himself overcome by Aricia, the daughter of his father's mortal enemy. Theseus, although allowing her to live, has forbade her to ever marry, decreeing that her brother's line will end with her, and condemning her to a life of chastity. Hippolytus is trapped between one woman who seems to hate him and another whom he must learn to hate in turn. Cautiously, Theramenes questions Hippolytus' motive for his sudden desire to leave the Troezan plains:
Theramenes: My lord, may I explain your sudden flight? Are you no more the man you once were, relentless foe of all the laws of love and of a yoke Theseus himself has borne? Will Venus whom you haughtily disdained vindicate Theseus after all these years by forcing you to worship with the throng of ordinary mortals at her shrine? Are you in love? (57-65)
Hippolytus is somewhat shocked by how bluntly Theramenes has distilled his emotions into one singular cause. Love. Must he disavow the feeling of a proud contemptuous heart? Must he no longer worship at the shrine of Artemis, but now like all men before him be compulsorily felled by Venus and her minion Cupid? As much as Hippolytus respects his father for the legendary warrior that he is, he also has a reputation as an unashamed womanizer, in fact even the hasty elopement with Phaedra left a weeping jilted Ariadne in their wake.
Hippolytus: And am I to be vanquished in my turn? And can the gods have humbled me so far? In base defeat the more despicable since the countless exploits plead of his behalf, Whereas no monsters overcome by me have given me the right to err like him. And, even if I were fated to succumb, should I have chosen to love Aricia? (95-103)
Hippolytus, unable to deny that he loves Aricia, wonders about the motivation behind these feelings. Is he defying his harsh and endlessly controlling father? Is this just a foolish passion launched by his youth? Theramenes, consolingly tells Hippolytus that even Hercules was subdued by Venus, and if it wasn't for Antiope (his mother) giving in to her love for Theseus, Hippolytus wouldn't exist...but no matter how diligently one seeks to ascertain the rationale behind matters of the heart, Hippolytus is decidedly in love.
Hippolytus decides the only course of action is to seek out his father. If he is truly dead, the bans against Aricia will be recanted and if he still lives...perhaps he can persuade his father, the romantic at heart, of his feelings for this hapless princess.
As Hippolyus makes his way to his step-mother's palace he is met by her nurse Oenone who cautions that Phaedra is almost at her "destined end." Struck with an indecipherable malady, begging for death, "eternal discord reigning in her mind." Hippolytus knows that he has the propensity to bring out the worst in his step-mother so he hastily leaves we are introduced to the heroine of the play.
Phaedra is racked with guilt, and palpable angst. Caught in a never ending battle and the perpetual uncertainty of what the future holds. She is incredibly self aware. If only she had never laid eyes on Hippolytus, but alas, almost from the moment of her marriage as her husband-to-be led her from the shores of Crete, she had seen Hippolytus and been forever cursed,
Although she had Hippolytus banished almost immediately and is innocent of any premeditated sin, in her heart she has been guilty of the gravest of sins since the moment she saw him and now wears the mantle of an incestuous adulterer; whether or not her sins become substantiated is almost irrelevant. She has harbored an ill favored love in her heart and of that she is guilty and deserving of death. But unlike the Phaedra of Euripides who immediately begins deciding which form of suicide would be the most advantageous, the heroine of Racine is much more pragmatic. What will happen to her children if she is gone? Their claim to the throne without Theseus to vouch for them becomes tenuous. Already Aricia, Hippolytus and perhaps many others stand in line to present their due claim...so she can not in good conscience leave her children motherless.
Instead she bemoans the destruction Venus has left in her wake, on a whim toying with people's hearts and destroying their lives.
Phaedra: O hate of Venus! Anger laden doom! Into what dark abyss love hurled my mother!"
Pasiphae, Phaedra's mother, overcome with a monstrous passion for a bull, subsequently gave birth to the Minotaur, a half man half bull monster. Her sister Ariadne led Theseus through the Minotaur's labyrinth only to then be deserted on a barren shore while Theseus eloped with Phaedra. And now this. This inexplicable, festering malady of love...
After Pheadra finishes speaking, her nurse, echoing Thermamenes, asks her lady "Are you in love?" (258)
Phaedra, choking on her words, quietly cries: "Love's furies rage in me..."
Unfortunately, Hippoluytus is everything is father is not. Unerringly chaste to his father's blatant and endless amorous pursuits. Despite her erecting temples and shrines to Venus in the hopes her love will be palliated, her demonstrances have gone unnoticed and unacknowledged. Yet even while she prayed and invoked the goddess' name...she was really thinking of him. She has deified him and he in turn has become inescapable.
Phaedra: Venus in all her might is on her prey. I have a fitting horror for my crime; I hate this passion and I loathe my life. (305-308) \
And then in Act 1- Scene 4 we learn that Theseus is dead! Verifiably so, (which in the tradition of Greek tragedy means they are actually still alive.) "In some amorous escapade the waters closed over his faithless head" (382) and now everything has changed. Oenone, rejoicing, tells her mistress "the king is dead and you must take his place!" (342) "Live then no longer tortured by reproach, your love becomes like any other love!" (350) Now that Theseus is dead, Phaedra's love for Hippolytus is slightly less abhorrent...and Oenone persuades Phaedra to lay her cards on the table. What's the worst that can happen? Everyone knows Hippolytus spurns love of any kind. So Phaedra will tell him of her love and he will give her the "it's not you it's me" speech... and hopefully she will be able to purge the knotty tendrils of love from her heart.
Act 2- Scene 2: Hippotyus learning of his fathers death pardons Aricia leaving her free. (375) Since Hippolytus' mother was an Amazon, his claim to the throne is annulled; either his stepbrother becomes king or Aricia is returned the scepter given to her ancestors. (494) Theseus defended and enlarged the bounds of Athens, which proclaimed him king and left Aricia's brothers in oblivion. (500) Hippolytus concocts a plan that will give him reign of Troezan, Crete will go to his step-brother and Aricia will rightfully regain rule over Attica. Now that the pragmatics are out of the way, let the wooing begin! Hippolytus admits to Aricia that he's a novice in the matters of love and although he has spent his life in proud rebellion of love, mocking those captive sufferers...he has now found himself somewhat helplessly in love. (530) Aricia, like any warm blooded woman approached by the paramount eligible bachelor would, accepts Hippolytus' offer of love and generous gifts (i.e. re-installing her claim to the Attican throne) and Hippolytus departs for his intercession with the queen.
But things don't go according to plan. As Hippolytus attempts to convince Phaedra to divvy up her sons estate, and Pheadra reveals her soul crushing love (much to Hippolytus' disgust and abhorrence, which the women expected considering his renowned profession of celibacy and take in stride...) when lo and behold, Theseus turns up not dead...and now that the cats out of the bag, his return is met with a somber attitude rather than celebratory. Phaedra realizing Hippolytus has left his sword during their confrontation, realizes this could prove efficacious, and Oenone fabricates a lie on her behalf; Hippolytus has engaged in amorous pursuits of his own while Theseus was away...with his step-mother. Despite the lacking veracity of this story, Theseus is apoplectic, and immediately calls down a curse from Neptune dooming Hippolytus to an imminent and painful death.
Theseus: Go seek out friends who in their viciousness applaud adultery and incest. These villains and ingrates, lawless, honourless, will shelter evildoers such as you. (1145-1148)
Phaedra, about to defend Hippolytus, listens to an enraged Theseus tell of his sons abhorrence, and to make matters worse, he says, Hippolytus has gone and fallen in love with the one person in the world I have sworn to a bitter life of solitude and chastity, that dang Aricia. Now it is Phaedra's turn to be apoplectic. So Hippolytus does love women. Just not her. Sickened with anger and unrequited love she contemplates what to do.
Phaedra: Alas, my sad heart never enjoyed the fruits of crimes whose dark shame follows me. Dogged by misfortune to my dying breath, I end upon the rack a life of pain.
Oenone: Ah, Queen! Dismiss these unbecoming fears, and of your error take a different view. You are in love. We cannot change our fate. (1291-1298)
Hippolytus secretly decides to meet Aricia at a holy shrine where they will pledge themselves to each other and then go into banishment together, but he never arrives to the rendezvous point. His horses, which he has raised from colts, no longer listen to his voice and Neptune calls forth a monster from the sea to terrify them. They, terrified, overturn the chariot and drag Hippolytus, in a frenzy toward the shrine. Aricia arrives and finds her dismembered lover, while she begs the gods to take her life, her nurse Ismene, summons her back to life, a life of pain and heartbreak.
At this point, Oenone has killed herself, being a sort of scapegoat for Phaedra's rage. While Phaedra has had to live through every second of her life, waging a secret war, it wasn't until Oenone defamed Hippolytus that things really came to a head. Now sickened with life and no longer able to face the hideousness of what she has become, Phaedra ingests a poison that will give her just enough time to tell Theseus how wrong he was. As the poison sinks deeper into her veins, Theseus, disgusted leaves her alone to die and he rushes off to embrace his cherished son's remains and "expiate my mad atrocious wish, rending him the honors he deserves and to appease the anger of his shade, let his beloved, despite her brother's crime. be as a daughter to me from this day" (1650-1654)
In Euripides version, Artemis at the end, walks through the carnage of dead bodies and tells Theseus that although his son was innocent all along, the gods don't interfere with each other's predilections. Racine's version is so much sadder. Having Phaedra be the one to admit to Theseus that everything was a huge misunderstanding hinging on her much hoped for but ultimately imagined infidelity, to take responsibility for her guilt, not sheltering behind the gods that are responsible for her infatuation, only to be then left to die, abandoned and alone, surrounded by only her guilt and shame.
While Seneca treats Phaedra as a wanton woman, and Euripides casts her as the incidental victim of the gods' whims, Racine wrestles with predestination. How much agency are mortals truly granted? And while Phaedra is fated to suffer an endless temptation, she is ultimately virtuous and expresses her free will in engaging her temptation and battling with it to the death.
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