"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

23 February 2014

Hippolytus, by Euripides


Leader: For the sake of the gods, King, cancel that prayer.
            Believe me, you’ll come in time to know the mistake you have made.
Theseus: Never (79).

Leader: There’s no escape from doom when doom’s ordained (92).

Artemis: Your father, Poseidon, king of the deep,
            with only good intentions to follow his word, consented.
But both of us, he and I, consider your action wrong.
For your proceeded, without examination, without proof,
            without auguries and without waiting for the revealing hand of time,
            to release curses against your son and kill him (94-95).

Chorus: A common sorrow for all the city.
            Many shall be the tears that fall.
            The tragedies of the great ones after all
            Are the most compelling tales of all.

Hippolytus is probably one of Euripides’ most commonly adapted plays—often adapted as Phaedra, or some variation on that title. I’m not entirely sure why it is such popular source material, but I suspect it has something to do with the image of the chaste and asexual Hippolytus, who rejects women, love, and sex. This figure has an enduring fascination for Western culture. To some degree, as a patriarchal society, I think the West shares Hippolytus’ fantasy of a world without women, in which men could live ‘simpler’ lives and buy a baby of the appropriate quality based on what they could afford to pay. But of course Euripides smashes this fantasy through the machinations of Aphrodite, who isn’t an admirable character, but she does represent an experiential reality of a world where love plays its part.

One thing I find fascinating about Hellenistic culture—or at least in Greek drama—is that people do not seem to take responsibility for being in love. It is always ascribed to Aphrodite and Eros. For instance, in SophoclesThe Women of Trachis, the heroine Deianeira doesn’t blame Heracles for falling in love with Iole, though she is a bit critical of him sending Iole back to their house. She says that Aphrodite must have struck his heart. Similarly in Hippolytus, the chorus of women and even the nurse don’t really blame Phaedra for falling in love with her stepson, they just sort of accept it as the kind of thing Aphrodite likes to do sometimes. This seems to me very different from contemporary western culture where we tend to blame people for falling in or out of love—partly why the divorce rate in the US is so high. On the one hand, the Hellenistic idea of ascribing it to Aphrodite’s will seems like a cop out that lets individuals avoid responsibility for their actions, but on the other hand, it is true that being attracted to or in love with someone is not a conscious choice.

The only other thing that I find troubling about Hippolytus is that it is never really explained by Phaedra writes in her suicide note that Hippolytus raped her. Artemis says that she was trying to protect her secret, but that doesn’t really explain why she makes the false accusation. On one level I get that the letter needed to be written as a mechanism for goading Theseus to call down Poseidon’s curse on Hippolytus, but other than as a means to that end (which wasn’t actually Phaedra’s goal anyway, or if it was I’m not sure why) the letter doesn’t make much sense.

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