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Euripides’ Hippolytus is weird. I can’t really describe it better than that. Despite the title, it’s hard to work out whether the focus of the tragedy is Phaedra, wife of Theseus, Hippolytus, her step-son, or Theseus himself. The themes within the play are easy to see, but the play doesn’t really feel like a coherent whole, somehow.
The story is about the family of Theseus, the man who famously killed the Minotaur. Theseus’ son, Hippolytus, is a chaste worshipper of Artemis, much to the annoyance of Aphrodite, the goddess of the more physical aspects of love. As a punishment for him, she makes Phaedra, his step-mother, fall in love with him, which has disastrous consequences for all concerned, causing the death of Phaedra and Hippolytus and great grief to Theseus.
The plot, in its simplest form, makes sense, in a soap-opera kind of way. Phaedra falls in love with Hippolytus, he finds out, rejects her, she kills herself, leaving behind a note in retribution accusing Hippolytus of rape, Theseus comes home, finds out, reads note, curses Hippolytus, Hippolytus is banished and mortally wounded, brought home, Theseus finds out he was wrong, there’s nothing he can do about it, Hippolytus forgives him, Hippolytus dies. Don’t shoot me for giving away the plot – Greek tragedies were written assuming the audience already knows the relevant myth.
But there are two reasons this plot, to my mind, doesn’t really work as it is written in the play, and both of these are due to poor characterisation. Hippolytus finds out about Phaedra’s love for him because she confides it to her nurse, who tells him. However, when Phaedra first confides in the Nurse, she is horrified and wouldn’t even dream of telling Hippolytus. She then suddenly and for no apparent reason changes her mind and tells Hippolytus, despite Phaedra begging her not to. This rapid turnabout doesn’t ring true. The other thing which doesn’t ring true for me is Phaedra’s accusation of rape; whilst it wouldn’t surprise me for many people in her position to get vengeance from beyond the grave in such a way, Phaedra as she is portrayed in the early scenes just doesn’t seem the type.
Inconsistencies aside, there are some really wonderfully worded speeches and conversations; never let it be said Euripides wasn’t good at writing speeches where someone slags someone else off. There is an incredibly powerful anti-women speech by Hippolytus, which contributes greatly to the idea of chastity versus passion which is prevalent in the play. This idea is stressed by the fact that the play opens with Aphrodite and closes (almost, anyway) with Artemis – passion opens it, chastity closes it.
I’ve seen Hippolytus performed in the original Greek once, at King’s College, London, and while for the most part I would say seeing a Greek play in the original is well worth it, I must say the experience warned me off student productions in the original. The actors didn’t know their lines, and because of this their acting suffered, and the words were mumbled. The surtitles being messed up didn’t help matters much either…
My copy of Hippolytus is part of ‘The Complete Greek Tragedies’ series’ “Euripides I”, and is translated by David Grene, whom the Sunday Times described as “one of the great translators”. It’s printed by the University of Chicago Press, whose website is www.uchicago.edu. As it’s an American edition, it doesn’t have the price on it, sorry. Its ISBN is 0-226-30780-8
For the more serious Classical scholar, and here I’m talking studying it in the original at University, the definitive edition, written with undergraduates specifically in mind, is “Euripides: Hippolytos” edited by W.S. Barrett. This is a genuine opinion, as I read the introduction to help me with Classics AS and have heard many great things about Barrett from other classical scholars, particularly those who knew him or studied under him, but here I must confess a bias – Barrett was my grandfather. My copy doesn’t have a price on it, and for obvious reasons I didn’t actually have to buy a copy and so have no idea what it cost, but it’s published by the Oxford University Press (www.oup.com) and its ISBN is 0-19-814167-X