by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Professor of Classics, Temple University
Think about the stories in these myths inform the events of this play.
Theseus and Sinis
Theseus, Sciron and Procrustes
Theseus and the Minotaur
Theseus and Poseidon
Theseus, Amphitrite and Athena
Theseus and the Amazons
Theseus and the Bull
Ariadne on the rebound
Palace of Minos at Knossos
Bull fresco at Knossos and dolphin fresco
The action is both simple and complicated, as are the play's characters. Hippolytus, the bastard son of THESEUS and the queen of the Amazons, honors only the goddess ARTEMIS and refuses to worship APHRODITE, so the latter goddess causes his stepmother PHA
EDRA to fall in love with him. A woman of high morals, Phaedra wastes away in silence until the Nurse coaxes the truth out of her and then tells Hippolytus, who is not impressed, but still he swears an oath that he will not tell his father. Phaedra, havin
g overheard his angry denunciation of her, commits suicide, leaving behind a note accusing Hippolytus of rape, a charge Theseus believes. Theseus curses his son, who is killed by a monstrous bull at the seashore. Artemis tells Theseus the truth, orders Th
eseus to embrace his dying son, announces a cult to honor Hippolytus, and swears vengeance against Aphrodite's mortal favorite.
Mythic background: Theseus, who resembles Heracles in having a mortal father, Aegeus, and a immortal father, Poseidon, went twice to Crete. The first time he went to kill the Minotaur and then he ran off with ARIADNE (watch out for references to her i n the play). After abandoning her, he neglected to change his sails from black to white, as he has promised Aegeus as a sign of his salvation. Aegeus, believing his son dead, threw himself off a cliff. Theseus then defeated the Amazons and married their q ueen, sometimes called Hippolyta, sometimes Antiope. On his second trip to Crete he met Phaedra, and then wound up killing Hippolyta at their wedding. He left his bastard son in Troezen, on the coast near Athens, to be raised by another.
This is the first drama we have read in which Olympian gods conflict with one another. How do they affect the action? Are they really agents in the actions, or just expressions of human emotions?
Where is Theseus during the first half of the play? Why are he and Phaedra living in Troezen instead of Athens?
Consider Hippolytus' behavior and attitude, especially in his first appearance, his scene with the Nurse and his debate with Theseus. Is he a virtuous young man, or a self-righteous, misogynistic prig? Notice how, under pressure, his real thoughts emerge. From what you know of Greek culture, is he a particularly admirable figure? What has made him the way he is? How do you think he really feels about his father?
To what extent is Hippolytus having to deal with the consequences of being the son of an Amazon and someone like Theseus?
Phaedra comes from Crete and the house of Minos. Look for references to her family, and remember the Minotaur was her half brother. Does this past affect her at all? Note she is ashamed not of her actions, but her thoughts; have you seen such an interiori zed morality before? She loves her stepson: are these thoughts considered incestuous? Compare Euripides; portrayal of her with Aeschylus' of Clytemnestra or Sophocles' of Deianira and Tecmessa.
Where does the bull that kills Hippolytus ultimately originate? Are Theseus and Hippolytus reconciled at the end of the play? And, has Hippolytus really learned anything?How does Artemis strike you? Is she really concerned about Hippolytus? Why doesn't sh
e intervene earlier? What is the purpose of the cult to Hippolytus that she announces?