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Hippolytus: Greek Tragedy Study

Categories: Tragedy

The Greek tragedy of Hippolytus, by Euripides, focuses on the title character’s story, as well as many others around him. The story takes place in the Greek coastal town of Troezen. Hippolytus is the bastard son of Theseus, the king of Athens. At the beginning of the play, Aphrodite, the Goddess of love, explains that Hippolytus has sworn chastity and refuses to revere her. Instead, he chooses to honor Artemis, the Goddess of the hunt. Artemis is also a Goddess of chastity, which essentially opposed Aphrodite completely.

This causes Aphrodite to initiate a plan of vengeance on Hippolytus.

Two years previous to this play, Hippolytus went to Athens, and Aphrodite inspired Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with him knowing that it would anger Theseus. Along with several followers, Hippolytus shows reverence towards Artemis while passing her statue, who is a chaste Goddess. A servant warns Hippolytus against his disdain for Aphrodite, but to the servant’s dismay, he refuses to listen.

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After the opening scene, a chorus of women enter, and describe the queen, Phaedra, as being very ill. She refuses to eat, drink, or sleep for unknown reasons, as the nurse pleads with her to get the truth.

After long discussion and pleading with Phaedra, she gives in to the nurse’s demands and reveals that she is in love with Hippolytus. The chorus and nurse are shocked, and Phaedra also tells why she is starving herself; so she can die with her honor still intact. The nurse “cures” her, then goes to find Hippolytus.

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He enters, and the nurse makes him swear an oath that he will never tell what he is about to ascertain. After he swears, the nurse reveals of Phaedra’s intentions, and that she is in love with him. Hippolytus gives a hate filled misogynistic rant on the “poisonous” nature of women, then leaves.

Phaedra then believes she is ruined, because the secret is out. She makes the chorus of women swear secrecy to what they have heard, then goes to another room and hangs herself. After this, Theseus returns to the town and finds Phaedra’s dead body. He tries to find out what had happened by asking those who knew. The chorus though, was sworn to secrecy, so they could not tell. Theseus then finds a letter on Phaedra’s body that blames her death entirely on Hippolytus. He takes the meaning of this letter wrong, and thinks that Hippolytus has raped her.

Theseus becomes enraged and curses his son to either death, or exile. In order to carry out the curse that he wishes to place upon his bastard son Hippolytus, Theseus calls upon his father, Poseidon. Poseidon is the god of the sea, and had once promised his son three wishes of his choice. Hippolytus enters to see his step-mother’s dead body, and his father infuriated. In confusion, Hippolytus tries to figure out the situation. Theseus throws accusations his way, but because of the oath that he had swore to the nurse, Hippolytus cannot reveal what had actually happened.

Taking his wife’s letter over Hippolytus’s words, Theseus banishes him. After Hippolytus is exiled, the chorus sings a lament for him, and his unfortunate situation. In the next scene, a Henchman arrives telling Theseus of a gruesome scene. When Hippolytus entered his chariot to leave the kingdom, a sea-bulled rushed from the sea and frightened his horses. This caused the chariot to flip, and Hippolytus to be dragged behind among the coastal rocks. Theseus tells them to bring him Hippolytus, and when he arrives being carried, he seems to be dying.

The henchman protests Hippolytus’s innocence, but Theseus still refuses to believe. He seems to be very pleased with Hippolytus’s suffering until the moment that the Goddess Artemis appears in the form of a cloud to tell Theseus the truth about the situation. Artemis reveals that it was actually Phaedra who lied, and is angry at Theseus, momentarily, until she realizes that the blame actually falls upon Aphrodite for creating this situation. Artemis vows to Hippolytus that she would punish the next person that Aphrodite loves as revenge. Hippolytus finally forgives his father, then dies.

From reading this play, I learned very much about mythology. Mythology is very interesting, but the most interesting part of it is the fact that all of the stories are intertwined with the others. Every story connects somehow, in some place. If one put all of the mythological stories together, they would all connect to form a web of the history of the mythological world. Also, all mythological stories consist of the similar conventions, if not exactly the same. Mythology also deals and teaches about the universal themes that are still very extant in today’s world.

Mythology is important in many aspects, but the most important would be to entertain us, while teaching us about universal themes that we will experience throughout our lifetimes. Themes and Motifs in Hippolytus There are many themes and motifs that revolve around the story of Hippolytus. The biggest themes in the play though, are Hubris and Fate vs. Free Will. Both Theseus and Hippolytus possess hubris, which is the hamartia that will eventually lead to their catastrophe. Hippolytus’s hubris is evident upon his harsh rejection towards Aphrodite, and his upholding of his belief in Artemis.

If he simply would’ve revered Aphrodite as well, she wouldn’t have felt the need for vengeance against him. Another hubristic tendency, was when Hippolytus refused to tell Theseus the truth about Phaedra because of the oath he swore. He felt confident enough that he could get by without telling what actually happened, though him not breaking the oath and not revealing the secret led to his own catastrophe. His own stubbornness, along with his father’s, led to both of their catastrophes. In Hippolytus, Theseus also dealt with the theme of hubris as well.

He chose to believe the word of his wife over the word of his own son and many others, because of his own stubbornness. This caused him to exile his son, and essentially cause his death as well. Before knowing the absolute truth about his wife’s death, Theseus chooses to banish his son based on the letter Phaedra left him, thinking that Hippolytus had raped her. It also forces him to call upon his father Poseidon, to try and kill Hippolytus for him. This is all the outcome of Theseus not wanting to listen to others because of his hubris, and the others’ hunris is in them not breaking their oaths to the nurse and Phaedra.

Because of his hubris, Theseus kills his son, then has his anagnorasis when Artemis reveals the truth. Lastly, The theme of Fate vs. Free Will exists in this play. In Hippolytus, Aphrodite actually reveals to us what will happen in the very beginning. But, in the play, humans still seem to follow their own free will. This is shown when Phaedra has the choice to either be silent or speak, and chooses to speak, though it ends disastrously. This also happens with the nurse when she tells Hippolytus Phaedra’s secret, and Hippolytus can speak or be silent also, but he chooses silence, which also ended disastrously. he last example of this also shows more hubristic tendencies, when Theseus speaks his curse and refuses to retract or reconsider, once again it ends terribly. Though one of the characters reveled the ending at the beginning of the play, the characters know what will happen, but still make their own choices. In the end though, they are still subject to their own fate. Conventions of Greek Tragedies Almost all Greek tragedies contain similar, or the exact same traditional conventions used to tell the stories.

Examples of these conventions would be that all tragedies have themes, hamartia, catharsis, anagnorasis, catastrophes, and so on. Hippolytus, was basically a conventional play that upheld the traditional way of telling Greek tragedies. It contained examples of everything mentioned above. But, there were a few differences compared to other plays. The large difference compared to other plays though, was the fact that the main conflict in the story rested in the struggle between the two Goddesses, Aphrodite and Artemis, rather than the actual characters.

In the story, it seems more like the characters are pawns for the battle between Aphrodite and Artemis trying to win over Hippolytus. Though in all Greek tragedy it always seems that the fate rests in the hands of the gods, this one makes that statement in a more obvious way as the Goddesses use the commoners as pawns. These two Goddesses battle in trying to win over Hippolytus, but in the end, they actually bring his own catastrophe upon him and the others around him. By making Phaedra fall in love with Hippolytus, Aphrodite has actually cause the entire story’s conflict, just because she wanted Hippolytus to choose her over Artemis.

It seems that non-conventionally, this story is actually a struggle between the gods, more than it is a struggle between the characters below them. It seems to contest the status quo that Greek Tragedies fall under by shifting the focus from the hands of the people and Gods, to just the hands of the Gods, battling it out against each other. Even though the plays always put power in the hands on the Gods, Hippolytus did this, and expanded on it by making the Goddesses main characters of the story. Other than this change, Hippolytus was a conventional play.

It had a tragic hero, Theseus, who because of his hubris led to his hamartia, and eventually his catastrophe in which he lost everything including his wife and son. The play had a messenger speech, like most other Greek Tragedies, in order to deliver the news that Hippolytus had been in a violent accident offstage. Another similarity between conventional tragedies and this one, is that there was a chorus present during the entire play, and the chorus upheld the tradition telling by using odes, antistrophes, and strophes.

There was a parados in the beginning of the play, but no exodus at the end. The last difference about Hippolytus, is that rather than ending with a long speech by the chorus or a character that taught you the lesson of the play, it ended with only a few sentences. Though odd, it still served its purpose perfectly well. Though Hippolytus had differences, it seemed to still be a Greek tragedy with the conventions that we are all used to, making it very enjoyable and easy to read.

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Hippolytus: Greek Tragedy Study. (2017, Jan 03). Retrieved from

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