The Identity of a Tragic Hero Phaedra

Categories: Jean Racine Phedre

“Not recognising her beloved. she both looks at him and asks where he may be. At last she knows too well what’s lying there, she lifts to the Gods a sad. accusmg stare; then, moaning. cold, and all but dead, the sweet maid drops unconscious at her lover‘s feet”, From this phrase alone, it is obvious that Jean Racine’s Phaedra (1677) is a tragic play, featuring a tragic hero. The tragic hero is defined as a person of high estate, who demonstrates both good and bad qualities, and most distinguishingly, is the cause of the tragedy due to a personal error in judgment or tragic flaw.

In Phaedra, there are three characters that demonstrate the first two of these characteristics, however only one character, Phaedra, is responsible for the tragedy in the play and therefore, is the tragic hero. Distinguishing the persons of high estate from the commoners is quite simple and is an important first step in identifying potential tragic heroes, Hippolytus is referred to by Theramenes (his tutor) as “my lord”, which is indicative of Hippolytus‘ high status.

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This idea is confirmed when Hippolytus is revealed as the King’s son, which makes him a prince. Theseus. the King of Athens and Phaedra, his Queen. are also characters of high estate. As princess of the blood royal of Athens, Aricia could also be considered “high status” however, as Theseus’ enemy her status is actually lower than that of a commoner. The remaining characters, Theramenes, Oenone. lsmene, and Panope are servants and confidants, not people of nobility or high status.

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Therefore, of the eight characters, Hippolytus, Theseus, and Phaedra are the potential tragic heroes in the play. The tragic hero must demonstrate both good and bad traits. Phaedra, the stepmother ol Hippolytus, demonstrated her poor qualities when she unjustly banished him because she was in love With him and could not bear to be near him. She admitted to Oenone that “To rid me of the foe l loved, I feigned a harsh stepmother’s malice. and obtained by ceaseless cries my Wish that he be sent from home and father into banishment”. Phaedra‘s cruelness is also revealed when she conspired With Oenone to “accuse him first of that which he might charge you with today“. blaming Hippolytus of being in love With her so that she would not be punished for lovmg him. She caused Hippolytus to be punished for a crime he did not commit. Phaedra is not wholly vicious because she showed remorse for falling in love With Hippolytus and understood that her feelings were immoral, telling Oenone that “I look with horror on my crime; I hate my life: my passion I abominate.

I hoped by death to keep my honor bright, and hide so dark a flame from days pure light”. Moreover, not being able to live With the idea that she deceived Theseus and ruined Hippolytus’ name, she confessed to Theseus, “Here me, my lord. l have but little time, lwas the lustful and incestuous one who dared desire your chaste and loyal son”. Theseus‘ immorality is reflected when Aricia told of her family‘s misfortunes, which were the result of Theseus’ malice. “I lost six brothers, young and fresh as May, in whom the hopes of our great lineage lay: the sharp sword reaped them all,‘ earth, soaked and red, drank sadly what Erectheus‘ heirs had shed You know that, since their death, a harsh decree forbids all Greeks to pay their court to me” . Theseus demonstrated forgiveness and morality when he said to himself after asking Neptune to take vengeance on Hippolytus, “i loved you: and in spite of what you‘ve done, i mourn your coming agonies, my son” (p. 391). He also set aside his personal anger toward Aricia to fulfill his son’s wish, stating “To his great worth all honor shall be paid, and, further to appease his angry shade, Aricia, despite her brother’s offense, shall be my daughter from this moment hence”. Hippolytus, aware of his father’s prohibitions, confesses his shortcomings to Theseus. “I here confess my only true misdeed’ lam in love, despite what you decreed. Aricia has enslaved me; my heart is won, and Pallas’s daughter has subdued your son. lworshlp her against your orders”. In this sense, Hippolytus‘ lesser quality was to act against the Wishes of his father. Hippolytus demonstrated a Virtuous quality in that he is more concerned With how the truth Will affect his father than he is With provmg his innocence. He tells his father “ln lust resentment of so black a lie, I might well let the truth be known, but I suppress what comes too near your heart. Approve my lord. a silence which bespeaks my love.” All three characters, Phaedra. Hippolytus, and Theseus demonstrated good and bad qualities. Therefore, we must look to the third characteristic of flaw and cause to identify the tragic hero.

In Racine‘s Phaedra, the tragedy is that Phaedra and Oenone committed suicide, Hippolytus was murdered, and Theseus and Aricia were left to mourn miserably. Each character had a tragic flaw, or harmatia, that influenced events In the play. Hippolytus‘ harmatia was not provmg his Innocence to his father. If he had proved to Theseus that he did not deceive him, then he would not have died at the hands of Neptune. Instead his main concern was how the truth would affect his father, telling Aricia “What more should I have told him? How she smirched their marriage-tie? How could I, by disclosing everything, humiliate my father and my king”  Theseus’ tragic flaw was being too trustlul ol Phaedra; he expressed to Phaedra that it was because he trusted her that Hippolytus died “How curst a lather am I! l doomed him, trusting in your heartless lie”. Phaedra’s tragic flaw was her fear of Theseus finding out that she was in love with Hippolytus. After learning Theseus was alive, she confided in Oenone “I think that in this place each vault, each wall can speak, and that, impatient to accuse, they wait to give my trusting spouse their news”. Although both Theseus‘ and Hippolytus’ harmatias swayed the tragic ending, it was Phaedra‘s error in Judgment that caused the tragedy, Theseus‘ misjudgment ol Hippolytus coupled with Hippolytus‘ need to defend himself, would not have occurred had Phaedra not accused Hippolytus ol Iovmg her, Ironically, Hippolytus was never gomg to tell Theseus how Phaedra ielt about him. After being accused by his father, Hippolytus remained silent on this matter. Phaedra is the tragic hero in Racine’s Phaedra. Phaedra rellected all of the qualities associated With the tragic hero. As the queen she was a person ol high estate demonstrating both good and bad qualities. Her harmatia caused the tragedy in the play. Phaedra stands apart from Theseus and Hippolytus in that her error ofjudgment was the catalyst in both Theseus‘ and Hippolytus‘ harmatias. Phaedra’s accusation of Hippolytus caused his death and Oenone’s suicide. As a result of her own actions, Phaedra committed suicide. “I drank to give my burning veins some peace, a poison which Medea brought to Greece.”

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The Identity of a Tragic Hero Phaedra. (2022, Jul 14). Retrieved from

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