Friday, April 15, 2022

Hippolytos by Euripides - I wish we men could curse gods

Now here’s a Greek tragedy – Hippolytos, performed 428 BCE, winning Euripides the first prize.  Or maybe one of the other lost Euripides plays performed with Hippolytos was even better.  Another kind of tragedy.

Hippolytos is like Medea, an objectively important artwork, art that generated more art, culminating in Jean Racine’s Phèdre (1677).  Below we see Sarah Bernhardt as Phèdre in an 1893 lithograph by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec which I have borrowed from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Phaedra has fallen in love with her step-son, who is a member of an anti-sex purity cult and reacts badly when her nurse clumsily reveals Phaedra’s passion to him.  A series of almost logical disasters follow.  In a sense the tragedy is driven by a conflict between gods, with Aphrodite wrecking lives to punish Hippolytos for rejecting sex, but in what I think of as a typical Euripidean touch the psychology of the characters could as well be driving everything.  Racine will be able to toss out Aphrodite and Artemis without much effort.

Where The Heracleidae seemed both overstuffed and overwritten, Hippolytos is balanced, well-paced, and full of complex and subtle imagery.  It is obviously much more carefully written.

By subtle and careful, I mean things like the bee image that Carson mentions in her introduction, which I will not describe here.  Hunting, horses, running water.  I’ll look at the “house” theme.  Here Phaedra, suffering and literally fasting to death to control her lust and shame (she is also a purist), is imagining other adulterous women.

What keep them from shaking in honest terror

at the darkness, their accomplice?

What keeps them poised in the embrace

of the wooden skeletons of their homes

which might any second break their disgusted silence?  (37, tr. Bagg)

That is pretty original, and weird, on its own, and Euripides develops the image.  A couple of pages later the “earthbound” life-loving nurse, having overcome her very brief shock at the possibility of her queen’s adultery, decides that sex is the answer (the nurse occupies the anti-purity position):

To spend your life in a neurotic drive

for perfection is simply not worth it.

Look at the roof of your own house.

Is there a single timber not slightly askew?

As a roof it’s a great success.  (39, tr. Bagg)

The nurse gets a lot of the most outrageous lines.  Euripides is a master of the outrageous, and the nurse is his mouthpiece.  The house returns once more, now invoked by Hippolytos, who wishes he had a witness against a false accusation of rape:

If only this calm inanimate house

could speak for me, and say faintly

if there’s anything so vile in my blood.  (68, tr. Bagg)

As much as I enjoyed Anne Carson’s Hippolytos, line by line I preferred Robert Bagg’s 1973 Oxford version, so I am using it more.  Do not miss, though, Carson’s strange essay written in the voice and under the name of Euripides justifying his (and I presume her) obsession with the Phaedra myth. 

Like many later writers, like Racine, Carson is more interested in Phaedra than Hippolytos.  But poor Hippolytos, what a death scene he gets.  I really had to slow down, which was hard to do at that point in the play, but what pathos, and what great lines:

Why me?  I have not done

one wrong act in my whole life.  (81)

Or even better:

I wish we men could curse gods –

curse and destroy those killers from our graves.  (83)

Is that ever Euripidean.  The deus ex machina appearance of Artemis at the end of the play is a cheap device in most hands, but Euripides, a kind of postmodernist, is actually interested in the device, and as skeptical as his readers.  Artemis is as outrageous as the nurse.  She can’t cry for him, sorry, gods can’t cry.  She can’t see him die, that would be “pollution.”  And don’t worry about justice, since Artemis will just murder one of Aphrodite’s favorites to balance things.  So no problem, right, you know, cosmically?  We’ll see this again, several times.

Nex week is the play of plays, Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus the King, the first detective story, among other things.  I am not a fan of “should read,” but if there is one Greek play you should read, it is probably this one.


  1. I think the house theme is very important, not just structurally, but deeply thematically. I'll either write a longer comment here about it later today, or possibly even write a post of my own about it. What a terrific play, though. One of the best works in the history of theater.

  2. There are indeed a lot of interesting strands here. It is certainly the most sexual of the plays we've read so far. Phaedra's first few "mad" speeches are rife with double entendre that seems to me to equate hunting with sex. "God, how I long to set the hounds on, shouting!... I would hold in my hand a spear with a steel point." And of course Hippolytus talks of his relationship with Artemis in the language of love, even if he is chaste: "Loved mistress, here I offer you this coronal... with no man else I share this privilege that I am with you and to your words can answer words." The fact that Aphrodite and Artemis bookend the action, each as petty as the other, furthers the equation.

    I like the old man, early on, warning Hippolytus to honor Aphrodite - he's straight out of a horror movie, with the words of foreboding that the protagonists ignore. His last line, to Aphrodite's statue - "You should be wiser than mortals, being gods" - gets a nice callback from the Chorus, at Hippolytus' banishment: "So I have a secret hope of someone, a God, who is wise and plans; but my hopes grow dim when I see the deeds of men and their destinies."

    In a tradition full of misogynists, Hippolytus stands out: "I hate a clever woman - God forbid that I should ever have a wife at home with more than woman's wits! Lust breeds mischief in the clever ones. The limits of their minds deny the stupid lecherous delights." It's something of a pity that he's basically right as far as Phaedra is concerned - but of course, the orchestrator of his doom is an even more clever woman in Aphrodite.

  3. One of the writers for the tv show Parks and Rec must have been reading Hippolytus when he wrote a famous bit about an entitled brother and sister. At one point she says "I have done nothing wrong, ever in my life" and her father responds "I know this and I love you." (If you look up the line "I have not done one wrong act in my whole life" you'll get clips of the scene.)

  4. My thoughts on the "house" theme got pretty wordy, so I stuck them in a post on my own blog, here. It didn't seem polite to dump so much rubbish into your comments.

  5. Returned from wherever I was, it is so nice to see these comments, including the invocation of the monstrous Sapersteins. I long ago concluded that almost all sitcom writers were humanities graduates from Ivies, or near-Ivies.

    Is Hippolytos the peak of the sexual theme in the tragedies? I am trying to remember. Of course Aristophanes is still on the way.

    Off to read about the house theme.

  6. I find Racine, by giving Hippolytus a girlfriend, to take out some of the most interesting stuff in the play. Hippolytus believes that because he is not interested in sex, indeed repulsed by it, that he therefore has the virtues of self-control and moderation. It's precisely his lack of these virtues in his confrontation with the Nurse that leads to everyone's downfall. Nevertheless, I have a lot of sympathy for him and his unwillingness to break his oath of secrecy even though it could save his life. Perhaps another example of lack of moderation, but certainly it takes a lot of self-control to keep secret the piece of evidence that could exonerate him.

    Theseus is an interesting character imo but not explored by future works as much as Phaedra is. I guess Mary Renault in The Bull from the Sea tackles his point of view, though.

  7. Theseus is not explored in terms of this myth, that is...the Minotaur theme is developed by many other artists.

  8. Perhaps Racine thought the French would not believe in the celibacy. Phèdre is so different than Euripides.

    Theseus is potentially of great interest. He is attached to such rich stories - mazes, minotaurs, kidnapping Helen, on and on. I know we will meet him at least once more in the plays, in Herakles.