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Phaedra falls in love with the hunter Hippolytus (Pompeii, ca. 79 AD)

Phaedra falls in love with the hunter Hippolytus (Pompeii, ca. 79 AD)

Phaedra is a play written by the Greek playwright Euripides. It is concerned with dike, justice, but also with sophrosyne, or control: how do people control themselves? When should they control themselves? Is control always good? In this way, the play confronts Greek ideas about nomos and physis.

The play takes place in the later part of the life of Theseus of Athens, after he gets back from fighting the Minotaur and becomes king. If we were to try to place it in history, it would be about 1300 BC.

Since he got back from Crete, Theseus has had a son with Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. The son is named Hippolytus, but Hippolyta has died. (Their names mean Horsey ones, people who have something to do with horses). Theseus has also gone back to Crete again and married Ariadne’s little sister, Phaedra (no more is ever heard from Ariadne). Phaedra (FEE-drah) is a good deal younger than Theseus, and Hippolytus is now a young man, so they are not very different in age.

Phaedra gives her slave a message forHippolytus (from Pompeii)

Phaedra gives her slave a message for Hippolytus (from Pompeii)

In the play, Hippolytus, Phaedra, and Theseus are all living together in Troizen, near Athens. Hippolytus is a very pure young man who spends most of his time hunting and sacrifices to Artemis, the virgin goddess. He is not at all interested in girls, and he is proud of being always in control of his emotions and his body.

Phaedra, on the other hand, is not at all in control of her emotions or her body. She falls in love with her step-son Hippolytus, and, even though she knows this is wrong, she does not succeed in controlling herself. She sends her slave to tell Hippolytus how she feels. (The Greeks thought of women as having less self-control than men).

Hippolytus is outraged, and very upset, when he finds out how Phaedra feels about him. He runs away into the forest. The slave comes back to tell Phaedra that Hippolytus is shocked by her love.

The Chorus sings a song saying that while Phaedra ought to have more self-control, Hippolytus needs to have less: he needs to let himself go sometimes, learn to listen to his body and his emotions. People are made of both body and brain, and reason should not always control everything, but there is a place for love as well. (You could compare this to the story of Pentheus.)

Learn by doing: a Greek play-reading
More about Phaedra; the end of the story

Bibliography and further reading about Phaedra and Euripides:

Greek Theatre, by Stewart Ross (1999). Easy reading.

Greek and Roman Theater, by Don Nardo. For teenagers.

The Bull from the Sea, by Mary Renault. An excellent novelization of the story of Phaedra, for teenagers.

Euripides: Medea, Hippolytus, Electra, Helen, by Euripides. Translated by James Morwood. The text of the actual play, which is called Hippolytus in Greek.

Euripides (Oxford Readings in Classical Studies), by Judith Mossman (2003). A collection of essays by different people trying to explain what Euripides means. Good for college students, and maybe high school students too.

More about Euripides
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