A tragic tale of the unrelenting and destructive power of lust.
Phaedra, wife of King Theseus, lusted after Hippolytus her stepson. When Hippolytus rejected her outright, she committed suicide from shame and despair, leaving a note falsely accusing Hippolytus of violating her. Theseus, upon reading the note, prayed to Poseidon to slay Hippolytus, causing the latter to suffer a violent and horrendous death.
Sympathies for the victim Hippolytus, whose chastity is beyond reproach, however, are tempered because of his self-righteousness and misogyny. The confrontational dialogue between Theseus and Hippolytus suggested that Hippolytus’ self-righteousness was partly why Theseus distrusted and rejected him, whereas his almost comical diatribe against women and Phaedra in particular impelled the latter to exact a measure of revenge on him and regain honor and dignity for herself.
This play reminds me of the story of Joseph in Genesis in the Old Testament. When Joseph was sold into Egypt as a slave, he was falsely accused by his master’s wife and thrown into prison. “But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him mercy”, and Joseph eventually became the most powerful man in Egypt after Pharaoh, “because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper” (Genesis 39). In contrast, the goddess whom Hippolytus worshiped, Artemis, stood by and watched him suffer and die at the hand of her rival Aphrodite.
Man’s whole life is full of anguish; no respite from his woes he finds; but if there is aught to love beyond this life, night’s dark pall doth wrap it round. And so we show our mad love of this life because its light is shed on earth, and because we know no other, and have naught revealed to us of all our earth may hide; and trusting to fables we drift at random.
Tis painful coming to one’s senses again, and madness, evil though it be, has this advantage, that one has no knowledge of reason’s overthrow.
How can these, queen Cypris, ocean’s child, e’er look their husbands in the face? do they never feel one guilty thrill that their accomplice, night, or the chambers of their house will find a voice and speak? This it is that calls on me to die, kind friends, that so I may ne’er be found to have disgraced my lord, or the children I have borne; … For to know that father or mother has sinned doth turn the stoutest heart to slavishness. This alone, men say, can stand the buffets of life’s battle, a just and virtuous soul in whomsoever found. For time unmasks the villain soon or late, holding up to them a mirror as to some blooming maid. ‘Mongst such may I be never seen!
How Zeus of Semele was enamoured, how the bright-eyed goddess of the Dawn once stole Cephalus to dwell in heaven for the love she bore him; yet these in heaven abide nor shun the gods’ approach, content, I trow, to yield to their misfortune. Wilt thou refuse to yield? thy sire, it seems, should have begotten thee on special terms or with different gods for masters, if in these laws thou wilt not acquiesce.
Love, the king of men, who holds the key to Aphrodite’s sweetest bower,.. when he comes, lays waste and marks his path to mortal hearts by wide-spread woe.
O fortune, how heavily hast thou set thy foot on me and on my house, by fiendish hands inflicting an unexpected stain? Nay, ’tis complete effacement of my life, making it not to be lived; for I see, alas! so wide an ocean of grief that I can never swim to shore again, nor breast the tide of this calamity. How shall I speak of thee, my poor wife, what tale of direst suffering tell? Thou art vanished like a bird from the covert of my hand, taking one headlong leap from me to Hades’ halls. Alas, and woe! this is a bitter, bitter sight!
O house, I would thou couldst speak for me and witness if I am so vile! Alas! Would I could stand and face myself, so should I weep to see the sorrows I endure.
- “Hippolytus” at ebooks@Adelaide, translated by E.P.Coleridge
- “Hippolytus” at Perseus, translated by David Kovacs