Phaedra: a Tragic Queen in Turmoil Between Violent Love and Its Chaste Suppression. An Interpretation of Euripides’ Hippolytus in Initiatory Terms
Phaedra is an unusual queen. As the second wife of famous King Theseus, a notorious womanizer and often involved in problematic affairs, she seems to stand entirely aside from power and politics in Athens. She is obviously much younger than her husband and strangely detached from him, basically reduced to live alone in the palace. Aphrodite chooses her as her victim and instrument in her stratagem to bring Phaedra’s stepson Hippolytus to fall. When the young man was once visiting the mysteries in Attica, the queen sees him from the Acropolis and falls immediately in love with him. And when Theseus decides to go into a one-year exile to atone for the murder of the sons of Pallas, they move to Trozen into the household where Phaedra’s stepson is living. Like a Homeric hero she fights for her honor as queen, vehemently refusing to play the role in Aphrodite’s mean drama, though finally becoming a collateral damage in it. The spectators witness a queen in the heroic fight to suppress her love manifesting itself as maniac disease (nosos). Her behavior is not only motivated by her will of maintaining her honor in a patriarchic society but also by reason of state. But the Nurse, an alter ego of Aphrodite, will bring Phaedra’s erotic frenzy and true feeling to the fore. In their total focus on purity Hippolytus and Phaedra are tragically intertwined with each other. In his poetics of breaches and fissures Euripides models both his protagonists as paradoxical beings full of contradictions. The Id, the suppressed erotic desire, breaks through the surface of the Ego built on the social norms and values fueled by the Super-Ego. And both meet in a specific Artemis constellation: The woman in her extreme emotional state is shown as if in a disease of the womb and pains of menstruation, falling under the domain of Artemis as goddess of midwifery as well. According to ancient medical concepts the female chorus thus envisages Phaedra in a hysterical state, when the uterus wanders to seek watering and impregnation. In these terms Phaedra notionally returns to the status of the maiden in the realm of Artemis. The chorus regards women in their deficient nature as a dystropos harmonia, a musical harmony that turns out ill-conditioned. This self-referential comment summarizes Phaedra’s paradox between Aphrodite and Artemis, unveiling and veiling, erotic frenzy and chaste purity, nosos and sanity, mania and rationality, maenadic and Artemisian huntress and queen full of self-control. Under the circumstances of a shame culture, as soon as her love is revealed to her stepson, her only exit remains suicide. To hide her feelings from the public and maintain the façade of an honorable wife and responsible queen she nits the knot of a complicated intrigue that culminates in binding the knot of the rope to hang herself and attaching a written message to her dead body, accusing Hippolytus of a sexual attack on her chaste purity.
Keywords: Phaedra; Euripides; Hippolytus; queen; aristocratic values; shame culture; literacy
Open Access Policy
This journal provides immediate open access to its content on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge.
This Journal is a CC-BY 4.0 publication (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). This Licence allows others to share the work with an acknowledgement of the work’s authorship and initial publication in this Journal, providing a link to the Licence and explicitly underlining any change (full mention of Issue number, year, pages and DOI is required).
- The Author retains (i) the rights to reproduce, to distribute, to publicly perform, and to publicly display the Article in any medium for any purpose; (ii) the right to prepare derivative works from the Article; and (iii) the right to authorise others to make any use of the Article so long as the Author receives credit as Author and the Journal in which the Article has been published are cited as the source of first publication of the Article. For example, the Author may make and distribute copies in the course of teaching and research and may post the Article on personal or institutional Web sites and in other open-access digital repositories.
- The Author is free to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the non-exclusive distribution of the Journal’s published version of the work, with an acknowledgement of its initial publication in this Journal and explicitly underlining any change (full mention of Issue number, year, pages and DOI is required).
- The Author is permitted and encouraged to post their work online after the evaluation process has been successfully passed, as it can lead to productive exchanges as well as to a wider dissemination of the published work.