Phaedra: a Tragic Queen in Turmoil Between Violent Love and Its Chaste Suppression. An Interpretation of Euripides’ Hippolytus in Initiatory Terms


  • Anton Bierl Greek Philology, Basel



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