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by Euripides

Summary by Michael McClain
March 5, 2012
Based on a translation by David Grene


Outside Theseus' palace at Troezen, Aphrodite describes how she will punish Hippolytus because he refuses to reverence her. She has already caused his step-mother Phaedra to fall in love with him. Aphrodite plans to reveal Phaedra's guilty secret to Theseus, who will slay his son with a curse given him by his father Poseidon. The goddess withdraws when she sees Hippolytus approaching.

Hippolytus and his friends are returning from the hunt, singing the praises of Artemis. As they go in for dinner, a slave reminds Hippolytus not to neglect the statue of Aphrodite. He replies that he worships her only from far away.

Outside the palace, the ladies of Troezen gossip about Phaedra's illness. She has spent the last few days in bed refusing to eat. They speculate about what might be causing her problems.

Phaedra's nurse brings her mistress out into the sun, settling her on a couch. The nurse worries about Phaedra, who prattles about going to the mountains with hunters or galloping along on Venetian horses. Prodded by the ladies, the nurse questions her mistress about the source of her affliction, but Phaedra refuses to answer. Frustrated, the nurse reproaches her for allowing Hippolytus to usurp her children's inheritance. The mention of his name elicits a reaction, enabling the nurse to coax the truth from Phaedra about her passion for her stepson. The nurse and ladies are shocked.

As the nurse goes off, Phaedra describes her struggle with her feelings and her determination to maintain her honor. The nurse returns with news that she has changed her mind. It is no use trying to resist the goddess, she tells Phaedra. Better to cave in to her feelings and bend her morals. Phaedra is appalled but intrigued. As the nurse leaves to find a love potion, Phaedra pleads with her not to tell Hippolytus.

The ladies recount the destructive power of love while Phaedra listens at the door of the palace. She screams when she hears the nurse reveal her secret to Hippolytus. As Phaedra departs in shame, an enraged Hippolytus emerges from the palace followed closely by the nurse. He engages in a venomous tirade against women, but agrees to keep the oath of secrecy that the nurse extracted from him.

Hippolytus storms off and Phaedra reemerges to upbraid the nurse for betraying her. The nurse's statement that she was only trying to help is not sufficient to prevent Phaedra from dismissing her. After swearing the women to silence, Phaedra announces her plan to die with her reputation intact while ruining Hippolytus. The women of Troezen wish all this had never happened.

The nurse's screams from inside the house announce the death of Phaedra. Theseus, who has been away, arrives to discover that his wife is dead. As he grieves, he notices a tablet in her hand. He breaks open Phaedra's seal to read her declaration that Hippolytus raped her. Without a thought, he calls upon his father Poseidon to kill Hippolytus. The women beg him to retract his curse, but he refuses, adding that he will banish his son from the city.

Hearing his father's cries, Hippolytus returns to the palace. He is surprised to find Phaedra dead and more amazed to hear that his father thinks he is implicated. His astonishment is countered by his father's outrage. Hippolytus defends himself by affirming his virginity and his abhorrence of intrigue. He swears a solemn oath that he did not rape Phaedra. Choosing to credit Phaedra's letter above Hippolytus' oaths, Theseus orders his son to leave the city. Even in these straits, Hippolytus refuses to reveal Phaedra's secret. With a prayer to Artemis he says goodbye to Troezen.

As the ladies recall Hippolytus' hunting trips to the mountains and his Venetian horses, a messenger arrives to tell Theseus that Hippolytus is almost dead. As Hippolytus drove his chariot along the seashore, the messenger says, the sea cast up a monstrous bull. The bull spooked Hippolytus' horses. His chariot smashed against a boulder and Hippolytus, caught in the reins, was dragged over the rocks. Theseus tells the messenger to bring his son back to him.

As they wait, Artemis appears to reveal the truth to Theseus and to reproach him for rashly condemning his son to death. Hippolytus is brought to the palace. He is in excruciating pain, but comforted by the presence of his beloved Artemis. The goddess shares their sorrow and promises to pay Aphrodite back for her misdeeds. Withdrawing because she cannot be present at Hippolytus' death, Artemis instructs the young man to forgive his father, which he does. As Hippolytus dies, Theseus recalls the injuries Aphrodite has done him.

Image: Death of Hippolytus by Peter Paul Rubens
Texts on line:

translation by David Kovacs,

Greek text