On the Relevance of Euripides’ “Hippolytus”

1. Theseus, the hero who became king of Athens, by an Amazon had an illegitimate child named Hippolytus. Hippolytus stayed chaste while practicing hunting, tending to horses, and other affairs of “manly men.” When Hippolytus had grown, Theseus took another, younger wife, Phaedra, who bore him several children. Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus; the legend has that some attempt was made to seduce him. He said “no” to her and she killed herself, leaving a suicide note accusing him of attempting rape. Theseus read the note, believed Phaedra, prayed to Poseidon to destroy Hippolytus and exiled him. Given that Poseidon promised Theseus three wishes, this was a father murdering his child; Poseidon did as he was asked. The goddess Artemis, in the play, has to make the truth known to Theseus who would otherwise believe he understood the situation perfectly: in the play, he is grateful for the death of his son until she appears.

The question is: Why does of any of this messed-up story matter? Were the ancient Greeks into perverted amusements? If so, why couldn’t they have transmitted something with more sex and a lot fewer head games? I can’t promise that any of the speculation in this post will be even remotely correct, but the question of the play’s immediate relevance is what I want to focus on right now.

2. One way of reading the play itself is as an indictment of Theseus. The play begins with Aphrodite swearing that will she be revenged upon Hippolytus, who is extremely dismissive of her, only worshipping Artemis, the goddess of hunting who is chaste. The play ends with Theseus saying that he shall remember the injuries Aphrodite caused him. It is not hard to believe that Aphrodite and Artemis are working together in this cause.

Hippolytus does seem to be Artemis’ best follower: she speaks to him (lines 86-87), although he never sees her face to face until he is dying. But when we consider that Hippolytus does not really need Artemis (Benardete 95), that his chastity and excellence in things such as hunting are due to his ability alone, it becomes unclear whether he could actually be a devotee of the god. Hippolytus swears by Zeus he will accept exile if he has been a “villain” (l. 1025-1031): in putting forth or accepting exile, he is effectively saying he cannot worship Artemis any longer, from whose “inviolate Meadow” he has created gifts for her.

Hippolytus is not in love with Artemis: she is a woman, after all, and Hippolytus does not think terribly highly of women. Lines 616 – 627 bear witness to this –

“Women! This coin which men find counterfeit!
Why, why, Lord Zeus, did you put them in the world,
in the light of the sun? If you were so determined
to breed the race of man, the source of it
should not have been women. Men might have dedicated
in your own temples images of gold,
silver, or weight of bronze, and thus have bought
the seed of progeny, …to each been given
his worth in sons according to the assessment
of his gift’s value. So we might have lived
in houses free of the taint of women’s presence.
But now, to bring this plague into our homes
we drain the fortunes of our homes. In this
we have a proof how great a curse is woman.”

Now I have not bothered to quote all of Hippolytus’ misogynistic rant, for this reason: like all Greek tragedy, this play is irreducibly complex. It turns out some of the things women are accused of by Hippolytus they themselves, in the play, will admit both to being guilty of and deserving of punishment. And the misogyny here, as problematic as it is, can’t be taken too far: while Hippolytus may not need Artemis, he does worship her, and he certainly respects her.

The most interesting thing is the connection of women to wealth. Hippolytus is chaste, but not moderate: he can see a world where wealth alone brings forth progeny. Private property seems to be his greatest good, going hand-in-hand with self-sufficiency. When we consider his initial prayer to Artemis, lines 71 – 83 –

“My Goddess Mistress, I bring you ready woven
this garland. It was I that plucked and wove it,
plucked it for you in your inviolate Meadow.
No shepherd dares to feed his flock within it:
no reaper plies a busy scythe within it:
only the bees in springtime haunt the inviolate Meadow.
Its gardener is the spirit Reverence who
refreshes it with water from the river.
Not those who by instruction have profited
to learn, but in whose very soul the seed
of Chastity toward all things alike
nature has deeply rooted, they alone
may gather flowers there!
the wicked may not.” [boldface mine]

– we see the material, bodily self-sufficiency of the Meadow immediately. We also see how Hippolytus has turned the natural world itself into private property: it just happens to be owned by a goddess. Moreover, look at what has happened to thought: the things one learns by instruction are shared – they cannot be holy, nor proper to man, for man needs only one thing.

3. We will discuss that one thing very shortly, but we need to flesh out why this might be an indictment of Theseus. Theseus as a hero was extremely reckless – he first made his mark going to places where bandits were known to set up, killing each bandit the way the bandit killed his victims. That “eye-for-an-eye” justice proved to be no justice at all, just a form of “I’m better than you.” When he killed the Minotaur and escaped Minos’ labyrinth – all thanks to Phaedra’s sister, Ariadne, whom he had loved – he ditched her on the island of Naxos. He had no qualms about letting his father think he had perished, so that the old man would do something drastic, i.e. commit suicide and leave him stuff. I think it is also Theseus who attempted to kidnap Helen as a baby, knowing she’d grow up to be hot.

In other words: Theseus is the “hero” who gets whatever he wants and doesn’t pay any price. He’s also the king of Athens, and yes, while this is all well before Athens will become the democracy Euripides is writing for, one cannot help but feel there is a moral critique here. I don’t think it will surprise any of you to know that Athenian law was very restrictive regarding women, basically confining them to the house. Athenian men took each other as lovers often.

4. Benardete is pretty direct about Hippolytus himself:

Imitation for Hippolytus is obedience [ed. – another reason why he cannot be pious]. It is, accordingly, not completely true that Hippolytus is entirely without love; but what he loves is as alien as he himself is. After wishing that he could pity himself, and Theseus having accused him of self-worship rather than justice toward his parents, Hippolytus bursts out: “Oh miserable mother! Oh bitter birth: may no friend of mine be a bastard.” Legitimacy, he believes, is the indispensible basis for love. So Hippolytus is in love; he is in love with the law…. This love of Hippolytus cannot be requited, for he is outside the law both by birth and by nature, and therefore in his uniqueness he longs for the universality of the law. His hatred of women is thus not a direct function of his chastity but his way of being useful to the law from which he is forever excluded (Benardete 96).

It may seem strange to combine universality and private property, but notice that we have done that today. It may seem even stranger to do that in this play – would Hippolytus never consent to exile, if he truly loved the law because of property? – but I think the relevant concern is as follows. The things we love we must see as benefactors in some way (this brings up the question of whether we ever truly love beauty). Hippolytus sees the law as ennobling, making him who he is. In Euripides’ Athens, there is open factional warfare between those who would side with “Old Athens” – children of oligarchs and some aristocrats, people with money who cannot stand the democracy and its arbitrariness with the law, their traditions – and those of “New Athens,” certain democrats, some of whom are from households of higher standing, whose desires change but are always fervent.

That’s the battle really being depicted here, I suspect. Theseus unleashed this problem by being a “hero” who was not a hero and attempting to rule. But getting everything you want is no basis for rule, even if you want children who are so dedicated to order that they want to preserve every last letter of the law. I don’t know that Phaedra is a democrat: that’s where this attempt to read this entirely as a metaphor for a very particular political situation ends. It looks more like she’s one who wants to love the law and the law-abiding merely for being that, rather than human. It is no surprise she ends up killing herself and falsely accusing Hippolytus to preserve her name, so her children are not tainted. Underlying devotion to the law in-and-of itself is not the unity of a people, as the example of lawyers demonstrates daily.


Benardete, Seth. “On Euripides’ Hippolytus.” The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy. Ed. Michael Davis and Ronna Burger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 84-99

Eurpides, “Hippolytus.” trans. David Grene. Greek Tragedies Vol. 1, 2nd ed. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

1 Comment

  1. i appreciate ur comment.But it would have been better if u hv focused on the relious touch of the drama too.

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