The extract follows after the nurse has told Hippolytus of Phaedra’s desire, who is shocked. Hippolytus threatens to tell Theseus, and with Phaedra listening, he engages in a furious denunciation of womankind. After Hippolytus leaves, Phaedra berates the nurse her for her betrayal and she tries to defend herself on the grounds of love for Phaedra. Phaedra, her vanity and sense of shame injured, turns love into hate and decides to kill herself – while dragging Hippolytus down with her.
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Phaedra here is initially presented as a generally sympathetic character, honourably struggling against overwhelming odds to do the right thing. Our regard for her is reduced, however, by her plans to implicate Hippolytus to get back at him: “But in dying, I will prove deadly to another’s life, to teach him not to triumph over my downfall”. Phaedra is not responsible for her love or for its confession to Hippolytus, but with her false accusation she condemns him to death. Hippolytus does nothing immoral – he does not even reveal Phaedra’s passion to his father – but his sanctimonious speeches, his arrogance and his unforgiving reaction to the nurse’s words provoke Phaedra to extreme measures. Phaedra commits suicide to preserve her honor but not before composing a letter that accusing Hippolytus of raping her. Although the text indicates that Phaedra writes the letter to avoid the shame that public knowledge of her desire would bring, we can also read this as an act of revenge against the man who so cruelly rejects her. Greek tragedy is famous for leaving no character without a share in the guilt and Euripides is no exception in showing this.
Phaedra perceives in his cruel and unrestrained rejection a distinct lack of her much prized sõphrosure, and this is enough to justify her taking events into her own hands: “â€¦when he, too, feels this sickness I have known, then he shall learn what restraint is”. The play itself is a symbolic conflict of two ideals, an austere chastity and the natural desires of the flesh. Humans play out this conflict, in the form of Phaedra (lust) and Hippolytus (chastity).
Whatever its ideals, this myth shows us how destructive lies can be. It also shows how difficult it is to know the truth, particularly if one is not willing to search. But if one does not search for the truth, the outcome can be tragic, as indeed it is here. Phaedra tries to keep silent, but can’t, and then turns around and murders (in effect) Hippolytus to preserve her own reputation. This reputation is what constitutes the core of a woman’s value, in Phaedra’s (and many Greeks’) view.
Euripides is a mythmaker and essential to the play are, perhaps, Hippolytus’s chastity, Theseus’ revenge etc., but even so seemingly crucial a point as whether Phaedra actively sought Hippolytus, or was trapped by the conniving’s of her nurse, is something the poet feels empowered to change in accordance with his purpose, perhaps to win that first prize he failed to the first time round.
Word Count: 506
Budelmann, F. and Huskinson, J. (2010) The myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra (A330 Block 1), Milton Keynes, The Open University
Write an essay of not more than 1,500 words on the following:
‘The Hippolytus myth suggests that there are no limits to how much ancient writers and artists could alter myth.’ Discuss.
Almost every culture has a myth. They all come from one early source and are different only because time and local cultural circumstances have embellished or altered them. Writers such as Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) and Euripides were renowned as innovative authors who were interested in examining human emotions in their works, manipulating well known conventional myths to achieve a unique storyline. The myth of Hippolytus in particular is told, in somewhat different versions, by Euripides’ play “Hippolytus” and Ovid’s text “Metamorphoses “.
In this essay I will be discussing the development of Euripides’ treatment of the Hippolytus myth and examining what the motives where that drove him. I’ll also be considering Ovid’s version, and how he moved the myth from the tragic to the epic. And finally, what’s left out of a myth can also change its meaning, such as the wall painting of Phaedra from the south wall in cubiculum e of the House of Jason (Visual Sources, Plate 1.4).
A critic of society, Euripides was a serious questioner of the values of his day. As a realist, he often placed modern ideas and opinions in the mouths of traditional characters. He treated myths rationally and expected men to use their rational powers; his plots brimming with sensationalism, surprise, and suspense, and whether Euripides is satirising the traditional mythical conceptions (which would have been enormously controversial) it is clear, at least, that he is using myth for his dramatic purposes. Budelmann and Huskinson write, “This competition created pressure to innovate, and one of the areas for innovation was myth.” (Budelmann and Huskinson, 2010, P. 25).
Euripides twice treated the Hippolytus myth in dramatic form, which in itself suggests a degree of re-writing a myth had a certain amount of acceptability at the time, even though his play was seen as ‘unseemly and worthy of condemnation’ (Hypothesis of Aristophanes of Byzantium, quoted in Halloran, 1995, P.63) at the time. In his first treatment of the Hippolytus myth, Phaedra is depicted as an utterly debauched character, a woman reduced to shamelessness by the power of Aphrodite. The audience were outraged by such blatant behaviour on the part of a woman so in his second version we find a Phaedra resisting the goddess of love with all her strength, though in the end unsuccessfully. She becomes a tragic foil for Hippolytus, making his superhuman virtue at once believable and understandable.
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It is generally thought that Euripides was so incensed that he didn’t win first prize in his first attempt that he wrote the second to ‘correct’ the flaws of the first in order to win and further his career. Not all critics believe this however and suggest that, “Euripides’ defeat at the Dionysian Festival may have led him to make certain changes in the way Phaedra and Hippolytus presented themselves, but did not lead him to reshape their personalities or motives. Rather than leading him to toady to popular taste…” (Roisman, 1999, P. 9). Euripides had also been warned that limits must be observed in the dramatic portrayal of a morally repulsive theme which showed that there were indeed restrictions.
Another version of the Hippolytus myth was provided by Latin poet, Ovid. His major work, Metamorphoses, was completed before he was exiled. This epic poem centres on mortal characters rather than heroes or the gods. Ovid even goes so far as to portray the gods as self-absorbed and vengeful in the many stories that Metamorphoses relates. Ovid’s re-telling of the Hippolytus myth in Book 15 of the Metamorphoses is surprisingly short, numbering little more than fifty lines. The story of Hippolytus is one of the most famous Greek myths, however, if you look closer at the manner in which Ovid reinvents the myth, his treatments of his literary sources, and the poetic context in which he places the episode, you can see that Hippolytus could not be more roman. He re-writes Euripides’ Hippolytus, drawing upon themes characteristic of Roman elegy.
Ovid also chooses to examine the myth by its male protagonist, Hippolytus, and in doing so, firmly establishes his retelling as fundamentally different from those of his predecessors, including Euripides. While past dramatic representations of the myth are perceived easily through overt reference in the episode, the metamorphoses of Hippolytus into Virbius, signalled by his apotheosis, underscores the character’s absolute transformation into a roman.
The very fact that Virbius speaks of his own death is testament to the episodes divergence from the tragic. While it is true that Euripides’ Hippolytus lives to speak after the chariot crash, the final scene of the play is not nearly as humorous as Ovid’s version. Euripides’ Hippolytus dies on stage, and although uncommon in Greek tragedy, the death was surely meant, in part, to draw feelings of pity for him from the audience. In contrast, it’s difficult for Ovid’s readers to express the same degree of pity: as Segal writes, “even the bloody details gain a certain grim humour when told as first-person present-tense by the deceased” (Segal, 1984, P. 314).
In the Metamorphoses, the chariot crash is followed not by an emotional reconciliation between Hippolytus and his father, but by an immediate journey the underworld. Not only has Ovid excluded the reunion scene that makes the myth tragic, but by doing so, the episode falls short of evoking any significant sense of sympathy from the audience. Virbius has been hurt, but now he’s enjoying immortality. His obvious and unusual self-awareness and his detachment from the pain and suffering of death announce this deviation from the tragic literary tradition. Ovid has moved beyond the tragic boundaries of Euripides’ play by re-establishing the myth as one of transformation by apotheosis.
Furthermore, with the transition to the underworld, Ovid has effectively removed Hippolytus from his tragic context and placed him firmly in an epic one; he joins the ranks of those other great heroes, such as Aeneas, who have made their own requisite expeditions into the underworld and returned, fully restored. Following the example of Hercules in book 9, Hippolytus is among a long list of celebrated Romans who are accommodated into Rome’s future through apotheosis.
Although, the myth has been more forcefully represented in drama than in art, there is an impressive wall painting of Phaedra from the south wall in the House of Jason that shows that what can be left out of a myth can also change the meaning of the myth itself. It’s different to most representations of the myth as it omits Hippolytus and focuses entirely on Phaedra and her maid. The painting depicts a moment of quiet tension and was developed and enhanced by the Romans to forge moralising exempla expressive of Roman values. And if certain formulas had already been given visual form (aggressive pursuits, amorous encounters, murderous attacks), these types could be modified to depict different myths. Artists could express their personal interpretations by adding, juxtaposing, changing or deleting certain elements. “So what is left out and what is juxtaposed in a mythological scene may be as influential in conveying means as what is included.” (Budelmann and Huskinson, 2010, P. 67).
In conclusion, by adapting the myth of Hippolytus and indeed Phaedra, Euripides has now adapted them as near different individuals. He understood that in order for any dramatic work to be successful the audience must feel for the characters. Through one alteration of the pre-existing myth Euripides has altered the audiences’ perspective of Hippolytus and Phaedra and creates characters the audience can certainly feel for. Euripides succeeds in creating a powerful drama by making gods more human and uses the audiences’ identification with the characters to make the previous pre-existing events of the myth far more powerful.
We have also established that although Ovid’s interpretation of the Hippolytus myth is based on tragic sources, the poet considers the story beyond its tragic context. And we have seen that while moving away from tragic tradition, Ovid simultaneously employs epic conventions. The subordinate male of the episode, the Greek tragic Hippolytus, is quickly written out of the story, along with his tragic associates. Replacing him is his metamorphosed counterpart, a fully restored Virbius, who is more suited to epic and can be taken up by the Roman future. The episodes aetiology attests to Virbius’ new found Roman-ness. The Greek aetiology of Euripides has been discarded completely.
In art too we have seen that the myth can be ‘edited’ to suit whatever representation the artist chose to make. In the wall painting’s case, “it emphasises the heavy moral message, while at the same time perhaps hinting at the romance”. (Budelmann and Huskinson, 2010, P. 53). The mythmaking of ancient drama too involved selecting material that drew upon the underside of myth; something Buxton has stressed. The use of myth in these three examples has shown that they are not fixed and are just aspects or versions of the Hippolytus myth. They are attempting to show tragedy for their time, each providing a crucial instance of the tragic vision. At the heart of each treatment however resides the secret cause.
Word Count: 1514
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