Euripides Hippolytus

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Self-control, Shame and Desire in Euripides Hippolytus

Illustrate the importance of the themes of self-control, shame and desire in Euripides’ Hippolytus. How does Euripides connect these themes to the world of the Athenian audience?

Euripides’ Hippolytus (1972) is a paradoxical play that, at its heart, deals with the outcomes of conflicting human emotion. As Charles Segal suggests in his study Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow (1993) commensurate with a great many of the playwright’s other works – AlcestisHecuba etc., Hippolytus examines the divisions and conflicts of male and female experience (and) all three also experiment with the limits of the tragic form (Segel, 1993: 3).

There are no clear cut moral demarcations in Hippolytus,the ethical sense and movement of the piece is symbolised by the figures of Aphrodite and Artemis who straddle the drama both symbolically and physically being as they are present in both the first and last scenes. As we shall see,the outcomes of the narrative veer more towards a psychological questioning of what it is to be human than any moral proselytizing and the characters show both weakness and strength in their dealing with the Gods and their quixotic natures. With this in mind, in this essay I would like to look at this concept in Hippolytus but more specifically how it relates to the notions of self control, shame and desire, all subjects that form an integral part of the drama’s ultimate socio-ethical meaning.

Firstly, I will look at the drama itself, attempting to illustrate and draw out instances of moral thinking within it, then I will move on to examine the ways in which these are blurred and made complicated by Euripides before going to suggest ways in which this might have been specifically tailored as both a critique and a lesson to the contemporary Athenian audience.

Aristotle, in his Poetics(1965) calls Euripides our most tragic of poets (1965: 49) chiefly through the misfortune that befalls many of his leading characters at the conclusions of his dramas. However, Aristotle also criticises Euripides for the faulty management of other aspects of the plot, and the moral and ethical position of his characters must be one of these. Let us, for instance, consider the character of Hippolytus himself. On the surface, he seems to fulfil the rubric set by Aristotle that states a tragic hero must be better than average (Aristotle,1965: 52) in terms of morality and humanity; Hippolytus is a follower of Artemis, the Greek goddess of constancy and self control, as is stated by Aphrodite in the opening passages:

that son of Theseus born of the Amazon, Hippolytus, who holy Pitteus taught, alone of the all the dwellers in this land of Rroezen, calls me the vilest of the deities. Love he scorns, and , as for marriage, will none of it. (Euripides, 1972: 225)

It is this self control that is the main focus of the play, as Hippolytus is shown to be, as Aristotle states of better than average moral worth. However, there are subtle psychological suggestions that beneath the external veneer of moral constancy, Hippolytus is as weak and as human as his audience. We can witness, for example his misogynistic tirade after the Nurse reveals Phaedra’s actions:

Great Zeus, why didst thou, to man’s sorrow, put woman, evil and counterfeit, to dwell where shines the sun? If thou wert minded that the human race should multiply, it was not from women they should have drawn their stock (Euripides, 1972: 230)

This scene could be interpreted, as indeed Barnes and Sutherland do in Hippolytus in Drama and Myth (1960:82)as the reaction of an overtly moral consciousness to the very object he sees as threatening it. However, this scene could also be indicative of what Melanie Klein called projection (Klein, 1991; 1997) in which the subject attributes traits and failings of their own self to another. With this in mind, it is easy to see that what one witnesses in Hippolytus’ misogyny is much deeper than a mere hatred of women and the projection of his own self hatred, brought about by the constant repression of his desire.

This, at once, adds a psychological layer of complexity to Euripides’ characters and also distinguishes them from the, relatively, simplistic tenants of Aristotle.

What then are the outcomes of Hippolytus’ moral conflicts? What are the tragic results? According to Aristotle, the tragedy is characterised by a change in fortune from prosperity to misery (Aristotle, 1965: 48) and we can see this is certainly the case with a number of the characters. Theseus makes this journey in what we could think of as a typically Attic manner. We can note his initial moral position as being one of conviction as he defends the honour of his wife against the perceived laxity of his son, as in this passage:

Behold this man; he, my own son, hath outraged mine honour, his guilt most clearly proved by my dead wife (Euripides, 1972: 232)

We can also see, however, that this is short lived, as we become witness to what Aristotle called the anagnores is,or the discovery; the goddess Artemis being the facilitator of this action. In the character of Phaedra, however, this situation is, to an extent, reversed. She begins the play as an innocent victim of Aphrodite’s wish to reap revenge on Hippolytus:

Aphrodite: So Phaedra is to die, an honoured death t’is true., but still to die; for I will not let her suffering outweigh the payment of such a forfeit by my foes as shall satisfy my honour. (Aristotle, 1972: 225)

Of course, because of this it is Phaedre’s desire that is the motivating force behind the tragedy. She is, in many ways, the human manifestation of the drives of Aphrodite as Hippolytus is of Artemis. Like Hippolytus, also however, she is caught between the two poles of desire and self control by, firstly, not acting upon her sexual drives and,secondly, by committing suicide. It is only in her letter that, ultimately,damns Hippolytus, that she shows her true nature:

I can no longer keep the cursed tale within the portal of my lips, cruel though its utterance be. Ah me! Hippolytus hath dared by brutal force to violate my honour, recking naught of Zeus, whose awful eye is all over. (Euripides, 1972: 232)

Phaedre’s character here alters from one of innocent victim of the gods to one of false accuser. Interpreted in a contemporary light, however, could we not suggest that her actions are not the products of an innate maliciousness but of her own shame? Trapped between the desires instilled in her by Aphrodite and that which she knows is socially correct she not only chooses to take her own life but, in a psychological sense, refuses to acknowledge her sin. Again Euripides displays the concept of projection only this time it is Phaedre’s self loathing and shame that is projected onto Hippolytus.

The enormity of this act, the sexual longing of an older woman for a younger man and the suggestion of an incestuous relationship is stressed by James Morwood in his essay on Euripides:

The Athenian legal speeches attest to the domestic conflicts to which this could lead. But it could also cause sexual confusion, and the canonical Greek articulation of the illicit love of a married woman for a single man, the famous love of Phaedra for Hippolytus, is compounded by the quasi-incestuous connotations of the step parent-stepchild bond. (Morwood, 1997)

In this, the play must have had a definite political subtext to it; Euripides serving as a guardian of public morality, suggesting that tragedy arises out of illicit love between near family members.

There is, however, another deeper meaning to play, I think, and one that would be just as relevant to an Athenian audience as a warning against incest. What we see in the play’s structure, in its very narrative form, are circles within circles. Each character, ultimately suffers and they suffer not only from their individual desires, shames and lack of self control but through each other’s. Phaedre suffers through her desire for Hippolytus and through the actions of the Nurse, Hippolytus suffers through the actions of his father and stepmother and Theseus suffers through the actions of his wife and son. Through structuring his narrative in such an interconnected way Euripides suggests that personal desire and lack of self control affects not only the individual but those around them; we are, in a sense, connected and our actions resonant outwards to those around us.

As Sophie Mills suggests in her study Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire (1997: 19) there is a further thread to the play, one that concerns the relationship man has to the Gods. It must not be forgotten that the tragedy in Hippolytus ultimately emanates from the Goddess Aphrodite, it is her actions after all that sets in motion the entire drama. The two Goddess, as I stated in the earlier parts of this paper, form a binary that entraps the main characters of the play and forces them along predestined paths. Euripides’ ultimate philosophical subtext is, then, one of man’s position to the Gods and to the fate that they represent and he achieves this by not only the psychological polarity that the characters find themselves in but also a physical polarity of the two Goddesses.

As Mills suggests, the character of Theseus, in many ways, represents the very populace of Athens:

Where he is the representative of Athens in tragedy, Theseus embodies Athenian civilization in all its manifestations, so that he is usually less an individual character with his own fate than a symbol of Athenian virtue. He is consistently given characteristics which are considered as especially commendable in Athenian (and often Greek) thought, and such characteristics are usually marked as uniquely Athenian, (Mills, 1997: 57)

Could Euripides be offering a warning to his Athenian audience concerning their own desires and self control?After all, the sexual desire and control of Hippolytus and Phaedre pails into insignificance when compared to those of Theseus who loses control and loses as on. Could Euripides also be warning his audience about the vagaries of the Gods and gently reminding them of their humanity both in terms of their self restraint and in their mutability?

As we have seen, Euripides’ drama is a complex and, surprisingly, contemporary play suggesting as it does a wide variety of critical and psychological areas; from Melanie Klein’s notions on projection of one’s own frustrations and self hatred, to Aristotle’s concepts of anagnoresis and tragic heroes; from issues concerning Athenian politics to their moral and ethical systems. It is, however, in the combination of the set hings that, I think, Euripides achieves the play’s true meaning. The complexity of life is mirrored in Hippolytus by the complexity of the character’s interconnected lives and finely wrought psychologies that must have been as affecting to an Athenian audience as a modern one.


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