Hippolytus: only the good die young

April 13, 2009

The actions of the play Hippolytus are manipulated by the interference of the gods, namely Aphrodite. She is the one who is angered by Hippolytus’ chastity, and so she makes Phaedra fall in love with him, knowing that he will reject her and subsequently bring about his own downfall. Because of this, it can be argued that human choice is futile, because the desires of the gods win out in the end. However, so many of the actions in this play are conceived and carried out by humans that their agency is undeniable, if predictable.

Phaedra is the somewhat unwitting pawn in this godly game of checkers; in the world of the play, she does not fall in love with Hippolytus of her own free will but is forced to do so by Aphrodite. However, she does not lose her ability to make choices, despite her enforced predicament. Initially, she chooses to starve herself to death in order to escape the bonds of passion with her reputation intact. Once her secret is revealed and she is reviled by Hippolytus, she then chooses to implicate him in her suicide in order to, once again, preserve her good name. Her suicide is also a choice that she makes. None of this adds up to futility; despite her motivation being at least partially imposed by a god, each action she takes is deliberate and yields the intended results.

The nurse is also resposible for making her own choices: first, to beg Phaedra to reveal her secret love, then to convince Phaedra to let her tell Hippolytus. Although Aphrodite may have relied on the nurse’s interference and have foreseen how she would act, this does not indicate any futility in the choices. To call the actions futile would imply that they would have no affect on the outcome of the play, when they were arguably the catalyst for the subsequent unraveling of events.

Theseus is the final actor, sealing his son’s fate by asking Poseidon to kill him. While his curse is rashly spoken, it is not externally imposed on him by any of the gods; Aphrodite expected and wanted it, but did not force him to do it. If anyone in the play lacks agency, it is arguably Hippolytus, whose death is brought about by Phaedra through no fault of his own, and who remains honest and faultless to the end. However, to say that human choice is futile throughout the play solely because of his tragic end is to discount the human actions that led to his demise.

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