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Type of work: Drama

Author: Jean Racine (1639-1699)

Type of plot: Classical tragedy

Time of plot: Remote antiquity

Locale: Troezen, in ancient Greece

First presented: 1677

Racine based this tragedy on Euripides' Hippolytus but shifted his focus to the character of Phaedra, who appears only briefly in the Greek play. The playwright explores once again in Phaedra the problem of the extent to which human beings are capable of free will and therefore responsible for their actions.

Principal Characters

Phaedra, the second wife of Theseus and daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, the king and queen of Crete. Phaedra is descended from a line of women of unnatural passions. When she realizes that she has fallen in love with her stepson Hippolyte, she fights the double contagion of heredity and passion with courage and in silence until, unable to resist her love, she arranges to have Hippolyte banished from Athens. She bears Theseus's children, erects a temple to Venus, and makes sacrifices in order to appease the wrath of the goddess. When Theseus leaves her in Troezen with Hippolyte, Phaedra's passion feeds on her until, willing to die, she becomes exhausted and ill from her battle to suppress her illicit love. Word is brought of Theseus's death shortly after her nurse, Oenone, has forced Phaedra to confess her love aloud for the first time. In an unguarded moment, while asking Hippolyte to keep her own son safe now that Hippolyte may be heir to the Athenian throne, Phaedra rather hopefully reveals her passion to him and witnesses his contempt for her. Angry and ashamed, when Phaedra hears to her joy and to her dismay that Theseus has returned alive from his travels, she allows her nurse to accuse Hippolyte of attempted rape--mainly, Phaedra believes, to keep the stigma of her family history and its unnatural passions from falling even more heavily on her own children. Distraught by her guilt and her love, her fear and her fury, she confesses to Theseus that she has lied to him when it is too late to save Hippolyte, and after she herself has taken poison.

Theseus, the son of Aegeus, king of Athens, traditionally faithless to women but faithful to his wives. Theseus so loves his young wife and his own honor that he believes Phaedra's slender evidence instead of trusting what he knows to be the character of his son. Becoming one more figure in Racine's gallery of passion's fools, Theseus in a fury prays to Neptune to grant him the death of Hippolyte. Too autocratic to curb himself when rebuked for his cruel and misinformed curse on his son, he nevertheless begins to suspect that Hippolyte has not lied to him. As the evidence against Phaedra begins to accumulate--she is too distraught to prevent it from doing so--Theseus recovers from his jealous rage too late to save the life of his son.

Hippolyte, the son of Theseus and Antiope, queen of the Amazons. Like everyone about him, Hippolyte goes to extremes. Unpolished, chaste, pure, a hunter and a woodsman, he spurns women until he falls in love with Aricie, becoming willing to hand over Athens, which he is to inherit from his father, to Aricie, his father's enemy. Because Hippolyte is harsh in his judgment of Phaedra, she reacts violently against the proud boy. Theseus is also harsh in his judgment, no less an extremist than his son. Hippolyte's sense of honor prevents him from telling his father about Phaedra's indiscreet confession of her passion, and Theseus's own outraged sense of honor makes him violent in judging Hippolyte.

Aricie, a princess of an older royal dynasty of Athens, held captive by Theseus. Until Hippolyte confesses his love for her, Aricie is content with her lot. Theseus has forbidden her to marry for fear that she may give birth to sons able to contest Theseus's right to rule Athens. She graciously accepts sovereignty of Athens, if Hippolyte can obtain it for her, and his offer of marriage.

Oenone, Phaedra's nurse and friend since childhood. Loyal to her mistress and determined that Phaedra shall not die from stifled passion, she is even willing to further Phaedra's love for Hippolyte. Later, after Hippolyte has spurned Phaedra, Oenone becomes the agent of his destruction.

Theramene, the tutor of Hippolyte. Because of his somewhat lecherous approach to life and to history, Theramene highlights the purity and aloofness of Hippolyte's views. Hippolyte, who would like to strike the love element from historical narratives, is ironically unaware that love will be the chief element in his own history.

The Story

After the death of his Amazon queen, Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur, married Phaedra, the young daughter of the king of Crete. Phaedra, seeing in her stepson, Hippolyte, all the bravery and virtue of his heroic father, but in a more youthful guise, fell in love with him. In an attempt to conceal her passion for the son of Theseus, she treated him in an aloof and spiteful manner until at last Hippolyte decided to leave Troezen and go in search of his father, absent from the kingdom. To his tutor, Theramene, he confided his desire to avoid both his stepmother and Aricie, an Athenian princess who was the daughter of a family which had opposed Theseus. Phaedra confessed to Oenone, her nurse, her guilty passion for Hippolyte, saying that she had merely pretended unkindness to him in order to hide her real feelings.

Word came to Troezen that Theseus was dead. Oenone talked to Phaedra in an attempt to convince the queen that her own son, not Hippolyte, should be chosen as the new king of Athens. Aricie hoped that she would be chosen to rule. Hippolyte, a fair-minded young man, told Aricie that he would support her for the rule of Athens. He felt that Phaedra's son should inherit Crete and that he himself should remain master of Troezen. He also admitted his love for Aricie, but said that he feared the gods would never allow it to be brought to completion. When he tried to explain his intentions to his stepmother, she in turn dropped her pretense of hatred and distrust and ended by betraying her love for Hippolyte. Shocked, he repulsed her, and she threatened to take her own life. The people of Athens, however, chose Phaedra's son to rule over them, to the disappointment of Aricie. There were also rumors that Theseus still lived. Hippolyte gave orders that a search be made for his father.

Phaedra, embarrassed by all she had told Hippolyte, brooded over the injury she now felt and wished that she had never revealed her love. Phaedra was proud, and now her pride was hurt beyond recovery. Unable to overcome her passion, however, she decided to offer the kingdom to Hippolyte so that she might keep him near her. Then news came that Theseus was returning to his home. Oenone warned Phaedra that now she must hide her true feeling for Hippolyte. She even suggested to the queen that Theseus be made to believe that Hippolyte had tempted Phaedra to adultery. When Theseus returned, Phaedra greeted him with reluctance, saying that she was no longer fit to be his wife. Hippolyte made the situation no better by requesting permission to leave Troezen at once. Theseus was greatly chagrined at his homecoming.

When scheming Oenone told the king that Hippolyte had attempted to dishonor his stepmother, Theseus flew into a rage. Hippolyte, knowing nothing of the plot, was at first astonished by his father's anger and threats. When accused, he denied the charges, but Theseus refused to listen to him and banished his son from the kingdom forever. When Hippolyte claimed that he was really in love with Aricie, Theseus, more incensed than ever, invoked the vengeance of Neptune upon his son. Aricie tried to convince Hippolyte that he must prove his innocence, but Hippolyte refused because he knew that the revelation of Phaedra's passion would be too painful for his father to bear. The two agreed to escape together. Before Aricie could leave the palace, however, Theseus questioned her. Becoming suspicious, he sent for Oenone to demand the truth. Fearing that her plot had been uncovered, Oenone committed suicide.

Meanwhile, as Hippolyte drove his chariot near the seashore, Neptune sent a horrible monster, part bull and part dragon, which destroyed the prince. When news of his death reached the palace, Phaedra confessed her guilt and drank poison. Theseus, glad to see his guilty queen die, wished that memory of her life might perish with her. Sorrowfully, he sought the grief-stricken Aricie to comfort her.

Critical Evaluation

The issues of free will, predestination, and grace that interested Racine in the seventeenth century constituted a restatement, in theological terms, of a problem of universal concern. To what extent is man free to create his own existence and be responsible for his actions? Are the terms of human existence within the arena of human control, or are they preestablished by some external force? Can human suffering be justified as the result of one's actions, or is it the imposition of a capricious deity?

The specific manner in which these questions are answered depends upon one's view of human nature and human potential. When a person chooses between predestination and free will, he is either asserting or denying his belief in his ability to make wise and ethically sound decisions. Emphasis on the dignity of man and on his potential for choice often coincides with optimism regarding human behavior. Conversely, a belief in man as a depraved and irresponsible creature will be found in conjunction with a distrust of man's ability to act in a positive and meaningful way. This view of the human condition is presented by Racine in Phaedra, which shows man as predetermined or predestined.

Racine was reared by the Jansenists at Port-Royal, and he returned to Port-Royal after completing Phaedra. The Jansenists held ideas on the problem of free will and predestination in opposition to the dominant position of the Catholic church, a position that had been set forth by the Jesuits. The Jesuits attempted to bring salvation within the grasp of all men, whereas the Jansenists emphasized a rigid determinism. They rejected the Jesuit doctrine that man could attain his salvation through good works and insisted that man was predestined to salvation or damnation. This denial of free will was based on the conviction that after the Fall man was left completely corrupt and devoid of rational self-control. Man was incapable of participating in the process of regeneration because Original Sin had deprived him of his will. The passions had gained control of man, and they could only lead to evil. Human passion was seen as capable of leading to falsehood, crime, suicide, and general destruction. It was inevitable that the Jansenists would regard with alarm any doctrine that allowed for the activity of human free will. Only God's gift of mercy could save man, and that mercy was reserved for those who had been elected to salvation.

Phaedra manifests a similar distrust of the passions, a similar curtailment of free will, and a consequent emphasis upon man's lack of control. Human passion is depicted as controlling reason. The arena of human choice and responsibility is severely limited. Phaedra is pursued by an inexorable fate. In the preface to Phaedra, however, Racine suggests the possibility of free will. He states that Phaedra is "neither completely guilty nor completely innocent. She is involved, by her destiny and by the anger of the gods, in an illicit passion of which she is the first to be horrified. She makes every effort to overcome it." Does Phaedra actually make the effort Racine attributes to her? To what extent is she free to make a choice? To what extent is this merely the illusion of free will? In his preface, Racine insists that "her crime is more a punishment of the gods than an act of her will."

Phaedra's genealogy would seem to support the argument of fatalism. She is initially referred to, not by name, but as the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae. Throughout the play, she gives the appearance of being overwhelmed by a cruel destiny that is linked to her past. She exhibits perfect lucidity regarding the full implications of her situation, yet she seems incapable of resolving her dilemma. She has made numerous but ineffective attempts to overcome her love for Hippolyte: She built a temple to Venus, sacrificed innumerable victims, and attempted to surmount her passion through prayer.

As the play opens, Phaedra resorts to her final effort--suicide. Ironically, her attempted suicide will serve only to add physical weakness to her already weakened emotional condition and prevent her from overcoming the temptations with which she will be confronted. The first temptation is offered by Oenone. By implying that her suicide would constitute betrayal of the gods, her husband, and her children, Oenone attempts to persuade Phaedra to reveal her love for Hippolyte. The news of Theseus's apparent death further tempts Phaedra by removing the crime of potential adultery. In addition, Phaedra is tempted to offer the crown to Hippolyte in order to protect her children and appeal to his political aspirations.

Her interview with Hippolyte, however, turns into a confession of love which unfolds without any semblance of rational control. Although she expresses shame at her declaration, her passion is presented as part of the destiny of her entire race. At the moment following the confession to Hippolyte, Phaedra prays to Venus, not as in the past to free her from passion, but to inflame Hippolyte with a comparable passion. Theseus's return presents Phaedra with a choice of either revealing or denying her love for Hippolyte. She allows Oenone to deceive Theseus. Yet is this actually a moment of choice, assuming that choice involves a rational action? On the contrary, Phaedra's statement to her nurse at the end of Act 3, scene 3, implies complete lack of control. Phaedra's final temptation is to refuse to confess her lies to Theseus. Once again, she is prevented from acting in a rational manner, for upon learning of Hippolyte's love for Aricie, she is overwhelmed by a blinding jealousy.

Despite Racine's enigmatic remarks in the preface, the pattern of temptation and defeat developed in the play eliminates entirely the possibility of free will. Although Phaedra wishes to overcome her passion, all of her efforts are in vain. The series of temptations in Phaedra serves to emphasize her lack of control and conspires to bring about her ruin. From the possibility of an early death with honor, Phaedra is led, through a series of defeats, to a guilty and dishonorable death.

Some have seen in the character of Phaedra, however, a striving to surpass limits and an awareness of her own condition that elevate her to tragic greatness. Despite her helplessness, she feels responsibility for her actions. Denied choice, she does not revel in her lostness but instead is engulfed in shame, as if moral decisions were really possible. Racine's Phaedra, then, is doomed not only to do wrong but also to take responsibility for that wrongdoing, vainly but heroically pursuing a mirage of freedom.
COPYRIGHT 1989 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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