When I was an undergraduate and studying this play as a set text for one of my Finals’ papers, I had to answer the following question:
“Was Euripides a misogynist?”
And I had to answer primarily with reference to the Hippolytus. I cannot remember exactly what I wrote, but I think there was touch of scepticism about what one can really conclude about an author’s views and beliefs from a dramatic work and one set in the mythical past, and I think there was some discussion about why one might regard the play as evidence for this.
Well, I am not sure Euripides was a misogynist, any more than his fellow Athenians at that time were, and he was undeniably capable of portraying women as sympathetic, for example, Trojan Women, and so to take the Hippolytus alone would be a poor use of evidence.
However, a particular character in the play does show a very extreme hatred for women. Why and how does this fit into the play?
In the short article that follows, I would like to show you, at least, I would like to offer my reading of this.
Firstly, a synopsis of the play is due for those who have not read it. I am, of course, hoping that having read this article you will feel motivated to go and read it for yourself. Yes, the synopsis may be a bit of a spoiler, but remember, an Athenian audience would also have already known the story, yet, they still enjoyed it.
Euripides wrote two versions of this play with a significant difference. But I am going to play the rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick and not tell you this until the end. What I will say is that the second proved more successful and this is the one I shall summarise here.
The play opens with a grumpy Aphrodite (nothing new there), vowing she will punish Hippolytus for his complete rejection of her worship and his extreme aversion to matters related to love and sex. Hippolytus is the son of Theseus and Amazon queen Hippolyta, in this version outside of marriage. Theseus is now married to Phaedra and they are living in Troezen. Aphrodite’s plan for revenge is merciless. She will make Phaedra fall for her stepson and just watch the unhappy consequences unfold. Aphrodite expresses token sympathy for Phaedra, suffering under her forbidden fancy through no fault of her own, but, punishing Hippolytus for his hubris matters more. Phaedra will be necessary collateral damage.
So, what can we learn from this? The gods are merciless. They can get personal. They can do so with impunity. Humans, beware.
We then see Hippolytus trotting back with his chums from hunting, declaring he will give thanks to the goddess Artemis for their success. She is his cherished favourite among the gods, not just because of her role as the goddess of hunting, but also in her virginity, chiming with his aggressive (oh, yes, bear with me, he is) rejection of sex.
Hippolytus’ tutor attempts to give him a gentle admonition about his rejection of Aphrodite. Hippolytus brushes off the warning, saying, effectively, others can worship Aphrodite, she’s not for him. Dangerous! Mortals don’t get to pick and choose. His tutor quietly asks the gods to overlook his youthful naivety and says that the gods should not harbour mortals’ personal grudges and resentments. This is also a very important theme in Euripides’ play, the Bacchae: gods behave like mortals to punish mortals for being mortals (yeah, that is kinda unfair, right?).
In the scenes which ensue, we see Phaedra suffering in silence, prepared to die and take her forbidden and shameful fancy to the grave. The audience, knowing the divine infliction under which she labours, feels for her. Phaedra, however, weighed down by the needling enquiries of her nurse, lets out a pained gasp, when she mentions Hippolytus’ name. The truth transpires and the nurse is horrified initially. Phaedra then gives a powerful and philosophical solo speech about mortal shame and human choice. She fervently desires to preserve her good name, not only for her own sake, but also for her children and husband Theseus.
Eventually, the nurse suddenly goes all practical and talks Phaedra into a completely disastrous decision: to confess all to Hippolytus. After waxing lyrical about love being normal and the only way to relieve her pain being to ‘get it all out in the open’, Phaedra worn out and weakened by the whole thing, agrees.
The nurse extracts an oath from Hippolytus not to breathe a word of what she is about to tell him. He agrees. But the consequence of his response to the truth is immense. His tirade is a vicious attack on women, saying that there is no greater bane or curse inflicted on mortals by the gods and that a better way of having children would be to pay gold and silver in temples in return for babies. Yep, I told you it was aggressive. Arrogant in his own self-styled purity, he only confirms what has made Aphrodite mad.
Phaedra overhears the vicious rejection and does not believe he will hold true to his promise to keep quiet. She ends her life with a note saying that she could not bear to live after Hippolytus’ improper advances towards her. We are shocked. The hitherto completely sympathetic Phaedra has told a devastating lie put of desperation to protect her name and feeling tricked by her confidante the nurse.
To be fair to Hippolytus, he does keep his word, even to the point of not telling his father the truth when he discovers his dead wife and the lying note. However, his arrogant assertion of his own purity as evidence of the truth of his denial of Phaedra’s accusation limits our sympathy.
Theseus, trusting his wife’s accusation, banishes Hippolytus, who leaves still asserting that none are so chaste or pure as he.
Hippolytus’ fate is grim. Theseus prays to his father Poseidon to exact punishment on his son. This Poseidon does in the form of a gigantic supernatural bull that chases Hippolytus in his chariot along the shore. He is dragged over rocks and torn to bits.
Artemis then appears, defending her pet Hippolytus and reproaching Theseus for his fatal condemnation of his son. Hippolytus is brought on before his father, mortally wounded, and they reconcile before he dies. Theseus is truly mortified at what he has, quite unwittingly, done. Artemis explains how Phaedra was the victim of Aphrodite’s revenge. She praises Hippolytus for his worship and leaves saying that she will take revenge for Hippolytus, too. It will all begin again. Hippolytus departs singing the praises of his own chastity.
Moral of the Tale
Th earlier version had portrayed Phaedra as more of a Potiphar’s Wife figure, telling lies about another’s advancement towards her, because her own were rejected. Very different from the divinely inflicted Phaedra, who only agrees to the truth being laid bare under pressure and moral dilemma. Moreover, Hippolytus is no innocent.
Yes, Phaedra should not have lied and our sympathy with her can only go so far. But her reputation has potentially been, well, ‘trashed’ due to a vengeful deity and a hubristic stepson. Of Hippolytus’ flawed and arrogant approach to the gods, we are left in no doubt. He is in no way likeable, although we should be impressed by his staunch respect for his oath of silence to the nurse even to his own cost.
This play is not simple. It is quite fantastic for its power to make you think. Theseus exacts a terrible revenge, but he returns to a terribly tragic situation and responds impulsively. Phaedra is essentially a victim. And it seems clear that the whole sorry situation she concocts to protect her good name would not have arisen without the machinations of Aphrodite. Hippolytus’ hatred of women is extreme, even by the standards of a time when women’s rights were hardly what they were today. His argument about their curse-like nature and how they should be irrelevant would I expect have caused some shock in the Athenian audience.
So, no Hippolytus is not evidence for Euripides’ misogyny. He is a clever portrayal of an extreme and prejudiced character who has wrought his own downfall. Yet, he has his good side in his sincere piety. But there is another point to this play. Hippolytus does not learn his lesson. In the end, he sees himself as the victim and the wonderful chaste individual suffering unjustly. Tragic he may be, but this failure of reflection and self-knowledge, which generally represents a dramatic epiphany for most tragic heroes, makes him sympathetic, but ultimately a warning to the hubristic.