Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work, Publication Year, and Source
a stage play, is a tragedy in five acts. The drama, generally recognized
as Racine's finest achievement, was published in 1677. He based it on an
ancient Greek play, Hippolytus, by Euripides (484-406 BC).
(Phèdre) is a French play. Because French and English frequently
differ in syntax and in other ways, translations of the play do not fully
capture the subtleties, meter, or rhyming patterns of the original. In
fact, many translators do not attempt to match the meter or rhyming patterns.
However, using their own creative talents, translators are able to capture
the spirit of the original.
study guide used the original French text and a worthy English translation
by Robert Bruce Boswell.
play is set at the royal court in Troezen, a town in southern Greece on
a large peninsula known as the Peloponnesus (also Peloponnese or Pelopónnisos).
To locate Troezen on a map of Greece, look at the extreme southwestern
portion of the country. Notice that this portion resembles a hand, with
the little finger on the west and
the thumb on the east. This "hand" is the Peloponnesus. Troezen is on the
the northeast of Troezen, across a small body of water called the Saronic
Gulf (also Gulf of Saronikós or Gulf of Aegina) is Athens. The play
focuses on Phaedra, wife of Theseus, King of Athens. Normally, the royal
family would reside in Athens. However, the court was moved temporarily
to Troezen after a period of upheaval in Athens in which Theseus
killed political enemies. The stay at Troezen gives him an opportunity
to wash the blood of his enemies from his mind while revisiting a favorite
retreat—Troezen was the birthplace of Theseus.
Following are place names in the play in English and French:
River in Hades
Abode of the minotaur. (See Mythological Background,
uncontrollable passion; fate; Venus
Queen of Athens, second wife of Theseus, stepmother of Hippolytus, and
daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë. She falls in love with her stepson,
Biological son of Theseus and Antiope, the Queen of the Amazons.
King of Athens.
Princess of Athens and a possible heir to the throne of Athens .
Oenone (Œnone): Nurse
and confidante of Phaedra.
Tutor of Hippolytus.
Close friend of Aricia.
Servant woman and messenger of Phaedra.
Characters Who Are Mentioned
in the Dialogue but Do Not Speak or Participate in the Action
Deceased mother of Hippolytus. She was a queen of the Amazons.
Father of Theseus.
Minos (Minos): King
of Crete and father of Phaedra.
Mother of Phaedra.
She obtains poison for Phaedra.
Greek hero with enormous strength. His Greek name is Herakles.
Goddess of love. Her Greek name is Aphrodite.
Diana (Diane): Goddess
of hunting and the moon. Her Greek name is Artemis.
Juno (Junon): Queen
of the Olympian gods. Her Greek name is Hera.
God of the sea. His Greek name is Poseidon.
action takes place in a single day in a single location (Troezen) while
centering primarily on Phaedra's forbidden love for her stepson, Hippolytus,
and the way she deals with it. Plot developments generally grow out of
the characters rather than contrived situations, a major strength of the
play. The play is compact and streamlined, with hardly a wasted word. Although
the language is elegant and formal, it is also easy to understand, except
perhaps for allusions to mythological personages and events. For additional
information on Racine's writing, see
Format and Rhyme
wrote the play in Alexandrine verse. In this format, lines contain twelve
syllables (and sometimes thirteen). The lines are iambic,
and major accents occur on the sixth and twelfth syllables; two minor accents
occur, one before the sixth syllable and one before the twelfth syllable.
A pause (caesura) occurs immediately after the sixth syllable. Generally,
there is no enjambment in the French Alexandrine
line. However, enjambment does occur in English translations of Alexandrine
verse. The name Alexandrine derives from a twelfth-century work
about Alexander the Great that was written in this verse format. Rhyming
couplets occur throughout the play, as in the following lines, in which
Hippolytus talks with Theramenes (Théramène) about the absence
of Theseus (Thésée), about Phaedra (Phèdre), and about
his plans to search for Theseus. Theramenes replies with questions about
why Hippolytus wants to leave his homeland
Rhyming couplets do not appear
in Robert Bruce Boswell's translation of the play, as his rendering of
the above passage indicates:
arrête, et respecte Thésée.
De ses jeunes erreurs désormais
Par un indigne obstacle
il n'est point retenu ;
Et fixant de ses voeux l'inconstance
Phèdre depuis longtemps
ne craint plus de rivale.
Enfin en le cherchant je
suivrai mon devoir,
Et je fuirai ces lieux que
je n'ose plus voir.
Hé ! depuis quand,
Seigneur, craignez-vous la présence
De ces paisibles lieux,
si chers à votre enfance,
Et dont je vous ai vu préférer
Au tumulte pompeux d'Athènes
et de la cour?
Quel péril, ou plutôt
quel chagrin vous en chasse?
Not all the lines in the play
are Alexandrine. For example, dialogue with short comments does not follow
this verse format. Following is a passage with such dialogue.
Cease, dear Theramenes,
respect the name
Of Theseus. Youthful errors
have been left
Behind, and no unworthy
Detains him. Phaedra long
has fix'd a heart
Inconstant once, nor need
she fear a rival.
In seeking him I shall but
do my duty,
And leave a place I dare
no longer see.
Indeed! When, prince, did
you begin to dread
These peaceful haunts, so
dear to happy childhood,
Where I have seen you oft
prefer to stay,
Rather than meet the tumult
and the pomp
Of Athens and the court?
What danger shun you,
Or shall I say what grief?
Ah, dieux !
Ce reproche vous touche.
Ah, this reproach
Michael J. Cummings...©
is worried about his father, Theseus, King of Athens, who has been gone
from the royal court at Troezen for six months. (Troezen is southwest of
Athens, across a small body of water known as the Saronic Gulf. Theseus
moved his court there temporarily in the aftermath of a political struggle
in which he killed members of the Pallas family.) No one knows where he
is or why he left. When Hippolytus announces plans to search for his father,
his tutor Theramenes discourages the young prince. After all, Theramenes
himself has already traveled to nearby lands to find him, to no avail.
Perhaps, Theramenes says, Theseus wishes to keep his whereabouts a secret.
she dies, Theseus declares that his son will receive all the honors his
memory deserves and, to appease the ghost of Hippolytus, he adopts Aricia.Plot
Summary In French....Complete
Text in French
Hippolytus is determined to go. Theramenes thinks one reason for his planned
trip is animosity between Hippolytus and his stepmother, Queen Phaedra.
However, Hippolytus says Phaedra is not the reason. He explains that his
homeland has become an unhappy place because of his inability to woo Princess
Aricia. He loves her, but she comes from the Pallas family, enemies of
Theseus. Theseus killed her evil brothers but did no harm to gentle Aricia,
for she was guiltless. Afterward, Theseus decreed that she was not to marry
and not to bear children, for their veins would run with the villainous
blood of her family. Thus, Aricia is off limits to Hippolytus. However,
if Hippolytus can find Theseus and persuade him to revoke his decree, Hippolytus
will be free to court Aricia. (Ironically, because of her ancestry, Aricia
has a claim to the throne of Athens in the event of the death of Theseus.)
Hippolytus believes Phaedra hates him, he goes to her chambers to say goodbye.
However, when her nurse and confidante, Oenone, tells him she is very ill,
Oenone tries to rally Phaedra, who has not eaten in three days. Believing
that hatred of Hippolytus is the cause of her illness, she urges Phaedra
not to tolerate him. At the mention of his name, Phaedra reacts animatedly,
then confides to Oenone a terrible secret: She does not hate Hippolytus;
she loves him—her stepson! It is her incestuous
desire that sickens her, with terrible guilt. When she arrived in Greece
as the bride of Theseus, she fell in love with Hippolytus at first sight.
In vain, she says, she has tried to dismiss him from her mind. She prayed
to Venus for relief and made sacrifices to her, to no avail. Every time
she looked at Theseus, she saw in his face the features of Hippolytus.
Finally, in desperation, she had Hippolytus banished from her presence.
However, she soon discovered that she could not banish her love for him.
It remained. So she wished for death as the only way to end her ill-fated
Phaedra’s servant girl Panope informs Phaedra that ships have arrived with
news of the death of Theseus. As a result, there may be a struggle for
power in which Hippolytus, Aricia, and one of Phaedra’s biological sons
will all claim the throne. Oenone then argues that Phaedra should now confess
to Hippolytus her love for him and support his claim to the throne. If
she fails to do so, Hippolytus might organize a rebellion and claim the
throne on his own.
Aricia harbors doubt about whether Theseus is really dead. When she asks
her best friend, Ismene, how he died, Ismene says there are various accounts—one
saying that he drowned and another that he entered the Underworld but was
not permitted to leave. Aricia asks why he would want to enter the Underworld.
But Ismene says all that matters now is that he is dead.
believes Hippolytus despises her because of his avoidance of her. Nevertheless,
she asks Ismene whether he will be a kind king. Ismene says he probably
will be. What is more, she says, Hippoytus does not despise her but loves
her. Ismeme says she reached this conclusion observing the way Hippolytus
acts around Aricia—always looking at her lovingly,
unable to take his eyes off her.
Hippolytus informs Aricia of his father’s death, he releases her from the
restrictions his father imposed on her. She is free to do as she pleases.
He further informs her that Athens is divided over who will succeed to
the throne: Aricia, Phaedra’s son, and Hippolytus each have a claim on
it. Hippolytus says his right to the throne takes precedence over that
of Phaedra’s son. However, because his mother (the Amazon queen Antiope)
was a foreigner, his claim to the throne does not supercede Aricia’s. Therefore,
he says, he yields the crown to Aricia and will do all he can to rally
support behind her. His generosity stuns her, especially since she thought
he had long hated her. Hippolytus then discloses that he never hated her;
in fact, he has always loved her.
interrupts to tell Hippolytus that Phaedra approaches to speak to Hippolytus.
Before Aricia and Hippolytus part, Aricia says she will accept his offer
of the throne. However, it is not the throne she most prizes; it is the
love of Hippolytus.
offers Hippolytus her sympathy for the loss of his father and says she
worries about the fate of her son, for Hippolytus has every right to oppose
him now in the contest for the throne. Hippolytus is conciliatory, but
he still holds out hope that Theseus is alive. Phaedra does not entertain
this hope, saying Theseus is in the house of the dead and will never return.
However, she says she still sees him—in the
face of Hippolytus, then reveals her love for him. Her disclosure shocks
him, and he says he can no longer stand the sight of her. Phaedra explains
that she feels shame and guilt for loving him so, but says that a “poison”
infects her and that she detests herself more than he does.
when Hippolytus sees Theramenes, he is about to tell him of Phaedra’s disclosure
but decides to hold his tongue, deciding that her secret should not be
repeated. Theramenes then announces that Phaedra’s son has received the
crown. He further says a rumor is circulating that Theseus is alive and
has been seen in the town of Epirus.
Oenone informs Phaedra that Theseus is indeed alive and has returned from
his travels. Phaedra now worries that Hippolytus will tell Theseus of her
confession of love to Hippolytus. Hippolytus would like nothing better,
Oenone says, than to degrade her. She persuades Phaedra to agree to a scheme
in which Oenone will accuse Hippolytus of accosting Phaedra.
Theseus and Hippolytus reunite, Hippolytus makes no mention of Phaedra’s
confession of love for him. Rather, he tells Theseus that he plans to leave
his native land in search of adventure, thus following in his father’s
footsteps..Theseus is disappointed. His homecoming,
he says, has not been a happy one, not only because of Hippolytus’s desire
to go off on his own but also because of what Phaedra has told him: that
someone betrayed him in his absence. Hippolytus thinks Phaedra means to
confess her incestuous desire to Theseus.
Oenone carries out her plan, telling Theseus that Hippolytus accosted Phaedra.
Outraged, Theseus vents his wrath on Hippolytus when next they meet, calling
his son a traitor and a monster. Hippolytus declares his innocence and
says it is Aricia whom he loves, not Phaedra. Theseus refuses to believe
his son and petitions the god Neptune, who owes Theseus a favor, to punish
remorseful now, pleads with Theseus to spare Hippolytus. Theseus, unrelenting,
tells Phaedra that Hippolytus slandered her, saying she lied when she accused
Hippolytus of incestuous desire. Theseus also says Hippolytus tried to
save himself by claiming that he loved Aricia. Until this moment, Phaedra
was ready to confess her wrongdoing. However, hearing that Hippolytus loves
Aricia fires her jealousy, and she decides to continue with her deception.
leaves as planned after he and Aricia agree to marry in the near future
at a temple outside Troezen. Theseus and Aricia meet shortly thereafter.
She tells Theseus that Hippolytus cares deeply for her. Theseus replies
that Hippolytus has an “inconstant heart.” Aricia then defends Hippolytus
against “vilest slanders [that] make a life so pure as black as pitch.”
Theseus now has second thoughts about the accusations against his son.
Phaedra, weighted down by guilt and deeply disturbed at the outcome of
the scheme against Hippolytus, turns against Oenone as a purveyor of bad
advice and casts her out of her sight. Disheartened, Oenone hurls herself
into the ocean and drowns. Shortly thereafter, Theramenes tells Theseus
that Hippolytus is also dead. While traveling out of Troezen in his chariot,
a monster arose from the sea and frightened the horses. Hippolytus became
entangled in the reins and was dragged a considerable distance, suffering
fatal injuries. With his dying breath, he declared his innocence and requested
that his father treat Aricia kindly.
the final scene of the play, Phaedra confesses to Theseus that Hippolytus
was innocent of wrongdoing; he was telling the truth. She also says she
has taken a poison brought to her from Athens.
Conflict and Theme: Phaedra’s
Struggle With a Forbidden Passion
burns with a forbidden passion—her love for
her stepson, Hippolytus. Although she has struggled mightily to subdue
this passion and even arranged the banishment of Hippolytus, her desire
for him remains strong. Even when he is absent, he is with her, occupying
her every thought. Phaedra blames Venus for her predicament, maintaining
that the goddess has infected her with unrelenting passion.
Venus I felt in all my fever'd
Venus, or fate, is a way for Phaedra to call herself a child of misfortune
who, through no fault of her own, has been cursed with tormenting passion.
However, Phaedra blames herself for yielding to this passion—in
thought if not in deed. She tells Oenone, “When you shall know / My crime,
my death will follow none the less, / But with the added stain of guilt.”
Thus, Phaedra is in conflict with herself as well as forces outside of
Whose fury had so many of
Pursued. With fervent vows
I sought to shun
Her torments, built and
deck'd for her a shrine,
And there, 'mid countless
victims did I seek
The reason I had lost; but
all for naught,
No remedy could cure the
wounds of love!
it be, though, that Phaedra is psychologically unbalanced or genetically
predisposed toward inordinate desires? In our own day, newspapers regularly
report stories about female teachers “in love” with students, stepparents
“in love” with a stepson or stepdaughter, and child molesters who “can’t
help” themselves and repeat their offenses even after doing time in prisons.
One thing is certain: Phaedra herself consciously and willfully seals her
doom when she goes along with Oenone’s scheme to accuse Hippolytus of accosting
her. Her tragedy becomes everyone’s tragedy. Hippolytus dies. Oenone dies.
And, of course, Phaedra dies. Theseus is left without a wife or a son.
Aricia’s future with Hippolytus is destroyed.
climax occurs when Phaedra shocks Hippolytus by revealing that she loves
him. His rejection of her sets in motion events resulting in his own death
and the deaths of Oenone, and, of course, Phaedra.
Baptiste Racine received his education at a school operated by followers
of Jansenism, a heretical Roman Catholic movement that affirmed predestination.
Cornelius Otto Jansen (1585-1638), a Flemish theologian, and Jean Duvergier
de Hauranne (1581-1643), a French theologian, founded Jansenism in the
first half of the seventeenth century after studying the views of St. Augustine
(354-430) and Flemish theologian Michael Baius (1513-1589). Jansenists
held that God predestines a person for heaven or hell. Though a person
may exercise free will in carrying out individual acts (which may be good
or bad), he or she cannot change the mind of God or cannot “earn” heaven,
Jansenists maintained. Only the freely given grace of God can mark a human
for eternal bliss.
have linked Racine’s depiction of Phaedra to his Jansenist beliefs. They
point out that fate appears to have singled her out for a downfall. Yes,
she exercises free will, but every decision she makes only intensifies
her dilemma. Her mother was fated by the god Neptune (Poseidon) to mate
with a bull. Phaedra was fated by the goddess Venus to desire incestuous
love—or so Phaedra claims.
course, fate played a major role in ancient Greek plays, such as Oedipus
the King. It may well be that Racine was imitating a convention developed
by the Greeks. It may well be, too, that he intended Phaedra to be a victim
of her own moral shortcomings, notwithstandng her family background and
Different Kinds of Love
play depicts several kinds of love: perverted love (of Phaedra for her
stepson, Hippolytus); normal romantic love (between Hippolytus and Aricia);
familial love (between Hippolytus and his father); and friendship (between
Theramenes and Hippolytus and between Aricia and Ismene). Still another
kind of love is the fierce, protective love exhibited by Oenone, who is
willing to slander Hippolytus on behalf of her mistress, Phaedra. Each
kind of love except friendship goes tragically wrong.
Background: Theseus, the Minotaur, and Phaedra
one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology, was the son of Aegeus, King
of Athens, and Aethra, daughter of the King of Troezen, another Greek city.
On his way from Troezen to Athens as a teenager, Theseus rid the countryside
of sadistic villains and fearsome monsters. In Athens, his father pronounced
him heir to the throne.
on one of his most famous exploits, Theseus traveled to Crete to kill the
minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. It
was in Crete that Theseus met Phaedra. The minotaur came into existence
in the following way:
Minos of Crete had received a wondrous white bull from the god of the sea,
Poseidon (Neptune), with instructions to sacrifice it to Poseidon. However,
Minos sacrificed another bull in its place and kept the white bull for
himself. In retaliation, Poseidon cast a spell on Minos’s wife, Queen Pasiphaë
(the mother of Phaedra), that caused Pasiphaë to fall in love with
the bull. Poseidon also caused the bull to go mad. After love-drunk Pasiphaë
mated with the crazed beast, she gave birth to the monstrous minotaur.
To hide this shameful offspring of his wife and thus avoid ridicule, Minos
imprisoned the minotaur in a vast labyrinth constructed by a highly skilled
architect and sculptor, Daedalus. Meanwhile, the mad white bull was captured
by Hercules on one of his adventures, but it was later released and allowed
to run wild. After wandering, it ended up in Athens.
an athletic competition was held in Athens, a son of Minos, Androgeos,
was killed while fighting the mad white bull. (According to another account,
athletes killed him while he was on his way to another competition in Thebes).
Minos blamed the Athenians
for his son’s death and waged war against them. When he asked the king
of the Greek gods, Zeus, to aid him, Zeus responded by cursing Athens with
disease and starvation. There was only one way for Athens to escape ruin:
It had to send seven young men and seven young women to Crete periodically
to be cast into the laybyrinth. The labyrinth of Daedalus was constructed
in such a way that the 14 young men and women could not find their way
out and were consumed by the minotaur.
years passed in which the flower of Athenian youth died in the labyrinth.
When the time came for the selection of seven more maidens and seven more
men, Theseus volunteered to become one of the victims. Minos had a large
family, including several sons and four daughters, among them Phaedra and
Ariadne. Ariadne, who fell in love with Theseus, was the only person besides
Daedalus, who knew the layout of the labyrinth. To save Theseus, she gave
him a sword and arranged a way for him to escape the labyrinth. Theseus
slew the minotaur and took Ariadne with him on his return to Greece. However,
he abandoned her on the island of Naxos while she was sleeping.
approaching the coast of Greece, Theseus neglected to raise a white sail,
a prearranged signal to his father, King Aegeus, that he was alive and
well. Consequently, Aegeus killed himself. Shortly thereafter, Theseus
became King of Athens. On another adventure, he captured and married Antiope
(in some accounts, she is called Hippolyta or Hippolyte)
the Queen of the Amazons, a race of warlike women, and fathered a male
child by her, Hippolytus. When the Amazons later invaded Athens, Antiope
died fighting for Athens and Theseus. By the time Theseus’s son, Hippolytus,
had reached his teen years, Theseus had taken a second wife, Phaedra, the
daughter of Minos. When she first saw her stepson, she fell in love with
him. (This forbidden love is the subject of Racine’s play.)
the architect Daedalus fell out of favor with Minos, and the king imprisoned
him in the labyrinth. However, Daedalus designed himself a pair of wings
that enabled him to fly out of the labyrinth. He took refuge in Sicily,
where he made friends with the king, Cocalus. After Minos followed him
there, the daughters of Cocalus killed him by pouring boiling water on
him while he was bathing. Minos then became a judge in the Underworld.
the Translator's Introduction to Phaedra
By Robert Bruce Boswell
Baptiste Racine, the younger contemporary of Corneille, and his rival for
supremacy in French classical tragedy, was born at Ferte-Milon, December
21, 1639. He was educated at the College of Beauvais, the Jansenist school
at Port Royal, and the College d'Harcourt. He attracted notice by an ode
written for the marriage of Louis XIV in 1660 and [gained recognition]
with his Andromaque. His tragic masterpieces include Britannicus,
all written between 1669 and 1677. Then for some years he gave up dramatic
composition, disgusted by the intrigues of enemies who sought to injure
his career by exalting an unworthy rival. In 1689 Racine resumed his work
under the persuasion of Mme. de Maintenon and produced
Athalie, the latter ranking among his finest productions, although
it did not receive public recognition until some time after his death in
1699. Besides his tragedies, Racine wrote one comedy, Les Plaideurs.
Questions and Essay Topics
extent does fate (or the gods) play a role in Phaedra's destiny? (See Racine
and Jansenism, above, for information on this topic.
extent does Phaedra's family history—including traits she may have inherited
from her mother—play a role in Phaedra's destiny? (See Mythological
Write an essay focusing on parallel
situations in the play. An example of parallel situations is Phaedra's
inability to cultivate Hippolytus (because society and morality forbid
love between a mother and her stepson) and Hippolytus's inability to court
Aricia (because Theseus forbade Aricia to marry).
and contrast Phaedra and Aricia.
Is Phaedra's love for Hippolytus
actually lust rather than true love? Explain your answer.
Explain the role of each of
the following in the play: jealousy, obedience, shame, deception, honor
Which character in the play
do you most admire?
Which character in the play
do you least admire?
For English students learning
to speak French: Translate a scene in the play from the original French
to modern English.