'Phaedra' by Alexandre Cabanel (1880)
Responsibility in the tragedy of Phaedra is a Hydra-headed beast. If, as
The immediate drama of Phaedra is fuelled by a common theme in
'Jean Racine', by Jean Francois de Troy
Nature abhors a vacuum, and there are three clear alternatives for the throne: Hippolytus, oldest and most respected of Theseus’s sons; his sons by Phaedra with her as regent; and Aricia, feminine remnant of a feared rival line. Political mechanisms, which the characters set in motion without entirely comprehending, reinforce the power and authority of the kingship and law it represents. Each party, then, contains within themselves dualistic potential to be either victim or despot, and such a scenario forbids passivity at the cost of power, status, even potentially one’s life, for action seems by then necessitated by survival and protection’s sake. And yet action is equally proscribed for Phaedra at the outset, and torturous when commenced. Oenone, servant and fellow conspirator, hardly expects the result she and Phaedra gain in pre-empting potential disgrace by accusing Hippolytus, when the conflict has ceased to be one of immediate power and has become one of “honour” (III, iv), that is, the appearance of rectitude, before the father-judge-king. Phaedra’s first impulse, to waste away and die with her secret undivulged, seems on the surface irrational, less reasonable and improbably noble compared to her later weakening. And yet her early resolve is an attempt to assert control over chaos, the rampant nature of Eros in an environment charged by anxiety. Phaedra gives into the greatest potential failing in such a scene, the surrender of reason: “Serve my wild heart, Oenone, not my head.” (III, ii)
Peril is present, as Oenone incites Phaedra, for her sons. Hippolytus could easily grab power, as Oenone reminds the Queen (I, iv), and, when the potential for disgrace is upon them, advising for her children, “Pity both of them.” (III, iii) In this ancient sphere, the personal is political, and the wild card in this game is the potent, unknowable manner in which love and hate commingle, for the major protagonists in the royal drama are all linked too in a romantic roundelay. The links of affection hardly however guarantee security and amity, for such affection is more often than not forbidden: Phaedra’s illicit passion for her son-in-law and Hippolytus’s love for the forbidden Aricia have potential to set off an eruption from Theseus in any circumstance, and violate their given roles. If the essence of tragedy involves the plight of heroes of exalted ranks who are defined by flaws, the array of protagonists in Phaedra are linked by both weaknesses and rank. Although the characters are mythical, such subjects gave
'Phaedra, Act 3, Scene 5', by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1824)
Phaedra, Oenone, Theseus and even Hippolytus himself, for his honour, all then contribute to the latter’s death, yet none can be identified as a certain villain. Theseus curses his son, but Poseidon sends the monster that causes his end. Oenone spreads the false story of Hippolytus’s lechery, but only with Phaedra’s blessing. Phaedra acquiesces to this end, but not of out entirely malicious motives, for her own actions partly circumstantially imposed: the security of her sons’ inheritance, and the curse of a goddess, imposes violently contradictory necessities upon her private moral code. Phaedra’s early death-courting is her attempt to maintain a purely personal, egocentric integrity in the face of irrational motives: her strength as a being of integrity is tested by a “blind urge, fatal in its birth, normally destructive, often cruel.” (Cazamian) But Phaedra is really what Lytton Strachey described as the “history of a spiritual crisis…the final catastrophic phases of a long series of events.” The dilemma Phaedra faces throughout the play is whether to be destroyed by her own hand, in repressing her emotions and thus killing herself, or by an external imperative, disgraced and exiled for illicit, treacherous evil. The strength to resist, in obedience to a rule, what one wants, is a recurring challenge, one that both Phaedra and Hippolytus fail in their fashions.
'Phèdre et Hippolyte' by Baron Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1802)
Oenone, whilst acting as petty plotter and confidant for Phaedra, is not finally morally responsible for Hippolytus’s end, but incidentally. She is one of a “race of confidants, servants, messengers, matrons, and guards (who) come and go, responsible for feeding tragedy with events.” (Barthes) She acts on Phaedra’s impulses, and represents her egocentric side (her implorations to remember that she came with the Queen from Minos confirm that to lose rank would be to lose all place in the world), whilst Phaedra’s efforts to spare herself pain result in her twice hurting Hippolytus, once with feigned hate, the second time with the genuine variety, if still inextricable with crippling ardour. “All I need is your silence to succeed,” Oenone says, introducing a legal precept: silence implies consent. “He is a fearful monster in my eyes,” Phaedra says (III, iii) of Hippolytus when he spurns her, his “manly pride” (II, ii) suddenly imbued with the appearance of contempt, exacerbated by the discovery that he loves Aricia. Phaedra is happy to play martyr to desire for a man with no love for womankind, but turns all too jealous at the idea that she is a scorned woman, causing her to reject the chance to save him. This final reflex of egocentrism condemns him and Phaedra herself.
Helen Mirren as Phaedra and Margaret Tyzack as Oenone in the 2009 National Theatre production.
If Phaedra is tragic because the choice between a world of ridiculousness and the annihilation of that world consumes her mind, Hippolytus is smaller in his scale because his moral rigidity is in part his own undoing. He will not deign to defend himself to his father from Phaedra’s accusations, for he holds her and his father as lesser beings than himself, indicated by his deploring of his father’s womanising and snide comment after Phaedra’s admission of her passion: “Oh God, who knows / Her heart, is it her virtue you reward?” (II, iv) But again, he sees in another’s fault his own: “How love / Has spread its baleful poison through the house! / Myself, full of a passion he (Theseus) condemns…” (III, v) Whilst his ardour is more familiar in the sense that a young man falls in love with a young, eligible, unattached female, he is still rebelling against patriarchal authority, and yet he stands on respect for his father as a reason to conceal the truth. Unlike Euripides’ Hippolytus, who is defined by a “fanaticism of his virginality” (Kitto, 1939), the prince is a falling idol in that regard here. He, like Phaedra, elects himself to the role of martyr to an ideal, but unlike her he carries it through in apparent oblivion to the potential cost. That is Hippolytus’ hubris, and it’s worth noting again that the play’s full original title was Phaedra and Hippolytus, their tragedy presented in binary terms.
Having served Phaedra’s wild heart, Oenone is dismissed by her mistress as “detestable” (V, vii), but of course, Oenone only saved Phaedra from what Barthes called the “trivial kitchenry of doing.” Action in this tragedy is either only reaction, or invitation of fait accompli. The cruel joke that circumstance plays on the protagonists, with Theseus first believed dead before proving to be not only alive but returning home, gives the characters the hope of freedom and then dispels it, suggesting the illusory nature of wilful direction. Everything that follows is a kind of damage control, which proves impossible, and consequences must be played out to the end. That there is no clear demarcation of forces welling within and imposed from without suggests that in any situation the capacity for action is inherently compromised by presented choices. The essential chain of this tragedy is fully defined: the situation, the tragic hero, the crisis, the sad result.
'The Death of Hippolytos' by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1860)
Theseus’s condemnation of his son is only the final link of that chain, which commences with Phaedra’s nihilism, a reflexive reduction of fate to either her own annihilation or that of the world about her, passion at the absolute extreme. Her suicide is atonement and moral act, a final attempt to restore to proper order, rather than evasion a life of shame: “…death, robbing my eyes of light, will give / Back to the sun its tarnished purity,” are her very last words, and they reflect Racine’s fundamentally Christian rather than pagan outlook. Theseus’ final lines, “Would the memory / Of her appalling misdeeds die with her!”, can be read as both prosecutorial and empathetic, as a new perceptiveness on his part of the unknowable and frail nature of humans, or simply more reflexive pomposity. Phaedra dies, as she had intended at the beginning, with all intervening attempts to stave off fate having resulted in disaster. Her tragedy is, finally, not merely that she does wrong in spite her instincts to do right, but that the choice between one and the other was impossible.
Barthes, R. 1993, “From ‘On
Brown, A. 1983, A New Companion to Greek Tragedy, Croom Helm,
Cazamian, L. 1955, A History of French Literature,
Highet, G. 1949, The Classical Tradition,
Kitto, H. D. F. 1939, Greek Tragedy,
Mason, G. 1959, A Concise Survey of French Literature, Arthur Barker,
Radford, C., Shorley, C., Hossain, M. 1988, Signposts to French Literature,
Strachey, L. 1948, ‘Racine’, in Literary Essays, Chatto and Windus,
Thimann, I. C. 1966, A Short History of French Literature, Pergamon,