Phaedra, is a Roman tragedy with Greek subject of c. 1280 lines of verse by philosopher and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca, which tells the story of Phaedra, wife of King Theseus of Athens, and her consuming lust for her stepson, Hippolytus. Based on Greek Mythology and the tragedy Hippolytus by Greek playwright Euripides, Seneca’s Phaedra is one of several artistic explorations of this tragic story.
Seneca portrays the title character as knowing and direct in the pursuit of her stepson, while in other iterations of the myth she is more of a passive victim of fate. This Phaedra takes on the scheming nature and the cynicism often assigned to the Nurse character.
Seneca wrote Phaedra during the Roman Empire before 54 C.E., and the play has influenced drama over the centuries since then, particularly the works of Shakespeare and dramas of 16th and 17th century France. Other notable dramatic versions of the Phaedra story that were influenced by Seneca’s version include Phèdre by Jean Racine and Phaedra’s Love by Sarah Kane. Seneca’s play continues to be performed today.
Major themes of Phaedra include the laws of nature as interpreted according to Stoic philosophy; animal imagery and hunting; and the damaging effects of the sexual transgressions of mothers and stepmothers.
- nutrix (nurse)
- nuntius (messenger)
Hippolytus, son of King Theseus of Athens, leaves his palace at dawn to go boar-hunting. He prays to the virgin goddess Diana for success in the hunt.
His step-mother Phaedra, wife of Theseus and daughter of King Minos of Crete, soon appears in front of the palace lamenting her fate. Her husband has been gone for years after journeying to capture Persephone from the underworld. Phaedra has been left alone to care for the palace, and she finds herself pining for the forests and the hunt. Wondering what is causing her desire for the forest glades, she reflects on her mother, Pasiphaë, daughter of Apollo, who was cursed to fall in love with a bull and give birth to a monster, the Minotaur. Phaedra wonders if she is as doomed as her mother was.
Phaedra’s aged nurse interjects that Phaedra should control the passions she feels, for love can be terribly destructive. Phaedra explains that she is gripped by an uncontrollable lust for Hippolytus, and that her passion has defeated her reason. Hippolytus, however, detests women in general and Phaedra in particular. Phaedra declares that she will commit suicide. The nurse begs Phaedra not to end her life and promises to help her in her love, saying: “Mine is the task to approach the savage youth and bend the cruel man’s relentless will.”
After the Chorus sings of the power of love, Phaedra goes into an emotional frenzy, and the nurse begs the goddess Diana to soften Hippolytus’ heart and make him fall in love with Phaedra.
Hippolytus returns from hunting and, seeing Phaedra’s nurse, asks her why she looks so sullen. The nurse replies that Hippolytus should “show [him]self less harsh”, enjoy life, and seek the company of women. Hippolytus responds that life is most innocent and free when spent in the wild. Hippolytus adds that stepmothers “are no whit more merciful than beasts”. He finds women wicked and points to Medea as an example. “Why make the crime of few the blame of all?” the nurse asks. She argues that love can often change stubborn dispositions. Still, Hippolytus maintains his steadfast hatred of womankind.
Phaedra appears, swoons and collapses. Hippolytus wakes her. When he asks why she is so miserable, she decides to confess her feelings. Phaedra subtly suggests that Hippolytus should take his father’s place, as Theseus will likely never return from the underworld. Hippolytus agrees, offering to fill his father’s shoes while awaiting his return. Phaedra then declares her love for Hippolytus. Aghast, he cries out that he is “guilty”, for he has “stirred [his] stepmother to love”. He then rails against what he perceives as Phaedra’s terrible crime. He draws his sword to kill Phaedra, but upon realizing this is what she wants, he casts the weapon away and flees into the forest.
“Crime must be concealed by crime”, the nurse decides, and plots with Phaedra to accuse Hippolytus of incestuous desire. Phaedra cries out to the citizens of Athens for help, and accuses Hippolytus of attacking her in lust. The Chorus interjects, praising Hippolytus’ beauty but noting that beauty is subject to the wiles of time. The Chorus then condemns Phaedra’s wicked scheme. It is then that Theseus appears, newly returned from the underworld.
The nurse informs Theseus that Phaedra has resolved to die and asks why, especially now that her husband has come back. The nurse explains that Phaedra will tell no one the cause of her grief. Theseus enters the palace and sees Phaedra clutching a sword, ready to slay herself. He asks her why she is in such a state, but she responds only with vague allusions to a “sin” she has committed.
Theseus orders the nurse to be bound in chains and tormented until she confesses her mistress’ secret. Phaedra intervenes, telling her husband that she has been raped and that the “destroyer of [her] honor” is the one whom Theseus would least expect. She points to the sword Hippolytus left behind. Theseus, in a rage, summons his father Neptune to destroy Hippolytus. The Chorus asks the heavens why they do not reward the innocent and punish the guilty and evil. The Chorus asserts that the order of the world has become skewed: “wretched poverty dogs the pure, and the adulterer, strong in wickedness, reigns supreme.”
A Messenger arrives to inform Theseus that Hippolytus is dead. Out of the ocean’s depths, a monstrous bull appeared before Hippolytus’ horse-drawn chariot. Hippolytus lost control of his terrified horses, and his limbs became entwined in the reins. His body was dragged through the forest, and his limbs were torn asunder. Theseus breaks into tears. Although he wished death upon his son, hearing of it causes him to despair. The Chorus proclaims that the gods most readily target mortals of wealth or power, while “the low-roofed, common home ne’er feels [Jove’s] mighty blasts”.
Phaedra condemns Theseus for his harshness and turns to Hippolytus’ mangled corpse, crying: “Whither is thy glorious beauty fled?” She reveals that she had falsely accused Hippolytus of her own crime, falls on her sword and dies. Theseus is despondent. He orders that Hippolytus be given a proper burial. Pointing to Phaedra’s corpse, he declares: “As for her, let her be buried deep in earth, and heavy ay the soil lie on her unholy head!”
The story of the Hippolytus–Phaedra relationship is derived from one of several ancient Greek myths revolving around archetypal Athenian hero, Theseus. The Greek playwright Euripides wrote two versions of the tragedy, the lost Hippolytus Veiled and the extant Hippolytus (428 B.C.E.). The generally accepted historical assumption is that Hippolytus Veiled was not favorably received in a tragic competition due to its portrayal of Phaedra as brazen and forward in her pursuit of her stepson. Many historians believe that Euripides wrote Hippolytus in order to correct this characterization, and to present Phaedra as chaste, and suffering at the hands of the gods.
While historians believe that Phaedra was heavily influenced by Euripides’ Hippolytus, there are several differences in plot and tone. Literary scholar Albert S. Gérard states that, unlike the Phaedra of Hippolytus, Seneca’s Phaedra is a thoughtful and intelligent character that acknowledges the improper and amoral nature of her feelings towards her stepson, yet still pursues him.
In Euripides’ iteration of the play, Phaedra is passive in her lustful anguish, and it is the Nurse that informs Hippolytus of Phaedra’s love for him. In Seneca’s version, Phaedra personally conveys her desires to her stepson. Gérard claims that by transferring much of the scheming, “cynical insights,” and “pragmatic advice” from the Nurse to Phaedra, Seneca implies that Phaedra is responsible for her actions, and she is aware that her behavior deviates from accepted principles of human morality.
In another departure from Euripides’ Hippolytus, Phaedra, rather than committing suicide immediately after Hippolytus rejects her advances, is filled with remorse after Hippolytus has been killed and stabs herself. Gérard claims that these plot differences show a historical shift from the Greek “shame culture” priority of preserving one’s reputation, to the Roman “guilt culture” priority of repentance.
Historical context and reception
During his life, Seneca (4–5 B.C.E.–65 C.E.) was famous for his writings on Stoic philosophy and rhetoric and became “one of the most influential men in Rome” when his student, Nero, was named emperor in 54 C.E. Phaedra is thought to be one of Seneca’s earlier works, most likely written before 54 C.E.
Historians generally agree that Seneca did not intend for his plays to be performed in the public theaters of Rome, but rather privately recited for gatherings of fashionable and educated audiences. Since Phaedra was not meant to be acted, historian F.L. Lucas states that Seneca’s writing, “tends to have less and less action, and the whole burden is thrown upon the language”.
The structure and style of Senecan tragedies such as Phaedra have exerted great influence on drama throughout the ages, particularly on tragedy in the time of Shakespeare. Technical devices such as asides and soliloquies, in addition to a focus on the supernatural and the destructive power of obsessive emotions, can all be traced back to Seneca.
The influence of Phaedra in particular can further be seen in dramas of 16th and 17th century France with Robert Garnier’s Hippolyte (1573) and Racine’s Phèdre (1677). According to historian Helen Slaney, Senecan tragedy “virtually disappeared” in the 18th century as drama became more regulated and “sensibility supplanted horror”.
Seneca’s Phaedra saw a resurgence of influence in the 20th century with productions of Tony Harrison’s Phaedra Britannica (1975), Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love (1996). According to Slaney, today the dramas of Seneca “remain a touchstone for creative practitioners seeking to represent the unrepresentable”.
Themes and analysis
- The laws of nature
In addition to his work as a dramatist, Seneca was a Stoic philosopher. The Stoics believed that reason and the laws of nature must always govern human behavior. In making the conscious choice to pursue her sinful passion for her stepson, Phaedra disturbs the laws of nature to such a degree that, according to Seneca’s Stoic ideology, only her death can restore the cosmic order.
Likewise, Hippolytus feels that Phaedra’s lust has tainted him, and he does not wish to live in a world that is no longer governed by moral law. It should be noted, however, that Hippolytus does not himself represent Stoic ideals. He denies ordinary human social bonds and isolates himself from society, thus making his moral existence unstable, especially in the face of his stepmother’s unnatural advances.
- Animal imagery and hunting
The opening scene of Phaedra shows Hippolytus with his men preparing for the hunt. According to scholar Alin Mocanu, Seneca chooses to describe their preparations with vocabulary, “that would be appropriate both to a hunt for animals and to an erotic hunt”. Later in the play, Hippolytus transitions from hunter to prey, as Phaedra becomes the predator in the pursuit of her stepson. Both Phaedra and her nurse describe Hippolytus as if he were a wild animal, referring to him as “young beast” and “ferocious”.
Phaedra, in turn, refers to herself as a hunter: “My joy is to follow in pursuit of the startled beasts and with soft hand to hurl stiff javelins.” The centrality of hunting to the plot is, furthermore, demonstrated by the fact that Diana, the goddess of the hunt, is the only deity who has an altar on stage, and the altar is important enough to be referenced four times in the course of the play.
Stepmothers and mothers
In Phaedra, Seneca addresses the pervasive Roman stereotype of the amoral and wicked stepmother. Phaedra is referred to as a stepmother four times throughout the course of the play, each time at a moment of climactic action. This is notable when compared to Euripides’ Hippolytus, in which the word stepmother is never used to describe Phaedra.
According to scholar Mairead McAuley, “Roman obsession with both wicked and sexually predatory stepmother figures indicates a prevailing belief that the stepmaternal role led inherently to feminine lack of control and destructive impulses.” It is important to note, however, that Seneca does not represent Phaedra as merely a caricature of the evil stepmother, but paints her in a more sympathetic light by showing her inner conflict and turmoil.
Phaedra believes that her unnatural feelings for Hippolytus can be traced back to the transgressions of her own mother, Pasiphaë, who mated with a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. Phaedra says, “I recognize my wretched mother’s fatal cures; her love and mine know how to sin in forest depths.” The Nurse, however, points out that Phaedra’s crime would be even worse, because Phaedra is self-aware and not a victim of fate.
The Nurse says, “Why heap fresh infamy upon thy house and outsin thy mother? Impious sin is worse than monstrous passion; for monstrous love thou mayest impute to fate, but crime, to character.” In the end, Phaedra can be seen to meet a fate similar to that of her mother, for her unnatural lust brings about the creation of the monstrous bull that dismembers Hippolytus.