A study on hippolytus

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The plot of Hippolytus follows the pattern of sexual intrigue and betrayal. In the passage given we are shown Phaedra's bitter resentment towards Hippolytus and Aphrodite (because Aphrodite, cursed Hippolytus by making him the object of Phaedra's lust. Hippolytus hears of Phaedra's feeling towards him through her nurse and launches into a fierce denunciation of all women.

Phaedra believes that she is ruined now that the truth is out and hangs herself (after making the chorus swear secrecy) because of the shame and guilt that she feels towards her stepson Hippolytus,( the nurse and the chorus are shocked) - but before she does so, she writes a letter condemning him and accusing him of rape. Hippolytus swore to Phaedra's nurse that whatever she told him he would not repeat so when he is confronted by his father (Theseus) he cannot defend himself. An angry Theseus decides to punish Hippolytus and as Poseidon to carry out this task. He sends a bull from the sea, which scares Hippolytus' horses and thus he is killed. All too late Theseus finds out the truth about Hippolytus and Phaedra from Artemis.

Phaedra is initially presented to us in a sympathetic light; honourably struggling against the odds to do the right thing but our regard for her is reduced with her spurn of Hippolytus 'I will prove deadly to another's life...then he shall learn what restraint is' (Hippolytus, 726-31).

The gods play an important role in this play/myth and frame the action. Aphrodite appears at the beginning and Artemis at the end. These goddesses can be seen to be representing the conflicting emotions of passion and chastity. Love and passion ultimately win however Artemis vows to take one of Aphrodite's favourites so the quarrel is not over. Humans are being used as pawns by the gods.

I think as woman sympathy can be felt for Phaedra. She knows that her feelings towards Hippolytus are wrong but she has no control over them and she feels ashamed of these feelings especially when he rebukes her (thus taking her own life because she cannot bare the humiliation). She tries to suppress her emotions but she cannot. She tries to issue self-restraint (sophrosome) but her feelings are too strong and in the end she seeks revenge on Hippolytus and takes her own life. The lines given to us display the anger and hurt that she feels and demonstrates the lack of control that she has over these feeling - the only way Phaedra can see of ending the humiliation and pain is by taking her own life she wishes bad upon both Cypris and Hippolytus.

Phaedra displays many characteristics throughout the play - she turns from a young woman in love and who is overcome by all the powers that love has over her to a woman who is bitter and resents both the feelings that she has and the man to whom this affections have been placed. She has lost all control and his rejection has turned her bitter. She can see no way out and wants him to suffer as she has and 'feel the sickness I have known' (Hippolytus, 726-31).

Whilst carrying out research I found no less than fifteen different variations of the Phaedra myth including Euripides: The Hippolytus; Seneca: Phaedra; Ovid- these are the three that I will be looking at.

Whilst looking closely at Ovid's and Euripides' retellings of the myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra it is easy to see the similarities and differences that the two present. I will be looking closely at the character of Phaedra in my examination of the two texts and will draw my conclusion from my analysis of both Euripides' and Ovid's presentations of the Hippolytus myth and how it 'suggests that there are no limits to how much ancient writers and artists could alter myth'.

Ovid's tale is told through a single letter (where time is almost frozen). Phaedra can only hope/imagine what the future might hold. He also presents the myth in poem form from Phaedra's point of view as opposed to Euripides who tells the myth through play-text that carries numerous voices.

Both presentations allow for Phaedra's letter however Euripides' is much darker; detailing rape where Ovid's letter is of love and 'innocence' - they are very different this the overall feeling/atmosphere in the individual pieces differs greatly and so does the audience/readers perceptions.

There are many similarities between our Phaedra's - they both see themselves as victims of Cyrus and both only speak (of their love) when forced to: - Ovid's by 'Love' ('said to write. Though made of iron, he will surely give his hand' 1:1, 22-23). Euripides' by the nurse. Both have reputations to uphold and for both shame is devastating. They both experience an intense moral struggle - Euripides' Phaedra struggles before the audience on stage(whilst living out her story) and Ovid's Phaedra has already lived through hers but is using it to seduce Hippolytus through her letter. In a sense Phaedra is the commander in Ovid's poem and Hippolytus the victim. Whereas in Euripides Phaedra is the victim of loves passion and ungainly hold.

A similarity between the two presentations is that of the hunt: Euripides' Phaedra prays to Artemis and longs to join the hunt and 'Away to the mountain take me! To the wood, to the pine-trees will go, where hounds pursue the prey, hard on the scent of dappled fawns' (Euripides......). Ovid's Phaedra explains that 'I take my pleasure in the forest driving deer to the net and urging hounds over the hills. I hurl the quivering spear and I rest my body in the grass (Ovid 1:1 56-59).

Both versions also mention Hippolytus' hatred of all women: in Euripides Hippolytus refers to this directly whereas in Ovid it is Phaedra who acknowledges it towards the end of her letter '...may the nymphs - though I hear you despise women - relieve your thirst with flowing water' (Ovid 1:1 210-11).

Ovid's Phaedra speaks as if she is inexperienced in love and seems to ignore the fact that she is a married woman; fruit picked from the heavy branch is good, the first rose pinched by a slender nail is best' (Ovid 1:1, 41-2), she wants Hippolytus to believe the latter - she claims to have lived in purity (like the rose) but she is willing to commit adultery. Both Phaedra's claim that their reputation is of great importance and that they are committed to moral values however they are both willing to break their marriage pacts for adulterous sexual passion.

By the end of Ovid's letter Phaedra abandons her conventional values and refers to the marriage of Jupiter and his sister Juno 'Base love is more than love merely forbidden. If Juno gave me her brother and husband Jove I would prefer Hippolytus' (Ovid 1:1 48-4).

Both Phaedra's are aware of their ancestry however Euripides' only mentions it briefly whereas, Ovid goes into detail about of the women in Phaedra's ancestral line being subject to passion and that in some way it is always unhappy or perverse. Phaedra continues onto say that there is some law or fate controlling their destinies - 'perhaps I am paying a debt to Venus for the favours my family enjoyed' (Ovid, 1:1 71-2).

Phaedra does not acknowledge the fact that Hippolytus is the only male member of the Amazons (a tribe of a-sexual females) - and although aware that Hippolytus hates women she does not recognise that it is because of his Amazonian nature and he has inherited his mother's sexuality not his fathers. Both versions foreshadow the future and referring to Phaedra's female relations is one way of doing this.

Decoding images and placing them in context to the correct myth is more difficult than it might first seem. For starters myths are unfixed (altering depending on the era and the writer) and were often rethought.

Long before myths were written down they were told to eager listeners and performed to audiences. Word of mouth, personal interpretation and elaboration all made sure that the myth never stayed the same and alternative interpretations formed. Artists would have worked on a similar vein and while some may have been influenced by the written texts, many would also have been influenced by the world of mouth tales and the images that these created in the artists' minds.

From the seventh century B.C. the Greeks used various forms of art to portray myths. They were used to decorate temple walls, jewellery but most commonly on pottery (until the end of the fourth century B.C.). As the Romans began to conquer the Greek cities they too took on the Greek culture and began to depict the Greek myths on walls in their homes and public buildings alike, carved on sarcophagus, elaborate mosaic floors, and into glass.

The visual art of myth was no easy feat and artists needed to find ways in which to make them recognisable, so that people would know who was being represented and what was going on. The myths could take hours to narrate but the artists had limited space/resources in which to capture it and so the artist had to choose whether to concentrate on the climax of the myth, suggest it's possible conclusion or cause, to concentrate on a few pivotal characters or to portray the broad contact in which it was set.

The art much like the written/oral myth evolved through time and often parallel to one another and at times artists would introduce a new element to the myth which provided insights into the myths and the relationship between the characters. Mythical art could also be used to portray a political message; historical person and events and contain propagandistic messages - these were disguised in the realm of myths.

Plate 1.4 is a mural and portrays Phaedra and her nurse. It hung on the south wall the House of Jason, Pompeii in the early first century CE - the colours are dark and seem to emphasise the sorrow that Phaedra felt because of her feelings for Hippolytus. The emptiness of the room could also be seen to signify the emptiness that Phaedra feels in her heart and the loneliness that an unreciprocated love fills her with. We are told in the course book that Phaedra is preparing to write her letter to Hippolytus (in this plate). Hippolytus is not present in this picture and this presents to us a different image to those that we have seen in early artwork. The emphasis is on Phaedra and her emotions, feelings and actions. The picture was hung in a room with two other pieces of art all depicting the woman as the central figure and portraying the message that 'heroic love can wreck heroic households' (Block book, 51), in other words women should not push the social boundaries that have been placed upon them - this theme is also featured in Seneca's Phaedra. The letter that is being written by Phaedra and the nurse is remenisant of that in Ovid's Heriodes where she writes directly to Hippolytus about her feelings for him. The letter is a key instrument in the interpretation of the myth in art - it reminds the viewer 'of the revelation that proved so disastrous, implicitly inviting their judgement on Phaedra's behaviour (Block Book, 53).

In conclusion it is clear to see that while myths are ever changing, flexible and open to new ideas and approaches the essentially stay the same. Phaedra's approach to her feelings for Hippolytus may be different but the reason that she fell in love with him and the outcome in all versions are all the same. The portrayal of the myth both in art and in narrative form is used at different times to portray/reveal/conceal various political ideas, propaganda and figures but the essence of the myth stays true to its original form. We cannot expect to ever know the first telling of the tale because much like fairy tales they originated form oral traditions - old wives tales and fireside moral tales and each time they age told or portrayed the new teller will have their own take on it and will emphasise different parts depending on their emotional. Social or political stance - this is true for both the narrative and artistic forms.