Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

RACINE: Phedre

In Hippolytus by Euripides we have a love triangle involving Theseus, Phaedra and Hippolytus. In Phedre by Racine we have two love triangles. One triangle involves Theseus, Phaedra and Hippolytus but there’s a second one involving Phaedra, Hippolytus and a lady named Aricia. What was already a complicated situation in the Euripides play turns into a very complicated situation in Racine’s play.

Racine is fairly faithful to the Euripides version but does add some interesting new twists. For one thing we get a clearer picture of Theseus. In Euripides’ play Theseus is a shadowy figure and not a very well-developed charqacter. Racine goes to greater lengths to give us a more human version of Theseus. In Racine’s play we learn through Hippolytus that “Theseus has left all his youthful errors behind him…Phedre changed his fatal inconstancy.” It’s a good thing that Theseus left behind his “youthful errors” because even though there were “tales of his noble exploits” there were also rumors of “the less glorious deeds, his promise of marriage offered in a hundred places.” Theseus is a bona fide Greek hero but Racine tempers that heroism with this less appealing side of Theseus. To put him in an even more unappealing light Racine has Theseus giving this reaction when he thinks Hippolytus has tried to seduce Phaedra: “How is it that on the face of an adulterer there shines the expression of virtue and innocence? Shouldn’t we be able to recognize by certain signs the heart of a traitor?” Given Theseus’ background that statement is certainly a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Aricia is an entirely new character. She doesn’t appear in Euripides’ play at all. Even though she’s a minor character in Racine’s play her presence greatly increases the dramatic tension. It does this in three ways. First, it adds a political element to the story. Aricia’s mere presence in Athens makes political calculation part of what Hippolytus has to deal with. Second, it adds jealousy to Phaedra’s list of sorrows. In Euripides’ Hippolytus Phaedra was merely rejected by a prudish version of Hippolytus. In Racine’s Phedre she’s not only rejected but she’s spurned for another woman. Hippolytus loves someone else. For Phedre this just rubs salt in the wound of love. Third, Racine’s play sheds a different light on Hippolytus. In this play even Hippolytus can fall victim to the slings and arrows of outrageous love – he has fallen in love with his father’s sworn enemy. Racine wrote a play full of Freudian undertones written well before Freud’s time.

But the main thread in both versions is Phaedra’s “unholy love” for her stepson. One question the reader might ask is this: Is there any possible way there could have been a happy ending to this story? The answer is probably not. This is a tragedy and tragedies are supposed to be tragic. What exactly is the tragedy here? Phedre asks herself: “To what extremes did my desires and my mind wander? I have lost my mind. The gods have deprived me of it.” It’s not real clear if Phedre’s biggest sin is letting lustful desires overwhelm her or if it’s because she directed those desires toward a taboo object: her stepson. Would it have been any more acceptable if Phedre had lusted after another young man? And is Hippolytus any better in some ways? Here’s his reaction to the whole adulterous dilemma: “I will trust the justice of the gods.” You mean he’s going to put all his trust in lusty gods like Zeus and Venus? Foolish boy.


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