Phaedra Summary

Seneca

Phaedra

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Phaedra Summary

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Phaedra is a fabula crepidata, or a Roman tragedy about Greek subjects, told in verse by Roman dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca. It is the tale of Phaedra, wife of King Theseus of Athens, and her forbidden obsession with her stepson Hippolytus. It is loosely adapted from the play Hippolytus, by the Greek playwright Euripides, and was written at the time of the Roman Empire, prior to 54 C.E. It explores themes such as the laws of nature, the power of lies and obsession, and the complex sexual politics of blended families. Frequently utilizing animal motifs, Phaedra is one of the most enduring Roman tragedies and continues to be studied and staged today, with a modern production being staged as recently as 2013 in Malibu, California.

Phaedra begins as Hippolytus, the son of King Theseus, prays to the goddess Diana for success as he goes out to hunt. His stepmother, Phaedra, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, laments being left alone as her husband goes on a quest to capture Persephone from the underworld. Phaedra has been left to care for the palace, and she longs for the forests and the hunt. She thinks of her mother Pasiphae, who was cursed to give birth to the minotaur who Theseus later slew. Phaedra wonders if she is doomed to a horrible fate just like her mother. Phaedra’s elderly nurse tells her that she should contain her passions, because love can be destructive. Phaedra confesses that she is consumed by a powerful love for Hippolytus, and is finding it hard to control herself. Hippolytus, however, hates women in general and despises his stepmother. Phaedra considers killing herself, but the nurse promises to help her. The chorus enters, singing about the power of love, as Phaedra collapses in an emotional frenzy and the nurse begs Diana to help Hippolytus fall in love with Phaedra.

Hippolytus returns from his hunt, and asks Phaedra’s nurse why she looks so displeased. The nurse tells him that he should be less harsh, enjoy life, and seek out women. Hippolytus says that life is best and freest when spent in the wild. He goes on to say that stepmothers are like beasts, and calls women wicked. He uses the example of Medea, and the nurse asks him why he blames all women for the crimes of a few. She argues that love can change stubborn dispositions, but Hippolytus maintains his harsh views. Phaedra appears and collapses in front of Hippolytus. He wakes her up, and asks her why she’s so miserable. She decides to confess her feelings. Phaedra subtly hints that he should take his father’s place in all ways, as Theseus may never return from the underworld. He agrees to take his father’s place as king, but when she declares her love for him, he is disgusted. He yells out that he is guilty of whatever he did to make his stepmother feel this way. He rails against what he calls her terrible crime and draws a sword to kill her, but realizes that this is what she wants. He throws away the weapon and runs into the forest. The nurse suggests they need to conceal what has happened, and suggests to Phaedra that they accuse Hippolytus of incestuous desire. Phaedra calls out to the citizens of Athens, accusing Hippolytus of attacking her sexually. The chorus condemns her evil scheme and praising Hippolytus’ beauty. However, at this moment, Theseus suddenly returns from the underworld.

Theseus learns from the nurse that Phaedra has fallen into despair and vowed to die, and asks her why. The nurse refuses to tell anyone. He approaches his wife, and sees that she is holding a sword, ready to kill herself. He asks her why, but she merely rambles and makes references to a sin she has committed. Theseus orders the nurse to be tortured until she reveals his wife’s secret, but Phaedra intervenes. She tells him that she has been raped and identifies Hippolytus as her attacker. In a rage, Theseus summons his father Neptune to destroy Hippolytus. The chorus asks the heavens why they let the innocent suffer and the guilty get away, and says that the order of the world has become skewed. A messenger soon appears to tell Theseus that Hippolytus is dead, having been killed by a monstrous bull that came out of the ocean’s depths. Hippolytus’ chariot spun out of control, he became tangled in the reins, and was dragged through the forest to his death. Theseus breaks down, horrified by what his anger has caused and grieving for his son. The chorus says that the Gods are quickest to target mortals of wealth and power. Phaedra condemns Theseus for his harsh actions and falls in grief over Hippolytus’ corpse, crying for his lost beauty. She reveals that she falsely accused him, falls on her own sword, and dies. The verse ends with Theseus ordering a proper burial for his son, and for Phaedra to be buried as deep as possible.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, better known as Seneca the Younger, was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist. One of the most prominent writers of the Silver Age of Latin literature, he is best known for his tragedies Medea and Thyestes. A tutor and advisor to Nero, he was later implicated in the assassination plot and ended his own life. Most of his plays, tragedies, and philosophical essays remain today and form part of the foundation for the study of classical literature.