42 pages 1 hour read



Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 428

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Symbols & Motifs

Sex and Gender Roles

Euripides’s Hippolytus explores contemporary attitudes toward the sex and the gendered social and familial roles of men and women in ancient Greece. The gender norms and expectations that demarcate (and oppress) female life are prominent as a motif from early on. In their first ode, the Chorus remarks:

Unhappy is the compound of woman’s nature;
the torturing misery of helplessness,
the helplessness of childbirth and its madness,
are linked to it forever (161-64).

Marriage and childbearing did indeed constitute the central events of a woman’s life in ancient Greece. In the play, Phaedra feels powerless to act on her feelings for Hippolytus precisely because of her role as a wife and mother: To commit adultery would destroy her reputation but also hurt the prospects of her own children.

Hippolytus, less sensitive to the tyranny with which social and familial mores oppress female life, views women in a very harsh light. To Hippolytus, who spurns sex and marriage, women are the “coin which men find counterfeit” (619), a source of “eternal […] wickedness” (666). Whatever Phaedra’s failures may have been, though, Hippolytus also flouts gender norms and expectations, for by remaining abstinent he does not produce children and does not continue his bloodline, thus situating himself outside of the community.