Based on Euripides' Hippolytus and Seneca's Phaedra, Racine's play is the most accomplished of French classical tragedies. In the ancient Greek version Hippolytus' priggish chastity has affronted Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and so must be punished. Here, as in Seneca, he is an innocent victim of Phaedra's passion. In Racine, Hippolytus shows himself not only capable of love for Aricia, but offers her unselfish protection and pursues her claims to the throne of Athens. It is Phaedra, now the title figure, who is in the grip of uncontrolled passion, and, while she blames Venus, her situation derives from her own psychology not from some external divinity. At the start only Phaedra knows of her guilty secret. Imagining herself on the point of death, she tells her nurse, who then, because it seems that Theseus is dead, urges her to reveal her secret to Hippolytus. Twice Phaedra is misled by false evidence to speak. Twice she remains silent when she could have saved Hippolytus by telling the truth. There is no clearly defined divine pattern, as in Euripides: Phaedra's passion gradually seeps out like a stain of blood, bringing about destruction. Racine may be referring to the Jansenist philosophy of predetermination, or simply recording how a single passion can cause such suffering. Perhaps as a result of staring into this abyss of seemingly inescapable pain, Racine wrote nothing more for the stage other than a light musical piece and two biblical tragedies performed over a decade later at a girls' school.
Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).