Phaedra by Seneca.

Phaedra and Hippolytus (c. 290 AD).

The 'Phaedra' story is one of my favourites in Greek and Roman literature and this is now the fourth time I've encountered it: the first was in Hippolytus by Euripides (428 B.C.), then in Jean Racine's play Phèdre (1677), followed by Émile Zola's The Kill (1872), and now Seneca's Phaedra (written before 54 B.C.)

The play begins with a speech from Hippolytus, the son of Theseus and stepson of Phaedra. He is organising a hunt and prays to the goddess Diana, associated with virginity and chastity:
"... And come Thou to thy servant's side,
Huntress Divine, whose sovereign will
The secret heart of earth obeys;
Whose arrows fly swift to their mark
In any beast that stops to drink
At cold Araxes' side, or paws
The ice of Ister..."
From here the scene changes to Phaedra, who tells her nurse of her love for Hippolytus as the nurse begs her, "Cleanse your pure heart at once of such vile thoughts", warning that if she acts on her passions it will end with disastrous consequences. Such is Phaedra's desperation, however, she promises to help.

Hippolytus, however, is not open to seduction, so Phaedra is forced to tell him outright that she is in love with him. Horrified he rejects her in a fury, leaving her suicidal. When Theseus returns to her and sees her so depressed, her nurse tells him Hippolytus attempted to rape her: previously in Hippolytus' rage he left behind a sword, and when the sword is revealed to Theseus he sees it as proof of Hippolytus' guilt. He curses him, and in answer to his prayer Neptune his father sends a sea monster to chase Hippolytus' horses. Hippolytus is killed, Phaedra then confesses her guilt and kills herself, and whilst Theseus gives Hippolytus a proper burial, he refuses to do the same for Phaedra.

This is a wonderful take on the Phaedra story. In other versions, Phaedra is the victim of the gods, but in this Hippolytus is clearly the victim, a victim of Phaedra's unnatural lust and immorality that, as the nurse predicted, disturbed the natural order of life, though she isn't portrayed unsympathetically by any stretch. I'm afraid I haven't got much time to say any more on it, other than it's another great play be Seneca and it's fascinating to compare the different versions. 

And that was my 31st title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Oedipus by Seneca.

Detail of Neptune's Horses by Walter Crane (1892).


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