Monday, 13 April 2015


“Tragedy is a representation of action that is worthy of serious attention, complete in itself and of some magnitude - bringing about by means of pity and fear the purging of such emotions.” - Aristotle

In its strictest definition, a tragedy is a play dealing with disastrous events that have an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character. Furthermore, in these plays, the tragic figure of the protagonist can see the danger and catastrophe looming ahead and is powerless to act, or choose not to act, in order to avert it. Thus, tragically, he or she marches onto the precipice of fate and is hurled down to self-destruction.

The word is derived from the Greek word “tragos” meaning a he-goat, and “aoidein” meaning to sing, as the first such plays were celebrations to honour Dionysus, god of wine and theatre. Dionysus’s followers were the satyrs, half-goat and half-man creatures and these were imitated by the players on stage in the first “tragic” plays, which were not tragic, but rather more comic! The word comedy in turn is derived from “komos” = revel, and “aoidein” meaning to sing. There was a lot of singing in ancient Greek plays and the Italian opera of 16th century was an attempt to recreate ancient Greek drama on stage.

Greek tragedy reached its apogee in the 5th and 6th century BC with Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Of the extant plays of Euripides, “Hippolytus”, which took the first prize at its production in 428 BC, ranks very highly. It is a play of forbidden love, torrents of passion, jealousy, a catty goddess, a chaste youth and, you guessed it, tragedy…

In the prologue, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, declares that she will punish the chaste Hippolytus, son of Theseus, who spurns her by not loving anyone, and who worships Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt. Aphrodite will put into the heart of Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, an immoral love for her stepson. Theseus will learn of this, and then will destroy his son by one of three fatal wishes, which Poseidon (god of the sea) has promised to fulfil. This will involve the ruin of Phaedra too, but that is inconsequential as the goddess cares first for her honour and for herself.

Hippolytus enters the stage and he prays to his protectress, Artemis consecrating to her a garland of flowers. A servant suggests that he should also honour Aphrodite, whose statue stands at the entrance to the palace. Hippolytus, persists in ignoring the goddess of love, and hence his religious offence seals his fate. Phaedra enters the stage with her nurse, to whom, with great difficulty, she is induced confess her love for Hippolytus, declaring to the chorus her wish to die. The nurse tries to comfort her, and advises her to give her love free rein, rather than let herself be consumed by frustration. She promises to support and help her.

“O love! O love! whose shafts of fire
Invade the soul with sweet surprise,
Through the soft dews of young desire
Trembling in beauty’s azure eyes!
Condemn not me the pangs to share
Thy too impassioned votaries bear,
That on the mind their stamp impress,
Indelible and measureless.
For not the sun’s descending dart,
Nor yet the lightning brand of Jove,
Falls like the shaft that strikes the heart,
Thrown by the mightier hand of love.”

Phaedra anxiously asks the nurse not to tell Hippolytus of her love, but the nurse hurries to Hippolytus and she betrays Phaedra’s secret. Hippolytus receives the news with horror and dismay and he chastises the nurse, cursing the female sex. Phaedra sees that the misplaced zeal of the nurse has ruined all; she covers her with reproaches, and again resolves to die. Her resolution is instantly fulfilled.

Theseus enters and is told the news by scurrying servants. He sees the corpse, and in Phaedra’s lifeless hand there is a letter, which represents Hippolytus as the cause of her death, Phaedra an innocent victim of his lust. At once Theseus mutters the fatal wish for his son’s death. Hippolytus now appears and sees what has happened. From his father’s mouth he receives at once a declaration of the suspicion resting on him, and a sentence of exile. Hippolytus is too generous to tell his father the truth and accuse a dead woman, as death rights all wrongs. Theseus mistakes his son’s plain words for artful lies, and thus provokes the tragic retort, that, were he in his place, he should think nothing could expiate such a crime but death.

With an appeal to Artemis, Hippolytus departs into exile. A choral ode intervenes, and then a messenger arrives with news of the disaster that has overtaken Theseus’s son, for he has been dashed to pieces by his own steeds, frightened by the sea-monsters which Poseidon has sent against him at Aphrodite’s request.

“… At last upon a point of rock,
Dashing its wheel, the car was overturned.
Then all was wreck and ruin; from the wheels
The naves, the linchpins from the axles flew,
While hopelessly entangled in their reins,
Was dragged along the luckless charioteer,
Dashing his head against the cruel rocks,
Tearing his flesh and uttering piteous cries.”

The beauty of the whole play is remarkable and the poetic expression near perfect. Euripides is subtle as he avoids delicately any unpleasant confrontation between Hippolytus and Phaedra, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. The hero preserves to the last the charm of his innocence. Instead, the playwright gives free rein to the torment of Phaedra’s struggle with passion, and the shame with which she at length suffers. Her humiliating death is avouchment of her guilt, but together she drags down the honourable youth, Hippolytus.

There is pity in Euripides’ writing not only for the youth who is needlessly killed, but also for Phaedra, who has been chosen as the instrument of the goddess’s revenge. The final scene where Theseus is absolved of his guilt for Hippolytus’s death through the intercession of Artemis is very touching and the message of the play is manifold: Piety towards all the gods (which action would have prevented the tragedy in the first place), the value of nobleness and honour, and the consequences of trust that is misplaced. Euripides views neither Phaedra nor Hippolytus favourably, but doesn’t condemn them either.

Hippolytus is presented in the play as a misogynist (some would maintain that this is Euripides’s own misogynism finding vent), but at the same time he is showing having honour, a commendable virtue. Phaedra is at once noble in that she dies once her secret is disclosed, but her specious accusation against Hippolytus makes her less heroic in our eyes, becoming rather a weak and vindictive character. This is a complex and fascinating play. The whole of the play is available on the net at the Project Gutenberg site:

The Hippolytus-Phaedra story has been told and re-told several times since Euripides time. Hippolytus was first performed in 428 B.C. Among the most notable re-workings of the mythological material are Seneca’s “Phaedra”, Jean Racine’s “Phèdre”, and Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire under the Elms”. Notable also is the modern retelling of the story in Jules Dassin’s 1962 movie “Phaedra” with Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins.

The painting above is by an artist of the German School, 18th Century, depicting Hippolytus, Phaedra and Theseus. Oil on canvas, 24.43 X 31.12 cm.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I really never understood the stories depicted in Greek tragedies in the past. Thank you for giving me a short history on tragedy as well as a beautiful story :D