The Good: Some decent lines, Ethics, Tragic story
The Bad: Incredibly simple, Very monolithic characters, Ridiculously simple plot
The Basics: The Euripides play Hippolytus has a very basic story with a clear Greek moral that might be better if it had action motivated by characters, as opposed to nebulous, manipulative, gods.
Lately, I’ve been on a classic play kick. I’ve been reading Euripides and the latest play by the ancient Greek playwright I have read is Hippolytus. Hippolytus is one of those plays that would never be made into an American movie for two key reasons: first, the plot is pretty creepy and deals with incestual lust and second, the major actions are not motivated by the primary characters. There is something very uncompelling about watching a work where the characters are simply tools as opposed to motivating the plot. Yet, in Hippolytus, the characters are basically playthings of the gods without actually having independent strength of their own.
Moreover, as a very simplistic play, Hippolytus does not rely upon a dramatic sense of movement or action. Instead, Hippolytus has all of its important action occur off-stage and Euripides tells as opposed to show in his writing. The Chorus in Hippolytus is relied upon heavily to sell the events of the plot, which makes for a pretty disappointing play (to read and use one’s imagination to imagine watching).
At the royal palace at Trozen, Queen Phaedra is troubled. Her stepson, Hippolytus, is a devote of Artemis. Artemis, among other things, is a Goddess of Virginity and Hippolytus is celibate. As a result, Hippolytus has offended Aphrodite, the Goddess of sexual love. Aphrodite curses Phaedra with a lust for Hippolytus. Phaedra realizes her feelings are wrong and refuses to act upon her sexual attraction to her stepson, but she confesses her feelings to her nurse. Her nurse, in turn, tells Hippolytus how Phaedra feels and advises the boy to consider relieving her pressure. Pissed off and offended, Hippolytus confronts his stepmother, but does not tell anyone of her feelings because he made an oath to the nurse not to tell anyone before she revealed Phaedra’s secret.
Embarrassed beyond belief and still cursed with the lust, Phaedra kills herself. King Theseus returns home to discover his wife dead and is distraught. When he finds Phaedra’s suicide note on her, he is angered at Hippolytus. In her suicide note, Phaedra claims that Hippolytus raped her and she killed herself to avoid the shame. Theseus banishes Hippolytus, who does not tell of Phaedra’s lustful feelings because of the promise he made. Leaving the kingdom, Hippolytus’s boat get beaten upon the rocks and he is nearly killed before the truth comes out.
Hippolytus is an exceptionally basic tragedy. It has a clear moral: don’t fuck your kids. Or, alternatively, don’t lie/some promises are not worth keeping or have sex of you’ll offend the gods. Anyway, the moral story leads to tragedy for all involved and it would be so much more compelling if one cared at all about the characters. As it is, the characters are just manipulated because Aphrodite is a pissy goddess who punishes one guy who just won’t give it away.
The problem is, Aphrodite is not characterized as interesting. She is just shallow and vengeful against a man who retains his virginity. Given how many people there were in Greece, punishing one man for not giving it up seems more ridiculous than divine and powerful. There’s not even a powerful relationship between Aphrodite and Artemis in Hippolytus. The result is a somewhat random grudge match with humans as tools of the gods. That part is not exactly a message that resonates today.
For other plays, please check out my reviews of:
Alcestis – Euripides
Arms And The Man – George Bernard Shaw
An Enemy Of The People – Arthur Miller
For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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