In contrast, when we study Hippolytus’ decisions and the thought processes behind them, we can see how his personality is much more grounded and less given to impulse and imprudence. For example, Hippolytus is one of the rare characters in literature who takes up a vow of celibacy and remains a virgin through the course of his life. His virginity is borne of his piety. He is always conscious of the moral imperatives he has set for himself that even when he learns of Phaedra’s incestuous and adulterous desire for him, he commits himself and the Nurse to keep it a secret. As Hippolytus leaves the Nurse, “he insists that it is his piety that saves her, and that he will ‘keep silent’.” (Chong-Gossard, 2004) Later, when Phaedra commits suicide after accusing Hippolytus of rape, he could easily have defended himself by exposing the facts, including that of Phaedra’s lust for him. But his decision to not pursue this course is due to his grounding in rationality as it is of piety and oath. In this sense, Hippolytus can be seen as a model character whose life highlights values of the Enlightenment. In other words, though concepts like honor and piety are not addressed directly in the Enlightenment era intellectual discourse, they can be derived and associated with reason (a prime Enlightenment value). In this context, it is fair to say that Hippolytus sacrifices his own reputation and prospects in aligning his actions with his convictions. (Disch, 1989)
In sum, it is fair to say that the tragedy of Phaedra could have been avoided had she applied more balance and propriety to her decisions. In the heat of passionate feelings, her mind was muddled and in no state to let reason thrive. In this sense, the play can be seen as a testimony to the validity of Enlightenment values and corresponding individual virtues. The most striking aspect of Phaedra’s behavior is her disdain for rationality and judiciousness. In a way, such behavior is sub-human, for it is humans who can exercise their will and apply restraint in their actions. By showing that she was not capable of either, Phaedra had caused her own demise and that of the innocent Hippolytus making her twice guilty. The application of Enlightenment values at crucial moments in the play would have led to a different final outcome.
- Berlin, Normand. The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 1981.
- Chong-Gossard, J. H. Kim On. “The Silence of the Virgins: Comparing Euripides’ Hippolytus and Theonoe.” Antichthon38 (2004): 10+.
- Disch, Thomas M. “Phaedra Brittannica.” The Nation23 Jan. 1989: 100+.