Are love, passion and other emotions as dangerous as the play seems to make them and is reason alone enough to achieve happiness? Are human emotions a sign of weakness, disease, lack of control, or absence of Reason in the play? What is the cause of this tragedy?
Phaedra, originally part of the large body of Greek mythological works, has been adapted, modified and presented in new contexts in recent centuries. For example, following the original conception of this tragedy by Euripides, versions of it have appeared in Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, etc through the authorship of such great writers as Frencesco Bozza, Jean Racine, Miguel de Unamuno, etc. Eugene O’Neill’s incorporation of it as a subplot in his ‘Desire Under the Elms’ testify to the everlasting appeal of the story. This enduring appeal makes relevant its study in relation to enlightenment values.
It is especially relevant to read Phaedra’s life and events in the backdrop of values espoused by the Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment emphasized the importance of reason and scientific inquiry as means to progress. It was strongly against superstition and questioned the eminence of tradition in civic and social life. It is pertinent to ask if Phaedra, whose life ends in a tragic suicide, is the result of her overtly emotional responses to circumstances and interpersonal interactions. On the other hand is the tragedy of Hippolytus, who too eventually dies, but for a different set of reasons. (Berlin, 1981)
Phaedra, the wife of the temperamental Athenian King Theseus, falls in love with her step-son Hippolytus. Though this relationship would not have constituted as incest in a biological sense, it is nevertheless problematic on several counts. First, it violates her marriage to Theseus, however ill-tempered he might have behaved toward her. Second, it speaks ill of Phaedra’s impulsivity and lack of moral fortitude. Third, it drags Hippolytus into a lust-driven imbroglio when he has already committed himself to a life of celibacy. The Enlightenment value of reason pits a challenge to emotional and impulsive actions, claiming that the latter tend to be based on distortions and loose sense impressions. The fact that Phaedra’s life gets into ever greater crisis since the moment she confesses her love of Hipploytus to her maid only underscores its flaw. In hindsight, her maid Oenone proved to be a wise counsel, as she advised Phaedra against acting on her impulses and romantic feelings. (Disch, 1989)