42 pages 1 hour read



Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 428

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Summary and Study Guide


Hippolytus is a tragedy by Euripides, originally produced in Athens at the City Dionysia of 428 BCE. The tetralogy to which Hippolytus belonged earned Euripides the first prize that year. According to ancient authorities, this was Euripides’s second attempt at a play on the myth of Hippolytus, his earlier play having apparently horrified contemporary Athenians with its allegedly sensational depiction of Phaedra. Euripides’s original Hippolytus no longer survives, but the revised play quickly came to be regarded as one of the tragedian’s best works, exploring themes of The Destructiveness of Love and Desire, The Meaning of Honor, and The Consequences of Divine Intervention.

This study guide uses David Grene’s translation of the play from the third edition of the University of Chicago Press series The Complete Greek Tragedies (2013).

Content Warning: The source material features references to violence, sexual violence, and death by suicide, which this guide discusses.

Plot Summary

The play, which is set before the palace of Theseus in Troezen, opens with a Prologue speech delivered by Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sex. Aphrodite explains that Hippolytus, the son of the Athenian king and hero Theseus, has angered her by spurning her domain of erotic love, having chosen to honor his patron goddess Artemis by being sexually abstinent. To punish Hippolytus, Aphrodite reveals that she has caused his stepmother Phaedra to fall in love with him. This intervention, Aphrodite says, will result in the deaths of Hippolytus and Phaedra.

Hippolytus enters as Aphrodite departs, accompanied by a secondary Chorus of attendants who accompany him as he sets out to go hunting. He prays to Artemis and boasts of his honor and virtue, dismissing a Servant’s warning that his behavior is tantamount to a rejection of the powerful goddess Aphrodite. The primary Chorus, made of noble Troezenian women, now enters the stage and sings the parodos. They describe the illness that has suddenly come upon their queen, Phaedra, and wonder what the cause might be.

Phaedra enters, supported by her elderly Nurse. In response to the Nurse’s questioning, she admits at last that she is in love with Hippolytus. Unable to suppress her lust, she resolves to end her life. The Nurse, though initially troubled by Phaedra’s confession, tries to comfort Phaedra. She assures her mistress that she knows of a way to end her suffering. In the first stasimon, the Chorus sings of the destructiveness of desire and lust.

The second episode begins with Phaedra overhearing the Nurse tell Hippolytus of her love for him. Hippolytus is disgusted and denounces Phaedra and all women before storming off. Phaedra resolves to end her life in a manner that will preserve her reputation while harming that of Hippolytus. The Chorus sings of Phaedra’s imminent doom.

In the third episode, Theseus returns to Troezen to discover that Phaedra has hanged herself. He finds a tablet in which Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of having raped her, claiming this as the reason she ended her life. Theseus is furious and prays to his father Poseidon, the sea god, asking him to kill his son. Hippolytus is brought before Theseus. A debate scene ensues, in which Theseus refuses to listen to his son’s defense and exiles him. In the third stasimon, the Chorus sings of the fickle tides of fate.

A Messenger arrives to report a fatal accident that has befallen Hippolytus: As he was riding his chariot along the coast, a bull came out of the sea and panicked his horses, who threw him and trampled him. The Chorus, lamenting Hippolytus’s fate, sings about Aphrodite’s power in the fourth stasimon.

In the exodos, Artemis appears to rebuke Theseus for his hand in the death of his son, revealing the truth about Aphrodite’s plot and Phaedra’s deceit. The dying Hippolytus is brought in on a stretcher. Theseus apologizes for his behavior and father and son are reconciled before Hippolytus dies.