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Racine's version of the myth of Phaedrus and Hippolytus
on April 19, 2002
This year I am using Jean Racine's "Phaedra" as the one non-classical text in my Classical Greek and Roman Mythology Class (yes, I know, "Classical" makes "Greek and Roman" redundant, but it was not my title). In Greek mythology, Phaedra was the half-sister of the Minotaur who was married to Theseus after the hero abandoned her sister Ariadne (albeit, according to some versions of what happened in Crete). Phaedra fell in love with her step-son Hippolytus, who refused her advances. Humiliated, she falsely accused him of having raped her.
My students read "Phaedra" after Euripides's "Hippolytus" as part of an analogy criticism assignment, in which they compare/contrast the two versions, which are decidedly different, to say the least. In the "original" Greek version Hippolytus is a follower of Artemis, and the jealous Aphrodite causes his stepmother to fall in love with him. Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of rape and then hangs herself; Theseus banished his son who is killed before Artemis arrives to tell the truth. In Racine's version Hippolytus is a famous hater of women who falls in love with Aricia, a princess of the blood line of Athens. When false word comes that Theseus is dead, Phaedra moves to put her own son on the throne. In the end the same characters end up dead, but the motivations and other key elements are different.
While I personally would not go so far as to try and argue how Racine's neo-classical version represents the France of 1677, I have found that comparing and contrasting the two versions compels students to think about the choices each dramatist has made. Both the similarities and the differences between "Hippolytus" and "Phaedra" are significant enough to facilitate this effort. Note: Other dramatic versions of this myth include Seneca's play "Phaedra," "Fedra" by Gabriele D'Annunzio, "Thesee" by Andrea Gide, and "The Cretan Woman" by Robinson Jeffers.