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The Gods And Mortals In Greek Tragedy English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2224 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Aphrodite opens the play with her promise to kill Hippolytus, And this young man who makes war on me shall be killed, Euripides, Hippolytus, line 42 for his rejection and spurn of her. She makes good on that promise by her manipulation of the characters she mentions in this same passage; Theseus, Phaedra and Hippolytus himself.

The extract proves further significant in exploring the relationship between the gods and mortals in Greek tragedy. The use of speeches by Aphrodite at the opening of the play and Artemis at the closing, are effective in conveying the main theme of the play, which Buxton neatly describes as exploring the conflict of two ‘antithetical perceptions of sexuality’ (Textual Sources 1, p82). This divine and ‘eternal rivalry’ (Textual Sources 1, p82) of Aphrodite and Artemis is illustrated by the action of the human characters of Phaedra and Hippolytus, even if Phaedra’s feelings are a manipulation of the gods. Euripides has chosen to write a version of the myth, which is definitively underlined by the god’s interactions.

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The play without this early extract may have had the same plot but Euripides would not have made his point as clear with regards to the human tragedy that unfolds. Aphrodite and Artemis stand as polar opposites on how to live life so even their use as ‘literary symbols’ (Block 1, p27) and not as key players within the myth serves to highlight the push and pull conflict within the family of Theseus.

The extract specifically utilises phrases which connote just how powerful gods in Greek tragedy were. That Theseus can call on Poseidon when he needs him to ‘have his prayer fulfilled’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 48) is evidence of just how involved the gods were in Greek life whether it be in the context of the myth itself or in the context of the audience in fifth century Athens at the festival of Dionysus. Euripides use of words such as ‘war’, ‘killed’, ‘death’, ‘honour’ and ‘punished’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, lines 41-51) all illustrate the main themes of conflict, death and of course tragedy within the play.

When Aphrodite tells the audience ‘I will reveal the affair to Theseus; it shall not stay in the dark.’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, Line 41), it sets up her intentions for the main characters and foreshadows the tragic events the audience have yet to witness. What Euripides doesn’t do at this point is give away the details of how she completes her mission. She doesn’t in fact tell Theseus directly as she claims she will do. It is only after the death of Hippolytus near the end of the play that Theseus finds out about the ‘supposed’ affair, so this would have been a nice twist for the audience and even if they knew the myth well it would have toyed with their expectations of the plot.

The extract from Euripides is significant in that it tells the audience the basic plotline of the entire play in a very concise way without revealing how the characters travel to their final destinations or deaths.

Part 2. How does the characterisation of Phaedra change between different versions of the Hippolytus myth? Answer in not more than 1500 words with reference to sources you have met in block 1.

Euripides Hippolytus was first performed in Athens in 428 BCE. It is a good example of a literature source profiling the character of Phaedra, one of the main players in the Hippolytus myth, which would have been familiar to an audience at that time. The version of the myth Euripides chooses to tell paints a very pitiful picture of Phaedra, as she is very much the victim even though she is not the only character to die. Aphrodite’s opening speech, ‘my scheming caused a terrible longing to seize her heart’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 28), informs the audience that Phaedra is someone who is perhaps but a mere plaything of the gods and a pawn in the on-going rivalry of Artemis and Aphrodite.

When the audience first meet Phaedra in the play she is in a state of mental torment over her love for her stepson Hippolytus. She realises the passion she feels for him is wrong and as such when she first appears in the play she is very unstable in her requests to her nurse of her reasoning for them. She asks her nurse to help her take her net off her hair then she soon wants it back on, ‘This net is heavy that holds my hair. Remove it, let my hair fall over my shoulders.’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 200) ‘Nurse dear, cover my head once more;’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 241). Phaedra changes her mind in several matters over a sort space of time in various matters which Euripides has chosen to show her volatile state of mind regarding her situation, which at this point in the play she hasn’t divulged to her nurse yet. Euripides heightens Phaedra’s anguished state further by having the chorus ask ‘Is she out of her mind or trying to kill herself?’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 274).

Euripides leaves the reader in no doubt what Hippolytus feels for Phaedra and his opinion of her female character. When he finds out about her love for him he is appalled and aligns Phaedra, ‘this poisonous creature’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 630), with all women whom he feels are a ‘dangerous pest’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 624) and who should only be allowed to keep the company of ‘dumb and savage beasts’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 642).

The nurse in the play is on Phaedra’s side and has affections for her but it is her actions by telling Hippolytus of her love, which leads to Phaedra’s eventual demise. Phaedra had been trying to conceal her passions, as she knew how wrong it was to attempt any seduction of her husband’s son. She decides to kill herself in order to save losing her husband and also to exact revenge from beyond the grave in falsely naming Hippolytus as her violator in the letter to Theseus. So here Euripides shows her character to be noble yet vengeful in the same act.

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Euripides utilises the chorus well when the nurse, via the contents of a letter reveals Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus. They ask Phaedra questions and show her sympathy, which in turn allows the reader or audience to sympathise with her plight. ‘What now? What will you do? Your position is hopeless!’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 594). Just like Aphrodite at the beginning, the chorus throughout remind the audience of Phaedra’s eventual death. Euripides structures his play cleverly in that it is not ‘why’ events happen that forms the intrigue but it is ‘how’ the events unfold. He keeps the audience interested in his version of the myth by inviting them to analyse the psyche of Phaedra and the way she reacts to those around her.

Similarly Ovid’s letter ‘Phaedra to Hippolytus’ from his Heroides collection is a retelling of the Hippolytus myth (Textual Sources 1, pp10-14). Ovid deals with one character in this letter but the reader is presented with various similarities with Euripides version. The madness evident in Euripides, Phaedra is also retold here, ‘I am swept up like the mad screaming disciples of Bacchus who are driven by their god’s frenzy’ (Textual Sources 1, p11, line 61). Similarly Ovid recounts the gods involvement in Phaedra’s passion for Hippolytus, ‘ I know I have been possessed by love’ (Textual Sources 1, p11, line 70). In this respect Phaedra in Ovid’s letter is almost a reimagining of Euripides version of her. She is tormented and conflicted about what to do about her feelings and knows it is wrong in both versions, ‘This heavy load does not rest well on my soul’ (Textual Sources 1, p10, line 35) and ‘As for the act and the illness, I knew they brought disgrace on me’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 404).

However, Ovid decides to highlight certain aspects of the myth differently than Euripides. Ovid’s one crucial difference in that she actually tries to make Hippolytus love her, ‘I offer you a purity long preserved; let us both be equal in our guilt.’ (Textual Sources 1, p10, line 39). This makes the characterisation of Phaedra in Ovid’s letter much more forward and outgoing than the Euripides character. Nowhere in Hippolytus does the audience see her try to come clean about her feelings. She tries her absolute best to hide them and realises when that isn’t going to work any longer that she will kill herself to spare her husbands feelings ‘I must die at once; there is no other cure for this anguish I feel’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 599). Ovid’s Phaedra contrasts this whimpering version of her by being more determined to win her Hippolytus and fulfil their love, ‘I was determined – if love can determine anything – to fight long rather than be conquered, but I confess I am overcome’ (Textual Sources 1, p13, line 185). She even employs various arguments to convince him they should be together by reminding Hippolytus that Theseus killed his Amazonian mother and Phaedra’s brother, ‘We have both been deeply hurt by Theseus’ (Textual Sources 1, p12, line 140). As the letter goes on Phaedra’s unbalanced state of mind becomes much more rational as in her mind she clears the path for them to be together. Euripides Phaedra is lost at the beginning of the play and stays that way until her death.

In the wall painting (early first century CE), found at the House of Jason in Pompeii (Visual sources, plate 1.4), Phaedra can be seen with her nurse by her side. The first comparison of note about Phaedra here is her seated position, which suggests preoccupation or distress (Block1, p50), similar to her previous incarnations in Ovid and Euripides. The picture shows the nurse holding a writing tablet, so this scene illustrates a distressed Phaedra about to write her love letter to Hippolytus in Ovid’s version or her damning letter to Theseus about Hippolytus in Euripides version. The image of the letter is predominant in many Roman images of this myth such as those seen in vases and paintings of houses (Visual Sources, plates 1.4, 1.7, 1.9, 1.10).

The context, which the Romans used this myth is interesting as it gives another dimension to the character of Phaedra. The House of Jason image (Visual Sources, plate 1.4) has a servant in the background and gives the appearance of Phaedra taking care of her household but in fact this is juxtaposed with her writing the letter, which will destroy her household. This image was placed near images of Medea and Helen of Troy which suggest a theme of women and their actions (Block 1, 50), evaluating the images more closely gives weight to Buxton’s ‘underside’ of myth in which ‘heroic love can wreck heroic households’ (Block 1, p51). Compare this to Euripides words from Hippolytus where he says ‘But a sit is they sit at home and think up wicked schemes in their wicked hearts, while their servants carry them to the outside world’ (Euripides, Hippolytus, line 649). This conveys the conspiratorial element of the myth and of Phaedra’s character as a devious woman. This aspect of Phaedra is emphasised as a polar opposite as to how Roman women were expected to behave in the home and in their society. These images may have then been placed in such prominent home positions, as a warning for women to stop and think about the consequences of their actions (Block 1, p52).

Another image showing Phaedra at a similar moment is seen in the red floor mosaic at Antioch from mid-second century CE (Visual Sources, plate 1.5). The placement of the three characters in this image is comparable to the victim side of Phaedra’s character as shown in Hippolytus. Phaedra is placed between a statue of Aphrodite and her nurse in a pose facing away from everyone else, almost apologetically, like she isn’t in control of her actions, which parallels with previous versions of her character from both Euripides and Ovid. However this version of Phaedra contrasts more with the scheming nature of her character as in display in the house of Jason image (Visual Sources, plate 1.4). Both images depict precise moments of myth that are of a decisive nature, strengthening their purpose in Roman homes. Morally these images act as a reminder to women how they should conduct themselves or also to be mindful of the gods. These images were placed strategically in households in Roman Italy and not just for aesthetic reasons.

From the sources chosen here it is evident that different versions of Phaedra’s character are picked out from the myth to serve a purpose either to an audience, a reader or in the home. This illustrates how myth was used in different ways at different points in history. The various characterisations of Phaedra can be judged under differing circumstances through the assorted social contexts.


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