Hippolytus

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Theseus Character Analysis

Theseus is the son of the god Poseidon, the mythical founder-king of Athens, and also king of the city of Troizen. The myths about him abound. Most famously, he outsmarted and defeated the Minotaur of Crete, freeing the Athenian captives held inside the labyrinth. His wife is Phaidra, but he had affair with an Amazonian woman, who gave birth to Hippolytus. Though he is gone for half the play, visiting an oracle, he returns to find Phaidra dead of suicide and blaming Hippolytus for raping her. He is quick to furious anger in his response, but remorseful when Hippolytus is near death because of Theseus’s curse and the truth is revealed.

Theseus Quotes in Hippolytus

The Hippolytus quotes below are all either spoken by Theseus or refer to Theseus. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Oxford University Press edition of Hippolytus published in 1992.
Lines 1120-1368 Quotes

That is her signet, set in an arc
Of hammered gold, inviting me
To open it, a gesture full of her charm –
I’ll unravel the windings and crack
The seal. Let me just take in
Her last words to me.

Related Characters: Theseus (speaker), Phaidra
Page Number: 1307-1312
Explanation and Analysis:

Having discovered that his wife has killed herself, Theseus notices that there is a message concealed on her corpse.

Theseus has no idea about the truth to be disclosed in Phaidra's message--he seems to expect to find enclosed a personal goodbye, and perhaps a descriptive meditation on some personal woes that brought her finally to kill herself. What is revealed is quite the opposite, both in form and in content: Phaidra states plainly and simply that she killed herself due to a very recent event--her alleged rape by Hippolytus. Theseus thinks he has broken the seal of her message in order to crack open the truth behind her death, but he later discovers--tragically too late--the falsity of her declaration.

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The truth is hideous. It sears and wrenches
And will not stay clenched in my throat.
To speak it out excruciates me,
But it must come. Ahhh!
Hear it, men of the city!
My wife was raped – by Hippolytus!

Related Characters: Theseus (speaker), Hippolytus, Phaidra
Page Number: 1337-1342
Explanation and Analysis:

Theseus speaks these lines after reading the message Phaidra left for him on her corpse.

Phaidra's explanation for her suicide is far from anything Theseus expected, and unlike Phaidra's early inhibitions towards disclosing her love for Hippolytuys, Theseus feels instantly compelled to announce the troubling news he's discovered. He cannot bear to let the "truth" he's uncovered behind Phaidra's death to stay and fester within him--as if it were an infection that would parasitically grow in his mind. He must expel the news from himself, however painful. The supposed truth he's encountered is too painful to be locked away in privation--even if its submission to the public will destroy the reputation of his son, and tear apart the entire family.

Lines 1369-1727 Quotes

There is one practice
That I have never touched,
Though it’s exactly what you attack me for:
Physical love. Until now
I’ve never been to bed with a woman.
All I know of sex is what I hear,
Or find in pictures – these I’m not very keen
To see, since I keep my inner life
As calm and pure as I can.

Related Characters: Hippolytus (speaker), Theseus
Page Number: 1544-1552
Explanation and Analysis:

Replying to Theseus's accusation that he has raped Phaidra, Hippolytus claims that he has never engaged in sexual activity at all.

Here, Hippolytus's sense of purity and removal from the realm of base mortal desires--the erotic and bodily desires--is reinforced. Hippolytus invokes his chastity in order to demonstrate the absurdity of Theseus's belief that he raped Phaidra, but it almost comes across as boastful and full of pride. Theseus certainly interprets it this way, at least, and furthermore doesn't believe it--he calls Hippolytus a hypocrite, claiming he outwardly promotes high values which internally he does not hold. Even though the truth of Hippolytus's claims are later revealed to Theseus, no amount of argument on his behalf will do any good; Theseus has committed himself to believing in his wife's last words.

Lines 1728-2208 Quotes

King, I am your slave, but don’t ask me
To believe that your son was guilty.
I couldn’t, not if the whole female sex
Hanged itself,
And all the timber on Mount Ida
Were sliced up to write suicide notes.
I know he was a good man.

Related Characters: Messenger (speaker), Theseus, Hippolytus
Page Number: 1902-1908
Explanation and Analysis:

Unable to believe that Hippolytus raped Phaidra, a servant of Theseus (the Messenger) questions his incrimination of his son.

The strength and quality of Hippolytus's reputation is revealed here. The messenger boldly addresses his King and questions his judgment--an action that radically outsteps his status as a civilian. He refuses to concede to the King's decree, taking Hippolytus's word for face-value, based on his knowledge of Hippolytus's character--that is, based on Hippolytus's reputation. On the contrary, Theseus haphazardly and without reservation distrusts his own son--perhaps due to his status as a bastard child (ironically, since Hippolytus's status as illegitimate is entirely Theseus's doing). He takes his wife's word for face value--even though that word comes in the form of a brief note left behind on her corpse, leaving open the question of whether or not she is even the true author.

I will reveal and you must face
The sexual passion of your wife,
Though what she did, seen in its own strange light,
Burns with her soul’s nobility.

Related Characters: Artemis (speaker), Theseus, Phaidra
Page Number: 1974-1977
Explanation and Analysis:

Having revealed Hippolytus's innocence, Artemis now insists that Theseus must face the truth of his wife's erotic desire for his son.

Artemis flips Theseus's beliefs upside down here, restoring to Hippolytus his innocence and incriminating the last person he expected to betray him--his wife. Unfortunately, this reversal of Theseus's sense of truth and uncovering of the reality behind Phaidra's death comes too late. Invoking Poseidon, Theseus has condemned Hippolytus to death, and the god's curse cannot be undone. This is the truly tragic element of the play, perhaps even more so than Aphrodite's bestowal of an involuntary, sinful love for Hippolytus upon Phiadra. For Hippolytus not only has committed no wrong, but, even when he is discovered innocent, nothing can be done to pardon him of the punishment he's been dealt--there can be no reversal of his curse.

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Theseus Character Timeline in Hippolytus

The timeline below shows where the character Theseus appears in Hippolytus. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 1-425
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon
Gods and Fate Theme Icon
Aphrodite vents her anger about Hippolytus, the bastard son of Theseus. Her charge is that Hippolytus has gone so far his chastity and worship of the... (full context)
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
...refuses to reveal. It might be that she has simply gone mad, that her husband Theseus, who is away, favors another woman, or that she is pregnant. (full context)
Lines 426-816
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
Family Relationships Theme Icon
...fears for her own children, nor that she has already committed a crime, nor that Theseus is too cruel to her. When these options all lead nowhere, the nurse grows desperate... (full context)
Lines 817-1119
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
...looking for adultery. In the end, he admits that his oath prevents him from telling Theseus. (full context)
Lines 1120-1368
Gods and Fate Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
Family Relationships Theme Icon
As soon as the chorus confirms Phaidra’s death, Theseus enters for the first time in the play. His crown of flowers indicates that the... (full context)
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
Family Relationships Theme Icon
At Theseus’ command, the doors of the palace open, revealing Phaidra’s dead body and the rope still... (full context)
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon
Gods and Fate Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
Family Relationships Theme Icon
Cities and Place Theme Icon
Then, Theseus notices a wax tablet that Phaidra’s body holds in its dead hand. The Koryphaios makes... (full context)
Lines 1369-1727
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
...without knowing that he is accused of rape. When he demands to know what’s happened, Theseus speaks only in obscure terms – he wishes, for example, that men had an ability... (full context)
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
In response, Hippolytus buries his head in his cloak, but Theseus tells him to look up. To Hippolytus’ face, then, he launches into a long accusation.... (full context)
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
...criminal trial, but will try nevertheless. As his central defense, he describes his own character. Theseus ought to know, he says, that he has always been honest, respected the gods, and... (full context)
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon
Gods and Fate Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
...The Koryphaios comments that Hippolytus’ swearing to Zeus feels convincing. Nonetheless, it does not move Theseus. (full context)
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
Cities and Place Theme Icon
After their two long speeches, Theseus and Hippolytus continue to debate in a more rapid-fire style. When Hippolytus says that Theseus... (full context)
Gods and Fate Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
Cities and Place Theme Icon
Growing impatient, Theseus shouts and commands Hippolytus to leave at once. When Hippolytus complains that nobody will accept... (full context)
Lines 1728-2208
Gods and Fate Theme Icon
Cities and Place Theme Icon
A messenger enters, looking for Theseus, and reports that Hippolytus has died. When he learns that his own curse killed his... (full context)
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
The Koryphaios recognizes Hippolytus’s end as a cruel fate, but Theseus feels satisfied with the punishment, even though he feels ashamed at celebrating the death of... (full context)
Gods and Fate Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
When Theseus cries out in anguish, Artemis continues to accuse him. Instead of conducting an investigation with... (full context)
Gods and Fate Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
...stage, where he cries out in pain and wishes for death. When he turns to Theseus, he invokes an unspecified ancestral crime as the reason for his suffering. Artemis speaks to... (full context)
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon
Gods and Fate Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
Family Relationships Theme Icon
Cities and Place Theme Icon
...marriage. In music, she says, his reputation will improve. Before exiting, she reminds Hippolytus that Theseus was not to blame, and Hippolytus says a loving goodbye to everyone. Hippolytus, now on... (full context)