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Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Analysis

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Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon

Ancient Greek literature and philosophy often depicts sexual desire as a god (Eros), and as a force that takes control of a human soul powerless against it. The resistance to its force, ‘chastity’ or ‘temperance’ in modern terms, stood as a cultural ideal in Greek society. Hippolytus explores the tension between sexual desire and chastity, as represented by the statues of Artemis and Aphrodite, the goddesses of chastity on the one hand and sexual love on the other.

The play explores this tension not through a normal devotion to chastity or normal sexual desire, but rather through radical extremes of both. Hippolytus’s chastity is not humble or merely devotion to Artemis. Instead, he is proud and haughty in his chastity, arrogantly defying love or desire. Aphrodite, like many gods in Greek literature, take such haughtiness from a mortal as an affront, and punishes Hippolytus (and sets the plot in motion) by overwhelming Phaidra, his step-mother, with sexual desire for him. So Hippolytus’s chastity is arrogant, while Phaidra’s sexual desire for her step-son is incestuous and monstrous. Both Phaidra’s desire and Hippolytus’ cruelty transgress human laws and ideals and are violations of the social rules enforced by the gods. And the results of this clash are therefore extreme as well: Hippolytus viciously lashes out against his step-mother’s advances, to which Phaidra then tries to protect her own reputation by killing herself and claiming in a note that she committed suicide because Hippolytus raped her.

After the abnormal or criminal sexual experiences that drive the tragedy, the end of the play attempts to restore the normal interaction of these conflicting motivations. For the audience, both Phaidra and Hippolytus, and their dire fates, will be valuable lessons in moral conduct. When Artemis announces at the end of the play that from now on, girls, “in their thoughtful hours before marriage” (2154), will pray to Hippolytus, she imagines Hippolytus’ story inspiring regular Athenian citizens to both recognize the value of chastity even as they accept their own sexuality.

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Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Quotes in Hippolytus

Below you will find the important quotes in Hippolytus related to the theme of Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity.
Lines 1-425 Quotes

The power I possess is sex, passion, love,
Which you mortals, in honoring me,
Celebrate in your diverse ways.

Related Characters: Aphrodite (speaker)
Page Number: 1-3
Explanation and Analysis:

Aphrodite speaks these lines at the very beginning of the play, when she appears above the stage and reveals her dislike for Hippolytus.

Aphrodite has the power to make mortals fall in love with whomever she selects, an ability which she boasts of here and which she will inflict upon Phaidra as part of her plot to bring Hippolytus to ruin. Exercising control over perhaps the most intense human emotion--love--as well as the very mechanism of desire or longing, Aphrodite commands the psychological motor that is necessary to want to do or achieve anything in life at all. This speaks to the magnitude of Aphrodite's power: she holds the fundamental key to human motivation, and as such can effectively program a human's desire to the extent that their entire fate becomes centered around the object of their longing. By altering a mortal's mind, Aphrodite can nearly "pre-program" that mortal's fate, as she does here with Phaidra and Hippolytus.


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I have brought you this green crown,
Goddess, fresh from the scene
Where I spliced its flowers together,
A meadow as virginal as you are…

Related Characters: Hippolytus (speaker), Artemis
Related Symbols: Crown of Flowers, Statues of Artemis and Aphrodite
Page Number: 112-115
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Hippolytus enters the stage for the first time and approaches the statue of Artemis. Out of admiration for the goddess, Hippolytus adorns her statue with a crown of flowers he's taken from a meadow he considers "virginal." This reveals how Hippolytus views Artemis as pure, whole, and representative of chastity, as opposed to Aphrodite, whose association with sexuality and erotic desire he refuses to revere. The crown of flowers also shows the importance of offering material favors to the gods--they are integral to the act of worshipping the gods and maintaining good standing with them, thus avoiding punishment for hubris (pride or arrogance). Hippolytus leaves Aphrodite's statue bare, and this upsets her--only sealing Hippolytus's fate.

Because I prize my purity
I keep clear of [Aphrodite]…

Related Characters: Hippolytus (speaker), Aphrodite
Page Number: 164-165
Explanation and Analysis:

Hippolytus speaks these lines in response to his servant, who argues that Hippolytus should worship Aphrodite with as equal a sense of ardor as he shows Artemis.

Hippolytus strives to avoid the qualities associated with Aphrodite's divinity: erotic desire, lust, and bodily passion. As he later reveals, he has little interest in sex, and commits himself to keeping his internal mental life tranquil and undisturbed by the possibly tempestuous psychological effects of sexual desire. He strives to avoid precisely the situation into which Phaidra has fallen at the hands of Aphrodite: total psychological chaos caused by "sinful" desire, a desire that pushes her to suicide (though we learn that this desire is not her own invention, and thus she is more victim than not).

I must have said terrible things.
I’m so humiliated! I feel as though
I’m being violently shoved somewhere I must not go.
Where? My mind’s going, I feel unclean,
Twisted into this madness
By the brawn of a god who hates me.

Related Characters: Phaidra (speaker)
Page Number: 350-356
Explanation and Analysis:

After Phaidra's nurse pleads with her to speak about what's distressing her, Phaidra finally begins to describe the inner pain she feels--though she refuses to explain its cause. At first, however, she's in a nearly trancelike state, and rambles about her desire to be taken to a meadow.

Having been condemned by Aphrodite to fall into a sinful love with Hippolytus, Phaidra has been "violently shoved somewhere . . . By the brawn of a god" beyond her control. Phaidra knows that her feelings are morally wrong, but Aphrodite has the 'remote control' to her desire--and Phaidra cannot override Aphrodite's divine power. This explains the maddening sensation which Phaidra feels in her mind--she is entirely torn in two fundamentally opposed directions, a tearing that so radically separates her thoughts that the only solution she can think of is annihilating herself.

Lines 426-816 Quotes

[Love] brings you sweetness and pain, almost
Beyond our human power to feel.

Related Characters: Nurse (speaker)
Page Number: 535-536
Explanation and Analysis:

Having returned after her initial shock, the nurse claims she overreacted when she heard about Phaidra's love for Hippolytus and offers consolation.

Here, the nurse seems to be trying to get Phaidra to realize the uncontrollable nature of love, that--in its purest form--is something beyond the limits of mortal thought and feeling. Of course, we know that a divine force--Aphrodite--has specifically intervened and engineered Phaidra's passion for Hippolytus, but the nurse here seems to be referencing the event of human love when it is not burdened by a god's machinations. While the nurse seems to think that Phaidra should abandon her sense of having a perfectly controlling grip on her emotions, and not feel guilty for having them, Phaidra seems totally unwilling to do this. She clings to the possibility of being morally perfect and the sense of necessarily having to erase her faults.

I knew that my passion, indulged or not,
Would make me repulsive to others, especially since
I am a woman – our very sex is a disgrace.

Related Characters: Phaidra (speaker)
Page Number: 625-627
Explanation and Analysis:

Phaidra speaks these lines after the nurse has taken back her initial outrage and proposed that Phaidra engage in an affair with Hippolytus.

Here, Phaidra reveals how her being a woman impacts the perception of her sexuality. Feminine sexuality or desire, in the play and in Ancient Greek society, is often portrayed as something vile, lustful, and a source of evil (as seen in Hippolytus's later condemnation of all females). It seems that erotic passion is seen as something fundamentally inappropriate when expressed by a woman--for Phaidra's "very sex," or gender, "is a disgrace." Phaidra is acutely aware of the social world around her, and how she is perceived within it--and so knows beforehand how impossible it would be to maintain good social standing if she were to reveal her desire for Hippolytus.

Your passion is what the god
Has chosen you to become. Accept it.
And though you suffer, be gallant about it.

Related Characters: Nurse (speaker), Phaidra
Page Number: 735-737
Explanation and Analysis:

Taking back her initial, harsh condemnation of Phaidra's love for Hippolytus, the nurse offers Phaidra this consolation.

Once again, the nurse tries to assure Phaidra that her passion for Hippolytus is out of her control and that, because of this, she should not feel morally responsible. The nurse wants Phaidra to accept Aphrodite's choice to force her to love Hippolytus--for if Phaidra cannot accept this, then she will continue to feel agony and will likely commit suicide or wither away. The nurse thinks that Phaidra should not be so concerned with thoughts of social reputation and honor, but should rather accept her fallibility as a mortal with a lack of control over her passions.

Lines 817-1119 Quotes

Eros, Desire! Our eyes perplex and cloud over
When your essence dissolves within them,
Your assault waves of crushing delight
Pour into hearts marked by you for destruction.

Related Characters: Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 817-820
Explanation and Analysis:

Having overheard the exchange between Phaidra and the nurse--and being therefore in-the-know about Phaidra's love for Hippolytus--the Chorus speaks these lines about the power of desire.

Here, we get another glimpse at how desire is viewed in this play as a force radically beyond mortal control. The intervention of desire into the mortal psyche is violent: it's an "assault" of "waves of crushing delight" which enter "hearts marked . . . for destruction." Desire is viewed as a paradox--it is at once ecstatic and delightful at the same time that it is devastating and destructive. Mortals thrive on the hope and ideas of ecstasy afforded by the mechanism of desire, but they are simultaneously crushed by the magnitude with which it exerts control over their lives.

Mother Earth and Great Sun, whose light
Unfolds the freshness of the clear blue depths –
Could anything spoken be more repulsive?

Related Characters: Hippolytus (speaker)
Page Number: 914-916
Explanation and Analysis:

Hippolytus speaks these lines after the nurse has told him about Phaidra's love.

Hippolytus is absolutely repulsed by the news of Phaidra's desire for him--he seems not only repulsed by the fact that his father's wife desires him, but also by the sheer fact that Phaidra has such powerful longing in the first place. Here, Hippolytus's disgust at erotic desire--the domain of Aphrodite's power--once again surfaces. Phaidra has not even made any physical advances at Hippolytus, and he only hears of her desire second-hand from her nurse, yet he's nonetheless absolutely repelled by the sheer mentioning of Phaidra's love. Hippolytus seems to be baffled at why other people do not exert as much control over their inner emotions, nor try to keep a check on their inclinations towards lustful thinking, as he does.

Lines 1120-1368 Quotes

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.