Many ancient Greek tragedies, including those by the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (the author of Hippolytus), tell a similar tale: a character’s greatness, however impressive, violates a law of fate set by the gods, who in turn punish the transgression. Aeschylus’ play about Prometheus, who brings the invention of fire to the human race and is punished for it, provides a useful comparison. Hippolytus’ superhuman resistance to the force of desire, just like Prometheus’ transgression, causes the gods to take notice. Desire itself is the law or fate of human life, and the audience watches it destroy Phaidra from within before seeing Hippolytus killed for his arrogant rejection of it.
Aphrodite herself enforces this law. Appearing above the stage before the action begins, she tells the audience that Hippolytus will suffer because his chastity goes so far that it scorns her. The conclusion – the death of Hippolytus – is therefore never in doubt. In this view, the entire sequence of Phaidra growing sick with desire, committing suicide, and framing Hippolytus simply represent Aphrodite’s power and will. “All three of us,” says the dying Hippolytus of himself, Phaidra, and Theseus (Phaidra’s husband and Hippolytus’s father) “owe our ruin to that lone goddess” (2118). Why couldn’t Artemis, whom Hippolytus revered, rescue him? At the play’s end, Artemis tells us that there is an even higher law, maintained by Zeus, which prohibits one god from interfering with the plans of another. But she also promises the dying Hippolytus vengeance against Aphrodite, which makes the audience think of other myths and other conflicts between human characters and the gods that oversee them. In this way, the personal struggle with desire and chastity grows into a struggle between the gods, even as the gods control mortal’s fate.
Gods and Fate ThemeTracker
Gods and Fate Quotes in Hippolytus
The power I possess is sex, passion, love,
Which you mortals, in honoring me,
Celebrate in your diverse ways.
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…
Because I prize my purity
I keep clear of [Aphrodite]…
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.
Your passion is what the god
Has chosen you to become. Accept it.
And though you suffer, be gallant about it.
Sea goddess, share this adventure with me,
Though I have my own tactics
And these, once set in motion,
Once I share them inside with a certain young friend,
Will carry our affair to its climax.
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.
Mother Earth and Great Sun, whose light
Unfolds the freshness of the clear blue depths –
Could anything spoken be more repulsive?
Daughter of Leto, you who were
Closest to me, my friend, my hunting partner,
Now I will go in exile
From radiant Athens.
I say goodbye to my city…
What the gods did to you
Fills me with rage – O Graces, goddesses
Of beauty and kindness,
You have given – why did you do it? –
A hard life to an innocent man.
You cut him off from his home and country
To travel depressed and alone.
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.
And the maidens’ spontaneous songs
Will dwell on you with endless care.
And fame will find musical words
For Phaidra’s terrible love for you,
And that too will be known.