The scene is the outside of the royal palace of Troizen, a coastal city across a channel from Athens. The audience sees the palace doors, in addition to two statues, one of Aphrodite and another of Artemis. Aphrodite herself appears to the audience, high above the stage, to address the audience and introduce the context of the tragedy they will see.
The two statues of Aphrodite and Artemis, which adorn the stage for the entire length of the play, represent the basic conflict of the play: the sexual desire motivated by Aphrodite, and the ideal of virginity signified by Artemis. Aphrodite speaks first, suggesting that her force will gain the upper hand.
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 virginal goddess Artemis that he rejects the divine power of desire, or Aphrodite herself. In order to take revenge, Aphrodite states that she has infected Phaidra, Theseus’ wife, with desire for Hippolytus. She announces that Phaidra will commit suicide from her shame, but not before framing Hippolytus, so that Theseus will utter a fatal curse in his anger.
Although chastity is an ideal of Greek culture, Aphrodite emphasizes that Hippolytus has gone too far. But Aphrodite’s words are biased (of course she favors herself over Artemis), and her power does not guarantee that she is morally correct. Notice, too, that she ‘spoils’ the outcome of the play, revealing most of its plot before it begins. The characters, unlike the audience, will always struggle to learn what really happened. The audience, meanwhile, will always know the characters’ fate.
Hippolytus enters with a group of huntsmen, carrying weapons and accompanied by dogs. He leads the huntsmen and the chorus of Troizenian women in a poetic hymn in praise of Artemis. To complete the prayer, he places a crown of flowers on the statue of Artemis, which he created from the flowers of the beautiful meadow where he had been hunting. Artemis herself, he explains, maintains the meadow and protects it from those too impure to enter.
Our first introduction to Hippolytus matches with what Aphrodite said about him. He is deeply devoted to Artemis and the chaste lifestyle she represents. He hunts and travels through sacred meadows in order to exercise his devotion more deeply. This behavior might seem entirely pious to a modern person, but in the Greek world of Gods representing different forces any excessive devotion to one force over another was bound to insult some god.
A servant of the palace, an old man, approaches, and engages Hippolytus in a discussion by offering a piece of advice. After getting Hippolytus to agree that arrogance is offensive to the gods just as it is to humans, he urges Hippolytus to worship the statue of Aphrodite standing next to the one of Artemis, lest he appear arrogant to that powerful goddess. Hippolytus responds cruelly and spurns Aphrodite before departing. The servant says a prayer to Aphrodite on Hippolytus’ behalf.
Often in Greek culture and literature, old men have deeper insights than the young about life, religion, and moral action. Since we have just heard Aphrodite speak, we know that the old man’s warning is wise. Hippolytus’ scorn is the first time we see the arrogance that is a part of his chastity. The old man knows that this arrogance insults the gods, and the audience—which knows Hippolytus’s fate—knows that the old man’s prayer fails to appease Aphrodite.
After they depart, the chorus of Troizenian women sings an ode that introduces the scene to come. Phaidra, they say, the queen of Troizen, has not eaten for three days, and longs for death. In the rest of the ode, they speculate about the cause of her illness, which Phaidra 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.
The chorus’ speculations about the cause of Phaidra’s illness generally involve desire and sexuality. In that sense, they are on the right track. These sorts of afflictions affect women universally, they say. But the exact truth, that Phaidra is in love with her own son, makes her case far more abnormal and extreme.
The nurse enters, supporting Phaidra, along with servants from the palace. After lamenting that she does not know the root of Phaidra’s suffering, the nurse overhears Phaidra, who seems hardly conscious, long to go to a grassy meadow or beautiful pastoral scene. The nurse tries to silence her, since those words are unfit for a person of her status, but Phaidra goes on to elaborate that she wants to hunt alongside Artemis.
Phaidra’s ramblings, which she utters in a style that is more excited and poetic, evoke beautiful places outside of the city. Hippolytus hunts in such places, which he described earlier in similar terms. The audience knows that the reference to the meadow and Artemis are clues leading to Hippolytus, but the Nurse does not. The two character’s references to these meadows reflect the two primary tensions of the play: Hippolytus references them as scenes of purity and chastity; Phaidra references them as places in which she might be near Hippolytus whom she immorally lusts for.
Suddenly, Phaidra realizes what she’s said, and even though she hasn’t revealed the cause of her desire, she expresses her shame and humiliation. As a result, she asks the nurse to cover her face. While Phaidra hides, the Koryphaios – the name given to the spokesperson of the chorus, in this case a young Troizenian maiden – asks the nurse for any information regarding Phaidra’s affliction. The nurse has none, and the Koryphaios urges her to be more assertive in finding out.
This moment reveals a primary motivation for the character of Phaidra, her sense of shame and concern over her public image. The long scene of finding out the truth highlights this characteristic: on the one hand, Phaidra is too ashamed to say what she feels, but on the other hand, is too weak to control her words and emotions.