While the audience waits for the outcome of Phaidra’s plan, the chorus sings another ode. They wish to be far away from the horrors they are witnessing, and this leads them to describe those beautiful, far-away places in detail: such places, like the home of the gods, do not allow such tragedies. But by the end of the ode, the chorus returns to the events taking place here on earth – where Phaidra is tying a noose to a beam in her bedroom, inside the palace, in order to hang herself.
As characters in Greek tragedy commonly do, the chorus singers imagine being far away in a place where the present horrors would have no effect on them. This sentiment becomes a way of describing the beauty and peace of those foreign places, such as where the gods live. The beauty of their song contrasts with what Phaidra does inside while the singing is going on.
When the chorus finishes singing their ode, the nurse calls out for help from within the palace. She wants a knife, to free Phaidra’s neck from the rope, but the members of the chorus waver back and forth before deciding not to get involved. When they wait long enough, the nurse declares that Phaidra is dead, so that the chorus’ inaction results in their not having anything to do.
Although many characters die in every Greek tragedy, they rarely do so onstage, and instead the audience watches as people onstage hear about or learn about the death. Without seeing or knowing for sure, the chorus – and the audience – can guess that Phaidra’s death is brutal.
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 oracle, whom he was visiting, gave him a favorable response to whatever questions he asked and that he returns “full of god’s favor”. However, after entering he quickly suspects that something has befallen the court, since nobody welcomes him home. He guesses that something has happened to Pittheus, his old father. After that, he asks after the health of his children. In his shock at his wife’s death, he throws down his crown of flowers, feeling betrayed by the oracle’s good omens.
Theseus’ entrance marks the beginning of the second half of the play, in which Phaidra’s death will result in suffering for Hippolytus, which was Aphrodite’s original plan. The contrast between the oracle’s good omen – symbolized by the crown of flowers Theseus is wearing – and the Phaidra’s death, which Theseus first learns about here, creates a moment of irony.
At Theseus’ command, the doors of the palace open, revealing Phaidra’s dead body and the rope still around her neck. First the chorus and then Theseus utter words of grief that narrate their own emotional reaction. Theseus, in anguish, says that Phaidra’s death robs him of his own life. He then blames what has happened on some ancient crime committed by a member of his family, for which the cycle of death and revenge continues to claim victims. And he also repeats that he does not know precisely what caused her death.
When Phaidra struggled under the weight of her desire, she blamed her ancestors, the women in her family tree, for the suffering she felt. Now, Theseus does something similar: there must have been something in his family’s past, he reasons, that caused such horrors to befall his house now. The fact that Theseus does not know what caused his wife’s death (and that the audience both knows Phaidra’s and Aphrodite’s plots and that both the Chorus and Hippolytus have been sworn to silence) creates suspense not so dissimilar to what the audience of a horror movie might feel as a character opens what the audience knows is the wrong door…
Then, Theseus notices a wax tablet that Phaidra’s body holds in its dead hand. The Koryphaios makes a dire prediction when Theseus goes to read it, and it turns out to be accurate: the tablet accuses Hippolytus of raping Phaidra, and Theseus declares that the tablet convinces him of its truth, as if it were Phaidra’s own spoken words. Overcome with anger, Theseus shouts out that Hippolytus raped Phaidra, in doing so spreading the rumor far and wide. Theseus then prays to Poseidon to use up one of Theseus’ three mortal curses by killing Hippolytus. The Koryphaios wants to tell the whole truth in order to calm Theseus’ anger, but instead can only hint that there is a truth that she cannot reveal, because of the oath she swore to Phaidra. Theseus, not at all convinced by the Koryphaios’ protest, vows that even if the gods fail to kill Hippolytus, Theseus will exile him forever.
Now, for the first time, we know precisely what Phaidra was planning when she went off to death. The notion that a son would rape his stepmother is even more horrible than that a stepmother would have desire for her son. Phaidra essentially traded her life (and Hippolytus’s) to save her reputation, understanding that in doing so she could achieve her goal because Theseus wouldn’t believe that she actually would be willing to kill herself just to save her reputation. The sexual crime Theseus believes occurred horrifies him, just as the real situation horrified Hippolytus when he found out about Phaidra’s desire. The origin of Theseus’ “three mortal curses” is left unexplained by the play, but are presumably something he had ben granted earlier in life. That Theseus promises to exile Hippolytus even if the gods don’t kill him is a promise to remove Hippolytus from the family, to cut him off completely.