Hippolytus enters, rushing to answer his father’s shouting 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 to tell which friends were true and which were deceitful. Hippolytus grows suspicious that Theseus has referred to him, and insists that he is blameless and true. Finally, after further deflection, Theseus narrows his general comments about man’s wickedness onto Hippolytus himself, and offers Phaidra’s dead body as proof to Hippolytus that he has raped her.
Here is another moment in which the playwright creates suspense by having one character kept in the dark while everybody else knows what’s going on. Hippolytus thinks that he approaches as an innocent helper to a tragic situation, and Theseus’ deflections make the exchange all the more tense. When he finds out that he has been accused of rape, he seems to know that it will end terribly.
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. He claims that Hippolytus has long been a member of orgiastic cults, given over to sexuality and desire, even while he tried to hide it. He imagines and refutes any argument that Hippolytus might use ahead of time. Would Phaidra commit suicide and frame Hippolytus just because she hated him as a bastard son and a reminder of Theseus’ adultery? Could Hippolytus argue that only women are vulnerable to desire? Certainly not. Instead, Phaidra’s dead body serves as unassailable proof. At the end of the accusation, Theseus demands that Hippolytus leave Troizen and forbids him from going Athens. His own reputation, Theseus says, depends on enforcing punishment.
These words begin what can be seen as a kind of courtroom debate between Theseus and Hippolytus. The question is whether there is enough proof that Hippolytus raped Phaidra. Theseus thinks he knows for sure, because everything makes perfect sense to him: Phaidra would not kill herself just to set Hippolytus up, he says, without recognizing that Phaidra might have had her own secrets to hide. And no man is free from sexual desire, Theseus reasons, and so it makes good sense that Hippolytus would give in. Also note that Theseus’s response, like Phaidra’s suicide, is motivated by a consideration of his own reputation: he believes that he will only be seen as a strong ruler if he acts strongly.
The Koryphaios moans that everything is lost. Then, Hippolytus embarks on a long defense. He begins by saying that he is ill-suited for public debate and 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 kept a circle of upstanding friends. Nor has he ever had any sexual relationship with a woman, and he even avoids descriptions and pictures of sex, preferring a “calm and pure” inner life. Since he sees that this sort of talk isn’t convincing Theseus, he makes further points: that Phaidra was not so attractive as to motivate such a crime, and that it would have been absurd to commit the crime as a political move, since Hippolytus prefers athletic competition and relaxation to political life.
Hippolytus’ main defense rests on his judgment of his own character. He claims to be the person least likely to commit such a crime, being so committed to his good character and chastity, and always being surrounded by upstanding friends. When he sees that Phaidra’s suicide has caused Theseus to think the very worst about him, he changes his strategy. But still, he reveals how highly he thinks of himself, as if his self-proclaimed virginity alone would stand up against the weight of evidence against him.
As he finishes his defense, Hippolytus wishes that some witness had seen his behavior of the previous hours, or that Phaidra had not yet died. He swears to Zeus that he never touched Phaidra, nor even thought of it. But in the end, he admits that he is not allowed to say what drove Phaidra to kill herself, even though it would help clear the charge, referencing his oath to the nurse. The Koryphaios comments that Hippolytus’ swearing to Zeus feels convincing. Nonetheless, it does not move Theseus.
Just like the oaths that prevent him and the Koryphaios from explaining what they know, Hippolytus’ swearing to Zeus that he did not touch Phaidra seems like it could convince Theseus. But Theseus is so held by Phaidra’s dead body and the wax note (and perhaps his need to act powerfully to maintain his reputation) that he is utterly unreceptive to any other explanation.
After their two long speeches, Theseus and Hippolytus continue to debate in a more rapid-fire style. When Hippolytus says that Theseus should have him killed, not merely exiled, Theseus promises that his exile, far from any familiar place or person, will be more excruciating than death. When Hippolytus urges Theseus to wait while time clears up the facts of the case, Theseus says that his hatred is so great, he would drive Hippolytus past the edge of the world if he could. And when Hippolytus asks for a fairer trial, Theseus says that the tablet provides proof enough. To himself, Hippolytus considers breaking his oath of silence in order to save his own life. But he cannot bring himself to break the oath, and doubts that it would persuade Theseus if he did so.
These represent Hippolytus’ last attempts to save himself, and he tries a number of methods that show his great sadness and despair. The audience, meanwhile, knows that Hippolytus is speaking not just reasonably but is so honorable that he refuses even to break his oath of silence to save his own life. But Theseus is trapped in a fate spun by both Aphrodite and Phaidra.. Later on, Artemis will say that Theseus should have held a fair trial, with wise, impartial witnesses, rather than act immediately on his anger. This suggests the play’s position that the truth can only prevail when people are willing to let time and fair judgment sort it out.
Growing impatient, Theseus shouts and commands Hippolytus to leave at once. When Hippolytus complains that nobody will accept him after rumors of his crime spreads, Theseus replies that he will find welcome company among other sexual predators, a remark that cuts Hippolytus deeply. Hippolytus calls on the house itself as a witness, but Theseus says that such a crime needs no witness at all to confirm its truth. At last, Theseus orders Hippolytus gone. As Hippolytus exits, he utters a goodbye prayer to Artemis and asks his friends to accompany him to the edge of the country.
Now it is Hippolytus’s turn to worry about his reputation, as a man believed to have raped his stepmother would not be able to find a home among other people. Reputation is everything; those without it can have no home. Yet even in his despair Hippolytus finds refuge of a sort with Artemis and his friends in the hunt, the things that matter to him most of all.