While Hippolytus’ fate befalls him offstage, the chorus sings another ode. They reflect on what the loss of Hippolytus means to them and the city of Troizen. No longer, they say, will he enjoy hunting with his chariot, playing his lyre, or making wreaths for Artemis, and the maidens of Troizen will miss the games in which they struggled to keep up with him. Their ode ends in frustration towards the gods, who inflicted such pain on such an innocent man.
Here, the chorus singers seem to suggest that they themselves enjoyed Hippolytus’ presence in the city, and they seem to suggest that they played light-hearted amorous games when they chased him (this would then be a case of “acceptable” female desire). They do not consider or recognize the possibility that Hippolytus has been arrogant.
A messenger enters, looking for Theseus, and reports that Hippolytus has died. When he learns that his own curse killed his son, Theseus seems pleasantly surprised. The messenger then narrates the remarkable story of Hippolytus’ death. A large group of friends, he says, stood with Hippolytus on the shore when a man told them that Hippolytus had to leave. When Hippolytus mounted his horse and began to ride, a huge earthquake, and then a massive wave, terrified the large group. Then a bull emerged from the wave and chased Hippolytus’ chariot. Hippolytus skillfully maneuvered his horses to avoid it, but the powerful bull steered the chariot into a cliff, causing it to flip. Then the frenzied horses dragged Hippolytus, caught in the reins, along the ground. When Hippolytus freed himself, his friends ran to him, but he was barely breathing.
Again, Greek tragedies rarely show characters dying onstage, and the playwright relies on a messenger to bring the vivid, climactic death of the main character back to Troizen and the audience. The situation highlights the importance of place – Hippolytus died far away, on the shore, while Phaidra died just behind the palace doors. In such a distant place, strange natural and supernatural events are more likely to occur. Note also how this scene captures the difference in power between the gods and mortals – Hippolytus is extremely skilled, but it doesn’t matter in the face of the might of the gods.
The Koryphaios recognizes Hippolytus’s end as a cruel fate, but Theseus feels satisfied with the punishment, even though he feels ashamed at celebrating the death of his son. Theseus orders that the dying Hippolytus be brought to him, so that he, Theseus, might use Hippolytus’s death as proof that Hippolytus committed the crime.
Theseus ascribes to a kind of circular logic, in which he interprets Poseidon carrying out Theseus’s curse as proving Hippolytus guilty, and he wants in fact to use Hippolytus’s death to prove Hippolytus’s guilt to Hippolytus! Note though how Theseus’s quick anger has now put him, too, into a shameful familial situation, in which he actively wanting his own son to die.
When the messenger exits, the chorus sings a brief song to Aphrodite, recognizing her power over all things. Then Artemis, high above the stage, appears suddenly. The goddess wastes no time telling the truth: Phaidra had a criminal desire for Hippolytus, who nobly and honorably rejected the nurse’s advances on Phaidra’s behalf, and Phaidra then resolved to frame Hippolytus and die in order to protect her honor.
Since the appearance of Aphrodite at the beginning of the play, the audience may have been waiting for the appearance of Artemis. Finally Theseus learns the truth, even though it is too late. Theseus’ recognition that he killed his innocent son is a major climax of the play.
When Theseus cries out in anguish, Artemis continues to accuse him. Instead of conducting an investigation with a level head, she says, Theseus rashly used one of his three curses to kill his own son, a binding agreement with the gods and not a proof of Hippolytus’ guilt. When Theseus now wishes for death, Artemis offers some condolence, revealing that it was Aphrodite who devised the entire plot, and Theseus had no choice but to believe the accusation of the dead Phaidra. Because of a rule enforced by Zeus that no god can intervene with another, Artemis herself could do nothing to stop it, even though she deeply loved Hippolytus.
Artemis confirms to Theseus what Hippolytus had tried to tell him before: that even when the evidence seems utterly clear, one should resort to a fair trial with impartial, wise judges in order to determine the truth. Yet, at the same time, Artemis confirms that no such impartiality or fairness exists: the gods have absolute power over the world of men, and not even other gods can interfere with one god bent on vengeance. Since Aphrodite wanted to punish Hippolytus, there could be no other outcome. So Theseus both acted improperly, and had been set up by the Aphrodite to ensure he acted improperly so that Hippolytus would end up dead.
Hippolytus’ friends drag him onto the stage, where he cries out in pain and wishes for death. When he turns to Theseus, he invokes an unspecified ancestral crime as the reason for his suffering. Artemis speaks to him, praising his “noble generous mind”, and Hippolytus feels moved to hear her voice. Both father and son agree that Aphrodite has caused the ruin of the entire house, and Hippolytus empathizes with Theseus, telling him that his actions, however cruel, were manipulated by the gods.
Once again a character – this time Hippolytus – blames past familial crimes for causing present damage. When Hippolytus hears Artemis speak, it is a moving religious experience for him, however close he is to death. His devotion to her has been genuine. In recognizing the degree to which Theseus’s errors were the product of Aphrodite’s manipulation, Hippolytus seems to recognize the double edge of fate: that it is both a product of an individual’s actions and out of that individual’s control.
Artemis promises to take revenge on Aphrodite by shooting one of Aphrodite’s most beloved mortals with an arrow. Meanwhile, to redeem the family’s suffering, she vows to establish a ceremony by which maiden women of Athens clip their hair and sing songs to Hippolytus just before marriage. In music, she says, his reputation will improve. Before exiting, she reminds Hippolytus that Theseus was not to blame, and Hippolytus says a loving goodbye to everyone. Hippolytus, now on the brink of dying, swears forgiveness to Theseus by Artemis herself, so that the guilt of having killed Hippolytus does not pursue Theseus. When Hippolytus finally dies, Theseus, in his last words, curses Aphrodite.
Artemis shows that even though one god has the ability to carry out his or her will as if it were fate, the gods can still take revenge on one another—they just do so sequentially, one after the other, rather than directly against each other. In this case, Artemis establishes a custom (which, in fact, was practiced by young women in Athens during Euripides’s life, linking together the different places and times of the setting of the play and the city and time in which it was first performed) which redeems the reputation of Hippolytus that Aphrodite had ruined, and turns Theseus against Aphrodite. Hippolytus’s forgiveness of Theseus ensures that this tragic event does not end up as the sort of familial crime that reverberates down through history, affecting their descendants even as they blamed past events in their families as affecting them.