The nurse attempts to find out what is afflicting Phaidra, but with no success. On the verge of giving up her interrogation, the nurse mentions to Phaidra that if she dies, her husband’s bastard child, Hippolytus, will inherit everything, while her own beloved children will suffer deeply from her absence. The mere mention of Hippolytus’ name causes Phaidra to groan, which the nurse notes with interest.
The nurse assumes that Phaidra cares quite a bit about her children and their inheritance, and that she therefore looks down on Hippolytus, the bastard child, as a threat to them. But the real tension between Phaidra and Hippolytus is of course very different.
The detective game continues, as the nurse makes guesses and Phaidra reluctantly leads her down the right track. It isn’t that Phaidra fears for her own children, nor that she has already committed a crime, nor that Theseus is too cruel to her. When these options all lead nowhere, the nurse grows desperate again, and grasps Phaidra’s hand and knees.
In this scene, Euripides plays on the fact that when the audience knows the truth, it enjoys watching characters withhold the truth from one another. Here, all of Phaidra’s comments and groans make perfect sense to the viewer with full knowledge, but they are riddles to the nurse.
Phaidra begs the nurse to stop pursuing the truth, because she fears that the nurse will succeed and the shame will be too much to bear. But Phaidra then confesses that the nurse’s touch moves her too strongly, and she begins to tell what she has been hiding. She starts by referencing her mother Pasiphae, who was overcome by desire for a bull, and her sister Ariadne, who became the bride of the god Dionysos. The nurse doesn’t understand why Phaidra is making these references to illicit love.
Phaidra knows that her family history contains examples of women overcome by sexual desire who marred their reputation by engaging in immoral love affairs. These references are hints to the nurse about what is afflicting her, but they also represent the common fate of Phaidra’s family that pulls on her too.
This is the common fate of the women in her family, says Phaidra, and the nurse slowly catches on. It is the nurse who finally guesses the name of Phaidra’s beloved, Hippolytus, and Phaidra does not deny it. The nurse responds with shock and disgust that Phaidra should feel such things for her stepson. The nurse wishes for the end of her own life, so great is Phaidra’s crime, and mentions Aphrodite’s great power. The chorus agrees that the situation is miserable, but they show more sympathy for Phaidra.
The nurse’s complex character shows one important side here. Just as Hippolytus later does when the nurse reveals it to him, she finds Phaidra’s desire disgusting. The nurse’s response emphasizes how no respectable woman would ever entertain such thoughts. This reaction makes the reader think that Phaidra would have been better off if she had kept quiet.
Addressing the chorus, Phaidra delivers a long speech detailing the history of her desire and the nature of her pain. Shame, she says, is a good thing, so long as it encourages “purity of soul” and action in accordance with the world. For that reason, she consigned herself to silence and death when she felt her growing desire for Hippolytus. That is the essential law of a woman’s life in aristocratic circles: to protect one’s public image. Otherwise, she says, her children cannot lead the lives she hopes for them, because a mother’s disgrace infects an entire family.
This speech reveals Phaidra’s main concern: her reputation and the shamefulness of her desire. She has these feelings for Hippolytus despite herself. She knows that if word spreads through the town of her unchaste, extra-marital desire for her son, not only her own reputation, but that of her children and house, will be ruined. It is important to note the importance Phaidra places on her reputation: it is not just important to her, she sees maintaining a good reputation as central to both her own and her children’s lives.
The nurse, recovered from her initial shock, changes her approach. She tries to explain that sexual desire is the normal condition of human life, and that it doesn’t warrant someone to commit suicide. She lists sexual affairs between gods well known from mythology, in order to prove that everyone – even Zeus, king of the gods – can love with impunity. After she urges acceptance for those who suffer from desire, she hints that there are magical cures for desire as well.
The nurse’s tone changes dramatically, leading up to the moment when the nurse will propose a love affair with Phaidra to Hippolytus. Love and desire affect even Zeus, the king of the gods, the nurse’s argument says, and so no mortal person should be ashamed of it. She ignores here that Phaidra’s desire is for her own son, and that the gods are immune to the laws of propriety they enforce upon mortals.
Phaidra resists such “seductive words” that threaten to destroy her honor. The nurse continues to push: without saying it explicitly, she implies that Phaidra should follow her desire, pursue Hippolytus, and save her own life. When Phaidra denies the nurse’s effort, the nurse changes her strategy again. She explains that she knows of a magical medicine that will cure Phaidra’s sickness, for which she needs hair or a piece of clothing from Hippolytus. Phaidra is doubtful and worries that the nurse will reveal the truth. Meanwhile, the nurse utters a secret prayer asking Aphrodite to help her achieve success in her secret plan.
Now, at the end of the scene, it is the nurse who keeps a secret from Phaidra, rather than the other way around. Phaidra’s rejection of the nurse’s suggestion – that Phaidra follow her own desire – shows that she has enough strength, even now, to withstand her feelings and do the right thing for herself and her family. But the nurse’s muttered prayer to Aphrodite makes clear that she will take matters into her own hands. Why the nurse believes this course of action to be the best one is never revealed.