Hippolytus

Themes and Colors
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Theme Icon
Gods and Fate Theme Icon
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Theme Icon
Family Relationships Theme Icon
Cities and Place Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Hippolytus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Ancient Greek literature and philosophy often depicts sexual desire as a god (Eros), and as a force that takes control of a human soul powerless against it. The resistance to its force, ‘chastity’ or ‘temperance’ in modern terms, stood as a cultural ideal in Greek society. Hippolytus explores the tension between sexual desire and chastity, as represented by the statues of Artemis and Aphrodite, the goddesses of chastity on the one hand and…

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Many ancient Greek tragedies, including those by the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (the author of Hippolytus), tell a similar tale: a character’s greatness, however impressive, violates a law of fate set by the gods, who in turn punish the transgression. Aeschylus’ play about Prometheus, who brings the invention of fire to the human race and is punished for it, provides a useful comparison. Hippolytus’ superhuman resistance to the force of desire, just like…

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As the tragedy unfolds, the audience knows everything, sharing the perspective of the gods, and we watch as characters slowly discover truths about each other. This manipulation of truth and falsehood is another commonplace in the ancient Greek theater, and it turns the drama into a kind of detective tale. In the play’s opening lines, Aphrodite tells the audience that Phaidra is sick with desire, but the nurse struggles over a long scene to discover…

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A Greek audience would have been intimately familiar with the legends of Theseus, the mythical founder-king of Athens. In Greek mythology, a family history of violence and bloody guilt portended further crimes down the road. Theseus’ own step-mother, for example, was Medea, whose murder of her own children forms the plot of another famous Euripides play, Medea. When Phaidra grapples with her desire, she realizes that she is just another episode in a…

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Every ancient Greek play that survives from the era of Euripides was staged at an annual competition held in Athens. (Hippolytus won Euripides first prize.) Yet tragedies – unlike comedies, which were set in Athens – were customarily set in other Greek cities, because it did not bode well to depict terrible things happening to citizens of one’s own city. Therefore, even though Theseus is the mythical founder of Athens, Euripides set the play…

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