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 sexual love on the other.
The play explores this tension not through a normal devotion to chastity or normal sexual desire, but rather through radical extremes of both. Hippolytus’s chastity is not humble or merely devotion to Artemis. Instead, he is proud and haughty in his chastity, arrogantly defying love or desire. Aphrodite, like many gods in Greek literature, take such haughtiness from a mortal as an affront, and punishes Hippolytus (and sets the plot in motion) by overwhelming Phaidra, his step-mother, with sexual desire for him. So Hippolytus’s chastity is arrogant, while Phaidra’s sexual desire for her step-son is incestuous and monstrous. Both Phaidra’s desire and Hippolytus’ cruelty transgress human laws and ideals and are violations of the social rules enforced by the gods. And the results of this clash are therefore extreme as well: Hippolytus viciously lashes out against his step-mother’s advances, to which Phaidra then tries to protect her own reputation by killing herself and claiming in a note that she committed suicide because Hippolytus raped her.
After the abnormal or criminal sexual experiences that drive the tragedy, the end of the play attempts to restore the normal interaction of these conflicting motivations. For the audience, both Phaidra and Hippolytus, and their dire fates, will be valuable lessons in moral conduct. When Artemis announces at the end of the play that from now on, girls, “in their thoughtful hours before marriage” (2154), will pray to Hippolytus, she imagines Hippolytus’ story inspiring regular Athenian citizens to both recognize the value of chastity even as they accept their own sexuality.
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity ThemeTracker
Desire, Sexuality, and Chastity Quotes in Hippolytus
The power I possess is sex, passion, love,
Which you mortals, in honoring me,
Celebrate in your diverse ways.
I have brought you this green crown,
Goddess, fresh from the scene
Where I spliced its flowers together,
A meadow as virginal as you are…
Because I prize my purity
I keep clear of [Aphrodite]…
I must have said terrible things.
I’m so humiliated! I feel as though
I’m being violently shoved somewhere I must not go.
Where? My mind’s going, I feel unclean,
Twisted into this madness
By the brawn of a god who hates me.
[Love] brings you sweetness and pain, almost
Beyond our human power to feel.
I knew that my passion, indulged or not,
Would make me repulsive to others, especially since
I am a woman – our very sex is a disgrace.
Eros, Desire! Our eyes perplex and cloud over
When your essence dissolves within them,
Your assault waves of crushing delight
Pour into hearts marked by you for destruction.
The truth is hideous. It sears and wrenches
And will not stay clenched in my throat.
To speak it out excruciates me,
But it must come. Ahhh!
Hear it, men of the city!
My wife was raped – by Hippolytus!
There is one practice
That I have never touched,
Though it’s exactly what you attack me for:
Physical love. Until now
I’ve never been to bed with a woman.
All I know of sex is what I hear,
Or find in pictures – these I’m not very keen
To see, since I keep my inner life
As calm and pure as I can.
King, I am your slave, but don’t ask me
To believe that your son was guilty.
I couldn’t, not if the whole female sex
And all the timber on Mount Ida
Were sliced up to write suicide notes.
I know he was a good man.