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 the same truth. Phaidra’s letter, engraved in a wax tablet that Theseus finds in her dead hands, says that Hippolytus raped her. This falsehood dominates the rest of the tragedy only because those who know the truth have sworn oaths to keep silent, which, in ancient Greek culture, is very seriously binding. The nurse swears Hippolytus to secrecy before confessing Phaidra’s love, and Phaidra herself puts the chorus under oath with some of her last words. The consequence is that, ironically, the only character unable to speak (the dead Phaidra) persuades Theseus, while those characters who still can speak must remain silent. “She gives her dead body as proof,” says Theseus (1444). It takes Artemis and the dying Hippolytus, at the end of the play, to prove the truth to Theseus, and his discovery of what really happened makes for a dramatic climax.
This interplay of truth and falsehood connects the characters of this play to a major concern for characters of Greek tragedy in general: one’s reputation. As members of the nobility, the three primary characters of the play each cares deeply about what general society thinks of him or her. This powerful emotion pairs with the feeling of shame at one’s actions, which is the judgment about oneself, rather than the judgment of an entire society. Phaidra hides her love, and then frames Hippolytus, in order to save her own reputation. Similarly, Theseus explains that he has to fiercely punish Hippolytus in order to uphold his reputation as a strong leader, while Hippolytus fears that his own reputation will be tarnished by Phaidra’s accusation. By the end of the play, once the truth comes out, Phaidra’s own reputation falls, and Artemis works to restore Hippolytus’ story – but this repair comes too late to save his life.
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation ThemeTracker
Truth, Falsehood, and Reputation Quotes in Hippolytus
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.
I must hide it. Shame may be purified,
And it may be made completely noble
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.
Your passion is what the god
Has chosen you to become. Accept it.
And though you suffer, be gallant about it.
Sea goddess, share this adventure with me,
Though I have my own tactics
And these, once set in motion,
Once I share them inside with a certain young friend,
Will carry our affair to its climax.
Mother Earth and Great Sun, whose light
Unfolds the freshness of the clear blue depths –
Could anything spoken be more repulsive?
You couldn’t keep your mouth shut.
Because of you, after I die
My name will stink of depravity.
That is her signet, set in an arc
Of hammered gold, inviting me
To open it, a gesture full of her charm –
I’ll unravel the windings and crack
The seal. Let me just take in
Her last words to me.
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!
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.
I will reveal and you must face
The sexual passion of your wife,
Though what she did, seen in its own strange light,
Burns with her soul’s nobility.
And the maidens’ spontaneous songs
Will dwell on you with endless care.
And fame will find musical words
For Phaidra’s terrible love for you,
And that too will be known.