Oaths and Truth-Telling in Hippolytus

Euripides’s Hippolytus is a play about oaths and truth-telling. It was first performed in 428 BC and won first prize in the Dionysia, though, apparently, Euripides was compelled to pen a second, less crude, version of the play. This is the play that has been brought down to us.

Hippolytus is the son of King Theseus of ancient Athens. His life is the result of an evil act by Theseus – a rape of Hippolyta, the Amazon.

Hippolytus, Theseus, and Phaedra painting from the 18th century

The play opens with a jealous Aphrodite. She claims that Hippolytus has sworn chastity and, instead, honors Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Therefore, Aphrodite has inspired a most insipid emotion in Phaedra, King Theseus’s wife and stepmother of Hippolytus – she has fallen in love with Hippolytus. Phaedra confides her love to her horrified nurse who devises a plan – she informs Hippolytus and swears him to an oath of secrecy. However, Hippolytus, a breaker of oaths, becomes enraged and threatens to tell Theseus upon his return. Upon realization, Phaedra commits suicide by hanging herself.

When King Theseus discovers his dead wife’s body, he finds a note on her body claiming that Hippolytus has raped her. In a fury, he banishes his son. Now, Hippolytus does not break his oath of secrecy to the nurse and instead leaves town only to be nearly swallowed by a giant bull from the ocean commanded by Poseidon. Nearing death, Artemis appears before Theseus and explains the whole of the truth. Theseus and Hippolytus reconnect and forgive one another at the close of the play as Hippolytus dies.

As with all great tragedy, we see the fruitlessness of human emotions and schemes as no one, save for the audience (and the gods) have perfect information about the course of events. The truth is concealed in the play, as the unfolding of events is largely due to Aphrodite’s vindictive nature. Every tragic response and reaction is met with an equally unfortunate series of events. Unlike in Aeschylus, in Euripides’s world, there is very little redemptive qualities in the characters, though after the death of Phaedra, Hippolytus becomes a much more sympathetic hero, rather than a scornful illegitimate child.

For this reading I used the David Grene translation.

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