Phaedra a tragedy of passion

Discuss the character of Phaedra.

Answer:  Phaedra, is a play by philosopher and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca, which tells the story of Phaedra, wife of King Theseus of Athens, and her consuming lust for her stepson, Hippolytus. Based on Greek Mythology and the tragedy Hippolytus by Greek playwright Euripides, Seneca’s Phaedra is one of several artistic explorations of this tragic story. Seneca portrays the title character as knowing and direct in the pursuit of her stepson, while in other iterations of the myth she is more of a passive victim of fate. This Phaedra takes on the scheming nature and the cynicism often assigned to the Nurse character.

character of Phaedra

On moral grounds, Phaedra as a character deserves punishment for her incestuous dark desires, she can not  denied a tragic status for certain reasons. No doubt, the root cause of Phaedra’s tragedy is that she is a victim of unrequited love. However, a close inspection reveals that there are several other factors which drive Phaedra to indulge in sexual perversity which resultant incurs her inescapable doom.

Firstly, Phaedra owns a hereditary curse upon herself. From mythology and from the play itself we know that Venus has loaded the whole race of Phoebus with ‘shame unspeakable’ as Apollo once exposed the love between Venus and Mars. As a result, Phaedra’s mother Pasiphae was doomed to fall in love with a bull and Phaedra with her stepson Hippolytus. As the play opens, we find that Phaedra has an anguished moral awareness about her bestial desires and she alludes to her bestial ancestry: “I recognize the deadly evil [that afflicted] my unhappy mother”.  Then when the nurse advises her to smother her incestuous passion, Phaedra declares, “I know, dear Nurse, that what you say is true; but passion forces me to take the worse path”.  She further complains, (“What can reason do? Passion has won and rules supreme, and a mighty god has control over all my soul”.  Thus it can be said that Phaedra is a victim of some independent fatal forces upon which she has no control.


Secondly and importantly in the Senecan version of the play, Phaedra’s husband Theseus is much to blame for creating scope of Phaedra’s illicit passion. At the outset of the play, Phaedra expresses her preference for being a faithful wife but fails because of her frustration about Theseus. She directly refers to Theseus’ sexual exploits and her accusations get strong proof when we learn that currently Theseus with his friend Peirithous has gone underworld in order to kidnap and rape Persephone. When Phaedra deplores, “Shame does not hold him back––in the depths of Acheron he seeks fornication and unlawful bed,”- we actually hear the voice of a neglected wife affronted by her husband’s constant philandering.  It can be argued that had Theseus been a more faithful husband, much of Phaedra’s perversity would have been averted.

Thus hereditary curse and Theseus’ unfaithfulness poison Phaedra with the passion of lust and thereby she commits a series of errors of judgment, the basic requirement of a classic tragedy. Phaedra’s first error is that she misinterprets her relationship with Hippolytus by laying more importance on biology than domestic and social codes. She being not the biological mother of Hyppolytus considers her position as a role playing mother. Therefore, she asks Hippolytus to take his father’s place. Then when Hippolytus calls her mother, she replies, “Mother – that name is too proud and high; a humbler name better suits my feelings. Call me sister, Hippolytus, or slave – yes, slave is better; I will endure servitude.” All these indicate that   Phaedra’s tragedy lies precisely in her lust driven role playing which transgresses the long drawn social establishments.

Phaedra’s next error is that she makes wrong response to the counsels of the Nurse. She refuses her counsels when she should accept and accepts them when she should refuse. Thus up to the point of revealing her desires to Hippolytus, she never gives a positive ear to the Nurse’s counsels, but when she is rebuffed by Hippolytus, she follows the nurse’s advice word for word: “Crime must be concealed by crime”. Resultantly, Phaedra treacherously accuses Hippolytus of having raped her and wrecks destruction both for her and others.

For the rest, Phaedra earns her tragic grandeur because she struggles with herself and changes in the course of the play. Even being so overcome by lustful passion, when she hears the fearful death of Hippolytus, her viciousness turns into remorse. She now faces up to her actions by taking responsibility for Hippolytus’ death, admitting her illicit love and deception to her wronged husband, and finally taking her own life as an act of self punishment. Besides, throughout her confession, she scrupulously avoids any mention of the Nurse’s role in her deception and false accusation so that no harms may befall on her. Seneca thus presents Phaedra as a courageous woman, who, though still driven by her passion, returns to her essential goodness and morality.

Thus it can be said that lust is the engine that drives the tragedy of Phaedra. However, like Euripides, Seneca does not present Phaedra as a lustful woman. By nature a good woman, Seneca’s Phaedra declines because she is a victim of unrequited love whose origins already been mentioned above. In the character of Phaedra, Seneca, the stoic, beautifully dramatizes how passion can lead man towards bestiality and throw him into the pit of hateful damnation.