As the play opens, Hippolytus announces to Theramenes, his tutor and friend, his intention of leaving Troezen. Hippolytus is the son of Theseus, king of Troezen and Athens, by his first love, the Amazon Antiope. Theseus is now married to Phaedra, the daughter of his old enemy, Minos of Crete, but he has been gone from Troezen now for more than six months, and his son is determined to go in search of him.
Theramenes disapproves; since Theseus' amorous exploits are legendary, he may not want to be found. Hippolytus abruptly cuts off this disrespectful allusion to his father, and says that since his marriage to Phaedra, Theseus has been faithful to her. Duty requires he go look for his father, and he also has reasons of his own for leaving Troezen. Hippolytus' stepmother, Phaedra, has hated him from the first moment she saw him and has spared no effort to make life difficult for him, even driving him into exile in Troezen. But Phaedra has lately been ill to the point of death and Hippolytus should have nothing to fear from her.
Hippolytus replies that it is not Phaedra who troubles him but Aricia, princess of a former ruling family of Athens who is now half-ward, half-prisoner of Theseus. Theramenes says he is sorry Hippolytus does not like her, for she is an innocent and charming girl. Hippolytus replies enigmatically, "If I hated her I would not flee her."
Theramenes seizes upon the implication and is delighted that Hippolytus, who has never before shown an interest in a woman and who is famous for his chastity, is in love. Hippolytus immediately rejects the idea that he might allow himself to love Aricia. As a child he used to thrill to tales of his father's exploits and his conquest of monsters, but when the gossip turned to his feminine conquests — his kidnapping of Helen, his desertion of Periboea, his elopement with Phaedra's sister, Ariadne, and his later abandonment of her — Hippolytus could not help feeling shocked and ashamed. Theseus' light behavior was somewhat excused by his other heroic deeds, but Hippolytus, who has accomplished no such exploits as yet has no such excuse. Moreover, Theseus, fearing to raise up enemies against his regime, has forbidden Aricia to marry and have children. He would certainly not be willing to have her marry his own son.
Theramenes is dubious. Love comes to all men, he says; Venus wills it, and when it comes it is nearly irresistible. Why fight such a pleasant emotion, provoked by the gods and approved by them? Firmly, Hippolytus cuts him off. He is determined to leave Troezen. Oenone, nurse to Phaedra, appears.
In order to understand Racine's art it is essential to know the three unities drawn from Aristotle: unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action. Unity of place means that the story must take place at a single location, cannot shift from one spot to another. Unity of action forbids subordinate plots and digressions. Unity of time requires that the whole tragedy reach its denouement in twenty-four hours. Unity of time is particularly important for Racine, since it gives his works their indelible character. Unlike Corneille, who chafed under the restriction, Racine adapted to it quite readily by the simple process of reducing the conflict to its essentials, by stripping it of almost all incident; in other words, he filled his plays with psychological conflicts. He further reduced the trappings of his works by starting the action in medias res. When the curtain rises, the crisis has long been brewing and, as the subsequent scenes will show, the catastrophe is about to descend.
As a result, Racine's exposition is unusually complex, since he must provide the audience with a vast amount of information. The first scene barely broaches the subject. We get some indication of Hippolytus' personality, his problems, his rank. Phaedra, the main character, does not even appear. She is described tantalizingly in terms of her tainted heredity — the "daughter of Minos" and of that Pasiphäe, who conceived a monstrous passion for a bull. This evocation of mythological background is our clue to the real Phaedra, but the only one: the "facts" of both her illness and her dislike of Hippolytus are misleading.
Racine's dramatic skill successfully overcomes the potential monotony of this lengthy explanation. The ending of the scene (each scene in classical French drama ends when a character arrives or departs) is a case in point. The silent and enigmatic entrance of Oenone, Phaedra's nurse, can be highly dramatic. Jean-Louis Barrault, the famous actor and director, suggests the following stage business.
Oenone appears . . . her veils, like a bird flapping its wings, bump right and left against the walls of the distant corridor. She runs. . . . Theramene, noticing Oenone, has stopped short. Hippolytus noticing Theramene's stop has turned around. . . . The bird of disaster is in front of them.
The poetry is discreetly orchestrated by the music of the line. Racine is also justly celebrated as one of the most melodious writers in the French language. Of course, the reader using a translation must take this quality largely on faith. As one example, however, the line "la fille de Minos et de Pasiphae" is famous for the haunting and sinister effect created by the repeated long i vowel and the reiterated sibilant f's and s's.