Phaedra By Jean Racine Summary and Analysis Act II: Scene 1

Summary

Aricia has just been told by her companion, Ismene, that Hippolytus wishes to see her, that Theseus is dead, and that she is no longer a prisoner. Aricia finds it hard to credit so much good news at once. She is disinclined to believe the story of Theseus' death — that he descended alive into hell and was unable to return — and she does not see why Theseus' son should be kinder to her than his father. Ismene, however, does. Curious about Hippolytus and his renowned chastity, she has studied him closely and believes he is in love with Aricia.

For Aricia, this is the best of all possible news. Her life has not been a happy one. When her six brothers were killed fighting Theseus, she was left alone in the world surrounded by political enemies, forbidden even to marry and make herself a home. This last prohibition, however, troubled her little; She had no interest in love — until she met Hippolytus. She admired him not only for his grace and beauty, but for his qualities of character: To her, he was Theseus without Theseus' flaws. More important still, perhaps, she was piqued and challenged by his lack of interest in love. But perhaps Ismene is mistaken about his feelings for her, and she is rejoicing too soon.

Analysis

The portrait of Aricia refutes the common misconception that Racine painted only the voluptuous love of sensual women. Aricia is a virginal princess who, while not insensitive to Hippolytus' good looks, prizes above all his qualities of character. Her love, unlike that of Phaedra, is reasonable, founded on good sense rather than visual stimulus and physical desire.

At the same time, Racine, aware of the complexity of human emotions, adds to Aricia's love a note of natural vanity. She enjoys the idea of being Hippolytus' first romantic interest, of making a difficult conquest.

Racine is an honest playwright. He does not stoop to a cheap coup de théâtre. He does not announce Theseus' death only to have him appear dramatically later on. The attentive spectator will note the fact that the announcement of Theseus' death is only a rumor, sufficiently vague to warrant Aricia's skepticism.

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