Phaedra By Jean Racine Summary and Analysis Act II: Scenes 2-4

Summary

Hippolytus enters and confirms Ismene's reports. Theseus is dead: Aricia is henceforth free to go where she pleases, to marry if she wills. But Hippolytus has more to add. Athens is uncertain whom to choose to succeed Theseus as its ruler: Phaedra's older son; Aricia; or himself. He himself is content to be king of Troezen; he feels that Aricia has the best right to Athens, and he is leaving immediately for Athens to declare his views and to unite their partisans to insure her victory.

Aricia is overwhelmed. Such generosity, she says, makes her think she must be dreaming. Indeed, for her part, she has been grateful enough to Hippolytus in the past simply because he did not hate her like the rest of the court. Hippolytus exclaims that he could not resist her! Aricia is startled; Hippolytus hesitates, then plunges into a declaration of love. He has said more than he meant to; his common sense has been overwhelmed by the violence of his passion; but he loves her. He has long defied the power of love, but now love has had its revenge: For six months, he has been its slave. He is, he fears, a poor capture of which to boast, and he has expressed his love very awkwardly, but he has never spoken to anyone of love before and has had no practice at it.

At this inconvenient moment, Theramenes arrives to tell Hippolytus that Phaedra is seeking an interview with him. Hippolytus is reluctant, but Aricia reminds him that he owes his father's widow this courtesy. Hippolytus consents, but protests that Aricia is departing without having given him an answer to his proposals. She replies, "Go, prince, and carry out your generous plans; make Athens my tributary: I accept all the gifts you seek to give me. But that great and glorious empire is not, in my eyes, the most cherished present you have offered me."

Analysis

This scene echoes the first scene of Phaedra's confession to Oenone and foreshadows Scene 5, in which she declares her love to Hippolytus. There is the same crescendo from timid hints to complete admission of love. First, Aricia is the slave freed by Hippolytus, then a queen whom he restores to the throne, and finally the object of his love. There is also a tone, if not of remorse, at least of regret in Hippolytus' declarations, in which he describes himself as "ashamed, desperate."

On the other hand, Hippolytus' passion lacks Phaedra's tragic intensity. He is the young lover suffering the familiar pangs of unrequited love, listless and unhappy, both afraid of love and captivated by Aricia.

Scenes 2 and 3, by consecrating the love of Aricia and Hippolytus and underlining the latter's distaste for his stepmother, prepare for the almost unbearable poignancy of Scene 5. Phaedra's love is now doomed by Hippolytus' interest in Aricia, as well as by his very nature. Incapable of base sentiments such as hatred and resentment, he harbors a sentiment even more painful to a woman as passionate and proud as Phaedra: indifference. Hippolytus feels only polite annoyance at his prospective meeting with the queen.

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