Phaedra By Jean Racine Summary and Analysis Act V: Scenes 1-3

Summary

Hippolytus is indeed saying farewell to Aricia, and she is protesting, but not against the separation. She fears the effect of Theseus' curse and urges her lover to tell his father the truth before he goes. But Hippolytus cannot speak; it is not a son's place to tell his father what sort of woman he has for a wife. He has told Aricia the truth, but under the seal of secrecy, and he depends upon the gods to make his innocence clear and to punish Phaedra. As for Aricia, he wants her to come into exile with him, away from this poisoned air. United, they may find powerful defenders for their cause in Argos and Sparta and be able to prevent Phaedra from taking over Troezen and Athens.

Aricia is attracted by the idea; she owes Theseus no loyalty, but, princess as well as woman, she fears the dishonor which would be attached to such a secret flight with her lover. Hippolytus reassures her: Before they go, they will swear their marriage oaths at the temple of Hippolytus' ancestors at the gates of Troezen. Aricia, hearing Theseus approach, promises that if Hippolytus will leave her a guide she will follow him in his departure. He leaves.

Theseus is still troubled by his recent decision, and demands of Aricia what Hippolytus was doing in her company. Is he in love with her? She confesses that he is, and Theseus says bitterly that she is not the only one. Aricia, affronted, asks how he can so misjudge his son and adjures him to fear that the heavens will grant his request for his son's death, but to his eternal regret. Theseus refuses to listen to her; he has seen the evidence of Hippolytus' crimes. Again Aricia warns him; Theseus has been a great slayer of monsters, but one is still alive. Hippolytus has forbidden her to speak further, and she will accordingly withdraw.

Analysis

As we have seen, classical drama insists quite rigorously on unity of action. It allows neither comic relief nor digressions. However, under certain circumstances, a subordinate plot is admitted. The prescription as formulated by the Abbé d'Aubignac requires that the secondary story be of lesser importance than the main plot and that it be closely related to it.

Scene 1 conforms to these instructions. It satisfies a natural curiosity to explore Hippolytus' reaction to his condemnation, to get a closer look at Phaedra's rival. At the same time it occupies only a fugitive moment in the play and does not threaten to eclipse the study of Phaedra's torment.

Aesthetically, the scene relieves the starkness of an exclusive concentration on Phaedra. The dialogue between Hippolytus and Aricia presents a new concept of love in the play — tender, self-sacrificing, and pristine — in sharp contrast with Phaedra's frightening passion. Filial compassion is repeated in Hippolytus' insistence on keeping his secret to spare his father's feelings. Finally, the arrangement for the young couple's wedding vows sustains the poetic tone with its feeling for the supernatural and the curiously romantic image of the tomb.

In Scene 3, Racine broadens Aricia's characterization. The maiden suddenly reveals an unsuspected wiliness and fire. Unintimidated by Theseus' brusqueness, she seems to acquire something of Phaedra's passion as she indignantly answers his banter with an attack on his unwarranted suspicions. Unlike Phaedra, however, Aricia is able to control her feelings before they lead her beyond the bounds of dangerous indiscretion.

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