Phaedra is one of Racine's most compelling creations, perhaps because she so successfully evokes the double feeling of pity and horror. Horrifying she undoubtedly is, for she perpetrates her crime with the full lucidity of most classical characters. If circumstances of her confidante's insidious advice occasionally facilitate her transgressions, they do not ultimately mitigate her guilt. Her final plot against Hippolytus is planned in full awareness and constitutes premeditated murder.
Yet Phaedra does not inspire the kind of abhorrence that her act would suggest. She is fundamentally a virtuous person resisting desperately the pull of the abyss. There are intimations of overpowering forces — fate, the gods, a tainted heredity, the absence of grace — all of which seem to make her more a victim than a sinner. Furthermore, her uncompromising assumption of guilt purifies her in the eyes of the audience. Thus Racine follows his prescription of making Phaedra neither entirely good nor entirely evil and keeping her within human bounds.
He does not, for all that, neglect the tragic distance. Phaedra's mythological background, the enormity of her crime, the implicit presence of the gods, surround her with a dreadful grandeur, a grandeur, however, that does not destroy her humanity.