Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scenes 2-3
Oenone says that the queen has risen from her sickbed but wants to take the air alone. The two men retire, and Phaedra arrives; she has barely the strength to walk, but it is not clear whether her weakness is physical or mental. Her train of thought is incoherent, and her words are not so much uttered as forced from her. She addresses the sun, her mythical ancestor, and says it is the last time she will see him; immediately afterward, she involuntarily cries, "If I were only sitting in the forest shade, watching a swift chariot flying in the dust."
Oenone, who has in effect been Phaedra's foster-mother, is alarmed for the life of her child, and anxiety sharpens her tongue. She reproaches Phaedra for her secrecy about the cause of her illness and reminds her that if she dies, she will leave her two young sons to the mercy of her enemy, Hippolytus. Phaedra reacts violently to the name, and Oenone is encouraged. But Phaedra is still bent on death; her guilt, she says, leaves her no other alternative. Dismayed and angry, Oenone turns on her. Is this the reward she receives for her years of devotion? She has left her own children to nurse Phaedra; will her foster-child leave her so callously?
Under this pressure Phaedra begins to yield, but at first she cannot find words of confession. Indirectly, she reminds Oenone that love has always been disastrous in her family: Her mother loved a bull, and her sister Ariadne was abandoned by Theseus. She too loves — and even more disastrously. "Whom?" demands Oenone. "You know the son of the Amazon, the prince I have long persecuted?" "Hippolytus," cries Oenone, and Phaedra's secret is revealed.
The barrier of confession breached, Phaedra plunges into a long and passionate description of the suffering her love has caused her. Her first sight of Hippolytus struck her like a thunderbolt, and her love for the son prevented her from accepting contentment with the father. Horrified at her feelings, she first raised a temple and sacrificed to Venus in the hope of being freed from her passion; when this failed, she tried to remove temptation from her path by pretending to detest Hippolytus and urging Theseus to send him away. Then, Theseus himself left, sending Phaedra to Troezen — and Hippolytus. Sick of her passion and of herself, Phaedra has taken the resolution to end her life before her guilty passion can drive her to some overt act and shame her forever.
Oenone's cryptic description of the queen's mortal anxiety in Scene 2 is a highly dramatic preparation for Phaedra's entrance — a shrill trumpet blast.
Scene 3 completes the exposition. Now we know what the theme is going to be: Phaedra's conflict between conscience and an overpowering, sinful passion. Racine isolates one moment of a lengthy evolution. We are not privy to every step of the disease's inroads — for love in Phaedra is a disease — but to its imminent victory. Phaedra, exhausted by her unsuccessful struggle against her love, is contemplating suicide.
This scene, however, is not mere exposition. It is one of the great moments of the French theater. After Corneille's grandiloquent tirades, we are presented with something new, the subtle description of psychological tension. First Phaedra expresses her weariness and her shame, then, very indirectly, a hint of her trouble. The confession spills out slowly, reluctantly. Without Oenone's insistent prodding she would not have said anything at all. In fact, she never manages to bring herself to pronounce the forbidden name. Pathetically, she waits for Oenone to say, "Hippolytus." Her rejoinder, "You are the one who named him," is one of Racine's most felicitous inventions. In a few simple words, innocuous in themselves, but very eloquent in their context, Phaedra expresses her immense relief and her instinctive defensiveness as her secret now comes out in the open without her deliberate participation.
Oenone's role contributes decisively to the authenticity of the scene. Without her insistence, justified by her maternal affection, Phaedra would have carried her secret to the grave. The confidante of French tragedy is too often a mere theatrical device to allow the major characters to express their feelings frankly, but Oenone has her own individual characterization. Her all-devouring love has a frightening intensity, and she also contributes significantly to the development of the play. Oenone enhances rather than undermines the unity of the play. She is the faithful servant of Phaedra's worst impulses, Phaedra's evil nemesis.
Stylistically, Racine maintains his poetic tone. He paints images that have passed into the language as bywords: "It is Venus completely fastened to her prey," remains in French the classical evocation of love as great destroyer. Mythology continues to play its evocative role. An extended metaphor is introduced with Phaedra's address to the sun when Racine begins to treat the play's conflict in terms of darkness and light.