Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scenes 5-6
Phaedra is hesitant and trembling, telling Oenone in an aside that she has forgotten everything she meant to say. Oenone reminds her that her son's fate depends upon her skill in handling Hippolytus, and when she confronts him, she addresses him with all the dignity of a queen. Hippolytus, she says, has lost a father, she a husband; but she has further cause for grief. Her son is fatherless, and she herself is soon to die and leave him defenseless among enemies. Who will protect him, if not his stepbrother? But she fears that by her past harshness to Hippolytus she has turned him against her son.
Hippolytus denies it, and Phaedra intensifies her appeal. It is true that she has sought to have Hippolytus exiled, forbidden anyone to speak his name in her hearing; but this is not because she hates him. Hippolytus accepts this statement. It is natural, he observes, for a stepmother to defend the rights of her own children against her stepson. Any other woman would have behaved in the same way and might have treated him more unkindly.
Phaedra, tormented by his misunderstanding of her true feelings, cries out that she had no such motive; she has a totally different feeling. Hippolytus cuts her off abruptly; after all, he says, she may be troubling herself over nothing; Theseus may still be alive.
Unable to win him to her son's cause without telling the truth, Phaedra embarks on a final plea which rapidly becomes a half-concealed declaration of her love. Theseus will never return, she says, but for her he is not dead; even at this moment he seems to stand before her, and her heart speaks with every word she says to him. Hippolytus is startled and replies that her love for her husband no doubt makes her see him everywhere. Phaedra replies, "Yes, Prince, I languish, I burn . . . for Theseus." Not Theseus as he was, however, unfaithful and amorous; but faithful, proud, shy, charming, young — like the gods, or like Hippolytus. Why, she cries, was it not Hippolytus instead of Theseus who came to Crete to fight the Minotaur, and she instead of Ariadne who had the good fortune to save him?
Hippolytus, staggered, reminds her that she is the wife of Theseus and that she is talking to his son, and for a moment Phaedra regains control. Hippolytus apologizes and, embarrassed, seeks to leave. But Phaedra has gone too far to draw back: "I love you," she declares. Not that she approves of her passion; she detests herself even more than he detests her, and it was to avoid the effects of this love that she drove him away. "Come," she invites him, "this frightful monster ought not to escape you. Here is my heart. Strike home!" Or, if he finds her too contemptible to merit death at his hands, she will take his sword and kill herself before him. And she snatches his sword from its sheath.
Hippolytus, horrified, hears Theramenes arriving, and with only seconds to act, urges her to go and spare them both an open scandal. Phaedra stumbles offstage on Oenone's arm, the sword still in her hand.
Theramenes inquires what has left Hippolytus so shocked, but Hippolytus finds the secret he has just learned is too horrible to repeat. Let it be forgotten. Theramenes tells him his ship is ready for him, but Athens cannot be his destination. The heads of the Athenian tribes have already met and pronounced Phaedra's older son the new king of Athens, with Phaedra as his regent. What is more, a new rumor says that Theseus lives, and is in Epirus.
Hippolytus is incredulous. Can it be the will of the gods that this guilty woman should rule Athens? He goes out to seek his father.
The audience listens with growing horror to Phaedra's confession as it leads to her inevitable and disastrous humiliation.
The declaration itself demands the utmost virtuosity on the part of the playwright. Phaedra comes to plead for her son. Her desire to reveal her love is only half-formed, a temptation suppressed by dignity and caution. To be convincing, Racine must show a subtle gradation, a growing exacerbation. Hippolytus' indifference, his calm assumption that, of course, she hates him, his coolness to her son's fate, provides exactly this exacerbation. She cannot endure his believing that she dislikes him, and the fact that she must win him to her son's cause provides a partial justification for speaking. Even then, however, she proceeds only by allusions and declares her love only through a veiled reference to Theseus. When he reacts with horror, it is already too late for her to undo the damage, and her overt confession is prompted as much by despair as by passion.
The scene ends on an artistically effective and psychologically convincing paroxysm of emotions: self-justification, shame, suicidal desperation.
In this scene, Racine makes it clear that the word "incestuous," defining Phaedra's love for Hippolytus, is a term which is only a partial truth as applied to the character of her passion. Legally speaking, of course, her love is no longer incestuous, but it is still "wrong," and wrong in a sense which applies to many loves which have no hint of incest about them. Phaedra's love is excessive and irrational — for her to express her passion for Hippolytus in the context of love for his father is, to say the least, in bad taste; and she makes her declaration of love at the worst possible moment to one who, it is clear, does not want to hear it. Her behavior is totally lacking in propriety, and her physical desire has completely blinded her reason. This kind of love, which takes no account of time, place, or the feelings of its object, is always, Racine suggests, sinful and is equally destructive of the persons involved and the social order — whether it is incestuous or not. Phaedra's love shakes the throne of Athens, slays Hippolytus, and drives her mad. In contrast, Aricia's reasonable tenderness leaves her at the end of the play saddened but morally untainted. What is more, in creating a bond between her and Theseus, it reconciles the warring political factions of Athens.
Phaedra's defensive plea, that she cannot help loving Hippolytus, expresses an important aspect of Racine's art and thought. It is an elaboration of the line: "It is Venus completely fastened to her prey." For Racine, passion is weakness, the tragic and classical flaw against which human will is powerless. Phaedra never ceases to struggle against it, yet her mightiest exertions prove fruitless.
Some critics have maintained that Racine is working within the Greek tradition by pitting fragile human beings against vindictive and invincible gods. However, others have pointed out that this view can be reconciled with a Jansenist interpretation. This somewhat ambiguous doctrine teaches that man is doomed to sin because, while theoretically free and responsible for his acts, he does not have the effective grace to resist temptation. Phaedra seems to conform to this view more than to that of Greek classical drama. In a play like Oedipus Rex, the gods operate from the outside. It is external forces which defeat Oedipus. In Phaedra, the conflict is internalized. If the gods have planned her destruction, it is by infecting her with an incurable passion against which her moral resources prove insufficient. But she is not, in herself, an immoral woman; she does attempt to resist a passion she knows is sinful, and even when she fails, she is able to judge herself, as we shall see, with pitiless lucidity.
The first part of Scene 6 is the prolongation of the previous scene. It elaborates on the reactions of the two characters. Hippolytus, with words like "horrible," "horror," expresses his overwhelming shock.
The second part announces the possible return of Theseus and prepares the spectator for further, more tragic, developments since Phaedra is now threatened with public exposure. Thus the scene fulfills the classical prescription that all scenes be dynamic, but especially the last one in the act, to bridge the dull period of the intermission.