Summary and Analysis
Act IV: Scenes 1-3
Theseus has heard Oenone's story, and he is wild with rage and grief. He cannot doubt that his son has threatened and assaulted his wife; he has seen with his own eyes the sword which Hippolytus left behind with the women. But why did Phaedra herself not tell him the truth?
Oenone explains that Phaedra wished only to spare her husband this shame and sorrow and was preparing to die rather than speak when Oenone found her, heard her story, and came to inform Theseus. Theseus, remembering the hesitancy and fear with which Hippolytus greeted him upon his return, sees in it the signs of his guilt, and Oenone's reminder of Phaedra's old dislike for Hippolytus further convinces him that his son has loved his wife for a long time.
Yet when Hippolytus, who has gathered the courage to speak to him of Aricia, enters and innocently inquires what is causing his father distress, Theseus disdains a noble and virtuous exterior that can hide such a treacherous nature, and the contrast makes his anger more bitter. How dare Hippolytus appear before him, monster that he is, after forcing his incestuous attentions upon his father's wife? He should flee and not tempt his anger further. But Theseus will not kill him with his own hands; the shame of having a criminal son is enough, without soiling his hands with that son's blood. Instead, he calls upon his ancestor Neptune to grant the boon he once promised Theseus and avenge an unhappy father upon his traitorous son.
Hippolytus, at first speechless in the face of his father's accusations, gains courage through anger as Theseus continues to accuse him. Phaedra's story is a lie, he declares, and if he would, he could reveal the truth, but respect for his father seals his lips. Theseus should, however, reflect that Hippolytus' whole life and character give the lie to this accusation; there are always early signs of a vicious nature. And Hippolytus is not only the offspring of a chaste and virtuous Amazon; his life has been famous for its purity. To Theseus, however, Hippolytus' famed chastity only adds more weight to Phaedra's story. Of course he was not interested in other women — he coveted only Phaedra.
Again Hippolytus protests. It is not true he loves Phaedra. He does love, and he has come to confess his real offense against his father: He has spoken of love to Aricia despite his father's orders. For an instant Theseus believes, but the confession, which in effect contradicts Hippolytus' previous defense, comes at the wrong place and the wrong time. It is a pretense, he declares, intended to cover up Hippolytus' real crime.
Hippolytus cries, "Phaedra in the depths of her heart judges me more fairly than you" and asks where his exile is to be. Theseus does not care, so long as it is out of his sight, nor does he care where his son finds friends and support — no doubt other traitors and incestuous adulterers will come to his aid. Hippolytus retorts that if the subject is to be adultery and incest, Phaedra comes from a family more noted for these crimes than his own. Theseus, further infuriated, drives him from his presence. Alone, he calls once again upon Neptune to revenge him upon his son for the outrage Hippolytus has committed against him.
As Oenone's perfidy assumes its fullest dimension, there is danger of slipping into melodrama. In lago's confrontation with Othello, Shakespeare avoids this pitfall by his sure theatrical sense. Classicists like Racine resort to understatement and relegate the most excessive scenes to the wings, as he does with the interview between Oenone and Theseus here. However, the end of the conversation heard by the audience contains enough clues so that the previous conversation can be reconstructed. Oenone has accused Hippolytus of trying to take Phaedra by force and has shown Hippolytus' sword as proof. She gives evidence of her nimble mind and lack of scruples in a masterful example of double entendre: "A criminal love was the cause of his whole hatred." Theseus' fury testifies to the success of her ruse.
If classicism is restrained, it is not necessarily unemotional. The famous injunction of Boileau, the seventeenth-century French critic, to respect good taste, refers only to a certain decorum in treatment and not to moderation in effect. Theseus' explosive expression of grief and rage is perfectly suitable to the situation and suggests the monumental indignation of the warrior and hero Othello under similar circumstances.
Hippolytus, by refusing to attack Phaedra, makes himself hopelessly vulnerable. The motivation for his silence, obscure though students sometimes find it, is firmly rooted in his character and his love for his father. Innocent though Hippolytus may be, the revelation that his father's wife has made advances to him must inevitably strain the relationship between father and son, and the strain will be increased if it is Hippolytus who makes the revelation. Moreover, as we have seen, Hippolytus firmly believes that innocence is its own best defense, that truth will inevitably out, and that he need do nothing himself to defend his cause. In Euripides, it is Hippolytus' excessive chastity which brings about his death; in Racine, it's his excessive innocence; in both cases, the authors seem to be suggesting that an excess of some virtues may be as harmful as a vice.
His lips thus sealed, his ineffectual defense based on both his reputation for chastity and his love for Aricia is highly unconvincing, and the scene has the horror of an attack by a wild boar on a helpless animal. The horror is intensified by the awareness that Hippolytus' plight is of his own choosing, caused by his filial desire to spare his father the unbearable knowledge of Phaedra's incestuous desires. We are not witnessing merely the persecution of the innocent, but the immolation of a martyr. And, of course, the fact that the immolator is the father and the victim the son, and that Theseus labors under a misapprehension that he is going to regret deeply, gives the scene its ultimate poignancy.
Theseus' language, without going to extremes, is sufficiently violent to convey his fierce indignation. He condemns Hippolytus to the most distant exile, feels revulsion at his mere presence, and can hardly restrain his homicidal impulse. At last, as a fitting climax, he evokes Neptune's help in killing his son. Hippolytus, in his own defense, finds words full of dignity and pathos, such as "The day is not purer than the depths of my heart."