Summary and Analysis
Act IV: Scenes 4-6
Phaedra enters, distraught, and begs Theseus not to kill his son, not to put upon her conscience the guilt of such a crime. Theseus reassures her that he has not touched Hippolytus; Neptune will revenge him. Phaedra, yet more alarmed, begins to question, but Theseus cuts her off and tells her that not only are Hippolytus' sins against her too black to be forgiven, but that he has compounded them by trying to make Theseus believe he is in love with Aricia. Leaving Phaedra stunned by this news, he goes to pray at the altars of Neptune for a prompt granting of his request.
Phaedra, alone, cannot believe and yet believes only too well the account she has just heard. Remorseful at the crime she had countenanced, she had torn herself from Oenone's arms to save Hippolytus' life, perhaps even to confess. Now her sentiments have completely changed. He loves Aricia! He loves another! Never will she defend him.
Oenone enters, and Phaedra tells her what she has learned. Hippolytus loves Aricia, and her suffering has no limits. Whatever she has endured before — the torments of love and the agony of remorse have been mild compared to the hell of jealousy she now undergoes. Hippolytus and Aricia were meeting, loving in all innocence, and heaven itself was smiling down on their transports, while she, Phaedra, had to hide her love from the light of day and sought only for death; she dared not even weep to relieve her suffering, but had constantly to maintain a serene face before the public.
Oenone, consoling, reminds her that Hippolytus and Aricia will never see one another again, but the thought is meaningless to Phaedra. "They will still love one another," she cries. "Even now they are defying the rage of a woman mad with love, swearing a thousand times they will never be parted." Oenone must serve Phaedra's passion once more; she must turn Theseus against Aricia and persuade him to kill her. She herself will beg him.
But at this moment, the very excess of her madness shocks her into sanity, and she stops short, appalled. "My husband is alive, and I still burn for Hippolytus!" she cries. From her first crime of incestuous love, she has gone on to countenance lies and false accusations; even now Hippolytus' innocent blood may be on her hands; how can she endure to live? Rather she should die; yet even after death, her father, judge of the underworld, will confront her, horrified at her crimes, trying to think of a torment appropriate to his daughter's sins.
Oenone, frightened, tries to calm her. Her love for Hippolytus was no crime, only an excusable error. Everybody loves; it is the fate of mortals, and the gods themselves sometimes love illicitly. Her feeble arguments, however, only anger Phaedra more. Now what new crimes will Oenone suggest? From the beginning, the nurse has been the instigator of Phaedra's wicked acts. She urged Phaedra to declare her love to Hippolytus; it was she who accused him falsely to his father and who may even now have encompassed his death. Phaedra henceforth will decide her own life, and may Oenone suffer the fate merited by all flatterers who encourage and feed upon the weaknesses of their princes! She exits, and Oenone, left alone, reflects that after all her services to Phaedra, she has perhaps received the reward she merits.
Phaedra is to drink her bitter cup to the dregs. In Scene 4, she reaches the last stage of degradation and pain. The sudden revelation that she has a rival adds to the pangs of unrequited love, of remorse, the unbearable insult to her pride. The fury that her jealousy engenders consummates her guilt. She will now have to assume full responsibility for Hippolytus' death. She passes from a weak accomplice, reluctantly acquiescing to Oenone's treachery, to a full-fledged murderess. She has, in effect, condemned Hippolytus herself by refusing to clear him after having come with the clear intention to do so. In Scene 5, she explicitly states her intention to let Hippolytus die:
I am the only object he can't stand,
And I should undertake the task of defending him? (1212)
The dramatic episode contains a marvelous example of Racine's use of surprise, the inadvertent revelation greeted with a few words which, in their banality, reveal a world of suffering.
Theseus: He maintains that Aricia has his heart, his pledge that he loves her.
Phaedra: What, my lord? (1187)
Scene 5 is the lyrical amplification of the preceding scene. It adds nothing to the plot. Rather it is an operatic aria in which the wounded heroine pours out her agony and her spite.
Phaedra's new suffering, experienced in stunned silence in the presence of Theseus in Scene 4, expressed in a kind of cry in the following scene, is dissected at length in Scene 5. Phaedra is tortured by a pain more unbearable than anything she has endured thus far. She evokes Aricia and Hippolytus' innocent idyll and contrasts it with her furtive, guilty existence and her sickness unto death. Under the strain of her despair, she succumbs to a hysterical outpouring of the most diverse emotions. She rants at the lovers' immunity from her wrath; she begs Oenone to help her obtain revenge. Then in a horrified about-face, she confesses the immensity of her guilt. She contemplates suicide and discovers that even death is no escape. But through a sort of perversion, she passes from remorse for her passion to regret at not having enjoyed it. Finally her desire for revenge gives way to concern for Hippolytus. Finally she disowns and anathematizes Oenone, whose help she has just solicited. It is a spectacle of incipient madness.
The reference to Minos in hell punishing his own daughter, the sun observing in disapproval, and the universe "full of my ancestors" give Phaedra's tragedy a dreadful grandeur, a cosmic dimension.