Summary and Analysis
Disturbed by Oenone's hints, Theseus realizes that he himself still has doubts and calls the guards to bring Oenone to him so that he may question her further. But Panope, one of Phaedra's waiting women, has shocking news for him. Phaedra has driven Oenone from her presence, and Oenone has thrown herself into the sea. Now Phaedra, alternately kissing her sons and pushing them away in horror, has three times begun a letter and thrice destroyed it. Panope fears she is about to kill herself and begs Theseus to come and calm her. Glimpsing the truth, Theseus calls upon his son to come back and defend himself and begs Neptune not to grant him his boon.
Tantalizingly, Racine holds out the hope that the tragedy may yet be averted. Theseus is assaulted by disturbing questions, torn by doubt. The appearance of Aricia in close conversation with Hippolytus lends credibility to the latter's claim of a romance between them. Aricia's obviously sincere defense of Hippolytus, her ominous hints, strengthen Theseus' doubts. The clinching evidence is provided by Oenone's suicide and the queen's baffling behavior. The king's whole world, including his inner self, seems to plead Hippolytus' cause and Theseus is ready to reverse himself.
But, of course, it is too late. A last-minute reprieve would be artistically indefensible. Emotionally, if not logically, Phaedra demands a tragic ending. The personality of the heroine, the doom-laden atmosphere, and the playwright's ethos compel him to end his play on a note of resounding catastrophe.
Phaedra's disintegration, incidentally, is illustrative of classicism's technique. The theme, of course, is reminiscent of Lady Macbeth's mad scene. It deals with the same hysterical expression of guilt provoked by a particularly heinous crime. In Shakespeare, the scene is directly portrayed. Phaedra's emotional breakdown, almost as complete, occurs offstage and is reported rather briefly. As we have already pointed out, the classicists did not suppress violent behavior but relegated it to the wings.