Summary and Analysis
It is too late. Theramenes, Hippolytus' tutor, bursts in to tell Theseus that Hippolytus is dead. As they were leaving the gates of Troezen, Hippolytus driving in his chariot, a strange cry came from the sea, and Hippolytus' horses grew restive. Then, in the sea, a great wave arose, from whose foam a monster, half-bull and half-snake, appeared. Theramenes and the guards, terrified, took refuge in a nearby temple; Hippolytus alone stood to face the monster and pierced him with his javelin. The dying monster spewed his blood and flame at the feet of the horses, and they ran wild. Despite Hippolytus' magnificent efforts, he could not control them, and some of the guards even thought they saw a god spurring them on. Dragging the chariot toward the cliffs, they broke the axle and the chariot came apart beneath its driver. The horses dragged Hippolytus to death. Following the traces of his blood and hair, Theramenes arrived at the spot where the horses had stopped, near the temple of Hippolytus' ancestors. With his dying breath, Hippolytus assured his tutor that he was innocent of the accusations against him and begged him to look after Aricia and ask Theseus to be kind to her.
Theseus, overcome by grief, cries that the gods have served him only too well and given him a remorse which will last all his life. Theramenes tells him that just as Hippolytus died, Aricia arrived, saw the mutilated body of her lover, and fainted away at his feet. She has now revived, and Ismene, her attendant, is sharing her tears; Theramenes has left her only to bring Theseus his son's last words.
At this moment Phaedra enters, and Theseus turns upon her. "My son is dead, Madame, take your victim," he cries, "enjoy his death, legitimate or unjust." He wants to know no more; the truth, if he knew it, might only increase his suffering. It is he, Theseus, who will now go into exile, to hide himself from the memory of his son's death and his name from the knowledge of humans. The gods, with all their kindness to him, have given him at last a fatal gift.
Phaedra, unshaken, reveals the truth. "Your son must be given back his innocence," she tells Theseus. "He was not guilty." When Theseus exclaims at her cruelty, she silences him. She has only a few moments to live, and she must tell her story. It was she who, cursed by the heavens, conceived an incestuous love for his son; Oenone did the rest. Fearing that Hippolytus would reveal the truth to his father, the nurse accused him instead, but she has received her punishment. Phaedra would already have slain herself with the sword, but she felt that she must clear Hippolytus' name. She has taken a poison which Medea brought to Athens, and she is dying. Her presence need no longer offend the heavens and the husband she has outraged. The heavens, which she has soiled by her existence, will be restored to purity by her death. She dies.
Theseus, left with neither wife nor son, plans to go and weep over the body of his son and to bury him with the honors he deserves. Henceforward, he will consider Aricia — Hippolytus' only legacy to him — as his own daughter.
For the purposes of the plot, the famous description of Hippolytus' death is unnecessary. The scene might have ended quite adequately with Theramenes' terse announcement: "I have seen the sweetest of mortals perish." His subsequent elaboration is quite frankly a bravura piece. According to the French scholar and critic Antoine Adam, "This story represents Racine's attempt to introduce into the dramatic idiom the beauty of Euripides' ornate style and, in a more general way, of ancient poetry." The death scene, although unexpected and untypical, is not jarring. Racine, with his unerring good taste, knows the danger of consistent understatement The artist, lest he lapse into monotony, must give imagination its due, and the cool classicist must occasionally make way for the romantic — particularly when the scene in question is the climax both of the plot and the tragedy of the play and its action has taken place offstage.
The images of the descriptions are overwhelming, bizarre, fantastic; but as Boileau says in his Art Poétique,
There are no serpents nor odious monsters
Which cannot please the eye when imitated by art;
The pleasing skill of a delicate brush
Makes of the most horrible object a charming thing.
The reference to a delicate brush applies perfectly to Racine's art, as it was probably intended to. Despite the violence and the extraordinary nature of the events related, they fit within a well-ordered scheme representing an accelerating rhythm, from the slow, majestic vision of Hippolytus' departure to the frantic climax of his being dragged behind his runaway horses. It is a splendid, dynamic description, followed by the calmer yet profounder tragedy of Hippolytus' death at the gates of the tomb of his ancestors. A note of tragic irony reinforces the intensity of the scene as Aricia encounters her dead lover at the temple which was to witness their vows.
A quality which unfortunately must elude the English-speaking reader is the music which Racine handles here with particular care: alliteration, suggestive sounds, and an eloquent rhythm which emphasizes the movement of the action.
The play's denouement leaves us with the Aristotelian feelings of pity and terror. We are horrified by the total havoc wreaked by Phaedra's ravenous passion. Three of the characters have died in physical agony or mental anguish. Those who remain have been bereft of hope. Aricia has been brought back to life, but, as Ismene indicates, it is a life of grief. Theseus has become an old man drained of strength, even the strength to express his rage and grief by punishing the one responsible.
The guiltless characters elicit our profound pity. But even Phaedra cannot be a complete object of horror. Such was not the author's intention. He wanted our indignation to be mitigated by compassion. Racine notes in his preface:
Phaedra is neither completely guilty nor completely innocent. She has been forced by her destiny and by the anger of the gods into an illegitimate passion which horrifies her more than anybody. She strives desperately to overcome it. She would rather die than let anybody know. And when she is forced to reveal it, she speaks of it with a shame that shows that her crime is more a punishment of the gods than an expression of her will.