Phaedra and Hippolytus

Hippolytus and Phaedra by Georges Barbier

I finished a novella yesterday! I started writing it as a short story (oops) while I was studying for my Greek Tragedy – almost twenty thousand words later…

So let’s talk about Euripides’ Hippolytus. Euripides wrote two plays by that title: Hippolytus Veiled, now lost, and Hippolytus Garlanded. The latter won first prize at the Festival of Dionysus in Athens in 428 B.C.

While it was common for tragedians to re-visit figures and myths in their writing, Euripides is as far as we know unique in having written not just two plays by the same title but two versions of the same mythical events. We don’t know why he wrote two; you’ll often hear that the first version offended Athenian audiences with its not-so-nice portrayal of Phaedra and Theseus, mythical king and queen of Athens.

There’s a lot of weight to this theory – the surviving Hippolytus is much kinder to both Phaedra and her husband that most other versions of the myth – but it’s actually pure conjecture originated by an Alexandrian commentator. We don’t really know what Athenian audiences made of Hippolytus Veiled, but it was a popular enough play that Roman playwright Seneca imitated it in his own Phaedra.

Hippolytus Garlanded is a very popular play with scholars – most likely because it’s Euripides’ most Sophoclean play and Sophocles is considered the ‘golden mean’ of Greek tragedy. In my experience it’s less popular with students and casual readers due to its singularly unappealing main character. I was the only person in my A-Level classical civ class to enjoy the play.

Hippolytus is arrogant. He’s a snob. He’s dreadfully conceited. He’s puritanical. And he’s a raving misogynist. In his mouth Euripides puts some of the most sexist rhetoric in ancient Greek literature. (Think on that for a moment. Yup.) Why is Hippolytus the way he is? And why is Phaedra so in love with him?

The obvious answer to the latter question is ‘because Aphrodite made her do it’. I’ve never found that fully satisfactory. She must see something in him. Curiously, Seneca’s play is more satisfying on this one, having Phaedra actually talk about her love for Hippolytus rather than how sick it’s making her feel. Euripides leaves it very much to the imagination – and in a way is more effective. There’s very complex things going on, psychologically speaking, but it’s up to you what they are.

So that’s how I came to write twenty thousand words about a woman falling in love with her stepson. That’s the nice thing about mythology: you can write the weirdest and most messed-up stories or paint women having sex with swans – but it’s okay! It’s culture!

I’m still reeling at how long this story got. I’ve already written a novella this summer – that seems like a sufficient achievement already. ‘What did you do this summer? Oh, I wrote a novella!’ Sounds a lot more impressive than ‘I wrote almost twenty thousand words of meandering angst’.

Hippolytus, as was always my intention, came out asexual. Phaedra came out snarky and sexually frustrated. Theseus somehow came out gay – and weirdly loveable considering also commits marital rape. I’m not really sure what to make of any of it. I don’t know what genre it is or if novella is the appropriate length or if it achieves anything I set out to achieve.

But that’s the beauty of it: last week I confirmed my place on a Creative Writing msc here in Edinburgh. Writing whatever I want to write seems like the most sensible thing to do this summer. Next up: character piece about two teenagers with magical powers sharing a bedsit.

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Filed under classical literature, writing

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