Short summary - Phèdre - Jean Racine

French literature summaries - 2021

Short summary - Phèdre
Jean Racine

Hippolytus, the son of the Athenian king Theseus, goes in search of his father, who has been wandering somewhere for six months. Hippolytus is the son of an Amazon. Theseus' new wife Phaedra disliked him, as everyone thinks, and he wants to leave Athens. Phaedra is sick with an incomprehensible disease and "longs to die." She talks about her sufferings, which the gods sent to her, about the conspiracy around her and “it was decided to exterminate her”. The fate and the anger of the gods aroused in her some kind of sinful feeling, which terrifies her herself and which she is afraid to say openly. She makes every effort to overcome the dark passion, but in vain. Phaedra thinks about death and waits for it, not wanting to reveal her secret to anyone.
Nurse Enona fears that the queen's mind is clouded, for Phaedra herself does not know what she is saying. Enona reproaches her that Phaedra wants to offend the gods, interrupting his "life thread", and encourages the queen to think about the future of her own children, that they will quickly take away the power of the Amazon-born "arrogant Hippolytus". In response, Phaedra declares that her “sinful life is already too long, but her sin is not in her actions, her heart is to blame for everything - it is the cause of her torment. However, what is her sin, Phaedra refuses to say and wants to take her secret to the grave. But he can not stand it and admits to Enone that he loves Hippolytus. She is terrified. As soon as Phaedra became the wife of Theseus and saw Hippolytus, "now a flame, now a chill" tormented her body. This is the "omnipotent fire of Aphrodite", the goddess of love. Phaedra tried to appease the goddess - "she erected a temple, decorated it," made sacrifices, but in vain, neither incense nor blood helped. Then Phaedra began to avoid Hippolytus and play the role of an evil stepmother, forcing her son to leave his father's house. But all is in vain.
Panopa's maid announces that news has been received that Phaedra's husband Theseus has died. Therefore, Athens is worried - who should be king: the son of Phaedra or the son of Theseus, Hippolytus, born of a captive Amazon? Enona reminds Phaedra that the burden of power now falls on her and she has no right to die, since then her son will die.
Aricia, a princess from the Athenian royal family of the Pallantes, whom Theseus deprived of power, learns of his death. She is concerned about her fate. Theseus held her captive in the palace in the city of Trezen. Hippolytus was elected ruler of Trezen and Yemen, confidante of Arikiya believes that he will free the princess, since Hippolytus is not indifferent to her. Arikia was captivated in Hippolyta by spiritual nobility. Keeping with the illustrious father "in a high resemblance, he did not inherit the low features of his father." Theseus, on the other hand, became famous for seducing many women.
Hippolytus comes to Arikiya and announces to her that he cancels his father's decree on her captivity and gives her freedom. Athens needs a king and the people are nominating three candidates: Hippolytus, Arikia and the son of Phaedra. However, Hippolytus, according to the ancient law, if he is not born a Hellenic woman, cannot own the Athenian throne. Aricia belongs to the ancient Athenian family and has all the rights to power. And the son of Phaedra will be the king of Crete - so Hippolytus decides, remaining the ruler of Trezen. He decides to go to Athens to convince the people of Arikia's right to the throne. Aricia cannot believe that the son of her enemy is giving her the throne. Hippolytus replies that he had never known what love was before, but when he saw it, he "resigned himself and put on the chains of love." He thinks about the princess all the time.
Phaedra, meeting with Hippolytus, says that he is afraid of him: now that Theseus is gone, he can unleash his anger on her and her son, revenge for the fact that he was expelled from Athens. Hippolytus is outraged - he could not have acted so low. In addition, the rumor about Theseus' death may be false. Phaedra, unable to cope with his feelings, says that if Hippolytus had been older when Theseus arrived in Crete, then he too could have accomplished the same feats - to kill the Minotaur and become a hero, and she, like Ariadne, would have given him thread, so as not to get lost in the Labyrinth, and would tie his fate with him. Hippolytus is at a loss, it seems to him that Phaedra is daydreaming, mistaking him for Theseus. Phaedra alters his words and says that he does not love the old Theseus, but the young, like Hippolytus, loves him, Hippolytus, but does not see his own guilt in that, since she has no power over herself. She is a victim of divine wrath, it is the gods who sent her love, which torments her. Phaedra asks Hippolytus to punish her for her criminal passion and to take the sword out of its sheath. Hippolytus runs in horror, no one should know about the terrible secret, not even his mentor Theramen.
A messenger comes from Athens to hand over the reins to Phaedra. But the queen does not want power, she does not need honors. She cannot rule the country when her own mind is not under her control, when she is not in control of her feelings. She had already revealed her secret to Hippolytus, and hope for a reciprocal feeling aroused in her. Hippolytus is a Scythian by his mother, says Enona, savagery is in his blood - "he rejected the female sex, does not want to know him." However, Phaedra wants to awaken love in "wild as a forest" Hippolyta, no one has ever told him about tenderness. Phaedra asks Enon to tell Hippolytus that she is transferring all power to him and is ready to give her love.
Enona returns with the news that Theseus is alive and will soon be in the palace. Phaedra is seized with horror, for she is afraid that Hippolytus will reveal her secret and expose her deception in front of his father, say that her stepmother dishonors the royal throne. She thinks of death as salvation, but fears for the fate of her children. Enona offers to protect Phaedra from dishonor and slander Hippolytus in front of his father, saying that he desired Phaedrus. She undertakes to arrange everything herself in order to save the honor of the lady "in defiance of her conscience", for "so that honor ... without a spot for everyone, and sacrificing virtue is not a sin."
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Phaedra meets with Theseus and tells him that he is offended, that she is not worth his love and tenderness. He asks Hippolytus in bewilderment, but the son replies that his wife can reveal the secret to him. And he himself wants to leave in order to perform the same feats as his father. Theseus is surprised and angry - returning to his home, he finds his family in confusion and anxiety. He feels that something terrible is being hidden from him.
Enon slandered Hippolytus, and Theseus believed, remembering how pale, embarrassed and evasive his son was in conversation with him. He drives Hippolytus away and asks the god of the sea Poseidon, who promised him to fulfill his first will, to punish his son, Hippolytus is so amazed that Phaedra blames him for his criminal passion that he cannot find words to justify - his tongue is "ossified". Although he admits that he loves Arikiya, his father does not believe him.
Phaedra tries to persuade Theseus not to harm his son. When he informs her that Hippolytus is supposedly in love with Arikia, then Phaedra is shocked and offended that she has a rival. She did not expect that someone else would be able to awaken love in Hippolyta. The queen sees the only way out for herself - to die. She curses Enona for denigrating Hippolytus.
Meanwhile, Hippolytus and Aricia decide to flee the country together.
Theseus tries to convince Arikia that Hippolytus is a liar and she listened to him in vain. Aricia replies that the king blew off the heads of many monsters, but “fate saved one monster from the formidable Theseus” - this is a direct allusion to Phaedra and her passion for Hippolytus. Theseus does not understand the hint, but begins to doubt whether he has learned everything. He wants to interrogate Enona again, but learns that the queen drove her away and she threw herself into the sea. Phaedra herself rushes about in madness. Theseus orders to call his son and prays to Poseidon so that he does not fulfill his desire.
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However, it's too late - Theramen brings the terrible news that Hippolytus died. He was riding in a chariot along the shore, when suddenly an unprecedented monster appeared from the sea, "an animal with a bull's muzzle, forehead and horned, and with a body covered with yellowish scales." Everyone rushed to run, and Hippolytus threw a spear at the monster and pierced the scales. The dragon fell under the feet of the horses, and they suffered from fear. Hippolytus could not keep them, they rushed without a road, over the rocks. Suddenly the axle of the chariot broke, the prince got entangled in the reins, and the horses dragged him along the ground strewn with stones. His body turned into a continuous wound, and he died in the arms of Teramen. Before his death, Hippolytus said that his father had in vain brought the accusation against him.
Theseus is horrified, he blames Phaedra for the death of his son. She admits that Hippolytus was innocent, that it was she who was "by the will of higher powers ... kindled with incestuous passion." Enona, saving her honor, slandered Hippolytus. Enona is now gone, and Phaedra, having removed from innocent suspicion, ends his earthly torments by taking poison.