Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Writing Fiction Tips: Euripides' Hyppolitus

Alexandre Cabanel's painting Phaedra (1880)Image via Wikipedia
 This past semester, in one of my classes, I had a student named Hyppolitus. Of course, this caused me to  promised myself that once the semester was over I would dust off my Greek mythology books and re-read what I had forgotten about Euripides tragedy.

Because Aphrodite, goddess of love, cannot accept that a mortal should scorn love, she declares that she would destroy Hippolytus (an illegitimate son born to Theseus and the Amazon Queen Hyppolita). Her instrument of revenge will be Hippolytus' stepmother Phaedra, who would madly fall in love with the lad. At first impression, Hyppolytus seems to be an innocent victim, and for no other reason than being devoted to the Huntress Artemis (Diana), and his determination to remain chaste.

Once smitten, Phaedra is determined to starve herself to death rather than reveal her maddening love. But through the artifices of a prying nurse, in a state of semi-delirium, she yields and admits her passion for the young man—her stepson.

With the secret made public, and unable to face her shame, Phaedra hangs herself. To save her reputation and prevent her children’s vilification, she leaves a note accusing Hippolytus of rape. Theseus, who has just returned from a long absence, believes the accusation, upbraids Hippolytus, and casts a damning curse on him. The result of the curse is that Hyppolytus is fatally mangled by his horse as he rides into exile. Artemis appears on the scene abruptly —ex machina, a device used by Greek playwrights— to justify and defend the righteous Hippolytus, and promises that she'll one day destroy some followers of Aphrodite.

Was Hippolytus an innocent victim, or did he bring his own demise with his priggishness? Was Phaedra a wanton and voluptuous woman who not only bore false testimony, but also a victim of the gods? Did she actually deserve death? Euripides doesn’t supply any answers.

Although Phaedra resists the heat of passion for the boy mightily, in effect she was fighting a losing fight. Much like Oedipus, her fate was preordained and inevitable. Phaedra’s suffering was used by Euripides to highlight the fact that in their society incestual relations would have dire consequences.

One can read that Hyppolitus suffered from an inferiority complex, since he wasn’t equal among equals because he was an illegitimate child. And illegitimacy back then more than a blight was an affront to decency. In the Athens of Euripides times, bastards and foreigners were considered barbarians. And women were not that much farther behind, for they also had not rights, privileges, or options of any kind.

Euripides was a master of the Greek language, and it shows in his handling of rhetorical figures. When Phaedra exclaims, “My hand are pure, but my heart is defiled,” she is using an antithesis—which is a binary opposition: pure and defiled. And when he isn’t employing rhetorical tricks, he uses monosyllabic sounds to make the audience understand the action:
PHAEDRA: Go away, ‘fore the gods, and let go of my hand.
NURSE: I will not, for you do not give me the gift you should.

To become a writer I write every day. The only writing guide I consult is Toolbox for Writers.
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