Euripides: Hippolytos, lust and helplessness
Have we found a cure for lovesickness yet? Judging by our dramatic works, one might guess we had. Fictional characters seem to suffer all sorts of exaggerated ‘conflicts’- from owing the mob money they can’t pay to inventing weapons the C.I.A. would just love to get their hands on- but the deranging, crippling, and devastating effects of unfulfilled sexual and romantic desire seem strangely absent in contemporary drama. American cinema in the 1980s did see a spate of films about psychotically lovesick females, but they hardly served to normalize the experience. The big babies depicted in more recent American films, meanwhile, seem to have no psychology to speak of, much less any genuine inner turmoil. Even more surprising, pop musicians seem to have dropped the subject altogether and instead taken up the blues trope of exaggerated self-aggrandizement. (To quote a popular tee shirt, “It’s all about me”.) To witness an individual gone mad with desire for another person, it might now be necessary to tune in to tabloid talk shows and reality tee-vee, where lovesickness is safely framed as gauche- a problem for unsophisticated “trailer trash” and not people like us. More’s the pity.
The actual experience of lovesickness, meanwhile, has not changed a jot or a tittle since Sappho. Notice how in Euripides’s play Hippolytos most of us will relate, on some level, to the plight of Phaedra, whether we like to or not, while it’s pretty questionable that we will sympathize with Hippolytos, the actual subject of the play. Seneca and Racine would both focus the story on Phaedra, with the former being much less sympathetic to her than the latter; but this play is more the story of a man done wrong than a woman overcome with desire. In Euripides, we’re supposed to empathize with the title character, even as he rails angrily against womanhood and brags about his chastity- a trait, incidentally, we’re meant to find admirable.
Nevertheless, it’s Phaedra’s helplessness that moves us to sympathy. Unable to control her desire for Hippolytos, her stepson, she’s made miserable by the situation, as if she’s been poisoned by love and is slowly withering away. The life force that propagates the species will soon tear this family asunder, and truth be told has dissolved many a family before and since, and she can do nothing to stop its course. The worst part about being lovesick is the way the affliction focuses all one’s romantic energies on a single being who can simply choose not to return them. In Phaedra’s case, she couldn’t have picked a worse love interest, but of course she didn’t pick.
The great power of the play comes from the fact that she’s been afflicted without any cause, like everyone else who’s ever been so afflicted. Aphrodite/Cypris intends to teach Hippolytos a lesson for his refusal to worship her and does so by driving his father’s wife mad with longing for him. This is a different take on lust from the Judeo-Christian idea in which each of us is born with a remnant of the sinfulness of Adam that we can finally overcome through faith, self-discipline, and ultimately grace.* Here, sexual desire is something the goddess inflicts upon us in order to make us humble; regardless of all our foolish attempts to master ourselves and stay rational, Aphrodite will force herself upon us and we’re better off accepting her advances quietly. Phaedra’s shame, in this context, seems unnecessary. We wish she could just get over it, but the play asserts that there’s no cure for this sickness save one.
Taking the cure, Phaedra becomes horrible in death. In her suicide letter, she blames Hippolytos, claiming they were lovers. Theseus condemns his son to exile, and ultimately to death, overcome by anger and resentment. Hippolytos is a wronged man, accused of a crime he hasn’t committed. Nevertheless, it’s hard to sympathize with him, particularly for a modern reader; before his fall, he comes off as a prig. If lovesickness has become a taboo topic of discussion, it’s because we think desire should be somehow manageable- controlled and negotiated; not denied. At first blush, this self-mastery might seem Judeo-Christian, but the considerable distinction is that the concept of sin no longer applies. “So long as it’s between consenting adults…” Paradoxically, chastity seems like perversion or squandering, especially for a physically beautiful male like Hippolytos.
What’s still revelatory about the play, if we approach it from the Judeo-Christian perspective, is that the audience is supposed to admire Hippolytos’s chastity; but we’re also supposed to condemn him for being proud of that chastity. He doesn’t pay due respect to the power of sexual desire and that lack of respect is hubristic. In other words, lust in itself is not transgressive here, but the denial of lust’s power over us is an insult to the gods.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to suggest anything like the old romantic image of the Greeks as sexually-liberated “pagans” frolicking about like Margaret Mead’s Samoans. Phaedra’s lust can not be fulfilled without bringing the downfall of the house. What’s most interesting though is just how difficult it is to obey the gods correctly. Succumbing to that lust would be a transgression, so Hippolytos is correct to master his desires, and yet his pride about obeying the moral order leads him to the greater crime of hubris. He can’t win. And just like Phaedra, he never comes to terms with his total helplessness beneath Aphrodite.
Hubris, in this context, is the belief that man can do anything at all without the favor of the gods. Maybe this is why lovesickness has become the affliction that dare not speak its name- it’s a reminder from the gods that we are helpless- that the first fact of human existence is this helplessness- and maybe acknowledgement of that truth is the real modern taboo.
*It’s also a different take from Euripides’s first attempt at the story, Hippolytos Kalyptomenos, now lost, in which Phaedra (probably) propositioned Hyppolytos instead of fighting her desire. Apparently, audiences of the time took offense.