“Phaedra”

Themes 

Quotations from Euripides are from D. Kovacs (1995), Euripides II: Children of Heracles, Hippolytus, Andromache, Hecuba [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London.

Quotations  from  Ritsos’ Phaedra are from P. Green and B. Bardsley’s translation of the Fourth Dimension (Princeton N.J, 1993), unless otherwise stated.

 

 Plot

In Euripides, Phaedra, who is madly in love with her stepson Hippolytus, reveals her secret to her Nurse, who, in turn, discloses it to Hippolytus. Worried that Hippolytus may reveal her adulterous desire to Theseus, Phaedra commits suicide. However, in order to safeguard her honour she leaves a message where she accuses Hippolytus of rape. Believing her accusations, Theseus curses Hippolytus and sends him to exile. As he drives his chariot away, Hippolytus is fatally injured by a monstrous bull sent by Poseidon. He is brought half-dead to the palace, where he is reconciled with his father and dies.

Ritsos follows the main line of Euripides’ play (Phaedra’s mad passion, her suicide and revenge), but he also diverges from his predecessor on a number of points: Ritsos’ Phaedra openly confesses her lascivious desire to Hippolytus, without any reservations or ethical constraints. Her aim is not so much to seduce Hippolytus, as to purge herself; her speech has a cleansing effect on her. [Α somewhat similar stance by Phaedra could be assumed for Euripides’ now-lost Hippolytus Veiled, in which Phaedra probably tried openly to seduce her stepson, thus forcing him to veil his head out of shame (hence the play’s title)]. Moreover, whereas the Euripidean Phaedra’s passion and revenge are incited by Aphrodite, in Ritsos the revenge is clearly her very own decision.  

 Τitle: Φαίδρα

For this poem Ritsos draws on Euripides’ Hippolytus. This becomes evident from his overall treatment of the story and is also confirmed by the quotation from the play that he intentionally cites as an epigraph (‘when the gods so ordain, it is to be expected that men will make disastrous mistakes’, 1433-4). Nevertheless, Ritsos chooses to entitle his poem after Phaedra, the only persona loquens of his poem.

 

Page 276

I sent for you

Phaedra summons Hippolytus in order to reveal her passion to him. In Euripides, by contrast, Phaedra does not exchange even a single word with her stepson throughout the play. However, Phaedra and Hippolytus converse both in Seneca and in Racine.

 

Page 276

though I remain in the house

Euripides’ Phaedra also remains locked in the house and refuses to go out; see Eur. Hipp. 131-2; contr. Seneca, Racine.  

 

Page 276

                         I see you so clearly in the forest, I see

the slide of your throat when you drink at the spring

An allusion to Eur. Hipp. 208-9, where Phaedra, filled with desire to be near Hippolytus, longs to drink fresh water from a spring.

 

Page 277

By the way,

How did your hunting go today? I could never understand

one thing about hunting. And you, unlike the others,

never brought your fine trophies home –  no rare birds with fine plumage

   and golden beaks,

no stags’ antlers to mount on the walls like everyone else does,

getting a special pleasure from them, one curved pair sprouting over

   another

like the plan of a Byzantine church, like a ladder ascending into a calm,

serene sky –  I ‘ve heard

that antlers may be the calendar of a stag’s life. Is it true? You ‘ve

brought none back. I have a hunch

you never kill deer –  the favoured beasts of your Goddess. Everyone says

what a good shot you are. I ‘ve not seen it. Birds and deer are all right,

but why not the hid of a wolf or lion to spread by the beds in winter

[…]

standing tall in what you like to call our invincible will.

This comes into contrast with Eur. Hipp.108-10, where Hippolytus, who has just returned from hunting, summons his followers to prepare the meal, stressing that ‘After the hunt a full table is a pleasure’. Even though no mention is made of the kind of food here, one could infer that the table would be laden with venison.

Phaedra’s remark could also serve as an ironic allusion to Eur. Hipp. 952-3 and Theseus’ scornful reference to Hippolytus’ ‘meatless diet’.

 

Page 277

Sanctity prior to sin

Is something I don’t believe in – I call it sickness, I call it cowardice – 

Hippolytus’ chastity, a life choice in Euripides, is associated in Ritsos with Hippolytus’ cowardice. Cf.  Phaedra’s reference to Hippolytus’ ‘murderous cowardice’ (Green and Bardsley p. 293). 

 

Page 277

I know that you

Feel love for yourself alone when you’re alone, in front of the mirror;

I’ve seen the traces on your sheets, I’ve smelt them – we forget about the gods then

Phaedra’s bold remark echoes Theseus’ words to Hippolytus in Eur. Hipp. 1080-1: ‘You are far more practiced in worshipping yourself than in being just and acting piously toward your father.’ (Note that Hippolytus’ self-loving chastity is grotesquely distorted into habitual masturbation in Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love).

  

Page 277

The gods are invisible; they offer no proofs; that’s probably what we’re seeking

Contrast Euripides, where the presence of the gods, more particularly of Aphrodite and Artemis, is prominent throughout the play. In fact, in Euripides’ play Aphrodite is repeatedly and openly blamed for inciting Phaedra’s passion (Eur. Hipp. 241, 358-61, 476, 764-66, 1327).

  

Page 277

I have a hunch

You never kill deer – the favoured beasts of your Goddess.

Page 278

Do you maybe

offer your whole catch to Artemis?

Hippolytus is presented as a devotee of Artemis in Euripides as well: see especially 58-87 and 1391-441. Cf. also Sen. Phaedr. 54-84 (Hippolytus’ prayer to Diana), 709 (Hippolytus wishes he could sacrifice Phaedra to Diana), 654 (‘your Phoebe’ = Diana). In Racine’s Phèdre too (Act V, sc. 1) Hipp. invokes ‘la chaste Diane’.

 

Page 278

Do you maybe

offer your whole catch to Artemis?

Phaedra’s remark ironically alludes to Eur. Hipp. 73-83, where Hippolytus dedicates to Artemis a garland weaved with flowers from a ‘virgin meadow’.

 

Page 278

At times I’ve thought of

dressing up as one of your slaves or grooms, to come hunting with you,

to know you in your territory –  see how you run, aim, kill;

follow your fine, untrammelled movements, all directed

to one specific goal, one objective, with that fluency and precision

brought by practice, experience. I so much wanted

to know you through some total attachment, through whatever

passes beyond mere obedience into ecstasy.

This echoes Eur. Hipp. 215-31, where Phaedra, aroused by her overwhelming desire to be close to Hippolytus, envisions herself in the woods and in places with horses.

 

Page 279

When you

    first

came to Athens for the festival at Eleusis –  unforgettable days!

Euripides’ Phaedra also first meets and falls in love with Hippolytus in Athens, when the latter goes there for the Eleusinian Festival. This piece of information is provided by Aphrodite in her opening speech (24-8).  

 

Page 280

“Our only consolation,”

as my Nurse has a habit of saying, “is to meditate day and night

on our death”. 

A possible allusion to the Nurse’s words in Eur. Hipp. 191-7: ‘But the life of mortals is wholly trouble, and there is no rest from toil. Anything we might love more than life is hid in a surrounding cloud of darkness, and we show ourselves unhappy lovers of whatever light there is that shines on earth because we are ignorant of another life, and the world below is not revealed to us.’ Cf. the Platonic μελέτη θανάτου.

The portrayal of death as a kind of relief is a recurrent theme in Euripides’ play; ‘for swift death is a mercy for a man in misfortune’ (Hipp. 1047); ‘may death come to me as healer!’ (Hipp. 1373); ‘O that the dark necessity of death’s night would lay me, unhappy man, to rest’ (Hipp. 1387-8)

 

Page 280

                             We should never

have come to Troezen. Here everything is yours. The eyes of Pittheus

Spy on me in the darkness lest I snatch some part of your purity –

A blue feather, as I said. In Athens

Things were different; I had my own space.

 

*The verse is considered to be an interpolation

Troezen is also the setting of Euripides’ play; see 12, 29. See also 34-6, where Euripides provides the reason for Theseus’ and Phaedra’s journey there.

The reference to Pittheus, the grandfather of Hippolytus, is an allusion to Eur. Hipp. 691*, where Phaedra worries lest Hippolytus informs his grandfather Pittheus’ about her passion.  

 

 Page 281

                                                  and from my fingers

hangs that familiar chain of yours with the tiny cross

[….]

                     (yes,

I stole it from you.

The cross that Phaedra steals from Hippolytus echoes Eur. Hipp. 513-5, where the Nurse advises Phaedra that she should be rid of her malady if only she could steal a token from Hippolytus — a lock of hair or a piece of cloth. The cross that Ritsos’ Phaedra steals from Hippolytus only worsens her malady and makes her feel even more attached to him.

  

Page 281

Or like newborn creatures seeking their nourishment in a treacherous

   thicket

wild from their hunger, with a second, stronger, hunger – 

Page 287

                                                                and on top of that

you’re afraid that the whole mask may come unstuck

from the involuntary contraction of a smile and fall

into your plate of roast chicken, at the precise moment

when you’re saying “I’m not hungry at all”, so that there’ll be revealed,

in utter nakedness, your fierce, unassuageable hunger

The reference to ‘hunger’ brings to mind Phaedra’s starvation in Eur. Hipp. 135-8. However, whereas Euripides refers to physical hunger, the hunger of Ritsos’ Phaedra is an emotional and sexual one.

 

Page 283

I remember a wild white horse, hobbled to a tree. How his tail and mane

[…]

under the dazzling white of his coat!

The imagery of the tethered horse that finally sets itself free echoes the description of Hippolytus’ accident by the Messenger in Eur. Hipp. 1234-46; entangled in the reins at first, in a seemingly unloosable bond, he is eventually cut loose, but this ‘freedom’ proves to be fatal.

 

Page 283

                                                                               (Perhaps

No freedom can be won without some sacrifice on our part.)

Euripides’ Phaedra commits suicide in order to salvage her honour and prevent her husband and children from being disgraced (419-23). Ritsos’ Phaedra is not preoccupied with such concerns. Her suicide is the only way for her to be entirely free.

 

Pages 285-9

My God, I can’t bear this pretence.

[…]

No, no. I was confessing. The holy,

The humble lie- that I could not sustain. I cut up the mask

And threw it at your feet; I did not perforate it,

I did not cover it with my face.

Ritsos’ Phaedra resolutely gives up all thought of engaging in pretence (see esp. p. 285-9). She is thus in contrast with her Euripidean counterpart, whose principal concern is to conceal her situation (‘she is dying in silence’, 39-40; ‘Nurse, cover my head up again! […] Best to perish in unconsciousness!’ 245-9; ‘on all these questions she is mute’, 273; ‘She hides her misery and denies she is ill’, 279). See also Hipp. 391-402, where Phaedra enumerates the steps she took in order to ‘curb’ and hide her passion.

  

Page 287

Really, why are we to blame for all this? Who wanted it this way?

Not us, anyhow.

An allusion to Hippolytus’ remark in 1433-4 (the motto to Ritsos’ Phaedra): ‘when the gods so ordain, it is to be expected that men will make disastrous mistakes’.

 

Page 289

No, no. I was confessing. The holy,

The humble lie – that I could not sustain.

Contrast the Nurse’s remark in Eur. Hip. 465-6: ‘This is one of the wise principles mortals follow – dishonourable deeds should remain hidden from view’.

 

Page 291

I suspect I am not a corpse. I suspect my own ruse. I know

That genuine death neither reproves nor judges.

Perfect death, peaceful and terminal,

Is blind deaf and dump, like pure white. I know it.

Contrast the Euripidean Phaedra’s ruse just before committing suicide: ‘Βut my death will prove a bane to someone else so that he may learn not to exult over my misfortune; by sharing with me in this malady he will learn moderation’ (715-8, 728-31). Her own death, contrary to that of Ritsos’ heroine, is a means of reproach and judgement.

 

Page 291

Why do you sit there as though turned to stone, in an attitude of

     disapproval,

and perhaps with an expression of mockery, of sullied purity.

Hippolytus makes a number of references to his chastity throughout the play: see, e.g., 994-5, 1002-6, 1100-1, 1364-5

The reference to Hippolytus’ ‘mockery’ may perhaps allude to his misogynistic outburst in Euripides, when the Nurse confides Phaedra’s secret passion to him (601-68)

 

Page 291

Away

     with you now

and wash of the sweat and dust of your splendid, solitary* hunt!*

*We substitute ‘solitary’ for Green and Bardsley’s ‘monastic’

Phaedra’s outburst, especially her reference to Ηippolytus’ ‘monastic hunt’, brings to mind Theseus’ criticism of Hippolytus’ beliefs  in 952-4: ‘Continue then your confident boasting, adopt a meatless diet and play the showman with your food, make Orpheus your lord and engage in mystic rites, holding the vaporings of many books in honour!’; see also 949.   

 

Page 292

And I, at the window,

Witness the scarlet stream by the sidewalk and am deeply embittered,

Not so much for those killed as for that umbrella above the steps

And for those five children, my own,

My fantasy children, more mine than those I bore. Do you suppose

Woman’s purpose is procreation? Or could her involuntary

Purpose be love?  –  the martyrdom and glory of mankind.

The Euripidean Phaedra mentions her children several times and shows herself concerned about safeguarding their honour  (419-27). In Ritsos, she refers to her children once; yet, even then she boldly states that her fantasy children (presumably by Hippolytus) are ‘more mine that those I bore’ .

The reference to children and procreation alludes to Eur. Hipp. 161-4, where the Chorus supposes that Phaedra might be pregnant. However, the idea of ‘procreation’ and ‘motherhood’, as expressed by Ritsos, is not to be found in Euripides.

  

Page 292

Perhaps one day you’ll learn it as well (what use will it be then?) – 

our own suffering, however slight, torments us

more than the whole world’s pain. Besides, what pain

is slight? You haven’t found that out.

Well,

I shall teach you it –  and let them call it wrongdoing. One man’s

wrongdoing wars with another’s, and sometime wins

An allusion to Phaedra’s words in Eur. Hipp. 730-1: ‘But my death will prove a bane to someone else so that he may learn not to exult over my misfortune; by sharing with me in this malady he will learn moderation’.

  

Page 293

Begone, I tell you –  I

        can’t stand

the insult of your silence. My vengeance is set. You’ll see. A pity – 

you won’t have long to remember it. 

Phaedra’s outburst recalls Euripides, Hipp. 728-31. However, in Euripides she only hints at her revenge, whereas in Ritsos she is quite outspoken. 

 

Page 293

Begone, I tell you – I

   can’t stand

the insult of your silence

Silence is a common theme in Euripides’ play, even though there it does not function as a sign of despair; ‘Well, why are you silent? You ought not to be silent, child, but should either refute me if I have said something amiss or agree with what has been said aright. Say something!’(295-300); ‘What, silent? Silence is no use in misfortune.’(911).  

 

Page 293

 Off with you to your bath,

go and wash yourself clean of my vile words, vile eyes.

my red, befouled eyes.

The reference to the bath recalls Eur. Hipp. 653-5: once informed by the Nurse about Phaedra’s passion, Hippolytus wishes to have a bath in order to cleanse himself: ‘I shall pour running water into my ears to wash away your proposals! How could I be such a traitor? The very sound of such things makes me feel unclean!’ Ironically, in Ritsos it is Phaedra who encourages Hippolytus to go and have a bath after her confession.  

 

Page 293-Closing Stage Directions

The hanged woman dangling from the roofbeam. Tucked in her girdle, a large sheet of paper.

Just like her Euripidean counterpart, Ritsos’ Phaedra also leaves an accusatory message. However, whereas in Euripides the tablet is hanging from Phaedra’s hand (857-8), in Ritsos the message (now written in paper) is tucked in her girdle.  The difference is noteworthy, if we take into account that the girdle used to symbolise a woman’s ‘chastity’. By tucking the message on her girdle Phaedra draws attention to the fact that her girdle is still fastened and intact.

 

Page 293-4 – Closing stage -directions

A curse. The grim sentence of exile. People come running – slaves, wagoners, the old Nurse, maidservants. The young man appears from his bath, naked, dripping all over, with a towel wrapped round his waist. He hears his condemnation in silence. He kneels.

Contrast Eur. Hipp. 921-1103, where Hippolytus reacts in anger to his father’s curse, trying to convince him of his innocence.

 

Page 294-Closing stage- directions

Outside in the courtyard the lamps of the two wagons – the one that just arrived, and the other one that has been prepared at lightning speed to remove the exile –  cast the shadows of the two statues, of Aphrodite and Artemis, in a cross on the body of the hanged woman.

In Euripides’ play Aphrodite and Artemis play a central and prominent role; they are the two divine powers that move the threads of the action. In Ritsos their presence is reduced to this symbolic reference to their statues at the end of the poem. The cross-shaped shadow of the two statues – apparently a Christian symbol – ingeniously visualises what Phaedra has been referring to as her ‘martyrdom’ in the poem (symbolised by the stolen cross of Hippolytus that she wears – ironically defined as ‘tiny’ (p. 281)). The cross in a way renders her into a kind of ‘saint’, even though she explicitly differentiates herself from saints in her monologue (pp. 288-9).   

 

Language

Page 281

and you, the unknowing, so haughty (ὑπερόπτης), delightfully innocent,

adorably innocent

The adjective ‘ὑπερόπτης’ brings to mind Phaedra’s description of Hippolytus as being ‘ὑψηλὸς’ over her misfortunes (730).

 

Page 287

What a childish story: strange, strange (ξένη, ξένη)*

*Apart from ‘strange’, ξένη could also mean ‘foreign’. In this sense, the statement could be seen as an allusion to Eur. Hipp. 32, where Phaedra’s  love is defined as ‘foreign’ (ἔκδημον ἔρωτα).

 

Page 289

Someone bangs the garden gate knocker (ρόπτρον). The gardener is dead.

Interestingly, the word ‘ρόπτρον’ is used by Euripides, with reference to Justice: “How did he perish? Tell me, how did the cudgel (ρόπτρον) of Justice strike him for dishonouring me?” (Ηipp. 1171-2).

 

Mythic Characters

 

In Euripides’ Hippolytus there are 9 dramatis personae: Aphrodite, Artemis, Hippolytus, Phaedra, Phaedra’s Nurse, Theseus, a Messenger, the Chorus consisting of women of Troezen, and a secondary Chorus comprising Hippolytus’ servants. Ritsos keeps only two characters, Phaedra and Hippolytus, perhaps under the influence of Seneca’s Phaedra and/or Racine’s Phèdre, in which the antithesis between the two principal characters is more prominent than in Euripides. Even though he does not refer to them by name (a practice common throughout Ritsos’ Fourth Dimension), they are recognisable through the descriptions he provides in the prologue and epilogue, as well as from the content of the poem per se. Theseus and Phaedra’s Nurse are mentioned fleetingly in the poem.

 

Phaedra

In the prologue Phaedra is adumbrated as a sensuous woman in her forties. Throughout the poem she persistently stares at Hippolytus in a manner suggesting lustful desire: ‘the woman eyes his shapely legs, reddened rather than tanned from the sun…..All the time she keeps her eyes on his legs, not on his face – scrutinizing his calves…. and his shining, even toenails…’(Green and Bardsley 276). Unlike Euripides’ Phaedra, who is half delirious and pines away in silence because of her passion, Ritsos’ Phaedra explicitly and boldly expresses her scandalous desires (just as Seneca’s Phaedra does, eventually). Her stance is prefigured by the provocative way in which she lights a cigarette just before embarking upon her monologue.

 

Hippolytus

In the opening stage-directions Hippolytus is presented as a handsome, young man with golden hair. He has just returned from hunting. He greets Phaedra with respect, as well as with a degree of awkwardness. Whereas in Euripides Hippolytus plays a central role in the story and rigorously expresses his purity, as well as his contempt for women and sex, in Ritsos he remains silent and passive throughout. This passivity is also evident in the closing stage-directions, where, unlike his Euripidean counterpart, he accepts his father’s condemnation in silence. Furthermore, whereas in Euripides Hippolytus’ chastity prevails at the end of the play, in Ritsos this chastity is undermined, and intimations of Hippolytus’ guilt come to the fore – an accusation that he himself seems implicitly to admit by his silence and passivity.

 

Nurse

In Euripides the Nurse plays a central role; she is the one who tries to console Phaedra and who reveals the latter’s secret passion to Hippolytus. In Ritsos she is mentioned fleetingly in the opening stage-directions and thrice by Phaedra (Green and Bardsley 280, 281, 292). The Nurse appears onstage only in the epilogue, just after Phaedra’s suicide.

 

Bibliography

Choreanthis, K. 1988.  “Tα τραγικά προσωπεία ενός ποιητή”, Diavazo 205: 67-76.

Georgosopoulos, K. 2009. “Oι ηρωίδες των μονολόγων”, Tο dendro 169-70: 51-53.

Jeffreys, M. 1994. “Reading in the Fourth Dimension”, Modern Greek Studies 2: 61-105.

Prevelakis, P. 19923. Ο ποιητής Γιάννης Ρίτσος. Συνολική θεώρηση του Έργου του, Athens, 543-53.

Prokopaki, C. 2009. “H πορφύρα της Φαίδρας“, Γιάννης Ρίτσος –  Λόγος και Μουσική, Βenaki Museum, Athens: 17-25.

Savas, M. 1996. “Ο Ευριπίδης επαυξημένος μέσα από τη Φαίδρα του Γιάννη Ρίτσου”,  Porphyras 79: 36-42.

Trombino, R. 1990. “La Fedra di Ghiannis Ritsos: note di lettura”, Dioniso 60: 75-81.

Zoras, G. G. 1988. “Ο μύθος του Ιππόλυτου στους αρχαίους συγγραφείς και στον Ρίτσο”, Diavazo 205: 99-104. 

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