A Play by Jean Baptiste Racine (1639-1699)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Structure and Style
Verse Format and Rhyme
Plot Summary
Conflict and Theme
Racine and Jansenism
Depiction of Love
Mythological Background
Complete Free Text
Author Information
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
Revised in 2010.©

Type of Work, Publication Year, and Source

.......Phaedra, a stage play, is a tragedy in five acts. The drama, generally recognized as Racine's finest achievement, was published in 1677. He based it on an ancient Greek play, Hippolytus, by Euripides (484-406 BC). 


.......Phaedra (Phèdre) is a French play. Because French and English frequently differ in syntax and in other ways, translations of the play do not fully capture the subtleties, meter, or rhyming patterns of the original. In fact, many translators do not attempt to match the meter or rhyming patterns. However, using their own creative talents, translators are able to capture the spirit of the original. 
.......This study guide used the original French text and a worthy English translation by Robert Bruce Boswell. 


.......The play is set at the royal court in Troezen, a town in southern Greece on a large peninsula known as the Peloponnesus (also Peloponnese or Pelopónnisos). To locate Troezen on a map of Greece, look at the extreme southwestern portion of the country. Notice that this portion resembles a hand, with the little finger on the west and the thumb on the east. This "hand" is the Peloponnesus. Troezen is on the thumb. 
.......To the northeast of Troezen, across a small body of water called the Saronic Gulf (also Gulf of Saronikós or Gulf of Aegina) is Athens. The play focuses on Phaedra, wife of Theseus, King of Athens. Normally, the royal family would reside in Athens. However, the court was moved temporarily to Troezen after a period of  upheaval in Athens in which Theseus killed political enemies. The stay at Troezen gives him an opportunity to wash the blood of his enemies from his mind while revisiting a favorite retreatTroezen was the birthplace of Theseus. Following are place names in the play in English and French:

Troezen (Trézène)
Athens (Athènes)
Corinth (Corinthe) 
Peloponnese (Péloponnèse)
Greece (Grèce)
Crete (Crète)
Sparta (Sparte)
Acheron (Achéron): River in Hades
Labyrinth (Labyrinthe): Abode of the minotaur. (See Mythological Background, below).


Protagonist: Phaedra
Antagonists: Phaedra's uncontrollable passion; fate; Venus

Phaedra (Phèdre): Queen of Athens, second wife of Theseus, stepmother of Hippolytus, and daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë. She falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus.
Hippolytus (Hippolyte): Biological son of Theseus and Antiope, the Queen of the Amazons. 
Theseus (Thésée): King of Athens. 
Aricia (Aricie): Princess of Athens and a possible heir to the throne of Athens . 
Oenone (Œnone): Nurse and confidante of Phaedra. 
Theramenes (Théramène): Tutor of Hippolytus. 
Ismene (Ismène): Close friend of Aricia. 
Panope (Panope): Servant woman and messenger of Phaedra. 
Guards (Gardes).

Characters Who Are Mentioned in the Dialogue but Do Not Speak or Participate in the Action

Antiope (Antiope): Deceased mother of Hippolytus. She was a queen of the Amazons. 
Aegius (Égée): Father of Theseus.
Minos (Minos): King of Crete and father of Phaedra.
Pasiphaë (Pasiphaé): Mother of Phaedra. 
Medea (Médée): She obtains poison for Phaedra.
Hercules (Hercule): Greek hero with enormous strength. His Greek name is Herakles.
Venus (Vénus): Goddess of love. Her Greek name is Aphrodite.
Diana (Diane): Goddess of hunting and the moon. Her Greek name is Artemis.
Juno (Junon): Queen of the Olympian gods. Her Greek name is Hera.
Neptune (Neptune): God of the sea. His Greek name is Poseidon. 

Structure and Style

.......The action takes place in a single day in a single location (Troezen) while centering primarily on Phaedra's forbidden love for her stepson, Hippolytus, and the way she deals with it. Plot developments generally grow out of the characters rather than contrived situations, a major strength of the play. The play is compact and streamlined, with hardly a wasted word. Although the language is elegant and formal, it is also easy to understand, except perhaps for allusions to mythological personages and events. For additional information on Racine's writing, see Author Information, below. 

Verse Format and Rhyme

.......Racine wrote the play in Alexandrine verse. In this format, lines contain twelve syllables (and sometimes thirteen). The lines are iambic, and major accents occur on the sixth and twelfth syllables; two minor accents occur, one before the sixth syllable and one before the twelfth syllable. A pause (caesura) occurs immediately after the sixth syllable. Generally, there is no enjambment in the French Alexandrine line. However, enjambment does occur in English translations of Alexandrine verse. The name Alexandrine derives from a twelfth-century work about Alexander the Great that was written in this verse format. Rhyming couplets occur throughout the play, as in the following lines, in which Hippolytus talks with Theramenes (Théramène) about the absence of Theseus (Thésée), about Phaedra (Phèdre), and about his plans to search for Theseus. Theramenes replies with questions about why Hippolytus wants to leave his homeland  

    Cher Théramène, arrête, et respecte Thésée.  
    De ses jeunes erreurs désormais revenu 
    Par un indigne obstacle il n'est point retenu 
    Et fixant de ses voeux l'inconstance fatale 
    Phèdre depuis longtemps ne craint plus de rivale 
    Enfin en le cherchant je suivrai mon devoir 
    Et je fuirai ces lieux que je n'ose plus voir 
    Hé ! depuis quand, Seigneur, craignez-vous la présence
    De ces paisibles lieux, si chers à votre enfance,
    Et dont je vous ai vu préférer le séjour
    Au tumulte pompeux d'Athènes et de la cour?
    Quel péril, ou plutôt quel chagrin vous en chasse? 
Rhyming couplets do not appear in Robert Bruce Boswell's translation of the play, as his rendering of the above passage indicates:
Cease, dear Theramenes, respect the name
Of Theseus. Youthful errors have been left
Behind, and no unworthy obstacle
Detains him. Phaedra long has fix'd a heart
Inconstant once, nor need she fear a rival.
In seeking him I shall but do my duty,
And leave a place I dare no longer see.
Indeed! When, prince, did you begin to dread
These peaceful haunts, so dear to happy childhood,
Where I have seen you oft prefer to stay,
Rather than meet the tumult and the pomp
Of Athens and the court? What danger shun you,
Or shall I say what grief?
Not all the lines in the play are Alexandrine. For example, dialogue with short comments does not follow this verse format. Following is a passage with such dialogue.
Ah, dieux !
Ce reproche vous touche.

Ye gods!
Ah, this reproach
Moves you!

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006

.......Hippolytus is worried about his father, Theseus, King of Athens, who has been gone from the royal court at Troezen for six months. (Troezen is southwest of Athens, across a small body of water known as the Saronic Gulf. Theseus moved his court there temporarily in the aftermath of a political struggle in which he killed members of the Pallas family.) No one knows where he is or why he left. When Hippolytus announces plans to search for his father, his tutor Theramenes discourages the young prince. After all, Theramenes himself has already traveled to nearby lands to find him, to no avail. Perhaps, Theramenes says, Theseus wishes to keep his whereabouts a secret. 
.......But Hippolytus is determined to go. Theramenes thinks one reason for his planned trip is animosity between Hippolytus and his stepmother, Queen Phaedra. However, Hippolytus says Phaedra is not the reason. He explains that his homeland has become an unhappy place because of his inability to woo Princess Aricia. He loves her, but she comes from the Pallas family, enemies of Theseus. Theseus killed her evil brothers but did no harm to gentle Aricia, for she was guiltless. Afterward, Theseus decreed that she was not to marry and not to bear children, for their veins would run with the villainous blood of her family. Thus, Aricia is off limits to Hippolytus. However, if Hippolytus can find Theseus and persuade him to revoke his decree, Hippolytus will be free to court Aricia. (Ironically, because of her ancestry, Aricia has a claim to the throne of Athens in the event of the death of Theseus.) 
.......Although Hippolytus believes Phaedra hates him, he goes to her chambers to say goodbye. However, when her nurse and confidante, Oenone, tells him she is very ill, Hippolytus leaves. 
.......Later, Oenone tries to rally Phaedra, who has not eaten in three days. Believing that hatred of Hippolytus is the cause of her illness, she urges Phaedra not to tolerate him. At the mention of his name, Phaedra reacts animatedly, then confides to Oenone a terrible secret: She does not hate Hippolytus; she loves himher stepson! It is her incestuous desire that sickens her, with terrible guilt. When she arrived in Greece as the bride of Theseus, she fell in love with Hippolytus at first sight. In vain, she says, she has tried to dismiss him from her mind. She prayed to Venus for relief and made sacrifices to her, to no avail. Every time she looked at Theseus, she saw in his face the features of Hippolytus. Finally, in desperation, she had Hippolytus banished from her presence. However, she soon discovered that she could not banish her love for him. It remained. So she wished for death as the only way to end her ill-fated love.  
.......Meanwhile, Phaedra’s servant girl Panope informs Phaedra that ships have arrived with news of the death of Theseus. As a result, there may be a struggle for power in which Hippolytus, Aricia, and one of Phaedra’s biological sons will all claim the throne. Oenone then argues that Phaedra should now confess to Hippolytus her love for him and support his claim to the throne. If she fails to do so, Hippolytus might organize a rebellion and claim the throne on his own.  
.......Elsewhere, Aricia harbors doubt about whether Theseus is really dead. When she asks her best friend, Ismene, how he died, Ismene says there are various accountsone saying that he drowned and another that he entered the Underworld but was not permitted to leave. Aricia asks why he would want to enter the Underworld. But Ismene says all that matters now is that he is dead.  
.......Aricia believes Hippolytus despises her because of his avoidance of her. Nevertheless, she asks Ismene whether he will be a kind king. Ismene says he probably will be. What is more, she says, Hippoytus does not despise her but loves her. Ismeme says she reached this conclusion observing the way Hippolytus acts around Ariciaalways looking at her lovingly, unable to take his eyes off her. 
.......After Hippolytus informs Aricia of his father’s death, he releases her from the restrictions his father imposed on her. She is free to do as she pleases. He further informs her that Athens is divided over who will succeed to the throne: Aricia, Phaedra’s son, and Hippolytus each have a claim on it. Hippolytus says his right to the throne takes precedence over that of Phaedra’s son. However, because his mother (the Amazon queen Antiope) was a foreigner, his claim to the throne does not supercede Aricia’s. Therefore, he says, he yields the crown to Aricia and will do all he can to rally support behind her. His generosity stuns her, especially since she thought he had long hated her. Hippolytus then discloses that he never hated her; in fact, he has always loved her. 
.......Theramenes interrupts to tell Hippolytus that Phaedra approaches to speak to Hippolytus. Before Aricia and Hippolytus part, Aricia says she will accept his offer of the throne. However, it is not the throne she most prizes; it is the love of Hippolytus. 
.......Phaedra offers Hippolytus her sympathy for the loss of his father and says she worries about the fate of her son, for Hippolytus has every right to oppose him now in the contest for the throne. Hippolytus is conciliatory, but he still holds out hope that Theseus is alive. Phaedra does not entertain this hope, saying Theseus is in the house of the dead and will never return. However, she says she still sees himin the face of Hippolytus, then reveals her love for him. Her disclosure shocks him, and he says he can no longer stand the sight of her. Phaedra explains that she feels shame and guilt for loving him so, but says that a “poison” infects her and that she detests herself more than he does.  
.......Later, when Hippolytus sees Theramenes, he is about to tell him of Phaedra’s disclosure but decides to hold his tongue, deciding that her secret should not be repeated. Theramenes then announces that Phaedra’s son has received the crown. He further says a rumor is circulating that Theseus is alive and has been seen in the town of Epirus. 
.......Meanwhile, Oenone informs Phaedra that Theseus is indeed alive and has returned from his travels. Phaedra now worries that Hippolytus will tell Theseus of her confession of love to Hippolytus. Hippolytus would like nothing better, Oenone says, than to degrade her. She persuades Phaedra to agree to a scheme in which Oenone will accuse Hippolytus of accosting Phaedra.  
.......When Theseus and Hippolytus reunite, Hippolytus makes no mention of Phaedra’s confession of love for him. Rather, he tells Theseus that he plans to leave his native land in search of adventure, thus following in his father’s footsteps..Theseus is disappointed. His homecoming, he says, has not been a happy one, not only because of Hippolytus’s desire to go off on his own but also because of what Phaedra has told him: that someone betrayed him in his absence. Hippolytus thinks Phaedra means to confess her incestuous desire to Theseus.  
.......Then Oenone carries out her plan, telling Theseus that Hippolytus accosted Phaedra. Outraged, Theseus vents his wrath on Hippolytus when next they meet, calling his son a traitor and a monster. Hippolytus declares his innocence and says it is Aricia whom he loves, not Phaedra. Theseus refuses to believe his son and petitions the god Neptune, who owes Theseus a favor, to punish him.  
.......Phaedra, remorseful now, pleads with Theseus to spare Hippolytus. Theseus, unrelenting, tells Phaedra that Hippolytus slandered her, saying she lied when she accused Hippolytus of incestuous desire. Theseus also says Hippolytus tried to save himself by claiming that he loved Aricia. Until this moment, Phaedra was ready to confess her wrongdoing. However, hearing that Hippolytus loves Aricia fires her jealousy, and she decides to continue with her deception.  
.......Hippolytus leaves as planned after he and Aricia agree to marry in the near future at a temple outside Troezen. Theseus and Aricia meet shortly thereafter. She tells Theseus that Hippolytus cares deeply for her. Theseus replies that Hippolytus has an “inconstant heart.” Aricia then defends Hippolytus against “vilest slanders [that] make a life so pure as black as pitch.” Theseus now has second thoughts about the accusations against his son.  
.......Elsewhere, Phaedra, weighted down by guilt and deeply disturbed at the outcome of the scheme against Hippolytus, turns against Oenone as a purveyor of bad advice and casts her out of her sight. Disheartened, Oenone hurls herself into the ocean and drowns. Shortly thereafter, Theramenes tells Theseus that Hippolytus is also dead. While traveling out of Troezen in his chariot, a monster arose from the sea and frightened the horses. Hippolytus became entangled in the reins and was dragged a considerable distance, suffering fatal injuries. With his dying breath, he declared his innocence and requested that his father treat Aricia kindly.  
.......In the final scene of the play, Phaedra confesses to Theseus that Hippolytus was innocent of wrongdoing; he was telling the truth. She also says she has taken a poison brought to her from Athens. 

.......After she dies, Theseus declares that his son will receive all the honors his memory deserves and, to appease the ghost of Hippolytus, he adopts Aricia.Plot Summary In French....Complete Text in French
Conflict and Theme: Phaedra’s Struggle With a Forbidden Passion

.......Phaedra burns with a forbidden passionher love for her stepson, Hippolytus. Although she has struggled mightily to subdue this passion and even arranged the banishment of Hippolytus, her desire for him remains strong. Even when he is absent, he is with her, occupying her every thought. Phaedra blames Venus for her predicament, maintaining that the goddess has infected her with unrelenting passion.  

    Venus I felt in all my fever'd frame, 
    Whose fury had so many of my race 
    Pursued. With fervent vows I sought to shun 
    Her torments, built and deck'd for her a shrine, 
    And there, 'mid countless victims did I seek 
    The reason I had lost; but all for naught, 
    No remedy could cure the wounds of love!
.......Blaming Venus, or fate, is a way for Phaedra to call herself a child of misfortune who, through no fault of her own, has been cursed with tormenting passion. However, Phaedra blames herself for yielding to this passionin thought if not in deed. She tells Oenone, “When you shall know / My crime, my death will follow none the less, / But with the added stain of guilt.” Thus, Phaedra is in conflict with herself as well as forces outside of herself. 
.......Could it be, though, that Phaedra is psychologically unbalanced or genetically predisposed toward inordinate desires? In our own day, newspapers regularly report stories about female teachers “in love” with students, stepparents “in love” with a stepson or stepdaughter, and child molesters who “can’t help” themselves and repeat their offenses even after doing time in prisons. One thing is certain: Phaedra herself consciously and willfully seals her doom when she goes along with Oenone’s scheme to accuse Hippolytus of accosting her. Her tragedy becomes everyone’s tragedy. Hippolytus dies. Oenone dies. And, of course, Phaedra dies. Theseus is left without a wife or a son. Aricia’s future with Hippolytus is destroyed. 


.......The climax occurs when Phaedra shocks Hippolytus by revealing that she loves him. His rejection of her sets in motion events resulting in his own death and the deaths of Oenone, and, of course, Phaedra. 

Racine and Jansenism

.......Jean Baptiste Racine received his education at a school operated by followers of Jansenism, a heretical Roman Catholic movement that affirmed predestination. Cornelius Otto Jansen (1585-1638), a Flemish theologian, and Jean Duvergier de Hauranne (1581-1643), a French theologian, founded Jansenism in the first half of the seventeenth century after studying the views of St. Augustine (354-430) and Flemish theologian Michael Baius (1513-1589). Jansenists held that God predestines a person for heaven or hell. Though a person may exercise free will in carrying out individual acts (which may be good or bad), he or she cannot change the mind of God or cannot “earn” heaven, Jansenists maintained. Only the freely given grace of God can mark a human for eternal bliss. 
.......Scholars have linked Racine’s depiction of Phaedra to his Jansenist beliefs. They point out that fate appears to have singled her out for a downfall. Yes, she exercises free will, but every decision she makes only intensifies her dilemma. Her mother was fated by the god Neptune (Poseidon) to mate with a bull. Phaedra was fated by the goddess Venus to desire incestuous loveor so Phaedra claims. 
.......Of course, fate played a major role in ancient Greek plays, such as Oedipus the King. It may well be that Racine was imitating a convention developed by the Greeks. It may well be, too, that he intended Phaedra to be a victim of her own moral shortcomings, notwithstandng her family background and the gods.

The Different Kinds of Love

.......The play depicts several kinds of love: perverted love (of Phaedra for her stepson, Hippolytus); normal romantic love (between Hippolytus and Aricia); familial love (between Hippolytus and his father); and friendship (between Theramenes and Hippolytus and between Aricia and Ismene). Still another kind of love is the fierce, protective love exhibited by Oenone, who is willing to slander Hippolytus on behalf of her mistress, Phaedra. Each kind of love except friendship goes tragically wrong.  

Mythological Background: Theseus, the Minotaur, and Phaedra

.......Theseus, one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology, was the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, and Aethra, daughter of the King of Troezen, another Greek city. On his way from Troezen to Athens as a teenager, Theseus rid the countryside of sadistic villains and fearsome monsters. In Athens, his father pronounced him heir to the throne.  
.......Later, on one of his most famous exploits, Theseus traveled to Crete to kill the minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. It was in Crete that Theseus met Phaedra. The minotaur came into existence in the following way: 
.......King Minos of Crete had received a wondrous white bull from the god of the sea, Poseidon (Neptune), with instructions to sacrifice it to Poseidon. However, Minos sacrificed another bull in its place and kept the white bull for himself. In retaliation, Poseidon cast a spell on Minos’s wife, Queen Pasiphaë (the mother of Phaedra), that caused Pasiphaë to fall in love with the bull. Poseidon also caused the bull to go mad. After love-drunk Pasiphaë mated with the crazed beast, she gave birth to the monstrous minotaur. To hide this shameful offspring of his wife and thus avoid ridicule, Minos imprisoned the minotaur in a vast labyrinth constructed by a highly skilled architect and sculptor, Daedalus. Meanwhile, the mad white bull was captured by Hercules on one of his adventures, but it was later released and allowed to run wild. After wandering, it ended up in Athens.  
.......When an athletic competition was held in Athens, a son of Minos, Androgeos, was killed while fighting the mad white bull. (According to another account, athletes killed him while he was on his way to another competition in Thebes). Minos blamed the Athenians for his son’s death and waged war against them. When he asked the king of the Greek gods, Zeus, to aid him, Zeus responded by cursing Athens with disease and starvation. There was only one way for Athens to escape ruin: It had to send seven young men and seven young women to Crete periodically to be cast into the laybyrinth. The labyrinth of Daedalus was constructed in such a way that the 14 young men and women could not find their way out and were consumed by the minotaur.  
.......Several years passed in which the flower of Athenian youth died in the labyrinth. When the time came for the selection of seven more maidens and seven more men, Theseus volunteered to become one of the victims. Minos had a large family, including several sons and four daughters, among them Phaedra and Ariadne. Ariadne, who fell in love with Theseus, was the only person besides Daedalus, who knew the layout of the labyrinth. To save Theseus, she gave him a sword and arranged a way for him to escape the labyrinth. Theseus slew the minotaur and took Ariadne with him on his return to Greece. However, he abandoned her on the island of Naxos while she was sleeping.  
.......While approaching the coast of Greece, Theseus neglected to raise a white sail, a prearranged signal to his father, King Aegeus, that he was alive and well. Consequently, Aegeus killed himself. Shortly thereafter, Theseus became King of Athens. On another adventure, he captured and married Antiope (in some accounts, she is called Hippolyta or Hippolyte) the Queen of the Amazons, a race of warlike women, and fathered a male child by her, Hippolytus. When the Amazons later invaded Athens, Antiope died fighting for Athens and Theseus. By the time Theseus’s son, Hippolytus, had reached his teen years, Theseus had taken a second wife, Phaedra, the daughter of Minos. When she first saw her stepson, she fell in love with him. (This forbidden love is the subject of Racine’s play.)  
.......Meanwhile, the architect Daedalus fell out of favor with Minos, and the king imprisoned him in the labyrinth. However, Daedalus designed himself a pair of wings that enabled him to fly out of the labyrinth. He took refuge in Sicily, where he made friends with the king, Cocalus. After Minos followed him there, the daughters of Cocalus killed him by pouring boiling water on him while he was bathing. Minos then became a judge in the Underworld.

Author Information
From the Translator's Introduction to Phaedra
By Robert Bruce Boswell

.......Jean Baptiste Racine, the younger contemporary of Corneille, and his rival for supremacy in French classical tragedy, was born at Ferte-Milon, December 21, 1639. He was educated at the College of Beauvais, the Jansenist school at Port Royal, and the College d'Harcourt. He attracted notice by an ode written for the marriage of Louis XIV in 1660 and [gained recognition] with his Andromaque. His tragic masterpieces include Britannicus, Berenice, Bajazet, Mithridate, Iphigenie, and Phaedra, all written between 1669 and 1677. Then for some years he gave up dramatic composition, disgusted by the intrigues of enemies who sought to injure his career by exalting an unworthy rival. In 1689 Racine resumed his work under the persuasion of Mme. de Maintenon and produced Esther and Athalie, the latter ranking among his finest productions, although it did not receive public recognition until some time after his death in 1699. Besides his tragedies, Racine wrote one comedy, Les Plaideurs.


Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • To what extent does fate (or the gods) play a role in Phaedra's destiny? (See Racine and Jansenism, above, for information on this topic.  
  • To what extent does Phaedra's family history—including traits she may have inherited from her mother—play a role in Phaedra's destiny? (See Mythological Background, above.)  
  • Write an essay focusing on parallel situations in the play. An example of parallel situations is Phaedra's inability to cultivate Hippolytus (because society and morality forbid love between a mother and her stepson) and Hippolytus's inability to court Aricia (because Theseus forbade Aricia to marry).    
  • Compare and contrast Phaedra and Aricia. 
  • Is Phaedra's love for Hippolytus actually lust rather than true love? Explain your answer. 
  • Explain the role of each of the following in the play: jealousy, obedience, shame, deception, honor
  • Which character in the play do you most admire? 
  • Which character in the play do you least admire? 
  • For English students learning to speak French: Translate a scene in the play from the original French to modern English.