Seneca’s Phaedra and the difference between fate and character

Phaedra and Hippolytus, by Josef Geirnaert (1791-1857)

A few months ago I went to the wonderful Brooklyn Academic of Music to see a modern rendition (actually, multiple versions) of the story of Phaedra. It was, as is often the case with BAM’s “Next Wave” festival, a strange play, and not necessarily an improvement on the original, by the Greek dramatist Euripides. Interestingly, Seneca too wrote a version of Phaedra, one that directly influenced Shakespeare. Seneca’s Phaedra, however, is a more subtle study than Euripides’ in the character of the protagonist, and it is written so to convey some basic Stoic ideas. It may, therefore, be instructive to take a closer look.

The outline of the main story is well known. Phaedra is Theseus’ wife and the stepmother of his son, Hippolytus. Theseus has been away for a long time, attempting to abduct Persephone from the Underworld. Phaedra has become melancholic, and — more worrisome — is falling in love with Hippolytus.

Phaedra’s old nurse warns her not to indulge in thoughts about Hippolytus, because only evil will come of them. Notice two things: first off, this is a major difference between Seneca’s and Euripides’ versions of the story. In the original, the nurse was the malicious character, with Phaedra herself portrayed as a victim of Fate. In Seneca, instead, Phaedra is conscious of the fact that her passion is immoral, and struggles with it. Second, this is a clear instance in a play where someone is experiencing what the Stoics called an “impression” or “appearance” (phantasia), to which she ought not to give “assent.”

Meanwhile, Hippolytus actually detests women (by today’s standards he would be classed not just as sexist, but as downright misogynist). He thinks they are all wicked, using the (in)famous Medea (cited several times, much more sympathetically, in Epictetus’ Discourses) as the quintessential example.

Be that as it may, Phaedra decides to confess her love to Hippolytus, who — predictably — is horrified, and indeed even feels guilty for having stirred up such emotions in his stepmother. It is the nurse, at this point, that entirely unhelpfully suggests to Phaedra that “crime must be concealed by crime.” Sure enough, Phaedra cries out to the citizens of Athens, accusing Hippolytus of having attacked her. At that very moment, to make things worse, Theseus returns from the Underworld.

(Should you be curious, Theseus had gone to the Underworld to kidnap Persephone — a daughter of Zeus — because his friend Pirithous wanted to marry her. That plan didn’t agree with the terrible Furies, who rooted the two friends to a spot in the Underworld in eternal punishment. Luckily for Theseus, Hercules happened by, on his way to perform his 12th task of capturing the hound of Hades, Cerberus. Hercules rescued Theseus, but failed to do the same with Pirithous, who presumably is still waiting down there.)

Theseus sees Phaedra intent on killing herself with a sword, intervenes and asks her what’s going on. Eventually, Phaedra tells him that she has been raped by Hippolytus and, naturally, Theseus goes into a rage, asking his father, the god Neptune, to destroy Hippolytus.

The god, who should have known better (I mean, he’s a god, right?) immediately obliges, calling up a gigantic bull from the depths of the ocean (no, we are not told what was a bull doing underneath the ocean), which attacks Hippolytus’ chariot, tearing apart the unfortunate youth. Hearing the terrible news, Phaedra condemns Theseus for being so harsh, and then kills herself with a sword.

According to the scholar Albert S. Gérard, Seneca’s Phaedra is thoughtful and intelligent, acknowledging the impropriety of her feelings, yet torn between lust and reason. She is not a simplistic embodiment of the evil stepmother, but rather a complex and nuanced human being. She is also, however, ultimately responsible for her actions, as the nurse herself reminds her:

“Impious sin is worse than monstrous passion; for monstrous love thou mayest impute to fate, but crime, to character.”

This, of course, is again the crucial Stoic concept of the dichotomy of control. Fate may give Phaedra the lust that she cannot help but experience (indeed, she explains it as the result of her mother’s unnatural coupling with a bull and that gave birth to the Minotaur, which — in a twist that would have made Freud smile — was killed, of course, by Theseus). But it is her defective character that leads her to give assent to that impression, with the tragic consequences that ensue.

Interestingly, the play was written by Seneca before he became Nero’s tutor, in 54 CE, and was not meant to be performed, but rather to be read to his circle of friends. While it hinges on a Stoic lesson, it doesn’t portray any Stoic character. Hippolytus, for instance, does not behave like a Stoic, because he rejects normal social bonds. Theseus falls prey to anger, which Seneca in several of his essays famously described as temporary madness. The nurse clearly doesn’t behave virtuously. And of course Phaedra herself succumbs to a destructive passion, incapable of giving reason the upper hand. It is a tragedy, after all!

7 thoughts on “Seneca’s Phaedra and the difference between fate and character

  1. tlryder

    Thanks for this lovely essay. I think Seneca did this up right. More overt characterizations of Stoic virtues may have made for a more obvious lesson but a less engaging story.

    I hate to be the typo police, but I shall indulge this time:
    “Theseus falls prey to hanger” <== anger.


  2. labnut

    Not central to your theme, but this part resonates so much with me:

    [482] There is no life so free and innocent, none which better cherishes the ancient ways, than that which, forsaking cities, loves the woods. His heart is inflamed by no mad greed of gain who has devoted himself to harmless ranging on the mountain-tops;

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jmyers8888

    I suspect that the subject of a younger wife being attracted to a stepson closer to her in age than her older husband was popular because it was a common circumstance in ancient Greece. Would it have been as common in ancient Rome?


  4. labnut

    Youth, propinquity, need and loneliness have always been a dangerous combination. Add to that the opportunity that wealth, power and privacy provide and you have temptation that sorely tests character. It is a timeless and universal theme with many variations.

    It is the slippery road of dealing with moral failure which is the most dangerous as it tempts people into even greater moral failure that ends in disastrous consequences. This is the real lesson of Phaedra. We see this mistake playing out today wherever there are prominent people since they have more to lose from exposure.


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