Translated by Catherine Esther Styles
Volume 6, Issue 1 (Spring 2016)
Although Racine’s Phèdre is acknowledged as one of the supreme achievements of European literature, it is not often performed in English. Ironically, it is Racine’s mastery of 17th-century French dramatic conventions and poetic language that makes the work difficult for English-speaking actors and audiences. Intense emotions are expressed but there is very little action on stage. Conflict and passion are contained in a limited vocabulary of some 3,000 words whereas Shakespeare, who was largely responsible for forming English-language theatrical taste, used ten times the number, happily coining new ones along the way. Shakespeare is direct and robust. His darkest tragedies are relieved by ribald comedy. Racine’s language is abstract rather than immediate. There is no hint of humour. English theatre has successfully absorbed Tchekov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Ionesco among many other foreign playwrights. Molière is a standard in mainstream theatrical repertory – the wit sparkles as brilliantly in the second language as it does in French, the satire remains pertinent, situations and characters transfer painlessly into a contemporary setting. Modern-dress versions work supremely well. Later French writers (Cocteau, Anouilh) have taken classical themes and transformed them into dramas compatible with recent taste. Racine’s appeal is limited and productions of his work are most likely to be for a selective audience similar to those who respond to the classical Greek dramas from which he derived a great deal of his inspiration.
Phèdre, the last of his secular plays before he returned to his austere religious convictions, is anchored in its century yet the theme–human desire, guilt and suffering manipulated by implacable destin–s as relevant today as it was some 300 years ago. The challenge for the translator, as for the director and actors, is to respect the original while making this relevance accessible to present-day theatre-goers. Like any other play, it needs to be performed, otherwise it will become a museum-piece, still read by admirers of French literature, historically interesting, but no longer fulfilling its purpose. Plays are written for audiences. Any work intended for the stage only fully comes to life in a theatrical setting.
Many translators have rendered Racine’s compressed French into English, some with scholarly attention to each word, others with more license. No language remains static. English itself changes from generation to generation. For this reason, there can be no final, definitive version of any work. There can, however, be a version valid for its own time, which may be as short as ten years. Preparing such a translation for the theatre compels the English-language writer to test every line for its ‘speakability.’ Not only must the meaning be clear to the audience but euphony (or, when called for, the lack of it), rhythm, and dramatic climaxes should be orchestrated so that the actors can feel that the speeches arise naturally from the situations they are in and reflect the psychology of the character they are playing. The words must ring true for them and for their public. This does not imply radical modernization. The formality and poetic diction of French neo-classical drama needs to be conveyed as well. The English writer is faced with not merely translating a play but also transposing one century into another, enriching the present with the past. Racine himself had an unerring ear for language and dialogue. The lines he wrote run so fluidly in French that they are easily memorized by the actors. This should be the case in English, too. Actors, whose profession is the spoken word, are often the best critics of a playwright.
One of the major challenges for the translator is Racine’s use of alexandrines, rhymed in couplets. For English speakers the alexandrine (hexameter) is a cumbersome metre, slow and laborious. There are exceptions. Spenser chose it for the final line in each stanza of The Faerie Queene and Keats, in The Eve of St Agnes, used it to great sensuous effect. Generally, though, one tends to concur with Pope who, in his own memorable, twelve-syllable line, described the hexameter as “like a wounded snake that drags its sad length along.” This is hardly what is needed in a tragedy noteworthy for the number and length of its tirades, the self-exploratory speeches that make up a good proportion of the play. Some translators have chosen to work in rhyming iambic pentameters. The results were considered ‘poetic’ and were, in fact, apt for their time. English, however, is not as rich in rhymes as French. Today, not only do these older translations sound contrived but English-language audiences have a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. In a tragedy, couplets that grope after rhyme suggest pomposity and invite laughter. At the same time, deftly handled, they add to the bite of Molière’s satiric comedies.
Racine’s restricted vocabulary and his use of mots précieux, which were merely the fashionable poetic euphemisms of the time, offer another challenge. An example is flamme (flame), which he consistently used for “love.” Should one try to echo them in English? It’s rather like asking whether Bach should be played on a baroque clavier or a 21st-century Bechstein – there are valid arguments for either choice. In practice, a flowery diction would sound ludicrous. I settled on translating into a relaxed iambic pentameter with the occasional use of end line and internal rhyme and a generous sprinkling of assonance and alliteration. I avoided evasive expressions and widened the vocabulary. In so doing, I have, like every other translator, taken the unavoidable audacious step of tampering with Racine. I have entered into a kind of co-authorship. Not only that, but I have become part of a large family of “re-writers.” Any translator faced with a major work is likely to refer back to the decisions and insights of those who have interpreted it before. When I first read this work I was, even then, “translating” in the sense that my “take” on it was particular to me. How far dare one change the basic recipe without the result becoming like those so-called French croissants which are sold in Japanese pastry shops without the sugar, with added condiments and are half the size but are claimed to be better than the original? One translates a work so that it can be appreciated by a wider audience but in so doing one cannot avoid reconstructing it.
In 1989 Britain’s Almeida Theatre Company enjoyed some success with a version of Phèdre by Ted Hughes. He transformed the French into a broken free verse intended to convey the power of the original. His muscular semi-prose, while transmitting the feeling of forward movement, fails to retain the subjective intensity of the tirades which are the very essence of the tragedy. The play projects a claustrophobic, hot-house atmosphere. Racine, throughout, uses a repetitive symbolic imagery of light and shade. The queen, descendant of the sun, cannot bear the light of day. The palace of Troezen is a place of shadows and secrets, of self-consuming individual anguish where cruel gods oppress powerless mortals. Racine, like his Greek predecessor, Euripides, was concerned with intense, suffocating female emotion (one of the 20th-century playwrights who comes closest to him in mood is Tennessee Williams). Hughes lets in too much fresh air. His bluff, no-nonsense version deprives the major speeches of their subtly-winding, self-investigatory nature. Instead of colluding with Racine, he subjugates him. If a text merits transposition into another language, then presumably it should retain the major characteristics which made it great in its own.
It is illuminating to take an actual speech and compare the solutions various translators have chosen. When Hippolytus, presented by the queen with her declaration of love for him, tries to feign incomprehension, she turns on him with the words:
Ah! Cruel! Tu m’as trop entendue!
Je t’en ai dit assez pour te tirer d’erreur.
Eh bien! Connais donc Phèdre et toute sa fureur:
J’aime. Ne pense pas qu’au moment que je t’aime,
Innocente à mes yeux, je m’approuve moi-même,
Ni que du fol amour qui trouble ma raison,
Ma lâche complaisance ait nourri le poison… (lines 671– 676)
John Cairncross, whose first version was rejected by the BBC in 1957 with the unanswerable comment that Racine was “untranslatable,” finally decided on these words:
Ah, cruel, you have understood
Only too well. I have revealed enough.
Know Phaedra then, and all her wild desires.
I burn with love. Yet, even as I speak,
Do not imagine I feel innocent,
Nor think that my complacency has fed
The poison of the love that clouds my mind…
R.C. Knight, in 1981, left out any mention of poison at all although, since the queen later dies by this means, an intimation of what is to happen in the future seems to be what Racine intended. Knight wrote:
Ah, leave your heartless lying.
You understand and you have heard enough.
Very well then, you shall learn what Phaedra is
And all her frenzy. Yes; I am in love.
But never think that even while I love you
I can absolve myself, or hide my face
From my own guiltiness.
Ted Hughes decided literally to name his poison. His queen comes across as an unlikely mixture of classical tragédienne and neurotic sixties’ housewife:
Now you torture me worse!
Prince, you have understood me perfectly.
I said enough to show you the truth.
Look at me – see a woman in frenzy.
I am in love.
But do not suppose for a second
I think myself guiltless
For loving you as I love you.
I have not
Indulged myself out of empty boredom.
I have not drunk this strychnine day after day
As an idle refreshment.
“Strychnine” is metaphorical of course, but it is too strong and too specific a word for the context – apart from the fact that one’s reason rebels against the notion that the queen swallows a daily dose of it (she must have an iron constitution). Not only that, but the shrillness of the outburst makes one suspect that Theseus strays out of the palace for a very good reason. The poison she finally does take is a mysterious compound brought by Medea to Athens. It slowly chills her veins and heart. Hughes acknowledges the insidious coldness but chooses to have the effect felt elsewhere, lending a strange banality to her tragic last speech:
I feel my pulses pushing it icily
Into my feet, hands and the roots of my hair.
The daughter of Minos and of Pasiphae dies after having just gone through a spectacularly bad hair day.
I decided that the poison reference in Act II was essential but chose to turn the passage into a series of rhetorical questions:
Torturer! You understood me only too well.
Meet Phaedra at last in her mad ecstasy.
Here she stands, a woman devoured by love.
How do you think I feel in loving you?
Do I admire myself? Did I choose this,
this poison that attacks my very reason?
However, in some other places I have added imagery not found in the original. When Hippolytus says his words preceded his intent to speak them (lines 524-527), I make them “gallop” ahead as an allusion to his love of horses and chariots. The metaphor seems justifiable. The same, however, does not appear true of Knight’s description of the philandering but heroic Theseus as “the butterfly that every beauty lured.” No butterflies hover over Racine’s own grim description of the king’s presumed descent into the underworld to seduce the wife of the ruler of the dead, and to add them seems to introduce an unwarranted, almost flippant note.
None of the above translations is either “right” nor “wrong.” Each is dictated by the writer’s feeling about what Racine meant to say and a poet’s meaning is often present in what is not said. Each is an honourable attempt to transmit the spirit of the original. Nevertheless, when translating Phèdre, it is advisable to bear in mind the “majestic sadness,” which Racine in his introduction described as “the true pleasure” of tragedy.
The Greek legend of the tortured queen’s love for her stepson has been endlessly reworked. It is charged with sexual desire and guilt, both familiar themes today. Racine’s version does depend partly on his handling of the original story but its real impact comes from his use of language. “Don’t say it, show it,” is the advice often given to playwrights today. In 17th-century France violence and sex on stage were forbidden by law. Happily, Racine’s genius for ‘saying it’ coincided with the mores of the time.
Poetic drama is a genre which loses its reason for existence if too many of the words are pruned away. Yet Phèdre is over long by today’s standards and does need to be cut. This is a decision which, in my experience, is best left to the extensive and, no doubt, heated discussions which eventually occur between the translator, now in the role of playwright, and the director.
Phèdre can never be itself in a second language yet it is important that a great work be available for absorption into other cultures or, at least, be allowed to impinge on them. In English, of course, the title becomes Phaedra. The French vowel, with its lovely flicker of light, vanishes, to be replaced by a long English e. Inevitably, regrettably, something is lost in translation. Much, though, is given a new consubstantive life.
— Catherine Esther Styles
Jean Racine lived in the age of Louis XlV and came to be acquainted with the Sun King himself and the dazzling court at Versailles, but his origins were modest. He was born in 1639 in La Ferté-Milon, a very small town in Picardy, northern France. Orphaned at the age of three, the boy was taken by his maternal grandmother to the abbey of Port-Royal in Paris, a centre for the religious movement known as Jansenism. Chiefly originating from the views of a Flemish theologian, Cornelius Otto Jansen, the controversial doctrine, politically suspect and later defined as heretical by the Catholic church, emphasized original sin and the necessity for lifelong penance. Apart from its religious aspect, the school there offered an excellent education in Greek (unusual at the time), Latin and French, providing a background for the dramatic works which were to make Racine one of its most famous scholars. He then undertook two years of philosophical studies before joining an uncle in the South of France. Efforts to place him in the priesthood proved unfruitful. He was already writing poetry.
Back in Paris, drifting far from the ideals of the Jansenists who disapproved of all forms of human frivolity, Racine formed acquaintances in the theatrical world where the older playwright, Pierre Corneille, was to become his rival and the third outstanding dramatist of the French neoclassical period, Molière, lent friendship and support – until Racine secretly withdrew his successful play, Alexander the Great, from Molière’s troupe to give it to another and topped off the perfidy by not only stealing the leading actress but becoming her lover. It was all a far cry from the rigorous moral training of Port-Royal. The rupture with Molière was never mended. Racine’s dealings with his contemporaries on both the political and personal level showed a strong element of pragmatic self-interest.
Ten secular dramas were produced between 1664 and 1677, including one comedy. As Racine acknowledges in his introduction to the published work, Phaedra, like others of his tragedies, drew inspiration from Euripides; less mention is made of the Roman writer and Stoic philosopher, Seneca, whose influence is particularly apparent in the words of Phaedra’s avowal to Hippolytus. In its claim to an instructive element in drama the preface also hints at a desire to appease the Jansenists. The tragic queen in his masterpiece, not unlike the playwright himself, was torn between human passions and virtue. Racine left the theatre shortly after, married a strictly religious woman and sired seven children; four of their daughters entered convents. He became historiographer to Louis XlV, lauding the monarch’s military triumphs, and acquired several noble titles. During this period he wrote his Spiritual Canticles. His two final dramas, both based on the Old Testament, were conceived at the behest of Madame de Maintenon, the king’s pious wife, for the girls’ school she had founded at Saint-Cyr. His last known work was a history of Port-Royal. At his own instructions he was interred there. Following a papal bull enforced by Louis XlV, the abbey was almost entirely razed and Racine’s remains moved to the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Paris.
Catherine Esther Styles was born in Napier, New Zealand. After studies in her own country and the U.S.A. she lived for many years in France, working as a feature writer for international magazines and a voice actress for French film and television. She is the author of three novels and a successful stage musical, one of the first productions to showcase the talents of Maori actors and singers. Her memoir, Disraeli’s Daughter, was published in 2013.
PHAEDRA: Wife of Theseus, daughter of Minos and Pasiphae
HIPPOLYTUS: Son of Theseus and Antiope, Queen of the Amazons
THESEUS: King of Athens, husband of Phaedra and father of Hippolytus
ARICIA: Princess of the blood royal of Athens
THERAMENES: Tutor to Hippolytus
OENONE: Confidante, nurse to Phaedra
ISMENE: Aricia’s confidante
PANOPE: Loyal servant of the court of Troezen
The scene is Troezen, a city in the Peloponnese
That’s it! I’m leaving here Theramenes!
Troezen is pleasant but it’s time to go.
Six months of doing nothing… I’m ashamed!
Where’s my father? What’s become of him?
I’ve no idea where in the world he’s hidden.
Then where, my lord, do you intend to search?
In an attempt to calm your well-based fears
I have already scoured the seas that lie
each side of Corinth then along the banks
where Acheron drops to the underworld,
asking for news of Theseus, the king.
I called at Elis, set Tenarus in my wake,
sailed as far as the ocean where Icarus fell,
What fresh hope drives you on to what new place
more likely than the rest? Who knows, in fact,
whether the king would want this mystery solved
or whether, while we anguish for his life,
our hero isn’t nicely bedded down
dallying with some new female fantasy,
soon to be discarded like the rest.
Show some respect Theramenes. The king
is past such youthful indiscretions now.
Phaedra has bridled that old inconstancy.
She has no rivals. No, it isn’t lust.
My duty’s clear. I have to find the king.
I neither can – nor dare – stay in this place.
Dare not, my lord? Dare not? When have you feared
this gentle land? You loved it as a boy.
It was far dearer to you than the pomp
and endless turmoil of the court and Athens.
What danger, what – misgivings – drive you out?
Times change. Those days are gone. Everything changed
the instant that the gods brought to these shores
the daughter of Minos and of Pasiphae.
I know the very sight of her offends you.
Your stepmother. A dangerous woman, Phaedra.
You’d scarcely met when she arranged your exile
but now her hatred seems somewhat diminished,
dispersed. Besides what harm can she unleash?
Phaedra is dying, and she wants to die,
racked by some illness which she will not name,
tired of herself, tired of the very daylight.
What mischief can she make against you now?
I’m not afraid of Phaedra’s futile loathing,
I’m running from another enemy,
That girl, the sole survivor of a family
sworn to exterminate mine. Aricia!
So you’re in league against her too my lord!
That gracious child, unlike her merciless brothers,
descendants of Pallas, would never stoop to plots.
Do you hate beauty flowering in innocence?
If this were hatred, do you think I’d run?
My lord, permit me – now I catch your meaning.
So you’re no longer the same Hippolytus,
that lofty prince, who sneered at thoughts of love
and mocked the yoke that bore his father down
time and time again. Has Venus won?
Perhaps she’s set on vindicating Theseus.
Perhaps you’ll offer incense at her altar.
Perhaps you’ve learnt you’re human after all,
brought to your knees like any common man.
Are you in love?
Old friend, how dare you ask?
You’ve known me from birth. You know my pride,
do you expect me to discard it now?
I sucked this pride in with my mother’s milk.
Amazon pride! Does it amaze you so?
Later, I liked the man that I ‘d become.
And you, my loyal Theramenes, told me tales
about my father’s exploits and his life.
Sublime, you said, a Hercules come again
to comfort mortals. My very soul devoured
the memories of his heroic deeds –
monsters strangled, bandits put to death.
Those names – Procrustes, Cercyon, Sinis, Sciron –
all routed, and the giant of Epidaurus
slaughtered, his great bones scattered. Crete delivered,
still smoking from the Minotaur’s spilt blood.
But when you told me of less glorious things,
promises made and broken many times,
Helen abducted from her home in Sparta,
Salamis, scene of Periboae’s tears,
all credulous creatures, victims of his passion,
whose names by now he couldn’t even recall –
Ariadne wailing to the cliffs,
Phaedra seduced (hers was a better fate,
he married her) I begged that you would stop.
I wanted to rip those pages from the book
that otherwise spoke of a noble life.
Am I to follow his path? Do the gods
plan to humiliate me? Contemptible cowardice
on my part for I lack his list of triumphs,
I’ve killed no monsters, I’ve no excuse to offer
as he had for his failings. If my pride
should weaken, would I choose Aricia? No!
Surely my foolish senses would recall
the unassailable barrier that’s between us.
My father’s condemned her; his command is clear,
she’ll have no heirs, no nephews to her brothers.
He fears that murderous stock may sprout again.
The name dies with the sister. Till she dies,
Subjected to his will, she may not marry.
Should I stand up for her against my father?
An act of madness! Rashly launch my youth…?
Ah, but if your hour has come, my lord,
the gods remain impervious to such logic.
In blinding you, Theseus opened your eyes.
His hate provoked a contrary reaction
and you, rebelling, find her the more beguiling.
Why stay obedient to your self-made rules?
The bravest men are powerless before Venus.
First love! Why not enjoy the sweetness of it?
Why be afraid of love? Hercules wasn’t.
You fight the goddess but, where would you be
if your own mother, sworn to chastity,
hadn’t most ardently desired your father?
Fine talk is easy but leads nowhere, lord.
Admit – everything’s different. Now, for days,
you are less often seen, splendid, aloof,
racing your chariot along the sands or,
expert in the art that Neptune taught,
subduing unbroken horses to the rein.
Less often do our shouts ring through the thickets;
your eyes burn with a slumberous light, grow heavy.
You love! You’re smouldering with a secret fire.
Is it Aricia?
I’m going to find my father.
Will you see Phaedra before you sail from here?
That’s my intent. And duty. Please inform her.
What fresh unhappiness does Oenone bear?
Hippolytus, Theramenes, Oenone
No grief can equal mine. The queen is nearing
her final moment. Night and day I watch.
She’s dying in my arms of an unnamed sickness.
Her thoughts are wild. Her restless heartache drags her
in torment from her bed. She must see daylight.
But you can’t watch her suffering, you must leave.
She’s coming now.
I’ll spare her the sight of me.
Exeunt Hippolytus and Theramenes
No further, Oenone, I’ve no more strength.
My eyes are dazzled by the light of day.
My legs are trembling. Aah!
All powerful gods,
show pity, and relent before our tears!
How heavy these useless ornaments and veils
weigh upon me! Whose interfering fingers
have knotted my hair upon my forehead? How
all things conspire to hurt me.
What you say
One moment you will contradict the next.
Just now, abandoning wicked thoughts of death,
you asked me to adorn you. You felt stronger,
wished to appear and see the sun again.
You see it, madam, now you want to hide,
hating the brilliance that you came to find.
Blazing founder of an unhappy family,
you whom my mother dared to name as father,
do you redden to see me as I am?
Great Sun, I’ve come to look my last at you.
What! Can’t you forget that cruel morbid longing,
renouncing life, preparing for the grave?
I want to be seated in a shadowy forest.
When shall I see it, the chariot flying by
through glittering dust…?
What, madam? What was that?
Madness! Where am I? What did I just say?
I’ve lost my will, my reason’s gone. The gods
have stolen my mind away. You’ve seen too much.
My face is burning, I cannot stop the tears.
Oh, weep and burn if weep and burn you must!
Yes, burn, but do so for your stubborn silence,
which deepens your misery, deaf to our entreaties,
deaf to advice, stubbornly set on dying.
What crazed obsession makes you shorten life?
What spell or poison’s at the back of it?
Three days and nights spent sleepless, without eating.
Your body wastes. What evil plan is this?
By what right do you take your life, affronting
the gods who gave it, failing your husband, breaking
your marriage vows, betraying your own children?
That day will place them under a bitter burden,
the very day you die their future dies
but hope glows for the foreign woman’s son,
that insolent enemy who hates your tribe,
that boy sprung from an Amazonian dam.
So now I’ve touched the quick!
The name! You fool, you spoke it! Blabbering fool!
You’re right to be angry. I am glad to see
you shudder at that fateful name. Now, live,
for love and duty. Live, unless you want
the Scythian’s son to rule your own and grind
the noblest stock of Greece and of the gods
under his arrogant heel. Make up your mind.
Each passing second counts. Take life in hand
now, while your strength is fluttering to its end,
fan up the embers, live, my lady, live.
My guilty life’s already far too long.
What’s this remorse that’s tearing you apart?
What crime could warrant it? Your hands are free
of blameless blood.
My hands are clean enough.
I only wish my heart could be as pure.
Then what appalling plot have you dreamt up,
so terrible that you fear it?
I’d rather die than speak.
Then die, and take
your secret with you but find someone else
to close your eyes. Your life is flickering out
but I’ll precede you. Many pathways lead
down to the underworld. I’ll choose the quickest.
My sadness gives me leave. What cruelty, lady!
When have I ever failed you? It was I
who took you, newborn, in these arms. Remember,
I gave up everything I had for you.
Children. Country. And this is my reward?
What good’s your anger? My words would horrify you.
Great gods, what could be worse than having you
dying before my eyes!
My crime is such,
my fate so heavy, death’s inevitable.
Why reinforce the guilt.
Madam, I beg you,
here at your feet, release me from my doubts.
Stand up. I’ll speak.
I’m listening, dearest one.
What shall I tell her? How shall I begin?
Stop torturing me like this.
Venus! Your hatred!
The anger of the goddess! It was love
destroyed my mother.
Forget it, madam. Silence
conceals her weakness.
Love’s victim, dying unloved and abandoned
on lonely shores!
Come, lady what’s all this?
What special anguish makes you turn against
your very blood?
Since Venus wills it so,
I die the last and the most to be pitied.
Are you in love?
Love? Passion! Frenzy! Rage!
Who is it?
Now the terrible truth will out.
I love… I tremble at the name. I love…
You know him. Son of the Amazon.
That prince I persecute.
You named him!
Gods! My blood runs icy cold.
Oh crime! Oh misery! Oh, accursed race!
Why did we ever sight these dreadful shores!
I was already stricken well before.
I’d scarcely married Theseus. Peace and joy
seemed likely to endure. Then Athens showed me
the man meant to destroy me. When I saw him
I blushed, turned pale, my very being shook,
I couldn’t see or speak. I burned and froze.
I knew her then. It was the goddess. Venus!
Venus infecting me with fatal fire,
and Venus would pursue me to the end,
piling her torment on the pitiful remnant
born of the lineage she loves to loathe.
I tried to escape through worship, so I built
a temple in her honour, beautified it,
sacrificed to her. In the slaughtered entrails
I looked for omens, searching for sanity.
Useless sedatives for my feverish love
and useless the incense wafting at her shrine,
useless the vows of adoration uttered
for I loved only one – Hippolytus.
Everywhere, even bowed before her altar,
the incense smoking, it was him I worshipped,
the god whose name I knew must not be spoken.
I fled away from him. Oh, crowning misery!
I found his likeness in his father’s face.
Then I acted against my very nature
And forced myself to persecute him – him
my most beloved and worst enemy.
I played the wicked stepmother, railed at Theseus,
begged for his exile, and my endless nagging
resulted in his father driving him out,
away from Athens, far from his father’s sight.
Now I could breathe again and now my days
passed peacefully. Only my husband ruled me.
I hid my grief and longing, reared my sons.
Useless, all useless. Destiny struck again.
Theseus brought me to Troezen, where I saw
once more the banished enemy I adored.
The wound ripped open. No longer a hidden yearning
coursing within me, now it’s Venus herself,
the carrion goddess fastened on her prey.
My guilt is terrible and terrifying.
I hate life and abominate my love.
By dying I wish to preserve my name and honour,
hide this black secret. Your tears have dragged it from me.
I’ve no regrets for speaking, only let me
die quietly. No reproaches, Oenone.
Don’t bring me back to life with useless kindness.
The greatest kindness is to let me die.
Phaedra, Oenone, Panope
Madam, I wanted to keep these tidings from you
but you must hear them. Lady, the king’s no more.
Your husband, the unconquerable Theseus,
vanquished by death. You are the last to know.
What are you saying?
All the queen’s prayers are useless.
News comes from ships in port. Theseus is dead.
Hippolytus, the prince, has been informed.
Athens is divided.
Some stand beside your son but others turn,
in spite of civic ruling, to that boy,
born of a foreign woman. Rumour adds,
a faction moves to crown Aricia and
to place the Pallantides upon the throne.
Hippolytus is leaving. When he lands
in Athens, with the havoc reigning there,
the fickle people well may flock to join him.
I had to warn you…
Thank you, Panope.
The queen has heard and she will act on this.
I had stopped urging you to live, my lady.
I wanted to follow you into the grave.
I’d no words left but now, this fresh disaster
places everything in a different light.
New rules apply. Theseus, the king, is dead
and you must take his place. You have a son.
Live, and he’s king! Die, and your son’s a slave.
On whom in his misfortune can he lean?
Who’ll dry his tears? Or will his childish cries
set his immortal ancestors against you?
Then stay alive. There’s no more guilt. The king,
dying, absolved you. Now you’re free to love.
Hippolytus is there and you may see him.
Perhaps he thinks, convinced of your aversion,
he’ll raise rebellion and seize Athens. So,
show him he’s wrong. Bend him to your will.
Troezen is his by right but well he knows
the law gives glorious Athens to your son.
You share an enemy, the prince and you.
Unite to fight her. It’s Aricia.
Yes, yes, I’m listening. Yes, I will live on
if it’s still possible. Love for my son
may give me strength to face this terrible time.
Hippolytus wants to see me?
He wants to meet me here and say adieu?
It’s true, Ismene? Are you really sure?
This is the first sign of things to come
Now that the king is dead. Be ready, madam –
for soon, from every side you’ll find returning
the allies Theseus kept estranged from you.
All Greece will offer homage and Aricia
will realize at last her destiny.
So, it’s not just a rumour? So, I’m free?
I’m not a slave? I have no enemy?
Madam, the gods no longer stand against you.
The ghost of Theseus walks with your dead brothers.
How did he die?
The stories differ greatly
And most of them are barely credible.
Some say that, chasing after some new fancy
that great philanderer met his death by drowning.
Others go further, here’s the latest version –
that, with his friend Pirithous, he went down
into the underworld and strutted there
viewing the sacred river, walking its banks,
parading his living body before dead eyes,
then found that he was trapped, for when one travels
to that grim place there is no turning back.
Why would a man, a breathing mortal, go there
before he must? What morbid fascination
enticed the king into the timeless land?
He’s dead, my lady. Only you still doubt it.
Athens is grieving. Troezen is informed
and, for ruler, chooses Hippolytus.
Here in the palace, desperate for her son,
Phaedra is seeking counsel from her friends.
And do you think Hippolytus will be kinder
than Theseus was? He’ll treat me more humanely?
Offer more freedom?
That’s what I do think, madam.
What do you know about the callous creature?
What vague, misguided fancy’s taken hold?
Hippolytus has no time for women. Why
except me, then, when his contempt’s quite clear?
He shies away from female company.
Of course I know what other people think,
but I’ve observed that fine, pretentious prince.
Conscious of rumours of his arrogance
I watched him even closer and he’s not
quite what’s reported for, when you were there,
he changed. His eyes met yours. His own were troubled.
He couldn’t look away. I saw his longing.
He doesn’t want to love, his pride resents it.
The words are in his eyes, not on his lips.
Dearest lsmene, p’raps it’s just surmise
but, oh, I hang on every word! So, tell me,
you know me well, could it be possible
that this poor plaything – it’s myself I mean –
jerked by the strings of fate, weeping, embittered,
could ever feel the glorious ache of love,
the madness and the wonder? I alone
survived the horrors of the war. Six brothers,
six! so young, the hope of a great house,
mown down. The earth itself was sickened
by so much blood drunk from our noble line.
As you’re aware, a cruel law was written
forbidding any Greek to marry me
so frightened Theseus was that in my children
my brothers’ ashes might blaze back to life.
You also know the absolute disdain
I felt for Theseus and his petty rules.
I could have thanked that makeshift murderer –
for love, you know, has never tempted me –
he merely set a seal on my decision.
But that was before I ever saw his son.
No, it wasn’t the sight of him entrapped me,
handsome and gracious though he is, a mirror
of everything that’s fine, I love him for it
but, more than that, his gentle courtesy
which everyone admires, his modesty
in seeming not to recognize his worth.
There’s everything that was admirable in his father
without the weaknesses. I’m drawn toward him
and I admit it, because he thinks he is
invulnerable, remote from thoughts of love.
That is the virtue they define as pride.
Phaedra, the queen, deluded as she was,
felt herself honoured by her master’s bed.
I’m no such object. I am proud myself.
Not for me a man who’s slept his way
through scores of women too weak to turn him down.
You’re listening, lsmene? Here’s what I long for:
to meet a man who’s certain of himself,
provoke in him a strange uncertainty,
disarray his composure with confusion,
tie him with ropes he wishes were pulled tighter,
an unwilling, willing prisoner, that’s my dream,
more than a dream I tell you my… desire.
Hercules gave in to lust too lightly.
It’s easy to seduce some men, you know –
one glance! I know I’m saying things I shouldn’t.
What dangerous frankness and – I may regret it,
the prince’s pride may be too strong. We’re built
of the same pride, Hippolytus and I.
Hippolytus in love! Bliss! If it’s true…
Hippolytus, Aricia, Ismene
He’s here. The prince, my lady, comes to you.
Princess, before I leave I should inform you
about your future, now the king is dead.
My fears were right. Death, and death alone
could sever him from his triumphs in this world,
great hero as he was, the friend, companion,
acknowledged heir of mighty Hercules.
Although you hated him I trust that you
admit the honour that’s my father’s due.
My own grief ‘s tempered by my knowing that
I can release you from your cruel condition,
revoking those stringent laws that I deplore,
allow you to live and marry as you please.
Troezen is my inheritance; once ruled
by Pitheus, my grandfather. Now the state,
unanimous, has taken me for king.
Liberty is yours. You are more free
than I, myself, can ever hope to be.
Stop, Prince! Control your generosity,
excessive as it is. You overcome me.
This so-called liberty ties me tighter still
to those restraints from which you say you free me.
Athens is undecided who should rule
and speaks of Phaedra’s son, myself, and you.
I’ve no illusions in this matter,
a grandiose Athenian law excludes me.
My mother was a foreigner. However,
if my half-brother were my only rival
I could oppose that law, assert my claim.
A stronger reason holds me back from this.
Madam, I speak of you. To you I cede –
no, not ‘cede’ – I restore the Athenian kingdom,
the throne that was given to your fathers’ father
long ago in a distant past. Aegeus
inherited it by adoption, then it went
to Theseus, his son, in gratitude
for all he did guarding, enhancing Athens.
Your brothers’ rights lay buried in neglect.
Now Athens calls you home. Enough, she says,
of endless quarrels. Blood, and too much blood,
your family’s blood, has soaked into her soil,
into the very furrows that gave it birth.
Too much. Too long. Troezen is loyal to me.
The fields of Crete offer a rich reward
to Phaedra’s son. Attica is yours.
I’m leaving now to calm divisive voices
and confirm unity on your behalf.
Is it a dream? Am I bewitched and dreaming?
Every word you say bewilders me.
Am I awake? Dare I believe in this?
What god, my lord, put such thoughts in your mind?
Oh, now I see why the whole world admires you!
Give up a throne! Do that! For me! Enough,
more than enough simply not to detest me,
not to treat me with hostility…
Detest you! Lady, has my pride been painted
in such harsh colours? Am I some monster’s son?
What frozen malice, hate, stupidity
exists on earth that would not melt away
at the mere sight of you. Could I resist…?
The words galloped before me. Now,
I see that, having started, I must go on.
Lady, it’s time to tell of secret longings.
Before you stands a prince much to be pitied,
infamous for his attitude to love.
I laughed at love. I mocked its victims. I
was like a shorebound creature who observes,
emotionless, the shipwrecks of his friends but
now I’m just a man. Some freak wave swept me
far out to sea. I’m lost. My pride’s submerged
and I’ve become dependent on another.
A single instant tamed that insolence
then, six months tossed, despairing, on the tide,
helpless, and ashamed of my own weakness,
with love, like an arrow, burning in my side.
I fight against you and against myself.
When you are there, I run, when you are not
I run again to find you. In the woods,
among the leaves, your phantom floats behind me,
day and night I retrace your imagery.
Your loveliness is there where sun and shade
entwine to make a living tapestry.
Everything conspires. This once proud prince
has become a suppliant at your feet.
There’s no escape, my life is not my own.
Javelins, bows, horses have no meaning.
The sea god schooled me. I’ve forgotten him.
I whisper my love to the trees and, those same horses,
wayward and lazy, no longer do my will.
I speak a rough, unpolished language, lady.
It may offend you. What a clumsy offering!
I don’t know the vocabulary of love.
What an odd creature you have captured here.
Don’t turn aside. These are the words I have.
Without you, I’d be silent…
Hippolytus, Aricia, Theramenes, Ismene
Lord, the queen
wishes to speak with you, I come before.
To speak with me?
I do not know her mind,
my lord, but since you’re leaving…
What’s there to say?
What does Phaedra want?
You can’t refuse her.
Even an enemy deserves some pity.
Meanwhile, you’ll go and I must sail not knowing
if I have offended the one thing I love.
My life is in your hands.
Set sail and follow
The noble inclinations of your mind. Make
Athens my dominion. I accept
all of the gifts you offer, but the prize
of glorious Athens and her territory
is not the one most valued in my eyes.
Exeunt Aricia and lsmene
All ready, comrade? But, the queen approaches.
Prepare to sail. Give the signal. Go!
Complete your orders. Hurry back again
and save me from an unwelcome interview.
Phaedra, Hippolytus, Oenone
There he us. When I see him I grow weak
and lose the very words I mean to speak…
Remember a son whose only hope is you.
They say that soon you’re leaving us, my lord.
I come to mingle my grief with yours, I come
admitting all my fears for my son.
He is now fatherless. The day is near
when I shall die as well. A thousand foes
surround him in his innocence. Only you
can save him from them. There’s another fear,
fueled by remorse, which agitates my mind.
I’ve been an odious mother to you. Now,
your well-earned anger – will it turn on him?
Have I made you indifferent to his cries?
Madam, my sentiments are not so low.
If you should hate me I would understand.
I did my best to harm you. Lying hidden
were feelings that you scarcely could imagine.
I wanted your dislike, invited it.
In those dim halls the thought of you was unbearable.
Public and privately I mouthed my loathing,
voicing my wish that oceans come between us.
I passed a law your name should not be spoken
within my hearing. What’s the outcome now?
If punishment matches injury, hate breeds hatred,
then never was there woman more deserving
of pity, lord, and less of your unkindness.
I know that second wives are often jealous
of children’s rights. Madam, I’m quite aware.
Such thoughts are normal. Others might have done worse.
The gods know, I’m an exception to that law!
A different anguish overpowers my mind,
troubles, and consumes my very soul.
Madam, calm all such fears. It’s possible
Your husband’s still alive. Perhaps the heavens,
hearing our pleas, will warrant his return.
Neptune protects him and that mighty sea god
will listen and respect my father’s prayers.
My lord, it is not given more than once
to tread upon the river banks of hell.
Since he’s already seen that dark decline
in vain you hope some god will send him home –
the ghastly Acheron grasps it’s pretty too well.
What am I saying? Theseus isn’t dead.
He lives and breathes in you. I see him, hear him,
I’m speaking to him, he is here before me.
It’s you. My heart… My lord, I’m torn apart,
half-crazed by passions that I ought not speak.
I see the grievous outcome of your love:
although he’s dead, he’s present to your eyes;
your love for him burns on within you.
Yes, prince, I burn with love for… Theseus.
I long for him. Not as the underworld knew him,
idolatrous bedder-down of endless women,
cuckolding even the guardian of the dead
but faithful, proud, touched with a certain shyness,
young and delightful, dazzling all around,
a god in his own right – as I see you.
He had your stance, your eyes, your way of speaking,
the same sweet modesty was on his face
when to our Crete he sailed across the sea,
a worthy lover for old Minos’ daughters.
Where were you then? Why no Hippolytus
when Grecian heroes gathered their elite?
You were too young. Yet, why weren’t you on board
the ship that brought your father to our shore
to save us from the monstrous minotaur?
My sister would have placed the thread of life
in your hand. No! For I’d have been before her.
Inspired by love, I would have led the way.
Phaedra! Myself! Deep in the labyrinth,
unreeling out the winding clew of twine.
A thread was not enough, love would have made me
Equal and companion. Yes, together!
No! I’d have walked ahead, fronting the danger.
What would I have not done for this sweet head!
Sharing the peril, conquering the darkness or,
if I could not, dying by your side.
Ye gods, what do I hear! Have you forgotten
Theseus is my father, you’re his wife?
My memory’s intact, my lord, as is
my estimation of my proper worth.
Forgive me, madam, I misinterpreted
straightforward words. The error and the shame
are mine. Now, I must leave.
Torturer! You understood me only too well.
Meet Phaedra at last in her mad ecstasy.
Here she stands, a woman devoured by love.
How do you think I feel in loving you?
Do I admire myself? Did I choose this,
this poison that attacks my very reason?
Oh, I abhor myself a thousand times
more than the hatred I’ve aroused in you.
Fate is on the prowl and I’m its victim.
Did I want this lust, this fearful longing?
Call it the gods, or fate, or destiny
or what you will – those gods who are my witness.
What vengeance, what ironic cruel glory
impels them to this act of savagery,
to light this fatal fire in a poor mortal,
pitiless betrayers of my family.
Think back. Remember. Remember all the past:
I fled you, banished you from sight and mind,
vented my rage on you despicably.
I sought your loathing, made myself appear
hateful, inhuman. What’s the outcome now?
Where did it lead? Senseless hypocrisy!
You loathed me more, I loved you still. Your suffering
made you even more beautiful in my sight.
Desirable. I wept for my desire,
tears to cool fantasies and quench the…
Look at me. Can you? Look me in the eyes
just once, a moment, if, perhaps…? No chance.
My shameful longing I was forced to pronounce.
I came to defend a child, to plead his cause
but oh, my very soul depends on you.
Theseus’ widow loves Hippolytus!
Get rid of me, punish me, kill the hideous queen
who lives for you. Act like your father’s son.
Drive a swift steel into the monster’s heart,
depraved and willing to admit offence.
Strike! Aren’t I worthy? Is my blood too foul
to soil your hands? I’ll do it then.
Give me your sword!
What are you saying, madam?
Holy gods! Someone is coming. You mustn’t be seen.
The shame of it. Quickly, my lady…
Exeunt Phaedra, Oenone
Was that the queen?
Why did she leave or, was she led away?
And you, my lord, pale, trembling…
Where’s your sword?
Let’s leave this place, I cannot breathe the air.
Phaedra! Great gods, protect me from the thought!
Bury the memory of it! Blot it out!
The sails are set. All’s ready. You should know,
however, lord, that Athens has replied.
Ten families cast their votes. The crown has gone
to your half-brother. Phaedra’s in control.
A delegation awaits your highness
to place the reins of power in Phaedra’s hands.
Her son is to be king.
is it her foulness that you recompense?
Meanwhile rumour has it the king’s alive.
In Epirus they say they’ve seen him. But…
No matter. Question this and everything.
Trace every rumour to its source. If false,
we leave. The sceptre must be placed,
whatever the cost, in hands worthy to bear it.
Remove these royal trappings. Let me be.
Why do you want to display me? Better to hide me.
Stop trying to comfort. I have said too much.
Madness unleashed! Words that should never be spoken.
Gods! how he listened, how he turned and parried,
feigning misunderstanding, eager to leave!
His blushes deepened my shame. Why did you stop me?
I wanted to die. His sword was at my heart
and did he flinch, force it aside? Not he!
My hand had grasped it, so it was unclean.
To touch it would have soiled his spotless hands.
Enough. This endless stirring of the embers
serves to stoke a passion you should quench.
Stand tall, daughter of Minos. Find your peace
governing your kingdom. Forget the ungrateful wretch.
Control the realm. Act like the queen you are.
Me, a queen! Me control a realm
When I can’t even rule my own weak senses?
When I have lost the empire of my mind?
When I can barely breathe for weight of shame?
When I am dying?
I cannot leave him.
You dared to banish him. Dare to avoid him.
Too late. He knows my insane longings now.
Broken, the bounds of modesty. I bared
my shame to him, my conqueror. There was hope,
some little hope that crept into my heart.
You put it there. You rallied me from death.
My very soul was trembling on my lips.
You called it back, soothed me with honeyed words.
You said this love was possible. It was you!
I’d have done anything and more. If ever
there was offence against you, look at him.
Can you forget his absolute contempt,
the scornful stare, the blank and terrible coldness,
with you half prostrate. Cruel, odious pride.
If Phaedra could have seen him with my eyes…
But he could change, Oenone, shed this pride.
He’s like the forest that bred him – untamed, wild.
His life has made him hard. The words he heard
today, the words of love, the first he’s known,
may have surprised him, silenced him. Perhaps
we are too harsh.
He had a barbarian mother.
And yet, she loved.
He hates all women.
I’ll have no rival. It’s too late for counsel.
Cater to my madness, not my sense.
He’s closed to love, so find another weakness.
Kingship seemed to appeal. Athens aroused him.
He couldn’t dissemble. Oenone, quickly, go!
The prows of his ships were pointed there, sails spread.
Quickly, quickly, find him, Oenone.
Work on his ambition, dangle the crown
in all its glittering glory. He shall have it,
the sacred diadem upon his head.
I’ll place it there myself, yield him the power
I cannot keep and then he’ll teach my son
to be a man and rule. Maybe a father…
maybe he’ll be a father to him. Yes!
mother and son subjected to his delight!
Try everything. Weep, plead, come from all sides.
Your words will have more strength than mine. Be brazen.
Grovel. Implore. Describe how Phaedra’s dying.
I shall support you. Quickly, quickly, go.
Quickly return. My hope, my fate’s with you.
Great Venus, you who see my shame, have I
sunk low enough? Your triumph is complete.
Cruelty can go no further. Every dart
struck home, you pitiless queen of love. But if
Your appetite for victory’s unappeased,
turn on a tougher foe. Hippolytus
Spurns you, ignores your altars and your anger,
rejects your sacred name. Take your revenge.
Our causes are the same. Oh, make him love me!
You’re back? Wouldn’t he listen? Does he still hate me?
Madam, you must forget this impossible yearning.
Summon your courage. The king, whom we thought dead,
is here. He’s coming. Theseus is alive.
The people are rushing to greet him. I obeyed
your wishes. I was searching for the prince
when a great shout went up…
More than enough! I bared my guilty lust
and, doing so, defiled my husband’s name.
The cup is full.
I told you so.
You wouldn’t hear me. I stifled my foreboding.
Your tears prevailed. This morning I was still worthy
of honest mourning but I listened to you
And now I die dishonoured.
Today. This day. What have I done this day?
My husband’s coming and his son is with him.
I’ll face the object of my adulterous love.
He’ll watch to see how I approach his father.
My heart still aches with sighs, my eyelids brim
with tears he’d not confront. So, do you think
he’ll overlook my passion and betray
his people and his king? That he’ll contain
the absolute disgust he feels for me?
No point in silence: I know what I’ve done.
I ‘m not one of those ruthless, wanton women
who mask their infidelity with a smile.
I admit my lust. The very walls recall it.
These vaulted ceilings if only they could speak
would thunder Phaedra’s guilt, to him, my husband.
Oh, let me die! Let me escape from it.
To die. To cease to be. Death holds no fears
for those who suffer. All my fear is for
my reputation. What a foul bequest
to leave my sons, descendants of the line
of Jupiter. That godly lineage
may lend them courage. No matter how great their pride
a mother’s crime will cripple them. Perhaps
one day they’ll hear the story, the terrible truth,
turn their reproaches on that shameful mother
then, broken by the weight of odious knowledge,
never again look mankind in the face.
Your fear is rightly founded. So, why expose them?
Why turn against yourself? The world will say
that guilty Phaedra fled her outraged husband.
She killed herself rather than face the man she wronged.
Hippolytus should be pleased to have you die;
in doing so you’d strengthen his position.
Who would listen to me? Who’d want my version?
I’d have no voice against him. Think, imagine,
how he’ll proclaim his triumph, your disgrace
To all the world. I’d rather flames devoured me.
But madam, I must know, do you still love him?
How do you feel about Hippolytus now?
Then grant no victories.
Dare to accuse him of the very crime
He holds against you. Strike first – who’ll contradict you?
The evidence is there. It points to him.
His sword that by good luck stayed in your hand;
your former anguish, your present agitation;
your outbursts in the past that forced his father
to banish him…
I? Lie? Defame a man
Do nothing. Silence alone
is what my loyalty asks. Like you, I’m trembling,
like you, I feel remorse. I’d rather face
a thousand deaths. Without this remedy,
a harsh one, I shall lose you and you mean
more than the whole world to me. I will speak.
The king will rage but settle on banishment.
An angry father still remains a father.
The punishment will be light. If innocent blood
is, however split, what does it count
against your honour? Your good name has no price.
This must be what dictates your actions, madam.
Everything must be sacrificed – truth and virtue
if need be.
They’re coming and I see Theseus.
I see Hippolytus. Those stony eyes
foretell the worst. Do as you will for me
for there is nothing I can do myself.
Enter Theseus, Hippolytus and Theramenes
Theseus, Phaedra, Hippolytus, Theramenes, Oenone
Good fortune has returned, my dearest one,
and in your sweet embrace…
Stop, Theseus! No!
Don’t profane love’s greeting, I’m not worthy.
You have been wronged. The gods were jealous of
your happiness and turned upon your wife
while you were absent. I’m unfit to love
or even to approach you. All that’s left
is that I hide myself from this time on.
Exeunt Phaedra and Oenone
Theseus, Hippolytus, Theramenes
What does this curious greeting mean, my son?
Only Phaedra knows what lies behind it.
For my part, sir, I beg your consent to leave
And see no more of her. She makes me tremble.
I cannot live where she is. Let me go…
You, my son, leave me?
I never wanted to know her.
You brought her to these shores and it was here
in Troezen, that you left her and Aricia
in my safe-keeping. Enough. That duty’s done.
No other holds me. I misspent my youth,
wasted it, chasing useless game and now
I long to turn my spear to better ends.
You were younger than me when you’d killed tyrants
and many a monster perished under your hand.
You cleared the seaways. Travellers were safe.
Hercules laid his mantle on you. I,
weak son of such a glorious sire – and mother –
fell into indolence. Now let me test
my courage, let me bring a worthy offering…
If any monster has escaped your sword
I’ll lay it at your feet and, if I die,
let all the world say I died fittingly,
remembering me as worthy to be your son.
What’s this? What dark, insidious horror here
is driving away my family? If I return,
So dreaded, so little wanted, gods in heaven,
why did you release me from my prison?
I had a friend whose foolish lust induced him
to force himself on the consort of the tyrant
of Epirus. I helped him. Mindless folly!
Vindictive fortune blinded both of us
to what ensued. The tyrant fell on me.
I was unarmed. And I was forced to watch,
powerless, the end of Pirithous, my companion,
flung living by this monster to the maws
of foul and nameless beasts which he regaled
with helpless human flesh. Myself he took
and threw into a cave, a prisoner,
locked in darkness, buried deep in the earth
on the very frontiers of hell.
Six months before the gods remembered me.
So I escaped. I seized the ravening demon
and fed him to his brutes. Then, with what joy
I turned again to everything that’s dear,
spared to me by the gods, my soul, restored,
yearning to be with all of you. My welcome?
Fear and hiding, rejection of my love,
and I, aware of the terror I inspire,
would rather be back in prison. Phaedra says
I’ve been dishonoured. Who betrayed me? Speak!
Why was I not avenged? And, is it Greece,
Greece that I’ve defended with all my strength
so many times, that shields the criminal?
Is my son, my own dear son in league
with enemies? Let us go in. My mind
reels with these intolerable doubts.
Speak out! Who is the criminal? What’s the crime?
Phaedra must tell me where her troubles lie.
What was the ominous meaning behind his words?
Will Phaedra, half-crazed, turn and accuse herself?
How will the king respond? What lethal poison
love has filtered in through all his house.
Myself, alight with a passion he’s bound to detest,
no longer what I was but what I’ve become.
Such dark presentiments occupy my mind.
Yet, innocence knows no fear. Come, let me try
to find the way to win back his affection
and tell him of a love he may condemn
but which, for all his power, he can’t prevent.
Aaah! What’s this I hear? A damnable pervert,
intent on fouling his own father’s honour?
Fate, you’re closing in and I don’t know
where I am, I don’t know where I’m going.
Tenderness, kindness, here’s your recompense!
Unthinkable actions! Unspeakable designs!
And he used violence – the very sword I gave him!
I recognized it. He drew it in his frenzy,
a weapon that was meant for nobler ends.
The ties of blood, couldn’t they have prevailed?
Where’s Phaedra in this? Why does she stay silent?
Why protect a rapist? I ask you, why?
Phaedra wanted to spare you as a father.
Phaedra was ashamed to be the object
of such unnatural lust. And she’d have died
by her own hand. Ended her innocent days.
I ran and seized that hand and so I saved her
for you, because you love her. Now, pitying
your fears and her distress, unwillingly
I find myself driven to explain her tears.
The treachery of it! I saw how he turned pale
from fear when I drew near. I saw him quake.
I was astounded by his joyless looks;
his stilted embrace chilled mine. So, for how long
has this incestuous lust been gnawing at him?
Had it begun in Athens?
the queen’s complaining. This unlawful passion
aroused her hatred for him.
And, in Troezen,
he started it again?
I’ve told what happened.
Permit me to withdraw. I cannot leave
the queen alone in mortal agony.
Ah! There he is! Great gods, what princely bearing!
Who wouldn’t be deceived by it as I was?
How can an adulterer’s face carry the mask
of perfect radiant virtue such as this!
A sign – surely some sign should warn us of
the evil hidden within a human heart!
May I inquire, my lord, what troublesome thoughts
have clouded your mood? Will you confide in me?
Confide! How dare you flaunt your loathsome face?
Why weren’t you struck by lightning? I thought I’d purged
the earth of such vile creatures. You’re the last.
And, after your abominable lechery
has even thrust it’s way to your father’s bed,
you think you’ll play the hypocrite with me!
Parading where the very crime took place!
Why aren’t you in some country, far away,
under an alien sky, where Theseus’ name
has never reached. Get out! Don’t taunt my fury!
Don’t tempt my hand to strike! Enough for me
the ignominy of having sired a criminal
without the shame of slaughtering him, bespoiling
my reputation, sullying the memory of
a glorious past. Out! Out! Unless you’re asking
me to exterminate you like that other vermin.
I want these lands purged of your filthy presence.
Never return. Never, beneath the sun
that warms us, set your feet upon these shores.
Mighty sea god, Neptune, hear me now!
Remember how I cleansed your coasts of villains.
Recall your oath: one wish is my reward.
Throughout my suffering in that accursed dungeon
I did not call on your immortal power,
I saved that wish for greater need. The time
has come. I lift my voice to you today.
Avenge a grief-stricken father! Let your wrath
strike down this traitor. Blood! Let his own blood
choke his obscene desires. Theseus will thank you.
Phaedra accuses me of obscene desires!
So many unexpected blows! I’m numb.
It sickens me to the soul. I cannot speak
Did you imagine Phaedra would cover up
your hateful insolence in craven silence?
Then, better not to have dropped your sword which now,
in her hands, helps convict you. Or, perhaps,
You should have finished off the deed and killed her –
a single stroke to wipe out speech and life.
Lies! Lies! Infamous lies! I should speak out.
I won’t, my lord. This secret touches you.
Trust the respect with which my lips are sealed
and don’t add to your torment. Observe my life!
Think who I am. Crime isn’t sudden. Minor
misdemeanours lead to greater evil.
A man who crosses the lesser moral bounds
may end by violating more sacred laws.
Vice, like virtue, grows greater by degree.
Never have reticence, timidity, been known
suddenly change to utter depravity.
A day’s not time enough for an honourable man
to turn into an incestuous murderer.
My mother’s purity was legendary.
I’ve not betrayed upbringing and origins.
Pitheus, who was revered throughout the earth
as greatest among sages, deigned to teach me.
I do not wish to paint too fine a picture
but if some of their qualities are mine
foremost among them is the hate I’ve shown
towards the very acts with which I’m charged.
For this Hippolytus is known in Greece:
virtue so austere as to be harsh;
rigorous, inflexible discipline.
My heart’s as pure as daylight. And they claim
Hippolytus is lascivious…
Yes! That pride,
That very pride condemns you! Oh. I see
what lies behind this assumed frigidity.
Your eyes lusted for Phaedra, no other woman.
Chaste love didn’t tempt you. You disdained it.
No, father! It’s not so. My heart—I can’t
conceal it from you – has not disdained chaste love.
Here at your feet I own my true offence.
I love! I am in love against your choice.
Aricia rules my very mind and being.
I worship the daughter of the Pallantides.
My disobedience is that I ‘m consumed
with love for her. Aricia.
You love her! What transparent lie is this?
Lay claim to one crime to cover up another?
For six months I’ve avoided her, yet I love her.
I came in trepidation to tell you this.
What, then! Can nothing make you see the truth!
What fearful oath is needed to convince you?
I swear by the firmament, by earth, by nature…
Scoundrels always turn to perjury.
Stop! Enough! Spare me this nonsense. Does
your counterfeit virtue have no other prop?
To you I may seem false and devious.
Phaedra, in her heart, does me more justice.
Your arrogance is driving me out of my mind!
How long will my exile last? Where’s it to be?
Beyond the edge of the world,
and still too close for comfort.
Accused by you of the fearful crime
you name, thrown out by you, what friends will I find?
Find them among the scum who wallow in incest,
applaud adultery: treacherous, lawless,
honourless men. They are fit company
for such a depraved character as you.
Incest, adultery, you keep repeating.
I hold my tongue. Yet, Phaedra had a mother!
Phaedra comes from a line as you well know
whose blood is tainted by more crimes than mine.
What!! Have you lost all hold on your own reason?
For the last time, out! Get out of my sight. Don’t wait
until I have you thrown out headlong.
Go, wretch, to your irrevocable doom!
Neptune swore by the sacred river of death,
terrible even to the gods themselves.
His word cannot be broken. A god of vengeance
pursues you. You have no way of escape.
I loved you. Even now in spite of this,
my very entrails ache at what’s to come.
You forced me to it. No father was more wronged.
Oh righteous gods who see my hideous grief,
How did I father such an obscenity?
Terror brings me to you for I heard
your shouts. I was afraid that violence
might follow on your threats. If there’s still time,
spare your child, respect your family line.
Save me from the horror – I beg – of hearing
that blood scream out. Don’t submit me to
perpetual memories, knowing it was I
who raised a father’s hand against a son.
No, madam, my own hand hasn’t bathed in blood.
Yet the villain won’t escape. Immortal
hands are charged with his destruction. Neptune
owes it to me. You will be avenged.
Neptune owes what? What? What prayers are these?
Are you afraid they won’t be listened to?
Join in them, madam; they are justified.
Tell me again what happened: let me have it,
your full account. Incite me to utter madness.
I’ve been too slow, too kind, too lenient.
You don’t know all. He vilifies you, he speaks
of falsehoods and deceptions. Yours. Then claims
he loves Aricia.
Here, to my face!
But I see through his facile trickery.
Justice, direct from the god, will strike him down.
I go to Neptune’s altar to exhort
The swift enactment of his irrevocable oath.
What did he say? What was it that I heard?
That stifled love stirs up in me again.
Cruel, savage news! Great heaven, I came to save
his son! That was my purpose, so I tore
myself from Oenone’s frightened arms and followed
my tortured conscience. Who knows what I’d have done?
Perhaps condemned myself by spilling out
the ghastly truth before my voice was silenced.
Hippolytus can feel, but not for me!
Aricia has his heart. She has his pledge.
Aricia! Oh gods! While I was kneeling, pleading
and he stood hard and cold with that glazed stare
another had already shackled his pride,
another had charmed his eyes. Perhaps his heart
is easily stirred by anyone but me.
I am the only creature he despises.
And I was going to save him! Save him?
You left me trembling. I was afraid
you meant to harm yourself.
Who would believe it!
Listen, Oenone! I have a rival!
Hippolytus is in love! Oh yes, it’s true!
That shy wild enemy, that untamable tiger
who filled me with dread, turned away my lament,
sneered when I wept, repulsed my courtesy,
is tamed, is trapped, defeated, beaten down.
Aricia did it.
What further suffering lies ahead of me?
All the old hopes, the fear, the ecstasy,
guilt, and remorse, the burning agony,
The insults – they are nothing to this pain.
What good’s it to them? They’ll never meet again.
Ah! But they will love forever.
Even as I speak – excruciating thought –
they care nothing about my demented ravings.
Exile may force them apart – in spite of it
they’re exchanging a million vows to be together.
I cannot stand their happiness, Oenone.
It mocks me. Pity my jealousy. She must die.
Theseus must be raised against her. Her crime
outstrips that of her brothers. The punishment
has to be extreme. What am I saying?
Am I indeed mad? Am I jealous? Me?
Beg Theseus? Theseus, my husband lives
and my whole body and soul lusts on. For whom?
What do I want? Every word I utter
makes my very hair stiffen in terror.
This is the summit and surfeit of all my guilt.
I reek of lies and incest. These murderous hands
long to plunge themselves in innocent blood.
Misery! And still I live and look into
the sacred eye of the sun, my ancestor,
the ruler and the father of all the gods.
My forebears crowd the skies and fill creation.
Where can I hide? Let’s fly to the night of hell.
Not there. My father clasps the fatal urn,
which destiny placed with him, in pitiless hands.
My father, Minos, judges the newly dead.
Ah, how that phantom will start up in horror
when I appear – his daughter – forced to reveal
so many vile offences, some, perhaps,
unheard of even in the underworld.
What will you say, my father, when I stand
before you? I see the urn roll from your grasp.
I see you weighing new punishments to execute
with your own hand upon your daughter. Forgive me!
A merciless goddess has brought destruction. Vengeance
has struck your daughter and your family.
Witness it in my madness. Misery!
My broken heart never took pleasure in
the galling evil, the shame of which persecutes me
and will, until, with my dying breath, I abandon
a life led in wretchedness, ending in torture.
Come, lady, there’s no need for this. Consider.
Yours is an understandable weakness. It’s fate.
So, you’re in love…! You cannot fight against
what destiny decides. Who among us
hasn’t felt this frailty? It’s a part
of being human and you are merely human.
It’s your lot. Why, even the gods themselves,
the peerless Olympians, who penalize misled mortals
with so much bluster, have done no less than this.
They’ve had their moments of illicit love.
You dare to speak like this? You dare drip in
this poison to the end? You canting sorceress!
That’s how you caused my downfall. You dragged me back
to face the sunlight. Your fawning malevolent tongue
made me forget my honour. Hippolytus
I stayed away from. You made me see him. Why?
Why did you do it? Why did your mocking mouth
incriminate him and bring his life to ruin?
Perhaps he’ll die. The sacrilegious prayer
torn from his tormented father may
even now have been answered. Silence! No more!
Leave me, you demoness, you queen of fiends,
she-devil! My fate’s my own. On you I call
heaven’s justice. May its swift retribution
be a warning forever to those who ladle
wheedling words in princes’ ears to entice them
to follow their weaknesses and ease them on
down the slippery slope of their desires.
Squealing sycophants! The most noxious gift
that hostile gods can inflict upon a crown!
She is my life. I gave up everything.
Here is my reward and… I deserve it…
Hippolytus, Aricia, lsmene
The danger’s extreme, and still you won’t speak out?
Your father loves you. You’d let him believe this falsehood?
What cruelty! If my words mean nothing to you
and you can leave me forever without a thought,
then, go! Farewell! Forget Aricia but
at least save your own life, defend your name.
Force your father to retract his curse –
there’s time yet. What fastidious sense of honour
motivates you to leave a liar triumphant?
Tell Theseus the truth.
Have I not done so!
Should I strip bare his bed? Should truth presume
to go so far as humiliating my father,
holding him up to ridicule? Only you,
the gods and you, know what has happened here.
Judge how I love you. I have shared with you
secrets I’d rather never have known myself.
Remember our pact of silence. Forget what I’ve told you.
The tale’s too sordid, Aricia, for your sweet lips.
Let’s put our trust in the justice of the gods
whose task is to defend me. Sooner or later
Phaedra will be punished. She can’t escape
their judgement. I ask one courtesy: stay silent.
In everything else my anger’s paramount.
Aricia, dare to leave this slavery.
Dare to come with me, forget this doom-filled palace
where even the air reeks of dishonesty.
My downfall’s caused confusion. Profit from it.
I’ll plan your flight. Here, the few guards we trust
are mine but powerful allies stand abroad.
Argos awaits, Sparta welcomes us.
Let’s call upon our friends. Phaedra must not
feed upon our inheritance, must not
construct an empire on our shattered rights,
assume our thrones, seat her son and make him
heir to stolen glory. The moment’s here.
Why do you hesitate? Come! What holds you back?
This is for you! For you, Aricia! Why
when I’m ablaze with hope do you turn cold?
Are you afraid to share an outcast’s fate?
Oh, what joy, to link my life with yours
and live with you, forgotten by the world!
But we’re not bound in marriage. How can I…?
Honour forbids. I know in strict observance,
I can escape the king. He’s not my father.
Flight from a tyrant’s not a moral crime.
Your love… My name…
No, no! I wouldn’t ask it.
I cherish your reputation. I’ve higher motives.
Escape your enemies and follow your husband.
Free! Fate makes us free! It’s to each other
we’ll pledge our faith. The two of us. You and me.
No ceremony. No torches. No one there.
Outside the gates of Troezen, among those tombs,
the ancient burial place of royal forebears,
there stands a shrine no perjurer dare approach,
a place where mortals cannot swear false oaths
for liars meet certain death, lies can’t exist.
There, if you trust me, let us go together
to seal our ever-lasting love with marriage.
The deity of that temple will be our priest
and we shall pray he’ll take a father’s place.
I’ll call on the sacred names of the highmost gods –
majestic Juno, Diana fleet and chaste,
all of them who look tenderly on my love
and they will hear my promise and grant their blessing.
The king! Go! Quickly! I’ll stay a moment here
to quieten his suspicion. Send me a guide,
a faithful one, to lead me to your side.
Theseus, Aricia, Ismene
Gods! Give me a glimmer of light to find
the truth that’s buried somewhere here!
to leave at once.
I see you’re startled, madam.
You’re changing colour. What did Hippolytus want?
He came, my lord, to say a last farewell.
Are those the eyes that toppled that lofty spirit?
And his first sighs of love, are they for you?
I can’t deny the truth, my lord. He’s not
inherited your misguided prejudices.
He has not treated me like a criminal.
I understand! He swore eternal love.
Don’t build your hopes on that unstable nature.
Eternal love! He’s sworn the same to others.
You should have steadied him. Disgusting!
How can you share him with another woman?
And how can you tolerate those… disgusting… lies
contaminating his life? Do you know him so little?
Can’t you tell good from bad? Why, in your eyes
and yours alone, he’s evil, when everyone else
acknowledges his perfection? No, it’s disgusting
to let him be castigated by venomous tongues.
Stop it. Take back your murderous oath, my lord,
lest the implacable gods hate you enough
to honour it. Often when they are angered
they give us what we ask but this is merely
another form of punishment.
Mere empty words! No, you’re covering up.
You’re blind with love. But I have witnesses,
scrupulous, unimpeachable. I’ve seen tears
shed without deception.
Be careful, sir.
Those powerful hands have rid the world of monsters,
many monsters, but one of them survives.
Your son, my lord, forbids me to say more.
Knowing how he respects you, I won’t go on.
Were I to do so… Not possible. He’s silent
and so am I. I ‘m leaving to guard my silence.
What’s she hiding? Words, stopping and starting.
Are they in league together, plotting fresh mischief?
I know I’m in the right but deep inside me
a plaintive voice is calling and questioning.
Some secret remorse is tugging at my heart.
One last time let me question Oenone.
I need to know more. Bring the woman in.
Bring her alone.
I’ve no conception, lord,
what the queen intends. She’s white as death,
violently agitated. Oenone’s left.
She chased her away, disgraced, and Oenone
has flung herself from a cliff-top into the sea.
How can one know her motives? The vast ocean
Oenone’s death has not
Quieted the queen, only made her more desperate.
Sometimes, to calm herself, she holds her children,
weeping with love then, suddenly seized with horror,
rejecting love, she pushes them away.
She strays through the palace. She recognizes no one.
Three times she’s written letters and three times
she’s torn them up. You have to see her, sir.
Agree to see her. Help her.
Oenone dead and Phaedra wanting to die!
Call my son back. Let him defend himself.
Let Hippolytus speak. I’ll listen.
Great Neptune, hold your hand, delay your vengeance.
I want no vengeance. Return my son to me.
Perhaps the witnesses lied and I believed them.
I acted too quickly. I called on you too soon.
These hands… that cursed my son… If it’s too late…
Theramenes. Where’s my son? Where is he?
I entrusted him to you when he was only a child.
Why are you weeping? Why? My son…?
Your grief is useless. Hippolytus is dead.
I have seen the death of the finest man,
sweetest, most lovable on all the earth
and I will add, most pure of heart, my lord.
Dead? My son dead? While I am stretching out
these arms to hold him, the gods tear him away?
So soon! What? How?
We’d barely passed the gates
of Troezen. Hippolytus in his chariot
stood silent, pensive, with his guards around,
equally silent, catching his sombre mood.
He took the northern road towards Mycenae.
The reins lay slack. Those noble stallions, once
so mettlesome, eager, attentive, nodded along,
dull-eyed, heads hanging, as though responding to
the rhythm of his thoughts. A ghastly roaring
swelled up from the very depths of the ocean floor.
It numbed the air. A resounding answering groan
issued from the bowels of the earth.
The horses’ manes bristled. Our blood froze in our veins.
Upon the back of the ocean there heaves up
a churning mountain of water. It moves closer.
It rolls towards shore. The towering crest grows taller.
It breaks in thunderous foam and vomits out
a gross misshapen monster, a hideous beast.
The enormous menacing head is armed with horns.
The whole of its croupe is plated with yellowish scales.
A thing half slavering bull, half raging dragon.
The hind part lashes and twists in slimy coils.
Its bellowing shakes the ground. The sun stands still.
The earth beneath our feet shudders and rolls.
The air is foetid, thick, unbreathable.
The wave which had carried it draws back aghast.
Courage is useless. We flee, to take refuge in
the little temple standing near. Not all.
Hippolytus alone, more than worthy
to be a hero’s son, reins in the horses,
seizes his javelins, charges, and launches his weapon
with an unswerving aim. A yawning hole
opens there in the monster’s side. Howling with rage
and agony, the creature hurls itself,
moaning and writhing towards the terrified horses,
opening cavernous jaws, a fiery gulch
spewing forth flame and blood and putrid vapour.
The horses plunge aside. They’re out of control.
Bridle and voice mean nothing. Their master’s powerless.
Red spume froths from their mouths. Some say they saw
amongst all this, a supernatural shape,
the outline of a god, goading them on
to greater frenzy, stabbing their lathered flanks.
They gallop in wild-eyed terror towards the rocks.
The axle screeches. It snaps. The splintered chariot
flies into fragments. So Hippolytus fell,
braavest of princes, tangled in the reins.
Forgive me. The pain’s too great. I can still see it.
I’ll see it forever. This grief will never fade.
I watched. I watched your helpless son, my lord,
dragged behind the horses his hand had fed.
He tries to call them. His voice startles them more.
They gallop. They’re galloping on. His broken body
is jerked behind them, one great living wound.
The plains ring with our cries. The frenzy lessens.
The horses slow and stop by those ancient tombs
where his forebears sleep the chilly sleep of death.
I run. The guards follow me. I choke with tears.
We follow a trail of blood. It stains the rocks.
Flags of his hair and flesh hang from the brambles.
I’m there. I call him. He stretches out his hand.
He opens his dying eyes. They close again.
He speaks: ‘The gods have snatched an innocent life.
My dear old friend, when l am dead, take care
of sad Aricia and if, some day, my father
learns the truth, and mourns a son who died
accused unjustly, tell him, to appease my spirit
To treat his prisoner gently. Give her back…’
My arms held the dead hero – now nothing more
than a poor, disfigured corpse, a pitiful creature,
a trophy to the anger of the gods.
You yourself, sire, would not have recognized him.
My son! Dear hope that I myself destroyed!
Inexorable gods who served me only too well!
Henceforth my life is everlasting sorrow.
I saw Aricia. She was running from you.
She and the prince were to marry before the god.
She’s there. She sees the grasses steaming, red,
and then a sight too terrible to be looked on,
Hippolytus, her lover, a mangled mass
of broken bone and formless lifeless flesh.
What a gift for a bride! She can’t believe it.
She doesn’t know him. She’s calling out his name.
Where is her lover? Where’s Hippolytus?
What’s this before her? Slowly the truth sinks in.
Moaning, swaying, half dead herself, she falls.
lsmene brings her back to life or rather
She brings her back to face the inevitable truth.
And so I’ve come, abhorring the human condition,
to report honestly his dying words.
I’ve told you his last desire. My duty’s done.
Your son was a hero. Here comes his enemy.
Theseus, Phaedra, Theramenes, Panope, Guards
You win! He’s dead! I have my own thoughts, madam.
I was right in my fears, right to suspect,
right to listen to that inner voice.
But he is dead. Glory over your victim,
just or unjust. My eyes are closed to facts.
I’ll not peer into corners, hunting for signs
that might add to my grief. It is enough.
Nothing can bring him back. Now let me go
far from this place and you and the image of
my beautiful broken boy. Hounded by memory,
let me be banished from the universe.
Nature screams out injustice. What’s a name?
My precious name adds to this hell. Without it
I’d be an easier thing to hide. The gods!
I hate their murderous favours. No more prayers!
I’ll not plague them with useless prayers again.
Whatever they’ve given me, what they have taken
is greater. My son! They’ve taken away my son.
No Theseus, listen. My silence is not honest.
I’ve come to say your son was innocent.
Hippolytus did no wrong.
And I’m his father!
His father listened to you. His father killed him.
Vixen! Do you expect forgiveness…?
Every moment is precious. Listen, Theseus.
Hippolytus was pure and chaste and loyal.
I lusted after him incestuously.
It was the gods, the gods who kindled me.
Oenone, detestably, did the rest.
She was afraid. She thought Hippolytus
who knew my passion, and loathed it, might reveal it.
Making excuse of my weakness, she came to you
and blurted out her tale. Now she is punished.
The waves are far more gentle than my rage.
To end all this I should have chosen a sword.
That would have left Hippolytus in doubt.
I needed to speak to you, confess my guilt.
More slowly I descend to the land of the dead.
I have taken… coursing through my veins…
a poison brought to Athens by Medea,
my sister. The mist is thickening. I barely see
the sky. Nor you, my husband, Theseus,
whom I betrayed. Darkness gathers. Death,
dimming my eyes which sullied the living day,
gives back at last the glory of the sun.
She’s dying, my lord.
May all of this die with her.
Come, you who understand my fatal error,
let us go together to mourn my son,
honour what little remains. He earned these honours.
My oath was madness. Let him lie in peace.
Whatever her brothers’ treason, now I say
Aricia shall be my daughter from today.
 Cairncross, John. Phaedra and Other Plays. U.K.: Penguin Books, 1963.
 KNIGHT, R.C. Four Greek Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.
 Hughes, Ted. Phèdre. U.K.: Faber ft. Faber, 1998.