Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reasoning: Hippolytus

Today I read Philip Vellacott's translation of Hippolytus. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Philip Vellacott is an odd scholar. I was introduced to his work when I was assigned his essay "Has the Good Prevailed?" (JSTOR) in my Agamemnon class. He has an unusual take on the ending of the Eumenides that I found intriguing (although I do not quite agree with it) and I became interested in his work. While Cerinthus was in New York, he bought a beautiful copy for me that he found at the Strand.

Hippolytus is the story of Hippolytus, Phaedra, and Theseus. Phaedra falls in love with her son-in-law, Hippolytus. Hippolytus spurns all human love and devotes himself entirely to Artemis. While Theseus is away, Phaedra begins to look sickly and worry her nurse. The nurse eventually discovers Phaedra's secret and tells Hippolytus who is very angry. The nurse makes Hippolytus promise not to tell anyone what he has heard. Phaedra hangs herself, claiming in her suicide note that Hippolytus raped her. Theseus, angry, sends Hippolytus into exile and curses him in Poseidon's name. Hippolytus, a man of moral standing, cannot correct the record because it would break his promise to the nurse, and dies in his chariot as he leaves. Only then does Artemis come down to reveal the truth to Theseus.

Although I enjoyed reading this translation of the play, I found that it lacked the compelling psychological drama of Μήδεια or the theatrical insanity of the Βάκχαι. The conflict seemed less real; instead of a conflict about human morals, religious values, or institutions depicted in Euripides' usual complex manner, the story forced a very black-and-white outlook on piety and moral value of truth. I look forward to reading some interesting scholarly criticism on the play.

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