Phaedra was the daughter of King
of Crete and his wife Pasiphae
. She was therefore the sister
Interestingly, both Phaedra and Ariadne were involved with the same
man—the hero Theseus. For, some time after Theseus abandoned
Ariadne, he married Ariadne’s younger sister.
Unfortunately, neither of the sisters had a successful relationship
with Theseus. Phaedra had the misfortune of falling in love with
Hippolytus—the handsome but chaste son of Theseus and the Amazon
Hippolyta. Even though Phaedra was Hippolytus’s mother-in-law,
this did not prevent her from desiring the young man.
In the play Hippolytus composed by Euripides, the great Greek poet and
dramatist, the goddess Aphrodite claims
responsibility for making Phaedra the victim of lust.
Aphrodite speaks in the prologue:
“Phaedra saw him [Hippolytus]
and her heart was filled with the longings of love.
This was my work.”
As much as Phaedra desires the young man, Hippolytus wants nothing
to do with his mother-in-law. Naturally, this doomed relationship is
the stuff of tragedy. In the play, Phaedra commits suicide, shamed by
her inappropriate—and unreciprocated—passion.
However, she leaves
a note that blames Hippolytus on the grounds of attempted seduction.
When Theseus returns from one of his many journeys, he finds his wife
dead, and his son apparently is the cause of her demise.
In the end, Hippolytus too is killed.
Returning home from one of his frequent journeys, Theseus reached out
to greet his wife, Phaedra, who shied away from his embrace. Surprised by
this cold reception, Theseus looked inquiringly at his son Hippolytus.
During his absence, Phaedra had fallen in love with her stepson, and
could hardly meet her husband’s eyes.
’Unworthy of your praise and unable to approach you,” said Phaedra,
“I must not from now on think of hiding.”
Theseus then turned to Hippolytus, asking, “What is
this strange welcome that you give your father, my son?"
Hippolytus replied, "Only Phaedra can explain the mystery.”
Infuriated by his rejection and humiliation, Phaedra appealed to Theseus,
accusing Hippolytus of raping his step-mother.
Theseus summoned his son, who told his father what happened between
both of them. His father, however, refused to believe his son’s
insistence on innocence.
“Father, can’t you believe the words of your own son?” Hippolytus
gazed at Theseus.
Both eyes met like a duel.
“Son, Phaedra has been faithful all these years. If you insist on
her wickedness, tell me why she suddenly changed into an unfaithful wife.”
“I don’t know, sir, but I’ve never raped any woman in my life.”
“Haven’t you ever desired any woman at all?”
“Well … yes, I have, but desiring a woman is totally different from
“Regardlessly, you enjoyed watching the nude of your step-mother, and
you admitted it.”
“Yes, but I didn’t have any other choice but to watch her in the
“Son, I’ll tell you what. You’re young, and young men make some
blunders—sometimes serious mistakes, but they can start their life from
scratch, all over again. A woman like Phaedra, on the other hand, would
never have a second chance. Once branded wicked, her life is over. You
know what I mean?”
“Sir, are you saying I should take the blame even if I haven’t done
“Phaedra accused you, and I have to take some action on it. If I
banish her on the account of her disgraceful conduct, her sons in Athens will suffer for
the rest of their lives. Phaedra has been a faithful wife and good
mother. To tell you the truth, I still love her, and I know you didn’t
rape her, but I want you to stay away from Troezen for some time.
Eventually, Hippolytus agreed with his father, who banished his own
son instantly. The lad mounted his chariot drawn by fine horses that he’d
trained and bred himself. Before he set out, the hapless prince turned
back to see the palace for the last time. He saw Phaedra, who stood on
the wall, watching him like a frozen figure. He couldn’t see her eyes but
sensed that tears of remorse wet her cheeks.
The above narration is not the official one—if there is one. I’ve
interpreted the myth my own way.