About Hipploytus

About Hipploytus.  One difference that seventeenth and eighteenth century writers recognised between ancient and modern tragedy was the greater willingness of modern writers to make use of love as a factor influencing characters’ behaviour and the course of the play.  As Gildon argued in 1694, using the theme of love made tragedy ‘a more perfect image of human life, in taking in that which has so great a share in it’ and did not detract from tragedy’s majesty and gravity.  It was easy to see Phaedra as a character who was driven by the power of love, but what about Hippolytus who expressly rejects it?
(As a side thought – is Hippolytus gay?  Just look at the Chorus of young boys with whom he surrounds himself.  The ancient Greeks wouldn’t have batted an eye at that.  Is it an interpretation our modern audience will favour?)
John Dennis translated part of Euripides’ play in 1696 but gave up the idea of making an adaptation of it because he couldn’t work out what to do with Hippolytus.  He argued that, when poets used familiar characters, they should give them the qualities they were widely known to have had, which would mean sticking with Euripides’ portrayal of Hippolytus as immune from the passion of love.  But that would not be suitable for the English stage which would never tolerate a principal character who was ‘averse from love’.
Racine had found a solution but only by abandoning Euripides’ characterisation of Hippolytus.  Racine introduces a young woman named Aricie whom Hippolytus loves.  This contributes to the tragedy in two ways.  First, Aricie is the sister and daughter of former enemies of Theseus, and Hippolytus’ love for her is forbidden.  Racine saw Hippolytus’ persistence in his love for Aricie as a weakness in his character.  The traditional portrayal of Hippolytus made him too perfect a character whose death would arouse indignation rather than pity in the audience and Racine hoped to remedy that with this change.  Second, Phèdre is consumed by jealousy when she realises that Hippolytus, who has rejected her, loves Aricie instead.  She decides against confessing to Theseus that her Nurse’s story that Hippolytus tried to rape her is false and abandons Hippolytus to the consequences of his father’s curse.
Racine’s version was given an added dimension in productions of Ted Hughes’ adaptation of it.  In 1998 Diana Rigg played Phèdre opposite Toby Stephens’ Hippolytus in the Almeida Theatre’s production at the Albery; and at the National Theatre in 2009 those parts were played by Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper.  In both cases Phèdre was represented as much older than Hippolytus, making a poignant last bid for love.


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