You are on page 1of 17

Zachary Tutlane

Liberal Studies Department

Professors Simon Critchley and Judith Butler
M.A. Program

Coming of Age:
Contingency, Transgression, and Destabilization in Euripides Hippolytus

Euripides Hippolytus presents the reader with a glimpse into the rapidly shifting
socio-cultural mores of the time in which it was written. A sense of instability and
contingency permeates the text. Euripides characters move with a measure of fluidity
between what were traditionally opposed and often mutually exclusive social functions;
in particular, the division of the sexes serves as an axis upon which requisite binaries
collide with one another. Euripides texts are singular amongst Greek tragedians in the
way in which they present such conflicts. Forces in collision, rather than simply
producing a conqueror and a conquered, a victor and a vanquished, begin to bleed into
one another. Male and Female, speech and silence, public and private, the agora and the
oikos converge, fray at the edges; the space within which the self is constrained and
constructed admits of a fragility, a precariousness that can be telescoped as representative
of the state of the Athenian polis itself. Slippage between roles functions as a dominant
motif in Euripides oeuvre, and in the Hippolytus in particular. What results is a complex
examination of obedience and transgression, the assimilation and re-assertion of the
subject in relation to the nomos.
War as a Canvas
The Peloponnesian War began in 431 b.c.e. Spanning nearly 30 years, this
protracted conflict with Sparta decimated Athens; in fact the war usually functions as the
terminal marker for the Golden Age of Greece. This large scale conflict provides the
backdrop against which the works of both Euripides and Sophocles were produced
(Aeschylus being of the previous generation). The first performance of Hippolytus is
dated at 428 b.c.e.
Dominant socio-cultural paradigms often finds themselves under pressure during
wartime; the sense of instability that we encounter in Hippolytus can be seen as a reaction
to and a refraction of seismic shifts in the politico-cultural landscape of Athens. As the
Peloponnesian war dragged on, as Athens status as the center of the ancient world
became called into question, artistic production began to register a corresponding
decentring of the human subject, of the social institution, of the logos itself.
The house of Theseus has been treated by a number of playwrights; notably
Seneca and Racine. But it is Euripides version that seems to resonate in the collective
unconscious to a degree unrivaled by his peers. Senecas Phaedra betrays a didactic
stoicism; Racines mellifluous alexandrines mark for many the pinnacle of French
classicism. Why then do we find ourselves continually returning to Euripides? Certainly
Seneca and Racine drew upon his Hippolytus. But what is it about the play, and much of
Euripides oeuvre, that feels so distinctly relevant, so modern for lack of a better word?
Subjectivity, Chresis, and the Ethical Formation of the Self
For Greeks of the Golden Age, in ways often strikingly similar to our own, issues
of what we might refer to as sexuality were indeed intimately bound up with
constructions of the self-as-subject. Morality and gender can be seen as inextricably
intertwined, as they continue to be today. In my discussion of sexuality in the Hippolytus
I will be drawing heavily on the work of Nicole Loraux and Michel Foucault.
According to Michel Foucault, for the Greco-Roman world the dangers of ta
aphrodisia (the things of Aphrodite) lay in the intensity of pleasure or desire, not in an a
priori characterization of them as inherently evil. The use of pleasures (chresis) is seen
as a natural and enjoyable part of life. The problematization of chresis is, for ancient
Greeks, less a consequence of external strictures such as one might associate with the
Christian Era, than of an internally constructed ethical formation of the self. This is
linked to the Greek virtue of sophrysyne, or moderation.
Chresis enters the discursive formations of ancient Greece as a masculine
concern, in much the same way as philosophy or sport. Self-fashioning was traditionally
the domain of men. Women are relegated to silence in this regard. Foucault relates the
justification for this: That moderation is given an essentially masculine structure has
(the) consequence (that) immoderation derives from a passivity that relates to
femininity. (Foucault, 84) I grant this in regards to the classical tradition. In Euripides
Hippolytus, however, this is precisely where such boundaries and assumptions begin to
The threat of tragedy dovetails with that of excessive sexuality, in certain
specific and important ways. Platos banishment of the tragedians from his Republic is
partly the result of concerns of immoderation, excess; of behavior deemed womanish.
His dismissal of tragedy hinges upon its appeal to the emotions (one might here substitute
the passions) in lieu of reason. Tragedy, ministers to the satisfaction of that very part
of our nature whose instinctive hunger to have its fill of tears and lamentations is forcibly
restrained in the case of our own misfortunes (Republic, X, 605). What makes us good
citizens is our restraint, our moderation, our sophrysyne. Surrender to grief, emotion,
excessive or prohibited sexuality is womanly. Xanthippe is sent out of the room.
Seen through this lens, Foucaults argument, at least in The Use of Pleasure, fails
to consider this relation between excessive emotion and excessive sexuality- excess,
whether of mourning, grief, or sexuality is not simply a concern for men who were trying
to make their lives works of art; the consequences arent limited to the aesthetic, or even
to such conceits as honor or character. This feared, womanly excess is disruptive,
dangerous; it harbors a potential violence. To the state. To the family. To the nomos.
In the ethical formation of the self one establishes, the manner in which one
ought to conduct oneself that is, the manner in which one ought to form oneself as an
ethical subject acting in reference to the prescriptive elements that make up the (moral)
code. (Foucault, 26) This is referred to as the mode of subjection- the way in
which the individual establishes his relation to the rule and recognizes himself as obliged
to put it into practice (ibid,26). One must in effect place himself in the arena, as it were,
in order to be a player. He must familiarize himself with the rules, with the norms.
Phaedra as aphrodisiazein
But you, you wont submit!
(Nurse, 459)

I would like to advance the notion that in Phaedras desire for Hippolytus, she
symbolically abandons her passive role (aphrodisiasthnai) and lays claim, if only
temporarily, to an active role (aphrodisiazein). Foucaults argument for the association
of immoderation and passivity is that, to be immoderate was to be in a state of non-
resistance with regard to the force of pleasures (ibid.,84). However, in Hippolytus the
active/passive binary begins to crumble. For what does passivity imply if not a
renunciation of agency? Phaedras agency is anything but renounced. Asserting herself
(and we will examine the manner of this assertion), Phaedra enters a liminal zone the
collapse of the polarities of masculine/feminine, active/ passive confront the audience in
her character. Indeed, is there not already a fundamental ambiguity inherent in the
behavioral characteristics attributed women in the Greek world? They occur as a
problem. Women are given to grief, lamentation, excess of emotion. The perfect
woman, however, is silent. The very conception invites failure.
This is not to suggest that the character of Phaedra exists somehow outside of the
struggle between freedom and necessity that characterizes Greek tragedy. She indeed
exists between them as all tragic characters do; tension would be nonexistent if this were
not the case. Though she is indeed the daughter of Pasiphae, and the sister of Antiope,
both subject to excessive and prohibited lust, her fate is not entirely out of her hands.
Though she attempts to paint herself as one victimized (I shall fall into the abyss, My
very soul is subdued by love), her actions betray a calculating intelligence employed to
advance her purposes.
However the effect of the past is never fully effaced, and indeed acts through
Phaedra, upon the present. Referencing (lamenting) the lot of her kin, she invokes her
And I the unlucky third, see how I end!
Speech and Silence
Silence is the adornment of women.
(Loraux, 21)

You have spoken it, not I.
(Phaedra, 353)

In a series of lectures given in 1955, British linguist J.L. Austin introduced the
concept of performative utterances, or Speech Acts.
A speech act occurs when the
uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which again would not
normally be described as, or as just, saying something (Austin, How to do Things With

Paraphrasing Sophocles and Aristotle.
See also John Searle Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969).
Words, 5). In a speech act such as I now pronounce you man and wife, the utterance
itself performs an action. The efficacy of a speech act is dependant on the circumstances
under which it is invoked. In order for the above pronouncement to have its intended
effect it must needs be uttered by an individual granted the authority to do so by the state;
this is just one of a number of circumstantial requirements that must be met (these of
course vary depending on the culture in which the ceremony is enacted) for the speech
act to be effective. According to Austin, The circumstances in which we purport to
invoke this procedure (that of an illocutionary act) must be appropriate for its invocation
(Austin, Phil. Of Lang., 242). In the necessary context, speech acts do not simply
describe an action, they perform it.
There are moments throughout the Hippolytus in which one might highlight the
aforementioned slippery quality of roles and moralities. However, I would like to
focus in on what I see as the single most important exchange in the play; the scene in
which Pheadras desire for Hippolytus is revealed to her nurse. This exchange provides
an example of both performative speech and its complementary, correlative function of
silence. As boundaries become revealed in their contingency the opposition of speech vs.
silence, and the associations and discursive connotations of these notions, become
increasingly problematized. Speech is associated with activity and masculinity; silence
with passivity, femininity (female virtue). Yet as we examine this all important scene it
becomes clear that Phaedras character does not respect these boundaries; does not
conform to these associations. Phaedra not only moves back and forth between speech
and silence, masculinity and femininity with ease and fluidity; her ability to explode
traditional perceptions through felicitous juxtapositionings which expose and exploit the
presuppositions of the spectator provides a subtle cultural critique that effectively
registers the sense of destabilization omnipresent in the work of Euripides. In the scene
that serves as the supreme catalyst for the action of the play, her passion is not revealed
through speech; it is suggested by silence.
Euripides Correction
The consequence of the revealing sequence is confirmed by philological
revelations with regard to the writing of the play. The version that survives is in fact
Euripides second dramatic interpretation of the Hippolytus/Phaedra myth. The play we
have is referred to as Stephanephoros (Hippolytus who wears a crown) to distinguish it
from an earlier version referred to as Kalyptomenos (Hippolytus Veiled) ( McDermott,
239). Apparently audiences had reacted so unfavorably to Euripides initial version of the
story that he presented what was, in effect, a correction. Of what, exactly? This has by
and large been difficult for philologists to ascertain, since only fragments of the original
text survive. What has been asserted with a degree of certainty is that, the original
play (Kalyptomenos), following the most fundamental outline of the folktale motif it is
built upon the Potiphars Wife motif
-- had a more brazen Phaedra approach
Hippolytus directly and proposition him on stage (McDermott, 243). Could it be that,
though accustomed to a wide range of female characters, Athenian audiences were not
inclined to countenance Phaedra as aphrodisiazein, as one who aims to (sexually,
incestuously) transgress via a direct, physical approach? Was the Kalyptomenos the

The story of Potiphars Wife occurs in Genesis 39: 1-23. Potiphars wife attempts to seduce Joseph with
blatant advances and, when rejected, accuses him of rape.
ultimate iteration of Euripides tendency, according to Nietszche, to put the spectator on
Whatever the specific causes of the objections were, the corrected version finds
Euripides delivering a remarkably intense, complex scene wherein speech, silence, and
suggestion replace salaciousness with subtlety. In the Stephanephoros, the character of
the nurse becomes the fulcrum around which the action of the play pivots. Here is the text
which sets things in motion;
Nurse Are you in love, my child? And who is he? (350)
Phaedra There is a man,his mother was an Amazon
Nurse You mean Hippolytus?
Phaedra You have spoken it, not I.
The first and most obvious thing to note here is the fact that Phaedra
conspicuously avoids pronouncing the name Hippolytus. She is aware of the
implications of such a verbal invocation. Solicited by the nurse, Phaedra suggests th
name Hippolytus in no uncertain terms. Yet she talks around him. Her speech circles
him without touching him directly. It is then left to the nurse to utter the name, to commit
the illocutionary act. Phaedras response is particularly revealing as it functions as a
double gesture of confirmation and disavowal. However, in a sense her silence is the
ultimate illocutionary act, the one which indeed sets the play in motion. The
circumstances in which it is enacted conspire to confer on her reticence the power Austin
attributes to his speech acts. The patriarchal association of women with silence, the
perception of silence as virtuous is turned dramatically on its head.
In her silence Phaedras agency is asserted; in her silence is her capacity for
transgression is revealed. The ability to aim at a such a transgression presupposes a
familiarity with and recognition of those boundaries which will be crossed. By casting
herself as an actor within these boundaries who is capable of transgressing them, who in
fact has already done so, if only in her desires, her subjectivation is realized, and
consequently her circumstances become such that her performative silence is lent
credence, gravity, and consequence.
Taking a Stand Within
The gesture of taking ones stand in relation to, and thus actualizing ones
subjectification, is consonant with Louis Althussers notion of interpellation. When we
respond to the hailing of Althussers police officer, we acknowledge ourselves as
subject in relation to him or her, and to the state by extension, as the officer is a
representative of the state. We are called to participate in a complex interchange which
requires us to reveal our position.

In a similar manner, if in Greek tragedy we consider the role of the curse as
representative of that which functions outside of human control, one witnesses curses
being called down or hailed as it were. This can occur as the result of the actions of
protagonists -- as in Oedipus search for the criminal. It can also be explicitly invoked

Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation) Tr. Ben
Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Monthly Review Press 1971.
as an illocutionaty act. Father Poseidon, once you gave me three cursesNow with one
of these I pray, kill my son. (Theseus, 887-889)
The Perils of Agency
In becoming the aphrodisiazein, Phaedra thrusts herself into a role which
necessitates an ethical formation of the self, one that conforms to phallocentric societal
norms. Yet, in effect, what creates her as a subject is her transgression, and her
decision to bring it into unconcealment. She paradoxically moves into the masculine
domain by breaking its laws. She becomes in a single gesture citizen and foreigner, man
and monster. This double transgression consigns her to a fate that Loraux describes as
one of, disgrace and irremediable dishonor.
A chiasmic relationship is set up between the characters of Phaedra and
Hippolytus. While Phaedras silence is of an active variety, the silence of Hippolytus (as
a result of an earlier speech act-the oath administered by the nurse) not only relegates him
to a passive, impotent role, it effectively signs his death warrant. His flights of invective
have little effect on the plot, while Phaedras silence is explosive enough to set the play
itself in motion.
Returning to Foucaults association of immoderation with passivity, what can be
said in regards to the character of Hippolytus himself? If, for the ancients, sex was a
natural good as Foucault would have it, with moderation defined as neither too much
nor too little, then clearly Hippolytus is found wanting in this regard. Phaedra herself
alludes to this in her final spoken line: he (Hippolytus) will have his share in this my
mortal sickness and learn of chastity in moderation. (Hippolytus, 193, 730,731)
Certainly there is nothing moderate about his chastity. His extreme asceticism is itself
immoderate. The idea of immoderation becomes thus overdetermined. If Phaedra arrives
at immoderation via excessive (and ill-placed) lust, Hippolytus ends up in the same space
for opposite reasons. This problematizes the initial distinction, calling into question the
nature of the epistemology on which in is based. If restraint and excess both arrive at the
same point, how certain can we be about where these distinctions begin and end? It is at
this point that our certainties are replaced by a vertiginous sense of instability. This then
further problematizes the notion of a direct correlation between excess and passivity, if
it wasnt already feeling tenuous. This is not to suggest that a relationship between the
two doesnt exist; it is simply to illustrate that one can, and could, be actively
immoderate. This seems an obvious point to make, but it stands in stark contrast to
Foucaults treatment of Chresis, and the questions of agency it invites.
The Rope and the Sword
For women there is liberty in tragedy liberty in death.
(Loraux, 17)
Phaedras suicide might by some be interpreted as the ultimate act of agency or
self-fashioning. Loraux, however, states that suicide was a womans solution and not,
as has sometimes been claimed, a heroic act. (8) She cites Plato in his Laws as
describing suicide as devoid of manliness. Hanging in particular is associated with the
death of a woman, a death of extreme defilement that one inflicted on oneself only in
the utmost shame (Loraux, 9). Leda, Jocasta, Antigone all meet their ends with a rope
around their necks. But as we are dealing with binaries that are being blurred, it may be
that her suicide is a complex act wherein aspects of femininity and instances of agency
are both present. She is, in a sense, giving up- and act of cowardice associated with
passivity and femininity. But at the same time is she not exerting her agency by
extinguishing her life? And isnt that in itself an assertion of power?
Phaedras letter affects events occurring after her deathher influence
transcends the normative boundaries of life and death (another echo of the border-
crossing topos). If this suggests anything, it certainly is not impotence. Not only are the
distinctions between speech and silence, man and woman destabilized, but those of life
and death, absence and presence are borne out by the events within the play. These
tensions are not held in place solely by the fundamental temporal disjunction common to
tragedy. They occur within.
The accusatory letter, however, seems to have been written solely out of spite,
bitterness at a rejection, a woman scorned. This exploitation of ones death relates to the
Greek concept of m!tis: that of a cunning intelligence often attributed to women.
Phaedra is neither the lunatic immoderate women (though clearly her desires constitute
immoderation within her culture, there is no suggestion of madness in her character. If
she casts herself as mad, this becomes an example of dissimulation which
paradoxically confirms her sanity, exhibiting as it does a degree of calculation impossible
to ascribe to a madwoman), nor the heteronormative male, that measured paragon of
lucidity. Hers is a mercurial temperamentit slips away from attempts at simple

Loraux, 10
characterization. In Phaedra, Euripides gives us a character that is strikingly modern; a
character whose complexity makes her difficult to pin down or reduce to allegory.
Euripides world is one in which things become complicated, differentiated, contingent.
Though bookended by the speeches of Gods, it would be near impossible to read
Hippolytus as a simple conflict between Aphrodite and Artemis, chastity and
concupiscence. If this were the case we might witness the embodiments of such tidily
opposed forces arrayed out against one another, a stark and decisive confrontation to
follow obligingly. Instead, characters tend to narrowly miss each other, confrontations are
indirect, misapprehensions abound; truth proves elusive. This quality of the plot
reinforces tropes of slippage between roles and ideas. There arent direct confrontations
because good and evil, morality and immorality, truth and falsehood, speech and silence
are just that-slippery concepts. They are difficult to capture, hold onto, define once and
for all. There are traces of evil in good, savagery in the civilized, a lie in any truth. In fact
these concepts are indeed wholly dependant on their opposite for their existence. And
they are all of them dependant on the city state itself which is at this point imperiled.
The Death of Tragedy?
The increasingly character-driven nature of Euripides work does not necessary
signal a departure from the tragedy of the city-state. On the contrary I would argue that in
the complexity of his characters one can read the presentation of a polis that is no longer
quite as secure in its place. We cannot simply retreat to the Areopagus, confident that
Athena will cast the correct ballot at the last second. The final moments of the Medea,
as the titular character floats above the house on a chariot drawn by dragons, her
slaughtered children at her sides:

Many things the Gods achieve beyond our judgment. What we thought is
not confirmed and what we thought not God contrives.
(Medea, 1417-1420)
I want to suggest that the deus ex machina, excoriated by everyone from Aristotle
to Nietszche, cannot simply be dismissed as a symptom of lazy plot construction; perhaps
what Nietszche sees, accurately, as a lack of metaphysical conciliation, points not to
the rationalist Socratic impulse, but to a sense of inexplicability, of a deep, even profound
sense of irony; a recognition of the impossibility of the closure and unity associated with
the productions of classical Greek art.
This does not necessarily conflict with the Hegelian/Nietzschean notion that
classical tragedy died with Euripides. But neither does it make of Euripides work a
regrettable, meretricious coda to an otherwise brilliant tradition. Perhaps rather than the
portrait of a callow, depraved youth struggling to achieve only the palest imitation of his
precursors, in Euripides what we are presented with is a logical and necessary evolution
in the complexity of the tragic genre; a remarkably prescient oeuvre that points towards
concerns taken up centuries later by modern tragedians. Even if it is in fact the
shoulders of Aeschylus and Sophocles which provide him with a vantage, is it not
possible, indeed probable, that his vision extends a bit further? Perhaps we can read
Euripides, then, as the poet that sings songs of experience; and indeed in his wake it
becomes difficult to retrace our steps, to hearken back to the songs of innocence; to an
unshakeable faith in the logos, in the polis. One can no longer return to Ithaca.

Works cited

Austin, J.L.. How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered in Harvard
University .Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.
Euripides. Hippolytus. Chicago: University of Chicago.,1942.

Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality Volume Two: The Use of Pleasure. Boston: Random House. 1985.

Loraux, Nicole. Mothers in Mourning. Tr. Corinne Pache. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

- - - - - . Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman. Tr. Anthony Forster. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,

McDermott, Emily A. Euripides Second Thoughts. Transactions of the American Philological Association.
130 (2000): pp. 239-259.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Tr. Francis Golffing. New York: Doubleday, 1956.

Plato. The Republic. Tr. Francis MacDonald Cornford. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Stainton, R.J. Perspectives in The Philosophy of Language: A Concise Anthology. Ontario, Canada:
Broadview Press, 2005.