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Commentary On Euripdes' Hippolytus Notes

Classics Notes > Greek Literature of the 5th Century BC Notes

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Commentary on Euripides' Hippolytus 176-524 This section of the play is the dialogue between Phaedra and her nurse in which she reveals her illicit love for her step-son and the scene ends with the nurse's vague promises to resolve the situation with some sort of love potion. The essential conflict explored is between the practical morality of the nurse, by which she can indulge her love as long as noone finds outs and the internal morality of Phaedra who sees the love as pollution on her mind which must be concealed and never acted upon for the sake of her good name. In the remainder of the play the nurse, with only the tacit consent of a battered Phaedra, attempts to engineer a situation in which her notion of this morality can be fulfilled but with disastrous consequences which lead to the deaths of Hippolytus and Phaedra herself. This raises questions about an ethical theory based solely on external sanctions, in many ways very Homeric, and reveals it to be fundamentally lacking in the face of the purity and nobility of Hippolytus as well as the sentiments which Phaedra expresses here. This section deals with the crucial expression of these two conflicting ideals. Firstly in order to understand the position of the nurse it is necessary to evaluate her character and from this it is clear why she has the conception of aidos that she does (aidos is the word which is at the centre of any discussion of morality in the Hippolytus.) She cares a great deal about Phaedra and will go to any lengths to look after her; this is clear from her opening words, "Better it is to be sick than to tend to the sick. The first is a single thing, while the second joins the grief of heart to toil of hand." She cannot bear to see her mistress ill and constantly puts pressure on her to reveal why she is so sick, something which is important to remember when considering why Phaedra does reveal her secret to the nurse despite her comments about silence on such matters; her later supplication is the accumulation of this effect and reflects this building up rather than a sudden and easy collapse on the part of Phaedra. This is illustrated by the nurse's words to the chorus which reflect both her very deep care for Phaedra and her relentless persistence, "I have tried everything and made no progress. Yet I shall not even now relax my efforts, so that you standing by may also bear witness on my behalf what kind of servant I have been to my mistress in distress." She is good to her word and never stops trying to help Phaedra by finding out the cause of her malady, even when Phaedra says it will be doom if she finds out nevertheless she still wants to know and says that there is nothing worse that can happen to her than for her to fail her mistress. The nurse is willing to go to any length to keep Phaedra, who seems intent on dying, alive and it is for this reason that she will later show no regard for her ideals of honour and reputation if they mean that she has to die for them. Such an active and deep care is coupled with a practicality which eventually leads to disaster but at the same time is key to understanding the nurse's thoughts and actions throughout the play. The practicality of the nurse has one aim, to relieve Phaedra of her sickness with no regard for the consequences or how it is achieved. This is not because she is foolish but her care for Phaedra and her eagerness to make her better makes her blind to the most obvious aspects

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