In Phaedra, Jean Racine allows the character’s passions to be their downfalls.
Jean Racine lived during the Age of Enlightenment. This period styled itself by
making choices based on reason. By allowing the characters to be at fault by their
own passions, Racine depicts the Enlightenment period’s theme of passion versus
reason. Phaedra amplifies the chaos of uncontemplated passions. The characters
are led to self destruction by letting their passions overcome all reason. The
characters know what the choices are to enact reason, but their internal struggles
with passion are too great to express obvious reason. Destruction is an inevitable
fate when passion exists in a character. Phyllis Mael expresses this point by saying,
“There is no possibility of salvation for those afflicted with passion. Racine presents
man’s fate as pre-destined and not subject to human control” (4635).
Phaedra, the play’s lead character, cannot overcome her tainted love for
Hippolytus. This forbidden love scolds her soul to the point of manifesting itself as
death. Phaedra says, “I’m faint; my strength abandons me, Ifear. My eyes are
blinded by the glare of day, and now I feel my trembling knees give way. Alas!”
(Racine 174). The light represents her unreasoned passion that drains the life from
her. This internal struggle with passion for Hippolytus completely controls Phaedra.
At this point, she is unable to gain back any control over her emotions and is
doomed for destruction. She says to Oenone, “I feel love’s raging thirst” (Racine
176). By implying that Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus is like a thirst, Racine shows
that Phaedra feels the passion overtaking her. Phaedra lets her passionate heart rule
over her reasonable mind. Wallace Fowlie makes an interesting observation related
to this by saying, “Phedre is never separated from her heart, as most men and
women daily” (335). Most people can control irrational feelings in their hearts and
act reasonable to maintain a stable life. Phaedra never makes this accomplishment.
Phaedra is not the only one affected by her ravaged emotions; Oenone, Phaedra’s
nurse, kills herself in response to Phaedra’s madness over the death of Hippolytus.
Phaedra says, “Of my vile passion, make it known to you, abused my weakness and,
by vicious rose, made haste to be the first one to accuse. For that she’s paid; fleeing
my wrath, she found too mild a death and in the waves is drowned” (Racine 209).
Oenone lied to Theseus and Hippolytus and this act brought about Hippolytus’
death. The passion Phaedra felt for Hippolytus quickened in Oenone causing her to
drown herself.
Hippolytus’ passion to emulate and adore his famous father leads to his demise.
Hippolytus wants the world to know that he is Theseus’ son and honor his father by
doing great deeds. Hippolytus says, “But I, the unknown son of such a sire, lack
even the fame of my mother’s deed inspire. Let me at long last show my courage,
and, if any monster has escaped your hand, bring back its pelt and lay it at your feet,
or let me by a glorious death complete a life that will defy oblivion and prove to all
the world I was your son” (Racine 193). The unbridled zeal of Hippolytus only sows
the seed of deceit into his father’s head. Hippolytus’ virtue is his downfall. Out of
pure respect for his father, Hippolytus cannot tell him the embarrassing truth about
Phaedra’s plea for love. Hippolytus tells Aricia, “What more should I have told
him? How she smirched their marriage-tie? How could I, by disclosing everything,
humiliate my father and my king?” (Racine 202). By hiding the truth for passionate
love, Hippolytus dooms himself to fall into Oenone’s deceitful trap- a trap which
also engulfs the king. The passion in Hippolytus to prove his worthiness as Theseus’
son causes him to avoid all reason.
Theseus has no control over his anger of the allegations made about Hippolytus
and Phaedra. Unable to accept reason, Theseus banishes his son with a deadly
curse, “And you, O Neptune, if by courage I once cleared your shores of murderers,
hear my cry. Recall that, as reward for that great task, you swore to grant the first
thing I should ask. Pent in a cruel jail for endless hours, I never called on your
immortal powers. I’ve hoarded up the aid you promised me. Till greater need
should justify my plea. I make it now. Avenge a father’s wrong. Seize on this
traitor, and let your rage be strong. Drown in his blood his brazen lust. I’ll know
your favor by the