In the Hippolytus, Euripides presents the tragic nature of love. Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love, is the first character to appear on stage. She gives a soliloquy, in which she informs the audience that she will avenge herself upon Hippolytus because he does not revere her. She accomplishes her design by making Hippolytus’s step mother Phaedra fall in love with him. Phaedra commits suicide, and accuses Hippolytus of raping her. Theseus, Hippolytus’s father and Phaedra’s husband, believes her deathbed confession, and curses Hippolytus, invoking Poseidon to kill Hippolytus. Poseidon grants Theseus’s wish. The god sends a bull from the ocean that startles Hippolytus’s horses. Hippolytus falls from his chariot and dies.
All of the characters blame Aphrodite, a symbol of love, as the culprit of the tragedy. Characters describe love as madness or a bane sent from the gods, not a blessing. Phaedra desperately tries to rid herself of her love for Hippolytus, but cannot. No one desires to be ill, and one will try every measure to cure themselves of a disease, but sometimes the disease is incurable, so too in the case of love.
Instead of receiving dishonor after her death, Phaedra resolves to destroy Hippolytus. Like Medea, she too feels like a rejected lover. There is an ancient Greek term that explains why people become angry and violent towards those whom they most love; the term is philos-aphilos. The concept explains that the degree of hatred that arises for an individual directly corresponds to the degree of love that has been thwarted. Like pain and pleasure, love and hate are inseparably linked. Thus, Euripides admonishes us of the dangers of intense romantic passions, and extols the Aristotelian golden mean as a guiding principle to attaining the best life.
“The life of mortals is wholly trouble, and there is no rest from toil. Anything we might love more than life is hid in a surrounding cloud of darkness, and we are clearly unhappy lovers of whatever light there is that shines on earth because we are ignorant of another life, since the life below is not revealed to us. We are borne along foolishly by mere tales.”
“My long life has taught me many lessons: mortals should not mix the cup of their affection to one another too strong, and it should not sink to their very marrow, but the affection that binds their hearts should be easy to loosen, easy either to thrust from them or to bind tightly.”
“To be in love is at once great pleasure and great pain.”
“We know and understand what is noble but do not bring it to completion. Some fail from laziness, others because they give precedence to some other pleasure than being honorable.”
“Only one thing, they say, competes in value with life, the possession of a heart blameless and good. But as for the base among mortals, they are exposed, late or soon, by Time, who holds up to them, as to a young girl, a mirror. In their number may I never be found!”
“Aphrodite, if she streams upon us in great force, cannot be endured. Against those who yield to her demands, she comes in mildness, but the one whom she finds to be high and proud, such a one she takes and mistreats ever so badly.”
“This is the thing that destroys the well-governed cities and houses of mortal men: words that are too skilfully spoken! Words to delight the ear—that is not at all what you must speak, but rather such advice as brings a good name!”
“O Zeus, why have you settled women in the light of the sun, women, this bane mankind find counterfeit? If you wished to propagate the human race, it was not from women that you should have given us this. Rather, men should have put down in the temples either bronze or iron or a mass of gold and have bought offspring, each man for a price corresponding to his means, and then dwelt in houses free from the female sex. But as matters stand, when we are about to take unto ourselves a bane, we pay out the wealth of our homes. The clear proof that woman is a great bane is this: her father, who begat her and raised her, adds a dowry to her and thus sends her off in order to be quit of a trouble. But her husband, who has taken this creature of ruin into his house, takes pleasure in adding finery to the statue, lovely finery to a statue most worthless, and tricks her out with garments, wretch that he is, destroying by degrees the wealth of his house.”
“There ought to be for mortals some reliable test for friends, some way to know their minds, which of them is a true friend and which is not.”
“Man’s life is a shifting thing, ever unstable.”
“Oh! Would that the race of men could curse the gods!”
“I see the gates of the Underworld.”