Family Relationships Theme Analysis

February 19, 2020 – 09:57 am
The theme of Family Relationships in Hippolytus from LitCharts

A Greek audience would have been intimately familiar with the legends of Theseus, the mythical founder-king of Athens. In Greek mythology, a family history of violence and bloody guilt portended further crimes down the road. Theseus’ own step-mother, for example, was Medea, whose murder of her own children forms the plot of another famous Euripides play. When Phaidra grapples with her desire, she realizes that she is just another episode in a long family history of criminal love – “I’m thinking of a compulsion that’s been misery for the women of my clan” (525). Likewise, Hippolytus, when he lies dying before Theseus, blames “some murder, some polluting atrocity, done by our ancestors” for his unjust suffering (2086).

The play also highlights the familial relationships between the characters themselves. Theseus, even though he is married to Phaidra, fathered Hippolytus with another woman, a common practice among ancient Greek mythical heroes. When Phaidra finds herself stirred by desire for Hippolytus, the seemingly stable relationships between a husband, wife, and bastard son threaten to come loose: the nurse hopes to help Phaidra actually consummate her love for Hippolytus, and, even worse, Theseus imagines that Hippolytus has raped his own step-mother, so that he finds his own son to be his most serious enemy, on whom he wishes a cruel death from the gods. This irreparable damage emerges because family members entangle in criminal ways, not consistent with divine law or Greek norms. When Artemis finally promises that newly married Greek women will pray to Hippolytus, she aims to recycle the myth for the sake of smooth, and normal, familial relationships.


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