Phaedra’s Charactor Essay, Research Paper
15 November 96
Phaedra s anguish is first experienced by her in her own mind. Her sense of morality is so highly developed that, even before the drama begins, before she has acted, prior to her committing symbolic incest with her step-son Hippolytus, she is guilty. In her desire to absolve herself, she clings to the notion that as long as the crime lies buried within her, as long as her love for Hippolytus remains an abstract notion, no one will be aware of it and she will, therefore, be considered innocent by others. Once the secret has been revealed, it comes out into the open and has to be dealt with as a reality.
Because Phaedra feels her guilt so strongly at the beginning of the play, she is pictured as being at death s door, as suffering from some secret ill: unable to sleep, longing to see the day (Sun), “Eternal chaos broods within her mind.” Emotions are slowly consuming her. Such havoc manifests itself physically. Phaedra herself describes her state as weak, her eyes as dazzled and blinded by the light (day), which she despises and for which she also longs.
Strangely enough, Phaedra exhibits remorseful attitudes toward day and night. She hates blackness and yet is forever searching for “the shadow of the forest”. This love-hate for these two powers describes symbolically her emotional state, the fear of revealing her secret which seems to constrict her very life flow, and her desire to confess her pain by cutting out the swelling inhibiting her life.
Phaedra, as both the daughter of Pasiphae and the granddaughter of Helios, possesses divergent characteristics of both. She inherited enormous insight and the judging principle from her grandfather. It was Helios who shed his light in the skies, dispersing the cloud which hid Venus and Mars as they were lovemaking. Indeed, it was the very action which would include Phaedra. From her mother, a mortal woman, Phaedra was prone to all the material and lustful forms of life. Her struggle then revolves around the solar and earthly principles cohabiting within her.
The “monstrous” incestuous love she bears for Hippolytus is visible to her. She is, however, unable to cope with it, to understand its meaning. The emotions elicited by the passion play havoc with her judgment. She tries to destroy this uncontrollable love by rejecting it, seeking darkness and, thereby, clothing daylight-the sun. She exiles Hippolytus from her court and forces her thoughts into other paths. It is to no avail. In fact, her torment grows more potent.
Oenone can be considered as the drama s evils force. It is she who advises Phaedra to reveal her love; to Oenone first, then to Hippolytus. It is she too who commits the act of treachery at the end of the drama. In reality, Oenone is the instigator of the action. Without her, there would be no action. Phaedra would have remained immersed in her secret world from beginning to end. When Phaedra first confesses to Oenone she begins her speech in a semicomposed manner. Slowly, however, she lapses into the irrational, losing her identity almost completely. “Now I have forgotten what I came to say.” She suffers from apasia. This momentary speechlessness indicates an unconscious desire to prevent herself from disclosing her secret. Oenone represents that other will which forces Phaedra to confess her torments.
During Phaedra s second confession to Hippolytus, she again lapses into an irrational state. Concepts of space-time identity have vanished. Phaedra now looks upon Hippolytus not as he really is, but as she had once gazed upon Theseus. When Phaedra is recalled to the light of consciousness, her shame, her guilt knows no bounds and she begs Hippolytus to take his sword and cut her open. Despite the fact that Phaedra disclaims responsibility for her confessions, her shame is so intense that the very center of her being seems shattered. Death, she is convinced, is the only exit left to her. “Let me die. May death my shame forgive!”.
Had Phaedra not confessed her love no one would have known of her crime and she would never have been the dishonorable person she becomes in the eyes of the world. By the same token she would never have experienced either sacrifice or redemption through death. Had her guilt not come out into the open it would never have been a reality. Her sacrifice, therefore, would not have been authentic and for this reason unacceptable to Venus in the beginning of the drama. Just as Oedipus suffered and repented when facing the realization of his acts, so will Phaedra.
Phaedra, who has been dying ever since the beginning of the drama, does not succumb. A deceit must transpire first. Oenone persuades Phaedra to tell Theseus that Hippolytus wanted to seduce her. She has learned of Hippolytus love for Aricia and can no longer bear the humiliation of rejection. Her pride utterly destroyed. Phaedra sees herself and what she s doing and is shattered by the vision: “What am I doing? How my reason wanders!” Remorse surges forth. She can no longer look at herself. She wants to wash away her sins. Her unconscious emerges once again and floods her conscious, paving the way for another vision. She sees her entire family before her. Phaedra has now regressed to a child-like stage. She is ashamed as she stands guilt-ridden before him, fearing his condemnation; “his shadow” will shudder when he hears her story. Phaedra is actually seeing at the time is her own judging spirit. That spirit of authority which lives so strongly within her.
Phaedra is prepared for the final, the ultimate sacrifice which Venus is intent upon receiving. She accepts her death and her destiny. She rejects any further attempts on Oenone s part to distract her from her goal. “I will not hear you more. Get out, you demon,” she declares. Oenone s role in the drama, as the instigator of the action, has now been completed. Her suicide, therefore, comes as no surprise. Through her intervention, Phaedra succeeds in coming to grips with the higher conscience within her, forcing herself thereby to unite the split facets of her personality, through sacrifice of herself.
When Phaedra finally confesses the truth to Theseus, she gives dignity to her negative aspects. With her death she enters the underworld, “the earthly womb,” as it was looked upon by the ancients, preparing the way for her eventual transformation and redemption.