I am going to attempt to make a claim about Euripides' Hippolytus, building an argument from the text of the play, but I am considerably under the weather of late so this trick has, for me, a high degree of difficulty. Wish me luck. I guarantee nothing, including complete sentences and coherent thought. Ready?
Tom at Wuthering Expectations has been hosting a read through of all the extant ancient Greek plays (see here for the pre-event notice). It's a mad idea but it's been a lot of fun. I read about twenty of the tragedies back in 2015, and this readalong gives me a reason to pick up the second volume of Euripides, which I never got around to seven years ago. Plus, Aristophanes' comedies, of which I've only read three (Clouds, Lysistrata, and one other I'm sure but I can't tell you which it is. The Birds, maybe?). Last week's play was Hippolytus. Read Tom's post here. He mentions in passing the theme of houses, and I said in a comment that I thought this was a pretty important theme in the play. In fact, while I was reading the play last week, I made some pretty extensive notes on this theme and what I want to say about it is just too long to fit into a comment on Tom's blog, so I'm going to dump my ideas here in my own sandbox and see what they look like.
I'm not really going to talk about the play as story and characters, etc. Let me just say that Hippolytus is a mature, well-formed work of art, one of the best things in the history of theater and you should read it. Euripides' language is endlessly inventive and surprising, and also poetic and beautiful. The characters are vivid, the plot is gripping, etc. It's a perfect work, an achievement of the highest level of craft and art. I do not exaggerate. But I'm not really going to talk about the play as a drama.
I have a theory that the best fiction employs three distinct but often overlapping levels of discourse:
1. Characters speak to each other, within the closed world of the play, as part of the dramatization of the story. ("Who goes there?" "A friend to this ground." etc)
2. The characters' speech is an aesthetic creation for the enjoyment of the audience, the artfulness of the speech in no way necessary for the mechanical functioning of the drama. ("To sleep, perchance to dream" etc)
3. The playwright speaks more or less directly to the audience via figurative language and irony, the meaning of which the characters within the drama are usually unaware.
This third form of discourse is the domain of Euripides' "house" theme. (I'm not at all sure that my categories of discourse are clear to my reader; they make sense in my head, though. I have not yet put a great deal of thought into this theory so my prima facie case could well be weak. Nonetheless.)
Hippolytus is a play about desire. Apparently, the version that came down to us was Euripides' second attempt at the story. His first script was banned from performance because it was "scandalous." One can only imagine what Euripides tried to get away with in that one. My hunch is that Nurse's pandering of Phaedra to Hippolytus was quite explicit. In any case, we have a story of forbidden desire, a queen lusting after her husband's bastard son. A sin carried on within the king's own house. Some bits about houses:
Nurse: Kypris is no goddess, but something far greater than a god, for she has been the ruin of this woman, and of me, and of this whole house.
Chorus: Some strange event will come to pass in this house.
Phaedra: How then, lady Kypris, my mistress, do these women look their husbands in the face without fearing that the night, their accomplice, or the walls of the house may find a voice?
Nurse: not even the roof with which a house is covered would you complete precisely.
Hippolytus: Then the husband who takes the plant of doom into his house happily lavishes a fine display on his sorry idol and struggles to keep her in dresses, poor fellow, squandering his house’s wealth.
The idea of one's house was important to the ancient Greeks, and references to one's house are common in the tragedies. The house was a metaphor for the family, for the city, for the kingdom. In fact, Phaedra refers to Troezen, the city where the play is set, as part of a house, "this extremity of land, this anteroom to Argos." During the Peloponnesian War, Troezen was enemy territory. I just looked it up in Thucydides, in case you wonder how I knew that.
So where was I? Houses, yes. Hippolytus is a play about desire, a sin within the king's house, a plague that could spread through the whole "house" of Greece, maybe? I'm not sure, however, that Euripides is concerned with Phaedra's lust as much as he's concerned with Nurse's response to Phaedra's unhappy state. Nurse suggests that Phaedra seduce Hippolytus, adding that Phaedra's husband will be happy to turn a blind eye ("it is the wise man who leaves everything ugly hidden in the darkness"), following up with a "virtue is just ugly pride" argument.
Phaedra's initial response to Nurse is that "This is the deadly thing which devastates well-ordered cities and the houses of men: this art of oversubtle words." Theseus (Phaedra's husband) uses much the same language against Hippolytus later in the play: "You plead the cause of wrong so well." These two lines of dialogue, I think, are central to Euripides' meaning in this play.
The characters inside the drama itself are concerned with what appears to be a contest between Aphrodite (who puts lust in Phaedra's heart) and Artemis (to whom Hippolytus has dedicated his virginity), and how the opposing desires of the gods wreak havoc in the lives of innocent people. Meanwhile, the playwright is talking about the uses of speech, especially speech used to violate social norms of acceptable behavior. This theme of speech twisting sinfulness into virtue is aimed at the audience rather than at the characters onstage. The words come out of their mouths, but their concern is what Phaedra will do, or what Hippolytus may have done.
Phaedra tells us that "when wickedness approves itself to those of noble birth, it will surely be approved by their inferiors." This is the plague which will infect the whole house of Argos? I admit that I am not sure what Euripides is saying to his Athenian audience. Possibly something about wicked behavior in the house of Argos/Sparta, and how it is a danger to the house which is Athens, and how this wickedness is communicated through twisted language.
This all looked much more forceful and interesting in my head, and in the tangle of notes I took when I was reading the play again. Alas, here it seems weakly reasoned and doubtful. But I'm just aiming my virus-addled brain at one possible aspect of the play, and even if I'm entirely wrong, Hippolytus is a masterpiece and you should read it. It's not even very long, so the rewards greatly outweigh the effort. I'll have to work on the "three forms of discourse" idea. I think it has possibilities.