I finished reading Paul Roche’s translation of Euripides’s Hippolytus on 16 Aug 2009.
The basic story is as follows: Hippolytus, the bastard son of Theseus, has no interest in sex or love. He devotes himself to Artemis and the hunt and slights Aphrodite. As revenge, Aphrodite causes Hippolytus’s stepmother Phaedra to fall in love with him. Unwilling to act on or even to reveal her passion, Phaedra wastes away and contemplates suicide. Finally a nurse gets the secret out of her and tells Hippolytus, after swearing him to secrecy. Hippolytus is disgusted by the whole idea and tells Phaedra so, and she kills herself, leaving behind a note saying that Hippolytus tried to rape her. Theseus believes the letter, and Hippolytus’s attempts to defend himself against the accusation are handicapped by his unwillingness to break his oath of secrecy. Theseus calls down the curse of Poseidon on his son, who dies a terrible death shortly thereafter.
The characters, particularly Hippolytus and Phaedra, come close to being as believable and multidimensional as those of Alcestis, and the storyline is more plausible.
I recently read an essay on C. S. Lewis by Edward M. Cook, which I mean to comment on in a later post, which mentions in passing that Hippolytus was instrumental in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, in that it caused in him such a powerful renewal of “Joy” (a word Lewis used idiosyncratically to refer to an intense and pleasurable desire which has no readily identifiable object and which nothing in this world can satisfy) that Lewis retreated from his “sensible” dismissal of Joy as mere wishful thinking and began taking it seriously as evidence for the existence of another world. Come to think of it, that mention in Cook’s essay is probably what made me finally pick up that volume of Euripides that had been sitting untouched on my shelf.
I didn’t experience anything as intense as what Lewis did, but I know how personal and unpredictable such experiences can be. Others have been moved by books that left me cold and vice versa, and sometimes even the same book reread by the same person will be found to have unexpectedly gained or lost its magic. The first time I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it was quite literally a religious experience (so much so that it started me down the path to deconversion by making me question whether such religious experiences could really be taken, as I had been taught to take them in Mormonism, as revelations of the Truth from God). The second time around, Portrait was still a good book but my reading experience was nothing out of the ordinary. (This elusiveness of Joy is another of Lewis’s pet themes, and, as I say, I mean to comment on the whole “Argument from Joy,” as laid out by Lewis and defended by Cook, in another post.)