Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

Fate, Character, and Narcissism in Euripides’ Hippolytus

By Michael Macrone, Ph.D.
Presented on June 18, 2010 at the psychoanalytic conference Tutti gli Dei Vanno Onorati (All Gods Must Be Honored), Siracusa, Italy. © 2010 Michael Macrone

Like most Greek narrative literature from the 5th century B.C.E. and before, Euripides’ Hippolytus presents a world largely governed by fate. That is why the goddess Aphrodite can, in the prologue, spell out the plot—what she calls “the truth of this story”[1]— before any action has occurred. Of course, she is the plot’s prime mover; but she does not directly intervene in or control the action after she has aroused in Phaedra an overwhelming, shameful desire. Phaedra requires the push, but then all the other dominoes fall because they were perfectly arranged to do so.

This fatal arrangement depends on the predictability of others’ responses. To be subject to fate in Greek drama is to be stuck in a predetermined and inflexible narrative, a story in which you and every other agent (character) is precisely disposed to react in fixed ways to inner and outer forces. Aphrodite knows how Phaedra’s attempt and failure to cope with her affliction will cause others to act, and how their actions will inspire other reactions in turn.

In this play, as typically in ancient Greek psychology, one’s behavior is seen as reflexive—as both indicative and derivative of one’s underlying makeup or character, which Aristotle called ethos. Such is the assumption not only of Aphrodite but of all the other characters and choruses, who often refer to the typical characteristics they see as determinative of disposition and action. For example, one reason Theseus “knows” Hippolytus raped his wife is because he “understands” the ethos of a sort like his son. “I know that young men/ are no more to be trusted than a woman/ when love disturbs the youthful blood in them./ The very male in them will make them false” (vv. 967–70).

Ethos is a subject not only of the Nicomachean Ethics, but also of Aristotle’s Poetics, which was written about a century after Hippolytus and which examines the structure and suppositions of tragic drama and tragic character. After introducing a passage from the Poetics in which Aristotle notes that the agents or “stage-figures” of tragedy “necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought,” John Jones observes that these qualities are “strangely overshadowed by action.” According to the Poetics,

“Men owe their qualities to their characters, but it is in their actions that they are happy or the reverse”—a juxtaposition that warns us not to expect from the Poetics any firm repose upon mood, state of mind, consciousness. Aristotelian man cannot make a portentous gesture of “I have that within which passes show” because he is significantly himself only in what he says and does. Instead of “that within”—Hamlet’s omnipresent consciousness—he has the qualities which he owes to his ethos; these are his without being an inward possession; the self-maintained continuity of the modern ego is lacking, and the work of individual appropriation (through which we recognise the character and qualities as his) falls to the outward nexus of habit.[2]

Predicated on essentialist ontology and mechanistic behaviorism, Aristotle’s account of moral virtue avoids strict determinism only at the expense of any viable notion of agency. While the agent must consciously choose to act, his choices are not truly free since they are constrained, if not determined, by character, or ethos; and ethos, in turn, reinforced by habit, gives a “firm and unchangeable” shape to a person’s inborn but amorphous “nature.” So character is not a psychological product, but rather an artifact of birth and of prior behavior.

While this view of human nature allows for—in fact requires—choices,[3] it bleeds them of any real personal agency. And it furthermore denies any real sense of psychological interiority, any significant remainder once a mechanistic model of selfhood is subtracted. The flattening of motivation meshes with the techniques of characterization in classical drama, in which all actors wore full face masks. These masks with their unchanging expressions, according to Oliver Taplin, drew attention “not to the unexpressed thought inside, but to the distant, heroic figures, whose constant ethos it portrays.”[4]

While Phaedra may resist the power of her own desire, and while she (uniquely in this play and very unusually for Greek drama) may hint at actual unexpressed thoughts, her actions are ultimately completely governed not by any psychological development or dynamic response to unconscious forces, but by a social disposition entirely governed by her given character and an externalized definition of self. Because her desire is egregiously shameful, it shatters her character or persona, and because it shatters her persona, she must kill herself.

(It is important to keep in mind that a static or externalized persona isn’t necessarily a rigid persona. Phaedra’s, Theseus’s, and especially Hippolytus’s characters are rigid, so they break rather than bend when subjected to extraordinary external pressure. The Nurse’s character is more flexible, so while she exhibits some extreme mood swings and must endure Phaedra’s condemnation, she makes it through the play essentially intact. In fact, she disappears from the action after Phaedra’s death, as her particular character no longer figures in the unfolding of doom.)

As Michael R. Halleran notes in his edition of Hippolytus, “fifth-century Athens was still predominantly a ‘shame culture,’ that is, one in which excellence and its opposite were measured by external standards and one’s worth was not easily distinguished from one’s reputation.”[5] It is hard to overlook the obsession of every character (excepting the Nurse) with honor, reputation, and shame. And even the Nurse, the engine of Phaedra’s destruction, does not propose to broadcast her mistress’s desire to the world at large. Self-worth and self-image, the closest we get in this literature to ego, are constituted in and by public expectations and public judgment. External estimation becomes internal definition; the self is in other people’s hands.

Obviously, Euripides still depicts Phaedra’s and Hippolytus’s resistance to the public gaze and public evaluation, and this resistance constitutes whatever interiority they have. But it is a shallow sort of interiority. When we sense Phaedra’s inner turmoil, we feel that she is a “modern” character, and she arouses in us a measure of identification and sympathy. But the tragic playwrights do not linger on such moments for they cannot fully exploit them; there is no language available to them for psychic turmoil, aside from rhetorical outbursts against the gods, tirades against fate, or excoriations of others’ actions.

However, even while he was imaginatively limited by a static model of the psyche and expressively limited by the conventions of classical aesthetics, Euripides still is able to depict, however unwittingly, psychological phenomena that analysts would name, classify, and study two millennia later. He shows us the tragic but to his mind inevitable consequences of excessive desire and excessive self-regard, consequences enacted by characters who are little better than Aphrodite’s pawns, because they have no means of surmounting their own psychological framework. But we may still apply our own lens to the characters and their conflict, so long as we approach the play with a sensitivity to the premises that animate it. While appreciating the concepts of fate and character that underlie the play, we may view its action as an allegory for psychic conflict that is never directly depicted in it; the characters are symbols or avatars of particular given psychological conditions with unexplored and unrepresentable geneses.

In the world of this drama, these conditions lead to an inevitable conclusion, not only because there seems to be no room or possibility for psychological development, but also because when characters interact, they do so in strict dyads. In Euripides’ time, tragic drama involved exactly three actors besides the chorus; but the vast majority of scenes still involve two actors only—two actors engaged in playing out their own and each others’ fated relationships.[6] And while these scenes may result in a new turn of events, they do so only by virtue of staging actions necessary to the fulfillment of the preordained plot. When characters engage in discourse, it is to show how each of them contributes to the predetermined conclusion by holding to their assigned roles in the dyadic relationship.

The three important dyadic confrontations in Hippolytus—between Phaedra and the Nurse, between the Nurse and Hippolytus, and between Hippolytus and Theseus—all illustrate psychological states or conditions that are ripe for analysis, as we have all learned at this conference. Let me focus on just one: the confrontation between the Nurse and Hippolytus, which brings clearly to the fore the three main characters’ evident terror of excessive desire, which is linked in their discourse to pollution. Desire that is out of bounds threatens to stain, if not extinguish, their sense of self.

In this scene, the tragedy is advanced when the Nurse’s proposition elicits from Hippolytus an extreme, horrified, misogynistic tirade whose very force leads us to take it as an expression of his core ethos. This tirade is what convinces Phaedra, not to kill herself, which she was planning on anyway, but to damn Hippolytus in the same fell swoop, which is the outcome Aphrodite is counting on. In her perceptive analysis of the play, Jean Smoot diagnoses Hippolytus with a severe case of secondary narcissism, which she believes stems from and is meant to compensate for his shameful illegitimacy. Smoot adduces several germane quotations from Freud; for example:

In obsessional neurosis and paranoia the forms which the symptoms assume become very valuable to the ego because they obtain for it, not certain advantages, but a narcissistic satisfaction which it would otherwise be without. The systems which the obsessional neurotic constructs flatter his self-love by making him feel that he is better than other people because he is specially cleanly or specially conscientious.[7]

And indeed, Hippolytus’s very psychic integrity seems based on a self-regarding obsession with his own purity. “You see the earth and air about you, father? / In all of that there lives no man more chaste/ than I, though you deny it” (vv. 993–95). He boasts elsewhere of his virginity (v. 1004), refers to his “maiden soul” (v. 1007), and, in an especially revealing moment, under the stress of Theseus’s misapprehension, he cries out for “another me to look me in the face/ and see my tears and all that I am suffering!” (vv. 1078–79). To a character so invested in his own ideal self-image, based on a severe and total rejection of any outer-directed libidinal drive, the Nurse’s proposition is not only intolerable but just in itself polluting: “I’ll go to a running stream and pour its waters/ into my ear to purge away the filth./ Shall I who cannot even hear such impurity,/ and feel myself untouched, … shall I turn sinner?” (vv. 653–55).

We also recognize Hippolytus in Freud’s description, in “The Taboo of Virginity,” of the “narcissistic rejection of women by men, which is so mixed up with despising them, in drawing attention to the castration complex and its influence on the opinion in which women are held” (SE XI, 199). This narcissistic misogyny is glaringly evident in Hippolytus’s outburst to the Nurse: “I hate you women, hate and hate and hate you, / and never have enough of hating” (vv. 663–64). And this hatred is not novel; Hippolytus practically brags about how some say he talks of it “eternally” (v. 665). Perhaps more novel is Hippolytus’s bizarre wish that Zeus had arranged for female-free, asexual reproduction: “If you [Zeus] were so determined/ to breed the race of man, the source of it/ should not have been women” (vv. 618–19). He envisions instead a sort of open market in which offerings to the gods are exchanged for infants.

But the events of this play suggest how treacherous an arrangement this would be. Euripides shows us that if gods did not require men for their own narcissistic gratification (if they didn’t need our regard and worship and supplication and prayer), it would likely lead to the extinction of the race. Three people will die—two in this play and, Artemis promises, one later—because of one goddess’s neediness and jealousy and of another goddess’s loss of a worshipper. Euripides depicts his culture of shame as the original culture of narcissism.

Narcissus is the ultimate static figure in classical myth, a figure transfixed by his own reflection—immobile, impervious, locked in a dyadic relationship with his own image. And he is thus the aptest symbol for the tragic world in which the doomed figures of Phaedra and Hippolytus must live and die.


[1] Euripides, Hippolytus, trans. David Grene, in Euripides I: Four Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), verse 9 (p. 163). All quotations are from this edition unless otherwise noted.

[2] John Jones, On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962), p. 37. Jones quotes Aristotle’s Poetics, 6.1449b38–50a1 and 6.1450a19–20.

[3] For Aristotle, ethos is intimately related to choice; one cannot be said to exist without the other: “‘[C]haracter’ is that kind of utterance which clearly reveals the bent of a man’s moral choice (hence there is no character in that class of utterances in which there is nothing at all that the speaker is choosing or rejecting).” Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Gerald F. Else (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967), pp. 28–29 (6.1450b8-11).

[4] Oliver Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), p. 14.

[5] Euripides, Hippolytus, ed. and trans. Michael R. Halleran (Newburyport, Mass.: Focus Publishing, 2001), p. 69.

[6] The same goes for Aristophanes’ comedies, excepting The Frogs. The exception in Hippolytus is the epilogue, which brings Theseus, Artemis, and Hippolytus on stage all at once. However, Artemis is invisible to the others, and she does not in any way attempt to influence the action or human behavior. She simply informs the others of the causes and effects of the play’s action.

[7] Sigmund Freud, Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, SE XX, 99; Jean J. Smoot, “Literary Criticism on a Vase-Painting: A Clearer Picture of Euripides’ Hippolytus,Comparative Literature Studies, 13:4 (December 1976), p. 293.


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