Excerpt: 'Hippolytus' by Euripides, translated by Sean Gurd


The Death of Hippolytus, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1860

Though he was judged “most tragic” in the generation after his death, though more copies and fragments of his plays have survived than of any other tragedian, and though his Orestes became the most widely performed tragedy in Greco-Roman Antiquity, during his lifetime his success was only moderate, and to him his career may have felt more like a failure. He was regularly selected to have his plays performed in the annual festival of Dionysus at Athens. But the plays were performed in a competition, and in the competitions he lost and lost, winning first place only five times in a career that spanned more than forty years. His corpus reads like the remains of a life spent trying to get a few things right and never being quite satisfied: scenes and schematized combinations of elements recur again and again, each time slightly changed. Hippolytus itself is an example: it contains two scenes in which a sick or dying character lies on a couch or a stretcher and is surrounded by silence and grief; he had experimented with such scenes in Alcestis, and would work with them again in Herakles and Orestes. Nor, judging from appearances, was he immune to the desire to score a hit, or to satisfy the audiences and the judges at the competition. Hippolytus is a rewrite of another Hippolytus, performed several years earlier, which scandalized the audience and certainly did not take first place.

In that earlier Hippolytus (called by later writers Hippolytus Veiled), Euripides fashioned a Phaedra who was neither ashamed of loving her stepson nor incapable of taking steps to satisfy her desire. The forwardness of her approach to Hippolytus so outraged him that he covered his head with a robe (hence the play’s later title). Euripides liked to write energetic and self-confident women like this. He staged his Medea in 431, just three years before he revised Hippolytus, and in it the jilted title character murders her children in revenge for Jason’s new marriage to a more politically advantageous wife. Another flop: the play came in third of three. Evidently the judges did not like their women showing agency, especially when the consequences were transgressive. “The ornament of women,” wrote another great Athenian a little earlier, “is silence.”i Euripides’ Medea and his first Phaedra had other decorations.

So three years after Medea crashed and burned and some time after the first Hippolytus suffered the same fate, he produced another Hippolytus play with a different setting and story. How could this one not have been a reaction to the failure of the first? “Second thoughts are always better,” he has one of his characters say, as though he were offering an apology for his first thoughts on the same story. In this new version, Phaedra is suicidally ashamed of her love, choosing to die rather than have it discovered, and willing to bring down her beloved Hippolytus in the service of the same end. Now it is Phaedra herself who covers her head in shock and horror at her desire. Only an intermediary, a slave of the house and an old crone with her fingers in all sorts of illicit pots, communicates Phaedra’s secret – against orders – and in consequence brings about the demise of two resolutely moral figures. It worked. For his tale of two well-born nobles with an unswerving commitment to moral action, destroyed by the meddling of a slave (and by the hostility of some particularly uncaring divinities), the judges crowned Euripides winner. It was the first time he had won, after almost thirty years of work.


What Hippolytus wants more than anything else, as he protests with outrage just before leaving Trozen for the last time, is the benefit of due process – oaths, witnesses, an investigation that would reveal who really lusted after whom. Ironic, given that in the first Hippolytus, as far as we can make out, he did get a trial – but too late, and Theseus’ successful processing of Hippolytus failed to prevent his death. I cannot help hearing in the second Hippolytus’ complaints the anger of his authorial semblable who lost year after year by a process of judging that might have seemed brutal to him. Judges took no cognizance of how he worked, how long or hard or why; they just voted, and Euripides lost. But then I hear, in the fate of the first Hippolytus, an even grimmer commentary. Processed or not, we lose. We run aground. At the very least, this might cast a darker shadow on the business of watching or reading a play: in that twilight, things move too fast to make a fair assessment and, in any case, the reasonably high definition of what you see and hear belies the truth of indistinction, the multiplicities just below the surface.

Watching is a constrained activity, a form of captivity, but reading is plastic. This translation was begun to supply the script for an audio version of the play, recorded in the spring of 2012, and here and there it sacrifices literalness for sayability and the voices and passions of the actors on that occasion. But it was finished to be read, and engineered to create a reading caught between the poles of specificity and non-specificity that the play itself conjures and relies on at its generative core. Thus two texts: the one clear, perhaps overprecise, respectably modern in its presentation, and the other ancient, a reasonable approximation of the classical reading process, and indistinct in vital ways.

Like early modern dramatic texts, the exact provenance and original function of the scripts that have made it down to us are unknown. We do know that the ultimate survival of Hippolytus was thanks to its wide-spread use as a school text. But its relation to the first performance in 428 BCE is a matter only of speculation. Euripides presumably had a fair copy before production began; it was probably modified during rehearsals. The actors may have had copies, too (probably the young men who served in the chorus did not). The chorēgos, a wealthy Athenian who paid for the production, might have been presented with or just made sure to get his hands on a high-quality text, to commemorate the play’s success. Fans might have been able to buy copies. Any one of these sources might have provided the ultimate progenitor of our text. Several of them might have, in fact, if later editors compared and conflated traditions. The plays toured extensively in the Greek-speaking world, and were restaged as repertoire for centuries afterwards. In the process they were subjected to enough modifications by producers and actors that in the later fourth century the Athenian statesman Lycurgus had a law passed prohibiting performances at Athens from deviating from the official “city” text of the tragedies (which he had commissioned). It is unlikely that the city text was the last word; but it marks an important moment in Athens’ role in their dissemination, since after this the major sites of textual curatorship moved overseas, to Alexandria, Pergamum, Rome, Antioch, Constantinople.

Any single text of any single play is thus no more than a moment of clarity and stability, crossed and subtended by multiple vectors of change, including that of textual flux (from Euripides’ first drafts to the latest printed text) and that of Euripides’ life work as a writer, in the light of which the Hippolytus is just one attempt to produce something exactly right, to win the prize or finally satisfy himself or prove to himself that all this longing for perfection was a waste of time. I am intrigued by the possibility that a single text might somehow serve as a lens onto this wider zone of indistinction, representing a small region clearly but nonetheless containing a blurred image of the whole, like a Leibnizian monad. After all, no text is a witness: it is, rather, a perception and a performance, and what every Hippolytus must perform is the awkward overlay of singular and plural, social practise and subliminal drive, that structures the tragedy. Modern critical editions can do this by juxtaposing a (relatively) clean and simple text with a textual apparatus reporting variants and theorizing the relationship between textual instantiations. A translation lacks the resolution to catch the fine variations which feed into the construction of an apparatus. But there are other means to hand.

Guessing at the exact words of the original text is always just that – guessing – though Hippolytus is less problematic than plays like Iphigenia at Aulis. But we can make a pretty secure guess at what such a text looked like. Texts read by fifth-century readers were fundamentally different from what is presented in the best medieval MSS and printed in modern publications. The texts of Euripides’ time and for many centuries afterwards did not indicate word division with spaces (or by any other means) and were extremely sparing in punctuation, often avoiding it altogether. There was only one “case” of letters – what we call “capitals.” Musical sections were inscribed as though they were prose, without line endings to reflect their rhythm or their rhetorical structure. There was no indication of the speakers within a dramatic text, either. The earliest surviving dramatic texts, which come from over a century after Euripides’ death and a time which was much more elaborate and precise in its textual culture, indicated speaker-change with a little line or paragraphos below the line and a double-point [:] at its end. This convention almost certainly does not date back to Euripides’ own time; it may not even date to Lycurgus. In any case, such indications were understood to be readers’ marks: they did not have the same authority as the text and they were subject to readers’ revisions. At least ideationally, if not in concrete and distinguishable fact, a dramatic text was understood as containing no indication of speaker-change (and certainly none of who was saying what). The reader had to figure that out for him-/herself. The clear, legible, easy texts we are accustomed to reading are the fabrications of medieval and modern reading cultures.

The first text, then, presents the translation as the text would have been in the mid-fourth century, perhaps decades after Euripides’ death. The second text processes Hippolytus, makes sense of it and makes it “readable.” That is: too distinct, dangerously so. It gets in your way, conjures fantoms, tries to make you see. Fragments of the Hippolytus Veiled, otherwise almost entirely lost, are juxtaposed with similar passages in the text – not to suggest a reconstruction, but a dialogue and a complex set of reassessments. I have not tried to represent the full variety of textual variants, but I have signalled where, for one reason or another, the text is soft and different editions propose excisions or changes. The two texts must be read together: you, reader, form the bridge between the distinctly seen and the indistinct invisible. You, in the end, will be its mask.












Scene 1

Enter Phaedra and the Nurse; the former is recumbent on a couch while the latter bustles about her with gestures that might be those of a caregiver or a guard.

Ills and hated diseases! What can I do for you? What should I not do? Here is the light, and the bright air; your sick bed is now outside the house. Your every word was to come here, but you will rush back to your bedroom again. You fade quickly. You delight in nothing. You dislike what you have. You love what you don’t. It’s better to be sick than tend the sick – the first is simple. To the second attaches heart’s pain and hand’s work. Every human life is painful. There is no end to toil. Darkness hides behind clouds whatever is dearer than life. We prove unhappy lovers of what shines here for lack of knowledge of another life. There is no proof for things beneath the earth. Only stories sustain us.

Lift my body, straighten my head: the bonds of my limbs are loosened. Take my hands and my pale arms. This hat is too heavy for my head to wear. Take it off, spread my hair over my shoulders.

Courage, child; don’t toss and turn so violently. You will bear your sickness more easily with peace and a noble mind. All mortals suffer.

Aiai. I want to drink pure water from a dewy spring. I want to lie back and rest under the trees in some grassy meadow.

Child, why cry? Don’t say these things near the crowd, hurling words mounted on madness.

Send me to the mountain. I will go to the forest where beast-killing dogs press the spotted deer. Gods! I long to shout to the dogs, to shoot the Thessalian javelin past my blond hair, to hold the barbed dart in my hand.

Why this anxiety, child? What do you care about hunting? Why do you lust for flowing springs? There’s a hill with water just next to the tower; we can get you a drink there.

Artemis, mistress of the salt lake and the course thundering with horse’s hooves: I wish I were on your plains breaking studs!

Why throw these frenzied words about? Just now you were setting out for the mountain to hunt – and now you long for horses on the waveless sand. These things need an oracle to tell which god reins you in and drives you from your senses, child.

What have I done? How far have I been driven from good thoughts? I was crazy, I was cursed by some power. Pheu pheu. Alas. Nurse, cover my head again. I’m ashamed of what I’ve said. Cover me – a tear moves down from my eye and it embarrasses me. It hurts to straighten your mind and it is terrible to be insane. Best to die before you become lucid again.

I’ll cover you. But when will death cover me? I’m old; I’ve learned a lot. Mortals should drink of friendship moderately, not from the deepest marrow of the soul. A mind’s love-charms should be easy to undo, or thrust away, or tie more tightly. It is a very difficult weight for one soul to labor over two people, as I am wracked by pain for her. Too much discipline causes more harm than pleasure and wars with health. I praise “too much” less than “nothing in excess,” and the wise agree with me.


Excerpted from Sean Gurd’s translation of Euripides’ Hippolytus.

Piece originally published at Continent | Creative Commons License