Theseus the Tyrant?: A Tyrannical Scheme in Euripides’ Hippolytus

Massimo De Sanctis Mangelli (University of Pennsylvania) 

In this paper, I interpret Euripides’ Hippolytus as a tragedy which revolves around the figure of the tyrant and the issues of maintaining, and acquiring, tyrannical power.  I argue that a central and overlooked theme of the Hippolytus is the power struggle between the father/tyrant and the son/usurper, in which Phaedra, in the fashion of other tragic queens like Jocasta, acts as the embodiment of power itself.  It is undeniable that Greek tragedy dramatized contemporary political issues of the classical Athenians (Winkler, Zeitlin 1990), and that the memory of tyranny was crucial in the formation of Athenian political ideology and identity in the 5th century (Raaflaub 2003): consequently, it is reasonable to assume that the reflection on tyranny and the tyrant was actually a crucial element of Greek drama (McGlew 1993), regardless of whether the ruler depicted on stage was hereditary or not (Anderson 2005) .  In the case of the Hippolytus, we can easily identify the anxiety of the tyrant about being overthrown in Theseus’ speech to Hippolytus, and in the latter’s reply to his father, which closely echoes Creon’s reply to Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (Eur. Hip.1010-1020, cf. OT 583-615). For his part, Hippolytus refuses to acknowledge that Phaedra’s move turns him into a rival to the throne of his father, in a triangular scheme which recalls the vicissitudes of Gyges and Candaules in Herodotus I. Like Gyges, Hippolytus considers it morally abhorrent to gain access to the queen’s intimate sphere. Unlike him, he does not come to understand that he has already become a potential usurper, and therefore fails to eliminate his rival in order not to be eliminated himself. As it is often the case, the tragedian uses myth to address the same political issues that the historian does through “history.” (Raaflaub 1987).

Selected bibliography

Anderson, G. (2005) “Before tyrannoi were tyrants: rethinking a chapter of early Greek history”, Class. Ant. 24 173-222.

McGlew, J. (1993) Tyranny and Political Culture in Ancient Greece, New York.

Raaflaub, K. (1987) “Herodotus, political thought and the meaning of history”, Arethusa 20, No. 1/2 221-248.

__________ (2003) “Stick and glue: the function of tyranny in fifth-century Athenian democracy”, in K. A. Morgan Popular Tyranny: Sovereignty and Its Discontents in Ancient Greece, 59-93, Austin.

Winkler, J. J. and F. I. Zeitlin (1990) Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, Princeton.