Silence and Speech in Euripides' Hippolytus

Jeannie T. Nguyen

University of Florida

An alternating pattern of speech and silence is at the core of the dramatic structure in Euripides' Hippolytus. We first encounter this alternance at the very outset of the play, in Aphrodite's opening statement, "I am called the goddess, Cypris, mighty and not unnamed among mortals and in heaven." As C.P. Segal rightly observes, there is something to be said about the fact that Aphrodite identifies herself as one who 'is called' a god instead of simply 'being' a god (Segal, 1965). The more the play unfolds, the more apparent it becomes that what the characters say or don't say is crucial to the development of the plot. My paper traces the use of this dramatic device throughout the Hippolytus, identifying and discussing the different ways in which the expression or the concealment of ideas affects the story. Working from B.Knox's premise that words are futile in a realm dominated by the gods (Knox, 1952), I intend to show how Euripides uses this pattern in order to prove that speech and action are ultimately useless if not accompanied by human understanding.

In the Hippolytus, all individuals involved are all well aware of the strength and capacity of speech to produce results (Roisman, 1999).  However, despite the appearance of human free will, the gods still control the action of the play. Critics have pointed out that the moral destruction which elevates this play as a tragedy is not the product of drastically different and conflicting characters, but rather the result of misunderstanding (Gill, 1990).  Silence is forced inaction, whereas speech produces an outcome; but since words are joined with an inability to understand or communicate with each other, they cause the ruin of the play's central figures. This dramatic device is applied consistently throughout the Hyppolytus, only to be changed at the end. Significantly, at the end of the tragedy we have the one instance in which words are joined with complete understanding and speech produces an outcome that does not yield in destruction. This occurs when Hippolytus forgives his father for cursing and killing him. Hippolytus pities his father and his ignorance in the situation; this is because he is able to relate to his father with "fellow-feeling" (Luschnig, 1988). Hippolytus' forgiveness is the one act of human will which Aphrodite does not control. It is the one occasion in which speech does not prove futile but accomplishes what the speaker desires, not according to divine will but his own. It is my argument that human understanding, or lack thereof, is what that motivates Aphrodite's vengeance upon Hippolytus. In no way could Aphrodite understand Hippolytus or forgive him for his arrogance–not only because she is a goddess, but also because she cannot relate to Hippolytus or his views of his own purity and reverence.  The only thing Aphrodite is unable to control throughout the entire play is human understanding, because she is incapable of it herself.  Forgiveness is an act only possible for human beings (Knox, 1952). At the beginning of the play, the servant's prayer to Aphrodite to forgive Hippolytus for his foolish notions implies that Aphrodite's vengeance is already set in motion and reveals the whole cause of the play. Aphrodite cannot forgive Hippolytus because she is unable to understand him, or have "fellow-feeling" for him, and so she uses her power to destroy him.  Though speech produces action, speech and action are ultimately futile in a realm subject to the rule of the gods who carry out their own will. Human will and speech are not significant unless they are coupled with understanding. Only then can they bring about good. Being able to understand and forgive his father, Hippolytus acts more virtuously than Aphrodite herself. Since Aphrodite is incapable of understanding and forgiving Hippolytus from the very beginning of the play, her actions compel the tragedy to occur.  Forgiveness is an act possible only for man, which allows him to distinguish himself above the inescapable laws of the universe.


Gill, C.  "The Articulation of the Self in Euripides' Hippolytus."  In Euripides, Women and Sexuality,

            edited by Anton Powell.  New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1990.  Pg. 76-107.

Knox, Bernard:  The Hippolytus of Euripides.  Yale Classical Studies, Vol. 8 (1952), 3-31.

Luschnig, C.A.E.  Time Holds the Mirror:  a Study of Knowledge in Euripides' Hippolytus (Leiden &

            New York: E.J. Brill, 1988).

Roisman, H.  Nothing is What it Seems (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999).

Segal, C.P.:  The tragedy of Hippolytus.  The waters of ocean and the untouched meadow. 

            HSPH 1965 LXX: 117-169.


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