What is the Role of the Nurse in Different Versions of the Hippolytus Myth? Analysis

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The role of the nurse within the Hippolytus myth varies between sources. This essay shall use examples of literature and art to explore how the nurse’s role changes over time according to the views of the audience and the artist.

Euripides’ play is an example of Greek literature where the nurse has been given a clear pivotal role in the Hippolytus myth. The key themes in the Euripides version of the myth are around secrets and silence. If the nurse were removed from the play, then no tragedy would occur, Phaedra would go through with her threat to kill herself, Hippolytus would be ignorant of her feelings and Thesus would not have had his son destroyed by Poseidon. Euripides first presents the nurse as trying to help Phaedra. She is exasperated and determined to find out what is the matter with her mistress and although it is done out of love; “I brought you up; I’m fond of you” (Hippolytus, 698 in Euripides 1996) it is her meddling that ultimately brings about the death of Hippolytus. It has been proposed that in Euripides’ first version of Hippolytus, the nurse played the role of dissuader to a more sexual and overt Phaedra. Whilst in the version that survives today, she starts in this role but switches to the role of corrupter (McDermott 2000). McDermott presents the theory that by having the nurse change her mind and behaviour; it is actually representative of Euripides changing the earlier version of Hippolytus to one that the Athenian audiences would have found more acceptable.

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In an attempt to save Phaedra’s life the nurse decides to help her mistress ‘acquire’ Hippolytus rather than allow her to starve herself to death. By offering Phaedra a ‘love potion’ though, she inadvertently supports Hippolytus’ view that women are crafty, corrupt and duplicitous (648-650). Unusually for Greek literature, when the nurse tells Hippolytus of Phaedra’s love, she extracts a promise of silence from him. Oaths and promises were not cast aside easily in ancient Greece as it would have meant offending the god of oaths as well as the hubris Hippolytus had already committed against Aphrodite (Fletcher 2004).

As a result of her misguided actions Phaedra rejects her faithful servant (682-688), whilst Hippolytus calls her accursed (601), leaving the audience feeling that the nurse has been made a scapegoat. The nurse identifies the fact that she did not consider the consequences of her actions which tells the audience she is only human and is therefore fallible “Now, had I been successful, who would not have called me one of the wise? It’s success or failure makes us seem wise or foolish” (700-702).

However, it is the nurse who clearly identifies that the cause of Phaedra’s love is Aphrodite, it is not a passion of Phaedra’s doing “She’s no Goddess, then, the Cyprian, but something greater…bringing ruin on this woman, on me and on this house” (398-360). The Greeks believed that the gods and goddesses could influence mortals’ lives; it was fate (Buxton 2007). Yet it is the free actions of the nurse that turn it from being two people caught up in the conflict between Aphrodite and Artemis, to a tragedy bringing about the destruction of a family.

Greek visual imagery depicts the influence of the gods and goddesses alongside the humans caught up in the tragedy. Plate 1.2 (The Open University 2010 p.10) shows a pot that could have been produced specifically to represent the overall emotions portrayed within Euripides’ version of the play. This particular pot would have been immediately recognisable as signifying the Hippolytus myth to many ordinary people. In an age where most people were illiterate, their only experiences of myths would have been visual images and plays. The artist shows the nurse standing behind Phaedra and she appears to be reprimanding her. The nurse is an older woman, which would usually suggest someone wise. Phaedra does not appear to be paying attention to her nurse, she is facing away from her, ignoring the advice that she gives Phaedra at the start of the play. Being seated clasping her knees shows us a Phaedra is struggling to resist the desire she feels (Taplin 2007). Aphrodite takes centre stage of the scene representing the influence that the goddesses have over the tragedy.

Comparing Euripides’ Hippolytus to Seneca’s Phaedra we can see both differences and similarities in how the nurse is used. Seneca was written in the Roman period where attitudes were different. Roman society approved of modesty and fidelity, especially in women. When myths were portrayed, women were used to give a clear message of what destruction was caused to households when social barriers were broken down, especially amongst the upper or ruling classes (Budelmann & Huskinson 2011 p.52). Seneca has his nurse emphasize this theme; “people who overindulge themselves amidst too much prosperity and live extravagantly are always looking for something new and unusual” (Phaedra p.112 in Seneca 2011) Within Seneca’s play there is no reference at all to Goddesses or divine intervention; it is all put down to human actions. When looking at the role of the nurse, like in Euripides’ version, the first impressions of the audience would have been that she is a wise woman; she spends the first part of the play trying to convince Phaedra that the passion and love she feels is destructive and sinful “Extinguish those flames. Do not surrender to this dreadful desire” (Phaedra, p.110).

This would have linked in with what a Roman audience would want to have seen, the nurse trying to restore the social normalities. But, as the play progresses a more sinister side to her character is revealed when she is the one who helps Phaedra devise the plot falsely accusing Hippolytus of rape “we must deflect the blame and set out to prove him guilty of incestuous love.” (Phaedra, p.128). As with the Euripidian play, the nurse is being used as the catalyst for the resulting disaster. If the nurse went along with her initial feelings to discourage Phaedra from this doomed love, then Hippolytus would never have suffered his father’s wrath. The audience blames the nurse for Hippolytus’ death as it is by her actions that Thesus brings about his death. Without the nurse’s presence in the play, Phaedra would have brought about her downfall single handedly, whilst Hippolytus would have emerged alive and with his reputation intact.

The Romans used visual art to deal with aspects of human emotion that they found difficult or unacceptable to address. Plate 1.4 (The Open University p.12) shows the Hippolytus myth but concentrates on the roles of Phaedra and the nurse. The image depicts the nurse standing behind Phaedra with a tablet in her hand. The image is suggestive of a conspiratorial relationship between the two women. This particular image was part of a series of images showing the audience the consequences of women’s actions, with supports the role that myths played within Roman society. The tablet being held by the nurse represents the use of the letter to confirm that this is the Hippolytus myth. It is unlikely that the letter in the one that Euripides has Phaedra write, as the nurse was surprised by its existence and Seneca does not make any reference to a letter, it may however, be referring to the letter that Ovid has Phaedra write in Heroides.

Ovid’s depiction of the myth (Heroides,1990) omits the nurse completely but, it supports the Roman view of the consequences of women’s actions when they step outside of their roles, as does the silver plate shown in Plate 1.12. (The Open University 2010 p.20) There is no reference to either Goddesses or to the nurse. Both of these materials represent a very sexual Phaedra who makes all the decisions about revealing her love to Hippolytus. Both of these versions are referring to the consequences of human actions.

Although there are certainly differences between Greek and Roman interpretations of the role of the nurse, the two plays by Euripides and Seneca have, to some degree, used the role of the nurse similarly. They both use her as the catalyst within the story; if she was absent there would be no real tragedy. They differ in their identification of the rationale behind the tragedy; Euripides’ nurse points the blame at Aphrodite, whilst Seneca’s nurse uses the actions of human’s decisions to bring about the tragedy. Both nurses act out of love for their mistress but both become the target of the audiences’ blame for the resulting deaths. Euripides also may certainly have used his nurse as a voice for his ‘corrections’ of his former version of the play. His nurse was also used to shock Greek society by getting Hippolytus, her master, to keep a secret that he dare not reveal. Other cultural materials depicting the myth support the societies’ views of their time. They either illustrate the nurse, along with the goddesses and their influences on the characters within the myth or, they show the nurse and Phaedra, indicating a society’s view on conspiratorial nature of women and the consequences of their actions. (word count 1519)


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