Phaedra, ACT II

by Jean Baptiste Racine


Hippolytus request to see me here!
Hippolytus desire to bid farewell!
Is’t true, Ismene? Are you not deceived?

This is the first result of Theseus’ death.
Prepare yourself to see from every side.
Hearts turn towards you that were kept away
By Theseus. Mistress of her lot at last,
Aricia soon shall find all Greece fall low,
To do her homage.

‘Tis not then, Ismene,
An idle tale? Am I no more a slave?
Have I no enemies?

The gods oppose
Your peace no longer, and the soul of Theseus
Is with your brothers.

Does the voice of fame
Tell how he died?

Rumours incredible
Are spread. Some say that, seizing a new bride,
The faithless husband by the waves was swallow’d.
Others affirm, and this report prevails,
That with Pirithous to the world below
He went, and saw the shores of dark Cocytus,
Showing himself alive to the pale ghosts;
But that he could not leave those gloomy realms,
Which whoso enters there abides for ever.

Shall I believe that ere his destined hour
A mortal may descend into the gulf
Of Hades? What attraction could o’ercome
Its terrors?

He is dead, and you alone
Doubt it. The men of Athens mourn his loss.
Troezen already hails Hippolytus
As King. And Phaedra, fearing for her son,
Asks counsel of the friends who share her trouble,
Here in this palace.

Will Hippolytus,
Think you, prove kinder than his sire, make light
My chains, and pity my misfortunes?

I think so, Madam.

Ah, you know him not
Or you would never deem so hard a heart
Can pity feel, or me alone except
From the contempt in which he holds our sex.
Has he not long avoided every spot
Where we resort?

I know what tales are told
Of proud Hippolytus, but I have seen
Him near you, and have watch’d with curious eye
How one esteem’d so cold would bear himself.
Little did his behavior correspond
With what I look’d for; in his face confusion
Appear’d at your first glance, he could not turn
His languid eyes away, but gazed on you.
Love is a word that may offend his pride,
But what the tongue disowns, looks can betray.

How eagerly my heart hears what you say,
Tho’ it may be delusion, dear Ismene!
Did it seem possible to you, who know me,
That I, sad sport of a relentless Fate,
Fed upon bitter tears by night and day,
Could ever taste the maddening draught of love?
The last frail offspring of a royal race,
Children of Earth, I only have survived
War’s fury. Cut off in the flow’r of youth,
Mown by the sword, six brothers have I lost,
The hope of an illustrious house, whose blood
Earth drank with sorrow, near akin to his
Whom she herself produced. Since then, you know
How thro’ all Greece no heart has been allow’d
To sigh for me, lest by a sister’s flame
The brothers’ ashes be perchance rekindled.
You know, besides, with what disdain I view’d
My conqueror’s suspicions and precautions,
And how, oppos’d as I have ever been
To love, I often thank’d the King’s injustice
Which happily confirm’d my inclination.
But then I never had beheld his son.
Not that, attracted merely by the eye, I
love him for his beauty and his grace,
Endowments which he owes to Nature’s bounty,
Charms which he seems to know not or to scorn.
I love and prize in him riches more rare,
The virtues of his sire, without his faults.
I love, as I must own, that generous pride
Which ne’er has stoop’d beneath the amorous yoke.
Phaedra reaps little glory from a lover
So lavish of his sighs; I am too proud
To share devotion with a thousand others,
Or enter where the door is always open.
But to make one who ne’er has stoop’d before
Bend his proud neck, to pierce a heart of stone,
To bind a captive whom his chains astonish,
Who vainly ‘gainst a pleasing yoke rebels,—
That piques my ardour, and I long for that.
‘Twas easier to disarm the god of strength
Than this Hippolytus, for Hercules
Yielded so often to the eyes of beauty,
As to make triumph cheap. But, dear Ismene,
I take too little heed of opposition
Beyond my pow’r to quell, and you may hear me,
Humbled by sore defeat, upbraid the pride
I now admire. What! Can he love? and I
Have had the happiness to bend—

He comes
Yourself shall hear him.


Lady, ere I go
My duty bids me tell you of your change
Of fortune. My worst fears are realized;
My sire is dead. Yes, his protracted absence
Was caused as I foreboded. Death alone,
Ending his toils, could keep him from the world
Conceal’d so long. The gods at last have doom’d
Alcides’ friend, companion, and successor.
I think your hatred, tender to his virtues,
Can hear such terms of praise without resentment,
Knowing them due. One hope have I that soothes
My sorrow: I can free you from restraint.
Lo, I revoke the laws whose rigour moved
My pity; you are at your own disposal,
Both heart and hand; here, in my heritage,
In Troezen, where my grandsire Pittheus reign’d
Of yore and I am now acknowledged King,
I leave you free, free as myself,—and more.

Your kindness is too great, ’tis overwhelming.
Such generosity, that pays disgrace
With honour, lends more force than you can think
To those harsh laws from which you would release me.

Athens, uncertain how to fill the throne
Of Theseus, speaks of you, anon of me,
And then of Phaedra’s son.

Of me, my lord?

I know myself excluded by strict law:
Greece turns to my reproach a foreign mother.
But if my brother were my only rival,
My rights prevail o’er his clearly enough
To make me careless of the law’s caprice.
My forwardness is check’d by juster claims:
To you I yield my place, or, rather, own
That it is yours by right, and yours the sceptre,
As handed down from Earth’s great son, Erechtheus.
Adoption placed it in the hands of Aegeus:
Athens, by him protected and increased,
Welcomed a king so generous as my sire,
And left your hapless brothers in oblivion.
Now she invites you back within her walls;
Protracted strife has cost her groans enough,
Her fields are glutted with your kinsmen’s blood
Fatt’ning the furrows out of which it sprung
At first. I rule this Troezen; while the son
Of Phaedra has in Crete a rich domain.
Athens is yours. I will do all I can
To join for you the votes divided now
Between us.

Stunn’d at all I hear, my lord,
I fear, I almost fear a dream deceives me.
Am I indeed awake? Can I believe
Such generosity? What god has put it
Into your heart? Well is the fame deserved
That you enjoy! That fame falls short of truth!
Would you for me prove traitor to yourself?
Was it not boon enough never to hate me,
So long to have abstain’d from harbouring
The enmity—

To hate you? I, to hate you?
However darkly my fierce pride was painted,
Do you suppose a monster gave me birth?
What savage temper, what envenom’d hatred
Would not be mollified at sight of you?
Could I resist the soul-bewitching charm—

Why, what is this, Sir?

I have said too much
Not to say more. Prudence in vain resists
The violence of passion. I have broken
Silence at last, and I must tell you now
The secret that my heart can hold no longer.
You see before you an unhappy instance
Of hasty pride, a prince who claims compassion
I, who, so long the enemy of Love,
Mock’d at his fetters and despised his captives,
Who, pitying poor mortals that were shipwreck’d,
In seeming safety view’d the storms from land,
Now find myself to the same fate exposed,
Toss’d to and fro upon a sea of troubles!
My boldness has been vanquish’d in a moment,
And humbled is the pride wherein I boasted.
For nearly six months past, ashamed, despairing,
Bearing where’er I go the shaft that rends
My heart, I struggle vainly to be free
From you and from myself; I shun you, present;
Absent, I find you near; I see your form
In the dark forest depths; the shades of night,
Nor less broad daylight, bring back to my view
The charms that I avoid; all things conspire
To make Hippolytus your slave. For fruit
Of all my bootless sighs, I fail to find
My former self. My bow and javelins
Please me no more, my chariot is forgotten,
With all the Sea God’s lessons; and the woods
Echo my groans instead of joyous shouts
Urging my fiery steeds.

Hearing this tale
Of passion so uncouth, you blush perchance
At your own handiwork. With what wild words
I offer you my heart, strange captive held
By silken jess! But dearer in your eyes
Should be the offering, that this language comes
Strange to my lips; reject not vows express’d
So ill, which but for you had ne’er been form’d.


Prince, the Queen comes. I herald her approach.
‘Tis you she seeks.


What her thought may be
I know not. But I speak on her behalf.
She would converse with you ere you go hence.

What shall I say to her? Can she expect—

You cannot, noble Prince, refuse to hear her,
Howe’er convinced she is your enemy,
Some shade of pity to her tears is due.

Shall we part thus? and will you let me go,
Not knowing if my boldness has offended
The goddess I adore? Whether this heart,
Left in your hands—

Go, Prince, pursue the schemes
Your generous soul dictates, make Athens own
My sceptre. All the gifts you offer me
Will I accept, but this high throne of empire
Is not the one most precious in my sight.


Friend, is all ready?
But the Queen approaches.
Go, see the vessel in fit trim to sail.
Haste, bid the crew aboard, and hoist the signal:
Then soon return, and so deliver me
From interview most irksome.


There I see him!
My blood forgets to flow, my tongue to speak
What I am come to say.

Think of your son,
How all his hopes depend on you.

I hear
You leave us, and in haste. I come to add
My tears to your distress, and for a son
Plead my alarm. No more has he a father,
And at no distant day my son must witness
My death. Already do a thousand foes
Threaten his youth. You only can defend him
But in my secret heart remorse awakes,
And fear lest I have shut your ears against
His cries. I tremble lest your righteous anger
Visit on him ere long the hatred earn’d
By me, his mother.

No such base resentment,
Madam, is mine.

I could not blame you, Prince,
If you should hate me. I have injured you:
So much you know, but could not read my heart.
T’ incur your enmity has been mine aim.
The self-same borders could not hold us both;
In public and in private I declared
Myself your foe, and found no peace till seas
Parted us from each other. I forbade
Your very name to be pronounced before me.
And yet if punishment should be proportion’d
To the offence, if only hatred draws
Your hatred, never woman merited
More pity, less deserved your enmity.

A mother jealous of her children’s rights
Seldom forgives the offspring of a wife
Who reign’d before her. Harassing suspicions
Are common sequels of a second marriage.
Of me would any other have been jealous
No less than you, perhaps more violent.

Ah, Prince, how Heav’n has from the general law
Made me exempt, be that same Heav’n my witness!
Far different is the trouble that devours me!

This is no time for self-reproaches, Madam.
It may be that your husband still beholds
The light, and Heav’n may grant him safe return,
In answer to our prayers. His guardian god
Is Neptune, ne’er by him invoked in vain.

He who has seen the mansions of the dead
Returns not thence. Since to those gloomy shores
Theseus is gone, ’tis vain to hope that Heav’n
May send him back. Prince, there is no release
From Acheron’s greedy maw. And yet, methinks,
He lives, and breathes in you. I see him still
Before me, and to him I seem to speak;
My heart—
Oh! I am mad; do what I will,
I cannot hide my passion.

Yes, I see
The strange effects of love. Theseus, tho’ dead,
Seems present to your eyes, for in your soul
There burns a constant flame.

Ah, yes for Theseus
I languish and I long, not as the Shades
Have seen him, of a thousand different forms
The fickle lover, and of Pluto’s bride
The would-be ravisher, but faithful, proud
E’en to a slight disdain, with youthful charms
Attracting every heart, as gods are painted,
Or like yourself. He had your mien, your eyes,
Spoke and could blush like you, when to the isle
Of Crete, my childhood’s home, he cross’d the waves,
Worthy to win the love of Minos’ daughters.
What were you doing then? Why did he gather
The flow’r of Greece, and leave Hippolytus?
Oh, why were you too young to have embark’d
On board the ship that brought thy sire to Crete?
At your hands would the monster then have perish’d,
Despite the windings of his vast retreat.
To guide your doubtful steps within the maze
My sister would have arm’d you with the clue.
But no, therein would Phaedra have forestall’d her,
Love would have first inspired me with the thought;
And I it would have been whose timely aid
Had taught you all the labyrinth’s crooked ways.
What anxious care a life so dear had cost me!
No thread had satisfied your lover’s fears:
I would myself have wish’d to lead the way,
And share the peril you were bound to face;
Phaedra with you would have explored the maze,
With you emerged in safety, or have perish’d.

Gods! What is this I hear? Have you forgotten
That Theseus is my father and your husband?

Why should you fancy I have lost remembrance
Thereof, and am regardless of mine honour?

Forgive me, Madam. With a blush I own
That I misconstrued words of innocence.
For very shame I cannot bear your sight
Longer. I go—

Ah! cruel Prince, too well
You understood me. I have said enough
To save you from mistake. I love. But think not
That at the moment when I love you most
I do not feel my guilt; no weak compliance
Has fed the poison that infects my brain.
The ill-starr’d object of celestial vengeance,
I am not so detestable to you
As to myself. The gods will bear me witness,
Who have within my veins kindled this fire,
The gods, who take a barbarous delight
In leading a poor mortal’s heart astray.
Do you yourself recall to mind the past:
‘Twas not enough for me to fly, I chased you
Out of the country, wishing to appear
Inhuman, odious; to resist you better,
I sought to make you hate me. All in vain!
Hating me more I loved you none the less:
New charms were lent to you by your misfortunes.
I have been drown’d in tears, and scorch’d by fire;
Your own eyes might convince you of the truth,
If for one moment you could look at me.
What is’t I say? Think you this vile confession
That I have made is what I meant to utter?
Not daring to betray a son for whom
I trembled, ’twas to beg you not to hate him
I came. Weak purpose of a heart too full
Of love for you to speak of aught besides!
Take your revenge, punish my odious passion;
Prove yourself worthy of your valiant sire,
And rid the world of an offensive monster!
Does Theseus’ widow dare to love his son?
The frightful monster! Let her not escape you!
Here is my heart. This is the place to strike.
Already prompt to expiate its guilt,
I feel it leap impatiently to meet
Your arm. Strike home. Or, if it would disgrace you
To steep your hand in such polluted blood,
If that were punishment too mild to slake
Your hatred, lend me then your sword, if not
Your arm. Quick, give’t.

What, Madam, will you do?
Just gods! But someone comes. Go, fly from shame,
You cannot ‘scape if seen by any thus.


Is that the form of Phaedra that I see
Hurried away? What mean these signs of sorrow?
Where is your sword? Why are you pale, confused?

Friend, let us fly. I am, indeed, confounded
With horror and astonishment extreme.
Phaedra—but no; gods, let this dreadful secret
Remain for ever buried in oblivion.

The ship is ready if you wish to sail.
But Athens has already giv’n her vote;
Their leaders have consulted all her tribes;
Your brother is elected, Phaedra wins.


A herald, charged with a commission
From Athens, has arrived to place the reins
Of power in her hands. Her son is King.

Ye gods, who know her, do ye thus reward
Her virtue?

A faint rumour meanwhile whispers
That Theseus is not dead, but in Epirus
Has shown himself. But, after all my search,
I know too well—

Let nothing be neglected.
This rumour must be traced back to its source.
If it be found unworthy of belief,
Let us set sail, and cost whate’er it may,
To hands deserving trust the sceptre’s sway.

Phaedra by Jean Baptiste Racine


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