A morbid love triangle involving King Theseus of Athens, his wife, Phaedra (which in French is Phèdre), and his son by a former marriage, Hippolytus, is revealed by the Queen to her nurse while the family is staying at Troezen, in the Peloponnesus, during Theseus' absence at war. Phaedra has not eaten or slept for three days, and tells the nurse, Oenone, that she wants only to die.
"And you want to betry your child?" Oenone protests. "The day that robs him of his mother will see him enslaved to Hippolytus. For if you die, Hippolytus usurps the throne; but if you live, the throne belongs to your son." Phaedra reveals that she can no longer endure her shame, that it is for Hippolytus that she dies.
"Hippolytus? Your husband's son? ANd your own son's rival for the throne? Aye, shame to you indeed!" the nurse exclaims. Phaedra answers: "I hate my life, Oenone, and I hold my love in horror. In death I wish to purify my heart. I must bury this guilty passion in the grave...."
But here enters Panope, a waiting-woman, with news that Theseus has been reported dead, and Oenone promptly points out to Phaedra that now she must live to protect the interests of both her young son and Hippolytus from another heir, Arica, an Athenian woman of royal blood now living in Troezen as an exile. The nurse suggests that Hippolytus remain as King of Troezen and that Phaedra's son assume the throne at Athens. Phaedra reluctantly agrees.
Hippolytus, unaware of the Queen's passion for him, has long loved Arica but has kept silent because of a blood feud between their families. Now, with Theseus dead, he goes to tell her of his love and to propose that he shall rule Troezen, Phaedra's son in Crete, and that Arica shall take her rightful place on the throne of Athens. He has just confessed his love to the receptive Arica when Phaedra enters and is left alone with him.
The Queen appeals to Hippolytus to help protect her son's succession. Hippolytus attempts to comfort her with the possibility that Theseus may still be alive, but Phaedra exclaims: "The King is dead ... and yet he lives ... he lives and breathes in you, Hippolytus ... I seem to speak to him when I say 'I love you!'"
Hippolytus is aghast, and reminds her that Theseus is his father and her husband, but Phaedra goes on: "I have not forgotten. I love you and I feel guilty of my love. You cannot hate me half as much as I hate myself. I did not come to make this vile confession; I came to plead for my son ... but my heart is too full of love for you. Come, take your revenge, punish my hateful passion, rid the world of an offensive monster! Here is my heart. Pierce it with your sword!"
Hippylytus stands dazed. The Queen, declaring that she will stab herself, seizes his sword and runs from the room. As she leaves, Theramenes, tutor to Hippolytus, hastens in to tell that Phaedra's son has been elected King of Athens, and that King Theseus now is reported still alive. Hippolytus goes to search for Theseus, to "give the scepter back to worthy hands."
Theseus does return and Phaedra is in terror, fearing either that Hippolytus, whom she now hates for scorning her love, will expose her to the King, or that she will betray herself even should he keep silent. She hopes again for death, but Oenone urges a plot whereby Hippolytus shall die instead: the Queen shall accuse him first, offering his sword as evidence that he has come to see her. Phaedra recoils at the thought of herself slandering an innocent man, but allows Oenone to accuse him.
Theseus summons Hippolytus and condemns him: "Traitor, how dare you show yourself to me after you have tried to defile my bed with your adulterous lust!... Never set your foot again upon this soil!... And to thee, O Neptune, Lord of the Sea, I utter this solemn prayer: avenge a father's wrong, and overwhelm with thy waves this son who no longer is a son of mine!"
The dumbfounded Hippolytus protests that he is guiltless; but, to spare his father, he refrains from telling of the Queen's infidelity. He replies only: "I might be pardoned if I told the truth but it concerns you honor to conceal it ... Know this, my father, I am innocent ... I love not Phaedra, but Arica." Theseus will not believe him, nor will he relent later when the conscience-stricken Phaedra pleads for him. But when the King mentions that Hippolytus, in his denial, has revealed his love for Arica, the jealous Queen makes no further effort to save the exiled youth.
Hippolytus goes to Arica who implores him to tell the truth to his father. He answers: "To do this would but bring disgrace upon my father's name ... The gods are just ... sooner or later, Phaedra will be punished..." Hippolytus and Arica plan to flee from Troezen, and he goes to prepare for the journey.
Theseus comes to warn Arica against Hippolytus, who declares: "MY love can see his true nobility ... I could tell you a tale ... but your son has forbidden me to speak." The King begins to suspect that there may be more of the story than he has heard from Oenone and the Queen, and sends for the former to question her again. But Oenone, to atone for her crime, has plunged to her death in the sea, and Phaedra, too, has attempted suicide. This convinces Theseus, and he sends for Hippolytus to ask his forgiveness. But Theramenes, the tutor, brings these tidings:
"Your son is no more ... He was driving his chariot on the seashore when Neptune sent a towering billow upon the land, with a sea-monster reaching out of the foam. Hippolytus stopped the chariot and gave battle to the monster." The horses, he continues, galloped away in fright, the chariot collapsed, Hippolytus was entangled in the reins and dragged to the shore. Before dying, he told Theramenes: "The gods have robbed me of an innocent life. Tell my father to treat Arica tenderly."
Phaedra enters and Theseus tells her: "Madam, you have triumphed ... My son is killed ... Accept your victim ... You have had your wish..."
Phaedra answers: "I will have my wish now. Your son is guiltless, and I, the guilty one, will soon be dead. A subtle poison runs through my veins ... Already as through a thickening mist I see the husband to whom my presence is an abomination. My eyes are closing upon the light that they defiled." She dies. Theseus says:
"Would that her memory would die with her forever!... The gods deprive, and the gods restore. They have taken away my son, and they have given me a daughter. Arica shall be my child..."
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