The Diagnoses of Phaedra in the Play Hippolytus
Theatre History 111: Dr. Jennifer Wise
November 14, 2005
The intimate play Hippolytus by Euripides is a story of love, lust and loathing, where one woman's feelings for a man lead to her self-destruction. Phaedra is the wife of Theseus, mother of his children, and stepmother to Hippolytus. Phaedra falls in love with Hippolytus, Theseus' son. Her desire for him is improper not only in the past but in the present as well. In the play Phaedra becomes ill and commits suicide in order to protect her children's honour. It is plausible that Phaedra is suffering from clinical depression as she displays many of the symptoms, causes and traits of this disease. Clinical depression has many variables; it depends on the people and their situations. Although clinical depression varies from person to person, there are a number of typical symptoms and causes.
There are multiple reasons to suspect someone might suffer from clinical depression. Fluctuating eating habits are a key sign of depression, regardless of whether there is an increase or decrease in the consumption of food. "Many depressives eat very little. They report that, "Even the thought of food makes [them] ill." They may refuse food or just nibble even when favorite dishes are presented to them" (Depression, Symptoms of Depression, p. 19). This is an excellent example of one of Phaedra's symptoms. In the play Phaedra refuses to eat, thereby starving herself. "CH-L.: how feeble and wasted her body is.
NUR.: And why not? She hasn't eaten for three days.
CH-L.: Because she has lost her mind? Or is she trying to die? NUR.: Yes, to die. She starves herself to death." (Lines 254-57) Another example of depression is communication, or a lack thereof. "The depressed woman, [
] had moderate disability in communication with their spouses," The Depressed Woman, Marital and Sexual Relations, p. 91). This lack of communication contributes to the feeling of loneliness because depressives feel there is no one they can talk to who would understand. Phaedra has trouble communicating with her husband not because of her feelings but because of the distance that separates them (Lines 374-78). Although Theseus is away Phaedra could talk to other characters that are close to her but refuses to voice her evils', that is until the nurse talks her into discussing her troubles (Lines 263-335). Usually when a person talks about their problems it helps him or her to feel better, but when Phaedra voices her love of Hippolytus she feels so guilty she proclaims she is planning to take her own life. Guilt and the will to die are two more symptoms of clinical depression that are found in the play and apply to Phaedra. "Guilt is an almost concomitant of depression and has an important role in the patient's marriage and attitude toward sex," says Weissman and Paykel (The Depressed Woman, Marital and Sexual Relations, p. 97). This applies to Phaedra's guilty feeling about her love and lust for Hippolytus. Her feelings towards him dishonour her husband, her children and her self (396-401).
"In depressions that used to be diagnosed as neurotic depression the feelings were thought to cause pain. They were "ego alien" consequently, the client wanted to get rid of them. In what used to be diagnosed as psychotic depression, it was believed that the client's often felt the feelings were proper punishment for real or imagined transgressions and shortcomings and therefore should be punished. One way to administer this punishment was through suicide, where the depressed people themselves delivered the punishment for their transgression," (Depression, Symptoms of Depression, p. 20) This is a reflection of Phaedra and how she feels (387-91). Phaedra decides to starve herself to death in order to save her reputation as well as her immediate family's honour. Her resolve to die again reinforces the fact that Phaedra is severely depressed. "Many, if...
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