Phaedra as a tragedy of unrequited love

Question: Discuss “Phaedra” as a tragedy of unrequited love. Or, Is Seneca’s tragedy “Phaedra” a tragedy of passions? If so why? Or, does Phaedra fulfil the Aristotelian concept of tragedy? Phaedra as a tragedy of unrequited love


Once upon a time, the mythical stories were the soul of Greek and Roman literature. The myth of Phaedra influences the most famous Roman playwright Seneca (4 BC-AD 65) to write a tragedy. Seneca writes the tragedy entitled “Phaedra” showing that irrelevant passionate love is nothing but merely a source of destruction.

Pre-talking to understand the term “unrequited love”

The love that is not normal is called exceptional and unrequited love. Seneca in his tragedy has shown that love is fundamental but the illicit and wrong desirable love cannot be accepted. The love that has been shown in the tragedy is a completely crazy one because a step-mother loves her step-son to fulfill her sexual and sensational pleasure in the absence of her husband. Even primitive societies cannot agree on this love. But Seneca has tried to expose that the long absence of a husband creates a wild desire within the wife so that she is even ready to do the most hateful task.

Tragic art of characterization

Art of characterization is one of the fundamental aspects of the tragedy. According to Aristotle, a tragic character must have royal blood. As we know that Phaedra who was the queen of Athens and Hippolytus was the prince of Athens, Seneca’s art of characterization meets the demand of tragical art of characterization. But the matter of sorrow is that the tragic characters of this play become the victim of an irrelevant love affair. Both of them die at the end of the play. Phaedra hangs herself and Hippolytus is killed by Neptune because of the request of his father Theseus to Neptune.

Struggle between passion and loyalty

Most of Seneca’s characters are taken from Greek legends and myths. Phaedra who was the wife of the king of Athens Theseus becomes devastatingly tragic because of her conflict between passion and loyalty. On the one hand, she could not tolerate the long absence of her husband and becomes fascinated and passionate for her step-son Hippolytus to fulfill her carnal desire. On the other hand, she also feels pain in her heart regarding her loyalty to her husband. Thus, Hippolytus and she becomes the victim of unrequited passionate love.

Morality vs passion

Seneca has shown through the character of the Nurse that “Phaedra” is a tragedy of unrequited love. The Nurse is a good adviser who possesses eloquence. The playwright introduces this character in the very first Act of the play. When Phaedra expresses her dissatisfaction with the long absence of her husband and her secret love for her step-son Hippolytus, the Nurse tries to give her good advice. She tells her mistress to put out the fire of passion and give no support to evil hopes. she strongly says Phaedra to be a moralist and says:

“To choose the good is the first rule of life,

And not falter on the way, nest best

Is to have shame and know where sin must stop.”

Phaedra replies that what the Nurse has said is true but Cupid is in control of her heart. Then the Nurse proves that Phaedra is a woman with modern sensibility. She comments:

“…………………………..vain fancies

Conceived by crazy minds, they are all false!”

The purpose of tragedy

It is needed to remember that according to Aristotle, in a tragedy common better type of character is represented to bring pity and fear within the audience but the audience will not be able to blame the tragic character whatever is shown in the tragedy. Seneca’s tragedy “Phaedra” that is based on unrequited love and revenge brings pity and fear within the audience because nothing can be more horrifying than the climax of the tragedy because of the merciless destruction of Hippolytus.


In summing up, we can assert that even a pure fact like love can be very destructive if it loses its path. Seneca has scattered the message that illicit love is the storehouse of vengeance. So, Phaedra’s one-sighted illicit passionate love is really unrequited.

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SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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