Question: Discuss the role of the Nurse in Seneca’s play “Phaedra”. Or, Discuss the role of the Nurse in Phaedra.
An important and interesting character of the tragedy “Phaedra” written by Roman dramatist Seneca (4 BC-AD 65) is the Nurse. She plays a double role in the play. On the one hand, she is an admirable foil to her mistress Phaedra and on the other hand, she is a confidant whose role is to comfort or abuse Phaedra during times of anxiety. In fact, her advice saves her mistress from many difficult situations.
The gift of the gab
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:
Conceived by crazy minds, they are all false!”
The Nurse warns Phaedra of the disastrous consequence of the kind of love that she is nourishing. She discourages Phaedra so that she may drive out her passion for Hippolytus. According to the Nurse, Hippolytus is a hater of whole fair sex:
“He hates the whole sex, he avoids them all,
He has no heart, he dedicates his youth
To single life……….”
But Phaedra declares that she will commit suicide if she cannot possess Hippolytus’s heart.
In Act Two, we find that the Nurse is talking to the Chorus. The Chorus advises the Nurse to pray to God. Then the Nurse prays to Hecate to bend the hard heart of Hippolytus and also to let the flame of love. Suddenly, she finds Hippolytus coming that way. When Hippolytus asks her about Phaedra and her two sons, she delivers a long speech. She tries to persuade him to develop a relationship with Phaedra but she cannot succeed. Hippolytus declares in a straightforward manner:
“There is no woman now whom I must love.”
Acute presence of mind
When Phaedra falls on the ground and Hippolytus tries to lift her, The Nurse reminds Phaedra to notice that Hippolytus is with her, and the arm that she wants to have has now held her. Phaedra uses this opportunity and goes to embrace Hippolytus. She requests him to have pity on her love. At this, he becomes terribly angry and leaves the place by saying that she will obtain no boon from him. Now it is transparent that even in time of extreme situation the Nurse has not forgot to remember Phaedra about the demand of situation. So, she is a woman of acute of presence mind.
After Theseus’s return from the dark universe, the Nurse tells the king that Phaedra is firm in her decision to die. When Theseus wants to know the cause for which she wishes to die, the Nurse cleverly replies that she will tell no one. This her last witty speech in the play which creates a twist within Theseus. Theseus then goes to Phaedra and asks about her sad mood. Phaedra tells him a false story because she brings the raping charge against Hippolytus. Thus, the nurse plays an important role to create twist in the play.
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Though the Nurse does everything to save her dear mistress from shame and guilt, she fails in the long run. Because after Hippolytus’s death, Phaedra loses all interest in living. Though the Nurse tries heart and soul to disclose the truth, she fails to save her mistress and Hippolytus. Thus, we can say that the role of Nurse in the play is not insignificant.