Lecture by D. G. “Josh” Beer (Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Greek and Roman Studies, Carleton University) - 17 October 2018
“The Athenian Plague & Eros as a Killer Virus in Euripides’ Hippolytus”
In 430-29 B.C. a plague devastated the Athenian population. Pericles, the statesman, died of it; Thucydides, our main historical witness, caught it but survived. In 428 Euripides presented his Hippolytus and won the tragic prize. In the play Aphrodite decides to kill Hippolytus by making his young stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him because he rejects her godhead. For the Greeks Eros (Love) was a madness that first attacked the eyes before assailing the mind. In both Thucydides’ account and Euripides’ play, the main recurring thematic term is nosos, disease. Of the plague some believed that it had a divine cause, others a natural explanation. The same division of opinions is expressed by the chorus of women in Hippolytus about Phaedra’s illness. Similarly, Aphrodite can be viewed in two ways; 1) as a vindictive deity; 2) as a force of nature in the form of Eros. I shall treat Eros metaphorically as a virus. Although only Phaedra suffers the full effects of Eros’ madness, the contagion spreads by means of Phaedra’s nurse, her main caregiver, and deranges the minds of the other characters. The primary visual image of Hippolytus is Phaedra’s sick-bed which morphs into the bier on which the dead queen is laid out. As a piece of theatre the bed/bier has a numinous existence that is as vital as that of the human characters.