When the weather gets hot'n'sticky, even the Puritans up in old Boston start to get steamy. We just had Shelly's incest drama "The Cenci," and forbidden-passion fans who look down on telenovelas can indulge in Acadèmie Française-certified love crimes in Jean Racine's "Phèdre". (And if this project has taught me nothing, it has at least taught me how do type diacriticals online.)
I had, vaguely, heard of this work, but didn't know anything about it. Well! We got Phèdre, who's married to Theseus (it's no fun typing diacriticals, though), but it really married to her guilty secret -- she' s in love with Hippolytus, Theseus's unfortunately-named son from a previous marriage. Or as she puts it (apparently in French these are graceful alexandrines, whatever they are):
I look’d, alternately turn’d pale and blush’dTormented, Phèdre wants to kill herself, she hates the Sun (who she's related to) -- she's like a parody of a Goth teen. But then good news! -- her husband is dead! And that's the end of the reading. It's not going to turn out well, though.
To see him, and my soul grew all distraught;
A mist obscured my vision, and my voice
Falter’d, my blood ran cold, then burn’d like fire;
Venus I felt in all my fever’d frame,
Whose fury had so many of my race
Of course, this isn't quite incest -- she's not related to Hippolytus (who, inevitably, loves another), so they wouldn't have a goat-headed baby or anything. But then this is the Greek myths, so maybe they would.
But it made me realize that, nowadays, we like our love stories to have happy endings, and for Racine and the Greeks love spoils everything: "O fatal animosity of Venus!/Into what wild distractions did she cast/ My mother!" exclaims Phèdre. Love is disorderly and, like other natural forces, leaves destruction in its wake. It's worth noting that Theseus stole Phèdre away while killing the Minotaur -- in that sense, a tragedy is the play that starts after the storybook ending of the previous play.