Twice in Euripides' Hippolytus, Theseus confronts the death of a family member. Both instances involve misreading.
First, barely arrived in Troezen from Delphi, Theseus finds Phaedra has hung herself. In this encounter with inexplicable loss, Theseus feels helpless -- his beloved wife has escaped him through that "headlong leap to Hades." His impotence is equaled only by his ignorance of its cause. His heroic capabilities are useless. Bereft of both actionable recourse and understanding, he speaks of a dim place beneath the earth:
Theseus's life seems riddled with doubleness, from his dual paternity to the two daughters of Minos to his odd mirroring of Heracles. As he speaks these words, the evocation of entering a dark space under the earth might recall the labyrinth and its monster. Thanks to Ariadne, who secretly gave him a knife and thread, he once penetrated Daedalus' maze, alone, killing the Minotaur in his lair.To the gloom under earth, under earth,
I would change my dwelling and die in darkness
Phaedra's dead hand holds a key threading the labyrinth of her suicide. If Ariadne enabled Theseus to kill her mother's monstrous bastard child, Phaedra makes Theseus's own bastard son into a monster. How could he doubt Phaedra?
Phaedra's letter is doubly enabling: it sheds light on the cause of her death, and it gives Theseus a task that is quite within his reach -- that he avenge Hippolytus's scandalous act. After reading her letter, his first act is to turn to the sea, addressing the city and his divine progenitor. His prayer to Poseidon loads and activates the lethal weapon of his curse:
No more shall I hold this ruinous bane, hard to send forth though it is, within the gates of my mouth!
Ho! City of Athens! Hear me!
(Bystanders enter quickly by Eisodos B and gather around.)
 Hippolytus has dared to put his hand by force to my marriage-bed, dishonoring the holy eye of Zeus.
But, father Poseidon, with one of the three curses you once promised me, kill my son, and may he not live out  this day, if indeed you have granted me curses I may rely on.
My lord, I beg you by the gods, take back your prayer! For you will learn in time that you have made a mistake. Be ruled by me!
It cannot be. And what is more, I shall banish him from this land, and of two fates one shall strike him:  either Poseidon, honoring my curses, will send him dead to the house of Hades or being banished from here he will wander over foreign soil and drain to the dregs a life of misery.
Enter Hippolytus by Eisodos B.
The hero had declared himself dead upon finding Phaedra gone, but suddenly he's filled with new life and purpose. Taking charge, he commands the city, calling upon his divine father to honor his promise. He's the hero of old, gearing up to penetrate another labyrinth. He doesn't pray that Poseidon kill Hippolytus if the boy did the terrible deed; he asks that his son not live another day if the promises of the father were σαφεῖς -- that is, clear, reliable.
It is worth asking whether the very qualities that made the young, heroic Theseus great -- courage, physical strength, alacrity, a high sense of justice -- are coming into play here in ways that send him profoundly into error. Is he trapped in his former self? That self being the fiery young man who dared teach the lordly Minos the virtue of sophrosyne: "ἐρύκεν ὕβριν," he says -- restrain yourself:
war-lord of Knossos, I bid you to restrain your grievous violence; for I would not want to see the lovely immortal light of Dawn if you were to subdue one of these young people against her will. Before that we will show the force of our arms, and what comes after that a god will decide.” So spoke the hero, excellent with the spear; and the sailors were astonished at the man's extraordinary  boldness ὑπεράφανον θάρσος. (Bacchylides)If there is irony in the fact that masher Minos is eventually betrayed to Theseus by his virgin daughter Ariadne, there is further irony in Theseus's being led astray by Phaedra. There are two lessons from Crete: (1) Cretans always lie, and (2) no straight path leads to the center.
Phaedra's letter, a written sign, composes a labyrinth and an infamy, yet it offers the illusion of clarity, transparency and literal truth. Theseus' error is to believe there is no error, no deviation, from the straight talk of her simple accusation of Hippolytus. He mistakes a silent deviant image for a window upon living reality.
As such, it is an error of reading.
Cut to the second death in the family -- the messenger's story of Hippolytus' end.
This was a calm day. Surrounded by friends, a young man skilled in horsemanship is moving slowly along a shore -- no warrior enemies, no perilous escarpments, no bad weather.
The messenger's tale is a compact set piece that's rich in sound, vivid imagery, and metaphor. Take the sound -- it begins beneath the earth:
There a great noise in the earth, like Zeus's thunder, roared heavily—it made one shudder to hear it. The horses pricked up their heads and ears to heavenThe sound then moves to the crashing surf, then to the bellowing of the bull that the wave puts forth:
With its bellowing the whole land was filled and gave back unearthly echoes, and as we looked on it the sight was too great for our eyes to bear.The language literally re-echoes, using the words φθέγματος and ἀντεφθέγγετ᾽ (voice, sound, echo):
The bull then becomes eerily silent:
it drew near and silently accompanied the chariot until it upset and overthrew the chariot,The last sound we hear is the voice of Hippolytus addressing his horses, his father's curse, and his friends:
‘Stay, horses my mangers have nourished, do not blot me out! O wretched curse of my father! Who wishes to stand by the best of men and save his life?’The Perseus translator catches the sense of erasure in "do not blot me out!" The Greek word is ἐξαλείφω, which has the sense of plaster over, erase, as when a name is stricken off a roll.
The scene begins with a voice beneath the earth and ends with the cries of a dying man, and of course the entire description comes to us in the voice of the messenger.
Theseus takes the narrative as the fulfillment of his will and as divine legitimation of his judgment. But is it? Yes, Hippolytus is injured and will die. But the narrative contains elements that seem inconsistent with a reading that sees it as a transparent execution of his father's wish.
Does Theseus wonder at the underground roar, or that the horizon is blocked by a portentous fixed wave? (He might remember upon finding his dead wife, how he described himself:
I look upon a main of troubles so great I cannot swim out of them or cross the flood of this sorrow. (825))Or does he make anything of the bull coming from the sea which clearly frustrates his own decree of banishment by preventing the boy from leaving the city? If the bull comes from the sea, the boy becomes a sailor trying to keep his ship from wreck:
My master, who had lived long with the ways of horses,  seized the reins in his hands and pulled them, letting his body hang backwards from the straps, like a sailor pulling an oar. But they took the fire-wrought bit in their teeth and carried him against his will, paying no heed to their captain's hand...
Static motion, earth and sea exchanging properties, voice overwhelming vision: these strange, dreamlike elements of the messenger's tale fail to attract Theseus' attention. He steadfastly believes that roar, wave and bull form parts of a clear (σαφεῖς) action that reflects entirely and explicitly his wish. But if we attend to the tale, it seems more a kind of dumb-show offering portents that literally cause violent disfiguration and death:
the poor man himself, entangled in the reins, bound in an inextricable knot, was dragged along, smashing his head against the rocks and rending his flesh
At each of his encounters with death in the play, Theseus makes the same mistake: he takes what he is told as transparent, literal truth, when in fact things are far from transparent. Phaedra's note, since it is writing, is dumb speech that cannot answer, as Socrates tells his young friend:
"Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing."Yet this voiceless speech leads to the death of Theseus's son at his own behest, relying on the gift of his father. The gift of his father turns out to be a series of wonders that, far from being literal causation, are thick with complication, resonance, portent. The messenger says:
The "monstrous" bull is in fact τέρας -- either (1) a monster, or (2) a sign or portent. Deciding whether a simple text or tale is just a transparent representation of, say, a monster, or whether it is itself monstrous -- a sign with destructive power so potent as to cause the greatest Athenian hero to destroy his promising child -- is the burden of reading.The horses vanished and so too did the monstrous bull to some place or other in that rocky land.
In taking the signs of Phaedra as transparently true, Theseus produces a reading that is not only mistaken, but destructive in its consequences. Hearing the messenger's account of those consequences, he reads it as he would a newspaper, ignoring the rebus-like intimations of something of greater import, especially to himself. Instead of viewing this story (or, as we tend to read history) as the shadow of his will, he might discover that it is speaking back to him in a language he refuses to see, or hear. Language that speaks with two tongues, or voices, is known as ἀλληγορία -- allegory.
What has this tale of misreading signs to do with the play's key theme of sophrosyne?
For now, a dumb-show must serve for an answer. The Hippolytus is the story of Athens' greatest hero, a man of action who acts upon interpretations that ignore the perilous complications of signs. Theseus acts with the rashness of his younger self, and kills the living image of that self, his son. It would have been fair game for Hippolytus to repeat to his father the words Theseus said to Minos on that fateful voyage to Crete:
“the spirit you guide in your heart is no longer pious. Hero, restrain your overbearing force. Whatever the all-powerful fate of the gods  has granted for us, and however the scale of Justice inclines, we shall fulfill our appointed destiny when it comes."