Friday, August 23, 2013

The looking glass of royal conscience

Hippolytus, Scene II.

After the first dialogue between the Nurse and the Queen, Phaedra launches into a lengthy meditation, resonant with royal grandeur. She begins by addressing the women who inhabit Troezen, which she calls the "anteroom to Argos."

Here's David Grene's translation:
Hear me, you women of Troezen who live in this extremity of land, this anteroom to Argos. Many a time in night's long empty spaces I have pondered on the causes of a life's shipwreck. I think that our lives are worse than the mind's quality would warrant.
The word for "inhabit" is οἰκεῖτε, from oikos, house. Argos is imagined as a house, of which Troezen is the anteroom. Key associations with oikos run through the speech.

She goes on to offer almost a philosophic essay, pondering the conundrum of human nature:
We know the good, we apprehend it clearly.
But we can't bring it to achievement.
Not only is her language stately, but Phaedra orders her discourse with the dispositive assurance of an accomplished writer. Like one who has deeply reflected upon her predicament, she sets forth the steps of the "track my mind followed" in an orderly way. Cogent logic, general axioms and her own experience lead her to a sole clear conclusion:
My starting point was this, to conceal my malady with silence. [395] For the tongue is not to be trusted: it knows well how to admonish the thoughts of others but gets from itself a great deal of trouble. My second intention was to bear this madness nobly, overcoming it by means of self-control. [400] But third, when with these means I was unable to master Aphrodite, I resolved on death, the best of plans, as no one shall deny.
But her speech doesn't end with this resolution to die. She goes on to castigate unworthy women, to rail at those high-born wives who dare to speak of virtue
μισῶ δὲ καὶ τὰς σώφρονας μὲν ἐν λόγοις,
λάθρᾳ δὲ τόλμας οὐ καλὰς κεκτημένας:
αἳ πῶς ποτ᾽, δέσποινα ποντία Κύπρι, (415)
βλέπουσιν ἐς πρόσωπα τῶν ξυνευνετῶν
οὐδὲ σκότον φρίσσουσι τὸν ξυνεργάτην
τέραμνά τ᾽ οἴκων μή ποτε φθογγὴν ἀφῇ;
But I also hate women who are chaste in word but in secret possess an ignoble daring. [415] How, O Aphrodite, Lady of the Sea, how can these women look into the faces of their husbands? How do they not fear that the darkness, their accomplice, and the timbers of the house will break into speech? (Kovacs)
If the timbers of the house itself cry foul at private misdeeds, then the possibility of witnesses (μάρτυρι) pivots from the secret chamber of the individual to the political realm, the house of the people:
My friends, it is this very purpose that is bringing about my death, [420] that I may not be detected bringing shame to my husband or to the children I gave birth to but rather that they may live in glorious Athens [οἰκοῖεν πόλινas free men, free of speech and flourishing, enjoying good repute where their mother is concerned.
ἡμᾶς γὰρ αὐτὸ τοῦτ᾽ ἀποκτείνει, φίλαι, 420
ὡς μήποτ᾽ ἄνδρα τὸν ἐμὸν αἰσχύνασ᾽ ἁλῶ,
μὴ παῖδας οὓς ἔτικτον: ἀλλ᾽ ἐλεύθεροι
παρρησίᾳ θάλλοντες οἰκοῖεν πόλιν
κλεινῶν Ἀθηνῶν μητρὸς οὕνεκ᾽ εὐκλεεῖς.
Line 423 has just four big words:
 παρρησίᾳ θάλλοντες οἰκοῖεν πόλιν  
 free thriving Citizen householders.
They resonantly knit the fate of the Polis to the inward state of the people, and especially, of its royal citizens. In line with the orderly universe of Phaedra's speech, her conclusion marks a clear distinction between high and low, master and slave, those of honor and those debased by its loss:
Only one thing, they say, competes in value with life, the possession of a heart blameless and good.
She concludes with the perfect metaphor:
as for the base among mortals, they are exposed, late or soon, by Time, who holds up to them, as to a young girl  [παρθένῳ νέᾳ], [430] a mirror.
In the mirror we find the culmination of Phaedra's entire speech; her reflection on the causes of a life's shipwreck; the choices facing her; the dishonor of private acts in the looking glass of the public eye; the fate of the city hinging on the seamless transparency of inside and outside, mind and eye, heart and city, all poignantly summed in the memory of looking in a mirror and seeing a young virgin, untouched by gods and time.

It might be helpful to contrast this measured, philosophical language with what we next hear from the Nurse.

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