Thematic Concepts: Where Philosophy Meets Literature

Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures 16:75-93 (1983)
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Abstract

In Euripides' Hippolytus, Phaedra, wife of Theseus, king of Athens, falls in love with the unsuspecting Hippolytus, Theseus' son by the amazon Antiope. Phaedra's passion is the work of the goddess Aphrodite, who wants to revenge herself on Hippolytus because he has rejected her and devoted himself to the chaste Artemis. Through Paedra's nurse Hippolytus is made aware of her love and invited to her bed. He emphatically rejects her offer and violently abuses Phaedra and her nurse. To save her honour Phaedra commits suicide and leaves a note accusing Hippolytus of raping her. Theseus, confronted on his return from an expedition with the suicide and the note, banishes Hippolytus and prays to his father, the seagod Poseidon, to fulfil one of the three wishes he has granted him and kill Hippolytus. Leaving Troezen, Hippolytus is killed when his horses are frightened by a monster thrown on shore by Poseidon from a giant wave. Theseus is brought to realize his mistake by the goddess Artemis who appears to him and reveals the truth. The play ends with the reconciliation of Theseus and the dying Hippolytus. This, in bare outline, is what happens in the play. It is what might be called its subject. The play is about these events and characters. Now it is also possible to give another type of description of Euripides' play. For the play does not merely have a subject but also a theme. While it is straightforward and unproblematic to give a description of the subject of the play a statement of its theme presents difficulties. The subject is, in an obvious sense, given for any competent speaker of the language in which the work is written. The theme, on the other hand, emerges from the subject in conjunction with other features of the work, and it emerges through the reader's constructive labour. There is no theme for the reader who is unwilling or unable to engage in this constructive labour.

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References found in this work

Mortal Questions.Thomas Nagel - 1980 - Critica 12 (34):125-133.
On unilluminating criticism.Stein Haugom Olsen - 1981 - British Journal of Aesthetics 21 (1):50-64.

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