Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Shelly Jansen: “Kierkegaardian Heroism”

Shelly Jansen

Woman or Heroine: Explications of Kierkegaardian Heroism in Euripides’s Hippolytus and Racine’s Phèdre

1> In his adaptation of Euripides’s tragedy Hippolytus, Jean Racine transforms the ancient Phaedre into his modern heroic Phèdre by engendering her with an ethical sensibility, an imperative receptivity that ultimately saves the heroine’s repute and status.  By analyzing Phaedre and Phèdre through the lens of Kierkegaardian heroics, we may better understand their disparate and conflicting actions, despite their seemingly similar situations.  Indeed, it is through a Kierkegaardian perspective that we may recognize the difficulties these heroines undergo as they struggle to recognize, come to terms with and perhaps finally vocalize the universal.

Contrasting Kierkegaardian Heroisms

2> Analyzing Kierkegaard’s discussion of the ethical tragic hero, we find, as is similar in Hegel’s works, a dialectical framework of the tragic.  The essence of the hero’s tragic nature is designed by a conflict of ethical spheres:[1] the hero must weigh and balance two separate ethical imperatives and decide between them, an act of apparent free will.[2]  As Kierkegaard writes, the tragic hero allows “one expression of the ethical to find its telos in a higher expression of the ethical” (Fear and Trembling 69).  In the case of Agamemnon, while the tears of Iphigenia and Clytemnestra are certainly emotionally trying, the tragic hero is able to transgress his individual sentiments and favor the politico-moral concerns of the Greeks.  Indeed, this exigent experience is essential to his formulation as a tragic hero.  Agamemnon’s act renounces his own self, his own particularity as father and husband, so that he may express the universal for the needs of the state (Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling 64).  He must have the courage to “violate conventional moral opinions” (Green 265) to allow for the resolution and completion of the ethical act that will preserve the sanctity of the whole.

3> Moreover, not only does the ethical tragic hero mediate between dialectical oppositions, he must express his resignation through language.  By deciding to act in such a way that potentially disturbs or intrudes on another’s life, by shifting into “an existence determined by will rather than feelings” (Warren Berry 212), revelation becomes the tragic hero’s responsibility.  The linguistic articulation of the universal is vital to the subsistence of the ethical hero: he is motivated by a desire for full disclosure not only to himself but to the public as well.  By submitting himself to the universal, Agamemnon surrenders the notion that he may protect Iphigenia with silence or passivity.   The tragic hero asserts the universal in language, the commutual phenomenon that provides the necessary pronouncement of the ethical code of the whole.[3]  His use of language bespeaks the very import of the universal as an ethical standard revealed not simply by or for a single individual but rather the entire community.

4> In contrast, the aesthetic hero is only capable of advancing the individual experience.[4]  He eschews the public realm and language, valuing privacy and concealment.  Unlike the ethical tragic hero who reveals all, the aesthetic hero remains silent: “When the hero ensnared in the aesthetic illusion thinks by his silence to save another man, then it requires silence and rewards it” (Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling 96).  While the philosopher admits that this prevalence for silence could be a potentially ethical action, he suggests that the aesthetic hero may burden himself with secrecy as a means of protecting or comforting himself.  This isolation and reclusion into oneself emphasizes the individual and emotional rather than the moralistic, which necessarily takes the other, the public into consideration.  The aesthetic individual, not the hero, refuses to annul his own individuality to embrace the universal.  Kierkegaard emphasizes, however, that there are incidents and situations when one’s individuality is incommensurable with reality.  He thereby allows the possibility of silence in certain cases, in which the individual must not justify himself to the universal.  His two specific examples, however, of Faust and the fasters at the Sermon on the Mount reiterate and reify a silence as a means of instituting a private relationship with God.  By initiating “an absolute relation to the absolute” (Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling 66), these individuals move beyond the universal, paradoxically through an authorized deception, a religious silence.  Silence, for Kierkegaard, is therefore seen as either the divine or demoniac: it is either the religious silence of the individual in relation to the Absolute, or a terrifying ensnaring of the demonic that prohibits the ethical (Fear and Trembling 97).

5> Considering issues of gender, in Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard repeatedly presents in male figures as heroes.  For example, while Iphigenia understands that she is to be sacrificed and resigns herself to that fate, a fate as a symbol for the hope and preservation of the nation, she is not the tragic hero here. She will die regardless of whether she is a willing or unwilling sacrificial victim. The focus instead is on Agamemnon’s moralistic debate on whether or not to kill his child for the good of his people, the Greek cause.  Iphigenia is merely the silent object that Agamemnon must give up in order to preserve his position and uphold his “higher” duty to the gods as well as his nation.[5]  Iphigenia’s status as object rather than tragic hero is further emphasized by her (over)eager compliance: though she may suffer mentally at the knowledge of her impending death, this suffering is briefly stated.  We do not see her in a long drawn out self-reflexive, examining state, like that of Agamemnon, who is actually forced to and responsible for making a decision and resigning himself to it.  Instead she gives a lengthy speech discussing her enthusiasm to be sacrificed.   

Ancient Ethics

6> In ancient tragedy women are subjected to a life denied the heroics of the battlefield or law.  Medea’s renowned speech lamenting the life of women and their role in society illustrates that she desperately wants to be allowed into the man’s world, into the world of the tragic hero, into the ethical universal that governs and is governed by men.  However, her life, like the lives of so many women of ancient tragedy, instead is minimized, forced into the constraints and confines of the oikos, a restriction based solely on her gender.  Even Medea, semi-divine and a barbarous priestess, is continuously repositioned with respect to her husband, Jason, and her children, the main components of her newly formed oikos, having surrendered her previous life in Colchis.  While she reports to the Chorus of Corinthian women that she would rather die on the battlefield than give birth once, it is her motherhood that remains a focal point of the play, particularly in relation to her ghastly decision to commit infanticide.  She, along with numerous other female figures in Greek tragedy (including Elektra, Pheadra, Deiniera, Alkestis, et al), are immured within the domestic sphere.  Therefore their personal tragic struggles are consistently portrayed within the backdrop of the oikos: Elektra must decide whether or not to help revenge her father’s death; Phaedra struggles with the familial implications and complications of her illicit lust for her step-son; Deiniera, threatened by the presence of her husband’s lover, acts to save her marital bond; Alkestis decides to sacrifice her own life for the sake of her husband and the future of her children.

7> Indeed, tragic heroines in ancient drama very rarely (if ever) are allowed the opportunity to have to endure the mental suffering of deciding between two ethical poles, one that revolves around the individual and one around the preservation or well-being of the nation.[6]  It is this mental negotiation of ethical injunctions that Kierkegaard distinguishes repeatedly as necessarily tragic.  He emphasizes the need for a mediation of ethical responses and an eventual, active and willing resignation: the sacrificing of something dear and the reconciliation of the pain that is associated with that loss.

8> It would seem then that in terms of Kierkegaard’s “universal,” that is the socio-cultural norms and directives which humanity shares, there must be, for the ancient world in which such a distinct separation of spheres dominated the culture, a male universal and a female universal.[7]  This is not to suggest that men and women, or male and female characters, must uphold different ethical “laws.”  Rather, we see in Ancient Greek tragedy, men and women struggling with different subsets of ethical dilemmas in accordance with their culturally and socially mandated positions and roles.  For example, to take Kierkegaard’s lead, while Agamemnon must struggle between the safety of his family and the political preservation of the Greek nation, women in Greek tragedy are not typically allowed to be in the position of political power, thereby removing them from such an ethical polemic.  However, female figures in ancient drama are consistently portrayed in situations that pit the integrity of their household against their own individual fears or desires.

9> Putting aside Kierkegaard’s own, seemingly misogynistic, personal views on women and the institution of marriage[8] and looking strictly at Fear and Trembling, we see Kierkegaard’s insistence on the tragic hero’s sacrifice of his own wish or desires for the sake of his ethical duty.  However, as pointed out by Merold Westphal, the duty of the tragic heroes is constructed by “the laws and customs not only of their people but also by their people and above all for their people” (109).  He emphasizes, as does Kierkegaard in his example with Agamemnon, that the needs of the nation, the state, and society supercede those of the family.  However, if we are to understand the heroism of female figures in ancient drama, we must focus upon the morality that is appropriate to these women’s ability, as determined by their unique socio-cultural values.  We cannot suggest, for example, that since Phaedra does not take into full consideration how her inappropriate love will affect Athens or society as a whole she cannot be construed as a tragic hero, by Kierkegaard’s definition.  Rather, we must examine the ethical imperatives that orient Phaedra, or, indeed, all women portrayed in ancient tragedy,[9] in order to see how she mediates her predicament and thereby distinguish whether she is 1) a tragic heroine, 2) an aesthetic heroine or 3) denied the agency of heroism all together.  Given that the feminine realm within Greek culture was strictly designated to the oikos, then it would be appropriate to analyze Phaedra’s potentially heroizing decision within the scope of whether she acts in accordance with her “oikoic” duty: the customs not only of her family, but also by her family and for her family.

Phaedra’s Attempted Heroics

10> The character of Phaedra in Euripides’s Hippolytus struggles with adhering to the ethical universal.  Cast as a pawn in Aphrodite’s vengeful scheme against Hippolytus, Phaedra harbors an illicit passion for her step-son.[10]  She recognizes this adulterous and incestuous love as shameful, as a perversity similar to the bestial eroticism of her mother, Pasiphae, who birthed the Minotaur.  Her potentially destructive desire is an emotional and mental burden, an inwardness that must eschew external expression.  Indeed, Phaedra wrestles with her personal desire and her ethical imperative not to reveal herself.  As opposed to Agamemnon’s identity as tragic hero, who must express and execute the morally superior action of sacrificing Iphigenia, Phaedra believes her ethical imperative demands silence.  Only silence will preserve the sanctity of her marriage bed, her reputation and that of her husband and children.  Kierkargaardian theory would suggest then that such silence typifies an aesthetic hero: silence as a means of preservation.

11> However, in incorporating Kierkegaard’s theories into Phaedra’s predicament we discover two problems: 1) Phaedra, once she begins to speak, focuses only on her reputation and good name that will be tarnished by her shame rather than the preservation of another person or her oikos; 2) Kierkegaard’s universal would suggest that, regardless of the content of the secret, the supreme ethical imperative requires her to disclose her knowledge.  Again, as Sestigiani and others discuss, there is a discrepancy in Kierkegaard’s work with regard to what constitutes the universal: whether there is a supreme ethical demand, as illustrated by Judge William in Either/Or, or an ethical law based upon the socio-cultural norms and ideals of a community.  If we consider Phaedra’s ethics based upon her culture, then her silence is admirable as it thwarts potential destruction to her oikos.  Considering Phaedra from her own sociological and philosophical schema, her adherence to silence is the ethically proper action: indeed, regardless of her secret, silence was always considered the appropriate act for women in ancient Greece.[11]  However, if we consider Kierkegaard’s supreme moral imperative, Phaedra must disclose all her knowledge.[12]

12> In this manner her silence is similar to that of a Faustian character in that she attempts to sacrifice her desire for the universal:

he desires no Herostratic honor–he keeps silent, he hides the doubt in his soul more carefully than the girl who hides under her heart the fruit of a sinful love, he endeavors as well as he can to walk in step with other men, but what goes on within him he consumes within himself, and thus he offers himself a sacrifice for the universal. (Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling 118)

Indeed, Kierkegaard’s analogy of Faust to a girl hiding an illicit love corresponds well with Phaedra, who fears if she speaks, then she will confound everything (Kiekegaard, Fear and Trembling 120).  However, by not speaking of the universal and continuously eschewing it, refusing to acknowledge the universal, Phaedra and Faust are viewed as acting magnanimously.  Furthermore, Kierkegaard again insists that the individual should escape from the aesthetic framework and speak, for only through speech, and therefore the universal, will he “find the certainty that it was not after all a hidden pride which governed [his] resolution" (Fear and Trembling 120).  This concept is particularly dubious in relation to Phaedra as she reiterates that she must remain silent in order to preserve her good name, a point of pride rather than a her duty to the oikos.[13]

13> Before we even see Phaedra, we learn from her nurse that she has been erratic as of late, capriciously changing her thoughts and actions from moment to moment, finding no content anywhere (Greene lns 181-85).  This volatility reflects her desire, an abstract immediacy that seeks its object everywhere.  However, with her first entrance on the stage Phaedra is raving, overwhelmed by her passion and the burden of her secret, by her inwardness,[14] which views external expression as inadequate to her inner realities (Dunning 386).  Her “wild demented words” (Greene ln 213) are incoherent to the nurse and deemed inappropriate in front of the chorus of Troezen women.  Her desire seems to defy language for “language involves reflection, and cannot, therefore, express the immediate” (Dunning 388).  Phaedra’s inarticulateness and her unwillingness to eat signify to the nurse that she is suffering, but she knows not from what and her mistress refuses to answer.  Yet, she rages incomprehensibly without any strength to lift her own head up or keep her hair appropriately bound.  Her free, unbound hair does more than merely symbolize her attempt to reveal herself and her emotions.  As Dunning explains in his analysis of the existential stages her:

aesthetic inwardness in-itself (desire) will now become aesthetic inwardness for-itself, a stage in which indifference to externality gives way to a negative relation or opposition between inwardness and the external objects of desire. In this stage the alienation of desire from its object is an established fact, and so the dialectic is really one of frustrated desire: it is inwardness as grief. (390)

14> This inwardness for-itself (grief) is a reflective process that reveals itself through gestures and involuntary responses (Dunning 404).  Phaedra’s dramatic actions attempt to conceal her secret.  Her rhapsodizing over, she feels compelled to cover her head again to mask her previous enigmatic impulses.  As the nurse reports, “she hides her troubles, swears that she isn’t sick” (Greene ln 279).  Phaedra’s efforts to obscure her passion culminate in her starvation, a denial of another human appetite, in the hopes of the ultimate concealment: death.

15> Phaedra resists sustenance as she resists the truth of her private desire.  She maintains her silence as an affirmation of the moral imperative, as she perceives it.[15]  Conceiving of female life as merely aesthetic with its idle pleasures of gossip and leisure, she longs to move beyond these fancies by her actions, by her silence.  Yet, Phaedra wholly believes in the misogynistic views of her culture: she deems herself a miserable wretched thing, “a woman, / object of hate to all” (Greene lns 405-6).  This self-loathing appears to be not merely a consequence of her inappropriate love, but rather fundamentally because she is a woman.  She is cast as a meaningless aesthetic object in her culture, but longs to act ethically in order to avoid shame and rise above aestheticism through virtue.  Her intrinsic challenge is how to do so: how to act ethically in her culture, in her restricted position, and still achieve the kleos, the honor she desires.

16> Moreover, the nurse presents a new complexity to her situation.  As Phaedra struggles with her grief,[16] the Nurse, insisting she learn the cause of Phaedra’s sorrow, ensnares her in the obligation of suppliancy.  As scholars such as Gould and Vernant note, supplication is an institution in Greek society, a reciprocal social act, with a religious nuance, embedded into the culture.[17]  Recognizing the signs of supplication,[18] Phaedra is indebted with a sense of aidos.[19]  She is thus presented with a dialectically moral conundrum; she must choose between her apparent ethical requirement to keep her illicit love hidden and her obligation to appease the supplicating nurse.  Caught between these two moral imperatives she is a veritable Agamemnon, who must choose between silence and speech.  Her silence would protect her own honor as well as her marriage; yet by speaking, she upholds the cultural institution of suppliancy.   Thus, it is only through a paradoxical ethical coercion by the nurse that Phaedra gives herself over to comprehensible language, acknowledging the ethical: the relief of speech translates her into the universal (Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling 122).

17> However, upon speaking Phaedra does not feel comfort or relief; the sorrowful reactions of the nurse and chorus are toxic to her ethical courage.  She feels inclined to return to the aesthetic, to maintain the sanctity of her good reputation.  Indeed, unlike Faust, who, as Kierkegaard notes, has no desire for honor, Phaedra’s greatest desire is for the preservation of her dignity.[20]  Moreover, once the nurse informs Hippolytus[21] of his step-mother’s inappropriate passion, Phaedra recoils and reverts back to her original plan: concealment of her desire in death.  By killing herself Phaedra appears to be once more shifting to an ethical hero, one who is willing to courageously sacrifice all that is necessary to uphold morality.  Again, we can see her as ethically righteous if we consider the cultural implications of her moral framework, or drastically flawed ethically if we judge her based on Kierkegaard’s supreme universal, as portrayed in Either/Or, which suggests that revelation is always morally superior to aesthetic privacy.

18> Regardless, however, in her death Phaedra attempts a new tactic to preserve her honor and mask her illicit passion.  While she previously attempts verbal communication with the nurse, upon her death she embraces written language as she writes a letter proclaiming her innocence.  Though it is tempting to suggest that Phaedra might be portrayed as an intellectual tragic hero, as her final words, rather than her actions, attempt to immortalize her, this too must be denied to her as she uses deceptive language.  Actively exploiting the nature of logos rather than being a passive victim to it, Phaedra falsely accuses Hippolytus of violating her.  Her deception is deemed a kind of poeticism, an attempt at poesis, at making herself honorable at all costs.  Through linguistic cunning her inwardness, her desire and grief, now attempts to control and distort the external, her perception by society (Dunning 400).  Her desperation and duplicity negates her previous ethical attempts to mediate between fundamental virtues of her society and resign herself to one path of action.

Kierkegaardian Modern Tragedy

19> Before examining Racine’s Phèdre in terms of her heroicism, it is imperative that first we consider Kierkegaard’s understanding of modern tragedy versus ancient drama.  For Kierekegaard, a key distinguishing factor between the ancient and modern drama is the degree of the hero’s self-conscious reflection.  The development of a reflective self-consciousness construct an individual sense of responsibility in the modern hero.  Her recognition of her own culpability, which could potentially lead to repentance, resolves itself in pain.  For Kierkegaard, ancient tragedy was mired with sorrow, a sense of understanding the relationship between oneself and the world beyond the individual’s aesthetic experience.  Modern tragedy, however, focuses on the self-awareness and responsibility for one’s own actions and thereby concerns itself with pain.  Moreover, this corresponds with Kierkegaard’s perception that ancient tragedy is grounded in fate rather than the individual’s will.[22]  Modernity sees the hero as his own creator, architect of his life without ties to family, state, and kin (Kierkegaard Either/Or 143).  Yet Kierkegaard admits that there must be a balance between fate and will in order for the modern tragedy to be successful.  As Pattison succinctly writes, the modern tragic hero “must be represented as both suffering his fate and responsible for it.  If the hero is only the victim of fate, then the drama will lack essential interest.  On the other hand, if he is represented as being completely responsible for his own downfall, then he is simply an evil man who receives his just deserts” (86).  Furthermore, whereas in Greek tragedy concealment and recognition are enigmatically issued forth by fate, Kierkegaard theorizes that in modern tragedy the hero’s free will is accountable for any concealment and revelation of the ethical (Fear and Trembling 93).

20> In attempting to further explicate his analysis of ancient and modern drama, Kierkegaard constructs his own modern variation of Sophocles’s Antigone.  In the Kierkegaardian version, Antigone is the only individual who is aware of her father’s incestuous relationship.  Guarding her secret, she is determined to remain silent in order to preserve the reputation and memory of her father.  Her moral predicament escalates, however, when she falls in love and feels compelled to be completely truthful with her lover in order to establish a faithful relationship.  Only through her death can she “arrest the pollution, the inherited guilt, which the disclosure of her secret and the consummation of her love would, fatally, transmit to succeeding generations” (Steiner 61).  Though certainly the center of her conflict is enclosed within herself, on her own self-reflexivity rather than her inescapable fate, Kierkegaard’s version of Antigone is concerned exclusively with her father’s reputation and her own sense of familial shame as a product of incest.  Kierkegaard denies Antigone any political or religious duty for which she must sacrifice.  Her duty is strictly in relationship to the men in her life: her father’s memory and her lover’s happiness.

Racine’s Tragic Phèdre

21> Racine’s Phèdre metamorphoses the ancient myth of Phaedra’s illicit love for her step-son, Hippolytus.  In this more modern version, Phèdre still considers herself a victim of Venus, tormented by a fate beyond her own power (Racine ln 279).  Yet, unlike her ancient counterpart, the modern Phèdre actively attempts to ward off her fate with prayers, vows, and offerings instead of secluding herself in mere silence.  Indeed, Racine characterizes her as an active, self-examining woman, one burdened by her inappropriate love, but willing to take action in a bold attempt to alter her wretched fate.  Furthermore, unlike Euripides’s Phaedra, Racine’s heroine is not paralyzed by an incessant need for honor.  While she is aware of the potential taint on her reputation, Phèdre appears concerned for her children’s heritage and their patrimonial futures (Racine lns 877 – 885).  Though Euripides’s text certainly addresses the issue of patrimony, particularly with regard to Hippolytus’s illegitimate status, Racine’s version severely underscores this crucial societal framework.  As she mediates her choices, Phèdre must take into consideration that her decision to reveal her desire or remain silent may affect the lives of her children rather than merely her own good name.

22> While Phèdre experiences a similar ethical dilemma as Euripides’s heroine with her supplicating nurse, the former’s morality is tested further in a different scene, one that potentially allows her the opportunity to exonerate herself by preserving the object of her desire.  After Phèdre reveals her uncontrollable passion to Hippolytus and is rejected by him, Phèdre’s nurse attempts to protect her mistress’s honor by reporting to Theseus that his son has violated Phèdre.  Unlike Euripides’s tragedy, Phèdre does not attempt to rescue her honor through written language, but rather her very silence.  Indeed, the treacherous words of Oenone, who relies upon her mistress’s taciturnity, operate to eschew Phèdre from actively deceiving her husband.  Oenone, ever sensitive to Phèdre’s vocalizations, is able to manipulate the heroine’s previous reluctance to speak, transforming her silence from a sign of guilt to a symbol of her violation.[23]  Yet, once Theseus is aware of Hippolytus’s supposedly wicked deeds, he, like his mythological counterpart, curses his son.  Racine, however, ingenuously complicates Phèdre’s morality as she is still alive to witness the effects of her desperate deception.  She learns of Theseus’s rash decision to punish Hippolytus and though she has previously resigned herself to admit her guilt, she remains silent.  Phèdre’s pride refuses her confession once she discovers that Hippolytus’s rejection of her love was not based upon a religious virginity, but rather a secret love for Aricia.  Though in Racine’s tragedy Phèdre has the opportunity to assert herself as a Kierkegaardian ethical tragic heroine by speaking the universal and thereby sacrificing herself for the benefit of another, she refuses and is left in silence: “All trepidation and remorse, all speed / Out of Oenone’s clinging arms of fear / I came to save his son. And who can tell / What might have been had conscience had its way?” (Racine lns. 1213-6).

23> Learning of Hippolytus’s imminent demise, Phèdre blames the deception of the nurse rather than re-cognizing her own immoral actions, or prideful inaction.  She vengefully inveighs against Oenone and her disastrous, inappropriate intervention.  This verbal invective intimates Phèdre’s eventual resignation to the universal, albeit too late, for she recognizes the depravity of punishing the innocent Hippolytus.  Coming to Theseus after he has learned of Hippolytus’s horrific, flesh-tearing death,[24] Phèdre finally uses language to express her guilt.  She admits her profane passion, articulating and thereby acknowledging the universal: “Theseus, I have repented of my silence. / Your son requires his innocence from my lips; / Yes, he was guiltless” (Racine lns 1640-2).  Her announcement of repentance illustrates her self-reflexivity and her acknowledgement of her culpability in Hippolytus’s death.  Though in her final speech she again reiterates the divine implementation of her passion, seemingly eschewing guilt, she concedes her own actions and wishes to chronicle her penitence.  Upon accepting the universal and pronouncing her (mis)deeds, suicide seems her only moral resolution for she has acted too late to save the one person she could have, Hippolytus.  Thus her death appears as a kind of purifying act, absolving Phèdre of her sin, her guilt.  Though Phèdre breaks her silence late, embracing the ethical and verbalizing her moral reality only after Hippolytus’s death, she should be considered as an ethical tragic heroine for she does speak for the sake of Hippolytus, her beloved, her kin, her oikos.  Rejecting the safety of silence, Phèdre actively labors for the good of the State, an act she previously doubted herself capable of.  Her words reveal Phèdre’s not only her rationality and recognition of the ethical sphere, but also her self-domination and control over her actions for the aid of another.[25]

24> Considering Kierkegaardian theorems of aesthetic and ethical tragic heroes on Phaedre and Phèdre, we see the challenges these female figures face in asserting themselves and vocalizing the universal.  Though Phaedra attempts multiple forms of linguistic expression, she is not able to articulate and maintain her ethical decision.  Betrayed by her nurse, Phaedra feels compelled to preserve her honor at all costs, and thereby uses deceptive language, consequently denying herself the respectable status she longs for.  Phèdre, however, though similarly tested, is able to re-cognize, reveal and repent her profane passion, albeit too late to save Hippolytus from his unfortunate death.  Yet, despite her ethical delay, she still speaks, rejecting her previous aesthetic silence, in order to defend Hippolytus’s post-mortem reputation.  Moreover, she sacrifices herself, linguistically and literally, as she commits suicide upon revealing her secret to Theseus, thereby achieving her ethical heroine repute through her death.
[1] Sestigiani discusses an apparent discrepancy in Kierkegaard’s work with regard to what constitutes the proper realm of the tragic hero.  In Either/Or, she notes, he seems to be suggesting a move toward the ethical sphere, but in Fear and Trembling the ethical hero resides entirely within the ethical sphere and must mediate between to moral imperatives (61).
[2] It should be noted that there is a distinct disparity in Kierkegaard’s theories concerning the construction of ancient and modern tragedy, as discussed in Either/Or and his discussion of the ethical tragic hero in Fear and Trembling.  While in the former Kierkegaard views ancient tragic figures as subject to fatum, in the latter text he treats Agamemnon as a self-willed agent beyond fate’s reach.  This will-oriented portrayal of Agamemnon parallels Kierkegaard’s understanding of modern tragic figures, who possesses the ability for  self-conscious reflection. Kierkegaard imbues the tragic hero with a subjectivity and sense of ethical responsibility that could be construed as anachronistic given the lack of sense of individualism and agency in ancient Greek culture.  However, in full cognition of this potential culturally and chronologically precarious issue, this essay will incorporate Kierkegaard’s theories of heroism in order to further explicate the character of Phaedra in Euripides’s Hippolytus.
[3] Kierkegaard presupposes that if the tragic hero speaks, he will be understood by others as they understand or share the same system of ethics.  In contrast, he theorizes that the religious figure of Abraham, the knight of faith, whom he deems as neither a tragic nor an aesthetic hero, not only cannot speak, but that if he did, his language would be indecipherable to others, perhaps in that his language would not attest to an ethical logic or framework: Abraham would speak a divine language (Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling 123).
[4] It should be noted that, for Kierkegaard, the ethical is deemed a higher existential stage of life in regard to the aesthetic.  He positions faith, however, as higher than the universal, and therefore much higher than the aesthetic.  Given that Kierkegaard’s theory of faith revolves around a Christian ideology and God, this essay will refrain from importing such theories onto the polytheistic Greek culture and its tragedy.
[5] Interestingly, Kierkegaard never mentions Agamemnon’s duty to the gods, but rather specifically to the nation.  He avoids all discussion of the polytheism of Agamemnon and focuses on his moral issue of preserving the state.
[6] Antigone may be the exception here, noting that, while she typically exemplifies the import of family/kin and thereby the domestic sphere, to a certain degree she acts as a political agent both in that she is a royal figure and her actions defy Creon’s hegemony.  Furthermore, her defiant act of burying her brother is seen as ethically honorable as she defends divinely ordained mandates.  Yet, even with Antigone, the spectator does not watch her agonizing with her ethical decision, one that may result in the destruction of an entire people, such as we do with Agamemnon in Iphigenia in Aulis.
[7] Indeed, we note that specifically in Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s examples of heroes, whether tragic or aesthetic, are consistently male.  Only in his treatment of the character Antigone in Either/Or does Kierkegaard present a female tragic hero. Moreover, journal writings by Kierkegaard suggest he is pointedly aware of this gender issue in his treatment of the hero: “No doubt I could bring my Antigone to a conclusion if I let her be a man. […] I would then have my hero fall in a duel” (Papers and Journals 146 cited in Sestigiani 71).
[8] Kierkegaard writes, “womanliness now assumes the quality of abstract cruelty, which is the caricaturing extreme of essential virginal Sprödigkeit [coyness]. A man can never be as cruel as a woman. A search of mythology, folktales, legends will confirm this. If a representation is to be given of a principle of nature that in its ruthlessness knows no limits, then it is a feminine creature. Or one is terrified to read about a young girl who callously has her suitors liquidated, as one so frequently reads in the fairy tales of all people. On the wedding night, a Bluebeard kills all the girls he has loved, but he does not enjoy the killing of them; on the contrary, the enjoyment was antecedent, and therein lies the concretion – it is not cruelty for the sake of cruelty alone.  A Don Juan seduces them and abandons them, but he has enjoyment not in abandoning them but rather in seducing them; therefore, it is in no way this abstract cruelty” (Either/Or 432).  While one could argue that this is merely the character espousing this misogynistic sentiment and not Kierkegaard, there are numerous other textual examples that lend to Kierkegaard’s antifeminist views.  Moreover, much scholarship has been devoted to examining “The Seducer’s Diary” from a biographical point of view, linking Kierkegaard’s own romantically turbulent relationship with that of the protagonist, Johannes.
[9] While many of the female figures in ancient Greek tragedy could be suitable for a textual analysis in terms of their Kierkegaardian heroics, the figure of Phaedra was chosen primarily due to her incessant struggle with silence and revelation.  Phaedra in particular labors mentally and emotionally to determine the appropriate course, a moral battle that parallels that of Agamemnon.  While an analysis of Medea may prove fruitful, Medea’s challenge has less to do with an issue of maintaining silence or revealing herself, her inwardness to others.  Unlike Agamemnon, Medea does not kill her children for some “higher” purpose, but rather out of her own vengeful vendetta against Jason.  However, she does seem to struggle perhaps even more than Agamemnon, for even moments before she enters the house to kill her children, she continuously vacillates, unsure of which path she will take, hugging them close to her one moment, unable to look at their Jason-esque faces another.  Yet, Medea is not pulled by two distinct ethical poles – she wants to kill her children for revenge, not for the greater good of humanity or the Greek polis.  While some scholars may argue that she is tempted to kill the children in order to give them an honorable death and not allow them to be mercilessly killed by the would-be vengeful Corinthians, these are not Medea’s only options.  Though presented as a dichotomy (to kill them honorably or let them be killed dishonorably), there are other possibilities (such as escorting them into exile with her) that go unrealized.
[10] One would be remiss to view Aphrodite’s act, as a divine being, of impassioning Phaedra with an inappropriate love as a kind of Kierkegaardian temptation: a test that requires her to decide between what the deity compels her to do and what she knows is ethically and morally right.  Given the entire scope of the tragedy, Phaedra is not the subject to be tested.  The focus is not on Phaedra and her will, but rather Hippolytus and the consequences this love will have for him.
[11] See Rabinowitz.
[12] “If he keeps silent, ethics condemns him, for it says, ‘Thou shalt acknowledge the universal, and it is precisely by speaking thou dost acknowledge it, and thou must not have compassion upon the universal’" (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling 120).
[13] It could be argued, however, that by constantly striving to preserve her good repute, she is indeed acting in the interest of her oikos.  Rabinowitz suggests that female honor was associated with silence (36).  She cites Pericles’s speech in Thucydides (2.45.2) which claims that women earn a good reputation by having no reputation at all; that is to say, that she provides no reason (good or bad) for others to talk about her.
[14] Again we see a seeming discrepancy in Kierkegaard’s treatment of aesthetics and silence.  For while he castigates aesthetic silence as being cowardly and unethical, he writes that “in spite of the severity with which ethics requires revelation, it cannot be denied that secrecy and silence really make a man great precisely because they are characteristics of inwardness” (Fear and Trembling 97). It would seem then that an aesthetic foundation, an appreciation of inwardness, is needed before considering the external, the universal.
[15] As she later states, “Silence was my first plan. / Silence and concealment” (Greene lns 393-4).
[16] Kierkegaard notes in Either/Or that the characters of ancient tragedy showed a propensity for sorrow whereas modern tragic characters experienced pain.  Sorrow reflects the hero’s re-cognition of and identification with a reality beyond his own personal existence.
[17] See Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 350 and 352 for a brief description of suppliancy as compared to xenia, hospitality.  See Gould for a thorough discussion of the act of supplication as portrayed in Homeric epic as well as Euripidean tragedy.
[18] “Would you force confession, my hand-clasping suppliant?” (Greene ln 325).
[19] Aidos, particularly in relationship to Phaedra’s dichotomous use of it, constitutes much of the scholarship on Hippolytus.  This word is often re-translated to mean various degrees of inhibition, shame, respect, self-restraint, conscience. For a thorough discussion on aidos in Hippolytus see Kovacs, and Furley.
[20] For a thorough discussion of Phaedra’s desire for honor, and how she, as a woman designated to the oikos, is ill-suited for such, see Rabinowitz.  Moreover, Rabinowitz and other scholars question whether it is merely the protection of her potentially ruptured honor, or whether Phaedra seeks the kind of fame and glory that men may achieve in battle and in the polis.
[21] An interesting study could be done of Hippolytus as an ethical tragic hero for he too is faced with two opposing ethical systems.  He must choose between keeping his own promise of silence regarding Phaedra’s improper affections or reveal the truth and thereby defend himself and his innocence to his father.  Indeed, as Green observes, there is a large body of textual examples that focus on the father’s conduct, which could provide a backdrop for a Kierkegaardian exploration of Theseus as well: “Father-child themes abound, from the epigraph’s opening mention of Tarquinius Superbus’s secret message to his son, through the numerous tragic heroes whose conduct imperils their offspring, to the choice of Abraham” (275).  Moreover, Hippolytus could be interpreted as an intellectual tragic hero, whose last words immortalize him before his death rather than the memory of his heroic deeds after his death (Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling 126).  As Artemis proclaims, his memory shall be preserved in the marriage ritual by maidens preparing themselves for their rite of passage.
[22] It is important to consider, however, Racine’s own Jansenist beliefs, which maintained that though an individual may exhibit free will, her fate is ultimately predestined and no actions may alter that destiny.
[23] Consider Oenone’s keen interest in Phèdre’s silence at lines 185 (“If you must blush, blush for your silence”), 894 (“All I need is your silence to succeed”), and 1022 (“Reluctantly I lent her tears a voice”).
[24] It is important to note that, whereas in Euripides’s version an analysis of Hippolytus as an intellectual tragic hero could be undertaken given the import of his final words, this is not possible in Racine’s Phèdre.  Hippolytus is not present again at the end of the tragedy; he is denied a final reconciliation with his father.  Indeed, in Racine’s tragedy the focal point does not shift to Hippolytus’s relationship and resolution with his father, but rather maintains its concentration on Phèdre and the ethical implications of her secret passion.
[25] Compare Phèdre’s final acts with her self-conscious anxiety over ruling in Theseus’s stead: “I reign? I bring a State beneath my rule, / When reason reigns no longer over me; / When I have lost my self-domination; when / Beneath a shameful sway I scarcely breathe; / When I am dying?” (759-63).
Works Cited:
Dunning, Stephen N. “The Dialectic of Contradiction in Kierkegaard’s Aesthetic Stage.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49.3 (1981): 383-408. Print.

Euripides. “Hippolytus” Euripides I. Trans. David Greene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955. 163-221. Print.

Furley. W. D. “Phaidra’s Pleasurable Aidos (Eur. Hipp. 380-7).” The Classical Quarterly 46.1 (1996): 84-90. Print.

Gould, John. “HIKETEIA” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 93 (1973): 74-103. Print.

Green, Ronald M. “‘Developing’ Fear and Trembling.The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Eds. Alastair Hannay and Gordon D. Marino. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 257–281. Print.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. Eds. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987. Print.

---. Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death. Trans. Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954. Print.
Kovacs, David. “Shame, Pleasure, and Honor in Phaedra’s Great Speech (Euripides, Hippolytus 375-87).” American Journal of Philology. 101.3 (1980): 287-303. Print.

Rabinowitz, Nancy. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. Print.

Racine, Jean. “Phaedra” Four Greek Plays. Trans. R. C. Knight. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. 103-52. Print.

Sestigiani, Sabina. “A Danish Antigone: The Legacy of Ancient Greek Consciousness in the Fragmentation of Modern Tragedy.” COLLOQUY text theory critique. 11 (2006): 60-75. Print.

Steiner, George. Antigones. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. Print.

Vernant, Jean-Pierre and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. Trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: Zone Books, 1988. Print.

Warren Berry, Wanda. “The Heterosexual Imagination and Aesthetic Existence in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Part One.” International Kierkegaard Commentary Either/Or Part I. Ed. Robert L. Perkins. Macon, GA: Mercer University, 1995. Print.

Westphal, Merold. “Kierkegaard and Hegel.” The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Eds. Alastair Hannay and Gordon D. Marino. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 101–124. Print.

Shelly Jansen recently earned her PhD in Comparative Literature from SUNY Binghamton after defending her dissertation, "For-Giving: The Economy of the Revenant," which explores the relationship between gender, exchange, and reconciliation as portrayed in the tragicomedies of Euripides and Shakespeare.  Her areas of specialization include Ancient Greek literature, tragicomedy, the Gift economy, mythology, the Fairy Tale and distance education.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern
Literature & Culture,
ISSN: 1946-1992,
Volume Four (2011): Texts & Contexts

1 comment:

K. Bender said...

It is very interesting to read Shelly Jansen's analysis of Euripides' Hippolytus and Racine's Phèdre in the light of the theories of proto-existentialist Kierkegaard.
According to my reading and understanding - as a non-scholar - Hippolytus is the central character and Phaedra is his victim in the play of Euripides. In Racine, on the contrary, Phèdre is the major character and Hippolite is her victim. The different titles reflect very well this basic difference.
From the very beginning, Euripides makes it clear that Hippolytus' choice (or free will) not to obey society's rule (i.e to honour Aphrodite) is the origin of the tragedy. Racine, however, dismisses fully this characterial choice of Hippolyte and in fact introduces a 'romantic' element in the story: his forbidden love for Aricia. I think this changes dramatically the tragedy, puts all the weight on Phèdre and thus transforms her heroicism.
I do not find any reference to these different views between Euripides and Racine in the above essay by Jansen.