In neo-classical works of literature, the themes are often based on reason and passion. The two factors of influence collide in a struggle that an individual character or group of characters must overcome and decide which to follow, and this conflict usually leads to suffering, guilt, and shame. In Racine’s classic, Phaedra, the title character is influenced by her overwhelming passion, which leads to her commit her crimes by the power of guilt and shame.
As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that Phaedra is aware that her love for Hippolytus can never be fulfilled, and the shame that she feels from this passion is true. After confessing her love to Hippolytus in Act 2, scene 5, she curses the Gods for torturing her soul by making her love someone against her will, and she even goes as far as to ask for death. The power of shame has overcome her, and she feels that if she can not be with the man that she loves then she wishes to die by his sword as if she were a “monster”. When Theseus returns home, her shame is heightened by the presence of him, and by the thought that her incestuous love will be made aware to all. However, this shame quickly turns to the offensive when she allows Oenome to plot a reverse of guilt and accuse Hippolytus of loving Phaedra. The power of shame is no more evident then at this point in the story, because Phaedra, feeling the height of shame after admitting her love to Hippolytus, must face both her husband Theseus, the man she should love, and Hippolytus, the forbidden love. Feeling confused and helpless, Phaedra allows Oenome to place the blame on Hippolytus, and this begins her change from feelings of shame to guilt.
After Oenome convinces Theseus that his son has been trying to steal the love of his wife, Hippolytus is banished by his father and Neptune is sent to kill him. At this point, Phaedra learns that Hippolytus was capable of loving someone, and the guilt that she feels is from her denying another woman the love of Hippolytus. She has caused the suffering of another woman, Aricia, and now she has also caused a father to banish and kill his own son. Finally, after the death of Oenome, Aricia, and Hippolytus, the power of her guilt has engulfed her and she can no longer live in the absence of truth or with the deeds she has done. This guilt leads to her confession that she was the “lustful and incestuous one,” and after enduring all the guilt from the deaths of the innocent, she ends her own life.
This tale of forbidden passion shows the power of shame and guilt within Phaedra by creating a sense of helplessness in love and the effects of being in love. Phaedra loved someone whom she could not have, and the shame that she felt eventually turned into guilt after her “blind” actions caused the death of innocent lovers. The power of guilt and shame produces a tragic tale by manipulating and overwhelming a helpless character that is bound by an unattainable love.