There are a number of Greek women's myths that radiate into our time. We know Penelope, who waited a very long time for Odysseus, and we know the doubt how faithful she was to him. Famous is Antigone, who refused to obey the political order because she knew a higher or better: deeper law than that of the community, the right of the family. Also famous is Medea, who, gone wild out of disappointed love, drew the most terrible consequences of revenge. And Iphigenia, who was to be sacrificed and, after surviving, devoted all her energy to stop sacrificing. Not to mention Helena, who triggered the great sacrifice.

Juergen Kaube


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But who knows Phaedra, Greek "the radiant"? Euripides wrote a tragedy about her, but it has a male name: "The wreath-wearing Hyppolytus". Through Seneca, the story of her falling in love with the stepson Hyppolytus, who does not want to know anything about her and whom she therefore denounces lying, whereupon he is killed by a sea monster summoned by his father Theseus, is handed down.

Jean Racine wrote his last antiquity drama about her in 1677. Schiller translates the piece and distances himself at the same time: "The Franconian must not become a pattern for us: / No living spirit speaks of his art". For Shakespeare's readers, Racine was above all plaster, at best marble. The older ones may still remember the pose-rich "Phaedra" in Simon Werle's translation, which Peter Stein brought to the Schaubühne in 1987, with Jutta Lampe as the title heroine.

If Phaedra, despite several plays and operas dedicated to her, has not become a memorable figure in our treasure trove of myths, then this book is an attempt to change that. Italian author and director Agnese Grieco has written a wonderful study of her heroine on German. It is almost overflowing with thoughts about what this woman is all about. The style of the study moves between a literary-historical investigation, a philosophical essay and sketches for a staging of the drama, with exclamation marks written in the margins of the text.

At its center is the question of whether we need more than the knowledge of the good in order to act well. Phaedra torments herself with her unspoken love for the stepson because she is aware of the prohibition of adultery. She wants to be an exemplary mother to her children, an exemplary queen to the court, and that is not possible. But why then are both forbidden and permitted love called "love"? Does forbidden desire make Phaedra a hooker, as Aeschylus calls her in Aristophanes' "The Frogs"? Probably not because the object of their desire is the chaste Hyppolytus, on which the goddess of love Aphrodite, who was also guilty of the Trojan War, wants to take revenge because of his abstinence and exaggerated Artemis worship. That's why she sets the Queen's heart on fire.

The entanglements of desire

"My hands are pure," she says, "but stain my mind." She can't shake the thought of her stepson. Grieco finds the good formulation that Phaedra is the opposite of Oedipus, because she knows everything. It is not the blind person who becomes the plaything of fate, but the one who knows about the good, who only does not want to act according to it, because his desire is contrary to his knowledge. Phaedra speaks on stage with the women's choir about the same questions that Plato raises in his "Protagoras": Is the good a knowledge? "Is there an ethical skill?" (Grieco) Doesn't there also have to be a will to comprehend? Plato denies this, but with Phaedra one would have to say that reason alone will not free us from mythical entanglements.