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The Role of the Nurse in Seneca’s Phaedra

Nurse, an upholder of moral values as well as a personal attendant of ‘Phaedra’, is one of the leading characters in Seneca’s play “Phaedra”. Seneca has shown the Nurse to have a double-edged personality. At the beginning of the play we find the Nurse, as a foil to Phaedra to uphold the moral values, but as the play develops she becomes the very personification of ‘evil’. As an individual character she has little influence upon other characters. For examples- at the beginning of the play she tries to dissuade Phaedra from pursuing Hippolytus and in the Act(II) she induces Hippolytus to fall into Phaedra’s love but both times she fails. But her influence upon the plot of the play is great, as her persuasion to Phaedra and Hippolytus and forming the plan for denouncing Hipploytus bring the play to the point of climax in the Act (III).

As the play unfolds gradually we have a conversation between the Nurse and Phaedra, which furnishes the real exposition of the play. Phaedra in a long speech portrays the real picture of her mind, that banished from her motherland and now deserted by Theseus she is intensely miserable in her solitude. Her conversation with the Nurse also imparts us that an extremely powerful passion has and all her desires go unfulfilled. Though she does not disclose before us the real cause of her suffering, but the attitude of the Nurse shows that she is already acquainted with Phaedra’s passions. This act shows that there is a deep understanding between the Nurse and Phaedra like a true friend and caring guardian she can read the mind of Phaedra.

Nurse has known that Phaedra is madly in her step-son Hippolytus’s love and she tries her best to dissuade Phaedra from such evil thoughts and passions. She warns Phaedra about the fatal consequence of the kind of love, she is cherishing. She urges her to check her passions and uproot all the evil thoughts as soon as they come to the mind. Her first speech goes like-

“Cleanse your pure heart at once of such evil thoughts”.

She continues-
.
“Stand up to love and rout him
At the first assault, that is the surest way
To win without a fall”.

The Nurse in order to bring Phaedra to the right path injects some moral lessons into her mind. Like a stoic philosopher she preaches restraint and contingency. The first and best thing in the life of a human being is to choose the good and follow it throughout the life. And the next best thing is to possess shame and to bridle the sin in time.

The Nurse reminds Phaedra of her family reputation, saying that she is going to heap fresh infancy upon her house. She also says, willful sin is a worse evil than unnatural passion by referring her mother because her mother’s sin came by fate but her sin is wilful. She argues that though Theseus does not see her from the underworld, Phaedra’s father, and her mother’s father, who are overriding power, will not forgive her. Though Phaedra does not care about them and gods always choose to hide the forbidden love, but the penalty from within is more severe. She says-

Men may have sinned
With safety, none with conscious unperturbed.

In order to evoke hatred in Phaedra’s mind against this illicit love the Nurse says that this type of crime is not sanctioned even in the society of the barbarian. According to her, Phaedra cannot run the risk of being a common wife ‘of son and father’. But all the arguments fail to subdue Phaedra’s regal love.

Having failed to stifle Phaedra’s passion, the Nurse takes up a new strategy to despair Phaedra of Hippolytus. She informs her that Hippolytus is a stubborn and obstinate Youngman, devoted to the worship of Diana and indifferent to any persuasion. So systematically eliminates every possibility of committing such a crime successfully. But Phaedra does not hear her and by artfully threatening suicide, bends the nurse to her will. Here we come across a dramatic change of the Nurse attitude when Phaedra gets resolved to suicide if her desires are not satisfied. We are surprised when she assures Phaedra that she herself will induce Hippolytus to bend the stiffness of his stubborn will.

So from the Act (II) we find the Nurse totally different from the previous Act. Here she recourses to every craft to induce Hippolytus, as she has taken previously to dissuade Phaedra. She has to lose all her ethical teachings to the beastly will of Phaedra. She attempts to create the feeling of love in the mind of Hippolytus. She tells him that life without love is dull and meaningless. She says that solitude makes life distressed. In short, she takes all possible ways to allure the rigid Youngman but all her attempts end in failure. And finally when Hippolytus, frightened by the Phaedra crude advances, abandons his sword and flees as Phaedra pretends to swoon the nurse comes to her rescue. The nurse becomes furious to save Phaedra.In her speech:

“Crime must cover crime”.

So she plans a trap for Hippolytus. She decides to defame Hippolytus. As soon as the king Theseus returns from the underworld after a long sojourn, the Nurse through Phaedra lets him know that Hippolytus has deflowered Phaedra. The Nurse skillfully succeeds in intensifying the fire of the fury of Theseus. Thseus shocked by the news in a long monologue calls upon his father Neptune to destroy Hippolytus, so that no human being seeing the fortune of Hippolytus dares to commit such a blasphemous act. And this constitutes the climax of the play and practically the reversal of fortune for Hippolytus. He is destroyed by the curse given by his father. But sooth to say the Nurse is morally responsible for Hippolytus’s death.

It has been said that Seneca was involved in the kind of scene which he had so often composed for his characters. In the case of the nurse it is not otherwise. We can trace many of Seneca’s personal interests and experiences in the nurse. Seneca was the tutor of the Nero, the bloody ruler as well as a stoic philosopher. His various philosophic teachings are apparent from the speech of the nurse. Those speeches in which the nurse tries to dissuade Phaedra from pursuing Hippolytus read like a lecture of Seneca to his pupil Nero, urging him not to embark upon a career of crime. But all his efforts failed to stop Nero from going astray, as nurse’s speeches fail to stop Phaedra. And ultimately Seneca had to follow Nero’s wish, as the Nurse has to act according to Phaedra’s wish.

So, considering all the facts we can sum up that the role of the Nurse in Phaedra is a rational role, though her rationality loses its course due to her love to Phaedra. And through the character Nurse, Seneca’s own personal experiences as well as intellectual outlooks are vividly expressed.

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