As a result of an intrigue by the Duchess of Bouillon and other friends of the aging Corneille, the play was not a success at its première on 1 January 1677 at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, home of the royal troupe of actors in Paris. Indeed a rival group staged a play by the now forgotten playwright Nicolas Pradon on an almost identical theme. After Phèdre, Racine ceased writing plays on secular themes and devoted himself to the service of religion and the king until 1689, when he was commissioned to write Esther by Madame de Maintenon, the morganatic second wife of Louis XIV.
Names of characters in French, with their equivalents in English:
Act 1. Following Thésée's six month absence, his son Hippolyte tells his tutor Théramène of his intention to leave Trézène in search of his father. When pressed by Théramène, he reveals that the real motive is his forbidden love for Aricie, sole survivor of the royal house supplanted by Thésée and under a vow of chastity against her will. During her husband's absence, Phèdre has become consumed by an illicit but overpowering passion for her stepson Hippolyte, which she has kept as a dark secret. Close to death and reeling about half-dementedly, under pressure from her old nurse Oenone she explains her state, on condition that she be permitted to die rather than face dishonour. The death of Thésée is announced with the news that his succession is in dispute. Oenone urges her mistress that, since her love for her stepson is now legitimate, she should form an alliance with him, if only for the future benefit of the infant son of her own flesh.
Act 2. With fresh hope for her liberty, Aricie reveals to her maidservant Ismène her feelings towards Hippolyte, who promptly appears to declare his love for her. Their discourse is interrupted by Phèdre, who distraughtly pleads for the rights of her infant son, explaining her coldness and personal despair. Suddenly entering a trance-like state overcome by emotion, she involuntarily confesses her hidden passions to her horrified dumb-struck stepson. Sensing rejection, she leaves in a wild frenzy, demanding Hippolyte's sword to end her torment. Théramène brings news to Hippolyte that Thésée might still be alive.
Act 3. In desperation Phèdre sends word to Hippolyte inviting him to share the crown of Athens. However, Oenone brings her the devastating news that Thésée has returned in perfect health. To avert Phèdre's deathwish and her possible betrayal by Hippolyte, Oenone urges that a story should be concocted around his abandoned sword. Seeing Hippolyte by Thésée's side, Phèdre grants Oenone free rein. After his long period in captivity, Thésée is surprised by his cold reception from his wife and son, each anxious to conceal their passions: Phèdre, consumed by guilt; and Hippolyte, anxious to distance himself from his stepmother's advances, but unable to tell his father of his love for Aricie.
Act 4. Thésée has just been told by Oenone that Hippolyte has attempted to take Phèdre by force. Overcome by rage, Thésée banishes Hippolyte and invokes the god Neptune, who has promised to grant any wish of Thésée, to avenge him by his son's death. Protesting his innocence, Hippolyte discloses his secret love for Aricie to his incredulous father and leaves in despair. Fearing that she might be guilty for Hippolyte's death, Phèdre determines to reveal the truth to her husband, until she is told of Hippolyte's love for Aricie. Consumed by jealousy, she refuses to defend Hippolyte further, leaving his father's curse to run its course. When Oenone tries to make light of her mistress's illicit love, Phèdre in a towering rage accuses her of being a poisonous scheming monster and banishes her from her presence.
Act 5. Hippolyte takes his leave of Aricie, promising to marry her in a temple outside Trézène. On witnessing the tenderness of their parting, Thésée begins to have doubts about his son's guilt. He decides to question Oenone, but it is too late: Oenone has thrown herself to the waves. Théramène brings news of his son's death, slain in his departing chariot by a horned monster rising from the sea. In the closing scene, Phèdre, now calm, appears before Thésée to confess her guilt and to confirm Hippolyte's innocence. She finally succumbs to the effects of a self-administered draught of Medean poison, taken to rid the world of her impurity. As an act of atonement and in respect for his son's parting promise, Thésée pardons Aricie and adopts her as his daughter.
The late British poet laureate Ted Hughes produced a highly regarded free verse translation of Phèdre in 2000. This version was staged shortly before his death with Diana Rigg playing the title role. A new English adaptation at the Royal National Theatre in 2009 will include Helen Mirren as Phèdre and Margaret Tyzack as Oenone.
Certain lines from the play, such as « la fille de Minos et de Pasiphaë », have become classics in the French language; but despite the celebrated musicality of the alexandrine, Racine never wrote poetry just for the sake of beauty of sound. In the character of Phèdre, he could combine the consuming desire inherited from her mother with the mortal fear of her father, Minos, judge of the dead in Hades. Despite its author's silence from 1677 to 1689, as time progressed Phèdre became one of the most famous of his plays. It is now one of the most frequently staged tragedies from the seventeenth century.
In his work Le Dieu caché, the 20th century author Lucien Goldmann extrapolates social theories of the role of the divine in French consciousness from thematic elements in Phèdre. Although Phèdre is perhaps less often studied at high school level in France than Britannicus or Andromaque, it is still frequently performed, and the eponymous role has been played by actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt and Isabelle Huppert. The Australian comedienne Dame Edna Everage has repeatedly declared her desire to play Phèdre.