How Peaches Geldof brought Greek tragedy into the tabloids

Well, not exactly. But it’s not often that aspects of Classical literature find their way onto the gossip pages of the Mail Online. That is precisely what happened in the wake of Peaches Geldof’s decision to name her younger son Phaedra.

Actually, his full name is “Phaedra Bloom Forever”, which is quite ironic. Ironic because, in the world of Greek mythology and tragedy, Phaedra most certainly does not “bloom forever”.

Greek mythology relates that Phaedra married Theseus, who already had a son named Hippolytus. Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, and (after he rejected her advances) committed suicide, having written to Theseus to accuse Hippolytus of raping her. Hippolytus, incidentally, later died after Theseus consequently cursed him. And there you have it: a summary of the Classical significance of the name Phaedra, as well as a crude spoiler of the plot of Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus.

In fact, the resonance of Phaedra is not confined to Classical mythology and drama. She has since been invoked in the works of Racine, Tsvetaeva, Swinburne and many others. To that list of literary luminaries who have recalled the name of Phaedra, we add Peaches Geldof.

You might be inclined to ask what my point is here. Does not Peaches Geldof have the right to give her son any name she should choose? Is it really any of my business that Geldof Jnr. should be (perhaps rather inauspiciously) named after a mythological character whose tragic death was immortalised in the works of Euripides? Or, indeed, that his mother should choose a woman’s name for a boy?

Perhaps, though, the name of Phaedra might not be as inauspicious as all that. In the Hippolytus, Phaedra is not marked out only by her barely controllable sexual desire. In fact, her character is largely defined by the conflict between this sexual desire and her conscious attempts to preserve a good reputation as a virtuous wife. Though she feels an urge to commit adultery, she also fights it, and curses adulterous women powerfully and memorably:

“There is one woman who should die horribly –
the one who first polluted her marriage,”

(Euripides Hippolytus 407, trans. Robert Bagg)

Perhaps “die horribly” doesn’t quite do justice to the powerful anger and harsh aural effect of the original “ὡς ὄλοιτο παγκάκως”. An alternative translation might read “may she perish in utter disgrace” (replicating the harsh sounds with sibilance), and there is certainly something to be said for the gravitas and weighty formality of “may all the world’s curses fall upon her shameless head” (as rendered by John Davie in the Penguin edition).

In any case, what is clear is Phaedra’s strong belief that, as a wife, she must retain a good reputation. All the more so as an aristocratic wife:

“What seems chic in the palace
no matter how truly filthy
will swiftly thrive in every modest street.”
(Euripides Hippolytus 411-412, trans. Robert Bagg)

I might take this further. The dichotomy between the “palace” and the “modest street” in Phaedra’s perception can be equated with the difference between celebrities and the public in modern society. After all, Phaedra’s point does not necessarily relate to power or social rank. The timeless implication is that those in the public eye must set a good example to the rest of society by maintaining a virtuous reputation. This is part of Phaedra’s motivation, and encapsulates an attitude which sadly seems largely absent in modern-day celebrity culture.

I’m not expecting the full resurgence of an Athenian-style reputation-based moral
code in modern society. But when Phaedra Bloom Forever Geldof-Cohen grows up, perhaps he will show awareness of the value of a good reputation, the most beneficial part of his namesake’s legacy. And as such, maybe he could make some kind of a stand against celebrity scandals. Tragedy for the tabloids, perhaps.

Citations:

Euripides, ed. John Ferguson. Hippolytus. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1984. Print.

Euripides, trans. Robert Bagg. Hippolytos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print.

Euripides, trans. John Davie. Medea and Other Plays. London: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.

 

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