Jean Racine
Overview
Jean Racine baptismal name Jean-Baptiste Racine (22 December 163921 April 1699), was a French
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 dramatist, one of the "Big Three" of 17th-century France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 (along with Molière
Molière
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature...

 and Corneille
Pierre Corneille
Pierre Corneille was a French tragedian who was one of the three great seventeenth-century French dramatists, along with Molière and Racine...

), and one of the most important literary figures in the Western tradition. Racine was primarily a tragedian
Tragedy
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...

, producing such 'examples of neoclassical perfection' as Phèdre
Phèdre
Phèdre is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine, first performed in 1677.-Composition and premiere:...

, Andromaque
Andromaque
Andromaque is a tragedy in five acts by the French playwright Jean Racine written in alexandrine verse. It was first performed on 17 November 1667 before the court of Louis XIV in the Louvre in the private chambers of the Queen, Marie Thérèse, by the royal company of actors, called "les Grands...

, and Athalie
Athalie
Athalie is the final tragedy of Jean Racine, and has been described as the masterpiece of 'one of the greatest literary artists known' and the 'ripest work' of Racine's genius...

, although he did write one comedy, Les Plaideurs
Les Plaideurs
Les Plaideurs, or the Litigants, written in 1668, is a comedy in three acts with respectively 8, 14, and 4 scenes in Alexandrine verse by Jean Racine. This is the only comedy written by Racine. It was inspired by The Wasps by Aristophanes, but he withdrew all political significance...

, and a muted tragedy, Esther
Esther (drama)
Esther is the name of a play in three acts written in 1689 by the French dramatist, Jean Racine. It premiered on January 26, 1689, performed by the pupils of the Maison royale de Saint-Louis, an educational institute for young girls of noble birth...

, for the young.

Racine's plays displayed his mastery of the dodecasyllabic alexandrine
Alexandrine
An alexandrine is a line of poetic meter comprising 12 syllables. Alexandrines are common in the German literature of the Baroque period and in French poetry of the early modern and modern periods. Drama in English often used alexandrines before Marlowe and Shakespeare, by whom it was supplanted...

; his verse is renowned for elegance, purity, speed, and fury, and for what Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell
Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV was an American poet, considered the founder of the confessional poetry movement. He was appointed the sixth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress where he served from 1947 until 1948...

 described as a 'diamond-edge', and the 'glory of its hard, electric rage'.
Quotations

Derrière un voile, invisible et présente,J'étais de ce grand corps l'âme toute-puissante.

Behind a veil, unseen yet present,I was the forceful soul that moved this mighty body.

Vous êtes empereur, Seigneur, et vous pleurez!

You are Emperor, my lord, and yet you weep?

Mon unique espérance est dans mon désespoir.

My only hope lies in my despair.

Tout m'afflige et me nuit, et conspire à me nuire.

All afflicts and injures me, and conspires to my injury.

Ariane, ma soeur, de quelle amour blesséeVous mourûtes sur les bords où vous fûtes laissée.

Ariane, my sister, wounded by what love,You died on the shores where you were abandoned.

C'est toi qui l'as nommé.

You have named him, not I.

Ce n'est plus une ardeur dans mes veines cachée:C'est Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée.

It is no longer a passion hidden in my heart:It is Venus herself fastened to her prey.

L'innocence enfin n'a rien à redouter.

Innocence has nothing to dread.

Ainsi que la vertu, le crime a ses dégrés;Et jamais on n'a vu la timide innocencePasser subitement à l'extrême licence.

Crime, like virtue, has its degrees;And timid innocence was never knownTo blossom suddenly into extreme license.

Pour réparer des ans l'irréparable outrage.

To repair the irreparable ravages of time.

Encyclopedia
Jean Racine baptismal name Jean-Baptiste Racine (22 December 163921 April 1699), was a French
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 dramatist, one of the "Big Three" of 17th-century France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 (along with Molière
Molière
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature...

 and Corneille
Pierre Corneille
Pierre Corneille was a French tragedian who was one of the three great seventeenth-century French dramatists, along with Molière and Racine...

), and one of the most important literary figures in the Western tradition. Racine was primarily a tragedian
Tragedy
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...

, producing such 'examples of neoclassical perfection' as Phèdre
Phèdre
Phèdre is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine, first performed in 1677.-Composition and premiere:...

, Andromaque
Andromaque
Andromaque is a tragedy in five acts by the French playwright Jean Racine written in alexandrine verse. It was first performed on 17 November 1667 before the court of Louis XIV in the Louvre in the private chambers of the Queen, Marie Thérèse, by the royal company of actors, called "les Grands...

, and Athalie
Athalie
Athalie is the final tragedy of Jean Racine, and has been described as the masterpiece of 'one of the greatest literary artists known' and the 'ripest work' of Racine's genius...

, although he did write one comedy, Les Plaideurs
Les Plaideurs
Les Plaideurs, or the Litigants, written in 1668, is a comedy in three acts with respectively 8, 14, and 4 scenes in Alexandrine verse by Jean Racine. This is the only comedy written by Racine. It was inspired by The Wasps by Aristophanes, but he withdrew all political significance...

, and a muted tragedy, Esther
Esther (drama)
Esther is the name of a play in three acts written in 1689 by the French dramatist, Jean Racine. It premiered on January 26, 1689, performed by the pupils of the Maison royale de Saint-Louis, an educational institute for young girls of noble birth...

, for the young.

Racine's plays displayed his mastery of the dodecasyllabic alexandrine
Alexandrine
An alexandrine is a line of poetic meter comprising 12 syllables. Alexandrines are common in the German literature of the Baroque period and in French poetry of the early modern and modern periods. Drama in English often used alexandrines before Marlowe and Shakespeare, by whom it was supplanted...

; his verse is renowned for elegance, purity, speed, and fury, and for what Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell
Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV was an American poet, considered the founder of the confessional poetry movement. He was appointed the sixth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress where he served from 1947 until 1948...

 described as a 'diamond-edge', and the 'glory of its hard, electric rage'. Racine's works are widely considered to be untranslatable, although many eminent poets have attempted to do so, including Lowell, Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes
Edward James Hughes OM , more commonly known as Ted Hughes, was an English poet and children's writer. Critics routinely rank him as one of the best poets of his generation. Hughes was British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death.Hughes was married to American poet Sylvia Plath, from 1956 until...

, and Derek Mahon into English, and Schiller into German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

. The latest to attempt to translate Racine's plays into English, and the first to render the plays in rhymed "heroic" couplets, earned a 2011 American Book Award for the poet Geoffrey Argent. Racine's dramaturgy is marked by his psychological insight, the prevailing passion of his characters, and the nakedness of both the plot and stage
Stage (theatre)
In theatre or performance arts, the stage is a designated space for the performance productions. The stage serves as a space for actors or performers and a focal point for the members of the audience...

.

Life

Racine was born on 22 December 1639 in La Ferté-Milon
La Ferté-Milon
La Ferté-Milon is a commune in the Aisne department in Picardy in northern FranceIn La Ferté-Milon stand the ruins of an unfinished castle, whose façade was 200 m long and 38 m high. The singular form of the tower walls was probably designed to resist cannons and protect the gate. The façade is...

 (Aisne
Aisne
Aisne is a department in the northern part of France named after the Aisne River.- History :Aisne is one of the original 83 departments created during the French Revolution on 4 March 1790. It was created from parts of the former provinces of Île-de-France, Picardie, and Champagne.Most of the old...

), in the former Picardy province in northern France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

. He was an orphan by the age of four (his mother died in 1641 and his father in 1643) and was raised by his grandparents. At the death of his grandfather, in 1649, his grandmother, Marie des Moulins, went to live in the convent of Port-Royal and took her grandson with her. He received a classical education at the Petites écoles de Port-Royal
Petites écoles de Port-Royal
The Petites écoles de Port-Royal was the name given to a teaching system set up in 1637 by the intellectuals who gathered at Port-Royal-des-Champs in the middle of the 17th century at the height of the Jansenist controversy...

, a religious institution which would greatly influence other contemporary figures including Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal , was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic philosopher. He was a child prodigy who was educated by his father, a tax collector in Rouen...

. Port-Royal was run by followers of Jansenism
Jansenism
Jansenism was a Christian theological movement, primarily in France, that emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination. The movement originated from the posthumously published work of the Dutch theologian Cornelius Otto Jansen, who died in 1638...

, a theology condemned as heretical by the French bishops and the Pope. Racine's interactions with the Jansenists in his years at this academy would have great influence over him for the rest of his life. At Port-Royal, he excelled in his studies of the Classics
Classics
Classics is the branch of the Humanities comprising the languages, literature, philosophy, history, art, archaeology and other culture of the ancient Mediterranean world ; especially Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during Classical Antiquity Classics (sometimes encompassing Classical Studies or...

 and the themes of Greek
Greek mythology
Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...

 and Roman
Roman mythology
Roman mythology is the body of traditional stories pertaining to ancient Rome's legendary origins and religious system, as represented in the literature and visual arts of the Romans...

 mythology
Mythology
The term mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. As examples, comparative mythology is the study of connections between myths from different cultures, whereas Greek mythology is the body of myths from ancient Greece...

 would play large roles in his future works.
He was expected to study law at the Collège de Harcourt in Paris but, instead, found himself drawn to a more artistic lifestyle. Experimenting with poetry yielded high praise from France's greatest literary critic, Nicolas Boileau
Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux
Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux was a French poet and critic.-Biography:Boileau was born in the rue de Jérusalem, in Paris, France. He was brought up to the law, but devoted to letters, associating himself with La Fontaine, Racine, and Molière...

 with whom Racine would later become great friends, and Boileau would often claim that he was behind the budding poet's work. He eventually took up residence in Paris where he became involved in theatrical circles.

His first play, Amasie, never reached the stage. On 20 June 1664, Racine's tragedy La Thébaïde
La Thébaïde
La Thébaïde, or The Thebaid, is a tragedy in five acts in verse by Jean Racine first presented, without much success, on June 20, 1664 in Petit-Bourbon. A play about the struggle and death of the young son of Oedipus, as well as that of Antigone. This subject had already occupied many authors...

 ou les frères ennemis (The Thebans
The Thebans
The Thebans or The Theban Brothers is a tragedy in five acts by Jean Racine. His first dramatic work, it was first staged, without great success, on 20 June 1664 at the Petit-Bourbon. It enacts the combat and death of two young, twin brothers, Eteocles and Polynices...

 or the enemy Brothers) was produced by Molière's troupe at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal
Théâtre du Palais-Royal
The Théâtre du Palais-Royal is a 750 seat theatre at 38, rue Montpensier in Paris. In 1637 Cardinal Richelieu began work on a theatre on the east wing of the Palais-Royal building, to break the theatre monopoly of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and it was opened in 1641...

, in Paris. The following year, Molière also put on Racine's second play, Alexandre le Grand
Alexandre le Grand
Alexandre le Grand is a tragedy in 5 acts and verse by Jean Racine. It was first produced on December 4, 1665 at the Palais Royal Theater in Paris. The subject of the play is the love of Alexander and the Indian princess Cleofile complicated by intrigues between her brother Taxilus and his ally...

. However, this play garnered such good feedback from the public that Racine secretly negotiated with a rival play company, the Hôtel de Bourgogne, to perform the play since they had a better reputation for performing tragedies. Thus, Alexandre premiered for the second time, by a different acting troupe, eleven days after its first showing. Molière could never forgive Racine for his betrayal, and Racine simply widened the rift between him and his former friend by seducing Molière's leading actress, Thérèse du Parc, into becoming his companion both professionally and personally. From this point on, all of Racine's secular plays were performed by the Hôtel de Bourgogne troupe.

Though both La Thébaide (1664) and its successor, Alexandre (1665), had classical themes, Racine was already entering into controversy and forced to field accusations that he was polluting the minds of his audiences. He broke all ties with Port-Royal, and proceeded with Andromaque
Andromaque
Andromaque is a tragedy in five acts by the French playwright Jean Racine written in alexandrine verse. It was first performed on 17 November 1667 before the court of Louis XIV in the Louvre in the private chambers of the Queen, Marie Thérèse, by the royal company of actors, called "les Grands...

 (1667), which told the story of Andromache
Andromache
In Greek mythology, Andromache was the wife of Hector and daughter of Eetion, and sister to Podes. She was born and raised in the city of Cilician Thebe, over which her father ruled...

, widow of Hector
Hector
In Greek mythology, Hectōr , or Hektōr, is a Trojan prince and the greatest fighter for Troy in the Trojan War. As the first-born son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, a descendant of Dardanus, who lived under Mount Ida, and of Tros, the founder of Troy, he was a prince of the royal house and the...

, and her fate following the Trojan War
Trojan War
In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta. The war is among the most important events in Greek mythology and was narrated in many works of Greek literature, including the Iliad...

. Amongst his rivals were Pierre Corneille
Pierre Corneille
Pierre Corneille was a French tragedian who was one of the three great seventeenth-century French dramatists, along with Molière and Racine...

 and his brother, Thomas Corneille
Thomas Corneille
Thomas Corneille was a French dramatist.- Personal life :Born in Rouen nearly twenty years after his brother Pierre, the "great Corneille", Thomas's skill as a poet seems to have shown itself early. At the age of fifteen he composed a play in Latin which was performed by his fellow-pupils at the...

. Tragedians often competed with alternative versions of the same plot: for example, Michel le Clerc
Michel Le Clerc
-Life:After studying under the Jesuits, he established himself in Paris, where he became a lawyer to the parliament of Paris. Like his co-student Claude Boyer, he wrote tragedies and "pièces des circonstance"; he produced his Virginie romaine in 1645, the same year as Boyer produced his Porcie...

 produced an Iphigénie
Iphigénie
Iphigénie is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by the French playwright Jean Racine. It was first performed in the Orangerie in Versailles on August 18th 1674 as part of the fifth of the royal Divertissements de Versailles of Louis XIV to celebrate the conquest of...

 in the same year as Racine (1674), and Jacques Pradon
Jacques Pradon
Jacques Pradon, often called Nicolas Pradon, was a French playwright. Early in his career he was helped by Pierre Corneille and was introduced to the salons at the Hôtel de Nevers and the Hôtel de Bouillon by Madame Deshoulières....

 also wrote a play about Phèdre
Phèdre
Phèdre is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine, first performed in 1677.-Composition and premiere:...

 (1677). The success of Pradon's work (the result of the activities of a claque
Claque
Claque is an organized body of professional applauders in French theatres and opera houses. Members of a claque are called claqueurs....

) was one of the events which caused Racine to renounce his work as a dramatist at that time, even though his career up to this point was so successful that he was the first French author to live almost entirely on the money he earned from his writings. Others, including the historian Warren Lewis
Warren Lewis
Warren Hamilton Lewis was an Irish British Army officer and historian, best known as the brother of the author and professor C. S. Lewis. Warren Lewis was a supply officer with the Royal Army Service Corps of the British Army during and after World War I...

, attribute his retirement from the theater to qualms of conscience.

However, one major incident which seems to have contributed to Racine's departure from public life was his implication in a court scandal of 1679. He got married at about this time to the pious Catherine de Romanet, and his religious beliefs and devotion to the Jansenist sect were revived. He and his wife eventually had two sons and five daughters. Around the time of his marriage and departure from the theater, Racine accepted a position as a royal historiographer in the court of King Louis XIV
Louis XIV of France
Louis XIV , known as Louis the Great or the Sun King , was a Bourbon monarch who ruled as King of France and Navarre. His reign, from 1643 to his death in 1715, began at the age of four and lasted seventy-two years, three months, and eighteen days...

, alongside his friend Boileau. He kept this position in spite of the minor scandals he was involved in. In 1672, he was elected to the Académie française
Académie française
L'Académie française , also called the French Academy, is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution,...

, eventually gaining much power over this organization. Two years later, he was bestowed the title of "treasurer of France", and he was later distinguished as an "ordinary gentleman of the king" (1690), and then as a secretary of the king (1696). Because of his flourishing career in the court, Louis XIV provided for his widow and children after his death. When at last he returned to the theatre, it was at the request of Madame de Maintenon, morganatic second wife of King Louis XIV, with the moral fables, Esther
Esther (drama)
Esther is the name of a play in three acts written in 1689 by the French dramatist, Jean Racine. It premiered on January 26, 1689, performed by the pupils of the Maison royale de Saint-Louis, an educational institute for young girls of noble birth...

 (1689) and Athalie
Athalie
Athalie is the final tragedy of Jean Racine, and has been described as the masterpiece of 'one of the greatest literary artists known' and the 'ripest work' of Racine's genius...

 (1691), both of which were based on Old Testament
Old Testament
The Old Testament, of which Christians hold different views, is a Christian term for the religious writings of ancient Israel held sacred and inspired by Christians which overlaps with the 24-book canon of the Masoretic Text of Judaism...

 stories and intended for performance by the pupils of the school of the Maison royale de Saint-Louis
Maison royale de Saint-Louis
The Maison Royale de Saint-Louis was a 'pensionnat' or boarding school for girls set up in 1684 at Saint-Cyr in France by king Louis XIV at the request of his second wife, Madame de Maintenon, who wanted a school for girls from impoverished noble families...

 in Saint-Cyr
Saint-Cyr-l'École
Saint-Cyr-l'École is a commune in the western suburbs of Paris, France. It is located from the center of Paris.It used to host the training school for officers of the French army, the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr , which was relocated to Coëtquidan in 1945.The old buildings of the ESM are...

 (a commune neighboring Versailles, and now known as "Saint-Cyr l'École").

Jean Racine died in 1699 from cancer of the liver. He requested to be buried in Port-Royal, but after Louis XIV had this site razed in 1710, his remains were moved to the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont
Saint-Étienne-du-Mont
Saint-Étienne-du-Mont is a church in Paris, France, located on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in the Ve arrondissement, near the Panthéon. It contains the shrine of St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris....

 church in Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

.

Fundamental nature of tragedy

Tragedy
Tragedy
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...

 shows how men fall from prosperity to disaster. The higher the position from which the hero falls, the greater, in a sense, is the tragedy. Except for the confidants, amongst whom only Narcisse and Œnone are of any importance, Racine describes the fate of kings, queens, princes and princesses, liberated from the constricting pressures of everyday life and able to speak and act without inhibition.

Nature of Greek tragedy

Greek tragedy, from which Racine borrowed so plentifully, tended to assume that humanity was under the control of gods indifferent to its sufferings and aspirations. In the Œdipus Tyrannus
Oedipus the King
Oedipus the King , also known by the Latin title Oedipus Rex, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed c. 429 BCE. It was the second of Sophocles's three Theban plays to be produced, but it comes first in the internal chronology, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone...

 Sophocles
Sophocles
Sophocles is one of three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived. His first plays were written later than those of Aeschylus, and earlier than or contemporary with those of Euripides...

's hero becomes gradually aware of the terrible fact that, however hard his family have tried to avert the oracular prophecy, he has nevertheless killed his father and married his mother and must now pay the penalty for these unwitting crimes. The same awareness of a cruel fate, that leads innocent men and women into sin and demands retribution of the equally innocent children, pervades La Thébaïde
La Thébaïde
La Thébaïde, or The Thebaid, is a tragedy in five acts in verse by Jean Racine first presented, without much success, on June 20, 1664 in Petit-Bourbon. A play about the struggle and death of the young son of Oedipus, as well as that of Antigone. This subject had already occupied many authors...

, a play which itself deals with the legend of Œdipus.

Racine’s tragic vision

A Jansenist by birth and education, Racine was deeply influenced by its sense of fatalism. But, being a Christian
Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...

, he can no longer assume, as did Æschylus and Sophocles
Sophocles
Sophocles is one of three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived. His first plays were written later than those of Aeschylus, and earlier than or contemporary with those of Euripides...

, that God is merciless in leading men to a doom which they do not foresee. Instead, destiny becomes (at least, in the secular plays) the uncontrollable frenzy of unrequited love.

As already in the works of Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

, the gods have become symbolic. Venus
Venus
Venus is the second planet from the Sun, orbiting it every 224.7 Earth days. The planet is named after Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. After the Moon, it is the brightest natural object in the night sky, reaching an apparent magnitude of −4.6, bright enough to cast shadows...

 represents the unquenchable force of sexual passion within the human being; but closely allied to this – indeed, indistinguishable from it – is the atavistic strain of monstrous aberration that had caused her mother Pasiphaë
Pasiphaë
In Greek mythology, Pasiphaë , "wide-shining" was the daughter of Helios, the Sun, by the eldest of the Oceanids, Perse; Like her doublet Europa, her origins were in the East, in her case at Colchis, the palace of the Sun; she was given in marriage to King Minos of Crete. With Minos, she was the...

 to mate with a bull and give birth to the Minotaur
Minotaur
In Greek mythology, the Minotaur , as the Greeks imagined him, was a creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man or, as described by Roman poet Ovid, "part man and part bull"...

.

Thus, in Racine the hamartia
Hamartia
Hamartia is a term developed by Aristotle in his work Poetics. The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark and covers a broad spectrum that includes ignorant, mistaken, or accidental wrongdoing, as well as deliberate iniquity, error, or sin...

, which the thirteenth chapter of Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

’s Poetics
Poetics
Aristotle's Poetics is the earliest-surviving work of dramatic theory and the first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory...

 had declared a characteristic of tragedy, is not merely an action performed in all good faith which subsequently has the direst consequences (Œdipus's killing a stranger on the road to Thebes, and marrying the widowed Queen of Thebes after solving the Sphinx
Sphinx
A sphinx is a mythical creature with a lion's body and a human head or a cat head.The sphinx, in Greek tradition, has the haunches of a lion, the wings of a great bird, and the face of a woman. She is mythicised as treacherous and merciless...

's riddle), nor is it simply an error of judgment (as when Deianira
Deianira
Deïanira or Dejanira is a figure in Greek mythology, best-known for being Heracles' third wife and, in the late Classical story, unwittingly killing him with the Shirt of Nessus...

, in the Hercules Furens of Seneca the Younger
Seneca the Younger
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and in one work humorist, of the Silver Age of Latin literature. He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero...

, kills her husband when intending to win back his love); it is a flaw of character.

Racine’s concept of love

In a second important respect Racine is at variance with the Greek pattern of tragedy. His tragic characters are aware of, but can do nothing to overcome, the blemish which leads them on to a catastrophe. And the tragic recognition, or anagnorisis
Anagnorisis
Anagnorisis is a moment in a play or other work when a character makes a critical discovery. Anagnorisis originally meant recognition in its Greek context, not only of a person but also of what that person stood for...

, of wrongdoing is not confined, as in the Œdipus Tyrannus
Oedipus the King
Oedipus the King , also known by the Latin title Oedipus Rex, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed c. 429 BCE. It was the second of Sophocles's three Theban plays to be produced, but it comes first in the internal chronology, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone...

, to the end of the play, when the fulfilment of the prophecy is borne in upon Œdipus; Phèdre realizes from the very beginning the monstrousness of her passion, and preserves throughout the play a lucidity of mind that enables her to analyse and reflect upon this fatal and hereditary weakness. Hermione's situation is rather closer to that of Greek tragedy. Her love for Pyrrhus is perfectly natural and is not in itself a flaw of character. But despite her extraordinary lucidity (II 1; V 1) in analysing her violently fluctuating states of mind, she is blind to the fact that the King does not really love her (III 3), and this weakness on her part, which leads directly to the tragic peripeteia
Peripeteia
Peripeteia is a reversal of circumstances, or turning point. The term is primarily used with reference to works of literature. The English form of peripeteia is peripety. Peripety is a sudden reversal dependent on intellect and logic...

 of III 7, is the hamartia
Hamartia
Hamartia is a term developed by Aristotle in his work Poetics. The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark and covers a broad spectrum that includes ignorant, mistaken, or accidental wrongdoing, as well as deliberate iniquity, error, or sin...

 from which the tragic outcome arises.

For Racine love closely resembles a physiological disorder. It is a fatal illness with alternating moods of calm and crisis, and with deceptive hopes of recovery or fulfilment (Andromaque
Andromaque
Andromaque is a tragedy in five acts by the French playwright Jean Racine written in alexandrine verse. It was first performed on 17 November 1667 before the court of Louis XIV in the Louvre in the private chambers of the Queen, Marie Thérèse, by the royal company of actors, called "les Grands...

, ll. 1441-1448; Phèdre
Phèdre
Phèdre is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine, first performed in 1677.-Composition and premiere:...

, ll. 767-768), the final remission culminating in a quick death. His main characters are monsters, and stand out in glaring contrast to the regularity of the plays' structure and versification. The suffering lover Hermione, Roxane or Phèdre is aware of nothing except her suffering and the means whereby it can be relieved. Her love is not founded upon esteem of the beloved and a concern for his happiness and welfare, but is essentially selfish. In a torment of jealousy she tries to relieve the “pangs of despised love” by having (or, in Phèdre's case, allowing) him to be put to death, and thus associating him with her own suffering. The depth of tragedy is reached when Hermione realizes that Pyrrhus's love for Andromaque continues beyond the grave, or when Phèdre contrasts the young lovers' purity with her unnaturalness which should be hidden from the light of day. Racine's most distinctive contribution to literature is his conception of the ambivalence of love: “ne puis-je savoir si j'aime, ou si je hais?”

The passion of these lovers is totally destructive of their dignity as human beings, and usually kills them or deprives them of their reason. Except for Titus and Bérénice, they are blinded by it to all sense of duty. Pyrrhus casts off his fiancée in order to marry a slave from an enemy country, for whom he is prepared to repudiate his alliances with the Greeks. Orestes' duties as an ambassador are subordinate to his aspirations as a lover, and he finally murders the king to whom he has been sent. Néron's passion for Junie causes him to poison Britannicus and thus, after two years of virtuous government, to inaugurate a tyranny.

The characteristic Racinian framework is that of the eternal triangle, two young lovers, a prince and a princess, being thwarted in their love by a third person, usually a queen whose love for the young prince is unreciprocated. Phèdre destroys the possibility of a marriage between Hippolyte and Aricie. Bajazet and Atalide are prevented from marrying by the jealousy of Roxane. Néron divides Britannicus from Junie. In Bérénice
Bérénice
Berenice is a five-act tragedy by the French 17th-century playwright Jean Racine. Berenice was not played often between the 17th and the 20th centuries. Today it is one of Racine's more popular plays, after Phèdre, Andromaque and Britannicus.It was first performed in 1670...

 the amorous couple are kept apart by considerations of state. In Andromaque
Andromaque
Andromaque is a tragedy in five acts by the French playwright Jean Racine written in alexandrine verse. It was first performed on 17 November 1667 before the court of Louis XIV in the Louvre in the private chambers of the Queen, Marie Thérèse, by the royal company of actors, called "les Grands...

 the system of unrequited passions borrowed from tragicomedy alters the dramatic scheme, and Hermione destroys a man who has been her fiancé, but who has remained indifferent to her, and is now marrying a woman who does not love him. The young princes and princesses are agreeable, display varying degrees of innocence and optimism and are the victims of evil machinations and the love/hatred characteristic of Racine.

The major roles in Racinian tragedy

The king (Pyrrhus, Néron, Titus, Mithridate, Agamemnon, Thésée) holds the power of life and death over the other characters. Pyrrhus forces Andromaque to choose between marrying him and seeing her son killed. After keeping his fiancée waiting in Epirus
Epirus (ancient state)
Epirus was an ancient Greek state, located in the geographical region of Epirus, in the western Balkans. The homeland of the ancient Epirotes was bordered by the Aetolian League to the south, Thessalia and Macedonia to the east and Illyrian tribes to the north...

 for a year he announces his intention of marrying her, only to change his mind almost immediately afterwards. Mithridate discovers Pharnace's love for Monime by spreading a false rumour of his own death. By pretending to renounce his fiancée he finds that she had formerly loved his other son Xipharès. Wrongly informed that Xipharès has been killed fighting Pharnace and the Romans, he orders Monime
Monime
Monime, sometimes known as Monima was a Greek Macedonian noblewoman from Anatolia and one of the wives of King Mithridates VI of Pontus....

 to take poison. Dying, he unites the two lovers. Thésée is a rather nebulous character, primarily important in his influence upon the mechanism of the plot. Phèdre declares her love to Hippolyte on hearing the false news of his death. His unexpected return throws her into confusion and lends substance to Œnone's allegations. In his all too human blindness he condemns to death his own son on a charge of which he is innocent. Only Amurat does not actually appear on stage, and yet his presence is constantly felt. His intervention by means of the letter condemning Bajazet to death (IV 3) precipitates the catastrophe.

The queen shows greater variations from play to play than anyone else, and is always the most carefully delineated character. Hermione (for she, rather than the pathetic and emotionally stable Andromaque, has a rôle equivalent to that generally played by the queen) is young, with all the freshness of a first and only love; she is ruthless in using Oreste as her instrument of vengeance; and she is so cruel in her brief moment of triumph that she refuses to intercede for Astyanax's life. Agrippine, an ageing and forlorn woman, “fille, femme, sœur et mère de vos maîtres”, who has stopped at nothing in order to put her own son on the throne, vainly tries to reassert her influence over Néron by espousing the cause of a prince whom she had excluded from the succession. Roxane, the fiercest and bravest in Racine's gallery of queens, has no compunction in ordering Bajazet's death and indeed banishes him from her presence even before he has finished justifying himself. Clytemnestre is gentle and kind, but quite ineffectual in rescuing her daughter Iphigénie from the threat of sacrifice. Phèdre, passive and irresolute, allows herself to be led by Œnone; deeply conscious of the impurity of her love, she sees it as an atavistic trait and a punishment of the gods; and she is so consumed by jealousy that she can do nothing to save her beloved from the curse.

The confidants' primary function is to obviate the need for monologues. Only very rarely do they further the action. They invariably reflect the character of their masters and mistresses. Thus, Narcisse and Burrhus symbolize the warring elements of evil and good within the youthful Néron. But Narcisse is more than a reflection: he betrays and finally poisons his master Britannicus. Burrhus, on the other hand, is the conventional “good angel” of the medieval morality play
Morality play
The morality play is a genre of Medieval and early Tudor theatrical entertainment. In their own time, these plays were known as "interludes", a broader term given to dramas with or without a moral theme. Morality plays are a type of allegory in which the protagonist is met by personifications of...

. He is a much less colourful character than his opposite number. Œnone, Phèdre's evil genius, persuades her mistress to tell Hippolyte of her incestuous passion, and incriminates the young prince on Thésée's unexpected return. Céphise, knowing how deeply attached Pyrrhus is to her mistress, urges the despairing Andromaque to make a last appeal to him on her son's behalf, and so changes the course of the play.

Tempo of Racinian tragedy

Unlike such plays as Hamlet
Hamlet
The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or more simply Hamlet, is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601...

 and The Tempest
The Tempest
The Tempest is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1610–11, and thought by many critics to be the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone. It is set on a remote island, where Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place,...

, in which a dramatic first scene precedes the exposition, a Racinian tragedy opens very quietly, but even so in a mood of suspense. In Andromaque
Andromaque
Andromaque is a tragedy in five acts by the French playwright Jean Racine written in alexandrine verse. It was first performed on 17 November 1667 before the court of Louis XIV in the Louvre in the private chambers of the Queen, Marie Thérèse, by the royal company of actors, called "les Grands...

 Pyrrhus's unenviable wavering between Hermione and the eponymous heroine has been going on for a year and has exasperated all three. Up to the time when Britannicus
Britannicus
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus was the son of the Roman emperor Claudius and his third wife Valeria Messalina. He became the heir-designate of the empire at his birth, less than a month into his father's reign. He was still a young boy at the time of his mother's downfall and Claudius'...

 begins, Néron has been a good ruler, a faithful disciple of Seneca and Burrhus, and a dutiful son; but he is now beginning to show a spirit of independence. With the introduction of a new element (Oreste's demand that Astyanax should be handed over to the Greeks, Junie's abduction, Abner's unconscious disclosure that the time to proclaim Joas has finally come), an already tense situation becomes, or has become, critical. In a darkening atmosphere a succession of fluctuating states of mind on the part of the main characters brings us to the resolution – generally in the fourth Act, but not always (Bajazet, Athalie
Athalie
Athalie is the final tragedy of Jean Racine, and has been described as the masterpiece of 'one of the greatest literary artists known' and the 'ripest work' of Racine's genius...

) – of what by now is an unbearable discordance. Hermione entrusts the killing of Pyrrhus to Oreste; wavers for a moment when the King comes into her presence; then, condemns him with her own mouth. No sooner has Burrhus regained his old ascendancy over Néron, and reconciled him with his half-brother, than Narcisse most skilfully overcomes the emperor's scruples of conscience and sets him on a career of vice of which Britannicus's murder is merely the prelude. By the beginning of Act IV of Phèdre
Phèdre
Phèdre is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine, first performed in 1677.-Composition and premiere:...

 Œnone has besmirched Hippolyte's character, and the Queen does nothing during that Act to exculpate him. With the working-out of a situation usually decided by the end of Act IV, the tragedies move to a swift conclusion.

Treatment of sources

In the religious plays Racine is fairly scrupulous in adhering to his Old Testament
Old Testament
The Old Testament, of which Christians hold different views, is a Christian term for the religious writings of ancient Israel held sacred and inspired by Christians which overlaps with the 24-book canon of the Masoretic Text of Judaism...

 sources, taking care to put into the mouth of Joad (the Second Jehoiada
Jehoiada
Jehoiada in the Hebrew Bible, was a prominent priest during the reigns of Ahaziah, Athaliah, and Joash. By his arranged marriage with the princess Jehosheba , he became the brother-in-law of King Ahaziah...

) only those prophetic utterances that are to be found in the Bible
Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

. Nevertheless, he takes advantage of a verse in II Chronicles
Books of Chronicles
The Books of Chronicles are part of the Hebrew Bible. In the Masoretic Text, it appears as the first or last book of the Ketuvim . Chronicles largely parallels the Davidic narratives in the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings...

 XXIV attributing the gift of prophecy to Joad's son Zacharie (Zechariah ben Jehoiada
Zechariah ben Jehoiada
Zechariah Ben Jehoiada was the son of Jehoiada, the high priest in the times of Ahaziah and Jehoash of Judah .After the death of Jehoiada, Zechariah boldly condemned both king Jehoash and the people for their rebellion against God...

) in order to suppose that the father (whom the Bible does not describe as a prophet) likewise had prophetic powers. And thinking a child of seven – the age of Joas (Jehoash of Judah
Jehoash of Judah
Jehoash or Joas , sometimes written Joash or Joás , was the eighth king of the southern Kingdom of Judah, and the sole surviving son of Ahaziah. His mother was Zibiah of Beersheba ....

) in the Second Book of Kings
Books of Kings
The Book of Kings presents a narrative history of ancient Israel and Judah from the death of David to the release of his successor Jehoiachin from imprisonment in Babylon, a period of some 400 years...

 – too young to have the part given him in Athalie
Athalie
Athalie is the final tragedy of Jean Racine, and has been described as the masterpiece of 'one of the greatest literary artists known' and the 'ripest work' of Racine's genius...

, Racine makes him into a boy of nine or ten on the evidence of the Septuagint version of II Chronicles
Books of Chronicles
The Books of Chronicles are part of the Hebrew Bible. In the Masoretic Text, it appears as the first or last book of the Ketuvim . Chronicles largely parallels the Davidic narratives in the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings...

 XXIII 1.

In the secular plays he takes far greater liberties. The frequently conflicting sources of Greek and Roman mythology enable him to fashion the plot he thinks suitable to his characters and, above all, to present the old stories in a modern light. Whereas Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

, in his Iphigenia in Aulis, only averts the heroine's death by causing Artemis to spirit her away to Tauris, putting a hart in her place on the sacrificial altar, Racine, determined to avoid the miraculous, borrows from a minor Greek writer, the geographer Pausanias, the character of Ériphile. The disclosure that Iphigénie's treacherous rival was herself called Iphigeneia at birth and should be sacrificed in the heroine's place prevents a tragic outcome.

In creating Andromaque, Racine believes he must “[se] conformer à l'idée que nous avons maintenant de cette princesse”. Astyanax, whom Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

 describes (in The Trojan Women
The Trojan Women
The Trojan Women is a tragedy by the Greek playwright Euripides. Produced during the Peloponnesian War, it is often considered a commentary on the capture of the Aegean island of Melos and the subsequent slaughter and subjugation of its populace by the Athenians earlier in 415 BC , the same year...

 and the Andromache
Andromache
In Greek mythology, Andromache was the wife of Hector and daughter of Eetion, and sister to Podes. She was born and raised in the city of Cilician Thebe, over which her father ruled...

) as having been thrown from the walls of Troy and killed, and whose death is foreshadowed in book 24 of the Iliad
Iliad
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...

, is made to survive the capture of Troy and the extinction of his dynasty. In another respect also Racine departs from the lines laid down by the Andromache
Andromache
In Greek mythology, Andromache was the wife of Hector and daughter of Eetion, and sister to Podes. She was born and raised in the city of Cilician Thebe, over which her father ruled...

, for whereas in the earlier play the heroine fears that the son she has had by Pyrrhus may suffer death if she refuses to marry the father, the later heroine fears for the life of a legitimate son. The reason for these changes in the Homeric and Euripidean traditions is obvious: if Andromaque had been Pyrrhus's mistress (as in Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

), why should she refuse to marry him? Racine, like Homer
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

, conceives her as sublimely faithful to Hector; yet the tension (III 8) between maternal love and a reluctance to marry Pyrrhus must (as in Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

) be paramount. And so Astyanax is brought back to life.

Phèdre
Phèdre
Phèdre is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine, first performed in 1677.-Composition and premiere:...

 differs from Euripides's Hippolytus
Hippolytus (play)
Hippolytus is an Ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, based on the myth of Hippolytus, son of Theseus. The play was first produced for the City Dionysia of Athens in 428 BC and won first prize as part of a trilogy....

 and Seneca the Younger
Seneca the Younger
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and in one work humorist, of the Silver Age of Latin literature. He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero...

's Phædra
Phaedra (Seneca)
Phaedra, sometimes known as Hippolytus, is a play by Seneca the Younger, telling the story of Phaedra and her taboo love for her stepson Hippolytus...

 in the very important respect that, taking the character of Aricie from Virgil
Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

, Racine introduces the jealousy motive. Despite the fact that Hippolyte, “ce fils chaste et respectueux”, is indifferent to her, Phèdre will not consent to Œnone's suggesting to Thésée that the son has made improper advances to the stepmother – until (IV 5) she discovers that he has loved Aricie all along.

Observance of the dramatic unities

Racine observes the dramatic unities more closely than the Greek tragedians had done.

The philosopher Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 points out the ways in which tragedy differs from epic poetry.

“Tragedy”, he observes,

"generally tries to limit its action to a period of twenty-four hours, or not much
exceeding that, whilst epic poetry is unlimited in point of time."


Writing 1000 or 1500 years after the great Attic tragedians and using their works as a basis for generalization, he does not insist that the action of a tragedy must be confined to a single revolution of the sun, or that it must take place in one locality. He merely says that this limitation was often practised by writers of tragedy, but he well knew that there were many plays in which no such limitation existed. For instance, Æschylus's Agamemnon
Agamemnon
In Greek mythology, Agamemnon was the son of King Atreus and Queen Aerope of Mycenae, the brother of Menelaus, the husband of Clytemnestra, and the father of Electra and Orestes. Mythical legends make him the king of Mycenae or Argos, thought to be different names for the same area...

 compresses into about fifteen minutes a journey (from Troy to Argos) which must have taken several days.

Nor was the unity of place a general feature of Attic tragedy. Æschylus's The Eumenides has two settings and in The Suppliants
The Suppliants (Euripides)
The Suppliants , first performed in 423 BC, is an ancient Greek play by Euripides.-Background:...

 of Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

 it is sometimes impossible to tell where the action is taking place at all. But the circumstances of the Greek theatre, which had no curtain and no distinctive scenery and in which the chorus almost always remained on stage throughout the play, were such that it was frequently desirable to confine the action to a single day and a single place.

The only rule which Aristotle lays down concerning the dramatic action is that, in common with all other forms of art, a tragedy must have an internal unity, so that every part of it is in an organic relationship to the whole and no part can be changed or left out without detracting from the economy of the play. No dramatic critic has ever dissented from this unity of action; but the unities of time and place were in fact read into the Poetics
Poetics
Aristotle's Poetics is the earliest-surviving work of dramatic theory and the first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory...

 by theoreticians of the New Learning
New Learning
In the history of ideas the New Learning in Europe is a term for Renaissance humanism, developed in the later fifteenth century. Newly retrieved classical texts sparked philological study of a refined and classical Latin style in prose and poetry....

 (Jean de La Taille
Jean de La Taille
Jean de La Taille was a French poet and dramatist born in Bondaroy.He studied the humanities in Paris under Muretus, and law at Orléans under Anne de Bourg. He began his career as a Huguenot, but afterwards adopted a mild Catholicism...

) and other writers (Jean Vauquelin de la Fresnaye
Jean Vauquelin de la Fresnaye
Jean Vauquelin de la Fresnaye was a French poet born at the château of La Fresnaye-au-Sauvage in Normandy in 1536....

 and Jean Mairet
Jean Mairet
Jean Mairet was a classical French dramatist who wrote both tragedies and comedies.- Life :He was born at Besançon, and went to Paris to study at the Collège des Grassins about 1625. In that year he produced his first piece Chryséide et Arimand...

). The support which the unities received from Cardinal Richelieu eventually secured their complete triumph and Pierre Corneille
Pierre Corneille
Pierre Corneille was a French tragedian who was one of the three great seventeenth-century French dramatists, along with Molière and Racine...

, who had not conformed to them in his earlier plays, did so from the time of Le Cid
Le Cid
Le Cid is a tragicomedy written by Pierre Corneille and published in 1636. It is based on the legend of El Cid.The play followed Corneille's first true tragedy, Médée, produced in 1635. An enormous popular success, Corneille's Le Cid was the subject of a heated polemic over the norms of dramatic...

 (1636) onwards. But even he found them a tiresome imposition. Only by a very ready suspension of disbelief can we accept that in the space of twenty-four hours El Cid
El Cid
Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar , known as El Cid Campeador , was a Castilian nobleman, military leader, and diplomat...

 kills Chimène's father in a duel, overwhelms the Moorish invaders during the night and fights a second duel only a few hours after the enemy has fled. These discrepancies – and others besides, which Corneille
Pierre Corneille
Pierre Corneille was a French tragedian who was one of the three great seventeenth-century French dramatists, along with Molière and Racine...

 admits to in his Examen of the play – are obvious even to the most inattentive spectator.

Unlike his rival, who crams into his plays “quantité d'incidents qui ne se pourraient passer qu'en un mois”, Racine describes fluctuating states of mind which, in the rapidly mounting tension, are brought abruptly to a crisis from which there is no retreat. The so-called Aristotelian rules happen to suit this type of drama perfectly since they lead the playwright to concentrate the tragic action on those few hours when, after months or years of emotional tension, a new event supervenes and precipitates the catastrophe.

The most striking evidence of Racine's success in fitting his tragedies into this very stringent framework is that, when watching them, we cease to be aware that the unities exist. Not long before he wrote Phèdre
Phèdre
Phèdre is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine, first performed in 1677.-Composition and premiere:...

, the same subject had been dealt with by Gabriel Gilbert and Mathieu Bidar, both of whom had kept Hippolyte off stage after Act IV. Racine, on the other hand, brings him into Act V scene 1, the last line of which is only seventy or eighty lines earlier than Théramène's récit in V 6. In the four minutes which these lines take to recite the young prince has gone out with Théramène, has met, fought and been killed by the monster, and Théramène has come back to announce his master's death. Furthermore, Aricie only leaves the stage at the end of V 3, and therefore in the space of two short scenes has met her dying lover on the seashore and has taken her leave of him! These chronological inconsistencies pass unnoticed in the theatre.

Racine invariably observes the unity of place. A room in Pyrrhus's palace at Buthrotum; an antechamber separating the apartments of Titus and Bérénice in Rome
Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

; Agamemnon's camp at Aulis
Avlida
Avlida or Aulis is a former municipality in Euboea regional unit, Greece. Since the 2011 local government reform it is part of the municipality Chalcis, of which it is a municipal unit. The population was 8,300 inhabitants at the 2001 census, and the land area is 122.235 km². The seat of the...

; an antechamber in the temple at Jerusalem: by choosing such vague and remote settings Racine gives his plays a universal character, and the presentation of conflicting and hesitating states of mind is not hampered by an undue insistence on material surroundings. At times, of course, the unity of place leads to slightly far-fetched meetings: why, for instance, does Pyrrhus come to see Oreste (Act I Sc. 2), rather than the other way around, except to conform to this rule? Lastly, the unity of place necessitates the récit and this again is in complete harmony with Racine's fundamental aims: how would Andromaque
Andromaque
Andromaque is a tragedy in five acts by the French playwright Jean Racine written in alexandrine verse. It was first performed on 17 November 1667 before the court of Louis XIV in the Louvre in the private chambers of the Queen, Marie Thérèse, by the royal company of actors, called "les Grands...

 gain by our being able to see Pyrrhus and his bride approach and enter the temple? The important fact is the effect of Cléone's words upon Hermione. Oreste's relating to Hermione the murder of Pyrrhus is the supreme irony of the play. Théramène's récit describes, in the most memorable and poetic language, an event which would be infinitely less moving if we were to see it imperfectly represented upon the stage.

As regards the unity of action, Racine differs sharply from William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

 in excluding minor plots (compare the parallel themes of blind and unnatural fatherhood and the retribution it invokes, in King Lear
King Lear
King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The title character descends into madness after foolishly disposing of his estate between two of his three daughters based on their flattery, bringing tragic consequences for all. The play is based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological...

) and in ruling out the comic element. The fact that, let us say, Act II scene 5 of Andromaque
Andromaque
Andromaque is a tragedy in five acts by the French playwright Jean Racine written in alexandrine verse. It was first performed on 17 November 1667 before the court of Louis XIV in the Louvre in the private chambers of the Queen, Marie Thérèse, by the royal company of actors, called "les Grands...

 or many of the scenes of Alexandre le Grand
Alexandre le Grand
Alexandre le Grand is a tragedy in 5 acts and verse by Jean Racine. It was first produced on December 4, 1665 at the Palais Royal Theater in Paris. The subject of the play is the love of Alexander and the Indian princess Cleofile complicated by intrigues between her brother Taxilus and his ally...

 and Mithridate
Mithridate
Mithridate, also known as mithridatium, mithridatum, or mithridaticum, is a semi-mythical remedy with as many as 65 ingredients, used as an antidote for poisoning, and said to be created by Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus in the 1st century BC...

 have comic undertones is beside the point. Will Andromaque agree to marry Pyrrhus? Will Agamemnon sacrifice Iphigénie? Can Esther persuade her husband to spare the Jews? The plots of Bajazet, Phèdre
Phèdre
Phèdre is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine, first performed in 1677.-Composition and premiere:...

 and Athalie
Athalie
Athalie is the final tragedy of Jean Racine, and has been described as the masterpiece of 'one of the greatest literary artists known' and the 'ripest work' of Racine's genius...

 are scarcely more complex than the rest.

General characteristics

Racine restricts his vocabulary to a mere 800 words. He rules out all workaday expressions since, although the Greeks could call a spade a spade, he does not believe that this is possible in Latin or French. The unities are strictly observed, for only the final stage of a prolonged crisis is described. The number of characters, all of them royal, is kept down to the barest minimum. Action on stage is all but eliminated. The mangled Hippolyte is not brought back, as is the Hippolytus of Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

. The one exception to this is that Atalide stabs herself before the audience; but this is acceptable in a play conspicuous for its savagery and Oriental colour.

Style

The quality of Racine's poetry is perhaps his greatest contribution to French literature
French literature
French literature is, generally speaking, literature written in the French language, particularly by citizens of France; it may also refer to literature written by people living in France who speak traditional languages of France other than French. Literature written in French language, by citizens...

. His use of the alexandrine
Alexandrine
An alexandrine is a line of poetic meter comprising 12 syllables. Alexandrines are common in the German literature of the Baroque period and in French poetry of the early modern and modern periods. Drama in English often used alexandrines before Marlowe and Shakespeare, by whom it was supplanted...

 poetic line is considered exceptional in its harmony, simplicity and elegance.

Racine's work faced many criticisms from his contemporaries. One was the lack of historic veracity in plays such as Britannicus
Britannicus (play)
Britannicus is a tragic play by the French dramatist Jean Racine.The play, produced in 1669, was the first time Racine had tried his hand at depicting Roman history. The tale of moral choice takes as its subject Britannicus, the son of the Roman emperor Claudius, and heir to the imperial throne...

 (1668) and Mithridate (1673). Racine was quick to point out that his greatest critics- his rival dramatists- were among the biggest offenders in this respect. Another major criticism levelled at him was the lack of incident in his tragedy, Bérénice
Bérénice
Berenice is a five-act tragedy by the French 17th-century playwright Jean Racine. Berenice was not played often between the 17th and the 20th centuries. Today it is one of Racine's more popular plays, after Phèdre, Andromaque and Britannicus.It was first performed in 1670...

 (1670). Racine's response was that the greatest tragedy does not necessarily consist in bloodshed and death.

Criticism

As with any contributor to the Western Canon, Racine has been subjected to many generations of literary criticism. His works have evoked in audiences and critics a wide range of responses, ranging from reverence to revulsion. In his book Racine: A Study, Philip Butler of the University of Wisconsin broke the main criticisms of Racine down by century to best portray the almost constantly shifting perception of the playwright and his works.

17th century

In his own time, Racine found himself compared constantly with his contemporaries, especially the great Pierre Corneille
Pierre Corneille
Pierre Corneille was a French tragedian who was one of the three great seventeenth-century French dramatists, along with Molière and Racine...

. In his own plays, Racine sought to abandon the ornate and almost otherworldly intricacy that Corneille so favored. Audiences and critics were divided over the worth of Racine as an up and coming playwright. Audiences admired his return to simplicity and their ability to relate to his more human characters, while critics insisted on judging him according to the traditional standards of Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 and his Italian commentators from which he tended to stray. Attitudes shifted, however, as Racine began to eclipse Corneille. In 1674, the highly respected poet and critic Boileau published his Art Poétique which deemed Racine's model of tragedy superior to that of Corneille. This erased all doubts as to Racine's abilities as a dramatist and established him as one of the period's great literary minds.

Butler describes this period as Racine's "apotheosis," his highest point of admiration. Racine's ascent to literary fame coincided with other prodigious cultural and political events in French history. This period saw the rise of literary giants like Molière, Jean de La Fontaine
Jean de La Fontaine
Jean de La Fontaine was the most famous French fabulist and one of the most widely read French poets of the 17th century. He is known above all for his Fables, which provided a model for subsequent fabulists across Europe and numerous alternative versions in France, and in French regional...

, Boileau, and François de La Rochefoucauld
François de La Rochefoucauld (writer)
François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac was a noted French author of maxims and memoirs. The view of human conduct his writings describe has been summed up by the words "everything is reducible to the motive of self-interest", though the term "gently cynical" has also been applied...

 as well as Louis Le Vau
Louis Le Vau
Louis Le Vau was a French Classical architect who worked for Louis XIV of France. He was born and died in Paris.He was responsible, with André Le Nôtre and Charles Le Brun, for the redesign of the château of Vaux-le-Vicomte. His later works included the Palace of Versailles and his collaboration...

's historic expansion of the Palace of Versailles
Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles , or simply Versailles, is a royal château in Versailles in the Île-de-France region of France. In French it is the Château de Versailles....

, Jean-Baptiste Lully
Jean-Baptiste Lully
Jean-Baptiste de Lully was an Italian-born French composer who spent most of his life working in the court of Louis XIV of France. He is considered the chief master of the French Baroque style. Lully disavowed any Italian influence in French music of the period. He became a French subject in...

's revolution in Baroque
Baroque
The Baroque is a period and the style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music...

 music, and most importantly, the ascension of Louis XIV
Louis XIV of France
Louis XIV , known as Louis the Great or the Sun King , was a Bourbon monarch who ruled as King of France and Navarre. His reign, from 1643 to his death in 1715, began at the age of four and lasted seventy-two years, three months, and eighteen days...

 to the throne of France.

Under Louis XIV's revolutionary reign, France rose up from a long period of civil discord (see the Fronde
Fronde
The Fronde was a civil war in France, occurring in the midst of the Franco-Spanish War, which had begun in 1635. The word fronde means sling, which Parisian mobs used to smash the windows of supporters of Cardinal Mazarin....

, or 'Slingshot Rebellion') to new heights of international prominence. Political achievement coincided with cultural and gave birth to an evolution of France's national identity, known as l'esprit français. This new self perception acknowledged the superiority of all things French; the French believed France was home to the greatest king, the greatest armies, the greatest people, and, subsequently, the greatest culture. In this new national mindset, Racine and his work were practically deified, established as the perfect model of dramatic tragedy by which all other plays would be judged. Butler blames the consequential "withering" of French drama on Racine's idolized image, saying that such rigid adherence to one model eventually made all new French drama a stale imitation.

19th century

The French installation of Racine into the dramatic and literary pantheon evoked harsh criticism from many sources who argued against his 'perfection.' Germans like Friedrich Schiller
Friedrich Schiller
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was a German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright. During the last seventeen years of his life , Schiller struck up a productive, if complicated, friendship with already famous and influential Johann Wolfgang von Goethe...

 and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer, pictorial artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and polymath. He is considered the supreme genius of modern German literature. His works span the fields of poetry, drama, prose, philosophy, and science. His Faust has been called the greatest long...

 dismissed Racine as höfisches Drama, or "courtly drama" too restricted by the étiquette and conventions of a royal court for the true expression of human passion. French critics, too, revolted. Racine came to be dismissed as merely "an historical document" that painted a picture only of 17th century French society and nothing else; there could be nothing new to say about him. However, as writers like Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire was a French poet who produced notable work as an essayist, art critic, and pioneering translator of Edgar Allan Poe. His most famous work, Les Fleurs du mal expresses the changing nature of beauty in modern, industrializing Paris during the nineteenth century...

 and Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert was a French writer who is counted among the greatest Western novelists. He is known especially for his first published novel, Madame Bovary , and for his scrupulous devotion to his art and style.-Early life and education:Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen,...

 came onto the scene to soundly shake the foundations of French literature
French literature
French literature is, generally speaking, literature written in the French language, particularly by citizens of France; it may also refer to literature written by people living in France who speak traditional languages of France other than French. Literature written in French language, by citizens...

, conservative readers retreated to Racine for the nostalgia of his simplicity.

As Racine returned to prominence at home, his critics abroad remained hostile due mainly, Butler argues, to Francophobia
Francophobia
Francophobia or Gallophobia are terms that refer to a dislike or hatred toward France, the People of France, the Government of France, or the Francophonie...

. The British were especially damning, preferring Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott to Racine, whom they dismissed as "didactic" and "commonplace." This did not trouble the French, however, as "Racine, La Fontaine, or generally speaking the chefs-d'œuvre de l'esprit humain could not be understood by foreigners."

20th century

The 20th century saw a renewed effort to rescue Racine and his works from the chiefly historical perspective to which he had been consigned. Critics called attention to the fact that plays such as Phèdre could be interpreted as realist drama, containing characters that were universal and that could appear in any time period. Other critics cast new light upon the underlying themes of violence and scandal that seem to pervade the plays, creating a new angle from which they could be examined. In general, people agreed that Racine would only be fully understood when removed from the context of the 18th century.

In his essay, The Theatre and Cruelty, Antonin Artaud
Antonin Artaud
Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, more well-known as Antonin Artaud was a French playwright, poet, actor and theatre director...

 claimed that 'the misdeeds of the psychological theater descended from Racine have made us unaccustomed to that immediate and violent action which the theater should possess' (p84).

21st century

At present, Racine is still widely considered a literary genius of revolutionary proportions. His work is still widely read and frequently performed. Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust
Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust was a French novelist, critic, and essayist best known for his monumental À la recherche du temps perdu...

 developed a fondness for Racine at an early age, "whom he considered a brother and someone very much like himself..." — Marcel Proust: A Life, by Jean-Yves Tadié
Jean-Yves Tadié
Jean-Yves Tadié is a French writer, specializing in Marcel Proust. His 800-page biography of Proust was well-received, asserted by Edmund White in his own book on Proust to be the best work of its kind...

, 1996. Racine's influence can also be seen in A.S. Byatt's tetralogy ( The Virgin in the Garden 1978, Still Life 1985, Babel Tower 1997 and A Whistling Woman 2002). Byatt tells the story of Frederica Potter, an English young woman in the early 1950s (when she is first introduced), who is very appreciative of Racine, and specifically of Phedre.

Dramatic works

  • La Thébaïde
    La Thébaïde
    La Thébaïde, or The Thebaid, is a tragedy in five acts in verse by Jean Racine first presented, without much success, on June 20, 1664 in Petit-Bourbon. A play about the struggle and death of the young son of Oedipus, as well as that of Antigone. This subject had already occupied many authors...

     (1664)
  • Alexandre le Grand
    Alexandre le Grand
    Alexandre le Grand is a tragedy in 5 acts and verse by Jean Racine. It was first produced on December 4, 1665 at the Palais Royal Theater in Paris. The subject of the play is the love of Alexander and the Indian princess Cleofile complicated by intrigues between her brother Taxilus and his ally...

     (1665)
  • Andromaque
    Andromaque
    Andromaque is a tragedy in five acts by the French playwright Jean Racine written in alexandrine verse. It was first performed on 17 November 1667 before the court of Louis XIV in the Louvre in the private chambers of the Queen, Marie Thérèse, by the royal company of actors, called "les Grands...

     (1667)
  • Les Plaideurs
    Les Plaideurs
    Les Plaideurs, or the Litigants, written in 1668, is a comedy in three acts with respectively 8, 14, and 4 scenes in Alexandrine verse by Jean Racine. This is the only comedy written by Racine. It was inspired by The Wasps by Aristophanes, but he withdrew all political significance...

     (1668)
  • Britannicus
    Britannicus (play)
    Britannicus is a tragic play by the French dramatist Jean Racine.The play, produced in 1669, was the first time Racine had tried his hand at depicting Roman history. The tale of moral choice takes as its subject Britannicus, the son of the Roman emperor Claudius, and heir to the imperial throne...

     (1669)
  • Bérénice
    Bérénice
    Berenice is a five-act tragedy by the French 17th-century playwright Jean Racine. Berenice was not played often between the 17th and the 20th centuries. Today it is one of Racine's more popular plays, after Phèdre, Andromaque and Britannicus.It was first performed in 1670...

     (1670)
  • Bajazet
    Bajazet (play)
    Bajazet is a tragedy by Jean Racine in five acts , in Alexandrian verse, first played at the Hotel de Bourgogne, on January 5, 1672, after Berenice, and before Mithridate. Like Aeschylus in The Persians, Racine took his subject from contemporary history, taking care to choose a far off location,...

     (1672)
  • Mithridate
    Mithridate (Racine)
    Mithridate is a tragedy in five acts in Alexandrine verse by Jean Racine.-Background and History:...

     (1673)
  • Iphigénie
    Iphigénie
    Iphigénie is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by the French playwright Jean Racine. It was first performed in the Orangerie in Versailles on August 18th 1674 as part of the fifth of the royal Divertissements de Versailles of Louis XIV to celebrate the conquest of...

     (1674)
  • Phèdre
    Phèdre
    Phèdre is a dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine, first performed in 1677.-Composition and premiere:...

     (1677)
  • Esther
    Esther (drama)
    Esther is the name of a play in three acts written in 1689 by the French dramatist, Jean Racine. It premiered on January 26, 1689, performed by the pupils of the Maison royale de Saint-Louis, an educational institute for young girls of noble birth...

     (1689)
  • Athalie
    Athalie
    Athalie is the final tragedy of Jean Racine, and has been described as the masterpiece of 'one of the greatest literary artists known' and the 'ripest work' of Racine's genius...

     (1691)

External links


Sources

  • Roland Barthes
    Roland Barthes
    Roland Gérard Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes' ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiotics, existentialism, social theory, Marxism, anthropology and...

     - Sur Racine
  • Georges Forestier - Jean Racine (Gallimard, 2006) (ISBN 2070755290)
  • Lewis, W.H. The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louix XIV'.' William Sloane Associates, 1953.
  • Jean Rohou - Jean Racine : entre sa carrière, son œuvre et son dieu (Fayard, 1992)
  • Butler, Philip - Racine: A Study London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1974.
  • Racine, Jean, Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 30 Nov. 2007 .
  • Antonin Artaud
    Antonin Artaud
    Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, more well-known as Antonin Artaud was a French playwright, poet, actor and theatre director...

     - The Theater and Cruelty, in The Theater and Its Double. Trans. Mary Caroline Richards. Grove Press: New York. (1938/1958)
The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.
 
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