Jean Racine’s third play, Andromaque (1667; Andromache, 1674), established his mastery of the sentimental drama. In his fifth, Britannicus, he intended to prove his ability to write a Roman political tragedy to rival, and if possible surpass, the work of Pierre Corneille. The first performance was only moderately successful. Later its reputation improved after Louis XIV spoke highly of it. The play is constructed in keeping with Aristotle’s unities, as was obligatory in seventeenth century French drama after the success of Corneille’s neoclassic plays. The theme is Néron’s first crime, which sets the pattern for the rest of his reign. Burrhus attempts to keep uppermost the good elements of Néron’s character, while Narcisse, a supreme opportunist, works on the emperor’s baser instincts. Although other plays by Racine have greater emotional insight and poetic beauty, Britannicus is a fine example of his command of verse and language and of his dramatic perception of the motivation of his characters.
Esteemed by many critics to be France’s greatest composer of neoclassical tragedies, Racine was elected to the French Academy in l673, after having established his concept of tragedy in Bérénice (1670; English translation, 1676). Racine’s excellent education enabled him to brilliantly adapt Greek and Roman history to seventeenth century French plays; he composed eleven tragedies and one comedy in the style approved by the French Academy. Established in 1635, the French Academy had borrowed from Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) to create the French neoclassical style, with its emphasis on reason, order, clarity, and the unities of time, place, and action. The observance of decorum and verisimilitude aided the spectator in empathizing with the characters who represented the universality of the human condition.
Racine surpassed in popularity his rival Corneille, who preferred to modify Roman tragedies into plots with exterior action. Racine showed his genius for creating inner drama, a genius that culminated with Phèdre (1677; Phaedra, 1701), his masterpiece taken from Euripides. After Phaedra’s success, he was named the king’s historiographer. Racine wrote his last two plays, Esther (1689; English translation, 1715) and Athalie (1691; Athaliah, 1722), for Saint-Cyr’s school, which was affiliated with Mme de Maintenon, in order to accommodate Louis XIV, who then appointed him to an advisory position.
After the success of Andromache in 1668, Racine responded to his rivals’ criticism that he was incapable of treating subjects other than love by composing Britannicus. A principal theme of Britannicus is Agrippine’s extreme...
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