Néron’s palace (nay-ROH[N]). Imperial palace in Rome within whose public area the tragedy takes place. In his preface to the play—which bears the name of Néron’s half-brother—Jean Racine wrote that Néron was never a virtuous man and that his play would portray him as a “monster.” The crimes of Néron (more commonly known as Nero) are so well known, even to those with only a superficial knowledge of Roman history, that Racine’s audiences not only expected unspeakable crimes to be committed within the palace, they sensed Néron’s evil presence even when he was physically absent from the stage. Néron is both voyeuristic and sadistic. His pure evil is everywhere in his palace. In the play’s second act, he attempts to seduce the young Junie, whom he tries to force to renounce her love for Britannicus. Later, as Junie and Britannicus talk together, audiences are aware that Néron is offstage listening. Almost any course of action they take will get Britannicus killed. Both lovers are in grave danger.
Because of a convention associated with seventeenth century French theater, physical violence could not be depicted onstage. However, this restriction actually serves to make the public area of the palace seem even more threatening, as audiences cannot know what horrendous crimes Néron and his henchman, Narcisse, are committing offstage.
When Néron, Britannicus, and Junie finally meet together...
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