Article abstract: Combining psychological insight, poetic power, and a profoundly pessimistic view of human life, Racine wrote the finest tragedies in French literature.
Jean Baptiste Racine was born in the village of La Ferté-Milon, near Soissons, France, and was baptized on December 22, 1639, presumably shortly after his birth. His mother was Jeanne Sconin Racine, and his father was Jean Racine, a minor local official. When Jean Baptiste was a year old, his mother died in childbirth. Although his father remarried a year later, he too died, in 1643, leaving Jean Baptiste and his sister penniless. His grandparents took the two babies; Jean Baptiste’s sister went to his mother’s family, and he went to live with his father’s parents. When Jean was nine, however, his paternal grandfather died, and his grandmother entered the Convent of Port-Royal des Champs, southwest of Paris, where her sister was a nun and her daughter was a postulant.
Port-Royal was the center of Jansenism, an austere doctrine, based on Cornelis Jansen’s interpretation of Saint Augustine, arguing that man was predestined to be saved by grace alone, not by works. After its introduction at the Cistercian convent of Port-Royal in 1634, Jansenism began to spread throughout France, partly because its emphasis on rectitude appealed to those who were disillusioned with the moral corruption around them and partly because its proponents were the outstanding scholars and educators of their day. Realizing the threat which Jansenism posed to their intellectual and educational monopoly, the Jesuits opposed it bitterly and in 1653 obtained the condemnation of its doctrines by Pope Innocent X. Throughout its existence, Port-Royal, its nuns, and its scholars were subject to persecution. The opponents of Jansenism finally succeeded in having the convent abolished in 1708.
Like many other young men of his time, Jean Racine was educated by the Jansenists. Indeed, except for two years in a Jansenist college in Beauvais (1653-1655), he was at the center of Jansenism, Port-Royal des Champs, from 1649 to 1658, reading the literary classics, learning Greek and Latin, studying philosophy and theology, and absorbing the somber view of life which was held by his mentors. For the orphaned boy, Port-Royal was home as well as school. In addition to his aunt, grandaunt, and grandmother in the convent, he had other kinfolk nearby. His grandmother’s sister had married M. Vitart, and the Vitarts, too, were ardent Jansenists. Racine’s feeling for Port-Royal is evident: Even after his school was closed by royal decree in 1656, he remained at Port-Royal, studying independently. Later, he was to defend the Jansenists as much as he dared; to write a short history of Port-Royal, which was not published even in part until 1742 and not in full until 1767; and to request burial at Port-Royal.
In 1658, Racine went to the Collège d’Harcourt in the University of Paris to study law. The following year, he lived with and was employed by his grandmother’s nephew Nicolas Vitart, the steward of the Jansenist Duc de Luynes. From his base in the Hôtel de Luynes, Racine ventured into the brilliant, sophisticated world of Louis XIV’s France. He became a boon companion of the ecclesiastical amorist, the Abbé le Vasseur, and of Jean de La Fontaine, who was to write the immortal Fables Written in Verse (1668). He attended the theater, socialized with actors and actresses, and indulged in a number of love affairs. He also began to write, first light verse, then an ode dedicated to Louis’ new queen. This was Racine’s first published work.
Because of his association with performers, however, Racine was also developing an interest in writing for the theater. Encouraged by an actress, he wrote his first play, which was never produced and is lost; encouraged by an actress of another troupe, he began a second play that may not have been finished and certainly was never performed.
Although Racine was enjoying himself in Paris, he was sinking deeper and deeper into debt. Furthermore, his family disapproved of his activities. At their insistence, in 1661 he went to Uzès, where a maternal uncle hoped to find the young man a sinecure in the Church. A year later, unsuccessful, Racine was back in Paris. Events had made the decision for him: He was to make his mark not in the Church but in the theater and at court.
As Racine’s letters reveal, the playwright was a complex person. From the Jansenists, he had absorbed the conviction that human beings are at the mercy of emotions over which they have no control and that therefore they have very little control over their lives. As a sensitive human being, he felt compassion for these creatures, yet as an artist he could view their anguish with detachment. Racine liked to think of himself as a scholar-poet; yet he was ambitious, and he planned the political moves which would ensure his success at court. A sketch by his eldest son emphasizes both his confidence and his capacity for detachment. A dark-eyed, dark-wigged man with a prominent nose, rounded features, and an unimpressive chin, Racine looks out at the world with a slight smile, as if he is taking its measure for his plays and for his purposes.
Racine’s career as a playwright lasted only thirteen years, from 1664 to 1677. During that time, he produced eleven tragedies and one comedy, rose to social eminence, and, by winning royal favor, gained wealth and a title of nobility. It was the great actor-manager and comic playwright Molière who produced Racine’s first tragedy at the Palais Royal on June 20, 1664. Entitled La Thébaïde: Ou, Les Frères ennemis (1664; The Theban Brothers, 1723), it was the...
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