The outer form of Racinian tragedy differs little from that of his predecessors. His five-act plays are written in regular twelve-syllable Alexandrine verse; Jean Racine adheres to the three unities of time, place, and action, to the concept of bienséance, which prohibited vulgarity of language and overt violence on the stage, and to the required “unity of tone,” a sustained elegance and dignity proper to tragedy. The concept of gloire, which informs the work of Corneille, however, is modified in Racine. An exulted self-esteem and worldly fame arising from the exercise of total freedom, gloire in Racine loses its compelling force. Whereas in Corneille, the hero achieves self-realization through the domination of his or her love, the hero in Racine accepts fully this passion and the destiny that it entails. The dependent, yet far from weak, lover in Racine knows and acknowledges that he or she cannot exist without the beloved. This “demolition of the hero” reveals a new psychological realism that spurns the illusory ambition of complete self-mastery and independence. From a social and historical viewpoint, this new perspective bears witness to the decline of the ancient aristocratic ideals after the subjugation of the nobility during the absolutist regime of Louis XIV.
Although famous after the resounding success of Alexander the Great in 1665, Racine created in his next play, Andromache, what is unanimously called his first true masterpiece. This play presented something new to contemporary audiences: love as an overwhelming, ultimately destructive passion in both men and women, who, under its sway, are bereft of honor, pride, resolve, and self-control. This play proved beyond doubt that Corneillian heroism was passé, and Racine was generally hailed as the great man’s successor despite vehement criticisms leveled at the play by Corneille’s supporters.
Evoking the epic grandeur of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), Andromache, set at the court of Pyrrhus in Epirus, opens with Oreste sent by the vengeful and fearful Greeks to demand Hector’s son, Astyanax, who has been held captive by Pyrrhus since the Fall of Troy one year earlier. Because of his passionate love for the captive Andromache, Pyrrhus refuses to deliver the boy to the Greeks. He intends to use Astyanax as blackmail: He will turn him over to the Greeks if Andromache does not marry him. Oreste, ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, has other motives for visiting Epirus: He loves Hermione, Pyrrhus’s betrothed, whom Pyrrhus has neglected because of his passion for Andromache. Oreste hopes that his mission will fail so that he will be able to persuade Hermione to renounce the unfaithful Pyrrhus and return with him to Greece. Pyrrhus’s blackmail means that the entire situation revolves on Andromache’s decision: If she accepts his offer, he will reject Hermione, thus making her available to Oreste; if she refuses, Pyrrhus will accept Hermione, Andromache will lose Astyanax—the last vestige of her dead husband Hector—and Oreste will lose all hope of winning Hermione.
While Andromache ponders this momentous decision, Pyrrhus, angered by her hesitations, has a change of heart. He will fulfill his official duty by marrying Hermione and delivering Astyanax to the Greeks. Thinking that he must now yield Hermione to Pyrrhus, Oreste is disconsolate when he learns of this. Andromache is in despair; Hermione, who is apparently triumphant, exults. The depth of Pyrrhus’s passion, however, forces him to weaken. In a fateful interview with Andromache, he again falls under her spell, allowing her more time to choose between marrying him or losing her son. Andromache’s long-awaited decision emerges at the beginning of act 4: To save her son, she will marry Pyrrhus, then commit suicide. Neglected once again, Hermione, in a jealous rage, demands that Oreste murder the double-dealing Pyrrhus. In act 5, scene 3, the deed is done; Oreste, believing that this act has earned for him possession of Hermione, is astounded when she bitterly blames him for the murder of her beloved Pyrrhus. He goes mad after learning that Hermione has killed herself over the body of Pyrrhus. Of the four principal characters, Andromache, the Trojan captive, alone survives, indeed triumphs, at the play’s close, for she has assured the survival of her son, and, as widow of Pyrrhus, assumes control over Epirus.
The outward simplicity of the play’s plot structure belies the complex psychology at work. Because the action of the play is psychological, time and space play no role: Racine has made use of the unities to create a taut work that concentrates on the emotional crisis provoked by Oreste’s arrival. Once this occurs, the dominant emotions of the individuals affected inexorably lead to the final catastrophe. Aside from the Greeks’ demand, revealed in act 1, scene 1, no external event influences the emotional interplay among the four protagonists. The three Greek characters are at the mercy of their passions: Pyrrhus, son of the great Achilles, is a horribly tormented king who, almost despite himself, is ready to sacrifice all for Andromache. Oreste, son of Agamemnon, whose incipient madness is suggested in the opening scene, actually hopes that his diplomatic mission will fail so that he might win Hermione. Hermione, daughter of the beautiful and celebrated Helen, is overwhelmed by Pyrrhus’s rejection of her. She, like Oreste and Pyrrhus, can rule neither her heart nor her mind.
Illumined by the grandeur that was Troy, Andromache, however, does not belong to the psychological universe of the Greek characters. Her fidelity to her destroyed city and above all to her dead husband, Hector, both incarnate in the person of Astyanax (who never appears onstage, thereby reinforcing his value as symbol), is the keystone of her complex character. Her dilemma—to marry Pyrrhus or to see her son die—entails in each case treason against Troy. Her solution, which, she says, the spirit of Hector has ordered, constitutes a heroic self-sacrifice in the name of a higher value. The irony of her triumph—a captive who imposes her will on the others—reflects the more general theme of revenge in the play. Troy, in the person of Andromache, avenges itself on its Greek enemies. Repeated allusions to the destruction of Troy and to its hero Hector reinforce this interpretation. The means of revenge is the insurmountable power of passion. Pyrrhus, a cruel warrior who played a major role in Troy’s final destruction, now suffers the intolerable pangs of unrequited love as well as remorse for his murderous barbarism at Troy. The seemingly conventional image of love’s flame is rejuvenated by Racine to evoke Troy’s revenge on Pyrrhus; he is “Brûlé de plus de feux que je n’en allumai” (“Burned by more fires than I lit”). Just as he had burned Troy in a passion of hatred, he himself now “burns” in a passion of love that Andromache’s eyes have kindled within him. Racine’s mastery of imagery and vocabulary is also apparent in what one critic calls the “poetics of the glance”: The eyes of the lover can only imperfectly “grasp” the beloved, yet the latter’s eyes maintain an inescapable power over he who loves.
The situation in which one character has absolute physical control over another, yet loves passionately and without recompense the same character, exists in many of Racine’s plays. The main structure of Racinian tragedy appears to be based on a relationship of force and authority. As a consequence, a trial of strength lies at the foundation of his theater. Although the characters in Andromache—and in this they are characteristically Racinian—appear to be carried away with their emotions, they arrive at essential decisions lucidly: Pyrrhus, in wishing to marry a Trojan captive, knows very well that he is disowning his country and repudiating his past deeds as well as those of his father Achilles. Like Oreste, he accepts fully his passion and its tragic consequences. His acquiescence to blind destiny constitutes his self-realization. Unlike the autonomous, strong-willed heroes of Corneille, Racinian heroes enjoy no genuine freedom.
The Litigants, Racine’s only comedy, is an anomaly in his rather unified tragic uvre, and for this reason it has been relatively neglected by scholars. A scathing satire of the French legal system, the play exhibits, by its parodies, puns, and acrobatic versification, Racine’s mastery of language and poetry.
The huge success of Andromache prompted the partisans of Corneille to charge that Racine was merely a poet of love and tenderness and that he would never master the more significant historical and political subjects of Corneille’s drama. To answer these criticisms, Racine presented Britannicus, a political play of jealousy and ambition set in Nero’s Rome. At first a failure, Britannicus later established itself; it ranks third, after Phaedra and Andromache, in the number of performances at the Comédie-Française.
As in Andromache, the plot is rather simple. Intending to continue her own rule, Agrippine, mother of Néron, has put her own son on the throne in place of Britannicus, its rightful heir. Néron, however, does not prove to be the obedient and docile son: At the opening of the action, he has just abducted the young princess Junie, whom Agrippine had intended for Britannicus, and with whom Néron, finding himself in a loveless political marriage, has fallen in love. Junie loves Britannicus, which Néron will not tolerate: In a famous scene (act 2, scene 6), the hidden Néron watches as Junie, under his command, must reject the stunned Britannicus. At a critical moment in his infamous career, Néron oscillates between two antithetical political conceptions: Burrhus counsels a policy based on morality, respect of law, and trust in the basic virtue of the people, whereas the Machiavellian Narcisse maintains that Néron must subdue the capricious mob...
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