Although he did write one witty comedy, The Litigants, Racine has remained famous almost exclusively for the nine tragedies that he wrote between Andromache in 1667 and Athaliah in 1691. His first two plays, The Theban Brothers and Alexander the Great, are rather weak tragedies, and critics generally agree that there is a significant difference in quality between these two early plays and his later tragic masterpieces. Like Corneille, who was the other great French tragic playwright in the seventeenth century, Racine depicted very effectively the use and abuse of political power, but Racine also developed profound connections between love and violence and created both sympathetic victims and psychologically complicated and fascinating villains.
Britannicus (pr. 1669, pb. 1670; English translation, 1714) illustrates beautifully Racine’s creative method. This tragedy deals with very famous historical characters whom the Roman historian Tacitus had analyzed in his Ab excessu divi Augusti (c.116 c.e.; Annals, 1598). Although the title character in this tragedy is the half brother of Emperor Nero, Racine affirms in his preface that the main focus is not Britannicus but the evil Nero. Racine speaks of Nero thus:I always considered him to be a monster. But here he is a monster being born. He has not yet set fire to Rome. He has not yet murdered his mother, his wife, his governors.
Spectators fully expect Nero to be depicted as the violent and dangerous criminal that he was. In Britannicus, there are six major characters. The three virtuous characters are Britannicus, his beloved Junie, and Nero’s good adviser, Burrhus. The three amoral characters are Nero, his mother, Agrippina, and his evil adviser, Narcissus. Against the wishes of her late husband, Emperor Claudius, Agrippina had Nero placed on the throne instead of Britannicus. Now that he is emperor, Nero has no further need for his mother. He has begun to act violently. Although he knows that Britannicus and Junie love each other very much, he has Junie abducted “in the middle of the night.” She fears being killed or raped by him. Narcissus encourages his master to satisfy his every desire, and this advice pleases Nero immensely. Racine describes Nero as a sadist who enjoyed making Junie suffer and weep. Nero tells her that if she confesses her love to Britannicus, he will have his half brother murdered. As the lovers talk, Nero listens in the wings. Junie is terrified, and Britannicus cannot understand why his beloved is now so distant.
In act 3, Junie is finally permitted to express her true feelings for Britannicus and tries in vain to persuade him to flee from Rome. The hypocritical tyrant Nero returns to the stage and affirms that it is only just for him to have Britannicus arrested because his half brother dared to criticize the abduction of Junie. In act 4, Nero tells his mother that he has no intention of obeying those laws that interfere with the satisfaction of his violent sexual desires. For him, murder and rape are permissible, but he promises to Agrippina that he will spare the life of his half brother. Although Agrippina is deceived by Nero, the spectators are under no such delusions. They know that Britannicus will soon be killed. Burrhus describes how Nero himself murdered his half brother. While proclaiming his friendship for Britannicus, Nero gave him a cup of poisoned wine. The unsuspecting Britannicus died instantly, and the witnesses realized that Nero had poisoned his half brother. Although the spectators are angered by the death of Britannicus, there is some poetic justice in this tragedy. As Junie fled from the imperial court in order to reach safety with the Vestal Virgins, Narcissus attacked her in the streets. The onlookers killed Narcissus in order to prevent the rape or murder of Junie.
Although much violence takes place offstage in Racine’s tragedies, his style is consistently elegant and refined. Racine is a very effective dramatic poet. His virtuous and villainous characters express themselves in similar styles, but the spectators learn to distinguish very carefully between the way that Racine’s characters speak and act. Appearance and reality are quite different in his tragedies. In Athaliah, for example, the title character is a monstrous grandmother who tried to kill all her grandchildren in order to seize power in Judea. She learns that her grandson Joas is still alive and is being protected by the high priest in the temple in Jerusalem. When Athaliah describes herself as a loving grandmother whose sole wish is to see her only surviving grandchild, neither the high priest Joad nor the spectators are deceived. They realize that she is a lying hypocrite...
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