Jean Racine 1639–1699
French dramatist and poet.
With Pierre Corneille, Racine was one of the premier authors of French dramatic tragedy during the reign of Louis XIV. His more renowned plays, all of them written in verse, include Bajazet (1672), Mithridate (1673; Mithridates), Iphigénie (1674; Iphigenia), and Phèdre (1677; Phaedra), tragedies which rework themes from classical Greek models. As in Greek tragedy and Corneille's works, Racine's plays emphasize the exposition of character and spiritual conflict, eliminating nearly everything not central to each drama's theme. His accomplishment was summarized in glowing terms by Anatole France, who wrote that Racine's "period, his education, and his nature, conspired together to make of him the most perfect of French poets, and the greatest by reason of the sustained nobility of his work."
Born the son of an attorney in La Ferté-Milon near Soissons, Racine was orphaned as an infant. He was raised by his paternal grandparents in the fervently Jansenist city of Port-Royal, where his education afforded him a wide knowledge of Greek and Latin literature as well as Jansenist doctrine. (The Jansenists, named after Bishop Cornelius Jansen of Ypres, were a sect within the Roman Catholic Church which emphasized the complete perversity of the natural human will and the belief that sin is overcome only in the lives of individuals predestined for such by divine grace.) Having written several odes to country scenes near Port-Royal by his late teens, Racine was admitted to the College d'Harcourt in the University of Paris. Several years later, having entered into friendships with Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, and Nicolas Boileau, he began writing for the Parisian stage, with the neoclassical theorist Boileau being an especially strong influence upon him. In 1664 Racine's La Thébaïde (The Thebans) was produced by Molière, who also mounted the young dramatist's second play, Alexandre le Grande (Alexander the Great), the next year; these works brought their author much acclaim. But when Alexander opened, Racine acted upon the first of several key decisions that brought him strained relations with friends—if not influential enemies—throughout his career. Immediately dissatisfied by Molière's production of Alexander at the Palais-Royal, he mounted a rival production at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, deeply offending Molière and ending their friendship. At about the same time, due to a misunderstanding, Racine publicly broke with the Jansenist Catholics of Port-Royal by publishing an open letter—which he later regretted—filled with ill-spirited caricatures of
and anecdotes about key Jansenist figures. Having split with the Jansenists and now considered a rising rival of Corneille, Racine embraced the worldliness of the Parisian dramatic world, taking actresses for mistresses and actively competing in dramatic popularity with the older writer. In the drama Britannicus he not only ventured into political drama, at the time considered Corneille's exclusive domain, but he also attacked Corneille himself (though not by name) in his introduction, having come to believe that a cabal led by Corneille had sought to undermine his drama's success. He also answered Corneille's El Cid with his own Andromaque (1667; Andromache) and pitted his superior Bérénice (1670; Berenice) against Corneille's Tite et Bérénice, which appeared almost simultaneously. The other plays by which Racine is most distinguished appeared during the next few years, and in 1674 he was elected to the Académie Française, becoming its youngest member. But by the mid 1670s, the ill will he had engendered among his peers and their admirers affected his own career. One of his more powerful enemies, the Duchesse de Bouillon—a niece of Cardinal Mazarin and sister of the Duc de Nevers—learned of Racine's Phaedra during its composition and persuaded a minor dramatist, Jacques Pradon, to write a rival version of the play, which opened two days after Racine's production. Further, it is said that she reserved many of the main seats for the earliest performances of Racine's play, leaving these seats empty on the crucial opening nights. Although Phaedra was eventually seen as superior to Pradon's tragedy, Racine was badly shaken by this episode and its aftermath, which included having his personal safety threatened by the Duc de Nevers. Thus, at the height of his career, he retired from the professional theatre; he married, became the devoted father of seven children, and accepted the post of Royal Historiographer, a position he shared with Boileau. For two decades Racine enjoyed access to the most influential political and literary circles; he and Boileau also travelled with Louis XIV on military campaigns, recording the Sun King's exploits. In 1689, at the request of the king's wife, Madame de Maintenon, Racine produced a new play, Esther, based on the biblical story, which was performed at a religious school in Saint-Cyr. Praised by the king himself, this play was so well received that Racine wrote another biblical drama, Athalie (Athaliah), which was performed at Saint-Cyr two years later. During his remaining years, he wrote four spiritual hymns (Cantiques spirituelles) and a history of Port-Royal (Abrégé de l'histoire de Port-Royal). Racine died in 1699 after a long illness.
Several scholars have written that in Racine, the world of Jansenist Port-Royal and the neoclassical world were in constant warfare. But they were arguably complementary, in style and in form. The influence of Jansenist teaching, which stressed human depravity and predestined salvation, is evident in Racine's dramatic characters, who—like their forerunners in classical Greek drama—are undone by their passions, driven to ruin by ungovernable impulses. The simple neoclassical tragic form was well fitted to Racine's themes and poetic style, which has been praised for its simplicity, harmony, and rhythmic flow; of all his contemporaries, Racine was the first to achieve success within a framework which had been deemed too difficult to master since its inception during the Italian Renaissance. His style has been described as simple yet polished, smooth yet natural. Robert Lowell has praised Racine's dramatic verse for its "diamond edge" and "hard, electric rage," calling Racine "perhaps the greatest poet in the French language." In most of his plays, Racine employed a basic plot structure in which a monarch demands something of a particular underling, often a prince or princess, who denies this demand. The monarch then attempts to force his subject's obedience, with tragic results. Launched upon a course of impending doom, Racine's characters know what must be done to avert disaster but are unable to subdue their desires to take prudent action. This is readily discernable in Phaedra, the tragedy often considered Racine's finest. Based upon Euripides's Hippolytus, this play concerns a woman who wrestles unsuccessfully with her unlawful love for her stepson, Hippolytus, and is struck down by him or her husband, Theseus, each time she moves toward redemption. Kenneth Rexroth went so far as to say that the protagonist of Phaedra "is damned, and predestined to damnation." Racine's only comedy, Les plaideurs (1668; The Litigants), is the single exception to this general pattern.
During their author's lifetime, Racine's dramas, though popular, were attacked for what some critics considered their crude realism and their focus upon passion. Jean de La Bruyère wrote of Corneille and Racine that "the former paints men as they should be, the latter paints men as they are." Like La Bruyère, many critics compare the intents and accomplishments of Racine with those of Corneille, often to Racine's advantage. "Unlike Corneille," wrote Irving Babbitt, "Racine moved with perfect ease among all the rules that the neo-classic disciplinarians had imposed upon the stage. Indeed, it is in Racine, if anywhere, that all this regulating of the drama must find its justification," here speaking of the unities of time, space, and action prescribed by neoclassical theorists. Over time, Racine's work grew in critical stature and popularity. In one of the seminal discourses upon Racine's achievement, Racine et Shakespeare (1823-25), Stendhal wrote of Racine—in his preoccupation with passion—as an artist of romantisicme, the literary element which satisfies an ever-changing standard of beauty. Several scholars have compared the theatricality of Shakespeare and Racine, with David Maskell observing that they "provide examples of a common visual vocabulary which is the peculiar feature of theatrical language, and which unites dramatists who can exploit its rich potential." Other major French critics of Racine's work have included Jules Lemaître, Ferdinand Brunetière, Jean Giraudoux, François Mauriac, and Roland Barthes, while English-language criticism and translation of Racine's works has been dominated by Martin Turnell, Geoffrey Brereton, and Kenneth Muir, among others. Many scholars concur in spirit with the judgment of George Saintsbury, who wrote of Racine, "Of the whole world which is subject to the poet he took only a narrow artificial and conventional fraction. Within these narrow bounds he did work which no admirer of literary craftsmanship can regard without satisfaction."
La Thébaïde, ou Les frères ennemis [The Thebans, or The Enemy Brothers] (drama) 1664
Alexandre le Grand [Alexander the Great] (drama) 1665
Andromaque [Andromache] (drama) 1667
Les plaideurs [The Litigants] (drama) 1668
Britannicus (drama) 1669
Bérénice [Berenice] (drama) 1670
Bajazet (drama) 1672
Mithridate [Mithridates] (drama) 1673
Iphigénie [Iphigenia] (drama) 1674
Phèdre [Phaedra] (drama) 1677
Esther (drama) 1689
Athalie [Athaliah] (drama) 1691
Oeuvres complètes (dramas) 1962
SOURCE: "Remarks: The Distressed Mother," in British Theatre; or, A Collection of Plays, Vol. XVIII, translated by Ambrose Philips, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1808, pp. 3-5.
[Inchbald was an English dramatist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the excerpt below, she remarks upon the dramatic effect of The Distressed Mother, Ambrose Philips's translation of Andromaque.]
The French and the English stages differ so essentially, that every French drama requires great alteration, before it can please a London audience, although it has previously charmed the audience of Paris.
The gloomy mind of a British...
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SOURCE: "Racine," in Portraits of the Seventeenth Century, Historic and Literary, translated by Katharine P. Wormeley, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904, pp. 283-314.
[Sainte-Beuve is considered the foremost French literary critic of the nineteenth century. Of his extensive body of critical writings, the best known are his "lundis"—weekly newspaper articles which appeared over a period of several decades, in which he displayed his knowledge of literature and history. While Sainte-Beuve began his career as a champion of Romanticism, he eventually formulated a psychological method of criticism. Asserting that the critic cannot separate a work of literature from the artist and from the artist's...
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SOURCE: "Shakespeare and Racine," in The Fortnightly Review, Vol. LVI, No. CCCXXXIII, September, 1894, pp. 440-47.
[A nineteenth-century French poet, Verlaine captured the musicality of the French language perhaps more than did any other poet. By using rhyme structures and meters that had previously been rare in French poetry, he is said to have liberated French poetics from the strictures of classicism and the rhetoric of Romanticism, and helped define the Symbolist theory of poetics. In the following excerpt, Verlaine compares the accomplishment of Racine with that of Shakespeare, finding the former in some ways superior.]
Some young men, who keep guard over what...
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SOURCE: "The Development of the French Drama," in The International Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 3, March, 1903, pp. 14-31.
[An American critic, playwright, and novelist, Matthews wrote extensively on world drama and served for a quarter century at Columbia University as professor of dramatic literature; he was the first to hold that title at an American University. Matthews was also a founding member and president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Because his criticism is deemed both witty and informative, he has been called "perhaps the last of the gentlemanly school of critics and essayists" in America. In the following excerpt, Matthews presents an overview of Racine's...
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SOURCE: "Racine," in Books and Characters: French & English, Chatto and Windus, 1922, pp. 3-24.
[Strachey was an early twentieth-century English biographer, critic, essayist, and short story writer. He is best known for his biographies Eminent Victorians (1918), Queen Victoria (1921), and Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928). According to P. Mansell Jones, translator of Eugène Vinaver 's Racine and Poetic Tragedy (1955), "Curiosity about Racine was considerably stimulated in Anglo-Saxon countries by the publication of Lytton Strachey's essay [in Books and Characters] in 1922." In the following excerpt from that essay, originally published in...
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SOURCE: "Racine," in French Literature and Its Masters, edited by Huntington Cairns, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946, pp. 68-83.
[Saintsbury was a late-nineteenth and early-twentiethcentury English literary historian and critic. Hugely prolific, he composed histories of English and European literature as well as numerous critical works on individual authors, styles, and periods. In the following excerpt from an article which originally appeared in the 1911 Encyclopœdia Britannica, Saintsbury offers a summary appraisal of Racine's significance, noting his accomplishment as both a dramatist and poet.]
Racine may be considered from two very different points of view,—(1)...
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SOURCE: "Racine," in The Freeman, New York, Vol. VIII, Nos. 187 and 188, October 10 and October 17, 1923, pp. 104-06; 132-33.
[An American critic, editor, poet, translator, and historian, Cowley made valuable contributions to contemporary letters with his editions of the works of such American authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Ernest Hemingway, his writings as a literary critic, and his chronicles and criticism of modern American literature. In the following excerpt, Cowley places Racine's technical, stylistic, and thematic accomplishment within the context of his era.]
Versailles is one of two perfect expressions of the seventeenth century in France....
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SOURCE: "Racine," in Punch and Judy & Other Essays, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1924, pp. 145-73.
[During the early twentieth century, Baring—along with G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc—was considered one of the most important Catholic apologists in England. He was proficient in a number of different genres, but is remembered mainly as a novelist. He also wrote several acclaimed books on Russian and French literature and introduced English readers to the works of Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and other prominent Russian authors. In the following excerpt, Baring discursively examines several of Racine's dramas, particularly Bérénice, while...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Racine," translated by Raffaello Piccoli, in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 6, June, 1928, pp. 483-88.
[An Italian educator, philosopher, and author, Croce developed a highly influential theory of literary creation and a concomitant critical method. In defining the impetus and execution of poetry, Croce conceives of the mind as capable of two distinct modes of thought, which he terms cognition and volition. Cognition mental activity is theoretical and speculative, while volition is the mind's practical application of ideas originating in the cognitive realm. For Croce, a poem, as an intuitive creation, belongs to the cognitive sphere, and exists within a poet's...
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SOURCE: "The World and the Theatre, in Theatre Arts Monthly, Vol. XIV, No. 9, September, 1930, pp. 727-30.
[A French dramatist and novelist, Giraudoux is recognized primarily for his highly stylized works centering around the elemental themes of love, death, and war. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in a longer form in La Nouvelle Revue Française, he discusses Racine's method, emphasizing the dramatist's exemplary accomplishment while working within an established context: his own, distinctly literary age.]
Those who believe in genius have the opportunity, when contemplating Racine, to verify the fact that a civilization which has...
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SOURCE: "Racine," in Contemporary Review, Vol. 156, December 1939, pp. 729-36.
[Below, Joubert offers a general essay on the accomplishment and significance of Racine, noting his artistic statements against governmental tyranny.]
In a broadcast for French schools dealing with Racine's place in the history of dramatic literature, the lecturer pronounced the significant words: "In spite of Racine's unquestionable superiority as poet and psychologist, the French nation will, during the time of a national crisis, always turn to Corneille." This statement seems to me to represent in a nutshell the historical and aesthetic valuation of the two greatest dramatists of French...
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SOURCE: "The 'Profane' Plays, 1664-1677, in Jean Racine, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939, pp. 99-221.
[In the following excerpt, Clark examines Andromache and Brittannicus in depth, noting the close thematic relationships between the plays.]
When one has said the best one can of Racine's first two tragedies, the fact remains that they are mediocre works and give no intimation of the genius that suddenly unveiled its full radiance with the performance of Andromaque at the Hôtel de Bourgogne or at court some time in November 1667. It is no exaggeration to say "its full radiance," for though personal taste may place this or that play...
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SOURCE: "On Phèdre as a Woman," in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry: Occasions, translated by Roger Shattuck and Frederick Brown, Bollingen Series XLV, Princeton University Press, 1970, pp. 185-95.
[A prominent French poet and critic, Valéry is one of the leading practitioners of nineteenth-century Symbolist aestheticism. His work reflects his desire for total control of his creation; his absorption with the creative process also forms the method of his criticism. In his prose, Valéry displays what is perhaps his most fundamental talent: the ability to apply a well-disciplined mind to a diversity of subjects including art, politics, science, dance, and aesthetics. His critical...
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SOURCE: "Second Cycle: Racine, the Sun in Phèdre" in Love in Literature: Studies in Symbolic Expression, 1965. Reprint by Books for Libraries Press, 1972, pp. 51-7.
[Fowlie is among the most respected and comprehensive scholars of French literature. His work includes translations of major poets and dramatists of France (Molière, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Claudel, Saint-John Perse) and critical studies of the major figures and movements of modern French letters (Stephane Mallarmé, Marcel Proust, Andre Gidé, the Surrealists, among many others). Broad intellectual and artistic sympathies, along with an acute sensitivity for French writing and a firsthand understanding...
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SOURCE: "Corneille and Racine: Polite Tragedy," in Masters of the Drama, third revised edition, Dover Publications, Inc., 1954, pp. 267-85.
[Gassner, a Hungarian-born American scholar, was a great promoter of American theater, particularly the work of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. He edited numerous collections of modern drama and wrote two important dramatic surveys, Masters of Modern Drama (1940) and Theater in Our Times (1954; 3rd ed. 1954). In the following excerpt from the former, Gassner surveys Racine's career as a dramatist and assesses his significance in the development of Western drama.]
Racine was fortunate in possessing two...
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SOURCE: "The Structure of Racine's Tragedies," in Racine, translated by Alastair Hamilton, Rivers Press, 1972, pp. 3-22.
[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1956, Goldmann narrowly defines dramatic tragedy and then discusses how Racine structured his dramas as tragedies.]
The concept of tragedy and the "science" of literature
If we denote any attempt to understand reality as science or theoretical thought we must admit that a considerable discrepancy has appeared between what are normally known as the "exact sciences"—mathematics, physics, chemistry—and the "human sciences". This discrepancy can be seen not...
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SOURCE: "Racine," in Last Periods of Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen, Wayne State University Press, 1961, pp. 61-88.
[In the following excerpt from the text of a lecture delivered in 1959, Muir focuses upon the final two dramas of Racine, Esther and Athaliah, finding the latter in particular a reflection of Racine's effort to, in effect, repudiate the libertinism of his middle years and return to the Christian practice of his youth.]
Between 1664 and 1676, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-seven, a space of twelve years, Racine wrote ten plays. During this next twelve years, between the ages of thirty-seven and forty-nine, he wrote nothing for...
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SOURCE: "On Translating Phèdre" in Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1987, pp. 230-31.
[Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, Lowell is generally considered the premier American poet of his generation. One of the original proponents of the confessional school of poetry, he frequently gave voice to his personal as well as his social concerns, leading many to consider him the prototypical liberal intellectual writer of his time. Lowell was also a widely acclaimed translator and playwright as well as critic and editor. In the following excerpt from the introduction to his 1961 translation of Phèdre, he comments upon the...
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SOURCE: "Approach to Racine," in Jean Racine: Dramatist, Hamish Hamilton, 1972, pp. 3-25.
[Turnell has written widely on French literature and has made significant translations of the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Guy de Maupassant, Blaise Pascal, and Paul Valèry. In the following excerpt, he quotes several critics contra Racine, using them as a springboard to his thesis that "when properly performed, Racine is still the greatest French tragic dramatist" and that the negative pronouncements of Racine's critics speak more to the issue of access than to that of dramatic accomplishment.]
'Of all our authors', François Mauriac once said, 'Racine is one of the least...
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SOURCE: "Jean Racine," in An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the Present Day, revised edition, Methuen & Co Ltd, 1973, pp. 67-81.
[Brereton is an English scholar who has written extensively on French literature of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. In the following excerpt, he examines specifically the poetry of Racine's dramas.]
Racine is considered here almost exclusively as a poet. He was, in fact, a dramatic poet and any division is necessarily artificial. But any attempt to do justice to the dramatist would lead us far beyond the bounds of our subject and we must be content with illustrating this side of his genius with a single...
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SOURCE: "The Dramatic Art of Racine," in Corneille and Racine: Problems of Tragic Form, Cambridge at the University Press, 1973, pp. 216-36.
[In the following excerpt, Pocock seeks to demonstrate that "the basis of Racine's art was his concern to express those irrational and even infantile passions that are fed from the unconscious, but that he masked them as far as possible behind a perfect neo-classical façade. "]
After 1670, Racine was the reigning monarch of the stage. Bajazet was acclaimed not just as a success but as an improvement on his earlier plays. Mithridate triumphed, and was Louis XIV's favourite tragedy. Then came...
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SOURCE: "Racine and Shakespeare: A Common Language," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3, 1993, pp. 253-68.
[Maskell is the author of Racine: A Theatrical Reading (1991). In the following excerpt from a later work, he compares the theatricality—specifically, the "visual language"—of Shakespeare and Racine.]
When writers' names become symbols this can obscure what they actually wrote. Racine and Shakespeare stand in symbolic opposition. Shakespeare represents full-blooded theatricality; Racine stands for an abstract disembodied form of tragedy. This opposition deserves to be challenged. Of course there are substantial differences between Racine...
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