Racine, Jean (Vol. 28)
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
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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 auditor demands a bolder and more varied species of theatrical amusement than the lively spirits of his neighbours in France. The former has no attention, no curiosity, till roused by some powerful fable, intricate occurrences, and all the interest which variety creates—whilst the latter will quietly sit, absorbed in their own glowing fancy, to hear speeches after speeches, of long narration, nor wish to see any thing performed, so they are but told, that something has been done.
The Distressed Mother [a translation of Andromaque] partakes of the common quality of French dramas in this respect—much more is described to the audience than they see executed: but every recital is here in the highest degree...
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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 historical milieu, Sainte-Beuve considered an author's life and character integral to the comprehension of his work. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1855, he surveys the career of Racine, offering high praise for his overall accomplishment, especially the religious dramas Esther and Athalie.]
The great poets, the poets of genius, independently of their class, and without regard to their nature, lyric, epic, or dramatic, may be divided into two glorious families which, for many centuries, have alternately intermingled and dethroned one another, contending for pre-eminence in fame: between them, according to periods, the admiration of men has been unequally awarded. The primitive poets,...
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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 they are pleased to term my reputation, have, in all good faith, rashly asserted that, in the familiar chat of a café, I said, in opposition to my master and friend Auguste Vacquerie, that Racine was to be preferred to Shakespeare.
Every one is free to have an opinion, but I do not prefer one man to another in point of art, when those in question are "in the realm of equals," as Victor Hugo expresses it in his fine work on "William Shakespeare."
Being myself French, perhaps, I love and admire Racine enormously, above all as a man more distinguished by passion than by anything else, and I love Shakespeare (how can I express my admiration for him?) as a man rather more intellectual than passionate. For...
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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 significance and the nature of his accomplishment, comparing Racine to Corneille in many areas,.]
Racine, who followed Corneille, as Euripides followed Sophocles, took over the form of tragedy which the elder poet had marked with his own image and superscription, altho the younger poet modified it in some slight measure to suit his own powers and his own preferences. Corneille had been over-lyric at times, altho he had been far less epic than many of his predecessors as a playwright; Racine was more rigorously dramatic. Accepting the limitation imposed by the rules of the Three Unities, which were in accord with his temperament, Racine condensed still further the themes he treated. He focussed the attention upon fewer figures;...
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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 the New Quarterly in 1908, Strachey summarizes the difficulty of fixing Racine's place among the world's poets, and comments upon the great emotional power of his dramas.]
It is difficult to 'place' Racine among the poets. He has affinities with many; but likenesses to few. To balance him rigorously against any other—to ask whether he is better or worse than Shelley or than Virgil—is to attempt impossibilities; but there is one fact which is too often forgotten in comparing his work with that of other poets—with Virgil's for instance—Racine wrote for the stage. Virgil's poetry is intended to be read, Racine's to be declaimed; and it is only in the theatre that one can experience to the full the potency of...
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SOURCE: "Racine and the Anti-Romantic Reaction," in Spanish Character, and Other Essays, Frederick Manchester, Rachel Giese, William F. Giese, eds., Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940, pp. 89-104.
[With Paul Elmer More, Babbitt was one of the founder of the New Humanism (or neo-humanism) movement which arose during the twentieth century's second decade. The New Humanists were moralists who adhered to traditional conservative values in reaction to an age of scientific and artistic self-expression. In regard to literature, they believed that the aesthetic qualities of a work of art should be subordinate to its moral and ethical purpose. They were particularly opposed to Naturalism, which they believed accentuated the animal nature of humans, and to any literature, such as Romanticism, that broke with established classical tradition. In the following excerpt from a review which originally appeared in the Nation in 1909, Babbitt explores Racine's accomplishment as an heir of the neoclassical tradition in drama.]
If we are to arrive, then, at an intelligent estimate of Racine, it should seem necessary, above all, to determine in what respects he is genuinely classic and in what respects neo-classic or pseudo-classic, not failing to note at the same time certain other respects in which he is inspired rather by the spirit of romance.
The neo-classic element in French tragedy goes back, of...
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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) as a playwright and poetical artificer, and (2) as a dramatist and a poet. From the first point of view there is hardly any praise too high for him. He did not invent the form he practised, and those who, from want of attention to the historical facts, assume that he did are unskilful as well as ignorant. When he came upon the scene the form of French plays was settled, partly by the energetic efforts of the Pléiade and their successors, partly by the reluctant acquiescence of Corneille. It is barely possible that the latter might, if he had chosen, have altered the course of French tragedy; it is nearly certain that Racine could not. But Corneille, though he was himself more responsible than any one else for the acceptance of the...
(The entire section is 775 words.)
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. The other is the tragedies of Jean Racine.
He expressed a definite society and therefore could not exist without it. One can imagine him, with effort, against the background of another age, but rather as politician or general: a man of action, in any case, with a terrible or proud career. It was the conditions of his own century which led him to verse and the stage. His work depends on the thousand anonymous collaborators with which it supplied him: anonymous in the sense that their names are printed on the titlepage of none of his editions, and collaborators because they made his work possible. They are such men as Vaugelas, of the earliest French grammar; Chapelain, who first enforced the rule of the three unities;...
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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 addressing the question of Racine's stat ure as a dramatic poet.]
Is Racine the greatest of French poets? I will not be so bold as to answer. There is Molière, and there is La Fontaine. Molière as a dramatist is more universal, and La Fontaine as a poet is more peculiar—by more peculiar I mean more exceptional. He is a product of France and of France only, and is hors concours in his line, whereas Racine competes with all the poets of the world. It is unnecessary to draw up a list, to place him here or there, above this one or below that one. It is enough to say that he is a great poet, and I think one could safely add that his work constitutes the purest gem of French dramatic literature. There is no drama in French...
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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 mind as a complete, independent, and unified image. In his view, the original conception of a poem must be motivated by a dominant emotion, and this emotion must be clearly and effectively translated into the actual poem if the work is to succeed as art. From these theories, Croce derives his definition of the proper role of criticism: to determine a poem's original, intuitive image, to ascertain the emotion that both prompted it and is an integral part of it, and, finally, to judge the relationship between these two factors. In the following excerpt from a review of Karl Vossler's German-language study Jean Racine (1926), Croce focuses upon the high poetic achievement of Racine's dramas, notably Athaliah.]
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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 reached its pinnacle … is itself a genius—the genius of Pericles or of Louis XIV…. One of its virtues is that, instead of the smaller means by which writers in less complete epochs acquire their experience—misfortune, observations of men in daily life, affairs of the heart or conjugal crises—there is substituted in these happier periods, an instinctive knowledge of great spirits and great moments. Racine is the most perfect illustration of this. No childhood was further removed than his from the laws of childhood…. His adolescence was not less theoretical…. Studying and the joys of studying were to him the substitutes for all contact with life, all happiness, all catastrophes, up to the day when he entered a world even more...
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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 literature, and at the same time to emphasise the necessity of a comparison between them, without which an appreciation of the younger poet's position as innovator of French dramatic technique would be futile.
Corneille represents artistically and morally—the two terms are inseparable in French drama—the definite end of a period, Racine the beginning of a new era which has not yet reached its end. Corneille, the grand old man of French drama, wrote for an audience whose chief interest was politics, taking part as actors or spectators in the vicissitudes of the Fronde, a struggle in which unbending will-power turned ordinary mortals into heroes, but also their speech, as the Mémoires of the Cardinal of...
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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 of Racine ahead of Andromaque for one reason or another, though the extreme greatness of the title role may give Phèdre precedence, though the dramatist may be deemed to have achieved a firmer and chaster style in Britannicus and his religious plays, yet he never wrote again a play so instinct with life and passion in every nook and cranny of its being, so completely an emanation of his own genius and so independent of extraneous influence, nor one with so many equally interesting characters and written in such a successful blend of colloquial and poetic speech. In Andromaque Racine emerges completely from the shadow of Corneille which had clouded his natural gifts before, and which is to dog him again in the...
(The entire section is 10797 words.)
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 writings are collected in the five volumes of Variéte (1924-44; Variety) and his personal notebooks, the Cahiers (1894-1945). In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1942, Valéry ruminates upon the psychological inferences of Phèdre's character.]
After reading Phèdre, or seeing the theater curtain fall, I am left with the idea of a certain woman, a sense of the beauty of the verse; a future reserve resides in me in these durable effects and values.
The mind resumes its normal course, which is a riotous stream of sensations and thoughts, but unknowingly it has selected from the work the elements that it will henceforth treasure among its supply of...
(The entire section is 3218 words.)
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 of literary creativity (he is the author of a novel and poetry collections in both French and English), are among the qualities that make Fowlie an indispensable guide for the student of French literature. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1948, he explicates Phèdre as a play representative of Racine's vision of "the human heart finding its pleasure in suffering, jealous of every unknown agony and form of sadism."]
Each age is comprehensible and distinct according to its doctrine on human suffering. In the seventeenth century the evolution of this doctrine forms a unified and complete lesson. The hero of Corneille seeks his happiness and safeguards it in life and in death. Pascal,...
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SOURCE: "Discords and Resolutions," in Racine and Poetic Tragedy, translated by P. Mansell Jones, 1955. Reprint by Manchester University Press, 1962, pp. 27-46.
[In the following excerpt from an English-language edition of a volume originally published in French in 1951, Vinaver examines Racine's tragic poetry, particularly its employment in Andromaque, Brittanicus, Bajazet, Bérénice, and Mithridate.]
It would be unjust to reproach the contemporaries of Racine with the small account they made of his originality. Belonging to an epoch which believed less in genius than in talent, they could not pay him greater homage than to place him by common accord in the rank of the worthiest craftsmen of the regular theatre. In the funeral oration which he pronounced at the Academy on the 27th of June 1699, Valincour with his fine sagacity did indeed recognize in the author of Andromaque and Phèdre the merit of having opened 'new roads'; he praised him even for having 'filled his audience with that terror and that pity which, according to Aristotle, are the veritable passions which tragedy should produce'. But twelve years before, La Bruyère had said of these passions that they constituted the common ground of all tragedy, that of Corneille as well as Racine's. And as for those privileged witnesses who on the 17th of November 1667 had applauded in the Queen's apartments the first presentation...
(The entire section is 5999 words.)
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 indispensable qualifications for tragedy: he possessed a dramatic temperament and a strange perturbation of the spirit. His talent may be likened to a small volcano covered with a patch of flowers. His polished lines are more dramatic than a casual reading, particularly in their inadequate English translations, would reveal. Recited by a competent artist, not to speak of a Rachel or a Sarah Bernhardt, the precise phrases rise and fall with emotion. Lines like Hermione's cry in the Andromaque, after she has ordered the assassination of the man she loves, are typical:
Où suis-je? Qu' ai je fait? Que dois-je faire encore? …
Errante et sans dessein, je cours dans ce palais.
Ah! ne puis-je...
(The entire section is 3023 words.)
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 only in the contrast in the scope and precision of the findings achieved in each of these domains, but also as far as the terminology is concerned. The terms habitually employed in the human sciences lack both precision and functional capacity, two essential properties if investigators are to agree, if not about their theories and analyses, at least about the actual object of their study, about the nature of the truths they investigate and the ideas they advance. Besides, a similar discrepancy also exists within these human sciences—we need only compare the "science of literature" with the other branches of sociology and history—and at present the scientific study of literature is far more an aspiration than a reality....
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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 the stage. Then, in his last period, he was persuaded to write the two Biblical plays, Esther and Athalie. Any critic of Racine's work is confronted with the twelve years' silence following the twelve years of continuous dramatic activity. However we explain his long retirement from the stage we can be sure that there was more than one reason, and it is not difficult to guess that the reasons were interrelated. In the first place, he gave up the irregularities of his sexual life, as many men do on the threshold of middle age, and married a pious woman who seems to have disapproved of the stage, the more heartily because one of Racine's discarded mistresses had taken the leading role in his tragedies. Second, Racine became...
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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 difficulties of translating Racine's poetry, with "the justness of its rhythms and logic, and the glory of its hard, electric rage."]
Racine's plays are generally and correctly thought to be untranslatable. His syllabic alexandrines do not and cannot exist in English. We cannot reproduce his language, which is refined by the literary artifice of his contemporaries, and given a subtle realism and grandeur by the spoken idiom of Louis XIV's court. Behind each line is a for us lost knowledge of actors and actresses, the stage and the moment. Other qualities remain: the great conception, the tireless plotting, and perhaps the genius for rhetoric and versification that alone proves that the conception and plotting are...
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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 accessible to the peoples of other countries'.
Racine presents special difficulties for foreigners. They are by no means confined to foreigners. There are at present two generally accepted approaches to the French classic dramatists. You can either wipe away the veneer which has accumulated with the passage of time and obscures the work of the master and try to think yourself back into the seventeenth century, or you can argue that no great writer belongs exclusively to a particular period and insist on the importance of the plays as dramatic experience. The first of these approaches is the safer, the second the more rewarding and also the more dangerous.
The dangers are illustrated by a controversy...
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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 example. To go further in that direction might obscure a truth which English readers sometimes find it difficult to accept—that, apart from the requirements of the stage, Racine was a supreme verbal artist. His verse, as verse, has been admired by poets of such radically different temperaments as Voltaire and Valéry and has influenced them profoundly.
An admirer himself of Malherbe, no rebel against the conventions of préciosité, an imitator of the Greeks and a respecter of contemporary good taste, his verse should have been well-mannered and slightly dull. Possibly it even appears so on a first acquaintance, but to be halted by this surface impression is to turn back on the brink of a new world—an alien...
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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 Iphigénie—Racine's greatest success, with the Court, the Town, and the critics. Until the end of the eighteenth century and beyond, it was regarded as one of his greatest plays—perhaps his greatest. I will consider for a moment these three plays by Racine at the height of his success, and try to discover from them some of the characteristics of his mastery.
Traditionally, the great strength of Racine is his portrayal of women in love. Bajazet may stand as an example. We may instance Act II, Scene i, with its powerful and subtle drawing of Roxane's conflicting emotions. She swings from formal elegance to a direct proposal of marriage. When Bajazet prevaricates, she first reasons with him, and then becomes indignant, though for a...
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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 and Shakespeare. Racine has no witches, no gravediggers, no storms, no battles on stage. Racine's tragedies have no low-life subplots and no deliberate excursions into the comic register. Furthermore Shakespeare's exuberant poetry is far removed from Racine's laconic formality. But these differences should not overshadow the similarities. Their theatrical relationship can be better understood by considering what they have in common, in particular the visual dimension of their dramatic art. If one supposes a scale of physical action from the batting of an eyelid to the fighting of battles, one can say that Shakespeare used the whole scale whilst Racine avoided the latter extreme. However, there remains a substantial range of visual language...
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Barnwell, H. T. The Tragic Drama of Corneille and Racine: An Old Parallel Revisited. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, 275 p.
Investigates various aspects of plot in the dramas of Racine and Corneille with the aim of seeing more clearly "both the parallels and the divergences between the two dramatists, not only in their technique itself (what they called their art) but also in its implication in the presentation of their tragic vision."
Barthes, Roland. On Racine. Translated by Richard Howard. 1960. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1977, 172 p.
In-depth examination of each of Racine's dramas, attempting to reconstruct "a kind of Racinian anthropology, both structural and psychoanalytic: structural in content, because tragedy is here treated as a system of units ('figures') and functions; psycholanylitic in form, because only an approach ready to acknowledge the fear of the world, as I believe psychoanalysis is, seems to me suitable for dealing with the image of man confined."
C. M. Bowra. "The Simplicity of Racine." In his In General and Particular, pp. 149-72. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964.
Addresses the manner in which Racine trimmed every aspect of his dramas to their essentials to set a new standard of dramatic effectiveness and power in the...
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