Presenting a theme borrowed from history, Mithridates is a tragedy that conforms absolutely to Jean Racine’s literary ideal: a simple action with few events. In this work Racine was much more faithful to fact than he was in his earlier plays. He simply adds a love interest to the historical story in order to turn it into a drama. The two main characters are memorable in their complexity. Mithridates offers a contrast between the indomitable willpower of the warrior and the blindness and confusion of the unhappy lover. Monime seems to combine harmoniously all the gentleness and strength of Racine’s heroines. The rhetorical style is versatile. Sometimes epic in Mithridates’ speech, it also takes on an exquisite softness to express the subtlest shades of sentiments. Mithridates is the only one of Racine’s tragedies in which the ending is mitigated by a promise of future happiness.
Partly because of his bellicose nature and partly because of the envy inspired by his talent, Racine was regularly involved in one imbroglio or another. In the case of Mithridates, however, from its first performance early in 1673, even his adversaries agreed that he created a triumph. The play was greatly admired at the royal court. Since the seventeenth century, however, Mithridates has not maintained a degree of popularity equal to that of others of Racine’s tragedies. For example, from 1680 to 1965 Phèdre (1677; Phaedra, 1701) and Andromaque (1667; Andromache, 1674) were each produced slightly in excess of thirteen hundred times, whereas Mithridates was played 644 times.
For Racine, particularly adept at portraying the subtleties of the feminine heart, Mithridates is an unusually masculine play. The choice of a male historical figure, in this case a despotic Eastern king, as the central character in his new play was no doubt influenced by his desire to compete with the allegedly more virile theater of the aging Pierre Corneille and to silence those critics prone to blame the softness, or femininity, of plays such as Bérénice (1670; English translation, 1676) and Bajazet (1672; English translation, 1717), his two previous tragedies. The plot is more complex than that of Racine’s earlier plays. Its basic element is the secret: New revelations serve to develop the plot. Xiphares reveals his love to Monime in the first act. Not until late in the second act does Monime reveal her love for him. In act 3,...
(The entire section is 1033 words.)