Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Pontus. Historical kingdom in Asia Minor (now part of Turkey) whose independence from Rome King Mithridates the Great fought long, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to preserve. In the play, Pontus and nearby Colchis are the power bases of his sons, Xiphares and Pharnace. Since they have traveled to Nymphaeum, neither is on home territory and each must calculate what he can and cannot achieve against the advancing Romans, the forces of his brother, and those of Mithridates who, believed dead, suddenly returns alive to the city.


*Nymphaeum (nihm-FI-um). City in the Crimea to which Mithridates flees after his army is defeated by the Romans at the Euphrates River. The city’s principal significance is that it lies at the easternmost extent of the Roman Empire in the period before Julius Caesar. From Nymphaeum, Mithridates proposes to march to Rome, passing through numerous countries and enlisting support from other rulers. His references to Spain, Gaul, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Black Sea, the Danube River, and other places propel the imaginations of the audience outside and away from the palace in which Mithridates speaks.


*Ephesus (EF-uh-sus). Ancient Greek city in Ionia, the Aegean Sea. Once part of Mithridates’ kingdom, Ephesus was Queen Monime’s home when he first saw her. Several allusions to Ephesus and Greece in the play recall Monime’s childhood, suggesting Monime’s innocence in the rough world of power politics and sexual rivalries in which she finds herself.


*Rome. Capital of the Roman Empire and symbol of all that Mithridates loathes. Thirty mentions of Rome in the play demonstrate its importance in the scenes relating to military ambition. These contrast strongly with scenes featuring Monime, who is betrothed to Mithridates but loves, and is loved by, his son Xiphares. When characters speak of their love, they forget their territorial agendas. Conversely, when Monime accuses the treacherous Pharnace, Mithridates’ other son, of being in thrall to the Romans, her rejection of him is both personal and political. When she believes Xiphares to be dead, her references to the enmity of Rome underline his filial honor and the poignant recognition that she has caused his downfall.

Mithridates Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Abraham, Claude. Jean Racine. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Contains an excellent introduction to Jean Racine’s theater and an annotated bibliography of important critical studies on Racine. The chapter on Mithridates explores the contrasts between Mithridates and his two sons.

Barthes, Roland. On Racine. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964. An influential structuralist study that explores representations of love and tragic space in Racine’s tragedies. Barthes’ chapter on Mithridates examines the death of the title character and the presence of evil and deception in the tragedy.

Goldmann, Lucien. Racine. Translated by Alastair Hamilton. Cambridge, England: Rivers Press, 1972. Contains an insightful sociological reading of Racine’s tragedies that examines them in the light of French seventeenth century politics and social change. Explains carefully the influence of a Catholic religious movement, Jansenism, on Racine’s tragic view of the world.

Maskell, David. Racine: A Theatrical Reading. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Explores problems involved in staging Racine’s eleven tragedies and one comedy. Discusses how different theatrical styles have influenced performances of Racine’s plays. Discusses the critical reception of his plays since the seventeenth century.

Weinberg, Bernard. The Art of Jean Racine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Examines in chronological order each of Racine’s eleven tragedies and describes the significance of each play in the development of Racine’s career as a playwright. The chapter on Mithridates explores the complex psychological motivation for the behavior of the title character.