In his preface to Bérénice, Jean Racine writes about the originality of this powerful tragedy, in which the plot is very limited. Racine explains that a tragedy need not include death. He argues that it is the “majestic sadness” expressed by the three principal characters in Bérénice that creates the aesthetic pleasure for theatergoers and readers alike. Racine understands that readers of tragedies are moved to tears by the restrained dignity and the profound sentiments expressed by characters—and not by the deaths of sympathetic characters. In Bérénice, no one dies, but readers are moved by the self-sacrifice and humanity shown by Emperor Titus and Queen Bérénice.
Bérénice was the fifth of eleven tragedies that Racine wrote between 1664 and 1691. It stands out from his other tragic masterpieces because of the stark simplicity of plot and the small number of principal characters. In Bérénice, the only major characters are the Roman emperor Titus, his fiery queen Bérénice from Palestine, and King Antiochus from the Middle Eastern kingdom of Comagena. Many years before, Antiochus fell in love with Bérénice, but as this tragedy begins, Antiochus realizes that Bérénice loves only Titus. Unlike many of Racine’s tragedies, Bérénice has no villains.
The tragic conflict in Bérénice is quite simple. The newly crowned Roman emperor Titus and the Palestinian queen Bérénice loved each other for several years, and they wish to get married. In his preface, Racine stresses that their mutual love is so pure that they have not yielded to the temptation to make love before marriage. There is little or nothing in Bérénice that could offend the moral or religious sensitivities of a reader. The passion that Titus and Bérénice feel for each other becomes more intense because they did not yet consummate their love. Although Titus and Bérénice are kind and moral characters, there is an insurmountable obstacle to their happiness: Roman law does not permit an emperor to marry a woman who is not Roman or a woman who is a queen. Many Roman historians have explained that Rome was ruled by tyrannical kings before the creation of the Roman Republic. No real difference existed between the absolute power of Roman emperors and that of Roman kings. It was only a question of terminology. Racine suggests throughout this tragedy that xenophobia is the only possible explanation for the Roman tradition that prevents an emperor from marrying a foreigner. When Racine wrote Bérénice, King Louis XIV of France was married to Queen Maria Teresa of Spain. No one in France would have dared to criticize the king’s decision to marry a foreigner; such criticism would have been viewed as unacceptable interference with the king’s freedom of action. Despite the irrational nature of his subjects’ hatred of foreigners and queens, Titus knows that he will have to resign if he marries Bérénice, and he believes that it will be dishonorable for him to resign from his position. Fate weighs heavily on the three principal characters as they come to understand that none of them can ever attain true happiness in life. As this tragedy begins, however, Bérénice has not yet discovered this. Bérénice tells Antiochus of her profound love for Titus; she considers Antiochus to be a countryman and a friend. Although she and Antiochus were once attracted to each other, she believes that neither still feels any passion for the other.
She is, however, mistaken. When Antiochus tells her that he still loves her, Bérénice restrains herself and tells him that she can love only Titus. In her mind, she is not free to love anyone...
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other than her fiancé, Titus. Titus is also so emotionally committed to Bérénice that he could never love another woman.
Titus and Bérénice try to persuade themselves that Romans will not oppose their marriage. Not one of the three wants to recognize that social prejudice dooms his or her love to failure. Titus tries to believe that it will somehow be possible for him to reconcile his passion for Bérénice with his duty to uphold Roman laws and traditions, but he soon realizes that no such compromise exists. In many scenes in this tragedy, Titus and Bérénice agonize about what they should do, and they ask themselves whether they possess the inner strength to renounce their personal happiness in order to ensure peace and tranquillity in Rome. Bérénice becomes very angry and questions the sincerity of Titus’s passion for her. At first, she cannot believe that Titus, who claims to love her, could decide not to marry her because of political pressure, but she comes to realize that his decision not to marry indicates, paradoxically, the depth of his passion for her. If he were to resign as emperor, Bérénice would someday be unable to respect a man who had shown so little respect for his social duty. The profound psychological insights into the nature of passion and the exquisite quality of the poetry in Bérénice continue to move readers and theatergoers centuries after its first performance.