Jean Racine Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
ph_0111201574-Racine.jpg Jean Racine Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Combining psychological insight, poetic power, and a profoundly pessimistic view of human life, Racine wrote the finest tragedies in French literature.

Early Life

Jean Baptiste Racine was born in the village of La Ferté-Milon, near Soissons, France, and was baptized on December 22, 1639, presumably shortly after his birth. His mother was Jeanne Sconin Racine, and his father was Jean Racine, a minor local official. When Jean Baptiste was a year old, his mother died in childbirth. Although his father remarried a year later, he too died, in 1643, leaving Jean Baptiste and his sister penniless. His grandparents took the two babies; Jean Baptiste’s sister went to his mother’s family, and he went to live with his father’s parents. When Jean was nine, however, his paternal grandfather died, and his grandmother entered the Convent of Port-Royal des Champs, southwest of Paris, where her sister was a nun and her daughter was a postulant.

Port-Royal was the center of Jansenism, an austere doctrine, based on Cornelis Jansen’s interpretation of Saint Augustine, arguing that man was predestined to be saved by grace alone, not by works. After its introduction at the Cistercian convent of Port-Royal in 1634, Jansenism began to spread throughout France, partly because its emphasis on rectitude appealed to those who were disillusioned with the moral corruption around them and partly because its proponents were the outstanding scholars and educators of their day. Realizing the threat which Jansenism posed to their intellectual and educational monopoly, the Jesuits opposed it bitterly and in 1653 obtained the condemnation of its doctrines by Pope Innocent X. Throughout its existence, Port-Royal, its nuns, and its scholars were subject to persecution. The opponents of Jansenism finally succeeded in having the convent abolished in 1708.

Like many other young men of his time, Jean Racine was educated by the Jansenists. Indeed, except for two years in a Jansenist college in Beauvais (1653-1655), he was at the center of Jansenism, Port-Royal des Champs, from 1649 to 1658, reading the literary classics, learning Greek and Latin, studying philosophy and theology, and absorbing the somber view of life which was held by his mentors. For the orphaned boy, Port-Royal was home as well as school. In addition to his aunt, grandaunt, and grandmother in the convent, he had other kinfolk nearby. His grandmother’s sister had married M. Vitart, and the Vitarts, too, were ardent Jansenists. Racine’s feeling for Port-Royal is evident: Even after his school was closed by royal decree in 1656, he remained at Port-Royal, studying independently. Later, he was to defend the Jansenists as much as he dared; to write a short history of Port-Royal, which was not published even in part until 1742 and not in full until 1767; and to request burial at Port-Royal.

In 1658, Racine went to the Collège d’Harcourt in the University of Paris to study law. The following year, he lived with and was employed by his grandmother’s nephew Nicolas Vitart, the steward of the Jansenist Duc de Luynes. From his base in the Hôtel de Luynes, Racine ventured into the brilliant, sophisticated world of Louis XIV’s France. He became a boon companion of the ecclesiastical amorist, the Abbé le Vasseur, and of Jean de La Fontaine, who was to write the immortal Fables Written in Verse (1668). He attended the theater, socialized with actors and actresses, and indulged in a number of love affairs. He also began to write, first light verse, then an ode dedicated to Louis’ new queen. This was Racine’s first published work.

Because of his association with performers, however, Racine was also developing an interest in writing for the theater. Encouraged by an actress, he wrote his first play, which was never produced and is lost; encouraged by an actress of another troupe, he began a second play that may not have been finished and certainly was never performed.

Although Racine was enjoying himself in Paris, he was sinking deeper and deeper into debt. Furthermore, his family disapproved of his activities. At their insistence, in 1661 he went to Uzès, where a maternal uncle hoped to find the young man a sinecure in the Church. A year later, unsuccessful, Racine was back in Paris. Events had made the decision for him: He was to make his mark not in the Church but in the theater and at court.

Life’s Work

As Racine’s letters reveal, the playwright was a complex person. From the Jansenists, he had absorbed the conviction that human beings are at the mercy of emotions over which they have no control and that therefore they have very little control over their lives. As a sensitive human being, he felt compassion for these creatures, yet as an artist he could view their anguish with detachment. Racine liked to think of himself as a scholar-poet; yet he was ambitious, and he planned the political moves which would ensure his success at court. A sketch by his eldest son emphasizes both his confidence and his capacity for detachment. A dark-eyed, dark-wigged man with a prominent nose, rounded features, and an unimpressive chin, Racine looks out at the world with a slight smile, as if he is taking its measure for his plays and for his purposes.

Racine’s career as a playwright lasted only thirteen years, from 1664 to 1677. During that time, he produced eleven tragedies and one comedy, rose to social eminence, and, by winning royal favor, gained wealth and a title of nobility. It was the great actor-manager and comic playwright Molière who produced Racine’s first tragedy at the Palais Royal on June 20, 1664. Entitled La Thébaïde: Ou, Les Frères ennemis (1664; The Theban Brothers, 1723), it was the...

(The entire section is 2382 words.)

Jean Racine Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Born in December, 1639, to a bourgeois family of La Ferté-Milon (about forty miles northeast of Paris), Jean Racine was left an orphan at the age of four and was adopted by his paternal grandmother. In 1649, his penurious grandmother sought refuge at the celebrated center of Jansenism, Port-Royal, where Racine received an excellent education in Latin as well as Greek. Jansenism, which upheld the doctrine of predestination and insisted on the helplessness of humankind without divine grace, can be described as a kind of Calvinistic Catholicism. Denying free will and practicing a very rigorous code of morality, the Jansenists reproved the more relaxed tenets of the dominant and rival Jesuits. Although many critics have focused on a Jansenist orientation in the plays, it is uncertain whether Racine was a Jansenist during his literary career or indeed whether his teachers actually inculcated their theology in their pupils.

After four years at Port-Royal, Racine spent two years at the Collège de Beauvais, then three more at Port-Royal, and finally completed his education in Paris at the Collège d’Harcourt. Racine’s austere and scholarly masters (called solitaires, the solitary persons) introduced the young Racine to the Bible and ancient literature. In an age in which education was based on Latin, Racine was fortunate to acquire a thorough knowledge of Greek. He read in the original ancient Greek tragedy, notably Sophocles and Euripides, and most critics point to the Hellenistic simplicity and the mysterious force of destiny so characteristic of Racine’s plays. In Paris, the ambitious Racine wrote poetry and cultivated many literary acquaintances. His first published piece, an ode in honor of Louis XIV’s marriage, appeared in 1660, and earned for Racine a small royal gratification. Racine’s first play, “L’Amasie,” now lost, was rejected; a second attempt at the theater, “Théagène et Chariclée,” remained unfinished. Torn between worldly ambition and the lingering influence of Port-Royal, which condemned a literary career as frivolous and sinful, Racine spent an unhappy year in southern France, at Uzès, where he had hoped to gain an ecclesiastic sinecure. His decision to return to Paris in 1663 was rewarded by some literary success; the publication of several poems put Racine on a list of royal pensioners.

Although Racine’s first two dramatic ventures did not reach the stage, they brought him into closer contact with Molière, who, as director of an...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

Jean Racine Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jean Baptiste Racine (ra-SEEN) was born in the small French town of La Ferté-Milon and was baptized on December 22, 1639. His parents, Jean and Jeanne Racine, were relatively poor. His mother died in childbirth on January 28, 1641, and his father died on February 6, 1643. Racine and his sister were adopted by their maternal grandmother, Marie Desmoulins. In 1649, she left Racine’s sister with a cousin in La Ferté-Milon and moved to Paris so that she could become a nun in the Jansenist convent at Port-Royal des Champs, where her daughter Agnès was the abbess. The young Racine became a pupil at the Port-Royal School, where he received a superb classical education. The quality of the teaching at the Port-Royal School was held in...

(The entire section is 749 words.)

Jean Racine Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jean Racine was both a very fine poet and a profound playwright whose tragic vision of the world continues to fascinate theatergoers and readers almost three centuries after the end of his literary career. Racine had the extraordinary ability of transforming famous episodes from ancient history and mythology and from the Old Testament into powerful tragedies that express with refined eloquence the intense suffering of his characters.

(The entire section is 67 words.)

Jean Racine Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jean Baptiste Racine (ra-seen) is remembered, along with Pierre Corneille, as a leader of the classical revival in the drama of seventeenth century France. His father was a solicitor and local official in the town of La Ferté-Milon, but both parents died soon after Jean’s birth in December, 1639, and the boy was brought up by his Jansenist grandparents. He attended school first at Beauvais and later at the famous Jansenist monastery of Port-Royal, where he wrote quite passable odes in both Latin and French while still in his teens. By the time he had left the Collège d’Harcourt, he had composed an ode in honor of the marriage of Louis XIV that earned for him six hundred livres from the monarch, written two unsuccessful...

(The entire section is 694 words.)