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...
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