Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4187
The outer form of Racinian tragedy differs little from that of his predecessors. His five-act plays are written in regular twelve-syllable Alexandrine verse; Jean Racine adheres to the three unities of time, place, and action, to the concept of bienséance , which prohibited vulgarity of language and overt violence on...
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- Critical Essays
The outer form of Racinian tragedy differs little from that of his predecessors. His five-act plays are written in regular twelve-syllable Alexandrine verse; Jean Racine adheres to the three unities of time, place, and action, to the concept of bienséance, which prohibited vulgarity of language and overt violence on the stage, and to the required “unity of tone,” a sustained elegance and dignity proper to tragedy. The concept of gloire, which informs the work of Corneille, however, is modified in Racine. An exulted self-esteem and worldly fame arising from the exercise of total freedom, gloire in Racine loses its compelling force. Whereas in Corneille, the hero achieves self-realization through the domination of his or her love, the hero in Racine accepts fully this passion and the destiny that it entails. The dependent, yet far from weak, lover in Racine knows and acknowledges that he or she cannot exist without the beloved. This “demolition of the hero” reveals a new psychological realism that spurns the illusory ambition of complete self-mastery and independence. From a social and historical viewpoint, this new perspective bears witness to the decline of the ancient aristocratic ideals after the subjugation of the nobility during the absolutist regime of Louis XIV.
Although famous after the resounding success of Alexander the Great in 1665, Racine created in his next play, Andromache, what is unanimously called his first true masterpiece. This play presented something new to contemporary audiences: love as an overwhelming, ultimately destructive passion in both men and women, who, under its sway, are bereft of honor, pride, resolve, and self-control. This play proved beyond doubt that Corneillian heroism was passé, and Racine was generally hailed as the great man’s successor despite vehement criticisms leveled at the play by Corneille’s supporters.
Evoking the epic grandeur of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), Andromache, set at the court of Pyrrhus in Epirus, opens with Oreste sent by the vengeful and fearful Greeks to demand Hector’s son, Astyanax, who has been held captive by Pyrrhus since the Fall of Troy one year earlier. Because of his passionate love for the captive Andromache, Pyrrhus refuses to deliver the boy to the Greeks. He intends to use Astyanax as blackmail: He will turn him over to the Greeks if Andromache does not marry him. Oreste, ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, has other motives for visiting Epirus: He loves Hermione, Pyrrhus’s betrothed, whom Pyrrhus has neglected because of his passion for Andromache. Oreste hopes that his mission will fail so that he will be able to persuade Hermione to renounce the unfaithful Pyrrhus and return with him to Greece. Pyrrhus’s blackmail means that the entire situation revolves on Andromache’s decision: If she accepts his offer, he will reject Hermione, thus making her available to Oreste; if she refuses, Pyrrhus will accept Hermione, Andromache will lose Astyanax—the last vestige of her dead husband Hector—and Oreste will lose all hope of winning Hermione.
While Andromache ponders this momentous decision, Pyrrhus, angered by her hesitations, has a change of heart. He will fulfill his official duty by marrying Hermione and delivering Astyanax to the Greeks. Thinking that he must now yield Hermione to Pyrrhus, Oreste is disconsolate when he learns of this. Andromache is in despair; Hermione, who is apparently triumphant, exults. The depth of Pyrrhus’s passion, however, forces him to weaken. In a fateful interview with Andromache, he again falls under her spell, allowing her more time to choose between marrying him or losing her son. Andromache’s long-awaited decision emerges at the beginning of act 4: To save her son, she will marry Pyrrhus, then commit suicide. Neglected once again, Hermione, in a jealous rage, demands that Oreste murder the double-dealing Pyrrhus. In act 5, scene 3, the deed is done; Oreste, believing that this act has earned for him possession of Hermione, is astounded when she bitterly blames him for the murder of her beloved Pyrrhus. He goes mad after learning that Hermione has killed herself over the body of Pyrrhus. Of the four principal characters, Andromache, the Trojan captive, alone survives, indeed triumphs, at the play’s close, for she has assured the survival of her son, and, as widow of Pyrrhus, assumes control over Epirus.
The outward simplicity of the play’s plot structure belies the complex psychology at work. Because the action of the play is psychological, time and space play no role: Racine has made use of the unities to create a taut work that concentrates on the emotional crisis provoked by Oreste’s arrival. Once this occurs, the dominant emotions of the individuals affected inexorably lead to the final catastrophe. Aside from the Greeks’ demand, revealed in act 1, scene 1, no external event influences the emotional interplay among the four protagonists. The three Greek characters are at the mercy of their passions: Pyrrhus, son of the great Achilles, is a horribly tormented king who, almost despite himself, is ready to sacrifice all for Andromache. Oreste, son of Agamemnon, whose incipient madness is suggested in the opening scene, actually hopes that his diplomatic mission will fail so that he might win Hermione. Hermione, daughter of the beautiful and celebrated Helen, is overwhelmed by Pyrrhus’s rejection of her. She, like Oreste and Pyrrhus, can rule neither her heart nor her mind.
Illumined by the grandeur that was Troy, Andromache, however, does not belong to the psychological universe of the Greek characters. Her fidelity to her destroyed city and above all to her dead husband, Hector, both incarnate in the person of Astyanax (who never appears onstage, thereby reinforcing his value as symbol), is the keystone of her complex character. Her dilemma—to marry Pyrrhus or to see her son die—entails in each case treason against Troy. Her solution, which, she says, the spirit of Hector has ordered, constitutes a heroic self-sacrifice in the name of a higher value. The irony of her triumph—a captive who imposes her will on the others—reflects the more general theme of revenge in the play. Troy, in the person of Andromache, avenges itself on its Greek enemies. Repeated allusions to the destruction of Troy and to its hero Hector reinforce this interpretation. The means of revenge is the insurmountable power of passion. Pyrrhus, a cruel warrior who played a major role in Troy’s final destruction, now suffers the intolerable pangs of unrequited love as well as remorse for his murderous barbarism at Troy. The seemingly conventional image of love’s flame is rejuvenated by Racine to evoke Troy’s revenge on Pyrrhus; he is “Brûlé de plus de feux que je n’en allumai” (“Burned by more fires than I lit”). Just as he had burned Troy in a passion of hatred, he himself now “burns” in a passion of love that Andromache’s eyes have kindled within him. Racine’s mastery of imagery and vocabulary is also apparent in what one critic calls the “poetics of the glance”: The eyes of the lover can only imperfectly “grasp” the beloved, yet the latter’s eyes maintain an inescapable power over he who loves.
The situation in which one character has absolute physical control over another, yet loves passionately and without recompense the same character, exists in many of Racine’s plays. The main structure of Racinian tragedy appears to be based on a relationship of force and authority. As a consequence, a trial of strength lies at the foundation of his theater. Although the characters in Andromache—and in this they are characteristically Racinian—appear to be carried away with their emotions, they arrive at essential decisions lucidly: Pyrrhus, in wishing to marry a Trojan captive, knows very well that he is disowning his country and repudiating his past deeds as well as those of his father Achilles. Like Oreste, he accepts fully his passion and its tragic consequences. His acquiescence to blind destiny constitutes his self-realization. Unlike the autonomous, strong-willed heroes of Corneille, Racinian heroes enjoy no genuine freedom.
The Litigants, Racine’s only comedy, is an anomaly in his rather unified tragic uvre, and for this reason it has been relatively neglected by scholars. A scathing satire of the French legal system, the play exhibits, by its parodies, puns, and acrobatic versification, Racine’s mastery of language and poetry.
The huge success of Andromache prompted the partisans of Corneille to charge that Racine was merely a poet of love and tenderness and that he would never master the more significant historical and political subjects of Corneille’s drama. To answer these criticisms, Racine presented Britannicus, a political play of jealousy and ambition set in Nero’s Rome. At first a failure, Britannicus later established itself; it ranks third, after Phaedra and Andromache, in the number of performances at the Comédie-Française.
As in Andromache, the plot is rather simple. Intending to continue her own rule, Agrippine, mother of Néron, has put her own son on the throne in place of Britannicus, its rightful heir. Néron, however, does not prove to be the obedient and docile son: At the opening of the action, he has just abducted the young princess Junie, whom Agrippine had intended for Britannicus, and with whom Néron, finding himself in a loveless political marriage, has fallen in love. Junie loves Britannicus, which Néron will not tolerate: In a famous scene (act 2, scene 6), the hidden Néron watches as Junie, under his command, must reject the stunned Britannicus. At a critical moment in his infamous career, Néron oscillates between two antithetical political conceptions: Burrhus counsels a policy based on morality, respect of law, and trust in the basic virtue of the people, whereas the Machiavellian Narcisse maintains that Néron must subdue the capricious mob and all those who oppose him. Warned by Narcisse, Néron discovers that Junie, aided by Agrippine, has been able to inform Britannicus of the real reason for her rejection. In this key scene (act 3, scene 8), Néron has the defiant Britannicus arrested on the spot while Agrippine and Junie are put under house arrest. In act 4, Narcisse finally prevails over Burrhus: Néron makes the momentous decision to murder his rival and to marry Junie. In act 5, during a feast of reconciliation, Britannicus is poisoned. Junie flees to the Vestal Virgins: Agrippine curses Néron, who lapses into a despair verging on madness. The play thus closes just as Néron is beginning his murderous career. Racine in his preface describes the play as the depiction of a monstre naissant, a nascent monster. The political conflict among Néron, Agrippine, and Britannicus ends with Néron’s victory: He now has the absolute power required for a reign of tyranny and terror.
Like other Racinian heroes, Néron is predestined, determined by heredity to sadistic cruelty and madness. External circumstances converge to force him to reveal this fatality to all. In the course of the play, Néron’s behavior is unpredictable—which undoubtedly creates great suspense—yet the logic of his actions becomes clear after the entire plot unfolds: Néron unmasks himself, revealing the true character that had been hidden during his three years of rule before the opening of the play. The image of the glance, so important in Andromache, also emerges in Britannicus: Néron seeks to seize and possess another by means of his eyes (act 2, scene 6, for example); his constant avoidance of Agrippine’s formidable presence, his desire to escape her glance and its influence, stress the power of the eyes. Despite his efforts to escape his mother’s tutelage, Néron never succeeds in gaining control over others or events: His adviser Narcisse is killed by a mob, and Junie escapes.
Inasmuch as Néron is probably the play’s most dynamic, interesting character, critics have questioned its title. Britannicus is a courageous, noble, yet extremely naïve and imprudent young man whose political ineptitude makes his murder inevitable. Yet in his preface, Racine insisted on the innocence of Britannicus. A sympathetic character who, through political machinations cannot inherit his rightful place, arouses the compassion and pity of the audience: hence the title of the play.
With the longest role in the play, Agrippine presents an intelligent, proud, unscrupulous, and hugely ambitious woman, a typically formidable Racinian heroine. Her fall is inextricably tied to the death of Britannicus, and, as such, it forms a major subject of the play. She is the outsider, rejected by the young lovers as well as her newly independent son. Just as Pyrrhus in Andromache is torn between Hermione and Andromache, Néron is torn between Agrippine and Junie. In both cases the male character loves, and is rejected by, the gentler woman; each is trying to escape from a domineering, violent woman, a possessive fiancé in one play, a possessive mother in the other. The basic structure of an all-powerful protagonist (Néron) who loves a weaker character (Junie), who in turn has other emotional loyalties, also obtains in this play.
Racine’s success continued in the 1670’s. His next play, Bérénice, is remarkable for its extreme simplicity. In his preface, the author expresses his thoughts on simplicity of action: “There are some who think that this simplicity [of Bérénice] is evidence of little inventiveness. They don’t believe that, on the contrary, all inventiveness lies in making something from nothing.” Written, apparently, as a challenge to Corneille’s Tite et Bérénice (pr. 1670), this play contains only three main characters and their confidants, whose roles are minor. Set in ancient Rome, the action is intimate: The new emperor Tite, whose father Vespasien has recently died, has loved the queen of Palestine, Bérénice, for five years. Although he wishes to marry her, the Senate opposes the marriage of a head of state with a foreign queen. After much pain and hesitation, Tite sacrifices Bérénice and his love to the reason of state. Thus a strangely Corneillian denouement, in which duty triumphs over passion, closes this most Racinian of Racine’s dramas; it is in effect a play of personal sacrifice, quite different in this respect from Racine’s other works.
After creating a play in which nothing happens, Racine in Bajazet, his next work, presented the violent, even sadistic world of the Turkish court in the 1630’s. Bajazet was Racine’s first play published without a polemical, apologetic preface, suggesting, perhaps, that his self-confidence was increasing. Full of suspense, court intrigues, and bloody passions, Bajazet, like Andromache and Britannicus, depicts a character (Roxane) whose power of life or death over another character (Bajazet) is mocked by the enslaving power of love. Roxane swings violently between love and hatred—allied emotions in the complex of Racinian passion—depending on whether she believes that Bajazet returns her love or not and finally has him killed. Despite her cruelty and deceit, Roxane remains a pathetic figure: All of her power cannot erase the fact that her happiness is utterly dependent on Bajazet. Although set in an exotic locale, Bajazet, like Racine’s other plays, is a psychological study revealing the eternal truth of the human heart.
A huge success from its first performance, Mithridates, Racine’s only serious play with what could be called a happy ending, enjoyed the acclaim of the court, the city, and even of the Corneille clique. Set in Rome, the work depicts the cagey, longtime foe of the Romans, Mithridates, at the end of his life. The relatively involved plot and large number of dramatic surprises or coups de théâtre, the heroic apotheosis of Mithridates, whose generosity wins over others who had feared and despised him, and generally strong characters who put duty before sentiment, mark this play among all Racine’s works as the most strongly influenced by Corneille.
Iphigenia in Aulis
Racine’s next play, Iphigenia in Aulis, once again demonstrated his supremacy on the French stage. Returning to Greek myth for his subject matter, Racine imitated Euripides’ Iphigeneia en Aulidi (405 b.c.e.; Iphigenia in Aulis, 1782). It was necessary, however, to adapt the ancient story to the tastes of the seventeenth century French audience. To accomplish this, Racine invented the character of Eriphile, who, because of an ambiguity in the oracle that apparently demands the sacrifice of Iphigenia before the Greek fleet can depart for Troy, is substituted for her and dies on the altar, thus allowing the Greeks to continue their voyage. By substituting a more vraisemblance—or verisimilar—denouement for the miraculous ending of Euripides, Racine satisfied the demand for bienséance (propriety or decorum), for the treacherous and ungrateful Eriphile is much less sympathetic than the virtuous Iphigenia. The enormous suspense generated just before the audience learns that Iphigenia is saved attests Racine’s skill in plot construction. Alternately savage and lyric, Iphigenia in Aulis has been called Racine’s most Homeric play.
Racine’s greatest masterpiece, easily his most celebrated play, Phaedra, was presented in January, 1677, at the same time as a competing “Phaedra.” Jacques Pradon had composed a rival Phèdre et Hippolyte (competing authors often wrote in direct competition), which was at first more successful. After several months, however, Racine’s Phaedra surpassed Pradon’s in popular acclaim. That the play was the inaugural performance of the Comédie-Française in 1680 confirmed its appeal. As in Iphigenia in Aulis, in Phaedra, the mythic element dominates; humanity is in eternal opposition to the seemingly perfidious gods. At the opening of the play, Thésée, king of Troezen, has been absent for six months. His son Hippolyte, apparently concerned about his father, wishes to leave Troezen in search of Thésée. In fact, other reasons motivate Hippolyte’s departure: his love for Aricie, whom Thésée has forbidden him to marry because of her link to the rebellious Pallantides, and his desire to flee the overt hatred of his stepmother Phaedra. After Hippolyte’s revelation that he loves Aricie, a dying Phaedra takes the stage and confesses to her confidante Oenone that she loves Hippolyte and that her enmity toward him has been a means of avoiding an unwilling declaration of her love. A peripeteia closes the first act: News (Aricie calls it “incredible”) arrives that Thésée is dead. This external event effects profound changes in the internal situation: Hippolyte is now free to woo Aricie, and Phaedra can now pursue Hippolyte without fear of incest and adultery.
On the urging of Oenone, Phaedra determines to speak privately to Hippolyte on a political pretext relating to the rights of succession. In perhaps the most famous scene in French classical theater (act 2, scene 5), Phaedra, carried away by her passion, declares her love. While Hippolyte stands dumbfounded, Phaedra seizes his sword, thinking to kill herself but does not. In act 3, the humiliated, rejected Phaedra oscillates between love and hatred for Hippolyte. In her confused state, against the advice of Oenone, she decides to use political blackmail to gain Hippolyte’s love. Devastating news then arrives: Thésée is alive. The desperate and helpless Phaedra, fearful that Hippolyte will tell his father of her incestuous love, is persuaded by Oenone that she must accuse Hippolyte of attempting to seduce her before he can reveal the truth. Putting herself in the hands of Oenone, Phaedra greets Thésée coldly, refusing to accept his sincere affection. Stunned and suspicious, Thésée demands an explanation from Hippolyte, who has naïvely vowed never to reveal Phaedra’s shame to his father.
This oath puts Hippolyte in an untenable position, for he has no effective means of defending himself against Oenone’s lies. The violent, vengeful, and quick-tempered Thésée is convinced by Hippolyte’s sword, left in the hands of Phaedra after act 2, scene 5, and by his son’s diffident behavior. In a stormy interview, Thésée asks Neptune to wreak vengeance on his son; in an attempt at self-defense, Hippolyte confesses his real love for Aricie, which Thésée judges a cowardly ruse. Phaedra, who now realizes that Hippolyte is in mortal danger, resolves to reveal the truth to Thésée. Her regret and pity, however, change to furious hatred and jealousy when Thésée tells her that Hippolyte told him that he loves Aricie. This news makes her continue to hide the truth. Although Thésée begins to guess that Hippolyte was not lying, inexorable destiny is played out in act 5. Hippolyte kills a sea monster sent by Neptune, but then Neptune himself causes the horses of Hippolyte’s chariot to stampede, killing the innocent young hero. Overwhelmed by the enormity of her crime, Phaedra poisons herself. Right before she dies, Phaedra finally tells the truth; the desolate Thésée determines to protect the bereft Aricie.
A malevolent destiny hovers over the action of Phaedra. A descendant of the Sun, daughter of Minos and Pasiphaé, Phaedra bears the curse of Venus. Her mother’s indomitable passion for the White Bull of Crete, the issue of this passion, the Minotaur and its Labyrinth, the doomed love of Phaedra’s sister Ariadne for Thésée—all figure prominently in the play and serve as background to the fateful, “monstrous” passion of Phaedra for Hippolyte. The gods in Phaedra, if one wishes to consider them such (they have been interpreted as symbols for humanity’s unbridled passions), emerge as incomprehensible powers with no moral purpose. Phaedra, who wishes to die throughout the play, knows that escape from her anguish is impossible, for her own father Minos sits as judge at the gates of Hades. Racine presents a universe in which the innocent are punished for uncommitted crimes, in which people are forced by the gods to commit crimes for which they will suffer eternal torment. Such a universe seems absurd; it is truly a tragic vision of the human condition.
True to the Aristotelian concept of the tragic hero, Racine emphasized in his preface that Phaedra is “neither totally guilty nor totally innocent.” Victim of an unrelenting divine vengeance, Phaedra condemns herself for a passion to which she has never yielded. She feels herself responsible for a love over which she has absolutely no control. Phaedra aspires to good, but the gods force her to submit to evil. Both Phaedra and Hippolyte view their respective passions as a mal, a kind of sickness that destroys sovereign reason and thus transforms he who loves. Racinian passion is inimical to self-control and equilibrium, a monster that destroys independence and harmony.
Critics have frequently declared that Phaedra summarizes all Racine’s drama. The universality of the play, its unremitting depiction of human nature aspiring to virtue but condemned to vice, has undoubtedly contributed to its status as Racine’s crowning achievement. The play poses the fundamental problem of liberty. Predetermined, whether by the gods, heredity, or other forces, humanity is unable to escape the monsters that pursue it. Nevertheless, humankind never ceases to assume responsibility and thus affirms an illusory freedom. Phaedra’s awareness of her crime and its shame constitutes, perhaps, a kind of individual liberty and tragic grandeur.
Key words and images converge in the play to reinforce the major themes and conflict. Poison plays a central role as symbol for the fatal passion that courses through the veins of Phaedra. A complex network of images relating to light and darkness also pervades the work. Unable to face her formidable ancestor the Sun, Phaedra retreats from the accusing light of purity and innocence like a furtive nocturnal creature; Phaedra’s desire for darkness evokes not only her shame but also her wish to discover in death eternal darkness. Hippolyte and Aricie, however, share an innocence and purity that revel in the light: “Every day rose clear and serene for them,” whereas Phaedra says of herself: “I hid from the day, I fled from the light.” Phaedra is also a play of monsters: The fruit of Pasiphaé’s passion, the Minotaur, was destroyed by the heroic monster-killer Thésée, whom Hippolyte wishes to emulate. Hippolyte kills the sea monster sent by Neptune, yet dies a victim of Phaedra, whose love, like that of her mother for the White Bull, is against nature, monstrous.
Esther and Athaliah
After Phaedra, twelve years passed before Racine’s next play. Whatever the true reasons for his long silence, it is clear that he became reconciled with his Jansenist masters at Port-Royal. Racine’s second wife, whom he married in 1677, the year of Phaedra, never read her husband’s tragedies; their seven children received a most austere Jansenist upbringing. Racine’s last two plays, Esther and Athaliah, attest the piety of his later years; overtly didactic, both derive from the Old Testament. Although some scholars have hesitated to view these religious plays as integral components of Racine’s uvre, all agree that both obviously bear the imprint of Racine; many consider Athaliah one of his best plays.