Jean Racine World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1970

Although he did write one witty comedy, The Litigants, Racine has remained famous almost exclusively for the nine tragedies that he wrote between Andromache in 1667 and Athaliah in 1691. His first two plays, The Theban Brothers and Alexander the Great , are rather weak tragedies, and critics generally...

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Although he did write one witty comedy, The Litigants, Racine has remained famous almost exclusively for the nine tragedies that he wrote between Andromache in 1667 and Athaliah in 1691. His first two plays, The Theban Brothers and Alexander the Great, are rather weak tragedies, and critics generally agree that there is a significant difference in quality between these two early plays and his later tragic masterpieces. Like Corneille, who was the other great French tragic playwright in the seventeenth century, Racine depicted very effectively the use and abuse of political power, but Racine also developed profound connections between love and violence and created both sympathetic victims and psychologically complicated and fascinating villains.

Britannicus (pr. 1669, pb. 1670; English translation, 1714) illustrates beautifully Racine’s creative method. This tragedy deals with very famous historical characters whom the Roman historian Tacitus had analyzed in his Ab excessu divi Augusti (c.116 c.e.; Annals, 1598). Although the title character in this tragedy is the half brother of Emperor Nero, Racine affirms in his preface that the main focus is not Britannicus but the evil Nero. Racine speaks of Nero thus:I always considered him to be a monster. But here he is a monster being born. He has not yet set fire to Rome. He has not yet murdered his mother, his wife, his governors.

Spectators fully expect Nero to be depicted as the violent and dangerous criminal that he was. In Britannicus, there are six major characters. The three virtuous characters are Britannicus, his beloved Junie, and Nero’s good adviser, Burrhus. The three amoral characters are Nero, his mother, Agrippina, and his evil adviser, Narcissus. Against the wishes of her late husband, Emperor Claudius, Agrippina had Nero placed on the throne instead of Britannicus. Now that he is emperor, Nero has no further need for his mother. He has begun to act violently. Although he knows that Britannicus and Junie love each other very much, he has Junie abducted “in the middle of the night.” She fears being killed or raped by him. Narcissus encourages his master to satisfy his every desire, and this advice pleases Nero immensely. Racine describes Nero as a sadist who enjoyed making Junie suffer and weep. Nero tells her that if she confesses her love to Britannicus, he will have his half brother murdered. As the lovers talk, Nero listens in the wings. Junie is terrified, and Britannicus cannot understand why his beloved is now so distant.

In act 3, Junie is finally permitted to express her true feelings for Britannicus and tries in vain to persuade him to flee from Rome. The hypocritical tyrant Nero returns to the stage and affirms that it is only just for him to have Britannicus arrested because his half brother dared to criticize the abduction of Junie. In act 4, Nero tells his mother that he has no intention of obeying those laws that interfere with the satisfaction of his violent sexual desires. For him, murder and rape are permissible, but he promises to Agrippina that he will spare the life of his half brother. Although Agrippina is deceived by Nero, the spectators are under no such delusions. They know that Britannicus will soon be killed. Burrhus describes how Nero himself murdered his half brother. While proclaiming his friendship for Britannicus, Nero gave him a cup of poisoned wine. The unsuspecting Britannicus died instantly, and the witnesses realized that Nero had poisoned his half brother. Although the spectators are angered by the death of Britannicus, there is some poetic justice in this tragedy. As Junie fled from the imperial court in order to reach safety with the Vestal Virgins, Narcissus attacked her in the streets. The onlookers killed Narcissus in order to prevent the rape or murder of Junie.

Although much violence takes place offstage in Racine’s tragedies, his style is consistently elegant and refined. Racine is a very effective dramatic poet. His virtuous and villainous characters express themselves in similar styles, but the spectators learn to distinguish very carefully between the way that Racine’s characters speak and act. Appearance and reality are quite different in his tragedies. In Athaliah, for example, the title character is a monstrous grandmother who tried to kill all her grandchildren in order to seize power in Judea. She learns that her grandson Joas is still alive and is being protected by the high priest in the temple in Jerusalem. When Athaliah describes herself as a loving grandmother whose sole wish is to see her only surviving grandchild, neither the high priest Joad nor the spectators are deceived. They realize that she is a lying hypocrite whose eloquent language belies her criminal nature. Although there is a clear distinction between moral and amoral characters in Racine’s tragedies, the villainous characters are often much more interesting, largely because they try so hard to deceive others, and it often takes much time for the virtuous characters to appreciate the full moral turpitude of these villains who misuse political power for their own selfish reasons.

Andromache

First produced: Andromaque, 1667 (first published, 1668; English translation, 1674)

Type of work: Play

As a prisoner of the Greeks after the end of the Trojan War, Andromache must overcome her hatred for the Greeks in order to save her young son, Astyanax, from death.

Andromache was Racine’s first tragic masterpiece. This play describes the destructive links between love and violence and shows how the four major characters tried to destroy one another through manipulation and threats. As this tragedy begins, Andromache (widow of the Trojan military hero Hector) is a prisoner with her young son Astyanax in Epirus, where the Greek king, Pyrrhus, reigns. Pyrrhus is engaged to the Greek princess Hermione, whom he wishes to repudiate so that he can marry Andromache. Hermione still loves Pyrrhus, but she is loved by Orestes, whom other Greek cities have sent as an ambassador to Epirus to demand that Pyrrhus execute Astyanax. The Greeks have an irrational fear that if Astyanax reaches manhood, he will avenge his father’s death and conquer Greece. Andromache begins a full year after the destruction of Troy.

In act 1, Pyrrhus seems to be a very sensible monarch who values human life. He argues that it is morally unacceptable for the Greeks to seek the death of an innocent child. Pyrrhus is, of course, correct. In the very next scene, however, Pyrrhus is revealed as a hypocrite. In a very formal style, he tells Andromache that Astyanax will be promptly executed unless she agrees to marry him. His extreme brutality and overt abuse of political power inspire terror in Andromache. When Hermione first appears in act 2, she describes herself as a vulnerable and unstable character with a tendency toward violence. She had encouraged the Greeks to seek the death of both Astyanax and Andromache because Hector’s widow was her rival for the love of Pyrrhus. Orestes loves Hermione, but he allows himself to be manipulated by her because he is afraid of losing her. He does not object when she asks him to prove his love for her by assassinating Pyrrhus if he marries Andromache.

The residents of Epirus are enraged because they realize that influential people such as Pyrrhus, Hermione, and Orestes are willing to use violence in order to satisfy their own sexual desires. An uprising is becoming more and more likely. As a prisoner, Andromache does not know that Pyrrhus may soon be overthrown by his own subjects. She is haunted by a recurring nightmare. She keeps seeing the deaths of her husband, parents, and cousins during the sacking of Troy and cannot forgive the Greeks, who killed so many Trojans before her eyes. The past weighs heavy on Andromache, who has become a prisoner of her terrifying memories. She finally decides to marry Pyrrhus, but she intends to commit suicide immediately after the marriage ceremony. She hopes that Pyrrhus will keep his promise and preserve Astyanax from death. Between acts 4 and 5, however, Pyrrhus is killed just before his marriage to Andromache can be celebrated.

Racine wrote two separate versions for act 5 in Andromache. In the original 1667 version, Andromache returns to the stage after the assassination of Pyrrhus and seems to relish her new political power. She has been transformed into a rather unsympathetic politician. In the 1676 version of Andromache, she does not return to the stage after the death of Pyrrhus. In this version, spectators retain a much more favorable opinion of her profound dignity. This tragedy ends very badly for the violent characters. Hermione commits suicide, and guilt drives Orestes mad. The spectators realize, however, that little hope for a better world exists because the innocent Astyanax will die at a young age. Andromache is a very effective tragedy that continues to fascinate.

Phaedra

First produced: Phèdre, 1677 (first published, 1677; English translation, 1701)

Type of work: Play

Phaedra is torn between the duty that she feels for her profligate husband, Theseus, and her love for her stepson, Hippolytus.

Phaedra is the most problematic tragedy written by Racine. Ever since its first publication in 1677, critics have been proposing the most diverse interpretations for this tragedy. As Phaedra begins, Hippolytus announces his intention of leaving his homeland, although he is unwilling to explain the reasons for his decision. In the following scene, Oenone, who is Phaedra’s confidant, informs Hippolytus that Hippolytus’s stepmother, Phaedra, is exceedingly depressed and cannot receive visitors. When she is alone with Oenone, Phaedra speaks of her fatalistic view of the world. She believes that “everything is conspiring to harm” her. Although she realizes that it is wrong for her to feel passion for her stepson because her husband is still alive, Phaedra cannot resist this forbidden love, which she describes as “Venus completely attached to her prey.” Spectators and readers of Phaedra can never determine with any certainty if Phaedra is deceiving Oenone or if she truly considers herself to be a victim of love and fate. Phaedra is a marvelously ambiguous tragedy.

Near the end of act 1, a false report is given that Theseus has died during his travels. Oenone suggests that the death of Theseus renders legitimate Phaedra’s passion for Hippolytus, but there are two major obstacles. First, Hippolytus loves and wishes to marry Aricia, a royal princess from Athens. Racine describes Hippolytus and Aricia as sympathetic young lovers who are afraid that their parents will object to their marriage because the two come from different regions of Greece. Secondly, Phaedra learns in act 3 that her husband is still alive. During the second act, Phaedra confesses her passion to her stepson, who reacts with disbelief. When she realizes that Hippolytus has rejected her love, she takes Hippolytus’s sword. Just before Theseus returns, Phaedra learns to her horror that Hippolytus loves Aricia. The enraged Phaedra seeks revenge. She tells her husband that Hippolytus tried to rape her and assures Theseus that she grabbed his sword in order to defend herself from her violent stepson. The self-righteous Theseus, who had seduced and raped several women, calls upon the gods to punish his son with death. A terrible injustice is committed when the gods send a sea monster, which kills Hippolytus. Theramenes, who had been a father figure to Hippolytus, describes his death in a long speech. Theramenes’ narrative is almost universally recognized as the most moving and eloquent speech ever written by Racine. It is difficult not to weep when listening to Theramenes’ description of the death of this innocent young person. Phaedra then returns to the stage, admits the baseness of her accusations against Hippolytus, and states that she has swallowed poison. She leaves the stage in order to die. The repentant Theseus offers to serve as a father for Aricia, but she will have nothing to do with the tyrant who was responsible for the death of her beloved Hippolytus.

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