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Jean Racine 1639-1699

French dramatist, poet, librettist, and historiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Racine's works from 1996 to 2004. For earlier discussions of Racine's career, see LC, Volume 28.

Often called the “French Shakespeare,” Racine is considered a giant of French literature, although his fame rests on only...

(The entire section contains 115808 words.)

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Jean Racine 1639-1699

French dramatist, poet, librettist, and historiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Racine's works from 1996 to 2004. For earlier discussions of Racine's career, see LC, Volume 28.

Often called the “French Shakespeare,” Racine is considered a giant of French literature, although his fame rests on only ten plays. His more renowned plays, including Bajazet (1672), Mithridate (1673), Iphigénie (1674), and Phèdre (1677), are all verse tragedies that rework themes from classical Greek models. As with Greek tragedy, each of Racine's plays emphasizes the exposition of character and spiritual conflict, eliminating nearly everything not essential to the central theme. His style has been described as simple yet polished, smooth yet with undercurrents of complexity. Most of his dramas are still regularly performed, and in France the dramatist is regarded with a respect bordering on piety. There is a vast body of criticism on Racine's writings, and areas of discussion among scholars of his works include the playwright's unique use of dramatic irony, his psychological acuity, his conception of history, his complex moral vision, the theme of power, the treatment of gender, the portrayal of the tragic hero, and the use of Christian themes.

Biographical Information

Born the son of an attorney in La Ferté-Milon near Soissons, Racine was orphaned as an infant. He was raised by his paternal grandparents in the fervently Jansenist city of Port-Royal, where his education afforded him a wide knowledge of Greek and Latin literature as well as Jansenist doctrine. (The Jansenists, named after Bishop Cornelius Jansen of Ypres, were a sect within the Roman Catholic Church who emphasized the perversity of the human will and believed that sin is overcome only by divine grace.) Having written several odes to country scenes near Port-Royal by his late teens, Racine was admitted to the College D'Harcourt in the University of Paris. Several years later, after entering into friendships with Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, and Nicolas Boileau, Racine began writing for the Parisian stage, with the neoclassical theorist Boileau being an especially strong influence on him. In 1664 Racine's La Thébaïde (The Thebans) was produced by Molière, who also mounted the young dramatist's second play, Alexandre le Grande (Alexander the Great), the next year. Both these works brought their author much acclaim. But when Alexandre opened, Racine acted upon the first of several key decisions that brought him strained relations with friends throughout his career. Immediately dissatisfied by Molière's production of Alexandre at the Palais-Royal, he mounted a rival production at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, deeply offending Molière and ending their friendship. At about the same time, due to a misunderstanding, Racine publicly broke with the Jansenist Catholics of Port-Royal by publishing an open letter—which he later regretted—filled with mean-spirited caricatures and anecdotes about key Jansenist figures.

Having split with the Jansenists and now considered a rising rival of the important dramatist Pierre Corneille, Racine embraced the worldliness of the Parisian dramatic world, taking actresses for mistresses and actively competing in dramatic popularity with the elder writer. In the drama Britannicus (1669), he not only ventured into political drama, at the time considered Corneille's exclusive domain, he also attacked Corneille himself (though not by name) in his introduction, believing that a cabal led by Corneille had sought to undermine his success as a playwright. In 1674, having distinguished himself as a playwright, Racine was elected to the Academie Française, becoming its youngest member. Then suddenly, at the height of his career, he retired from the professional theater, married, became the devoted father of seven children, and accepted the post of Royal Historiographer, a position he shared with Boileau. For two decades Racine enjoyed access to the most influential political and literary circles; he and Boileau also traveled with Louis XIV on military campaigns, recording the Sun King's exploits. In 1689, at the request of the king's wife, Madame de Maintenon, Racine produced a new play, Esther (1689), based on the biblical story, which was performed at a religious school in Saint-Cyr. Praised by the king himself, this play was so well received that Racine wrote another biblical drama, Athalie (1691), which was performed at Saint-Cyr two years later. During his remaining years, he wrote four spiritual hymns (Cantiques spirituels, 1694) and a history of Port-Royal (Abrege de l'histoire de Port-Royal; published 1742). Racine died in 1699 after a long illness.

Major Works

Racine's first published work was an ode for the new queen of France, Marie-Thérèse, entitled La Nymphe de la Seine à la Reyne (1660; The Nymph of the Seine to the Queen), which he wrote to launch his literary career. When the poem did not attract the attention he had hoped, Racine turned to writing plays. His first two efforts, now lost, were rejected by two different theaters in Paris. In 1663 Racine wrote and published two more odes, one on the occasion of Louis XIV's recovery from the measles—Ode sur la convalescence du Roi (Ode upon the King's Recovery)—and another to thank the king for having responded favorably to the first—La Renommée aux Muses (Fame to the Muses). The reward for the two works, approved in 1663 and granted in August 1664, was an annual pension from the French government of six hundred livres, which placed Racine on the list of officially recognized French writers, albeit at the bottom.

Now with financial backing from the state, Racine renewed his efforts as a playwright. His first surviving play, the tragedy La Thébaïde, which premiered in June of 1664, is the story of the violent death of Oedipus's three children. It enjoyed moderate success, enough to encourage Racine to continue writing for the stage. The following year's Alexandre le Grande, about the Greek conqueror's conflict with King Porus during his campaign in India, presents Alexander as a young, brilliant, and magnanimous monarch, equally irresistible in his conquest of kingdoms and of women—a transparent image of the rising Louis XIV. The play, dedicated to the monarch, was well received and also brought a rise in Racine's monthly stipend. Andromaque (Andromache) performed before the court in November, 1667 before being presented to the public, was Racine's first great success. It is the story of Hector's widow, who after the Trojan defeat in the Trojan War, is held captive together with her son, Astyanax, at the court of Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles. With this play Racine's reputation and income rose dramatically, as did attacks against him by rivals in the theater, including those who were loyal to his former friend Molière.

In 1668 Racine premiered his only comedy, Les Plaideurs (The Litigants), a farce based in part on Aristophanes' The Wasps. It mocks the passion for litigation and the trappings of the legal system. It did not fare particularly well, and thereafter Racine wrote only tragedies. His next two works, both based on Roman history, were Britannicus, centering around Nero's murder of his half brother, and Bérénice (1670), the tale of Titus's accession as Roman emperor and of his resulting forced separation from Bérénice, the woman he loves. These were followed by the playwright's most admired works: Bajazet, a passionate drama based on recent events at the Ottoman court in Constantinople; Mithridate, based on a well-known episode of the Roman colonial wars and written from the perspective of the defeated kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean; Iphigénie, about the planned sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia, in order to placate the gods and allow the marooned Greek invasion fleet to sail toward Troy; and Phèdre, Racine's best-known play, about the overwhelming and eventually murderous love of Phèdre for her stepson, Hippolyte.

Despite his enormous success as a playwright and growing financial rewards for his accomplishments from the crown, Racine's professional life grew difficult. His rivals were jealous of his stage successes as well as his appointment by the king as the court's official historiographer. Perhaps because of this or because of a religious conversion, he ceased writing for the stage, although he produced a few commissioned works, including occasional verse and librettos for operas and ballets. Then, twelve years after Phèdre, he composed, on royal invitation, his play Esther, based on the biblical Queen Esther who saves the Jewish people from being massacred by the Persians. Another royal invitation resulted in Racine's final play, Athalie, which tells the story of the restoration to the throne of Judah of the last descendant of David, and of the defeat and death of the usurper Athaliah, the villainous daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. Both Racine's biblical plays were performed for a religious school and were not seen by the public in his day. Before his death he composed four poems published together under the title Cantiques spirituels and worked on a history of Port-Royal, which was published after his death. He also continued to revise his writings for republication in collections of his complete works.

Critical Reception

Racine attained great critical and popular success during his lifetime, and his reputation has never waned. He had detractors during his day, many from rival theater companies, who complained that his plays displayed a crude realism and focused too heavily on passion. Some modern critics have also faulted Racine for his conventional views on virtue and morality, since most of his plays betray his view that humans are irredeemably fallen creatures who are doomed to damnation unless saved by divine grace. In the frequent comparisons of Racine to Shakespeare, it is pointed out that he is inferior to the English writer in the narrowness of his range, abstention from speculation, and reluctance to depict the complexity of human life. However, most assessments of Racine have been positive, focusing on his psychological genius, his ability to powerfully depict a world of violent and passionate emotions, and his delicate and precise use of language. Racine is also considered a writer who observed the neo-classical dramatic unities of time, space, and action with the greatest ease and success. His plays take an emotional situation at the very moment it is about to explode and then focus narrowly and precisely on a single theme or several interconnected ones, using no extraneous characters, no gratuitous turns in the narrative, and no subplots. They use, too, a deliberately limited, conventional vocabulary of less than 2,000 words to produce what critics regard as extraordinary poetic effects, although it is said that because of this that Racine's works lose a great deal in translation. It is also generally agreed that no playwright has depicted sexual aggression and jealousy with greater accuracy and force than he has.

If anything, Racine's reputation has suffered from his works being too greatly respected as monuments, and his plays have not invited experimentation in the way that Shakespeare's have to keep them fresh and relevant. However, many critics have noted his almost modern vision of humanity as unable to control or escape its destiny and doomed to destruction in an absurd universe in which the only sign of the gods is their remorseless cruelty. Scholars have also pointed out that his female roles are unusually complex and offer some of the best acting parts for women in the whole classical repertory. Critical commentary on Racine, concentrating on his tragedies, continues to grow, with topics of particular interest being the playwright's mastery of psychology, his complex views of history, his depiction of female characters, his handling of the themes of power and authority, and his political and Christian beliefs. Racine's greatest strengths, scholars concur, are his firm focusing of the plot, the concentration of his vision, his unity of aesthetic creation, and his constant attention to the emotions immediately under analysis. These traits, combined with his striking use of language, produce works that display a clarity and precision—some even say perfection—that, most commentators agree, have never been surpassed or even equaled in French theater.

Principal Works

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La Nymphe de la Seine à la Reyne [The Nymph of the Seine to the Queen] (poetry) 1660

Ode sur la convalescence du Roi [Ode upon the King's Recovery] (poetry) 1663

La Renommée aux Muses [Fame to the Muses] (poetry) 1663

La Thébaïde; ou, Les Freres ennemis [The Thebans; or The Enemy Brothers] (play) 1664

Alexandre le Grande [Alexander the Great] (play) 1665

Andromaque [Andromache] (play) 1667

Les Plaideurs [The Litigants] [adaptor; from the play The Wasps by Aristophanes] (play) 1668

Britannicus (play) 1669

Bérénice (play) 1670

Bajazet (play) 1672

Mithridate (play) 1673

Iphigénie (play) 1674

Phèdre [Phaedra] (play) 1677

L'Idylle de la paix [Idyll on Peace] [librettist; music by Jean-Baptiste Lully] (opera) 1685

Esther (play) 1689

Athalie (play) 1691

Cantiques spirituels (hymns) 1694

Campagne de Louis XIV [with Nicolas Boileau] (history) 1730; published as Eloge historique du Roi, Louis XIV [Historical Eulogy of King Louis XIV], 1784

Abrege de l'histoire de Port-Royal (history) 1742

Oeuvres. 3 vols. (plays, poetry) 1760

Oeuvres. 7 vols. (plays, poetry) 1796

Theatre complet et oeuvres diverses en vers de J. Racine. 4 vols. (plays, poetry) 1811

Theatre complet de J. Racine (plays) 1841

Lettres inedites de Jean Racine et de Louis Racine (letters) 1862

Lettres a son fils, suivies de Lettres de Jean Baptiste Racine a Louis Racine (letters) 1922

Port-Royal, lettres a l'auteur des imaginaires; abrege de l'histoire de Port-Royal (letters) 1933

Bonnie E. Todd (essay date September 1996)

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SOURCE: Todd, Bonnie E. “Racine's Use of Typology in Athalie.CLA Journal 40, no. 1 (September 1996): 72-81.

[In the following essay, Todd analyzes the various components of Athalie from a typological point of view, that is, by looking at the use of figurative elements, in order to reveal Racine's unique use of dramatic irony.]

Racine's critics have generally divided themselves into two camps in their interpretations of his Biblical play Athalie. Some of the best-known critics, Jean Orcibal for one and Raymond Picard for another, have interpreted the play through citing its topical allusions. In his critique on Athalie, Picard indicates parallels between the characters in the play and members of the court of Louis XIV.1 Picard makes a good case for his interpretation, yet it does little to explain the immense appeal that the play held for its patron, Madame de Maintenon, the actresses and audience (that is, the girls of Saint-Cyr and the court), and for succeeding generations, including our own. Nor does this revelation of topical allusions reveal anything about Racine's dramatic genius, in particular about his gift for dramatic irony.

Racine's contemporaries, as well as the critics of the last three centuries, have all noted the obvious influence of Christianity, of Port-Royal in particular, on both Biblical plays, on Esther as well as on Athalie. No critic, however, has pusued this tack while keeping in view Racine's Jansenist education in the typological interpretation of the Old Testament, i.e., that characters and events of the Old Testament prefigured those of the New Testament. A few critics have suggested the possibility of a typological interpretation of the play, but none has developed his ideas nor remarked on the role which typology plays in Racine's dramatic genius.

E. E. Williams suggests a typological interpretation of Athalie when he states that Joad is prepared to sacrifice Joas just as Abraham would have sacrificed Isaac.2 If Williams had pursued this idea by comparing these two Old Testament stories to the New Testament's account of God's sacrifice of Jesus, the critic's interpretation would have been a typological one. A. F. B. Clark states that Racine was probably attracted to the Biblical story in part because it seems to symbolize “the glorious destiny of the true Church.”3 Clark discovered what Sainte-Beuve had already noticed, that Joas is Christ,4 but neither Clark nor Sainte-Beuve goes on to analyze the play in order to prove his contention.

Jules Lemaître goes even further when he states, “Ce qui s'agite dans ce drame, ce sont les destinées mémes du Christianisme. Songez un peu que Joas est l'aïeul du Christ.”5 Lemaître, without reference to Jansenist tradition, has gotten to the heart of the matter. But he, like J. D. Hubert, who wrote in 1956 that the temple of Racine's play prefigures the Church and that Eliacin prefigures Christ,6 does not pursue the matter further. Gabriel Spillebout recognizes typology in the play when he states, “Il est, en effet, constant dans la tradition des Pères de l'Église de voir dans certains personnages de l'Ancien Testament des ‘figures’ de Jésus-Christ, dans certains faits de l'histoire d'Israël des ‘figures’ des mystères de la loi nouvelle.”7 Spillebout, however, like the others, is satisfied not to pursue the matter further.

It seems that Saint Augustine first recommended the typological interpretation of the Bible as a means of linking the Old Testament.8 During the Renaissance it became quite popular to save the souls of Christ's predecessors by “Christianizing” them through their roles as “types” of New Testament characters. Sir Walter Raleigh even made a case for his favorite pagans by demonstrating how, in one way or another, their lives prefigured events of the New Testament.9 This manner of interpretation of the Bible had a large following in Europe during the seventeenth century. The Jansenists of Port-Royal were well familiar with it. The Douay Bible, published in 1609, comments on typological interpretations as does the Sacy Bible. The year of the first presentation of Esther, 1689, was the year following the first edition of the translation of the Book of Esther, published by the theologians of Port-Royal with commentary by Sacy. In the preface of the Bible, Sacy says that Esther was imbued with “la grâce” and goes on in Augustinian fashion to defend other Old Testament personages, including those chosen by Racine for his two Biblical plays, as types of those found in the New Testament.

Certainly Racine, like Pascal, who said, “L'ancienne loi était figurative,”10 was well-schooled in the figurative or typological interpretations of the Bible. Less obvious in the first of his Biblical plays, Esther, typology plays a major role in Athalie, and critics have been surprisingly lax in exploring the play from this point of view. Although some have alluded to the possibility, none has published a systematic study of either play in order to draw attention to Racine's use of typology, which seems to be the major impulse behind the effort as well as an important explanation of Athalie's dramatic appeal. It is the purpose of this paper to analyse the various components of the play from a typological point of view and to reveal thereby Racine's unique use of dramatic irony.

In Athalie Racine recapitulates the life of Christ by staging an episode in the life of his ancestor Joas, who, as the spectator is frequently reminded, also came from the House of David. The time of the play is the day Joas is to be proclaimed King of Juda, and the place is the temple of Jerusalem. Because the day is also a festival day, Jews are coming into the temple to present gifts to the “Dieu de l'Univers” (41). The allusion is ironic since Joas, the future king, is hiding in the temple; it seems therefore to the spectator, especially to those familiar with the story, that the praise and gifts are being offered to him and that he is the Lord of the Universe in the flesh. Abner ironically remarks, “… de Jezabel la fille sanguinaire / ne vienne attaquer Dieu jusqu'en son sanctuaire” (43-44). His remark is ironic because Abner does not know that Joas is hidden in the temple, and it is not God that Athalie fears so much and wants to attack but the young threat to her throne and temporal power.

Josabet encourages the chorus to praise the god that they have come to seek: “Chantez, louez le Dieu que vous venez chercher” (56). Since the scene is set in the temple, her remark can be accepted at face value, but since the spectator knows, or at least strongly suspects, that Joas is hidden there, Josabet seems to be encouraging the chorus to praise Joas, this God in the flesh. Lest there be any doubt as to the playwright's intention to “type” cast his characters, the chorus tells us that God's empire has preceded his birth, a direct reference to the typological interpretation of the Old Testament.

In act 2 when Athalie asks Joas from whence he comes, he replies, “Ce temple est mon pays” (77). Since Joas was indeed reared there, the spectator can accept this remark literally, all the while knowing that Athalie will interpret his words symbolically to mean that he devotes his life to religion, that he has forsaken the temporal. Double entendres of this kind abound in the play and contribute to its dramatic irony. Joas explains, for example, that he was found among wolves ready to devour him. He intends for Athalie to take his truth as literal, that he, like other mythological babies, was abandoned in the wild. In this instance, however, the truth is not literal but rather a symbolic one, and Athalie herself was the wolf ready to devour him. The fact that Joas addresses these words directly to Athalie makes the scene all the more dramatically intense, the irony all the more piercing.

Characters in the play, particularly Abner, Joad and Josabet, frequently allude to the coming of the Messiah and situate their king in the line of David, which Racine's spectators know culminates in Christ. While maintaining the historic perspective of the Old Testament, Racine plays on their knowledge of the New Testament. The spectator recognizes all the allusions from a double perspective, and this recognition, this foreknowledge, constitutes the dramatic irony. Joas, for example, compares children to the birds that God protects with a paternal care. Although he does not actually call God his father, the word “paternal” (78) evokes the familiar New Testament image. Racine even borrows dailogue from the Gospel according to Matthew: “Abner a le coeur noble, et … il rend à la fois / Ce qu'il doit à son Dieu, ce qu'il doit à ses Rois” (67).

Athalie has interrupted the line of David by taking over the throne of Israel, and it is the intention of Joad and Josabet to protect Joas until the time comes for him to take his rightful place as king. When Joad implores Abner to help him in his enterprise, he refers to the “blood” of the “line” (45) of the kings of David and speaks of the advent of Joas as if he were a type of messiah, as indeed he is. The coming of Joas to the throne is compared to the return of God; he is not simply a king, but a Christ figure.

Racine stirs the emotions of his young actresses and his Christian spectators by alluding to the event in a terminology reminiscent of New Testament references to Christ. Abner frequently refers to Joas as the “King, son of David” but laments for the sake of dramatic irony that the unique hope would have been in the son of Athalie, who is supposed to be dead. He announces, “Les temps sont accomplis” (49), and he compares the arrival of the young king on the throne to the triumph of God. An allusion to the fact that Joas' mind was beyond his years recalls the story of the young Jesus in the temple as told in the second chapter of Luke.

At the first of the play, Abner warns Joad of the wickedness and predictable revenge of Queen Athalie, who fears the power of Joad and his wife, Josabet, who are priest and priestess, respectively, in both religion and politics. Athalie fears for her throne and suspects that Joad and his wife are hiding the future king in the temple, as of course they are. In the second chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, Herod reacts to the birth of Christ in much the same way. Like Athalie, Herod fears the coming of a temporal king who will replace him. Athalie, too, fears the realization of the prediction that a king will come out of the House of David; she fears for her throne, but more than that she fears “l'implacable vengeance” (84) of God. The audience knows her fears are well-founded.

Perhaps the most striking example of the use of typology in the play is found in act 2 when Athalie says,

Ce Dieu, depuis longtemps votre unique refuge,
Que deviendra l'effet de ses prédictions?
Qu'il vous donne ce roi promis aux nations,
Cet enfant de David, votre espoir, votre attente.


As the spectator knows, the King promised the nations the child of David; the Biblical hope and expectation, therefore, is not Joas but rather Christ. In the context of the play, however, it seems to be Joas. The chorus magnifies this aspect by saying, “Quel astre à nos yeux vient de luire? / Quel sera quelque jour cet Enfant merveilleux?” (86). And as the climax of the play approaches, Joad says, “Que la terre enfante son Sauveur” (110). Since Racine uses such anachronistic dialogue fairly often in order to evoke in the mind of the spectator the birth if Christ, it is particularly strange that the Académie, according to a footnote in the Classique Larousse edition, singled out for criticism another line as anachronistic: “Il se donne luimême” (59), which seems rather innocuous under the circumstances.

When Joad reveals to Joas his true identity and the priests crown him, Joad calls him “Un roi que Dieu luimême a nourri dans son Temple” (122), “Ce roi que le Ciel vous redonne aujourd‘hui” (122). He advises, “Songez qu'en cet Enfant tout Israël réside” (121). Joas is for him the “unique espérance” (121). After his coronation Zacharie remarks, “On voit encor la marque du couteau” (131), recalling the twenty-fourth chapter of Luke as well as the twentieth chapter of John, where the apostle Thomas speaks of Christ's wounds. Zacharie, of course, is referring to the knife scars left by Athalie's attack on Joas when he was a baby, yet another evocation of the New Testament's account of the threat to Jesus and other male babies of his generation.

Raymond Picard reproches Racine for having created in Mathan a one-dimensional character, lacking in psychological innuendo, but that is precisely what Racine intended to create. Just as Joas can do no wrong, Mathan represents evil incarnate. He is Satan. The enemy of Joas must be worthy of him. If Mathan were merely a weak sycophant, there would be nothing to fear; Joas could easily vanquish him, but Mathan is a formidable enemy. In act 3 when he recounts his quarrel with Joad, his expulsion from the temple, his career at court, and his flatteries of the queen, Mathan brings to mind the fall of the angel Lucifer. As Mathan begins the identity of Joas in this act, he questions Josabet and leads the spectator to expect a confrontation of cosmic proportions, a confrontation between good and evil. Joad calls Mathan “Monstre d'impiété” (101), and Mathan warns, “Avant la fin du jour … on verra qui de nous …” (102).

Athalie complements Mathan's role. Suspecting more and more that the child Eliacin is Joas, the predicted usurper of her throne, Athalie, like Satan in Luke's fourth chapter, resorts to temptations. She tempts the child by offering him the pleasures of the palace, even the crown as her heir if he will leave the temple: “Laissez là cet habit, quittez ce vil métier / Je veux vous faire part de toutes mes richesses” (82). Ironically, she offers to treat him as her own son: “Je prétends vous traiter comme mon propre fils” (82), she says, and Joas replies, “Quel Père je quitterais!” (82). Athalie can think Joas is speaking of his earthly father, his guardian Joad, but the spectator recognizes God in his allusion to the paternal figure. The temptation to give up his divine mission in exchange for earthly riches reminds the spectator of Satan's temptation of Christ.

The coronation of Joas corresponds to the crucifixion of Christ. At the moment in which Joas is supposed to die, he is crowned, thus transforming defeat into victory. This dramatic situation evokes Christ's death, which for Racine's Christian audience was transcended by his resurrection. Zacharie says that Joas was “racheté de tombeau” (131) and refers to the young king as the resuscitated King, son of David. Joas, of course, has been neither entombed nor resuscitated as he only came near death, but did not die. The dialogue, however, is reminiscent of New Testament descriptions of Christ's experience.

There is also the possibility of comparing Zacharie, the son of Joad and Josabet, to the New Testament character of John the Baptist. In the first chapter of Luke, we learn that the parents of John the Baptist first named him Zacharius, and it was he who is charged with the mission of preparing the way for Christ, just as Zacharie in the play protects and praises the young Joas.

The fact that Joad is not the real father but only the guardian of the young Joas prefigures the relationship of Jesus to Joseph and is dramatically titillating since the situation of the orphan of obscure origin, more decipherable for the spectators than for the characters, comprises dramatic irony in its most classic form.

The drama, like that of Oedipus, depends on the spectator's knowing something that the characters do not know but perhaps suspect. This something on which so much depends must be very important to the spectator, closer to home than was the Old Testament story of Joas to Racine's audience and actresses. Racine, therefore, used typology to dramatic ends.

Like Oedipus, Moses, and Jesus, the baby Joas is condemned to death by an adult who fears the child's future ambitions because of prediction. These four babies are all saved and reared by benevolent guardians and in time grow up to accomplish just what was predicted. The dramatic appeal of their stories depends heavily upon their familiarity; the spectator must know or sense the outcome ahead of time while the play is in progress. The story of Joas, however, has never enjoyed the popularity of the other stories. Furthermore, it would take an imaginative mind like that of Saint Augustine or of Racine to imbue the child Joas as portrayed in the Second Book of Kings with the charisma of Oedipus, Moses, or Jesus. Racine therefore uses his Jansenist background in the typological interpretation of the Old Testament to dramatic ends. The spectator may not be familiar with the story of Joas, certainly not as familiar as with the story of Christ, nor would the story of Joas appeal as much as would the story of Christ to Racine's audience, so the playwright made the story familiar by recapitulating episodes of the life of Christ and by borrowing language from the New Testament. It is this dual identity of the main character that affords the dramatic irony of the play.

It seems that Racine only thought of this dramatic device near the end of his life and then perhaps thanks to Madame de Maintenon. Fearing for the virture of her girls at Saint-Cyr after their realistic portrayal of Andromaque, she wrote the playwright that they had so well played the tragedy that they would never do so again, “ni aucune de vos pièces.”11 In trying to find something to suit Madame de Maintenon, Racine made use of his training at Port-Royal and found thereby a means of reconciling two dominant interests of his life: religion and theatre. Obviously, the subject matter of Athalie is not Greek, but because the play retells a story that is part of a country's religious and cultural heritage, Athalie (and Esther to some extent) is more in the tradition of Greek drama than Racine's more direct imitations, such as Andromaque and Phèdre. As for his form, the playwright's use of dramatic irony is on a level equivalent to that of Oedipus Rex, and he seems to be the only playwright to use this particular typological form of dramatic irony.


  1. Raymond Picard, La Carrière de Jean Racine (Paris: Gallimard, 1956) 1163.

  2. Jean Orcibal, La Genèse d'Esther et d'Athalie (Paris: J. Vrin, 1950) 94.

  3. A. F. B. Clark, Jean Racine (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1939) 45.

  4. Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve, Port-Royal (Paris: Gallimard, 1956) 1163.

  5. Jean Racine, Athalie, ed. Jean Boris (Paris: Nouveaux Classiques Larousse, 1964) 160. All references to the play are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text by page number(s) only.

  6. J. D. Hubert, Essai d'Exégèse racinienne (Paris: Gallimard, 1956) 242.

  7. Gabriel Spillebout, Le Vocabulaire biblique dans les Tragédies sacrées de Racine (Geneva: Droz, 1968) 193.

  8. Erich Auerbach, Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (New York: Meridian, 1959) 32-44.

  9. Don Cameron Allen, Mysteriously Meant (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1970) 24-101.

  10. Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Paris: Lefèvre, 1841) 294.

  11. Kosta Loukovitch, L'Evolution de la Tragédie religieuse classique en France (Paris: Droz, 1933) 414-15.

John Campbell (essay date July 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4843

SOURCE: Campbell, John. “Tragedy and Time in Racine's Mithridate.Modern Language Review 92, no. 3 (July 1997): 590-98.

[In the following essay, Campbell considers to what extent Mithridate can be called a tragedy.]

Even admirers of Racine's tragedies have hesitated with Mithridate. For François Mauriac it was ‘le moindre de ses chefs-d'œuvre’, and for Raymond Picard ‘la tragédie la moins tragique de Racine’, while for Marcel Gutwirth the play ‘n'est tragique que par le sous-titre’, and for Jean Rohou it is ‘plus héroïco-galant que tragique’.1 Common to many reactions is the idea that as a tragic drama it is structurally flawed. Unfavourable comparisons are made with the plotting techniques of the mature plays that precede it: there is a hint of regret that ‘it cannot be dismissed as an early effort’.2 Whereas in Bérénice love's shipwreck intervenes only at the very end of a sustained, agonizing progression in dramatic tension, in Mithridate the main source of conflict seems to be removed in Act IV with the reconciliation of father and son: ‘Racine has deprived the action of its force once the power relations between the two active individuals are reversed in Act IV.’3 There is an even greater difference with the plots of Andromaque, Britannicus, and Bajazet. These are intricate knots of conflicting interests, tightened to breaking and then suddenly undone with catastrophic consequences. Mithridate, visibly, is not so tightly strung. With his ‘inutile courroux’ (l. 1409), Mithridate blusters, but in the end does nothing, while the two lovers are reunited, all obstacles removed, in what for Charles Mauron is ‘un dénouement de comédie’.4 This is certainly not the traditional Racinian tragedy, where murderous passions unfurl in gradually increasing tension and fear, provoking irreversible actions that rebound one on the other until an explosive climax. If Act V can be treated as what Gustave Rudler calls ‘remplissage’, how does this square with Racine's own classical dictum, in his ‘Preface,’ that ‘on ne peut prendre trop de précautions pour ne rien mettre sur le théâtre qui ne soit essentiel’?5 In the circumstances, does Mithridate deserve the description ‘tragedy’?

This article seeks a possible answer to these questions and hesitations in the particular sense of time created in Mithridate. We may, of course, simply consult ‘Time’ in our mental dictionnaire des idées reçues about seventeenth-century drama, where the term is found with ‘Unity’ beneath the picture of a straitjacket. Time and tragedy, however, are obviously linked by more than dusty rules. After all, when we see a play, even in our mind's eye, we witness that magical operation Eugene Vinaver has called ‘la plus belle des métamorphoses, la transformation du temps réel en temps fictif’.6 In the theatre, as in music, time is the hidden dimension of any composition, ‘le personnage central de toute tragédie composée’.7 In Mithridate any radical change in the expected use of tragic time will thus involve an equally radical departure from the typical tragic structure. It will inevitably demand that the work be viewed in a different way from the other Racinian tragedies, and be judged by different criteria.

In these other works time comes in the form of a substance always in short supply, soon to be running out. There is the irresistible movement from initial crisis to final paroxysm, with a gradual acceleration modulated by delay, panic, and reversal. Standard markers are phrases such as ‘il va bientôt revenir en furie’, ‘il faut partir’, ‘que tardez-vous?’, ‘ne tardons pas’. Dramatic suspense is the first fruit of this use of time. This is true even in a play as apparently empty of incident as Bérénice, where the dramatic action concerns the protagonists' attempts to ignore time's imperious contingencies.8 The Racinian tempo, be it in early plays such as Andromaque or in late works such as Phèdre or Athalie, seems as distinctive as a thumbprint.

We could, out of habit, attempt to make Mithridate conform to this classic, or classical model, and many have done so.9 Throughout the play, characters do tell each other that there is no time to lose, in familiar ‘dramatic’ phrases such as ‘il faut […] presser notre départ’ (ll. 237-38), ‘puisque le temps presse’ (l. 244), ‘Le péril est pressant’ (l. 345), ‘Cours par un prompt trépas abréger ton supplice’ (l. 751), ‘partez dès ce moment’ (l. 857), ‘Le temps est cher. Il le faut employer’ (l. 1114), ‘Que dis-je? on vient. Allez. Courez’ (l. 1265). The time-markers are there, but is their immediate function obvious? Does their use generate the same kind of dramatic tension and foreboding as, say, Pyrrhus's ‘Je viendrai vous prendre’ (Andromaque, l. 193)? Does any significant action ensue? Negative replies to these questions will suggest that despite appearances, time is not managed in the same way in Mithridate as in the other tragedies.

In these other plays, from the opening lines, we are plunged into a rapidly evolving and always escalating crisis. At the beginning of Mithridate, remarkably, we are brought to the very end:

On nous faisait, Arbate, un fidèle rapport:
Rome en effet triomphe, et Mithridate est mort.

(l. 1)

‘Sa mort […] est l'action de ma tragédie’, asserts Racine in his ‘Preface.’ This is not suspense but a kind of suspension. As Roland Barthes has pointed out: ‘La tragédie de Mithridate se joue entre deux morts […] ou, si l'on veut, Mithridate est l'histoire d'une mort manquée et recommencée.’10 The plot is built like a suspension bridge between the death announced in this ‘fidèle rapport’ and the physical death of Mithridate, at the end. This gives a certain savour to the liminal question: ‘Il est mort: savons-nous s'il est enseveli?’ (l. 298). Throughout the play, however frantic the external action may at times appear, characters are as though suspended between life and death, without being able to live or die. It is symptomatic that this original dramatic structure can be apprehended through dictionary definitions of the term suspendre: ‘Rendre pour un temps immobile, inactif; supprimer pour un temps. Mettre un terme aux activités de. Remettre à plus tard’ (Petit Robert).

This suspension is especially true of the King himself, that putative source of decisions affecting the lives of all. Just as the end is contained within the beginning, so the movement of the whole play is reflected in the long death scene of the end, before which Mithridate has spoken of ‘un cœur déjà glacé par le froid des années’ (l. 1421). From the terminal beginning we know that the reality of Mithridate's power has gone:

Et j'ai su qu'un soldat dans les mains de Pompée
Avec son diadème a remis son épée.


The lost crown and sword are a solemn initial statement of Mithridate's demise as ruler and general. Since these functions constitute his historical raison d'être, nothing else remains. Racine twists the knife by adding to these lost sovereignties a final, emasculating defeat: that of any pretence of sexual dominion. Not for nothing is the scene set in Mithridate's kingdom of Bosphorus, in a Crimean backwater at the uttermost distance from the centre of power. ‘To have been killed in battle’, as Kuizenga remarks, ‘believing in the illusory allegiance of Monime, would have been Mithridate's personal belle mort. Instead, he survives, returns to Nymphée to die less gloriously’ (p. 284). What ‘happens’ in the play is thus less important than what can no longer happen. In so far as life is movement in time, in Mithridate the imitation of an action is played out in a temporal no-man's-land. This creates not so much a sense of unreality as a radically different dramatic reality. Time, therefore, expressed in terms of past, present, and future, is essentially envisaged in this perspective. Suspension is the name of the game.

It is widely accepted that in all Racinian tragedy the past weighs heavily on the dramatic action.11 In Mithridate, however, the present, seen as movement and progression, is as though crushed by things past:

Ce cœur nourri de sang, et de guerre affamé,
Malgré le faix des ans et du sort qui m'opprime,
Traîne partout l'amour qui l'attache à Monime.

(l. 458)

This inability to live and move in the present time is expressed in different metaphors of denial, such as slavery, imprisonment, unpaid debt, and suffocation:

          de mon devoir esclave infortunée,
A d'éternels ennuis je me voie enchaînée.

(l. 643)

When, for example, Monime feels able to breathe again:

Après deux ans d'ennuis, dont tu sais tout le poids,
Quoi! je puis respirer pour la première fois?

(l. 1173)

the respite is quite illusory. Mithridate reminds her that a promise made in the past ‘Par des nœuds éternels l'un à l'autre nous lie’ (l. 1276), and that ‘votre cœur est un bien qui m'est dû’ (l. 1281). Monime for her part vitrifies the relationship in terms such as reconnaissance, obéissance, and respect (ll. 1323-27). The nœuds éternels that bind her to the past, and prevent her from moving freely in the present, are embodied in the royal bandeau that ties her to Mithridate, ‘Bandeau, que mille fois j'ai trempé de mes pleurs’ (l. 1502). Monime tries literally to strangle herself with this asphyxiating presence from the past. It goes without saying that the attempt is unsuccessful: like Mithridate himself, she manages neither to live nor to die. Ironically, Monime and Xipharès exhort each other with a ‘Vivez!’, as though this were something they could not manage to do (ll. 1213, 1265). This suspension of life is expressed in the ‘silence éternel’ (l. 698) in which Monime has buried her love for Xipharès, himself described by the King as ‘de tout temps à mes ordres soumis’ (l. 465).12 After Mithridate has tricked her into expressing her real feelings, this silence becomes a choice of death:

Et le tombeau, Seigneur, est moins triste pour moi
Que le lit d'un époux qui m'a fait cet outrage.

(l. 1350)

This sense of life not lived in the present is acutely rendered in those two elements that paradoxically constitute the staple of the plot: waiting and fleeing. All the characters wait. They wait to be free, to love, to win, or to die. At the very outset we are presented with a Pharnace who ‘attend tout maintenant de Rome et du vainqueur’ in order to begin his real life (l. 26), though it is, ironically, the Romans who will kill him (ll. 1691-92). He cannot wait any longer for Monime to give up waiting:

Jusques à quand, Madame, attendrez-vous mon père?
Des témoins de sa mort viennent à tous moments
Condamner votre doute et vos retardements.
Mais il faut, croyez-moi, sans attendre plus tard,
Ainsi que notre hymen presser notre départ.
Nos intérêts communs et mon cœur le demandent.
Prêts à vous recevoir, mes vaisseaux vous attendent.

(l. 224)

Monime for her part is still waiting to live, to breathe with ‘ce triste cœur […] dont jamais encor je n'ai pu disposer’ (ll. 161-62). As for Xipharès, he awaits orders from Monime. Indeed, when he is enjoined by her to leave, despite the immediate action he feels is needed, his only action is to wait again:

                                                                                          toi-même tu vois bien
Que ton propre devoir s'accorde avec le sien.
Cours par un prompt trépas abréger ton supplice.
Toutefois attendons que son sort s'éclaircisse.

(l. 749)

This unusual temporal perspective strongly suggests that we need to look at the dramatic structure of Mithridate in a different light from that of traditional Racinian tragedies such as Andromaque or Britannicus. For example, the first scene of Act IV, in which Monime waits for Xipharès to appear, has often been criticized for not advancing the action. Here, as always, one must be careful not to confuse the dramatic action with a series of physical actions that have visible consequences. Action on stage is not always fuelled by ‘the native hue of resolution’ (Hamlet, III. 1. 84). Self-evidently, be it in Hamlet or in Huis Clos, an inability to act can be the very basis of a dramatic action. In Mithridate, similarly, the reality of that action is expressed in phrases such as ‘Que tarde Xipharès?’ (l. 1131). A revealing cameo occurs when Mithridate, confronted with a Monime who refuses him, responds with ‘J'attends, pour me déterminer’ (l. 1357), to which she replies: ‘J'attendrai mon arrêt’ (l. 1373). In the real world this is not what might be called ‘real action’, but it is no less real for that. In Mithridate tragedy is the imitation of inaction.

The King crystallizes these disparate elements of non-life in a single word, fuite. To the extent that flight here assumes the proportions of a tragic illusion, it is difficult to accept, as even Mauron seems to do (p. 123), the established critical image of the King as a noble, Promethean figure single-handedly struggling against fate and the might of Rome. Mithridate's illusion is triple: that of past glory where flight is confused with victory, that of a present in which a hopeless cause will become an element of surprise, and that of future conquest, in a final flight into unreality.

The prime falsification is that of the past:

Non plus comme autrefois, cet heureux Mithridate
Qui de Rome toujours balançant le destin,
Tenais entre elle et moi l'univers incertain.

(l. 436)

It is quite natural to view the King Mithridates of history, like the Pyrrhus of legend, first and foremost as a great warrior. Racine's Pyrrhus and Mithridate, however, are markedly different creatures. They are created with great artistic licence by and for an autonomous dramatic action, and exist only through it. Just as the Pyrrhus of Andromaque is defined by a passionate love he will go to any lengths to fulfil, so in Mithridate the eponymous hero is, more than anything else, a failure and a fugitive. Past defeats, and a military career spent running away, are subsumed in a single word: gloire. The burning presence of the glory days recalls the amputee's sensation of a phantom limb. This is never more evident than in the long speech that begins Act III.13 Here Roman triumphs are minimized and ridiculed (‘gravant en airain ses frêles avantages’ (l. 767)), his own retreats are presented as triumphs (‘l'ennemi, par ma fuite trompé’ (l. 765)), and his victories are fashioned with imagination and thin air:

Le Bosphore m'a vu, par de nouveaux apprêts,
Ramener la terreur du fond de ses marais,
Et chassant les Romains de l'Asie étonnée,
Renverser en un jour l'ouvrage d'une année.

(l. 769)14

Just as the King, in the kingdom of his mind, transforms past retreats and defeats into cunning victory strategies, so he carries out the same mental surgery on the catastrophic present. The initial ‘je suis vaincu’ (l. 439) is quickly forgotten. He does, it is true, sometimes seem to sail uncomfortably close to the truth:

Vaincu, persécuté, sans secours, sans États,
Errant de mers en mers, et moins roi que pirate.

(l. 562)

This picture, however, is only a hypothesis. It allows the King to affirm that even if this complete shipwreck were to occur, such a ‘naufrage élevé’ would be preferred by any king anywhere to his own kingdom (ll. 567-69). It is henceforth without irony that ‘je fuis’ is raised as a standard of revolt (l. 759). When, therefore, Mithridate points again to his past glory to declare that ‘ce temps-là n'est plus. Je régnais, et je fuis’ (l. 1041), the tacit admission of defeat is made only in order to trap Monime: he does not believe a word of it. For she, too, must be made to accept the one self-image he will tolerate:

Ne me regardez point vaincu, persécuté:
Revoyez-moi vainqueur, et partout redouté.

(l. 1293)

This evasion of the present is paralleled by the King's headlong rush into an unbelievable future strategy of reconquest:

Tout vaincu que je suis, et voisin du naufrage
Je médite un dessein digne de mon courage.

(l. 431)

Despite an implied admission of total defeat, Mithridate projects himself into a future of ‘nouvelles conquêtes’ (l. 559) he sees already to be as glorious as his imagined past. Paradoxically, in a play taking place in one particular place on one particular day, the action that concerns him is not in the here and now, but in a past expressed solely by gloire, and in the future, demain, loin d'ici:

Ma gloire loin d'ici vous et moi nous appelle;
Et sans perdre un moment pour ce noble dessein,
Aujourd'hui votre époux, il faut partir demain.

(l. 544)

Demain, sans différer, je prétends que l'Aurore
Découvre mes vaisseaux déjà loin du Bosphore.

(l. 855)

The temporal fantasies in Mithridate's planned military expeditions are justly celebrated: ‘dans trois mois au pied du Capitole […] en deux jours […] Aux lieux où le Danube y vient finir son cours’ (ll. 796-98). Who can believe, with Picard, that ‘l'avenir du monde est en suspens’?15 These plans tell us less about the King's grasp of strategy than about his failing grip on temporal reality.16 What he feels he has to do, in his unreal present, becomes something he imagines he can and will do in the future, because he could have done it in the past. In these circumstances it is not so much a question of valour struggling against fate as bravado toying with desperation: ‘Je vais à Rome, […] Je le dois, je le puis’ (ll. 1387-89). The King's portentous ‘Enfin, l'heure est venue’ (l. 755), which might at first seem to put the present back on the agenda, in fact relates to this future fantasy. This subversion of present reality by future plans is nowhere better symbolized than by his repeated references to the ships waiting to take him away:

Mes vaisseaux qu'à partir il faut tenir tout prêts.

(l. 622)

Les vaisseaux sont tout prêts.

(l. 953)

                                        mes soldats, prêts à suivre leur roi,
Rentrent dans mes vaisseaux pour partir avec moi.

(l. 1273)

The King does not yet know that this is an imaginary voyage, not because of cruel destiny but, more cruelly still, because his soldiers are unwilling to sail. It is a classic irony: the man celebrated for his dissimulation concealing reality from himself.

Between past gloire and imagined new conquêtes, all these temporal references thus translate Mithridate's inability to keep both feet on the firm land of the present tense: ‘Sortant de mes vaisseaux, il faut que j'y remonte’ (l. 1047). In that present he ends up by doing nothing. Within the suspended life which is that of the play, it is as though all were shadow-boxing, and nothing in reality could be done. In that reality, where acts have consequences, he who would set out to march into Rome now finds himself tracked down by the Romans to the extreme limits of what in the real present is the Roman world. The great king and general is unable even to control the parcel of land on which the remnant of his army is encamped. There is therefore a certain irony in the fact that both Monime and Mithridate are told, at different moments, ‘Vous pouvez tout’ (ll. 247, 547).

It will be objected that this imitation of inaction does not square with the fact that many things do in fact happen in the play, especially at the end: ‘Les coups de théâtre se succèdent: retour imprévu de Mithridate (fin de l'acte I), révolte de Pharnace et débarquement des Romains (acte IV), intervention inattendue du messager de Mithridate (V, 3), annonce de la défaite romaine et de l'arrivée de Mithridate mourant’ (Descotes, p. 114). Did Racine not himself declare in his ‘Preface’ that ‘il n'y a guère d'actions éclatantes dans la vie de Mithridate qui n'aient trouvé place dans ma tragédie’? Is there not a contradiction between this desire to cram into the play every striking incident in Mithridate's life and the contention that it is Mithridate's death that is the tragic action? In addition, is there not a sense of urgency created, as in the other tragedies? Is Monime not almost murdered? Are the Romans not defeated by Xipharès?

In response one might point out that the ‘actions éclatantes’ of legend dissolve in a death that leaves Asia Minor more subject to Rome than at the beginning of Mithridate's military career. For in the real time that exists beyond the palace of Nymphée, the present is defined and bounded by Rome: ‘Et le seul nom de Rome étonne les plus fiers’ (l. 1426). To ignore Roman power is to live in an imaginary land. That the King's death is real or reported does not change a lesson of powerlessness and futility delivered at the outset in a mocking chiasmus:

Ainsi ce roi, qui seul a durant quarante ans,
Lassé tout ce que Rome eut de chefs importants,
Et qui dans l'Orient balançant la fortune,
Vengeait de tous les rois la querelle commune,
Meurt, et laisse après lui, pour venger son trépas,
Deux fils infortunés qui ne s'accordent pas.

(l. 9)

As for the necessity for hasty action that characters urge on others, one cannot say that this has an obvious effect. If the characters move, it is to run on the spot, in a place very different from the terrifying, claustrophobic lieu of impending doom depicted in Britannicus or Bajazet. The palace where the supposedly dead King will eventually die is essentially a place of displacement set in a time of postponement. Words spoken do not seem to mesh with an outside world that is kept outside until Roman reality finally bursts in. The important thing that happens is that nothing important happens. It is apposite, for example, that Monime should end by not taking the poison, just as she has not been able to strangle herself.

It is thus difficult to accept the critical consensus that this play offers a ‘positive’ or ‘optimistic’ dénouement that in some way negates the effect of the opening couplet.17Mithridate is the tragedy of a man who feigns death to save his life, and, in an ultimate reversal, thereby loses the last little part of his life over which he has dominion. The loss is not only for one man. Neither the death of Mithridate nor the survival of Monime and Xipharès changes the tragic nature of existences that from the beginning are a kind of death in life. This is not exactly the ‘serenity’ which has been claimed for the play (Rohou, p. 285). It is equally difficult to side with the majority view that Mithridate's pardon of his son is a striking demonstration of ‘générosité morale’ and ‘human heroism’ (Rohou, p. 291; Parish, p. 101). The evidence points more in the direction of Barthes's contention that the pardon is an empty gesture compelled by force majeure, an ‘absolution postiche’ which changes nothing: Mithridate will die and the Romans will eventually triumph (Barthes, p. 108). In addition, as Vinaver reminds us, it would seem unwise to place too much reliance on words of forgiveness uttered by someone famous above all for ‘dangereux détours’ and ‘trompeuses adresses’ (ll. 369-72), who in the play has already faked his own death and the disinterested renunciation of his love.18

Equally, to criticize Act V for lacking in dramatic interest, because of the resolution of the struggle between father and son in the previous Act, is to predicate a traditional dramatic structure of interpersonal conflict that in Mithridate is not predominant. In this play the main conflict is always that between illusion and reality. If, as in Bérénice, reality takes the shape of Rome, illusion comes in the guise of a dislocation between what is and what seems to have been or what might be. In the final Act Mithridate is still living in those shadowlands where life and time are not invested with the hard reality of stubborn fact. The long death-throes of a king who no longer has any reason to live, but who does not know how to die, neatly encapsulate and crown the whole dramatic action. For even death itself seems to run away:

‘Ne livrons pas surtout Mithridate vivant.’
Aussitôt dans son sein il plonge son épée.
Mais la mort fuit encor sa grande âme trompée.

(l. 1602)

It is difficult to accept that ‘the Mithridate who sees the approach of death is free of passions, pretensions and illusions’.19 His final words show a blindness that remains complete until the end:

J'ai vengé l'univers autant que je l'ai pu:
La mort dans ce projet m'a seule interrompu.

(l. 1653)

As Racine remarked in his notes on Œdipus Rex, ‘bel artifice d'instruire le spectateur, sans éclaircir l'acteur’ (Œuvres, V, 235). A further irony is that Mithridate will finally die at the very moment that his son wins a skirmish with the Romans that would have allowed the father's illusions of success to persist. It is only fitting that Xipharès, worthy son of his father, should at the end stride off into this brave new world of the past: ‘Et par tout l'univers cherchons-lui des vengeurs’ (l. 1698). At the end? In a tragedy of suspended time, the death of the tragic illusion is, quite literally, interminable.

Mithridate has been justly dubbed ‘une création tout à fait unique’.20 Its temporal perspective is radically different from that of Racine's other tragedies. This difference, however, does not mean that its structure is somehow flawed, or that its tragic quality is thereby diminished. On the contrary, as a recent production has clearly shown, we can witness a coherent dramatic action that generates, and is driven by, a truly tragic sense of loss and waste.21 It is a play about death and the denial of time. It concerns not just a physical death, but the death of a desire for domination pursued in full flight from that most implacable of enemies: present reality. In both its structure and its vision Mithridate is thus a symphony of negation. The dominant chords are those of defeat, retreat, inconsequence and impotence. If this is a ‘flaw’, it is a truly tragic flaw through which Racine allows us to experience something of our fractured human condition. Not bad for ‘le moindre de ses chefs-d'œuvre’.


  1. François Mauriac, La Vie de Jean Racine (Paris: Plon, 1928), p. 118; Racine, Œuvres complètes, ed. by Raymond Picard, 2 vols, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1950-66), I, 595; Marcel Gutwirth, ‘La problématique de l'innocence dans le théâtre de Racine’, Revue des Sciences Humaines, 106 (1962), 183-202 (p. 192); Jean Rohou, Jean Racine (Paris: Fayard, 1992), p. 285.

  2. Donna Kuizenga, ‘Mithridate Reconsidered’, French Review, 52 (1978-79), 280-85 (p. 280).

  3. Henry Phillips, Racine: ‘Mithridate’ (London: Grant & Cutler, 1990), p. 88.

  4. L'Inconscient dans l'œuvre et la vie de Racine (Gap: Ophrys, 1957), p. 123. Quotations from Mithridate and other works by Racine are taken from Racine, Œuvres, ed. by Paul Mesnard, 8 vols (Paris: Hachette, 1865-73).

  5. Mithridate, ed. by Gustave Rudler (Oxford: Blackwell, 1943), p. xxix.

  6. Eugène Vinaver, Entretiens sur Racine (Paris: Nizet, 1984), p. 57.

  7. Alain Chartier, quoted in Agnès Elthes, ‘La composition du temps racinien’, Acta Litteraria, 33 (1991), 23-35 (p. 33).

  8. See my article ‘Playing for time in Bérénice’, Nottingham French Studies, 32 (1993), 23-28.

  9. From l'abbé Nadal, ‘Dissertation sur la Tragédie de Mithridate’, in François and Claude Parfaict, Histoire du théâtre français, 15 vols (Paris, 1734-49; repr. Geneva: Slatkine, 1967), X (1747), 253-74 (p. 256), to Maurice Descotes, Les grands rôles du théâtre de Jean Racine (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1957), p. 114, and beyond.

  10. Roland Barthes, Sur Racine (Paris: Seuil, 1960), p. 105. See also Michael Edwards, La tragédie racinienne (Paris: Pensée universelle, 1972), p. 210.

  11. See Georges Poulet, Études sur le temps humain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1949; repr. Paris: Plon, 1950), p. 107.

  12. On the filial relationships, see William Cloonan, ‘Father and Sons in Mithridate’, French Review, 44 (1975-76), 514-21, and Mary Kirschner, ‘Poetic Characterization in Mithridate: Xipharès and Pharnace’, Cahiers du dixseptième, 3 (1989), 17-27.

  13. For an analysis of this speech, see Madeleine Defrenne, ‘La substance actorielle dans le monologue central du Mithridate de Racine’, in Ouverture et Dialogue, ed. by Ulrich Döring and others (Tübingen: Narr, 1988), 93-106.

  14. On the ‘faits incohérents ou controuvés’ in Mithridate's speech, see Rudler, pp. 82-83.

  15. Picard, I, 598. This comment seems to be at odds with the later statement that ‘la situation de Mithridate a surtout la beauté émouvante des causes perdues; c'est le dernier effort d'un roi vaincu et pourchassé’ (p. 599).

  16. Mesnard records the literal-minded criticisms made by Racine's contemporaries of the practicality of Mithridate's projected expedition (Racine, Œuvres, III, 57).

  17. Phillips, p. 68, and R. Parish, Racine: The Limits of Tragedy (Tübingen: Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, 1993), p. 101.

  18. Eugène Vinaver, Racine et la poésie tragique (Paris: Nizet, 1951), p. 77.

  19. Michael O'Regan, The Mannerist Aesthetic: A Study of Racine's ‘Mithridate’ (Bristol: University of Bristol Press, 1980), p. 10.

  20. Madeleine Bertaud, Le XVIIe siècle. Littérature française (Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1990), p. 182.

  21. See Micheline Servin, ‘Mithridate, mise en scène de Jean Gillbert’, Les Temps Modernes, 45.125 (1990), 180-83.

Edward Forman (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Forman, Edward. “Spirit, Will, and Autonomy in Racine's Later Tragedies.” In L'Esprit en France au XVIIe siècle, edited by François Lagarde, pp. 273-81. Tübingen, Germany: Biblio 17: Papers on Seventeenth-Century Literature, 1997.

[In the following essay, Forman examines the concept of esprit and the related issues of individuality, autonomy, and will in Racine's later plays, commenting on their ethical implications.]

The word esprit has proved problematic for English translators of Racine. A sample of four separate lines—which will be analysed in detail in a moment—threw up no fewer than ten alternative English equivalents in published translations1: in no case were the translators unanimous as to the most appropriate English word to use, and no translator used the same English word in all four contexts. In the light of Cotgrave's treatment of the word esprit, we may have some sympathy with their dilemma, but this initial observation does clarify the nature of our investigation. The question: “What contribution does the notion of esprit make to Racine's portrayal of human consciousness?” is a question not about anthropology, still less about biochemistry: it is a question about language, and it is hard to think of a better example with which to illustrate the Lacanian notion that the development of language consists not of finding words to encapsulate human experience, but rather of finding functions for words to fulfil. What does the French language need the word esprit for, if âme covers those aspects of human experience that can be labelled “spiritual” and raison those that can be labelled “intellectual”?

Consider first Agamemnon's cry: “De quel frivole soin mon esprit s'embarrasse?” (Iphigénie, 1453). We must not, to be sure, seek to read too much into isolated words. Many considerations of sound and metre enter into the poet's creative process, and it is unlikely that Racine agonised consciously over his decision to use esprit here (still less that he consulted his Descartes in considering which term was most appropriate) although it may be noted that several different potential versions of the line would still scan. If Agamemnon said “mon âme” or “mon ombre” instead of “mon esprit”, the image would be clarified of a temporary emotional lapse, subsequently overcome by an intellectual process (since it is after all the mind that must deliver the judgment “frivole”). If he said “ma raison”, the line would specify that his dilemma was above all a mental tussle2. British and American translators find it harder to retain an ambiguity between intellectual and spiritual interpretations of the word esprit—it is generally necessary to make a firm choice between “mind” and “spirit”. In the given example, Knight and Solomon opt for “mind”, Lockert prefers “soul”, while Cairncross avoids the problem by taking esprit as a metonym for the whole self: “But in what petty cares am I embroiled?”—a solution which may seem like a cop-out, although the problem of translating French Alexandrines into English pentameters must make such increased condensation tempting. Of course, if it had been what he meant, Racine could have said: “De quel frivole soin, hélas, je m'embarrasse?” which does seem tame in comparison with the dramatic representation of a split personality conveyed by Racine's actual line, although no tamer, perhaps, than Pauline's expression of a similar sentiment in Polyeucte (749): “Mais que je me figure une étrange chimère.”

In translating the line “Jamais de tant de soins mon esprit agité” (Iphigénie, 1087) where the sense of the word esprit is broadly similar, Solomon uses “spirit” instead of “mind”, while each of the other three translators cited above uses the same word as before, Cairncross again condensing the thought to produce “Never by such worries buffeted Was I [so jealous …]”. That sort of solution is not available to the translator in the more interesting cases where the use of esprit is not precisely a metonymy, but is presented as one part of human consciousness that can be conceived as separate from the whole personality, as in Phèdre's: “Où laissé-je égarer mes vœux et mon esprit?” (Phèdre, 180). Here, all the translators agree that it is a mental lapse which distresses the heroine: esprit is translated as “wits” (Muir), “reason” (Cairncross) and “mind” (Knight), while in Solomon's phrase “thoughts and feelings” it is legitimate to assume that “thoughts” is the semantic equivalent of esprit, the order of the ideas having been inverted for reasons of rhythm. Later in the play, when Phèdre makes it explicit that it is her intellect that has failed her—“Où ma raison se va-t-elle égarer?” (Phèdre, 1264)—the translators, whether instinctively or deliberately, feel the need to use a different word: Cairncross, having used “reason” in line 180, makes Phèdre rather flatly state “I have lost my mind”, while the other three switch to “reason” for line 1264. In dealing with line 180, only Solomon retains the clear sense that Phèdre's wandering wits have escaped from the proper control of the ego: “Where do I let my thoughts and feelings wander?” The other published versions consulted present the mind more simply as straying, without any reference to assumptions about what should control it:

Where have my wits been wandering?


Whither have my desires, my reason strayed?


Where are my thoughts, my wandering mind?


A final example, “Et déjà son esprit a devancé son âge” (Athalie, 176) provides a more genuine ambiguity between the English senses of “mind” and “spirit”, although the versions consulted all tend towards the former: it is Joas's “mind” (Muir), “wisdom” (Cairncross), “understanding” (Knight) or “ability” (Solomon) that has outstripped his age. Again, the emphasis is on one integral part of the human personality that can be identified as separate from the whole, and indeed this image of the self as divided into separate, often conflicting, parts is not uncommon in Racine:

Je sentis contre moi mon cœur se déclarer.

Iphigénie, 499

Burrhus conduit son cœur, Sénèque son esprit.

Britannicus, 1470

Lorsque j'ai de mes sens abandonné l'empire.

Phèdre, 761

Racine is even guilty at times of mixing metaphors in his presentation of such a division. It is of course our own look-out, and not Racine's fault, if we interpret a figure of speech in an inappropriately literal sense, but the poet does have a certain duty to avoid the ridicule that might arise from misunderstanding, as in “D'un éclat si honteux je rougirais dans l'âme” (La Thébaïde, 1124) or “Est-ce donc votre cœur qui vient de nous parler?” (Iphigénie, 284). Oreste, too, in his moment of agonised anagnorisis, exclaims: “Quoi? j'étouffe en mon cœur la raison qui m'éclaire …” (Andromaque, 1569)—a conception of which it would not be easy to make an anatomical drawing, although (as Alain Viala pointed out in discussion of this paper) it is less alien to seventeenth-century than to modern medical understanding.

It is precisely in the context of anagnorisis that the questions about consciousness and motivation raised by this separation of the moi into discrete elements come into sharpest focus. Racine, as an almost obsessive disciple of Aristotle (or as someone anxious to project such an image), was clearly influenced by all the master's critical concepts, peripeteia, catharsis and of course hamartia, but the effect on him of anagnorisis does seem to have been more haunting and creative. All Racine's greatest tragic creations agonise above all about their sense of identity, and do so frequently in speeches in which they quite consciously set against each other mental, emotional and instinctive impulses—mon cœur, ma raison, mes sens, mon âme and somewhere in the midst of them mon esprit—and pose, at times quite explicitly, the question: “Which of these impulses represents ‘the real me’?” It is no doubt the essential ethical task of tragedy to explore such questions of individuality, autonomy and will, and the related question of responsibility for action. A striking example of a speech of this sort is Agamemnon's first explanation of his dilemma to Arcas and to the audience in the opening scene of Iphigénie (63-89).

                                                            Surpris, comme tu peux penser,
Je sentis dans mon corps tout mon sang se glacer.
Je demeurai sans voix, et n'en repris l'usage
Que par mille sanglots qui se firent passage.
Je condamnai les dieux, et sans plus rien ouïr,
Fis vœu sur leurs autels de leur désobéir.
Que n'en croyais-je alors ma tendresse alarmée?
Je voulais sur-le-champ congédier l'armée. (70)
Ulysse, en apparence approuvant mes discours,
De ce premier torrent laissa passer le cours.
Mais bientôt, rappelant sa cruelle industrie,
Il me représenta l'honneur et la patrie. […]
Moi-même (je l'avoue avec quelque pudeur) (79)
Charmé de mon pouvoir, et plein de ma grandeur,
Ce nom de roi des rois et de chef de la Grèce
Chatouillait de mon cœur l'orgueilleuse faiblesse.
Pour comble de malheur, les dieux toutes les nuits,
Dès qu'un léger sommeil suspendait mes ennuis,
Vengeant de leurs autels le sanglant privilège, (85)
Me venaient reprocher ma pitié sacrilège,
Et présentant la foundre à mon esprit confus,
Le bras déjà levé, menaçaient mes refus.
Je me rendis […]

On the surface, the speech expresses Agamemnon's confidence in an integrated decision-making personality: first-person pronouns—strikingly in a context which is supposed to consider le moi to be haïssable3—occur ten times, once strengthened by “moi-même”, and first-person possessives a further ten. Yet in his mental turmoil, Agamemnon is divided into segments even more dramatically than in the briefer extracts already considered: moi, corps, tendresse, cœur, esprit—who, as we asked before, is the real Agamemnon? His initial reaction to the oracle is identified as a physical one (64), and leads to an emotional assertion of will (“Je condamnai”, “Je voulais”). This instinctive position is overcome by a mixture of reason and of other, conflicting, emotions: a sense of honour, patriotism and shame aroused by Ulysse's arguments; Agamemnon's own ambition and sense of self-esteem; and finally the fear engendered by nightmares. Both impulses, curiously, are defined in terms that suggest emotional weakness: the desire to save Iphigénie is personified as Agamemnon's “tendresse”, while the urge to feed his ambition at her expense becomes the “faiblesse de (son) cœur”. As he remembers the opposition between them he distances himself with an expression of shame (79) from an impulse which he nevertheless emphatically (almost, dare one say it, ungrammatically) ascribes to “himself”. Subsequently, he expresses distress at the outcome: it is his mind, as he speaks line 69, which regrets the triumph of argument over impulse4.

The use of the word esprit within the speech raises a slightly different sphere of reference, closer to the English word “spirit”. Agamemnon's dreams are visions presented to his mind, when it is not under the control of his will, by active, hostile and calculating supernatural forces (83-8). This use of the word esprit—that bit of human consciousness that supernatural forces get at in dreams—is common enough in Racine and elsewhere: “Hélas! l'état horrible où le ciel me l'offrit Revient à tout moment effrayer mon esprit” (Athalie, 242) or “Et mon esprit troublé le voit encor la nuit” (Esther, 436). In the “Preface” to Athalie, too, Racine states that Joad “voit en esprit le funeste changement de Joas”, and we shall return shortly to that experience.

Agamemnon's decision is expressed (89) in a formula, “Je me rendis”, which seems natural enough, but which takes on more complex and tantalising overtones in our context. He (some part or parts of his consciousness) has overcome himself (some other part or parts), but it remains hard to pin down which combination of emotional, spiritual, intellectual or even physical impulses have given rise to a decision which is in any case provisional. It is at any rate very different from the Stoical notion of self-control exemplified by Cornelian characters. Félix, in Polyeucte, facing a similar dilemma, also expresses a division of his personality: “On ne sait pas les maux dont mon cœur est atteint: De pensers sur pensers mon âme est agitée” (1004-5). He is better than Agamemnon at producing stark antitheses:

J'en ai de violents, j'en ai de pitoyables.


J'aime ce malheureux que j'ai choisi pour gendre,
Je hais l'aveugle erreur qui le vient de surprendre.


And the climax of his speech certainly evokes a divided personality: “Ainsi tantôt pour lui je m'expose au trépas, Et tantôt je le perds pour ne me perdre pas” (1019-20). In the end, Agamemnon and Félix reach equivalent decisions, but what for Agamemnon is a defeat—“Je me rendis”—is for Félix a triumph:

Je me fais violence, Albin, mais je l'ai dû
Et certes, sans l'horreur de ses derniers blasphèmes,
Qui m'ont rempli soudain de colère et d'effroi,
J'aurais eu de la peine à triompher de moi.

(1685, 1696-8)

His reason and will-power need the support of an emotional impulse to carry out the action which his conscience dictates, but his defiant joy that he has achieved this contrasts with Agamemnon's continuing anguish. Félix has remained a self-contained personality, prey to an external temptation which he successfully resists, whereas Agamemnon portrays the disintegration of his sense of self, and what is essentially the same outcome is presented from a totally different, and much more tragically haunting, perspective.

A different part of Racine's context, as he ponders the nature of human consciousness and decision-making, is provided by Descartes, even though Racine's allegiance to the mind-set of antiquity may at first seem to imply a resistance to much of what is essential to cartesianism. Antoine Artaud in 1641 claimed that Descartes's arguments ran the risk of being associated with the platonic definition of a human being as “un esprit usant ou se servant du corps”5, and this seems to support the conventional analysis of cartesian dualism. Descartes himself, however, took pains to deny the accusation6: “Dans la […] sixième Méditation, où j'ai parlé de la distinction de l'esprit d'avec le corps, j'ai aussi montré qu'il lui est substantiellement uni”. Elsewhere he grapples with the definition of this union7:

J'avais décrit l'âme raisonnable […]; il ne suffit pas qu'elle soit logée dans le corps humain, ainsi qu'un pilote en son navire […], mais qu'il est besoin qu'elle soit jointe et unie plus étroitement avec lui pour avoir des sentiments et des appétits, et ainsi composer un vrai homme.

“Un vrai homme”, then, consists of a body plus a soul (which here incorporates the intellect—“l'âme raisonnable”) plus something else, a source of sensation and appetite beyond the purely physical. Descartes does not at this point use the word esprit8, but he has a concept struggling to find expression, while Racine, as we began by suggesting, has a word looking for something to mean. Senecan Stoicism had preached that desires could and should be controlled by a will that was somehow conceived as separate from the material appetites and sensations of the body: “Les surprises de sens que la raison surmonte”. Descartes seems to anticipate Racine in denying this separation: what defines human experience is our inability either to escape from or to control our material functions, and esprit is that which anticipates stimuli as well as responding to them, whether gloriously as in the perspective of Corneille or destructively as in that of Racine.

This element of control, or the perceived need for it, complicates still further the anxiety Racinian characters feel about the nature of their identity. It is not enough to have a secure sense of self: Racinian characters, like the rest of us, cling also to the belief that this self should in some sense be under their own control, and feel, more acutely than most of us, that the whole world is liable to disintegrate when that sense of control is lost. Whatever combination of mind or intellect, soul or spirit, reason or instinct, constitutes the personality, the individual attaches fundamental importance to a sense of autonomy and freedom, even though this may be incompatible with equally strongly-held intuitive beliefs in cause-and-effect, in the fixity of the past and of the laws of nature, or in other forces inhibiting our genuine control over the outcome of our actions9. Racinian characters are particularly aware of the fear that if they do not control their consciousness, something else will, and they are therefore particularly prone to the sensation that some outside force has indeed seized hold of them—or else, as some spectators may prefer to put it, they are particularly prone to present such an experience as an excuse for actions or feelings about which they feel shame. The balance between these two reactions—on the one hand, “Poor things, they behaved badly but they couldn't help it”, versus on the other hand, “Silly things, why could they not see what they were doing?”—is of course crucial for the operation of Aristotelian hamartia, without which Racine and Aristotle agree there can be no catharsis. There is a close relationship between the tone in which Racine's characters express such a sense of helplessness and the degree of sympathy which we feel towards them. At one extreme, Agamemnon expresses fatalism as pompous self-justification: “J'ai fait ce que m'ordonne un devoir légitime” (Iphigénie, 1161). At the other, Oreste honestly, if subconsciously, admits that in submitting to destiny he is actively embracing fate as though he were a helpless blind man—which his mind knows he is not: “Je me livre en aveugle au destin qui m'entraîne” (Andromaque, 98). Somewhere between the two come Eriphile, who tries to distance herself from her decision to let fate take its course, but avoids giving a specific definition of the nature of the necessity which compels her to do so—“Au sort qui me traînait il fallut consentir” (Iphigénie, 515) and Joad, the subjugation of whose will to a supernatural force is actually witnessed: “Est-ce l'Esprit divin qui s'empare de moi?” (Athalie, 1130).

Although this sounds like a rhetorical question it is of course answered: “C'est lui-même!”, so the human spirit is in this case categorically taken over, made very publicly aware of its helplessness in the face of the supernatural. And this—if anything does—turns Joad into a sympathetic character, crushed by the sudden perception of responsibility allied to impotence, and becoming a weak shadow of his former arrogantly secure self, weeping and hesitating every bit as much as Josabet and (at times) Athalie10. This contrasts with the effect of the Holy Spirit on Polyeucte, who is transformed by it from a mere mortal to a superman.

What began as an academic exercise, an almost playful discussion of the correlation between English and French ways of expressing intangible concepts, has become a discussion of ethics, Emboldened by François Lagarde's opening remarks about the need for societies such as NASSCFL to ensure that their work is perceived as relevant to the concerns of contemporary society, I would end by reasserting the value of classical—élite—literature, if properly used and integrated, in helping society to face such questions as have been raised here about human individuality, responsibility and freedom. These are questions which deeply exercise the public and the media in contemporary Britain. Many kinds of selfish and evil behaviour are excused, condoned, exonerated or mitigated on the basis of appeals to genetic or environmental determinism, or to the manipulation of the individual by more powerful forces. What was until recently looked down on in Britain as the American habit of suing tobacco companies for the effects of their products when knowingly purchased by adults, is catching on across the Atlantic. At the same time, activites like the human genome project provide scope for widespread intervention in the manner in which human consciousness may in the future be allowed to operate, even to exist. While I would not claim that readers of this publication would necessarily make better contributions than trained lawyers or scientists in consideration of these issues, I do not want any legislators or sociologists to operate in those fields who have not, as a compulsory corequisite of their training in jurisprudence, social science or biochemistry, received a thorough grounding in the investigation of the human spirit as revealed and analysed by Sophocles, Shakespeare and Racine.


  1. Jean Racine, Iphigenia, Phaedra, Athaliah, translated and introduced by John Cairncross (Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963); Jean Racine, Four Greek Plays (Andromache, Iphigenia, Phaedra, Athaliah), translated, with an introduction and notes by R. C. Knight (Cambridge: CUP, 1982); Racine's Mid-Career Tragedies (Bérénice, Bajazet, Mithridate, Iphigénie), translated with an introduction by Lacy Lockert (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1958); Jean Racine, Five Plays (Andromache, Britannicus, Berenice, Phaedra, Athaliah), translated with an introduction by Kenneth Muir (Macgibbon and Kee, 1960); Jean Racine, Complete Plays, translated with a foreward and notes by Samuel Solomon (2 vols., New York: Random House, 1967).

  2. The statistically minded reader may note that in the tragedies, Racine uses the word esprit 36 times, esprits a further 25 times, raison 41 times, and âme 160 times. The word esprit occurs 21 times in the nine non-biblical tragedies, 15 times in the two biblical ones and 33 times in all the other works. See B. C. Freeman and A. Batson, Concordance du théâtre et des poésies de Jean Racine (2 vols., New York: Cornell UP, 1968).

  3. Rousseau noted (La Nouvelle Héloïse, seconde partie, lettre xvii) that Molière and Racine were indeed exceptional in this regard: “[…] les pièces de Racine et de Molière exceptées, le je est presque aussi scrupuleusement banni de la scène française que des écrits de Port-Royal”. (J.-J. Rousseau, Œuvres complètes, ed. B. Gagnebin and M. Raymond (5 vols., Paris: Gallimard, 1961), II, 253.)

  4. It was during this session of the Austin conference that Jean Emelina pointed out how sad an outcome it would be if a conference of academics were forced to conclude that the esprit was a disruptive force, undermining the tranquility of the cœur and the âme!

  5. Part of the Fourth Set of Objections to Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy. See Descartes, Œuvres et Lettres, ed. A. Bridoux (Paris: Gallimard, 1953), p. 426.

  6. Ed. cit., p. 446.

  7. Discours de la Méthode, cinquième partie, ed.cit., p. 166.

  8. Discussion here is of course complicated by the intrusion of Latin into the linguistic problem defined at the beginning of the paper. J. Cottingham, A Descartes Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993) lists neither esprit nor spirit as a headword; references in his index are confined to “animal spirits” which (p. 13) he admits is a “misleading name” for “purely physical items”. For a fuller discussion of Descartes's treatment of the notion of esprit, see also J. Cottingham, “The Self and the Body: Alienation and Integration in Cartesian Ethics”, in Seventeenth-Century French Studies, 17 (1995), 1-13.

  9. See J. M. Fischer, The Metaphysics of Free Will (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), p. 13. Of the enormous philosophical bibliography on free will and moral responsibility, that work and J. Glover, Responsibility (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970) have proved particularly useful and accessible.

  10. On this parallel, see E. Forman (ed), Racine: appraisal and reappraisal (Bristol, 1991), p. 107.

Suzanne Gearhart (essay date summer 1998)

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SOURCE: Gearhart, Suzanne. “Racine's Politics: The Subject/Subversion of Power in Britannicus.L'Esprit Créateur 38, no. 2 (summer 1998): 34-48.

[In the following essay, Gearhart discusses the politics of Britannicus and uses the play to show that psychoanalytic theory has a significant role to play in the critique of the subject.]

For some time numerous forms of literary and cultural analysis have been shaped by a multi-faceted critique or questioning of the subject. As many would agree, one of the most prominent of these has come to be known as the new historicism. In contrast to older forms of historicism that sought to write the history of a fundamentally unchanging human subjectivity as it manifests itself in the literary and cultural productions of various ages, the new historicism has argued that the human subject is, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it, “the ideological product of the relations of power in a particular society.”1 Unlike those who have assumed the universality and naturalness of subjectivity, Greenblatt and other new historicists have asserted that it is essentially a construct of impersonal historical forces and more specifically of power relations in a given historical period. Both implicitly and explicitly, new historicists have thus tended to assimilate the critique of the subject with the interests of new historicism.

This assimilation has involved a number of consequences (as well as ironies). From the perspective of Greenblatt, one of the most important has been the discrediting of alternative approaches to literature and culture, perhaps especially those of a psychological or psychoanalytic nature, on the grounds that they take the concept of subjectivity as an unproblematic point of departure. As Greenblatt presents it, Freud is above all the romantic theorist of the “alienated self,” that is, of a self that can be recovered through psychoanalytic interpretation.2 Freudian psychoanalysis thus for him appeals to and confirms our own (ultimately false) sense of selfhood as well as our sense of autonomy with respect to our historical situation. Equally important, psychoanalysis serves an essentially conservative political and social purpose, because it denies or obscures the role of power relations in the construction of the subject and in doing so helps to solidify those relations. In contrast, Greenblatt's position is that the subversion of power is impossible for an individual subject because the subject itself is a construct of power relations, and in that sense his/her actions—even subversive actions—are always already determined by them. In Greenblatt's terms, this recognition of the fundamental lack of freedom of the subject makes new historicism the truly subversive theory, even if its subversion takes the highly ironic form of proclaiming the impossibility of subversion.

It might seem a bit arbitrary to evoke the name of Racine in the context of the contemporary critique of the subject and the turn it has taken in the work of new historicists. But when one considers a significant segment of the criticism devoted to Racine's work and to seventeenth-century French literature in general, it seems fairly obvious that much of what is argued today by new historicists was already being argued by another generation of historicists in connection with Racine's texts and those of many of his contemporaries. For these older historicists, the psychological character of seventeenth-century French literature was one of its major defects, and their criticisms of the psychological realism of neo-classical authors anticipated the new historicist critique of psychoanalytic theories for presupposing a natural or universal form of subjectivity.

Despite the many important differences between the historicisms of Jean-Paul Sartre and Erich Auerbach, when each looks at neo-classical literature, what they share with each other and with the new historicism becomes clear. In Qu'est-ce que la littérature?, for example, Sartre asserts that in classical literature “l'image de l'homme classique est purement psychologique parce que le public classique n'a conscience que de sa psychologie.”3 In a similar spirit, Erich Auerbach argued that the prevalence of “a trend toward psychological types” in the plays of Racine and the work of many of his contemporaries had the effect of inhibiting the representation of the political and historical milieu, thus making impossible even “the slightest trace of … social or economic criticism.”4 Taken as a whole, Auerbach concluded, French neo-classical drama “accepts the prevailing structure of society, takes for granted its justification, permanence, and general validity, and [merely] castigates the excesses occurring within its limits” (Auerbach, 322). In this respect, too, Auerbach's interpretation recalls that of Sartre, who also argues that the psychological outlook adopted by seventeenth-century writers reflected their suppression of any sense of history (Sartre, 99).

It would certainly be an understatement to say that much has changed since Qu'est-ce que la littérature? and Mimesis first appeared. But the general view implied or explicitly articulated by Sartre and Auerbach can still be found, not only in the writings of a new historicist like Greenblatt but also in more recent treatments of seventeenth-century French literature.5 According to that view, psychological or psychoanalytic approaches to literature inevitably depend upon and promote unquestioned assumptions about “subjectivity” and its universality, while historical approaches to literature provide a more solid basis for the theoretical and political critique of subjectivity and also of the historical configurations that are held to determine it.

In the reading of Racine's Britannicus that follows, my aim is to discuss the “politics” of Racine's play. By that, however, I do not mean the conservative politics that have been imputed not only to the skillful courtier Racine unquestionably was but also to the playwright whose mastery of psychological realism has been both widely admired and criticized. My broader aim is to show that psychoanalytic theory does have a significant role to play in the critique of the subject. In doing so, I will also question the manner in which that critique and its “subversive” effects have been identified with historicism and opposed to psychology in general and to psychoanalysis in particular.6

The choice of Racine in this connection is not as arbitrary as it might at first seem, because, as I have indicated above, what is at stake in the question of method being discussed here is not method alone but also the nature of the literary canon and the value attached to certain authors, periods, and traditions in relation to others. My aim, however, is not to establish the preeminent merits of Racine or the demerits of the authors who have been more readily and enthusiastically canonized by historicisms old and new. It is rather to question the grounds of such canonization, specifically insofar as it has involved the devaluation of a certain form of French literary classicism and of the “psychological realism” associated with it.

It is important to note here that the historicists' critique of psychoanalysis has not been entirely off the mark. In taking the position that psychoanalysis can play a critical role in the analysis of the historical and cultural dimension of literature I recognize that it would be difficult, even impossible, to characterize psychoanalysis as a whole. Nor would I argue that certain aspects of Freudian psychoanalytic theory or of certain psychoanalytic theories other than that of Freud cannot legitimately be used to defend traditional concepts of subjectivity. But despite the great diversity and aims of various psychoanalytic theories and of Freud's own writings on psychoanalysis, it would also be difficult to dispute the significance of the work of numerous figures who have drawn on psychoanalysis in order to question traditional concepts of the subject.

Though several names come to mind in this connection, the work of Michel Foucault suggests itself as being particularly relevant to a consideration of the psychoanalytic dimension of the work of Racine. Not only has Foucault provided a psycho-sociological portrait of what could be called the underside of neo-classical culture in both Histoire de la folie and Surveiller et punir,7 but perhaps more importantly, he has also demonstrated the centrality for history and politics of the problem of the eroticization of power, a problem, most would readily concede, that is central to the dramatic universe of Racine as well.

The theme of the eroticization of power has also obviously been central to the new historicists' critique of the subject, and their treatment of it grows in large part out of their reading of Foucault. As they have repeatedly stressed, one of Foucault's most important insights is his idea that repressive political power is not only imposed on the subject but also manifests itself as the subject. In Surveiller et punir Foucault shows his reader that the “prison” in which criminals were incarcerated in nineteenth-century France was certainly not only a building of brick and mortar or even a mere set of imposed constraints derived from prevailing social norms. It was also a form of subjectivity interiorized by the criminal (and ultimately by members of the society at large) and thus affecting not only his (their) outward conduct but also his (their) innermost thoughts and desires. In this manner, power was not merely opposed to or repressive of desire, but was also reinforced by the desires it had created.

As I have argued elsewhere,8 the situation described by Foucault in Surveiller et punir does not mean, however, that in his terms a challenge to prevailing norms or power relations was or is impossible, Greenblatt's assertions notwithstanding. On the contrary, Foucault's analysis of the eroticization of power shows rather that no challenge to existing forms of society can be serious if it does not encompass a challenge to “the subject,” understood both as a concept and a form of experience. A psychoanalytic perspective is thus highly relevant to the extent that it can provide a basis for a critical questioning of the purported integrity and coherence of the subject, whether the subject is assumed to be a natural given or an historical construct.

It is from a psychoanalytic perspective such as this that Racine's Britannicus needs to be reread. Numerous critics who have considered the play from a psychoanalytic standpoint have viewed the sadistic character of the play's principal character, Néron, as a form of self-assertion, and treated Néron himself as an egomaniac who throws off all of the constraints standing in the way of his pursuit of power and pleasure. In contrast, I will analyze Racine's depiction of Néron and also of Junie in terms of another, more complex model of subjectivity, one that accounts both for the emperor's sadism—or rather, sado-masochism—and the heroine's resistance to his power. My argument is that this model of subjectivity is neither romantic nor conservative—that is, neither blind to the reality of domination and its psychological bases within the individual nor supportive of a view that power relations are stable and inevitable even in a specific configuration of power or a specific historical period.

The psychological character of Néron is clearly delineated in a passage from Act I, Scene 2, which a number of critics have identified as providing an important key to the understanding of Néron and the play as a whole. Not only does the passage in question depict the defining moment in Néron's relation to Junie, it also complicates the received historical image of a cruel or sadistic Néron—an image which has been ratified by psychoanalytic critics for the most part—by revealing that his sadism is inextricably linked to masochism.9 In the passage in question, Néron relates his first “encounter” with Junie, which is also the moment he becomes enamored of her.10 This encounter is in fact a non-encounter, because Néron flees his opportunity to make actual contact with Junie, thus offering an initial indication of the masochistic component of his sadism. Significantly, he has not sought pleasure in harming Junie in person, as simple sadism would presumably have required.

The subsequent pleasure Néron experiences from the encounter with Junie that he imagines once he has retired to his chambers is even more explicitly masochistic. What he fantasizes about and takes pleasure in is not merely a violation of Junie. Instead, Néron's pleasure is derived indirectly from her imaginary violation through the mediation of his conscience, which prompts him to ask for Junie's forgiveness—but, as he readily confesses, “trop tard” (2.2.403). Néron's sadistic pleasure, in other words, is derived masochistically from the displeasure caused by guilt, conscience, or repression. Néron oppresses and represses Junie, but he in turn is oppressed and repressed by his own conscience, which in effect reduces him to the status of another Junie. The blurring of power and pleasure and of pleasure and pain in this imaginary scene thus coincides with a blurring of “subject positions” in which it is impossible to say if the pain, pleasure, or power in question is his own or that of another.

The character of Néron provides Britannicus with a key element of its psychological framework—a sado-masochism in which Néron's identification with his own conscience and with the object of his persecution disrupts and conditions his identification with himself. The contrasts between Néron and two additional characters—on the one hand, Néron's virtuous stoic mentor, Burrhus, and, on the other, the Machiavellian advisor, Narcisse—make it possible to connect the psychological portrait of the young emperor to the ethical and political dimensions of the play.

Burrhus's first confrontation with Néron occurs when Néron tells his mentor of his passion for Junie, a passion which Burrhus perceives as disastrous in both ethical and political terms. Burrhus's immediate reaction is to invoke the ethical principles of his stoicism in order to argue that “on n'aime point, Seigneur, si l'on ne veut aimer” (3.1.790). This argument clearly falls on deaf ears. The play suggests, however, that it does so not because Néron is already a hardened criminal, but rather because his passion cannot merely be opposed to morality. Instead, it is intensified by his sense of morality, that is, by the suffering Néron experiences due to his pangs of conscience and by the transformation of that suffering into pleasure and therefore into an incentive to renew his persecution of Junie. As Agrippine, his mother, puts it towards the end of the play in a passage in which she predicts her son's dreadful future: “Tes remords te suivront comme autant de furies, / Tu croiras les calmer par d'autres barbaries” (5.6.1683-84). She clearly implies that while Néron will try to calm his remorse by committing other crimes, they will in fact only heighten his sense of guilt, which will lead him to commit still other crimes in a pattern that will be reinforced and accelerated by its own inner dynamic.

While this first scene underscores the ethical complexity of Néron's sado-masochism, the second reveals its correspondingly complex political implications. In response to Néron's revelation that he plans to have Britannicus killed, Burrhus clearly sees that he can no longer appeal to Néron's ethical sense. He must also appeal to his political interests and his fears. If Néron takes this fatal political step, Burrhus argues, he will be “craint de tout l'univers,” but “il [lui] faudra tout craindre” (4.3.1352). In the short run, Néron lets himself be persuaded by such arguments. But, in the long run, they are cast aside and Britannicus is killed. The reason that suggests itself is that Néron's sado-masochism cannot be interpreted as a mere defense or expression, however pathological or perverse, of his self-interest, and therefore it cannot be countered by an appeal to that same self-interest. What Burrhus misunderstands, in other words, is the profoundly self-destructive nature of Néron's passion for Junie and of his related project of putting Britannicus to death. In the “logic” of Néron's sado-masochism, along with the suffering of others, his own suffering has become a dominant aim—or pleasure. In this sense he identifies with his victims in a reversal of roles which intensifies his will to dominate but which also potentially undercuts it.

The sense of the complex nature of Néron's sado-masochism is further enhanced in Racine's depiction of the relationship between Néron and Narcisse, Burrhus's Machiavellian counterpart. In the light of the lack of force of Burrhus's arguments, Narcisse might initially be thought to represent the true, political and psychological center of Britannicus. But a full reading of the play suggests that his outlook is not only profoundly different from that of Burrhus but of Néron as well.11 In the most succinct terms, what Narcisse constantly assumes is that Néron's sole aim is to conquer and to retain power, whether over Junie or over the Roman people—or both. At the same time, he also assumes that power-relations determine not only the character of Néron but also of Junie and of the Roman people—that their attitudes and interests will be dictated by Néron's power. When Néron confesses to Narcisse that he fears Junie is already in love with Britannicus, Narcisse responds by arguing that Néron, as the ultimate Roman power, has nothing to fear from any less powerful rival: “Commandez qu'on vous aime, et vous serez aimé” (2.2.458). In a similar spirit, he argues in a subsequent scene that the relationship of the Roman people to their leaders is not based on respect for authority but rather on a slavish adoration of power: “Ils adorent la main qui les tient enchaînés” (4.4.1442).

The cynical discourse of Narcisse, no less than the ethical discourse of Burrhus, is based on the idea that the actors in the political drama are “egos” with coherent identities. From Narcisse's perspective, this means that one is either in the position of the dominator or the dominated. Narcisse is thus no more successful than Burrhus in influencing Néron, because his outlook, like that of Burrhus, does not correspond to Néron's situation. Narcisse's death can be seen as the result of his lack of perspicacity in this respect. He is killed by the Roman crowd as he seeks to prevent Junie from entering the temple where she seeks refuge. His single-minded pursuit of her seems fairly obviously to represent his own sense of what the emperor wants and therefore expects of him. In a marked and deliberate contrast with Narcisse, Racine depicts Néron as hesitating to impede Junie and her guides (“César les voit partir sans oser les distraire” [5.8.1747]), just as he hesitated to approach her the first time he saw her. In each instance the suggestion is that Néron is paralyzed by an ambivalence or inner contradiction emblematic of his sado-masochism, which makes him “better”—but also “worse”—than Narcisse.

The morally repugnant nature of Narcisse's teachings and the superiority of Burrhus's ethical principles are not in question in Racine's play. But the failure of both Burrhus and Narcisse to influence Néron's conduct decisively nonetheless constitutes a challenge to any ethics or politics whose theoretical principles are derived from a concept of the subject and from the presupposition that subjectivity implies consistent interests or aims, whatever their nature. The gravity of this challenge, however, hinges on the question of whether or not Néron represents a unique exception, that is, a form of deviance or madness from which he alone suffers, even in the very particular universe of Racine. Racine's depiction of Junie is of crucial significance from this standpoint. Though no character in the play differs more from Néron in terms of upbringing and ethical and political outlook, in fact she, too, at least in one particularly pivotal scene, is forced to play a role in the drama of the sado-masochist, acting as an agent of the power she seeks to resist.

It is crucial to note that Junie takes on this role only because Néron has threatened to kill Britannicus if she does not tell her beloved that she no longer loves him or if she allows Britannicus even to suspect that she is making this declaration against her will. But, for at least this brief scene, Junie becomes a product of power, a creation of Néron and an instrument he uses to torture Britannicus. It is not just that her every word, gesture, and expression are under Néron's control as she speaks with Britannicus. The destructive effect of Néron's power in this scene includes perhaps above all a violation of Junie's interiority, in which she is forced not only to do and say certain things but even to think and feel in terms of an interiorized image of Néron's cruel gaze.

In trying to pass a message to Britannicus despite the strictures Néron has imposed on her, she succeeds in describing her relation to Néron's power in the following terms: “Vous êtes en des lieux tout pleins de sa puissance./Ces murs mêmes, Seigneur, peuvent avoir des yeux;/Et jamais l'empereur n'est absent de ces lieux” (2.6.712-14).12 These lines evoke what could just as easily have been the spirit of the court of Louis XIV as of Néron, and, more generally, of any political order insofar as it dictates the behavior and attitudes of its members. But they also identify the element of such orders that is potentially the most insidious, precisely because it is based on the idea of a hidden spectator, who may be there or who may not be there, but who is in a sense ever-present precisely because his gaze is now imagined as being ever-present. The passage suggests that in a situation such as this each individual watches him or herself. In this sense power becomes interiorized and its destructiveness is intensified insomuch as it comes not only from without but from within as well.

As more than one critic has noted, the dramatic structure of Britannicus is one in which each character who watches is in turn being watched. But, as Jean Starobinski and Charles Mauron have further argued, the “étrange construction visuelle” of Britannicus should be understood as including not only the various characters in the play but also the audience.13 In the scene I have been discussing, this means that a chain is in effect constructed in which Junie watches Britannicus, Néron watches Junie, and the audience watches Néron. What Starobinski does not say but Mauron does is that one of the play's most powerful and terrible ironies becomes apparent when the audience is considered in connection with this visual construction. Within its framework, the audience is not only in the position of an ultimate judge, who pities Junie and condemns Néron, but also in the position of Néron himself.

Like Junie, who in the scene I have been discussing is transformed into another Néron by a situation of domination, so the audience is transformed into another Néron through an identification that is not subjective and contingent, but rather, in the terms of the play, structural and necessary—the identification of each position on the chain with every other. The parallel between Néron and the spectator does not imply that the sado-masochistic logic he exemplifies is universal or instinctual, but it does mean that the members of the audience enter into this logic as they become spectators of the play. Burrhus's ethical principles are seriously challenged above all because the play suggests that anyone can be drawn into such a structure of domination, which can take the form not only of a physical destruction, as in the case of Britannicus, but also of a psychic violation, as in the case of Junie.

The psycho-political implication of Racine's play is thus that, in order to understand political situations in which absolute power is in question, we cannot stop with the analysis of the clash of interests or of the greater power of certain groups in relation to others. We must also analyze the exercise of power in terms of a different, sado-masochistic logic, which has important implications with respect to both the dominator and the dominated. In the case of the dominator, this logic means that the ruler or the ruling group not only uses his/its power but also abuses it according to a pattern in which every abuse leads only to increasingly greater abuses.

This is an aspect of Racine's play that attracted the attention of Albert Memmi, whose influential work, Portrait du colonisé, précedé de Portrait du colonisateur, presents an analysis of power relations in colonial societies from the standpoint of their psychic or unconscious dimensions. In these and other works, Memmi himself testifies to the special significance Racine's work holds for him when he relates his own analysis of the psychology of the colonizer to Racine's depiction of Néron.14 Though the term “sado-masochism” is obviously absent from Memmi's text, the “Nero complex” he attributes to the colonizer connects strongly nonetheless with the logic of sado-masochism I have been discussing. According to Memmi, the wrong done by the colonizer to the colonized gives the colonizer a sense of illegitimacy. But that sense of illegitimacy, instead of lessening the severity of his attempts to persecute and humiliate the colonized, only intensifies them, propelling them towards their most extreme manifestations—the racism and proto-fascism of colonial societies.

For Memmi, then, racism is not only congruent with the material interests of the colonizer—and in fact, he implies, it may at times conflict with those interests. It represents rather an attempt to justify the exorbitant privileges and power of the colonizer. As such it can only exacerbate the “Nero complex,” because the very need for such justification becomes an additional indication of the illegitimacy of the position of the colonizer and even heightens that illegitimacy by contributing to the further depreciation of the colonized. Memmi was obviously not proposing a psychotherapy that would have freed the colonizer from his sense of guilt and in doing so have softened the excesses of colonialism, any more than Racine is suggesting that Néron's atrocious acts would have been less egregious if they were disconnected from his sense of guilt. In each case, the point is that the psychic is not a mere reflection or expression of relations of power but rather a crucial element serving in their construction and in the process complicating their significance.

The psychology of sado-masochism underlying Racine's tragedy is as closely related to Memmi's portrait of the colonized, however, as to his portrait of the colonizer. Memmi argues, against Fanon, that the colonized passes a negative judgment on himself as a member of colonial society and that in this sense he himself is “fabriqué,” that is, “produced” or “manufactured” by colonialism (80). Memmi insists that such a negative judgment is neither natural nor instinctual. It is a product of the colonial situation. He also insists, however, that it not only shapes the external conduct of the colonized but is experienced by him in his affective and intellectual life as well. As Memmi describes it, the interiorization of colonial stereotypes of the colonized by the colonized himself is nothing less than an interiorization of the perspective of the colonizer in which the colonized becomes as much the colonizer as he is himself. With his portrait of the colonized Memmi takes the full measure of the destructive nature of colonialism, which involves not merely the negation of the material being of the colonized but of his psychic being as well.

Racine's play does not end with Junie's subjection, however, any more than Memmi's analysis of colonialism ends with the subjection of the colonized. The figure of Junie also illustrates how an interiorization of the logic of sado-masochism by the dominated can lead not only to a reinforcement of power but to its subversion. This is especially true in the final scene, where Racine depicts a reversal of power. In the scene in question, Albine, a confidant of Néron's mother, Agrippine, recounts for Agrippine and Burrhus what she saw in the final moments of the unfolding drama between Néron and Junie. Significantly, Albine's narration involves not only characters with whom the audience is already familiar, but a new “character,” “le peuple,” who is alluded to in the earlier parts of the play by the principals but who now takes on an active role.

The theatricality of the concluding situation and of the people's response to it is suggested by the specific terms of Albine's narration. As she describes it, the encounter between the fleeing Junie and her pursuers, Narcisse and Néron, becomes a kind of street theater, a “spectacle” which astonished the crowd. Correspondingly, the crowd itself becomes an audience, which is moved by Junie's tears and which pities her because of her suffering (5.8.1739-42). The “étrange construction visuelle” of Britannicus, in which the spectator also occupies the position of the victimizer, is thus being evoked one last time through this description. But in this instance the powerful Narcisse becomes the victim of the less powerful spectators when he is beaten to death by the crowd, which also interposes itself between Néron and Junie and accompanies her into the temple.

There are obvious parallels between Albine's account of how the people intervene to rescue Junie from her persecutors and Foucault's lively and by now classic descriptions in Surveiller et punir of how monarchic power under the ancien régime could be upset in the course of those spectacles designed to display its imposition. It also finds an echo in Memmi's portrait of a colonized people and its conquest of freedom. That freedom, according to Memmi, is not won because some part of the colonized, either conscious or unconscious, has remained untouched by colonialism but, quite the contrary, because it has not. In his discussion of assimilation, in particular, Memmi argues that, paradoxical though it may seem, the interiorization of the manichean structure of colonial society and the suffering connected with this process have potentially subversive implications and effects.

Though assimilation can be seen and has been seen as the ultimate form of submission to colonial power, Memmi argues that the colonizer consistently “refused” those colonized who became assimilated, and that it should come as no surprise that this was the case (141). Implicitly for Memmi, assimilation revealed that the privileges enjoyed in the colonies by the colonizers as citizens of the colonizing power were the result of acquisitions such as the language and culture of the colonizers, acquisitions that were and are available at least in principle to everyone, rather than the natural prerogative of the colonizers alone. In this sense, assimilation undercut the stability of the hierarchy between the dominator and the dominated and subverted, rather than affirmed, colonial relations of power.

But, it could be objected, is not the deeper meaning of assimilation merely destructive with respect to the subjective freedom of the dominated? In taking on the perspective of the dominator, does the dominated not in effect acquire a subjective identity, one related negatively to his freedom, since it is produced by relations of domination? The answer to this question is “not necessarily,” because for Memmi assimilation not only implies a positive identification with the colonizer but also a self-condemnation connected to the rejection of his “own” perspective and culture by the colonized—what Memmi calls “le refus de soi” (138). Ultimately the source (the “self”) of this self-condemnation is not clear. Does it come from an interiorized agent of colonialism, who leads the colonized to condemn himself along with his own culture? Or does it come from the colonized self, who condemns the betrayal of self by the (interior) agent of colonialism? In Memmi's terms it would be impossible to say, as he indicates when he stresses that, in important respects, the colonized who seeks assimilation and the colonized who revolts are identical (153). But what is clear is that this self-condemnation provides evidence of the complexity of the colonized subject, and this complexity means that the colonized is not only subjugated by colonial power relations but also free to resist them.

The term “complexity” needs to be used carefully, because, from Memmi's perspective, it would obviously be false to speak of different or distinct locations in the psyche (or, for that matter, in society), some of which are governed by the principle of freedom and others by the principle of domination. Memmi's emphasis, instead, is on the objective and subjective ambiguity of every one of the colonized's gestures, each of which can be understood as an expression of colonial power relations, but each of which is also potentially a sign of the freedom of the colonized.

Significantly, the scene in which Junie is watched by Néron as she carries out his orders has an outcome similar to the drama of colonial assimilation recounted by Memmi. The similarity becomes apparent in the confession Néron makes to Narcisse after Britannicus and Junie have both separately left the stage. Though Néron cannot fault Junie for having done anything other than what she was ordered by him to do, her resistance to him, he says, “a paru jusque dans son silence” (2.8.748). Given the parallel drawn throughout the play between Junie and the Roman people, this scene foreshadows the reversal of power relations in the final confrontation between Néron and Narcisse, on the one hand, and Junie and the Roman populace, on the other, and suggests that the mechanisms at work in both scenes are fundamentally similar. The dominated can never fully reassure the dominator or be fully subjugated by power relations, because the freedom of the dominated is a condition and not just a casualty of interiorization. Memmi acknowledges a debt to Racine when he describes the self-destructive psychology of the colonizer. But he is also indebted to Racine for the equally complex model of subjectivity that he uses to account for both the interiorization of repression by the dominated and the capacity of the dominated to free themselves from or subvert that repression.

My purpose in this essay is not to defend the classicism of Racine if this would mean making Néron into what some Freudians and perhaps Freud himself thought Oedipus was—a universal model of the subject equally relevant to every historical context or specific situation. Like any other psychoanalytic concept that might be invoked and generalized, sado-masochism (the “Nero complex?”) can be used just as easily as the Oedipus complex to evade important issues relating to historical (and psychic) diversity and specificity. Nonetheless, if the work of Memmi, Foucault, and others attests to the existence of significant new paths for historical and literary-historical criticism (as well as for psychoanalytic investigation), I would argue that it is because of the way they and others have drawn on psychoanalysis in order to challenge and question punctual models of the subject of history.

It is obviously not within the power of new historicism either to keep open or close off these paths. But it would be unfortunate if, in the wake of new historicism, historical and psychoanalytic criticism continued to be seen as fundamentally antagonistic. We obviously need a strong yet nuanced sense of history to remind us of the particular situation and context of various literary movements and perhaps especially of classicism, precisely because of the insistence with which it and those who studied it have traditionally promoted its claims to universality and naturalness. But certain forms of psychoanalytic literary criticism can be equally valuable in reminding us of the historical situation of historicism itself, which was and in certain instances continues to be determined by a dogmatic rejection of classical literary models and of psychological or psychoanalytic lines of critical inquiry.

By the same token, I would not argue that Britannicus is a unique example of the way relations of power are constructed and also diffracted by the “subject of power.” But given the traditional association of French literary classicism with psychology and psychoanalysis, it seems to me that Racine's theater in general and this play in particular provide an important proving ground for testing and exploring the possible implications of a psychoanalytic approach to literary-historical problems. If newer approaches to the complex relation between the psychic and the social are useful in highlighting the complexity of Racinian tragedy and of the Racinian subject, it is because Racine's “classicism” is not just “classical” and relevant to its own immediate historical context alone, but also “critical” and of continuing relevance even today.


  1. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980), 256.

  2. Stephen Greenblatt, “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture,” Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, eds. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1986), 213.

  3. Jean-Paul Sartre, Qu'est-ce que la littérature? (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), 100, my emphasis.

  4. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), 341-42.

  5. Jean-Marie Apostolidès's Le Prince sacrifié: Théâtre et politique au temps de Louis XIV (Paris: Minuit, 1985) is a case in point. Though, on the surface, his interpretation of Racine seems to be the opposite of that of Auerbach and Sartre (for example, Apostolidès claims to have discovered a politically-oriented writer beneath the surface psychological perspective of Racine's work), the framework within which he interprets Racine and seeks to demystify certain aspects of his dramaturgy is the same as theirs. Like Sartre and Auerbach, Apostolidès holds or assumes that in itself the psychological dimension of Racine's plays is without historical or political significance (93). Equally important, he also assumes that Racine's work played a significant role in the consolidation of the power of the monarchy, because his psychological emphasis contributed to a mystification of the political realities of seventeenth-century French society and thus to the neutralization of political opposition (101).

  6. In Racine: Le Jansénisme et la modernité (Paris: José Corti, 1986), Marie-Florine Bruneau argues that Racine's dramas, and Athalie in particular, should be read as politically subversive texts. For Bruneau, however, the critical political implications of Racine's theater are wholly unrelated to its psychoanalytic dimensions (116-17).

  7. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1972) and Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).

  8. Suzanne Gearhart, “The Taming of Foucault: New Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and the Subversion of Power,” New Literary History, 26:3 (Summer 1997): 457-80.

  9. For example, in L'Inconscient dans la vie et l'œuvre de Racine (Paris: CNRS, 1957), Charles Mauron writes of the “sadisme spectaculaire” of Néron, that is, the sadism of a subject who finds pleasure in seeing his victim suffer while he himself remains hidden (78). More recently, Barbara Wohinsky has described Néron's psychological tendency as a “refinement of sadism” (The Linguistic Imperative in French Classical Literature [Palo Alto: Stanford French and Italian Studies, 1991], 70). In apparent contrast, Serge Doubvrovsky writes of Néron's masochistic tendencies as well as his sadistic ones. But for Doubrovsky Néron's masochism is little more than the perversion of a “normal,” masculine sadism, which remains the dominant force in Néron's character. Serge Doubrovsky, “L'arrivée de Junie dans Britannicus: La tragédie d'une scène à l'autre,” Littérature, 32 (1978): 27-54.

  10. Excité, d'un désir curieux,
    Cette nuit je l'ai vue arriver en ces lieux,
    Triste, levant au ciel ses yeux mouillés de larmes,
    Qui brillaient au travers des flambeaux et des armes,
    Belle, sans ornements, dans le simple appareil
    D'une beauté qu'on vient d'arracher au sommeil.
    Que veux-tu? Je ne sais si cette négligence,
    Les ombres, les flambeaux, les cris et le silence,
    Et le farouche aspect de ses fiers ravisseurs,
    Relevaient de ses yeux les timides douceurs.
    Quoi qu'il en soit, ravi d'une si belle vue,
    J'ai voulu lui parler, et ma voix s'est perdue:
    Immobile, saisi d'un long étonnement,
    Je l'ai laissé passer dans son appartement.
    J'ai passé, dans le mien. C'est là que, solitaire
    De son image en vain j'ai voulu me distraire.
    Trop présente à mes yeux je croyais lui parler,
    J'aimais jusqu'à ses pleurs que je faisais couler.
    Quelquefois, mais trop tard, je lui demandais grâce;
    J'employais les soupirs, et même la menace.


  11. I would thus take issue with Barthes (Sur Racine [Paris: Seuil, 1963], 87) and Mauron (76), who see Narcisse as the victor in his tug-of-war with Burrhus for Néron's allegiance.

  12. John Campbell has closely analyzed these lines in terms of the role played by alliteration and repetition in the construction of the image of a form of power he characterizes as totalitarian. John Campbell, Racine: Britannicus (London: Grant and Cutler, 1990), 51.

  13. Mauron, 78. See also Jean Starobinski, L'Œil vivant (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), 89.

  14. Albert Memmi, Portrait du colonisé, précédé de Portrait du colonisateur (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), 75-78.

Michèle Longino (essay date summer 1998)

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SOURCE: Longino, Michèle. “Bajazet à la lettre.” L'Esprit Créateur 38, no. 2 (summer 1998): 49-59.

[In the following essay, Longino considers the theme of communication in Bajazet.]

What happens to Bajazet when the play is taken literally?1 Reading literally brings together two discourses, one of history, and the other of literature. The one privileges fact, the other fiction. When considering them together, distinctions between the two discourses tend to blur, since behind them both looms a greater force: the condition of all discourse, that is, communication.2 My modest ambition is to offer a suggestive reading of some key points concerning this major condition, represented in both the news of the day (the literal) and the play (the fiction) that mirrored and assigned structure to that news.

From first preface to final act, the play relays the problem of communication like a mirror game into regressive infinity, deferring and ultimately defying resolution, ending abruptly yet inexorably where communication stops, at death's door as Zaïre strains to follow her mistress Atalide across that threshold. I will consider the issue of communication in Bajazet in some of its specific thematic forms: the issue of honesty—the formulation and directing of messages; of efficacy—the transmission of messages; the privileged concrete form of the message, that is, the letter; and finally the vital condition of belief or credulity—the reception of messages—all of these subject to interception and interpretation. Thus, even communication answers to a stronger power: context.

This play treats not so much the “détours” of the seraglio as the “détours” of language, those of the spoken word as well as of the material written one. Even body language is subjected to the “détour” in this examination of communication. Finally, all of communication is, in some form or other, a “détour.” Thus, the exotic framing of Bajazet is but a thin disguise.3 Little wonder that Corneille, hardly a neutral expert, should insist on the emptiness of his rival's portrayal of the Oriental other: “Il n'y a pas un seul personnage qui ait les sentiments qu'il doit avoir et que l'on a à Constantinople; ils ont sous un habit turc, le sentiment qu'on a au milieu de la France.”4 Corneille's insistance on the inadequacy of the representation at once willfully misses the point and makes it. He disregards the more profound subject of the play and critiques its surface. He is able to do this specifically by focusing on the history-literature, fact-fiction tension, and discounting the more global encoded problem of communication that the play addresses.

The issues of communication raised in Bajazet are just as readily pertinent to any closely watched and controlled leisure society, where not only women are contained but men as well, as they are to the seraglio. And therein, not in the authenticity of its representation of the Turkish seraglio, lies the value of the play. Racine suggests as much in the rhetorical question of his second preface as he justifies his choice of intensifying locale, encoding communication concerns as love concerns:

En effet, y a-t-il une cour au monde où la jalousie et l'amour doivent être si bien connues que dans un lieu où tant de rivales sont enfermées ensemble, et où toutes ces femmes n'ont point d'autre étude, dans une éternelle oisiveté, que d'apprendre à plaire et à se faire aimer?

(“Seconde Préface”)

The seraglio furnishes an exaggerated model to use as a vehicle for commentary on communication; hence, the ready answer: “yes, of course, Versailles,” to Racine's rhetorical question is shortsighted. The narcissistic French court audience resisted recognizing itself in Racine's oblique reference or in the play itself as much as we often do today.

The theme of communication is announced in the prefaces to the play, those texts that purport to contextualize and justify the workings of the plot. The story Racine stages is one he claims to have heard from the Chevalier de Nantouillet, who heard it from the ambassador M. de Césy, who was told the story since he was in residence in Constantinople at the time of the reported event.5 Racine claims also to have consulted another ambassador, M. de la Haye. Thus, while the play might, given such diplomatic input, constitute something of an “official story,” it is also at best a third-hand account of an event, no doubt modified and embellished through these several tellings, perhaps closer to gossip. One must view then with some suspicion Racine's claim for the “très véritable” (“Première Préface”) nature of his subject. Further, Racine claims to have authenticated his play through consultations of written histories of the Ottomans. But these, too, are second-hand accounts, produced by European outsiders (not that “insider” history would not have its own bias). The play reduces to a composite and imaginative rendering, using known facts simply as a point of departure, and Racine's truth claim must be reviewed beyond the stresses of fact and fiction, in the conditions of their mutual possibility.

The core story is that during de Césy's tenure as ambassador, Mourad IV had two of his brothers strangled, one of whom was the popular Bajazet, and the city was in consternation. Indeed, by his own admission, the closest the on-site witness de Césy ever got to Bajazet was a glimpse from the sea of him up on a seraglio parapet. What is gained and what is lost in the communicative circuit cannot be determined, but claims for veracity in the prefaces can certainly be viewed with some skepticism.6 Or these claims can be counted as the first “détours” staged by Racine himself in his dramatization of the problematic of communication.7

The issues of context reached beyond those staged, and spoke to the concerns of the new seventeenth-century press. There again, just as by Corneille, the accuracy of Racine's portrayal of Ottoman society was contested. In the first issue of Le Mercure galant (January 9th, 1672), Donneau de Visé displayed a quickly acquired expertise and denounced the play for its inauthenticity. Still beside the point, he located its worth in its faithful representation of the gallant Turkish character. He cited, as confirmation of this trait, the evidence of a letter: “La galanterie et l'honnêteté des Turcs n'est pas une chose sans exemples, et nous en avons une histoire très agréable dans une lettre de Monsieur du Loir, écrite à Monsieur Charpentier en 1641 que vous serez peutêtre bien aise que je vous rapporte.”8 Just as in the play itself—missives from Amurat to Roxane, Bajazet's letter to Atalide—the letter is privileged as an authoritative reliable truth source. Cited in the frame of a newspaper piece, du Loir's letter enjoys further enhanced status as a proof document. In the domains both of fiction and fact, the letter stands apart as sure truth text.

The French and Ottoman worlds, uneasy partners already in Mediterranean affairs, were coming ever closer together by virtue of increased trade and travel. These activities were accompanied by a steady flow of writing (letters, memoirs, histories, accounts, fictions, translations). The new newspaper genre combined literature and politics, and set a newsprint stage for journalistic realism while dramatizing the world. De Visé's review of Racine's Bajazet in Le Mercure galant confounded the distinctions. Was the seventeenth-century reader to understand his “Discours sur Bajazet, tragédie du Sieur Racine” as news or cultural commentary? Here the blur between fact and fiction is instantiated. More recently, Benedict Anderson links the newspaper with notions of theatricality and a consumer market, a readership eager to take in and evaluate a staged world-view in print:

If we now turn to the newspaper as a cultural product, we will be struck by its profound fictiveness … a juxtaposition of events, actors. … The arbitrariness of their inclusion and juxtaposition shows that the linkage between them is imagined. … This imagined linkage derives from two obliquely related sources. The first is simply calendrical coincidence. The date at the top of the newspaper, the single most important emblem on it, provides the essential connection—the steady onward clocking of homogenous, empty time. Within that time, “the world” ambles steadily ahead. … The second source of imagined linkage lies in the relationship between the newspaper, as a form of book, and the market.9

But Anderson does not tell us how to read Racine's prefaces. In order to justify treating the contemporary subject of Bajazet on the classical stage, Racine had insisted on the strangeness, the otherness, of the culture he was dramatizing. His argument is based on the proposition of physical distance and cultural difference being commensurable with distance in time:

L'éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps, car le peuple ne met guère de différence entre ce qui est, si j'ose ainsi parler, à mille ans de lui, et ce qui en est à mille lieues. C'est ce qui fait, par exemple, que les personnages turcs, quelques modernes qu'ils soient, ont de la dignité sur notre théâtre. On les regarde de bonne heure comme anciens.

(“Seconde Préface”)

Racine's position, however, is inconsistent: at the same time in these prefaces, flaunting the daring of his argument, he underscores the recency of the event, its current relevance, and its as yet undigested status. In 1672 he boastfully opens his first preface: “Quoique le sujet de cette tragédie ne soit encore dans aucune histoire imprimée,” and he insists again: “C'est une aventure arrivée dans le sérail, il n'y a pas plus de trente ans.”

In 1676 he updates and insistently repeats himself: “Les particularités de la mort de Bajazet ne sont encore dans aucune histoire imprimée” (“Seconde Préface”). The subject matter is at once too close and too far away, as is any truth—which fact the play will demonstrate.10 Taking pains to highlight the currency of the story rather than passing it off more discreetly as “history,” he ties it genealogically to the present: “Le Sultan Mahomet, qui règne aujourd'hui, est fils de cet Ibrahim et par conséquent neveu de Bajazet” (“Seconde Préface”). Thus a good deal of the preface concerns itself with problems of communicating in the present about the present, problems that will be addressed more directly in the play itself. Racine's accommodating reasoning is at once in accord with and at variance with Anderson's development of the idea of “simultaneity,” of “conceiving of things happening in different places at the same time” (30), at the heart of the evolution of the press. Anderson plays up precisely what Racine at once attempts to play both down and up.

Racine's first preface introduced only the first edition of the play, in 1672. The second preface accompanied the second, third, and fourth editions, and Racine suppressed its last paragraph after 1687. In this second preface, Racine appears to acknowledge a change in his audience/readership from 1672. Not only must he incorporate responses to criticisms of his play; this current readership needs more information, needs to be told the story of Bajazet. Whereas in 1672 Racine merely mentions in passing the Ricaut history of the Ottomans, presuming familiarity with current gossip, which allows him to move more readily into his play, by 1676 he is reminding his public that books (“il ne faut que lire l'histoire des Turcs,” “Seconde Préface”) support the tenor of his play. While the public has earlier critiqued the play and found it wanting in plausibility, thereby explaining Racine's defensive remarks, it is equally true that even the play itself, first produced in 1672, was slowly slipping into “history” (albeit contemporary) by 1676. Pedagogical as well as defensive, the second preface acts as a supplement to shore up the gaps of communication left by the play. The fact that two prefaces are needed attests to the inadequacy not of the one, both, or the other, but to the inefficacy of any preface and ultimately of the play itself as a series of communication acts—indeed, of any attempt at communication.

This communication motif is articulated in the frequent use of the term “détour” throughout the play. The first mention of “détour” is made by Bajazet when he protests against Atalide's plea that he pretend better to love Roxane so as to assure his own life (2.5.750-57). He sets himself and Atalide apart as belonging to a class of which honor is the mark, which admits of no falsehood. To make a false promise is to act out of class. Thus, circulation of truth would be class-restricted. The “détour” is a problem for Bajazet insofar as he belongs to a class, the Ottoman dynasty, that locates itself above the pragmatism of its vizir servant Acomat (“Nourri dans le sérail, j'en connais les détours” [4.7.1425]) and because he is in a situation where he must negotiate with someone, Roxane, of a lower class, slave of undetermined origin (however currently exalted in the Sultan's favor), who is not burdened with the same scruples, or so he believes.

Despite his qualms, Bajazet does obey Atalide. But in the letter that he finally sends to her, which, through a “détour,” will be their undoing, he will protest again against the demeaning behavior to which he has been reduced by his attachment to Atalide. Here it is apparent that although the “détours” have been necessitated by a cross-class situation, they are mandated by a shared in-class situation. After all, it is Atalide and Bajazet's legitimated, maternally approved love that is trying to survive.

The letter that Bajazet finally sends Atalide will bring them down. The document confirms for Roxane the bond she suspected but preferred to ignore. Up until the moment when Roxane is confronted with the material evidence, she can willfully dismiss what she only too rightly suspects. Once the written word surfaces, she must concede to the hard facts. On the one hand, this moment is pivotal: from here on, she must accept Bajazet's faithfulness to his own kind—to Atalide—and steel herself to seal his fate. On the other, the “absolute ruler” Amurat has already, from his distanced position, set everyone's destiny, Roxane's included; but we do not know that until after the fact. The incident of the letter turns out to be of minor importance in the greater scheme of things, and the issue of communication is subjected itself to that even greater force: context.

The issue of letters was a highly charged one for envoys to Constantinople. Hence, this key detail in the play. Elaborate encoding systems were set in place to protect the privacy of communications, official and merely confidential. Jean Chardin, the professional traveler and merchant, tells the story of the ambassador M. de la Haye, who used local customs to rid himself of an impoverished, hence potentially renegade, French decoder, Quiclet. In 1659, through an act of treachery, coded letters for the French ambassador passed into the hands of the Vizir:

Un français Vertament fut chargé d'un gros pacquet de Lettres pour l'Ambassadeur de France. Le Français qui n'avait d'autre dessin que de se faire Turc, se présenta au Caimacan de Constantinople, luy dit qu'il avoit quitté le champ des Chrétiens, parce qu'il vouloit abjurer leur Religion pour embrasser le Mahometisme, au reste qu'il avait un pacquet de Lettres de grande importance à mettre entre les mains du Grand Vizir.11

Thus was the discovery made of a “commerce caché” (16) between the French and the Venetians. The Vizir was anxious to know the contents of the letters. In need of money, the decoder, Quiclet's wife, threatened that if the ambassador was not forthcoming, her husband would offer his expertise to the Vizir and decode the letters for him. De la Haye acted decisively:

Monsieur de la Haye, qui savait la grande envie qu'avoit Cuperli d'apprendre ce que contenoient les lettres interceptées, qui apprehendait qu'il n'y eut des choses qui le perdissent, et tous les Français du Levant, et qui savait la pauvreté du déchiffreur français, l'envoya quérir, le mena sur une terrasse du Palais qui regarde le jardin, et apres luy avoir fait quelques tours, l'entretenant de discours qu'on n'a point sçeus; il fit signe à des gens apostés qui lui firent sauter la terrasse; d'autres gens postés aussi à l'endroit où il tomba, voyant qu'il n'étoit pas mort de sa chute, l'achevèrent, et l'ensevelirent secrettement.

(Chardin, 17)

This incident spelled the end of de la Haye's tenure as ambassador to the Porte. But he was not alone in his concern for confidentiality. Another French gentleman, Monsieur du Loir, the same person cited earlier by Donneau de Visé, explained to his correspondent, Monsieur Charpentier, why he hesitated to write letters:

Je vous apprendrais des aventures d'amour que vous ne seriez pas fâché de savoir, si j'osais fier ici à l'écriture des mystères que la discretion m'ordonne de réserver à un entretien de vive voix. Une lettre, comme vous savez, peut être interceptée, et nous ne sommes pas ici tant de français qu'on ne put découvrir l'auteur. Et outre que ces secrets sont de la dernière importance entre des Chrétiens et des Turcs, ce serait dommage après tout, qu'une lettre de cette nature vînt à périr sur mer.12

This preoccupation with security and censorship of the written word was not restricted to travellers and diplomats in Constantinople. Within France itself, along with the development of an efficient postal system came Louis XIV's “Cabinet Noir.”13 Surveillance was a given condition of seventeenth-century correspondence. Codes were established, elaborated, and changed regularly in order to disguise meanings of messages to third parties; letters were addressed to fictitious people in order not to attract attention, or they were sent by means other than the conventional channels.14 Letters were misplaced in fiction, as in Mme de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves; they were stolen and then published (Mlle de Montpensier);15 they were invented and then passed off as real (Les Lettres portugaises by Guilleragues). And the unfortunate Mme de Villedieu saw her personal correspondence published by her own husband. Any number of variations bore witness to the fact that letters were a genre to treat with care, precisely because of their status as truth documents.

The “détour” of Bajazet's letter will come back to him in a devastating way, through the voice of Roxane. The very person whose powerful but lowly self occasioned the need to prevaricate expresses contemptuous shock at Bajazet's own debased behavior:

Mais je m'étonne enfin que, pour reconnaisssance,
Pour prix de tant d'amour, de tant de confiance,
Vous ayez si longtemps par des détours si bas,
Feint un amour pour moi que vous ne sentiez pas.


Thus the differences of class are challenged. Bajazet is gallingly reminded that even he is subject to the moral judgment of someone he considers his inferior, and that this person, by invoking his principles, claims to share them. Both Atalide and Bajazet have been blinded to the dangers of trying to dupe Roxane by their firm belief in her class-marked tendency to credulity as well as by the success until that point of their enterprise.

The characteristic of credulity is introduced and assigned early on in the play, in a passage treating the people: “Je sais combien crédule en sa dévotion, / Le peuple suit le frein de la religion” (1.2.235-36). Shortly following, Roxane is linked to this tendency: “De ses moindres respects Roxane satisfaite / Nous engagea tous deux, par sa facilité, / A la laisser jouir de sa crédulité” (1.4.374-76).16 Credulity is a quality which will be assigned generally to the Turks by Chardin as he analyzes European dealings with them: “Il n'y a pas de gens au monde plus aisés à tromper, et qui aient été plus trompez que les Turcs. Ils sont naturellement tres simples, et assez épais, gens à qui on en fait aisément à croire” (Chardin, 8). If the people are condescendingly cast by Chardin as credulous, so also are the elite:

Le Caprice des femmes et des Eunuques, qui gouvernoient durant le bas âge de Mahamed quatrième, le fit Grand Vizir [Cupruli]. … Il commença par le Serrail, où il fit étrangler plusieurs Eunuques, et [se rendit] Maître en peu de temps de la credulité, et des affections de son jeune Prince. …

(Chardin, 52)

Not only is Roxane, like the people, characterized as credulous; she is cast as the agent responsible for Atalide's and Bajazet's unworthy behavior, thereby exonerating them in their own eyes. Bajazet will chafe against the dupery to which he is reduced in order to survive: “Je ne puis plus tromper une amante crédule” (2.5.742). Moreover, he will express feelings of guilt for leading her on: “Moi-même, rougissant de sa crédulité”; “Je me trouvais barbare, injuste, criminel” (3.4.991, 995). Nevertheless, he persists in this direction, encouraged by Atalide, until found out.

For her part, Roxane is not as credulous as one might be led to believe by Atalide and Bajazet. Several times she has reflected on the nature of Bajazet's attachment to her, and has expressed doubts. She questions the difference between Bajazet's mode of addressing her, and Atalide's when she speaks in his place. Atalide's representation of Bajazet's love is more convincing than his own, and Roxane does not fail to note the difference: “Pourquoi faut-il au moins que, pour me consoler, / L'ingrat ne parle pas comme on le fait parler?” (1.3.275-76). At regular intervals, she interrogates her own perceptions, having detected signs of the couple's love for each other: “De tout ce que je vois que faut-il que je pense? / Tous deux à me tromper sont-ils d'intelligence?” (3.7.1065-66).

If she does not leap to conclusions, it is not because she is credulous but because she doubts her own perception, and believes too close and too prompt a scrutiny can be just as misleading as too distanced and too considered a one (precisely the lesson drawn from the prefaces). She vacillates between what she sees and what she wants to see, visions that do not coincide, and seeks to accommodate them both: “Mais peut-être qu'aussi, trop prompte à m'affliger, / J'observe de trop près un chagrin passager” (3.7.1075-76). This statement is the reluctant thinking of a clear-sighted strategist, not of a woman blinded by love.

Having confirmed to her (dis)satisfaction Atalide's love for Bajazet, Roxane must decide how to proceed: her initial decision is to choose deliberately not to know. She lucidly opts for blindness: “Il faut prendre parti, l'on m'attend. Faisons mieux: / Sur tout ce que j'ai vu fermons plûtot les yeux” (4.4.1235-36). She concludes her meditation on what she now knows with a resolution: “Je veux tout ignorer” (4.4.1250). This position is hardly that of a credulous person. It is rather a position assumed in the face of unpleasant facts. But, confronted with letter proof of Bajazet's love for Atalide, Roxane finally accuses her own self of credulity: “Avec quelle insolence et quelle cruauté / Ils se jouaient tous deux de ma crédulité!” (4.5.1296-97). She recognizes that she has been duped: her desire to believe that Bajazet loved her, and her love for him, blinded her to the truth even as she saw it.

But what would she have seen otherwise? Reserve, coldness, indifference, inability to speak the language of love? It is unclear, beyond Bajazet's well-founded refusal to marry and his failure to pronounce the love vow, whether he was actively leading Roxane to believe in his love for her. After all, how is one to know, beyond Bajazet's claims and Acomat's reporting, what is really happening between Bajazet and Roxane? What is it that Acomat claims to have seen?

J'ai longtemps, immobile, observé leur maintien.
Enfin, avec des yeux qui découvraient son âme,
L'une a tendu la main pour gage de sa flamme;
L'autre, avec des regards éloquents, pleins d'amour,
L'a de ses feux, Madame, assurée à son tour.


Is Acomat's interpretation of what he sees here influenced by what he in turn wants to see? Roxane's belief in Bajazet's love for her could well be justified, if one is to believe Acomat's witnessing. After all, is Acomat (“nourri dans le sérail”) not the very character who claims to know how to know? He has underscored repeatedly the importance of body language as a more reliable message medium than speech (4.6.1342-43). But then he is also the old warrior who himself has earlier acknowledged that he knows nothing of love (1.1.177-80), so how would he know to read its signs? His credentials as truth purveyor are lacking in this instance. In the end, if Roxane acknowledges her own credulity (4.5.1296-97), it is not so much that she has behaved credulously throughout the play. Rather, she has been duped by others, not by herself; her keen vision sets her apart from the credulous. In any case, the timing of her coming face to face with the facts has been too slow to outwit the inexorable action that has been set in motion from outside the seraglio, at the right time, from the right distance, by Amurat. He knows how to read the failure of communication and how to use silence to his own advantage, hence his power.

A final instance of credulity in the play occurs in a conversation between Acomat and his confidant Osmin. Osmin misinterprets Acomat's motive for lingering. Acomat does not want to stay in order to be witness to Bajazet's death and to claim Atalide for himself, as Osmin thinks: “Que veux-tu dire? Es-tu toi-même si crédule / Que de me soupçonner d'un courroux ridicule?” (4.7.1370-71). Now credulity circulates: not only has Roxane been cast as credulous, Osmin as well might be. From its assignment to “le peuple” to its imputation to Roxane, and here to Osmin, credulity moves contagiously to the inner and upper circles until finally no one is exempt. In the end, who is more credulous than Bajazet and Atalide themselves, who thought that they could stage such a coup against Roxane just because she was not of their class, who imagined they could survive their own dupery? They have been blinded, the two of them, by their class bias that led them to believe in their moral superiority and in the gullible nature of the people. Here is not a factual or fictional representation of a historical moment in an exotic setting, but a lesson on the “détours” of communication for all times and all people.


  1. My title pays homage to Richard Goodkin's reading of Bajazet; it is a citation from his “The Performed Letter, or How Words Do Things in Racine,” PFSCL 17.32 (1990): 85-102.

  2. I do not mean to examine all possible sources of Orientalist discourse circulating in France around the time of the production of Bajazet, and thereby to evaluate the veracity of Racine's play; to do so would simply reproduce without equaling René Jasinski's magisterial study Vers le vrai Racine (Paris: Armand Colin, 1958), vol. 2: 1-109.

  3. I agree with Jean-Marc Moura, Lire l'exotisme (Paris: Dunod, 1992), 58, 149.

  4. Pierre Corneille, Segraisiana; cited in Pierre Martino, L'Orient dans la littérature française au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Hachette, 1906), 36.

  5. Mark Gross, “Bajazet and Intertextuality,” in “Autour de Racine: Studies in Intertextuality,” ed. Richard E. Goodkin, spec. issue Yale French Studies 76 (1989): 146-61, has focused on this same transmission of facts as evidence of the “oral tradition.”

  6. After all, Segrais invented his Floridon ou l'amour imprudent out of much the same material, but with quite different results.

  7. See Norman Itzkowitz, Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973), 54.

  8. Donneau de Visé, Le Mercure galant (Paris: Théodore Girard, 1672), 65-72; cited in Orhan Kologlu, Le Turc dans la presse française: des débuts jusqu'à 1815 (Beyrouth: Maison d'édition Al-Hayat, 1971), 149.

  9. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), 37-38.

  10. See on this point the excellent article of Jacques Huré, “A la recherche de l'Orient racinien dans Bajazet,Travaux de linguistique edités par le centre de philologie et de littératures romanes de l'Université de Strasbourg 24.2 (1986): 57-71.

  11. Jean Chardin, Journal du voyage du chevalierr Chardin en Perse et aux Indes, par la Mer Noire et par la Colchide: Première partie, qui contient “Le Voyage de Paris a Ispahan” (London: Moses Pitt, 1686), 16.

  12. Sieur du Loir, Les voyages du Sieur du Loir ensemble de ce qui se passa à la mort du feu Sultan Mourat dans le Serrail, les cérémonies de ses funérailles, et celles de l'avènement à l'Empire de Sultan Hibraim son frère qui lui succèda, avec la relation du siège de Babylon fait en 1639 par Sultan Mourat (Paris: François Clouzier, 1654), 254.

  13. Eugène Vaillé, Histoire générale des Postes (1668-1691) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951), 4: 123-24.

  14. See Michèle Longino Farrell, Performing Motherhood: The Sévigné Correspondence (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1991), 276.

  15. See Eva Posfay, “Ecrire l'Utopie au féminin en 1660,” Cahiers du dix-septième 6.1 (1992): 221-34.

  16. Of course, like many “Turks” (the Janissaries for example), Roxane is of unclear origin (1.1.98-99).

Harriet Stone (essay date summer 1998)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4251

SOURCE: Stone, Harriet. “Marking Time: Memorializing History in Athalie.L'Esprit Créateur 38, no. 2 (summer 1998): 95-104.

[In the following essay, Stone examines the use and treatment of memory in Athalie.]

Athalie marks the limit of Racine's theatrical career. The play commemorates the historic end point of his dramatic efforts, the moment of rupture that catapults him into posterity as the distinguished author of a corpus now closed, a corpus forever identified by precisely twelve works. In Athalie, moreover, all of Racine's earlier plays continue to echo. Like Astyanax, Joas survives thanks to the efforts of those who revere what has come before. The son's inheritance of the father's place reflects society's respect for the law of succession as it ties son to father, present to past, the tensions of the here and now to a glorious heritage embraced by divine providence. Society conserves these children through its fidelity to an order of things so indelibly etched in time and tradition as to survive the enmity of families and nations. Joined together in this way, generations of Racine's characters transcend the specificities of Greek myth, Roman history, Orientalism, and the Bible that identify his individual plays.1

As represented on Racine's stage, however, the cycle of memory dulls but does not silence the curse of Athalie, Phèdre, Agrippine—the mother's curse that, in restricting the son, has sustained a history of revolt. Agrippine's efforts to govern Néron and Phèdre's condemnation of Hippolyte before Thésée announce a pattern of violence that culminates in Athalie's execration of her progeny. Acting to silence her curse, the Jews murder Athalie. Their swords serve as the agents of memory, which protects the child Eliacin by restoring his true identity as Joas. Yet, along with the name that returns Joas to his origin, along with the many acts of worship that define the Jews as keepers of memory, Racine commemorates the oppressed throughout history who would deny memory's hold on them, those for whom the meaning of an event is a measure of its ability to disrupt the flow of time.

Traces of Athalie survive in Joas's murder of Zacharie, the history that the drama prepares but does not perform. “Joas … après trente ans d'un règne fort pieux, s'abandonna aux mauvais conseils des flatteurs, et se souilla du meurtre de Zacharie, fils et successeur de ce grand-prêtre [Joad],” Racine recalls, an event so critical as to announce “la destruction du temple et la ruine de Jérusalem” (“Préface”). Racine's final tragedy mediates the Jews' triumph and their subsequent decline, the father's reassuring call from the past and the mother's demands in and for the present.

The play functions as what Pierre Nora terms a lieu de mémoire. What echoes there is not merely how the Jews, in putting Athalie to death, save memory from a history of annihilation but rather how the memory content—what they remember—becomes the locus for exploring the act of remembering as an arbitrary exercise of history, a critical exercise that is the power to forge a knowledge of the past. Nora insists on the something more than history in his designation of the lieu de mémoire:

Considérer un monument comme un lieu de mémoire n'est nullement se contenter de faire son histoire. Lieu de mémoire, donc: toute unité significative, d'ordre matériel ou idéel, dont la volonté des hommes ou le travail du temps a fait un élément symbolique du patrimoine mémoriel d'une quelconque communauté.2

Lieux de mémoire thus are those things and ideas that allow us to reconnect the histoire vécue with “l'opération intellectuelle qui la rend intelligible.”3 The focus on such lieux is necessary, Nora argues, because contemporary history has produced the discomforting rupture of event and meaning:

Habiterions-nous encore notre mémoire, nous n'aurions pas besoin d'y consacrer des lieux. Il n'y aurait pas de lieux, parce qu'il n'y aurait pas de mémoire emportée par l'histoire. Chaque geste, jusqu'au plus quotidien, serait vécu comme la répétition religieuse de ce qui s'est fait depuis toujours, dans une identification charnelle de l'acte et du sens. Dès qu'il y a trace, distance, médiation, on n'est plus dans la mémoire vraie, mais dans l'histoire.

(“Entre mémoire et histoire,” xix)

And he adds for emphasis:

Pensons aux Juifs, confinés dans la fidélité quotidienne au rituel de la tradition. Leur constitution en “peuple de la mémoire” excluait un souci d'histoire, jusqu'à ce que son ouverture au monde lui impose le besoin d'historiens.


This reference to the Jews and the “besoin d'historiens” returns us to Athalie. Nora associates the Jews with a ritualistic integrity, with a history that had, until modernity forced their entry into a Christian world, assured the continuity of a culture whose traditions bore witness to its past and to the Jews' identity as a people. How, Nora asks, can one select an appropriate lieu de mémoire for this religion: “Et que choisir du judaïsme, dont le vrai lieu de mémoire n'est autre que la mémoire même?”5

Athalie provides an obvious first answer to this prolegomenon: the temple of Jerusalem. Constructed by Solomon upon God's command, the temple is the Jews' most sacred space. The place where Jews go to worship and where they feel God's presence, the temple anchors the Jewish religion and constitutes the Jews as a people. By virtue of what it includes and what it excludes—the child Joas whom it conceals inside, and the idolater Athalie whom it keeps outside until the Jews stage her murder6—the temple in Racine's play is the lieu de mémoire linking the Jews in the present to their past.

Yet there is more to the story, the details of which are important enough to be rehearsed in the preface and again in the text proper.7 Jéhu killed all the descendants of the King of Israel, Achab, Athalie's father. In response to these massacres Athalie murdered all of her grandchildren. Athalie married Joram, from Judah. The territories of both Israel and Judah originally formed part of the kingdom of Solomon. But, while in the north Israel quickly recognized other gods, in the south Judah, which contained only two tribes to Israel's ten, remained faithful to God and was the more stable region. Athalie is pivotal in Racine's tragedy because she worships Baal. Her idols are an affront to monotheism and a challenge to the Jews' authority. As enacted on stage, her history threatens Joas and the various fathers he serves: Joad, Solomon, David, God. Athalie thus imperils memory as represented by the Jews. Like Joas, however, Athalie can trace her ancestry back through the twelve tribes of Israel before the schism.8

Nora's analysis is nowhere more pertinent to a reading of Athalie than when he observes that memory is akin to the literary art of mise en scène:

la mémoire en effet est un cadre plus qu'un contenu, un enjeu toujours disponible, un ensemble de stratégies, un être-là qui vaut moins par ce qu'il est que par ce que l'on en fait. C'est dire qu'on touche ici à la dimension littéraire des lieux de mémoire, dont l'intérêt repose en définitive sur l'art de la mise en scène et l'engagement personnel de l'historien.

(“Présentation,” viii, my emphasis)

For Nora the concept of the mise en scène refers not to stage decorations simply but to the entire staging of history as it reflects the symbolic order governing society, the complex network of relations that constitute a group or nation's cultural heritage. The mise en scène operates as a frame for the text, “un cadre plus qu'un contenu … un ensemble de stratégies” that determines meaning.9 In Athalie the notion of mise en scène correspondingly refers not only to the temple. Racine offers a mise en scène that is at once more specific and more encompassing than Nora would have it, for the dramatist's mise en scène in Athalie develops through a mise en abîme.

Athalie's famous dream in Act 2 is pivotal to this aspect of the play's design. Divided into two sections, the dream accentuates two deaths: that of Athalie's mother and her own. The dream extends the past into the present, transforming the history of Jézabel's murder into memory through the act of remembrance, representation. More than an act of recalling the past, however, this memory as played out first in her dream and again in her recollection of this dream on-stage is an accurate indicator of the future, namely, her murder by the Jews:

Mais de ce souvenir mon âme possédée
A deux fois en dormant revu la même idée;
Deux fois mes tristes yeux se sont vu retracer
Ce même enfant toujours tout prêt à me percer.


In its insistence on mirroring and re-presentation, on the recurring specter of the “enfant fatal” (2.5.545) that unites past, present, and future in a unique vision, the mise en abîme reveals Racine's art and its relation to history more clearly than does the concept of mise en scène. Repeating or reproducing a unique form, the mise en abîme establishes the simplest kind of patterning. Patterns provide a map to experience; they constitute a system through which things are identified and meanings established. In Athalie the pattern is not, however, as simple as it first appears. Athalie does meet the fate that her dream portends. But Athalie's history, as it traces her efforts to assuage her fears following her dream and her eventual extermination by the Jews, is also the performance that mirrors the Jews' own heritage of intolerance and violence. Indeed, as the pervasive theme of opposition to Baal worship in Deuteronomic literature and the prophets attests, idol-worship held an irresistible appeal for many Jews throughout their long history prior to Athalie.10 The Jews' assassination of Athalie thus restores society more as the result of Racine's framing of history than of history proper. Racine chooses to end the drama with Joas's accession to the throne rather than with his murder of Zacharie. Yet, by calling our attention to this fact in his preface and most poignantly in Athalie's last speech, Racine's mise en scène continues to place the Jews' own history en abîme. Athalie damns Joas by reminding him that if he inherits from David, he inherits from her as well. She condemns him to remember that, although they are now living separate histories, a unique memory carries these histories:

Voici ce qu'en mourant lui souhaite sa mère.
Qu'indocile à ton joug, fatigué de ta loi,
Fidèle au sang d'Achab, qu'il a reçu de moi,
Conforme à son aïeul, à son père semblable,
On verra de David l'héritier détestable
Abolir tes honneurs, profaner ton autel,
Et venger Athalie, Achab et Jézabel.


Consistent with Nora's notion that a nation derives its identity from the past, Racine in his most overt mise en scène situates the Jews on the side of memory and positions Athalie outside this tradition in a history of rupture. Nevertheless, he is careful in the end to bring her into the temple. Athalie enters the Jews' lieu de mémoire, the holy place where the act of performing sacred rites is a return to origin. Racine brings Athalie into the temple the better to kill her, of course. But the effect of her penetrating these sacred walls is to relocate memory, to situate it beyond the Jews' rituals, beyond their fidelity to God. Despite her profanation, her virulence, indeed, despite the multiple acts of infanticide that she commits prior to Act 1, Athalie is no more a marker of Racine's mise en scène than when she calls attention to herself as Joas's mother. She is in fact his mother's mother, the blood tie that links him to her and to her parents Achab and Jézabel. Though he does not erase Athalie's evil through references to her lineage and her family's history of victimization, Racine does encourage us to place her heinous acts within a broader frame. Joas's innocence, moreover, is implicated by Athalie's past to the degree that she and the Jews share blood and that they similarly secure their influence by spilling it. When the Jews kill Athalie to protect Joas, they imitate her parricide. If Athalie is a political expedient, an Other created through historic contingency, the history of her murder by the Jews serves finally to point beyond their memory to the “mémoire vraie, sociale et intouchée” that cannot forget either Athalie or how the Jews fashion memory to exclude her. The “how” becomes the context through which we evaluate memory once it has patterned history.11 Indeed, Racine's exploration of the relation of history and memory adds an interesting twist to Nora's analysis of the problem, for in Athalie history itself becomes a lieu de mémoire.

In his discussion of memory Nora points to the need to preserve the integrity of the past. He calls attention to the essential disjuncture of history and the consequent need to conserve memory as a means of retaining the authenticity of experience: “La mémoire est un phénomène toujours actuel, un lien vécu au présent éternel; l'histoire, une représentation du passé” (“Entre mémoire,” xix). Nora designates history as representation, that is, as an always-mediated experience that doubles and therefore removes the event from the constant flow of memory. History interrupts and distorts the continuous vision that memory affords. Distinguishing between the original occurrence and the subsequent assimilation of this event as representation—representation understood not as (false) copy so much as a grid or application (science) through which the event acquires value relative to other events12—Nora champions the lieux that evidence the permanence (durée) of the experience that remains unmediated in memory: “La mémoire s'enracine dans le concret, dans l'espace, le geste, l'image et l'objet. L'histoire ne s'attache qu'aux continuités temporelles, aux évolutions et aux rapports des choses. La mémoire est un absolu et l'histoire ne connaît que le relatif” (“Entre mémoire,” xix).

While memory endures in Athalie in the form of the child king who summons forth into the present the authority of his forbears, the Jews' engagement with Athalie leads not to an affirmation of memory alone—to memory as it preserves the Jews as the people of faith and devotion to the past—but to history as the lieu, or realm, in which memory is actively preserved. “Active” in this context means as a consequence of the Jews' efforts, whether conscious or merely implied, to restore their tradition at the expense of a broader historical perspective that would situate Athalie, too, on the side of the “always there” of memory. The Jews' murder of Athalie reveals how their faith in themselves as the people chosen by God enables them to resist her violence and to reject her as the destructive agent of their own sacred past, a past that is memory precisely because it “allows no other”—no god, no history external to that of His word as the Jews identify themselves through it. If, by definition, theirs is a memory that resists the mediation of history, the tragic irony that resonates throughout Racine's text nevertheless is that this memory is preserved as the result of the Jews' historic choice to ignore, if not to forget, the past that identifies them with Athalie.

In Athalie history does not burden memory with the charge of representing simply, for representation is implicit in the narrative form that history assumes in the drama, where characters enumerate—recite as dialogue—the chronology of events preceding the play as so many acts of reciprocal violence. Rather the problem becomes one of representing selectively, of endorsing either Athalie's version or that of the Jews. The problem, in a word, is how the dramatist, like the historian, chooses a particular context for evaluating the past. Even as it elucidates what Nora terms the “evolution” between events, that is, the shift from one world view (idolatry) to another (monotheism), the history that Racine's characters recount and the history that they enact in killing Athalie repeatedly alternate between Israel and Judah, one form of violence and another. As the audience perceives it, therefore, history is already necessarily memory, part of a more encompassing knowledge. History is the lieu in which memory is constructed, since the play's articulation of meaning derives from the parallel structure through which Racine connects Athalie and the Jews.

The point of the comparison is not to see that Athalie and the Jews are the same, to deny categorically either her evil or their good. Rather the play unfolds in such a way as to make us aware that memory does not, as Nora would have it, flow uninterrupted from the past but instead requires as a condition of its survival the arbitrary framing of the past in the present. As patterned through persistent mises en abîme, moreover, Athalie's history reinforces some comparisons that the perfectly crafted drama, consistent with the classical aesthetic, like the perfectly constructed memory, consistent with classical ideology, must suppress. Memory thus is not every “lien vécu au passé” but “un lien.” There is the rub.

In his emphasis on restoring memory Nora positions himself to compensate for what scholars like de Certeau note is the historians' tendency to impose the ideology of the present on the past.13 Racine presents us with a unique opportunity to interrogate these positions, precisely because he celebrates the power of memory at the same time that he marks this memory as a fiction, a cultural artifact. Racine's decision to end the play with Zacharie still alive empowers the Jews because, consistent with Nora's defense of memory, this act preserves Joas in his moment of glory as the leader of a people rescued from the ravages of history. But even when it points past Joas to David, Solomon, and God—to the integrity of memory—the play's concluding reference to the orphan's father reveals the mise en scène to open up at the very moment of closure:

Par cette fin terrible, et due à ses forfaits,
Apprenez, roi des Juifs, et n'oubliez jamais
Que les rois dans le ciel ont un juge sévère,
L'innocence un vengeur, et l'orphelin un père.


Referring to the adopted child at the same time that it elides all reference to the child's mother, Joad's speech does not seal in memory as he intends. Rather it creates a vacuum in the text, a history that memory cannot explain except in terms of a motherless child who, in this final moment, never attains the identity of son (he is but un orphelin), not even to his acknowledged father (père).

Even if motivated solely by fear and not by some residual maternal instinct to protect her offspring, and even if part of a grand seduction to win over an innocent boy, Athalie's exchange with Joas is not entirely unconvincing.14 The love she expresses for her own mother and her claim that she was forced to avenge her family's deaths out of political necessity serve to authenticate her. Like any hero, she elected duty over love by sacrificing even her grandsons. She further chronicles how, since the violence, she has been the region's pacifying force:

Le ciel même a pris soin de me justifier.
Sur d'éclatants succès ma puissance établie
A fait jusqu'aux deux mers respecter Athalie.
Par moi Jérusalem goûte un calme profond.
Le Jourdain ne voit plus l'Arabe vagabond
Ni l'altier Philistin, par d'éternels ravages,
Comme au temps de vos rois, désoler ses rivages;
Le Syrien me traite et de reine et de sœur.
Enfin de ma maison le perfide oppresseur,
Qui devait jusqu'à moi pousser sa barbarie,
Jéhu, le fier Jéhu, tremble dans Samarie; […]
Il me laisse en ces lieux souveraine maîtresse.
Je jouissais en paix du fruit de ma sagesse.


Thus “l'orphelin” has “un père” only if one ignores a significant portion of history. History shows clearly that the child has a mother, and that this mother is Athalie.

There is nothing inherently evil or ineffective in a culture's selective memory, its privileging of certain responses over others. Memory is a construct, and the fact that it endures may suffice to prove that it works well. But to the degree that the play depends on a clear opposition of the Jews' same to Athalie's different, their one God to her many gods, the attention paid to their common past and to the equally ominous future does much to recontextualize the Jews' memory. Whereas Nora sees memory as a beneficent force with which to counter the negative effects of a present cut off from the past, Racine invites us to examine the conditions under which the Jews' memory comes to signify.15 In all of his explicit artistry Racine defends the cause of memory as the Jews' enduring tradition. Yet he is also careful to deny the completeness of their memory through Athalie's final malediction of Joas. Her curse extends our glance beyond the moment of their devotion, revealing the memory they celebrate in the temple to be a knowledge fashioned but not final; an act of faith, certainly, but a faith preserved through an active suppression of a fuller knowledge. What the Jews' memory would suppress, namely the violence that threatens it, is recaptured in the successive lieux named in her curse, in the histories that she accurately predicts will repeat the destructive patterns of the past. Projecting into the future, she haunts them with a vision of the past. Trading an eye for an eye, hers for theirs, she meets their gaze as they bring her down, fixing the limits of the memory that they have, for the moment, freed from her contagion.

The point of this analysis is not to deny Athalie's evil or to erase the many differences that distinguish her from the Jews but rather to emphasize how memory, as represented by the Jews, is less authentic than arbitrary, a past chiseled out of history to meet the Jews' own ideological demands. The tragedy evoked in and by the temple is that of the inescapable complicity of all who enter the sacred realm of memory unprepared to find there the remains of history, the power of a history so monumental that even the steady flow of memory cannot smooth away the sharpness of its lines. Instead, memory itself is set in motion by lieux de mémoire that cause us to examine our relation to the past as this investigation includes our construction of memory itself.


  1. For additional parallels, see Roland Barthes, Sur Racine (Paris: Seuil, 1963); Charles Mauron, L'Inconscient dans la vie de l'œuvre de Jean Racine (Paris: Corti, 1969); Eléonore M. Zimmermann, “Au delà d'Athalie,French Forum 5.1 (January 1980): 14-21.

  2. Pierre Nora, “Comment écrire l'histoire de la France?” in Les Lieux de mémoire, ed. Pierre Nora, vol. 3, Les France (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 20.

  3. Pierre Nora, “Entre mémoire et histoire,” in Les Lieux de mémoire, ed. Pierre Nora, vol. 1, La République (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), xviii.

  4. One might object that the Jews are by no means the only group able to be defined in this manner.

  5. Nora, “Présentation,” in Les Lieux de mémoire, vol. 1, xi.

  6. Consistent with Biblical accounts, although Athalie is initially locked inside the temple, she is killed outside it “que la sainteté n'en soit pas profanée” (5.6.1792).

  7. Joad recalls this history as a sign of God's power (1.1.104-28); Athalie cites it as proof of her victimization (2.7.709-30).

  8. Moreover, like Louis XIV, who chooses to reign as the Sun King, Athalie recognizes in the idols she worships the captivating power of the image, a parallel that further disturbs the play's neat opposition of good and evil.

  9. For a more extensive treatment of the framing process, see Harriet Stone, The Classical Model: Literature and Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996).

  10. See The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford UP, 1993), 70.

  11. For an excellent discussion of the tension between history and religion, see Erica Harth, “The Tragic Moment in Athalie,Modern Language Quarterly 33 (1972): 382-95.

  12. We are reminded here of Descartes's own system of classification.

  13. Michel de Certeau, L'Ecriture de l'histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 10, observes that historiography “sépare d'abord son présent d'un passé. Mais elle répète partout le geste de diviser. Ainsi sa chronologie se compose de ‘périodes’ … entre lesles se trace chaque fois la décision d'être autre ou de n'être plus ce qui a été jusque-là.”

  14. Although colored by fear and uttered as an act of deception, Athalie's efforts to persuade Joas to live with her may in the end have proved less threatening to the Jews than they are to her: she may, as she promises, have kept Joas alive. However, her pledge that he might continue to pray to his God appears disingenuous, set as it is against the child's naive innocence (2.7.680-82).

  15. Dominick LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Language (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983), 32, argues that the historian's investigation of the past inevitably leads him to investigate his own position.

Richard E. Goodkin (essay date winter 1999)

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SOURCE: Goodkin, Richard E. “Gender Reversal in Racine's Historical and Mythological Tragedies.” Dalhousie French Studies 49 (winter 1999): 15-27.

[In the following essay, Goodkin argues that, in his plays based on mythological sources in particular, Racine inverts sexual dynamics and portrays female characters as heroic and powerful and male characters as hesitant and passive.]

[L]a sexualité racinienne … est de situation plus que de nature. Dans Racine, le sexe lui-même est soumis à la situation fondamentale des figures tragiques entre elles, qui est une relation de force … La division du monde racinien en forts et en faibles, en tyrans et en captifs, est en quelque sorte extensive au partage des sexes; c'est leur situation dans le rapport de force qui verse les uns dans la virilité et les autres dans la féminité, sans égard à leur sexe biologique. Il y a des femmes viriloïdes (il suffit qu'elles participent au Pouvoir: Axiane, Agrippine, Roxane, Athalie). Il y a des hommes féminoïdes, non par caractère, mais par situation.

(Barthes 18-19)

Roland Barthes' observation in Sur Racine about the unorthodox distribution of sexual roles in Racine's tragedy helps to account for the radical instability of gender in tragedies that, three hundred years after their author's death, continue to upset our equilibrium and confound our expectations. To take Barthes' analysis a step further, I submit that Racine not only destabilizes sexual dynamics in his tragedies by linking gender identity to power relations, but also, perhaps as a means of pleasing a theater-going audience increasingly influenced by women, quite regularly inverts sexual dynamics, portraying female characters as powerful, resolute and heroic and male characters as hesitant, dependent, and passive. Racine carries out this inversion in several different ways. In some cases he simply presents heroic female protagonists whose power is greater than that of any of his male characters. In other cases, when his source material does not allow the most prominent character to be a woman, he fashions male characters who are, to borrow Barthes' term, “feminoid.” The central thrust of this article will be to distinguish between these cases by classifying Racine's tragedies according to the nature of the source material he used, the historical tragedies featuring the greatest number of feminoid male characters and the mythological tragedies quite systematically staging female heroism.

It has generally been assumed that little differentiates Racine's plays based on historical sources from his tragedies based on legendary or mythological sources. The indistinguishability of historical and mythological sources is a recurrent theme of seventeenth-century writing about tragedy. Scudéry's Observations sur le Cid states that both “history” and “fable” can furnish the subject of a tragedy (Bray 309). Jacques Morel writes, “Le poète tragique peut tirer ses sujets, indifféremment, de la mythologie ou de l'histoire … Tout au long du siècle, [ce principe] a été réaffirmé par le plus grand nombre des théoriciens du genre et reconnu, explicitement ou implicitement, par ses praticiens” (167). H. T. Barnwell summarizes the overlapping of history and legend as sources for tragedy: “no distinction was made between the two, and I shall henceforth use the word ‘history’ indiscriminately for both, as the seventeenth century did” (5-6). And more recently Mitchell Greenberg has observed that all of Racine's plays, whether they are based on historical sources or on legendary sources, share a common connection to mythological structures:

Even those historically based tragedies, Britannicus and Mithridate, or the Biblical tragedy of Athalie can be seen … to supersede the merely picturesque qualities of the historical and to plunge back into the mysterious, sacred world of Oedipal fantasies. All the tragedies in the Racinian canon are linked to a common grounding in a mythic vision. …


It is certainly true that Racine's tragedies, drawing on Biblical as well as historical and mythological sources, have an uncanny homogeneity, both in terms of their consistently high quality and the similarity of their basic structures1; indeed, both of these characteristics quite conspicuously distinguish Racine's tragic œuvre from that of Pierre Corneille, which is uneven as well as diverse. Moreover Classicism with its taste for generic purity, manifest in its repression of tragicomedy, was not likely to foster the kind of variety that one can observe, for example, in Shakespeare's serious dramas, comprising both “tragedies” and “histories.” Obviously, the differences between Elizabethan and French Classical dramaturgy are very great; still, the generic distinctions among Shakespeare's serious plays provide an interesting point of comparison for those in search of some kind of pattern that might be discernible within the uniformity of Racine's works.

The question I begin with, then, is the following: how does the breakdown of Racine's tragedies between the five plays with historical sources—Alexandre le Grand, Britannicus, Bérénice, Bajazet and Mithridate—and the four plays with mythological sources—La Thébaïde, Andromaque, Iphigénie and Phèdre—interact with Racine's complex portrayal of gender identity?

Let us start with the obvious: the title characters of most of Racine's historical tragedies are men, while most of the mythological tragedies have female protagonists. Among the historical plays, Bérénice stands alone in having a female title-character. As for the mythological plays, it is true that the tragedy we today call Phèdre was entitled Phèdre et Hippolyte in the seventeenth century2, but whatever title one chooses for the drama, it is plain that Phèdre is its main character. And even in Racine's sole mythological play with masculine title characters, La Thébaïde ou les Frères ennemis, Marie-Odile Sweetser opines that Racine's apparent emphasis on the importance of Étéocle and Polynice rather than Jocaste and Antigone is deceptive:

Le choix de La Thébaïde [as Racine's first play] répondait à un désir légitime de placer sa carrière sur une base irréprochable, d'affirmer le sérieux de ses intentions et de ses lectures préparatoires … Racine … qui avait donné à sa pièce le titre et le sous-titre: La Thébaïde ou les Frères ennemis, mettant ainsi en vedette une lutte meurtrière inspirée par la haine des personnages masculins, va en fait … accord[er] aux personnages féminins une place beaucoup plus importante que le sous-titre ne le laisserait supposer …


In La Thébaïde Antigone is actually far more heroic than the feuding brothers, but Racine could hardly have called his tragedy Antigone without creating misleading expectations about its subject matter.

I do not believe that the sexual division of labor between Racine's “masculine” historical plays and his “feminine” mythological plays is coincidental. While Racine could have found other historical material that might have lent itself to the development of tragic heroines as main characters3, the choice of such materials was certainly somewhat limited, at any rate far more so than mythological material featuring women. Nor is Racine's frequent association with the mythological, by contrast to the more historically oriented Pierre Corneille, completely inaccurate, even though Racine actually wrote more historical plays than mythological plays: there is little to match the power of heroines like Andromaque, Iphigénie and Phèdre. One of the secrets of Racine's success almost certainly was his up-ending of gender structures and his quite systematic favoring of female characters, on whom he bestows most of his most extraordinary roles. If this is the case, it is fairly easy to understand why Racine felt freer to develop this strain in the tragedies he based on mythological sources, given the constraints placed on women both historically and in his own period, constraints which limited the historical material featuring powerful women that would be available and deemed appropriate for a courtly audience.

Perhaps, then, the best Racine could do in most of his historical plays was to present female figures like Axiane, Agrippine, and Roxane who, even if they are not the protagonists, correspond to what Barthes would call “viriloids,” and male characters—some of them, like Britannicus and Bajazet, title characters—who are “feminoids.” By contrast, in the mythological plays, which also include their share of reversed or inverted gender roles, the representation of heroines at least was not so constrained by a historical reality inimical to female power, thus allowing for the portrayal of female protagonists like Andromaque, Iphigénie, and Phèdre who are powerful and heroic without being “viriloids.”

Let us first examine the question of inverted gender identity in Racine's historical tragedies. The clearest example of a feminoid in the historical plays is Taxile in Racine's first historical drama, Alexandre le Grand, a character whose role I see as a forerunner to a number of better-known characters. Taxile, an Indian king who, like the more bellicose Porus, must decide if he will resist the Alexandrian onslaught, ultimately chooses to fight only because the woman both kings love, Axiane, insists that is the only way either of them can hope to win her heart. In the first scene of the play, Taxile reveals to his sister, Cléofile, that his love for Axiane is his only motivation for joining the battle:

Les beaux yeux d'Axiane, ennemis de la Paix,
Contre votre Alexandre arment tous leurs attraits.
Reine de tous les cœurs, elle met tout en armes,
Pour cette liberté que détruisent ses charmes,
Elle rougit des fers qu'on apporte en ces lieux,
Et n'y saurait souffrir de tyrans que ses yeux.
Il faut servir, ma Sœur, leur illustre colère.

(Alexandre le Grand I:1, 71-77)4

As Georges Forestier points out in his notes to the play, this passage is organized around a parallel between military language and the language of gallantry5; while such a conjunction between the two vocabularies is hardly original, the transition from one to the other takes place so skillfully that one hardly notices that the word “tyrans” is used both literally, to refer to Alexandre, and figuratively, to describe Axiane's eyes. Fighting an illustrious enemy to serve one's mistress harkens back to the tradition of courtly love, but it is still startling to hear Taxile admitting that this is the only reason he has to do battle, as if his own glory and reputation mattered to him only insofar as they matter to Axiane.

In a subsequent confrontation with his rival for Axiane's love, Porus, Taxile concedes the weakness of his own position, but he does so in such a way as to call into question the relative value of historical identity and love:

Et maintenant encor, s'il [Alexandre] trompait mon courage,
Pour sortir de ces lieux, s'il cherchait un passage,
Vous me verriez moi-même armé pour l'arrêter,
Lui refuser la Paix qu'il nous veut présenter.
Oui, sans doute, une ardeur si haute et si constante,
Vous promet dans l'Histoire une place éclatante;
Et sous ce grand dessein dussiez-vous succomber,
Au moins c'est avec bruit qu'on vous verra tomber.
La Reine vient. Adieu. Vantez-lui votre zèle,
Découvrez cet orgueil qui vous rend digne d'elle.
Pour moi, je troublerais un si noble entretien,
Et vos cœurs rougiraient des faiblesses du mien.

(Alexandre le Grand I:2, 253-64)

It is quite difficult to know how to read Taxile's reply to Porus' valorous self-affirmation in the face of the threat posed by Alexandre. On the surface Taxile seems to be expressing a subservient admiration for Porus' stance and a concomitant embarrassment at his own weakness as a reluctant soldier who wishes to conquer only Axiane's heart. But is it completely clear that Taxile himself values “dans l'Histoire une place éclatante” in the same way that Porus does? Is the praise implicit in Taxile's picturing of “un si noble entretien” between Axiane and Porus to be taken completely without irony? Is Taxile himself as embarrassed as he imagines Porus and Axiane to be by the “faiblesses” of his heart?

Whatever Taxile's attitude is in this scene, it later becomes clear that he has no qualms about taking cover behind Alexandre's love for Cléofile and using his sister as a shield against Alexandre:

TAXILE (to Cléofile):
Ses [Alexandre's] transports ne m'ont point déguisé sa tendresse.
Retournez, m'a-t-il dit, auprès de la Princesse,
Disposez ses beaux yeux à revoir un Vainqueur
Qui va mettre à ses pieds sa Victoire et son Cœur.
Il marche sur mes pas. Je n'ai rien à vous dire,
Ma Sœur, de votre sort je vous laisse l'empire,
Je vous confie encor la conduite du mien.
Vous aurez tout pouvoir, ou je ne pourrai rien.
Tout va vous obéir, si le Vainqueur m'écoute.

(III:3, 853-61)

By placing himself under his sister's protection, Taxile not only gives in to Alexandre's power without a fight but also subordinates himself to his sister. Taxile's power decreases in direct proportion as that of his sister increases: allowing his sister power over her fate (“de votre sort l'empire”) ironically coincides with Taxile's abdication of control over his own destiny.

Given Racine's deep-seated fascination with the language and literature of the heart,6 this portrait of the more timorous of the Indian kings may not be all that surprising, although the character's feminization is certainly quite extreme. But what gives this characterization its extraordinary impact and makes it seminal for much of Racine's historical drama is the dénouement of the tragedy, which, while it superficially glorifies Alexandre and the courageous Porus, actually gives the beau rôle to Taxile. Taxile's death at the hands of Porus is described by Ephestion, a favorite of Alexandre's:

Porus était vaincu. Mais au lieu de se rendre
Il semblait attaquer et non pas se défendre.
Ses soldats à ses pieds étendus et mourants
Le mettaient à l'abri de leurs corps expirants.
.....Je l'épargnais toujours. Sa vigueur affaiblie
Bientôt en mon pouvoir aurait laissé sa vie,
Quand sur ce champ fatal Taxile descendu,
Arrêtez, c'est à moi que ce Captif est dû,
C'en est fait, a-t-il dit, et ta perte est certaine,
Porus, il faut périr, ou me céder la Reine.
Porus à cette voix ranimant son courroux,
A relevé ce bras lassé de tant de coups.
Et cherchant son Rival d'un œil fier et tranquille,
N'entends-je pas, dit-il, l'infidèle Taxile
Ce Traître à sa Patrie, à sa Maîtresse, à moi?
Viens lâche, poursuit-il, Axiane est à toi,
Je veux bien te céder cette illustre conquête,
Mais il faut que ton bras l'emporte avec ma tête.
Approche. À ce discours ces Rivaux irrités
L'un sur l'autre à la fois se sont précipités.
Nous nous sommes en foule opposés à leur rage.
Mais Porus parmi nous court et s'ouvre un passage,
Joint Taxile, le frappe, et lui perçant le cœur
Content de sa victoire, il se rend au Vainqueur.

(Alexandre le Grand V:3, 1493-1520)

Taxile is heroic not in spite of his weakness as a soldier, but because of it; that he is not much of a fighter even once he has entered the field of battle reflects Racine's insistance on maintaining the consistency of his endearing feminoid's character to the very end. What makes Taxile heroic is his self-sacrifice in the name of love; if he had a fighting chance in his confrontation with Porus, his gesture would be less dramatic, especially since the ultimate military victory must at any rate go not to one of the Indian kings, but rather to the play's titular hero. Porus, even though he is by far the better fighter of the two Indian kings, is still left in the dirt by Alexandre, his refusal to accept his defeat presented not as valiant but as vapid, his dying men strewn about him “protecting” him with their prostrate bodies. The end of the narration of the battle in particular questions Porus' heroism; like a playground bully's, his relief at having beaten up someone weaker than himself is what finally allows him to concede defeat to someone stronger than he is. By contrast, Taxile comes off as a hero of love.

If Alexandre le Grand is less about determining who will win the fight between the titular hero and the local kings—a foregone conclusion—than it is about the establishment of a pecking order, one might argue that the “viriloid” Axiane is ultimately above both of the Indian kings. While the nature of the material precludes transforming Axiane into the hero of the piece, Racine goes as far as he can in this direction by making her into the source of Porus' ambition and the moving force behind the resistance of the Indian kings, as Porus admits to her:

C'est vous, je m'en souviens, dont les puissants appas,
Excitaient tous nos Rois, les traînaient aux combats,
Et de qui la fierté refusant de se rendre
Ne voulait pour Amant qu'un vainqueur d'Alexandre.
Il faut vaincre, et j'y cours, bien moins pour éviter
Le titre de Captif, que pour le mériter.

(Alexandre le Grand II:5, 651-56)

The distinction between the two Indian kings may ultimately be spurious, the real source of glory in the drama being Axiane, “ce cœur que la Gloire occupe seulement” (II:5, 660). The conventions of the period do not allow Axiane to stride into battle along with her two suitors, but when she is held captive by Taxile she certainly makes it clear in her discussion with Cléofile that she hates the secure position that her gender assigns to her:

Quoi, Madame, en ces lieux on me tient enfermée?
Je ne puis au combat voir marcher mon Armée?
Et commençant sur moi sa noire trahison,
Taxile de son Camp me fait une Prison?
.....                                                                      [C]'est cette tranquillité
Dont je ne puis souffrir l'indigne sûreté.
Quoi lorsque mes sujets mourant dans une plaine,
Sur les pas de Porus combattent pour leur Reine,
Qu'au prix de tout leur sang ils signalent leur foi,
Que le cri des mourants vient presque jusqu'à moi,
On me parle de Paix? et le Camp de Taxile
Garde dans ce désordre une assiette tranquille.

(Alexandre le Grand III:1, 685-710)

Axiane all but voices the desire to take up arms against Alexandre herself; not content to have inspired the local resistance to the powerful emperor, she wants to see with her own eyes what she has wrought. In her fury against “l'indigne sûreté,” she is quite the opposite of the complacent Taxile, who will turn to any source in his quest for safety.

Even after Taxile's death Axiane does not completely relent. She does express pity for Cléofile, Taxile's only survivor, but her condolences are condescending rather than compassionate:

Oui, Seigneur [Alexandre], écoutez les pleurs de Cléofile.
Je la plains. Elle a droit de regretter Taxile,
Tous ses efforts en vain l'ont voulu conserver,
Elle en a fait un lâche, et ne l'a pu sauver.

(Alexandre le Grand V:3, 1529-32)

Axiane remains unmoved by Taxile's sacrifice of his life for love of her, since his courtship did not go through the channels she had prescribed: he did not fight for her by fighting against Alexandre. Thus in Axiane's eyes, Cléofile's preoccupation with her brother's safety is justly punished by what she sees as his cowardly demise.

While Taxile is an extreme example of a “feminoid,” he is by no means untypical of Racine's historical plays. In Racine's most renowned historical drama, Britannicus, the title character is presented in a similar light, at least initially. One could hardly imagine a more timorous onstage entrance than that of Néron's stepbrother:

Que venez-vous chercher?
                                                                      Ce que je cherche? Ah Dieux!
Tout ce que j'ai perdu, Madame, est en ces lieux.
De mille affreux Soldats Junie environnée
S'est vue en ce Palais indignement traînee.
Hélas! de quelle horreur ses timides esprits
À ce nouveau spectacle auront été surpris!
Enfin on me l'enlève. Une loi trop sévère
Va séparer deux cœurs, qu'assemblait leur misère.
Sans doute on ne veut pas que mêlant nos douleurs
Nous nous aidions l'un l'autre à porter nos malheurs.

(Britannicus I:3, 289-98)

Britannicus is directionless: he does not know what he is seeking, only what he has lost. His bemused echo of Agrippine's conventional question, intended to establish the reason for his arrival, suggests that he has been propelled into the scene before he has finished memorizing his part, as if the need for some sort of motivation for showing up onstage had never before occurred to him (“Ce que je cherche?”). When he discusses the “affreux Soldats” that have inspired “horreur” in Junie's “timides esprits,” he is intended to be putting himself in his lover's place and imagining her kidnapping from her perspective, but the fear conjured up by his words seems to be his own. Britannicus' passivity is manifest throughout this speech: “Enfin on me l'enlève” expresses resignation rather than resolve, as if the logical summing-up denoted by “Enfin” were contaminated by the chronological meaning of the term and Britannicus had expected catastrophe all along, while his dwelling upon the couple's union of misfortunes (“misère,” “douleurs,” “malheurs”) sounds like a lover's complaint not at his being disfavored by his mistress, which would fit into the conventional role of male courtship, but rather at his wearisome woes in the world at large.

When in the following scene Britannicus' confidant, Narcisse, dresses him down for his whining and passivity, the fact that Narcisse himself is one of the villains of the piece does not make his observations any less accurate:

Ce Palais retentit en vain de vos regrets.
Tant que l'on vous verra d'une voix suppliante,
Semer ici la plainte, et non pas l'épouvante,
Que vos ressentiments se perdront en discours,
Il n'en faut point douter, vous vous plaindrez toujours.

(Britannicus I:4, 314-18)

In fact Britannicus does not spend quite all of his time feeling sorry for himself, and he does have at least one scene in which he confronts Néron quite directly (III:8). But in the famous scene of Néron's voyeurism in which Junie is forced to respond icily to Britannicus' professions of love, the titular hero is made to sound like a woman reproaching her lover for his neglect:

Hélas! dans la frayeur dont vous étiez atteinte
M'avez-vous en secret adressé quelque plainte?
Ma Princesse, avez-vous daigné me souhaiter?
Songiez-vous aux douleurs que vous m'alliez coûter?
Vous ne me dites rien? Quel accueil! Quelle glâce!
Est-ce ainsi que vos yeux consolent ma disgrâce?

(Britannicus II:6, 703-708)

Britannicus presents himself as a helpless, suffering victim, projecting onto the captive Junie a role more active than he imagines for himself. Rather than telling Junie how much he missed or desired her in her absence, he wonders whether she condescended to desire him. Rather than commiserating with her suffering, he reproachfully inquires whether it occurred to her how much she was making him suffer. Britannicus' resentment of Junie's non-responsiveness looks ahead to Bérénice's reaction to the distant Titus (Bérénice II:4, 589 ff.), but while convention allows a woman to upbraid a male lover for his inattentiveness, distance and indifference are considered the prerogative of a mistress and are meant to be conquered and overcome by a suitor, not whined about. Most telling of all in Britannicus' complaint is his reference to his “disgrace” caused by Néron's treatment of Junie rather than, for example, his fury. Indeed, rather than reproaching Junie for not consoling him, Britannicus might have been expected to try to console her.

By emphasizing Britannicus' fragility and vulnerability, Racine is able to give Junie quite a heroic role to play in the drama's dénouement. That Britannicus' heroism is made to seem partial and incomplete—his naïveté as he goes off to be poisoned by Néron verges on gullibility and only enobles him up to a point—facilitates Junie's apotheosis, her final escape from Néron's clutches into the realm of the sacred. Again, it would be difficult to make Junie into the hero of the play, but representing Britannicus in the way he does allows Racine to move in that direction.

Both Bérénice and Bajazet continue this same pattern. When the would-be proponent of his glory and duty, Titus, comes to resemble the plaintive, love-sick Antiochus, Bérénice is the one who steps in and makes the final decision that preserves the reputation of all involved:

Arrêtez. Arrêtez. Princes trop généreux,
En quelle extrémité me jetez-vous tous deux!
Soit que je vous regarde, ou que je l'envisage,
Partout du désespoir je rencontre l'image.
Je ne vois que des pleurs.

(Bérénice V:7, 1481-85)

Ironically, the heroic Bérénice is suddenly able to—or perhaps inclined to—give up Titus precisely at the moment when he becomes indistinguishable from the helpless, stricken Antiochus. As for Bajazet, his utter dependence upon two women—the woman he loves, Atalide, and the woman who loves him, the “viriloid” Roxane—makes him into the most passive and fragile of all of Racine's titular heroes.

Mithridate, Racine's last historical drama, is the only one that escapes the pattern established by the preceding plays; it is as if Racine were attempting to cover up by the most male-dominated of his historical tragedies the radicality of his earlier vision. Not only does Mithridate have no “feminoid” characters, but the titular hero does not extensively engage in the discourse of gallantry. It is not that Mithridate is immune to the disease of love, but rather that he cannot speak its language with fluency. In his first scene with Monime, Mithridate does express his feelings, but his speech is restrained, even stilted compared with that of other Racinian lovers:

Madame, enfin le Ciel près de vous me rappelle,
Et secondant du moins mes plus tendres souhaits
Vous rend à mon amour plus belle que jamais.
Je ne m'attendais pas que de notre hyménée
Je dusse voir si tard arriver la journée,
Ni qu'en vous revoyant mon funeste retour
Marquât mon infortune, et non pas mon amour.
C'est pourtant cet amour qui de tant de retraites
Ne me laisse choisir que les lieux où vous êtes,
Et les plus grands malheurs pourront me sembler doux
Si ma présence ici n'en est point un pour vous.
C'est vous en dire assez si vous voulez m'entendre.

(Mithridate II:4, 528-39)

Embedded in this declaration are several markers of Mithridate's discomfort; it is as if he were backing into rather than launching into the expression of his feelings for Monime. The adverbial phrases “du moins” and “pourtant” make the revelation of his sentiments seem secondary or parenthetical: while the Heavens opposed him in the important business of his fight against the Romans, “at least” by sending him home, albeit in disarray, they obeyed his desire to see Monime; and in spite of the unfortunate circumstances of his return, he nevertheless (“pourtant”) asserts that Monime's irresistible attraction is what has brought him home. Perhaps aware to some extent of the clumsiness of his language, Mithridate mercifully finds a way to cut his bumbling speech short: “If you're willing to figure out what I'm trying to say, I'll stop here.” When Monime replies dutifully rather than enthusiastically to Mithridate's allusion to their imminent marriage, Mithridate covers his embarrassment by floating the rather Cornelian idea that it is simply his loss of glory that has made her reject him: “Mes malheurs en un mot me font-ils mépriser?” (Mithridate II:4, 558).

That Mithridate is the only one of Racine's historical dramas in which the titular hero is clearly a member of the older generation may help to explain the impression of backtracking that the play creates; it is as if Mithridate were a carry-over from an earlier generation of tragedy in which men were men and figures like him were not expected to know how to manipulate the language of love. Like Arnolphe in Molière's L'École des femmes, Mithridate will go to great lengths to avoid simply asking his young fiancée if she reciprocates his feelings, substituting for that simple but dangerous question a lot of bluster about how many women he has rejected in choosing her (Mithridate IV:4, 1295-96, cf. L'École des femmes III:2, 679-88). In his soliloquy in Act IV, Mithridate does go through some of the movements of the typical Racinian amoureux, but unlike his struggle against Rome, he sees his fight against his love for Monime as “mes lâches combats” (Mithridate IV:5, 1416). When Mithridate asks Xipharès, the son who, unbeknownst to the father, is loved by Monime, to court her for him, the obvious irony of the situation does not fully subsume the impact of seeing a member of the older generation admitting to a member of the younger generation that he needs an interpreter in the language of love.

In the scene of Mithridate's death, the dying king is mercifully relieved of the embarrassment of speaking of his love. On the one hand, he is finally able to ask for Monime's heart by speaking in the name of his son, who he knows already possesses it: “tous ces vœux que j'exigeais de vous, / Mon cœur pour Xipharès vous les demande tous” (Mithridate V:5, 1677-78). On the other hand, Mithridate reverts to his warrior identity by expressing his happiness at being surrounded in death not by his loved ones, but by his enemies: “Mais au moins quelque joie en mourant me console. / J'expire environné d'Ennemis, que j'immole” (Mithridate V:5, 1667-68).

Thus in Racine's historical tragedies the playwright often manipulates gender roles in such a way as to heighten the power of female characters and lessen the power of male heroes when the starring role cannot be given to a female character. As we turn now to the mythological plays, we find that Racine's greater freedom to represent female characters as dominant in material drawn from mythology leads to a lesser degree of “virilization” in his portrayal of these heroic characters, and also to a lesser occurrence of “feminization” of male characters. While the mythological tragedies do have some “feminoid” males and even a few secondary female characters who could be classified as “viriloid,” Axiane, Agrippine, and Roxane do not find their equivalents in the mythological tragedies in spite of—or rather because of—the prominence of full-fledged heroines in these plays.

Andromaque, Iphigénie, and Phèdre, not to mention Antigone in La Thébaïde, are heroic without being masculinized. Indeed, none of these characters is really placed in a position of great power; unlike Barthes' “viriloids,” their power is not drawn from positions of strength, but rather from their strong reactions to positions of weakness. There are certainly moments of gender confusion in the mythological plays; in Andromaque, for example, Pyrrhus' wish to make Andromaque jealous by his marriage to Hermione was purportedly considered by Boileau to be unworthy of tragedy.7 But Andromaque herself, who carries off an impressive victory at the end of the drama, could hardly be seen as a masculinized figure; indeed, critics have long pointed to the element of coquetterie in her manipulation of Pyrrhus. Moreover, Racine's fabrication, in Andromaque as much as in Phèdre, of symmetries between masculine and feminine characters—Hermione and Pyrrhus trade off their double roles as rejecting and rejected lovers, Phèdre is like an older and more self-conscious version of Hippolyte, etc.—goes a long way toward foiling systematic associations with either gender. And in Phèdre, as we shall see, apparent gender reversals cover over a much more complex phenomenon.

The best example of a non-masculinized mythological Racinian heroine is Iphigénie. Although there is some gender reversal in Iphigénie, it does not derive from the characters' situations, as Barthes' analysis would suggest, and the titular heroine remains quite separate from it. The main reversal concerns Iphigénie's parents, Agamemnon and Clytemnestre, and while the leitmotif of the helpless, weeping Agamemnon goes through the entire play from beginning (I:1, 36) to end (V:5, 1708-10), the characterization owes nothing to Agamemon's situation: he is unquestionably the person of greatest political power in the drama. As for Clytemnestre, her portrayal as a “viriloid” is traditional, dating back at least to Aeschylus' Agamemnon, in which she is called “man-minded” (androboulos, Agamemnon 11), and Racine certainly continues the tradition, from Clytemnestre's blustery first entrance (III:1, 767-77) to her impatience at her husband's weeping:

Pensez-vous par des pleurs prouver votre tendresse?
Où sont-ils ces combats que vous avez rendus?
Quels flots de sang pour elle [Iphigénie] avez-vous répandus?
Quel débris parle ici de votre résistance?
Quel champ couvert de morts me condamne au silence?
Voilà par quels témoins il fallait me prouver,
Cruel, que votre amour a voulu la sauver.

(Iphigénie IV:4, 1258-64)

While Clytemnestre also weeps over the danger to her daughter's life, she spends most of the drama, unlike her husband, taking concrete steps to resist the sacrifice, and her final entrance onstage punctuates her entire role as the fearless defender of her daughter:

                                                  Moi, craindre! Ah! Courons, cher Arcas.
Le plus affreux péril n'a rien dont je pâlisse.
J'irai partout.

(Iphigénie V:5, 1716-18)

Although Clytemnestre can certainly be classified as one of Racine's strong female characters, I would argue that the character's impact is actually limited by her “viriloid” cast, as if the inversion of sexual roles that obtains in her marriage to Agamemnon were the source of her power, the wife's strength a function of the husband's weakness. By contrast, Iphigénie defines her power not by countering Agamemnon—Racine carefully avoids having his heroine follow her mother in challenging Agamemnon's decision—but by countering the “man's man” of the play, Achille, the nonweeper “Qui ne connaît de pleurs que ceux qu'il fait répandre, / Qui s'endurcit contre eux dès l'âge le plus tendre” (Iphigénie IV:1, 1097-98). It is precisely Achille's presumptuousness that is made to seem powerless by Iphigénie, like an empty form of masculine bravado:

Vous, mourir? Ah! cessez de tenir ce langage.
Songez-vous quel serment vous et moi nous engage?
Songez-vous (pour trancher d'inutiles discours)
Que le bonheur d'Achille est fondé sur vos jours?

(Iphigénie V:2, 1533-36)

Achille believes that this expression of his desires will put an end to the scene (“let's cut short this useless discussion”), but in fact it sets off Iphigénie's escalating discourse of heroic self-affirmation through self-denial, starting with a paean to her glorious role in allowing the war to take place (1537-63), moving to an indignant refusal to go against her father's orders (1575-77), and culminating in a protest against what Iphigénie perceives as her fiancé's forcing his unwanted assistance upon her:

Quoi, Seigneur, vous iriez jusques à la contrainte?
D'un coupable transport écoutant la chaleur
Vous pourriez ajouter ce comble à mon malheur?
.....Ne portez pas plus loin votre injuste victoire.
Ou par mes propres main immolée à ma gloire,
Je saurai m'affranchir, dans ces extrémités,
Du secours dangereux que vous me présentez.

(Iphigénie V:2, 1586-96)

The first three lines quoted above could be the words of a woman about to be carried off by a lustful pursuer “listening to the heat of a guilty burst of emotion.” The irony of the speech, in which Achille, the potential avenger of the rape of Helen, becomes identified with its perpetrator, is punctuated by the oxymoron “secours dangereux”: the conventional masculine assistance offered by Achille poses as great a threat to Iphigénie's honor as would the unwanted attentions of a male suitor.

As is the case with Mithridate, the last one of Racine's historical plays, Phèdre, the last of his mythological plays, problematizes all that comes before. While the portrayal of Hippolyte as virginal does appear to feminize him and Phèdre is placed in the position of a male suitor, the role reversal in this case merely serves Racine's underlying purpose: to silence the language of masculine gallantry that permeates his earlier plays, thus reserving the language of desire to his damned, sublime heroine.

Although Phèdre is far from being Racine's first play to represent love as an onerous burden, it is perhaps unique in its steadfast refusal to allow male protagonists to speak the language of love. One might object that Hippolyte does reveal his love to Aricie, but if one examines his declaration (Phèdre II:2, 529-60), one discovers that he spends the entire speech describing himself, not the object of his love. The only reference to Aricie's beauty is “votre image” (543) and “les charmes que j'évite” (545); it is as if the latter phrase also referred to Hippolyte's avoidance of detailing what those charms consist of. It is not unusual for a male suitor to speak of the effect of the “objet” on him, but this speech is extraordinary in the absence of any allusions, however abstract or sublimated they might be, to what it is about Aricie that Hippolyte finds attractive.

We should not underestimate the impact that a completely tongue-tied Racinian male lover must have had on audiences that had flocked to his plays partly to hear the language of gallantry incorporated into and ennobled by tragedy, but it is my belief that while Racine's fear was that Hippolyte would be viewed as effeminate, the actual effect of his treatment of the character is to emasculate him, that is, to desex him altogether. And Hippolyte is not the only one to receive this treatment. Just as Hippolyte tries to silence his tutor, Théramène, when the latter suggests Thésée may be off on some sexual misadventure—“Cher Théramène, arrête, et respecte Thésée” (Phèdre I:1, 22)—Thésée, the great ladies' man, is instantly cut short by Phèdre when he starts talking about love as soon as he sets foot onstage:

La fortune à mes yeux cesse d'être opposée,
Madame, et dans vos bras met …
                                                                                                                                  Arrêtez, Thésée,
Et ne profanez point des transports si charmants.

(Phèdre III:4, 913-15)

We never find out what exactly Thésée in his “transports” imagines Phèdre getting her hands on, but the gist of his speech is clear, the ellipsis more powerful than any description of his own charms might be.8 Even in this truncated attempt to speak of love, the male character does not allude to the woman's attractions but to his own.

In Mithridate Racine does an about-face by harkening back to an earlier era in which gender roles were more clearly distinguished than they are in much of his own theater. In Phèdre he shackles the male characters' ability to speak the language of love in the single play in his entire œuvre that is most exclusively about love. What is Racine's purpose here? In his last mythological play is he in fact paying tribute, as he did in his last historical play, to an earlier era of taste in which tragic heroes risked lowering themselves by speaking of love, a time when love was not considered appropriate to the gravity of the tragic genre? Or, on the contrary, is he rather reserving the right to speak of love, in this, his greatest play about love, to his most famous female heroine? Unlike Hippolyte, Phèdre describes not only the effects of love on herself (I:3, 269-310), but also the actual object of her love (II:5, 634-644), in language as powerful as any Racine produced. And as Joan DeJean has eloquently demonstrated, the erotic language of Racine's most renowned heroine is influenced by Sappho's discourse of the desire of woman for woman.9 From the point of view of Racine's unsettling power to question the dynamics of sexual identity, it matters little that Phèdre's death has the impact of a downfall while Mithridate's is presented as a heroic affirmation: Racine's final incursion into the realm of myth does more than any of his borrowings from history to create the myth of Racine.


  1. The only glaring exception to this general pattern is Esther, which I read as a kind of antitragedy that plays with tragic structures only to undermine them.

  2. The recent Pléiade reedition of Racine's tragedies reestablishes the original title. See Jean Racine, Œuvres complètes I, ed. Georges Forestier (Paris: Gallimard, 1999).

  3. One thinks, for example, of Pierre Corneille's Théodore, Rodogune and Sophonisbe, as well as any number of plays by Thomas Corneille. Ironically, the one historical play of Racine's that does have a female protagonist, Bérénice, played opposite Pierre Corneille's Tite et Bérénice, which gave equal billing to the female and male protagonists.

  4. All quotations from Racine's works are taken from Œuvres complètes I, ed. Georges Forestier.

  5. Œuvres complètes I, ed Georges Forestier, 1299 n. 2 (to p. 131).

  6. See, for example, Christian Biet, “La passion des larmes,” Littératures classiques 26 (January 1996):167-68.

  7. See Racine, Œuvres complètes I, ed. Forestier, 1357 n. 1 (note to II:5, 673-74 on p. 221). Forestier also points out that in the eighteenth century l'abbé Du Bos commented on these lines of Pyrrhus: “Le parterre rit presque aussi haut qu'à une scène de comédie.”

  8. I am again reminded of Molière's L'École des femmes, in which Agnès' elliptical “le …” presumably referring to the part of her anatomy that Horace “took,” was considered one of the most scandalous words in the play (II:5, 571-79).

  9. See Joan DeJean, “Sappho, c'est moi, selon Racine: Coming of Age in Neo-Classical Theater,” Yale French Studies 76 (1989):3-20.

Works Cited

Barnwell, H. T. The Tragic Drama of Corneille and Racine. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

Barthes, Roland. Sur Racine. Paris: Seuil, 1963.

Biet, Christian. “La passion des larmes.” Littératures classiques 26 (January 1996):167-83.

Bray, René. La formation de la doctrine classique en France. Paris: Nizet, 1945.

DeJean, Joan. “Sappho, c'est moi, selon Racine: Coming of Age in Neo-Classical Theater.” Yale French Studies 76 (1989):3-20.

Eschyle. Agamemnon. Ed. Paul Mazon. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1983.

Greenberg, Mitchell. Subjectivity and Subjugation in Seventeenth-Century Drama and Prose: The Family Romance of French Classicism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Molière. L'École des femmes. Œuvres complètes. Paris: Seuil, 1962.

Morel, Jacques. “Histoire et mythologie dans la tragédie française du XVIIe siècle.” La mythologie au XVIIe siècle. Ed. Louise Godard de Donville. Marseille: Robert, 1982.

Racine, Jean. Œuvres complètes I. Ed. Georges Forestier. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1999.

Sweetser, Marie-Odile. “Présence du romanesque chez Racine: le couple amoureux dans La Thébaïde et Alexandre.Travaux de littérature 1 (1988):91-104.

M. Reilly (essay date May 1999)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5670

SOURCE: Reilly, M. “Racinian Words of Power.” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 91 (May 1999): 13-25.

[In the following essay, Reilly explores the language of power in Racine's tragedies, focusing on the two key words for power that he uses: pouvoir and puissance.]

What is the nature of power in Racinian tragedy? Few questions have engendered so many conflicting interpretations. Yet while many studies have approached the theme of power in Racinian theatre, few have done justice to the depth and complexity of the language of power.1 Racine's words of power dramatise areas of tension inherent in the very concept of power itself and thereby give an insight into the complexity and ambivalence of its nature and operation. Without wishing either to impose twentieth-century definitions on seventeenth-century texts or to presume the sophistication of modern dictionaries, this paper takes as its starting point the ambiguous distinction between the two key words of power, pouvoir and puissance. Racine establishes a linguistic hierarchy which accentuates the limits of human power but then confounds traditional assumptions about words of power by diminishing their political connotations in favour of the erotic.

The word power in English has acquired a huge semantic content. In French power either translates as pouvoir or puissance. The difference between such synonyms is extremely difficult to give in the abstract. The two words are often used interchangeably and as a result they share a grey area of meaning. Their contiguity is evident when we consider that the subjunctive of pouvoir is puisse and its related adjective is puissant. However, one must note that often the two terms are not reciprocal. Both words are derived from the Latin verb posse, but in French they have acquired distinctive nuances. Pouvoir is very much a factual notion in that it relates principally to ability. If someone has pouvoir they have the ability to have their will carried out, they can force others to obey. Puissance on the other hand is on a higher plane. It has come to be associated more with official, legitimate power, corresponding in many respects to the English notion of authority.2 In the seventeenth century there seems to have been a similar ambiguity regarding these terms. Pierre Richelet, for example, in his Nouveau Dictionaire Français of 1694, defines pouvoir as puissance, autorité, crédit, and in turn defines puissance as pouvoir, autorité, crédit, as if the terms were synonymous.3 However, the examples he cites clearly indicate that while puissance does contain elements of pouvoir in the sense of capability, its meaning transcends the corporeal to embrace a more abstract notion of right or legitimacy.

Richelet first defines pouvoir as force, then as être en état de, and finally as puissance, crédit, autorité. Significantly, however, the examples he uses only demonstrate the first two definitions and illustrate nothing of this final one: “Je puis ce ce je veux et tout ce que je veux ne va qu'à passer le temps en honnête homme […]; il est en pouvoir de faire du bien à ses amis […]; s'emploier de tout son pouvoir à servir un ami.” With puissance, on the other hand, we find a genuine overlap in meaning. In the first instance Richelet defines puissance as pouvoir, autorité, crédit and cites the following example to illustrate its use: “On dit en termes de Palais qu'une femme est en puissance de mari, et qu'un fils est sous la puissance paternelle.” Clearly this conveys both the sense of physical force inherent in pouvoir and the idea of exercising legitimate power that we have come to associate with puissance. His second definition of puissance, “Celui qui a l'autorité souveraine. Celui qui a un fort grand crédit,” is supported by the following quote from Patru: “Le Saint Siége, du contentement du Roi, peut changer le gouvernement d'une Eglise, mais il faut que les deux puissances concourent à cet ouvrage.”4 The important point here is the nature of the power being exercised. The Saint Siége and the Roi are both described as puissances for they exercise a power that is perceived as all-encompassing in the sense that it is backed both by force and authority. Moreover, although in this example we find puissance applied to temporal and sacred power alike, it is interesting to note that the term toute-puissance is reserved for God (“la toute-puissance de Dieu” is the only example Richelet gives for this term) implying a distinction between worldly and celestial power.

We can see from the examples given by Richelet that there is no simple division between pouvoir and puissance, between capacity and force on the one hand and right and authority on the other. Yet equally pouvoir and puissance are clearly not as interchangeable as his initial definitions suggest. The succession of examples after the definitions of each term reveals differences in the nature of the power being exercised which effectively distinguish pouvoir from puissance. Moreover, the implied separation of terrestrial and divine power intimated by the example used to illustrate toute-puissance seems to suggest a hierarchy of power that inevitably questions the extent of human power. Racine is alert to these issues. He exploits the ambiguity of words of power in such a way that we are forced to question where pouvoir ends and puissance begins and to try to distinguish between the two. We shall see that he deliberately places pouvoir and puissance in certain contexts to reveal the nature and limits of power.5

The problem with an analysis of Racine's use of the word pouvoir is that it is a relatively common verb and noun.6 Even pouvoir meaning possibility is expressive of power, for the possibility would not exist if the power were not initially invested in the individual. This is clear for example from Pylade's description of Pyrrhus:

Il peut, seigneur, il peut dans ce désordre extrême,
Epouser ce qu'il hait, et perdre ce qu'il aime.

(Andromaque 121-22)7

However, while some lines are not necessarily significant, it would seem that others are capable of yielding valuable insights into the intricacies of Racine's portrayal of power.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Racine's words of power is the astonishingly negative undertones which haunt the term pouvoir in his tragedies. It occurs most often as a verb and is frequently in the negative or interrogative. When not employed negatively or interrogatively it is likely to be in the form peut-être or juxtaposed with the conditional si, underpinning an inherent sense of uncertainty in the very concept of power itself. In Britannicus for example, the threats to Néron's power posed by Agrippine and Britannicus are subtly conveyed by the ostensibly innocuous peut-être. Agrippine boasts, “Mon nom peut-être aura plus de poids qu'il ne pense” (260); Narcisse warns of the danger of Britannicus, “Mais peut-être il fera ce que vous n'osez faire” (1408). In both statements peut-être reveals that imperial power is on shaky foundations. The interrogative form exacerbates this uncertainty still further by creating confusion over where effective power actually lies. Burrhus's interpid question to Agrippine, “N'est-il de son pouvoir que le dépositaire?” (1235), emphasises a recurrent intimation in the play that Néron is a puppet emperor who dances as others pull the strings.8

The presentation of pouvoir in Bérénice is equally equivocal. In Act I we hear our heroine proclaim, “Titus peut tout: il n'a plus qu'à parler” (298). Yet throughout the play power founded on speech is repeatedly undermined by placing the verb pouvoir in the negative and interrogative: “je ne lui puis dire rien” (624), “que ne puis-je point dire” (672), “Pourrai-je dire enfin: Je ne veux plus vous voir?” (998), “quel mot puis-je lui dire?” (1239). In this way the initial statement of toute-puissance is systematically denied and Titus's power to act consistently undermined.

We find a similarly subversive use of language in Bajazet. The question posed in the opening scene, “Amurat jouit-il d'un pouvoir absolu?” (32), immediately conveys the instability of power by inviting us to question where power lies. Some sixty lines later we hear the vizir rage against his own “pouvoir inutile,” begging the question what is a pouvoir that is described as inutile? The oxymoron is provocative for it suggests a void behind a power structure which itself appears to be built upon precarious foundations.

In La Thébaïde, the apparently inoffensive si in reality conceals a volatile situation which effectively diminishes the characters' power to act. Jocaste's repeated solicitations for peace are significant in that in each one the verb pouvoir is juxtaposed with si stressing the equivocation inherent in human power: “Arrêter, s'il se peut, leur parricide bras' (38), ‘Ma fille, s'il se peut, retenez votre frère” (504), “Surpassez, s'il se peut, les crimes de vos pères” (1183).9 Pharnace and Monime tell Mithridate, “Vous pouvez tout” (247, 567), but his power is shown to be equally tenuous. His power to act is repeatedly questioned. The confidence of his Marchons, Attaquons, Noyons, Brûlons, Détruisons (831-39) is negated by his ultimate defeat. His supercilious belief in his own supremacy is thrown into doubt by a question which is intended to be rhetorical but which ultimately forecasts his destruction, “Leurs femmes, leurs enfants, pourront-ils m'arrêter?” (830). Only our willing suspension of disbelief can delay the answer.

It would therefore seem that by placing pouvoir in certain ambiguous contexts, human power is questioned and challenged at every turn. The above examples illustrate the way in which Racine employs the language of power, even in its simplest form, to convey a power structure vexed and beleaguered by doubt and instability. Pharnace's anguished plea, “Ne pourrions-nous prendre une plus sûre voie?” (903), seems to reverberate throughout Racinian tragedy.

The word puissance, however, is different. It is certainly not used as often as pouvoir and seems less tangible, more difficult to pin down to a precise definition.10 As the associated vocabulary suggests, it is ostensibly presented as an absolute, the quintessential form of power: suprême, absolue, entière, toute, vaste, pleine.11 Together with its plural puissances and its related adjective puissant(s), it is often used by Racine to express some form of transcendental power. Indeed, it is most regularly associated with the gods or destiny suggesting it is something beyond mere mortals. Thésée talks of the “puissance immortelle” of the god Neptune, (Phèdre 1070); Aman tells Esther, “J'atteste du ciel la puissance suprême” (Esther 1144); Oenone, Esther and Athalie acknowledge the supremacy of the “Dieux puissants” (Phèdre 157, Esther 635, Athalie 1601); Xipharès urges Monime to “Attestez … les puissances céléstes” (Mithridate 172); Josabeth implores the “Puissant maître des cieux” (Athalie 1669); Osmin puts his faith in “un destin plus puissant” (Bajazet 63).12

Similarly the term tout-puissant is afforded an ethereal, indeed sacred quality in that again we find it is most frequently used in reference to God. Elise for example condemns those who would “blasphémer le nom du Tout-Puissant” (Esther 756), while in Athalie we listen as characters beseech and admire the wonders brought about by the “Dieu tout-puissant” (1188, 1748). However, when applied to mere mortals, this term indicates hubris rather than supreme power. Britannicus provides the best example. Néron is described in the exposition by Burrhus as César tout-puissant (214), yet as the context reveals it is a description empty of any real meaning:

Qu'importe que César continue à nous croire,
Pourvu que nos conseils ne tendent qu'à sa gloire;
Pourvu que, dans le cours d'un régime florissant
Rome soit toujours libre et César tout-puissant?


The force of tout-puissant is crushed by the interrogative, the two subjunctives, and the repetition of the qualifying conjunction pourvu que. Clearly, the implication here is that if certain conditions are withdrawn, Néron's so-called toute-puissance would disintegrate, thus begging the question what is toute-puissance that is built upon such shaky foundations. It would therefore seem that puissance is linked to an image of power based on vanity rather than any “real” domination.

Indeed, the image of power Néron wants to project becomes a determining factor in the progression of the action in Britannicus. He is offered opposing visions of his reign by Burrhus and Narcisse which pivot on his fixation with his identity in the eyes of the world:

Quel plaisir de penser et de dire en vous-même:
“Partout, en ce moment, on me bénit, on m'aime”.


Quoi donc! ignorez-vous tout ce qu'ils osent dire?
“Néron, s'ils en sont crus, n'est point né pour l'Empire;
Il ne dit, il ne fait que ce qu'on lui préscrit:
Burrhus conduit son cour, Sénèque son esprit”.


The question which ultimately determines Néron's course of action is the all-important, “de tout l'univers quel sera le langage?” (1427). Néron wants to be seen as all-powerful, even if the dream is mercilessly routed by reality. The illusion of toute-puissance fostered by Narcisse's question, “qui vous arrête?” (460), is shattered conclusively by Néron's reply:

                              Tout. Octavie, Agrippine, Burrhus,
Sénèque, Rome entière, et trois ans de vertus.


Puissance therefore signals vanity and pride together with an image of supreme power that clearly fails to reflect the reality of power.

Similarly, as she laments her loss of power, Agrippine recalls her previous role proclaiming, “J'étais de ce grand corps l'âme toute-puissante” (96). The word âme is highly significant here for it again lends puissante a spiritual, mystical dimension reinforced by its direct juxtaposition with the tangible, contrasting image of corps. In the immediately preceding line Agrippine describes herself as invisible et présente, stressing the godlike role she has carved out for herself and reinforcing the divine connotations underlying puissance. But we must not forget that Agrippine has been dethroned, the aspiring spirit demeaningly shackled to a secular search for worldly domination. Even she seems to recognise the finite nature of her power when she concedes that Néron's aim is to show the world that, “Agrippine promet par delà son pouvoir” (250). Her rule, far from being transcendental, has been built upon “exils, assassinats, / Poison même …” (853-54). Her power is therefore founded on brute force, and expresses nothing of the authority necessary for puissance. Moreover, we noted above that puissance is often used with the adjectives pleine, suprême, toute, entière, yet in this play these are subtly and consistently emptied of significance for puissance is either abaissée (1464) or in decline (1603).

In Bajazet we find a similar distortion and downgrading of the word puissance. Roxane boldly declares the extent of her power:

je tiens sous ma puissance
Cette foule de chefs, d'esclaves et de muets …


Clearly “dans mon pouvoir” would be more appropriate than “sous ma puissance” for Roxane's power is not based on any legal right to rule which puissance implies. The “pouvoir absolu” (104) left to her in Amurat's absence is far from legitimate. Her very right to the title Sultane is implicitly questioned in the first scene of the play. The Sultane's power, we are told, is traditionally dependent on the birth of a son (298), but here Roxane's title is unjustified, unfounded:

Et même il a voulu que l'heureuse Roxane,
Avant qu'elle eût un fils, prît le nom de Sultane.


Her power, like Agrippine's, is founded on threats and violence. Her apparent godlike puissance lies in the fact that she has the power of life and death over Bajazet. She repeatedly reminds him that his life is in her hands, and there are strikingly persistent references to the fact that his life is on the line (535, 536, 544, 557, 593, 609, 687, 689, 694, 721, 1142, 1267, 1293, 1326, 1368, 1387, 1448, 1456).

Yet just as with Néron, a question mark hangs over the locus of “real” power. We must not lose sight of the fact that Roxane's power is by proxy. In the midst of her declarations of toute-puissance, Racine invariably indicates to us that this power is derived from a power greater than hers and hints at its real source. Acomat, for instance, talks of “L'ordre dont elle seule était dépositaire” (154), but the might bestowed on her by the emphatic elle seule is immediately tempered for the order is clearly not hers. She is merely the dépositaire of Amurat's order to kill Bajazet. Roxane's own unequivocal statements of power ironically betray the reality of her powerlessness: “Et des jours de son frère il me laissa l'arbitre”; “Du pouvoir qu'Amurat me donna sur sa vie.”13 Even her final command, the notorious “Sortez” which seals Bajazet's fate and could be seen as the sublime expression of her supremacy, is not hers as Bajazet reminds her, “Aux ordres d'Amurat hâtez-vous d'obéir.”14 Roxane, like Néron and Agrippine, only ever has an illusion of puissance. The real source of power lies elsewhere and the bellowing imperatives which stretch from the exposition to the denouement are no more than a voice vaulting a chasm, a resounding expression of hubris.

Antiochus's use of the term puissance is equally inappropriate. He talks of Bérénice's “haut degré de gloire et de puissance” (187), and yet she is despised and exiled by the Roman people precisely because she would taint the authority upon which imperial rule is founded. Paulin likewise refers to Bérénice's puissance, but he confuses it with titles and honours:

Hé quoi? Seigneur, hé quoi? cette magnificence
Qui va jusqu'à l'Euphrate étendre sa puissance,
Tant d'honneurs, dont l'excès a surpris le sénat,
Vous laissent-ils encor craindre le nom d'ingrat?
Sur cent peuples nouveaux Bérénice commande.


Splendour, honours, titles, all contain connotations of glib superficiality and mere outward polish, but clearly do not constitute the essence of puissance. Indeed in Bajazet, Roxane insinuates the distinction when she tells us, “J'en reçus la puissance aussi bien que le titre” (301), thereby implying that the two are quite distinct. In Britannicus we hear Agrippine scorn the “vain titre” (883) of Octavie and disparage the vacuum behind her own distinctions, “Je vois mes honneurs croître, et tomber mon crédit” (90). Aman's accolade to Assuérus in Esther reveals a confusion similar to that of Paulin (600-10). Here puissance is juxtaposed with terms which manifestly denote worldly power: poupre, diadème, pompeusement orné, gloire, magnificence, richesse, habits magnifiques. There is nothing here of the mystique of puissance, no moral, otherworldly quality. Nothing is concealed from the human gaze. The emphasis is on the material and the visible as the word mortel and phrases such as aux yeux de vos sujets and les places publiques accentuate. Again, we are being invited to contrast the superficial with the real, power with its mere pageant. The erroneous equation ironically focuses our attention all the more keenly on the distinction between the worldly pouvoir and the sublime puissance. This irony is a prime example of Racine exploiting the apparent contiguity of the terms in order to uncover the difference between them.

It would therefore seem that Racine's sovereigns seek a kingdom which is not of this world. These heroic figures strive after a power which is ostensibly beyond the reach of mortal men and which, if achieved, would afford them quasi-divine status. Ultimately, however, puissance remains something they strive to affermir (Britannicus 1192, Bajazet 41) or établir (Athalie 318, Britannicus 897), but it repeatedly proves to be an elusive grail. Those who claim to have puissance are shown not to. Each time it is applied to mortals the term is devalued.

Furthermore, the inherently positive aspects of puissance disappear in the hands of mere mortals. It becomes synonymous with death and destruction. This is evident from the very first tragedy as we listen to Etéocle defending his own right to rule by condemning the kind of power exercised by his brother:

Thèbes doit-elle moins redouter sa puissance
Après avoir six mois senti la violence?
Voudrait-elle obéir à ce prince inhumain,
Qui vient d'armer contre elle le fer et la faim?

(La Thébaïde 95-98)

It seems that Racine has deliberately set some red herrings here, but we must not be misled. While the verbs redouter, obéir and devoir could well be associated with the noble puissance, the rhyme of this term with violence seems to draw a correlation between the two thus linking it to physical, human power. Similarly the word inhumain does not indicate any godlike power, but rather stresses the brutality of the violence. There are no winds parting the seas here, no mysterious oracles or visions to suggest that the puissances céléstes are at work. The power is human as the weapons fer and faim which sustain it imply. What is more, there is no suggestion of a power founded on rights and authority, a fact reinforced by the use of the verb vouloir in relation to obéir instead of devoir, the verb we would expect if we were dealing with legitimate power.

We find similar red herrings in Alexandre. Taxile's proposal for peace as he relates it to Porus highlights that even Alexandre's puissance is called into question:

C'est un torrent qui passe, et dont la violence
Sur tout ce qui l'arrête exerce sa puissance;
Qui, grossi du débris de cent peuples divers,
Veut du bruit de son cours remplit tout l'univers.

(Alexandre 189-93)

Given that this power seems invincible and its influence extensive, it would initially appear that that we are in the ethereal realm of puissance. However, again the equation of puissance with violence alerts us to the earthly nature of this power and creates an image of destruction which is reinforced by words like débris and bruit. Moreover, this puissance is devoid of any political or moral legitimacy as Taxile's plan reveals: “Rendons-lui des devoirs qui ne coûtent rien” (196). The devoirs like the puissance are hollow.

Bajazet's description of Soliman follows the pattern:

Soliman jouissait d'une pleine puissance:
L'Egypte ramenée à son obéissance,
Rhodes, des Ottomans ce redoutable écueil,
De tous ses defenseurs devenu le cercueil,
Du Danube asservi les rives désolées,
De l'empire persan les bornes reculées,
Dans leurs climats brûlants les Africains domptés,
Faisaient taire les lois devant ses volontés.

(Bajazet 473-80)

Through the concrete images of écueil, cercueil, rives désolées, Racine reveals to us that Soliman's puissance is no more than the power to destroy. The rhyme puissance/obéissance highlights that this power is all about physical subjugation, a fact emphasised by amenée, asservi, domptés. In each play the rhyme of puissance with violence or obéissance functions in a way that diminishes puissance in favour of pouvoir by fixing power irrevocably in a context of fear and bloodshed.15 To yield to fear or force is an act of necessity not of will, and there is certainly no sense of moral duty involved. The duty of obedience is only to power with authority. Significantly, as though to further undermine the use of puissance to define Soliman's power, Racine implicitly conveys the difference between legitimate and illegitimate power through the stark opposition of lois and volontés (480). It is a contrast which ultimately spotlights the distinction between arbitrary power, based on whim, and legitimate power built on moral foundations. It is pouvoir we see in operation, not puissance.

Hence Racine systematically undermines those mortals who lay claim to puissance by highlighting the lack of authority in their power which is ultimately defined only by the brute force aspect of pouvoir. Given that the plays clearly reveal an awareness of the distinction between pouvoir and puissance, it would appear that Racine deliberately misuses the term puissance in order to subvert those who claim to possess it and seek to play God for other men.

It is probably in Athalie that we find the best example of the misuse and consequent blurring of the distinction between pouvoir and puissance. This “superbe reine” (739) insists on the supremacy of her power from the start boasting a “puissance établie” (471), and, like so many Racinian rulers before her, presenting her power as absolute: “Je puis quand je voudrai parler en souveraine” (592). Yet even in the exposition, questions are asked which alert us to the limited and secular nature of Athalie's power. Her initial portrayal as “une reine jalouse” (31) immediately makes us wary of her claim to monolithic power: if her puissance is établie, why the need for jealousy? Jealousy necessarily implies rivalry, and the rival is revealed by Abner who tells how he saw her “Lancer sur le lieu saint des regards furieux” (54). Clearly her puissance is challenged and undermined by that of God. As the play progresses and the tragic action unfolds, we discover that what Athalie calls puissance is simply pouvoir. Despite her hubristic pretensions to puissance, this sublime power lies only with God. It is He who inspires his followers to outwit the doomed queen. Her threats of force, “songez méchants, songez, / Que mes armes encor vous tiennent assiégés” (1741-42), are swamped by the superior powers of the Dieu tout-puissant:

Tes yeux cherchent en vain, tu ne peux échapper,
Et Dieu de toutes parts a su t'envelopper.


The mortal assiégés is overwhelmed by the divine envelopper which captures the sense of a power that is all-encompassing, indeed suprême. It is not until immediately before her fall, when the realisation dawns that her power is not without limits, that Athalie is forced to make the distinction between the “suprêmes puissances” (1708) and her own “pouvoir” (1711). If any doubt remained over the dichotomy between Athalie's pouvoir and God's puissance, Joad's final words to Joas stress the distinction with startling candour:

Apprenez […] et n'oubliez jamais
Que les rois dans le ciel ont un juge sévère.


In the closing lines we even question the efficacy of Athalie's pouvoir with her own recognition, “Impitoyable Dieu, toi seul as tout conduit” (1774).16

If the context within which pouvoir and puissance appear has so far implied the abstract or ethical limits of human power, this mocking depreciation of characters' claims to puissance is further underscored by the way in which Racine subtly demarcates the physical boundaries of power. For example, in the notorious spy scene in Britannicus, the very scene where we witness the cruel enactment of Néron's power, Junie's warning to Britannicus implicitly unveils the restricted area of the emperor's sovereignty:

Vous êtes en ces lieux tout pleins de sa puissance.
Ces murs mêmes, Seigneur, peuvent avoir des yeux;
Et jamais l'Empereur n'est absent de ces lieux.


The word lieux here clearly signifies a place of power; it almost seems to personify Néron's physical power to entrap his victims. Yet ironically, by defining the confines of power, by depicting a closed world, the use of the word lieux tacitly suggests limits, a world outside his power.17 We also see the restricting effect of locus in Bajazet as Roxane defines herself as “Maîtresse du Sérail'; in Mithridate as Xipharès reassures the aging king, “Vous avez dans ces lieux une entière puissance” (164); in Athalie as she arrogantly declares that she is “en ces lieux souveraine maîtresse” (483). Claims to toute-puissance are thus further deflated by implicitly fixing power to specific confines.

Hence in Racinian theatre, pouvoir and puissance, generally perceived as interrelated, are presented as stark antitheses. It is testimony to Racine's skill at manipulating language that he can use words of power in a way that paradoxically betrays the limits of that power. Such words of power are, however, often used to reveal not only the limits of the political but also the extent of the erotic, that is, the dark, mystical power of sexuality. Significantly, “real” power is often allocated to parts of the body—main, bras, coeur, corps, les yeux—or to a connected synonym such as un regard,18 or to physical attributes in general, for example, charmes: Cléone tells Hermione that Oreste “a trop bien senti le pouvoir de [ses] charmes”; Antigone invites the doomed Hémon to “[voir] le pouvoir que l'amour a sur [elle]”; Taxile incites Cléofile to exploit the “pouvoir de [ses] charmes,” while Ephestion concedes to her that he is “vaincu du pouvoir de [ses] charmes.”19

Significantly, in the realm of the erotic, puissance seems to retain its intrinsic notion of supremacy. Titus talks of the “noeuds plus puissants” (541), of the love that will forever bind him to Bérénice and ensure that his reign is a living death (1102). Antigone likewise recognises the terrifyingly assimilating power of love, “j'avais sur son coeur une entière puissance” (368). We noted above how Bajazet covets Soliman's power, that is, his capacity to act on his volontés, “Soliman jouissait d'une pleine puissance” (473), but we must be aware that this puissance refers not simply to political but also to sexual licence. Soliman's real power consists in the freedom to choose his partner:

Soliman n'avait point ce prétexte odieux;
Son esclave trouva grâce devant ses yeux;
Et sans subir le joug d'un hymen nécessaire,
Il lui fit de son coeur un présent volontaire.


Terms such as subir, joug and hymen nécessaire stress how Bajazet perceives his own lack of power to act freely and contrast sharply with the simple volontaire. By juxtaposing the language of desire with the language of power and with puissance in particular, Racine lends a sensual dimension to power and elevates sexuality to an ethereal level that defies human comprehension—be it the ‘charmes tout-puissants’ of Andromaque (351), or the ‘puissants attraits’ of Esther (671, 1232). Even if it does not retain the notion of authority, puissance in the realm of the erotic is suprême in the sense of being an all-encompassing, mystical force which ensnares and assimilates its victims. Hence it would seem that puissance only retains its enigmatic force in the realm of the erotic.

What, then, is the nature of power in Racine? It has been possible to readdress this traditionally problematic area through close scrutiny of the two key words of power. Clearly the term pouvoir most often denotes human or worldly power and far from seeing how it could work in a productive way, we find that this term concentrates our attention on its negative associations with repressive politics. The consistent placing of pouvoir in the negative and interrogative, together with its juxtaposition with si and peut-être, does much more than simply build up suspense by fostering an atmosphere of uncertainty. More importantly it indicates with what little confidence we can predict the outcome of human endeavours and thus heightens our awareness of the transcience of human power.

The contrast of the limited and worldly pouvoir with the all-encompassing and ostensibly transcendental puissance undermines human power still further by re-establishing the limits of power and subtly challenging those mortals who are tempted to play God for other men. The downgrading of puissance when applied to mere mortals seems to suggest that Racine believed man incapable of exercising the kind of godlike power we expect from an absolute ruler. Puissance implies a balance between might and right which Racine's sovereigns fail to attain. Their claims to toute-puissance allow him to explore the relationship between real and imagined power, between supreme power and mere hubristic pretensions. On the other hand, when we turn to the way in which Racine sexualises the language of power, we may be forgiven for believing that we are well and truly in the realm of the physical and worldly. Yet the persistent application of the adjective puissant to parts of the body indicates that Racine has elevated the erotic to the ethereal, the earthly to the unearthly. If political power remains anchored to the terrestrial, sexual power seems to take on all the force of destiny. It would therefore seem that infatuation with the simplicity of Racine's language has masked a complex manipulation of terminology. Racine's words of power uncover an astonishingly negative vision of man's will to power and the impossibility of his attaining it.


  1. Marcelle Blum's analysis of the language of power in Le Thème Symbolique (Paris: Nizet, 1965) proves to be very disappointing in that ultimately it consists of little more than pointing out that the rhyme ancelence is related to the theme of power, thus again leaving much unsaid about the nature and operation of power itself.

  2. For an explanation of the origin and development of both words, see Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, vol. 2 (Paris: Robert, 1992). Surprisingly, however, little is said about the use of these terms in the seventeenth century.

  3. Pierre Richelet, Nouveau Dictionaire Français, (Paris: Gaillard, 1694).

  4. The error of accent appears in the original text.

  5. For a discussion of the distinction between power and authority in England at this time, see Richard Tuck, “Power and Authority in Seventeenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 17 (1974), 43-61, and James Daly, “The Idea of Absolute Monarchy in Seventeenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 21 (1978), 227-250.

  6. The first person singular of the present tense is not even listed in full in B. C. Freeman and A. Batson's Concordance du Théâtre et des Poésies de Jean Racine, 2 vols (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968).

  7. Quotations are taken from Jean Racine, Oeuvres, ed. P. Mesnard, 8 vols (Paris: Hachette, 1865-73). Any italics in verse quotations are my own.

  8. See lines 45-46, 149-50, 198, 1234, 35, 1241-42.

  9. See also lines 558, 961, 964.

  10. The noun puissance(s) and the related adjective puissant(e)(s) occur 96 times in Racine's theatre, while the noun pouvoir the verb pouvoir in all its forms occur 1227 times. Calculations do not include variations.

  11. suprême: La Thébaïde 228, Iphigénie 1449, Esther 1144, Athalie 1708; absolue: La Thébaïde 184; entière: La Thébaïde 368, Mithridate 164; toute: La Thébaïde 568; vaste: Esther 590; pleine: Bajazet 473.

  12. See also Bérénice 591, Esther 1201, Athalie 228, 318, 1664, 1669, 1708.

  13. Bajazet 302, 314.

  14. Bajazet 1564, 1559.

  15. See also Alexandre 189-90; Andromaque 605-06; Britannicus 1191-92, 1243-44; Bajazet 1185-87; Mithridate 163-64.

  16. For a full discussion of the role of God in the play see, John Campbell, “The God of Athalie”, French Studies 43 (1989), 385-404.

  17. See also lines 851, 1243, 1296 of Britannicus.

  18. See for example Alexandre 900; Andromaque 534, 560, 892, 1292.

  19. Andromaque 402; La Thébaïde 1230, Alexandre 57, 409. See also Andromaque 450, 534-35.

Amy Wygant (essay date January 2000)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6257

SOURCE: Wygant, Amy. “Medea, Poison, and the Epistemology of Error in Phèdre.Modern Language Review 95, no. 1 (January 2000): 62-71.

[In the following essay, Wygant offers a Freudian interpretation of Phèdre, suggesting that the title character is the figure of tragedy whose suicide represents Racine's professional suicide and his contrition to his Jansenist fathers.]

The critical effort to understand the death of Racine's Phèdre as an allegory of the end of his production of profane theatre has by now a certain history. Most notably, in a study that originally appeared in 1980, Marc Fumaroli claimed that Phèdre signifies in two registers that reflect upon one another: she is the heroine of the tragedy, and she is the tragic muse in action, a character ‘en abîme’ of a tragedy both of her own destiny and that of tragedy itself.1 Fumaroli understood this self-reflexivity in genre-historical terms. That is, the tragedy of what he called ‘le principe de plaisir’ (p. 501), born in Corneille's first tragedy, his Médée, exhausts its logic, betrays the succession of bargains it had struck with morality, and is here put to death. For Fumaroli, Phèdre is an exercise in truth, indeed an ‘orage de vérité’ (p. 516), an act of contrition, and a symbolic suicide (p. 517). A broadly and historically Oedipal plot is thus sketched out by Fumaroli for Racinian tragedy. There is nothing particularly surprising about this, for, as Terence Cave has remarked, ‘Oedipus always seems to intrude between Corneille and Racine’.2

Fumaroli insisted upon self-referentiality not just as the defining agenda of Phèdre but also as the defining characteristic of any great dramatic text (p. 507, n. 10). But Fumaroli was not the first to notice that Racine's tragedy reads well as a comment upon its author and upon itself. A generation earlier, the explicitly Freudian project of Charles Mauron had depended very much upon his identifying Racine with Phèdre.3 ‘La culpabilité de Phèdre figure celle de Racine écrivain’, Mauron had noted, ‘la retraite de Phèdre annonce celle du poète devant les regards d'un Dieu janséniste exigeant son immolation’ (pp. 161-62). Mauron was equally insistent that what Phèdre may be said to be about is the act of writing tragedies: ‘La file des tragédies nous retrace […] l'histoire du désir coupable d'écrire des tragédies’ (p. 184).

What is remarkable in the juxtaposition of these two analyses is that they both make use of Oedipal structures. This structure is explicit in the case of Mauron, who claims that, for Racine, parental figures relate to Port-Royal and the Oedipal crime to the theatre (p. 149, n. 1). But it is implicit as well in the genre-historical claims made by Fumaroli: Phèdre dies in a storm of truth about herself and about the tragedy, and in so doing, commits an act of patricide against the compromised tragedy of Corneille. That Fumaroli's reading, informed as it is with vast erudition on the subject of rhetoric, should, like the most elaborate psychoanalytic reading of Racine, insist upon that theatre's self-reflexivity and conclude that its dynamic is Oedipal, raises the question, once again, of the relationship between psychoanalysis and early modern tragedy. Certainly, one way in which to understand the sympathy between an allegorical reading of Racine's theatre and psychoanalysis would be to recall the fundamental place held by rhetorical devices, metaphor, metonymy, paranomasia, and so on, in Freud's thinking. There is, as Michel de Certeau has remarked, ‘a renaissance of rhetoric in Freud's work’.4 But this would be simply to restate, in specific and operational terms, an underground identity and a chicken-and-egg problem that readers of Freud and of early modern tragedy have long noted. The problem is that tragedy and Freud seem, on the one hand, to be made for each other. The specific case of Racinian theatre responds beautifully to an analysis explicitly informed by psychoanalytic concerns, and we have not just the work of Mauron, but also that of Barthes, Green, and Orlando to prove it.5 But, to anyone who thinks to question the possibility of granting to psychoanalysis the status of a ‘method’, anachronistic or not, which might then be ‘applied’ to an early modern text, it soon becomes apparent that tragedy and Freud are not made for each other as much as they are made by each other.

Jean Starobinski, who once took up Freud's two signal references to tragedy,6 ‘Hamlet et Œdipe’, analyses ‘un double mouvement […] dans la démarche intellectuelle de Freud’, a psychoanalysis that is as much thought by Oedipus and Hamlet as they are thought by it.7 Cave has considered ‘the extent to which [Freud's] readings of literature actually predetermine his theory, rather than simply illustrating it’;8 similarly, De Certeau has pointed out that ‘the psychic machine is constituted in the manner of a Greek tragedy and in that of Shakespearean drama, from which we know that Freud drew structures of thought, categories of analysis, and authoritative quotations’ (p. 22). Working from the other direction, Stephen Greenblatt has examined the curious temporality of ‘a discourse that functions as if the psychological categories it invokes were not only simultaneous with but even prior to and themselves causes of the very phenomena of which in actual fact they were the results’;9 most recently, Suzanne Gearhart has brought a great deal of critical pressure to bear on this double logic, claiming that ‘if psychoanalysis and various forms of philosophy and criticism find their theoretical insights confirmed in tragedy, it is because they are already being “thought” by tragedy, but not in the same terms that they project onto it’.10 The complication pursued by Gearhart is that tragedy might trouble psychoanalysis from within, both confirming some of its insights, and, at the same time, furnishing the grounds for questioning others (p. 2). One such question, in her analysis, goes to the striking fact that the Oedipal situation in Racine's tragedies is so often interpreted from the perspective of the female characters (pp. 126-27). Gearhart proceeds to demonstrate that specifically feminine guilt, a problem before which Freud himself retreated, is deeply linked to the functioning of the superego and to the issue of primary masochism. Her conclusion that is specific to psychoanalysis does indeed transform, if not negate, a central image of Freud's psychic economy, ‘the picture of the woman as resentful both of the “defect” that prevents her from fully participating in an economy of pleasure and of the man as finding pleasure where she cannot’. But her conclusion that is specific to Racinian tragedy returns to self-reference and to allegory: ‘A common relationship to masochism links the feminine and the tragic and makes the women characters particularly crucial, not just in terms of the action of the play, but as figures of tragedy itself’ (p. 131).

This, then would be the latest episode in the development I mentioned by way of introduction. The effort to read Racinian tragedy for the allegory it sets up of tragedy was born from an explicitly psychoanalytic reading, grew sturdy with an allegorical reading that placed Racine's theatre in its family relationship to Cornelian tragedy, and risked death in a reading that threatened to dismantle its genealogy, but in the end was confirmed and survived intact.

In what follows, I shall be testing the possibilities and the limits of this powerful and durable notion that Phèdre is the figure of tragedy and that in her suicide we may read Racine's dying to the tragic stage (his professional suicide, that is), and his contrition and confession before his Jansenist fathers. In order to put some critical pressure on this allegory, I shall be reading the methodology of Phèdre's dying, ‘Un poison que Médée apporta dans Athènes’.11 The question will then become: what is the nature of the error, or as Racine himself put it, the ‘scandales’ of his greatest tragic theatre?12 Put another way: how is it possible, in the end, to be too enlightened with respect to error, as in Thésée's closing imperative, ‘Allons, de mon erreur, hélas, trop éclaircis’ (l. 1647)?

The word ‘erreur(s)’ occurs more frequently in Phèdre than in any other of Racine's tragedies.13 In general, its meaning there coincides with the first meaning given in Furetière, ‘fausse opinion. L'erreur est une meprise de l'entendement’ (Furetière, Dictionnaire), as in Hippolyte's ‘Hé quoi? De votre erreur rien ne vous peut tirer?’ (l. 1131). But, at least once, the sense of ‘erreur’ approaches more nearly its own etymology, and the first meaning of ‘errer’ in Furetière, ‘vaguer de coté & d'autre; voyager sans avoir de route certaine; courir ça et là à l'aventure’. This occurs in the scene of Phèdre's fantasized descent into the labyrinth, where, after indicating sufficiently to Hippolyte what she would like to do with him within its fabled twists and turns, she executes a spectacular pun on the word, ‘Je t'en ai dit assez pour te tirer d'erreur’ (l. 671).14 In the word's final appearance, it seems to cover the most important of the plot elements that turn the scenario of Phèdre, as a number of its readers have remarked, into a rewriting of the tragedy of Oedipus (Cave, p. 334; Mauron, p. 146). For Thésée's error is unjustly to cause the death of his son, within a plot structure which declares the son to be completely innocent, and the mother incestuous in spite of herself. In these closing moments of the tragedy, Thésée and Aricie are ‘éclaircis’, ‘enlightened’, a state thus marked by the vocabulary of recognition (Cave, p. 170). But Thésée's error has been overly recognized; he is ‘trop éclairci’. In order to understand how this could be, we might inquire into the mechanism of his enlightenment.

Thésée has been enlightened by Phèdre, whose moment of confession and blinding truth-telling has been enabled by her taking a detour to death, ‘un chemin plus lent’ (l. 1636), poison instead of the blade. But the thread of causality does not stop there, for, alone among writers, ancient and modern, of the tragedy of Phèdre, Racine has supplied a source for the poison which she takes: the barbarian sorceress and princess, Medea.15

Medea is an embodiment of the etymology of error. The well-known story of her vagabond existence takes her from her homeland in Asia Minor, trailing death and downfall, across the Mediterranean, performing further misdeeds, to Corinth, scene of her infamous infanticide, to Athens, bringing her poison with her.16 At this point, we pick up the story that Racine's preface acknowledges from Plutarch: Aegeus, King of Athens, had offered to protect Medea in exchange for her magical aid in ending his state of childlessness. But, unknown to Aegeus, he already has a son. This is Theseus, famous for his deeds of heroism and seduction, who makes his way from his native Troezen to Athens, which is in the midst of great political turmoil. Aegeus is suspicious of the stranger and agrees to let Medea poison him at a banquet. But when Theseus draws his sword to cut the meat, Aegeus recognizes it as the very sword he had left long ago in Troezen for his unborn child, and he dashes the cup of poison from Theseus's hand. Medea leaves Athens.

So, the story of Medea in Athens and the story of Phèdre in Troezen are profoundly permeable to each other's motifs. In each, there is a baleful stepmother; there is a mainly, although not wholly, virtuous stepson; there is the sword that offers itself as a certain kind of proof; and there is, finally, poison. The event structure of the Medea plot is attempted poisoning-sword recognition. That of the Phèdre plot is attempted seduction-sword recognition, and the parallelism of the two failed attempts is suggested by Phèdre's description of her ‘fol amour’ as ‘poison’ (ll. 675-76). But in being sent from Athens, or brought to Troezen, the poison's address is precisely reversed. Destined by the stepmother for the stepson, it is now the stepmother herself who is its final addressee. What is effected, on the level of the plot, by Racine's specification of the poison as Medean is the activation of a cascading sequence of reversals. Phèdre's attempted seduction is not material, but metaphorical poison; Theseus's recognition of the sword does not save his son but condemns him. And the poison destined for the stepson circulates through the themes of the stories of Medea and Phèdre until it finds its final victim in the stepmother herself.17

But this mythic interlock produced by the reference to Medea is, to my mind, too satisfyingly tight. Tragedy is never, or never just, a closed thematic hydraulics, and the most basic claim of the allegorical readings of Phèdre is that the tragedy escapes the stage to attain both the unspoken guilt and the career path of Jean Racine. Now I have called Medea the embodiment of an etymology, the one who errs. As such, her name would be Errance and she would be, in other words, an allegory, or at least allegorical movement, a movement that continues in her poison after her departure from the plot.18 The conclusion would then be that the enlightening of Thésée's error has been produced by Error itself in a double sense, both cases of which come to rest on poison. First, Phèdre's confession has been enabled by a detour, the ‘chemin plus lent’, poison instead of the blade. Secondly, that poison itself has been errant. It has come, like its carrier, from elsewhere. This would be a first aspect of poison's epistemology: as a metonym for Medea herself, poison participates in the error of her ways. This notion that error comes from elsewhere is reinforced by the entry in Furetière, which defines that elsewhere not as a foreign land but rather as the imagination: ‘L'erreur ne vient jamais de l'entendement pur, mais de l'imagination qui lorsqu'elle se trompe, regarde comme differentes des choses qui sont les mêmes, ou comme les mêmes celles qui sont differentes.’ Further, this notion of imagination as the elsewhere from which error arises recalls Pascal's great fragment on ‘Imagination’, ‘cette partie dominante dans l'homme, cette maîtresse d'erreur et de fausseté’.19

As for Racine's confession, it seems that if he, like Thésée, has been enlightened on the subject of his own error, then this enlightenment has been enabled by error itself. The condition enabling confession is poison. As error, poison originates abroad. But the ‘abroad’ of error, it seems, is to be found in the stock of images that is the imagination. In this connection, it is certainly worth remembering Pascal's position on the status of imagination as productive of ‘une erreur nécessaire’. Could Racine here be confessing, but to an error that is somehow necessary? In order to pursue this question, we might turn to the biographical and genre-historical considerations that an allegorical reading addresses: that is, to Racine's break with Port-Royal and the Querelle des Imaginaires.

In January, 1666, Racine published an anonymous response to the ‘Lettres sur l'Hérésie Imaginaire’.20 Their author was Pierre Nicole, and the letters were meant to convince the public that the heresy imputed to the Jansenists existed only in the imaginations of their enemies. Nicole's polemic includes this famous attack on the theatre, which uses the rhetoric of poison, peril, and perduration:

Un faiseur de romans et un poète de théâtre est un empoisonneur public, non des corps, mais des âmes des fidèles, qui se doit regarder comme coupable d'une infinité d'homicides spirituels, ou qu'il a causés en effet ou qu'il a pu causer par ses écrits pernicieux. […] Ces sortes de péchés sont d'autant plus effroyables qu'ils sont toujours subsistants, parce que ces livres ne périssent pas, et qu'ils répandent toujours le même venin dans ceux qui les lisent.

(Picard, II, 13)

Racine's reason for taking it upon himself to respond to Nicole, and the modalities within which he chose to respond, have puzzled Racine's readers from that day to this. There seems to have been no specific reason for him to have felt himself to be singled out for personal criticism by Nicole's attack. Indeed, his son Louis will write that this exchange of letters was ‘une querelle qui ne le regardait pas’.21 Picard is astonished that Racine's defence of the theatre is so lacking in force: ‘Tous ses arguments sont étrangement superficiels; […] il faut ici s'étonner de la méchanceté concentrée de Racine, qui attaque les personnes, et non point les idées’ (II, 14).

It has more recently been suggested, however, that this quarrel, ostensibly and overtly about the theatre, may in fact have been much more about Pascal (see Thirouin, above). That is, Racine's arguments may seem superficial, his motivation unclear, because what is at stake in his exchange with Nicole is a competition to occupy the place left vacant by the Pascal of the Provinciales. Racine is less concerned to defend the theatre than he is to become Pascal, the master rhetorician who, by means of agreeable and seductive rhetoric, persuades the public of his cause, and to deny this place to Nicole. Racine's stance, accordingly, is conditioned from the outset by the necessity of eloquence. His first letter begins, ‘J'ai lu jusqu'ici vos lettres avec assez d'indifférence, quelquefois avec plaisir, quelquefois avec dégoût, selon qu'elles me semblaient bien ou mal écrites’ (II, 18); he moves immediately to denounce the pretension of taking the place of Pascal: ‘Je remarquais que vous prétendiez prendre la place de l'auteur des Petites Lettres; mais je remarquais en même temps que vous étiez beaucoup au-dessous de lui, et qu'il y avait une grande différence entre une Provinciale et une Imaginaire.’ This is a point to which Racine's letters return (II, 24, 27). The stakes, in other words, are symbolic (who will occupy the place of Pascal?), the concerns meta-polemical: the object of the discussion is not the apparent subject of the debate but rather rhetorical superiority itself.

So, Racine's ambition here is not to claim the place that has been denounced by Nicole, of the ‘faiseur de romans’ or, certainly, the ‘poète de théâtre’. Rather, Racine attempts here to trump Nicole as a polemicist. The stakes are rhetorical, and the battle is fought out on the level of the image, that imagination to which the very denunciation of the imagination by the Pascal of the Pensées has recourse: the imagination is a ‘maîtresse’, before whom, sadly, ‘La raison a beau crier, elle ne peut mettre le prix aux choses’.

Now the image over which, it seems, Racine was most concerned to assert his mastery is contained in Nicole's rhetoric of public poison and permanent venom. If it is the case that the polemic about the theatre here serves only as a platform for a different kind of contestation, then readers following Louis Racine have been a little too credulous in finding an act of conscience in his father's response. But Louis nevertheless is specific about the fact that his father's reaction was to the accusation of poisoning:

Mon père, à qui sa conscience reprochait des occupations qu'on regardait à Port-Royal comme très criminelles, se persuada que ces paroles n'avaient été écrites que contre lui, et qu'il était celui qu'on appelait un empoisonneur public.

(Picard, I, 42)

It is this specific charge that Racine quotes in his ‘Lettre’ (II, 19), and it is this specific charge he seems particularly concerned to turn back against Nicole: referring to the fact that Le Maître de Saci had translated three comedies of Terence, and, what is more, had claimed that they were ‘très honnêtes’, Racine observes, ‘Ainsi vous voilà vous-mêmes au rang des empoisonneurs’ (II, 21).

About what happens next there is little disagreement among Racine's readers. For ten years, he writes successful and sometimes profoundly interesting plays, prepares the first edition of his complete works for the stage, and then, in 1676, writes the play which, as the allegorical readings claim, represents the confession of his sins and his taking leave of profane tragedy in the suicide of Phèdre. From the accusation of Nicole to the contrition of Phèdre, that is, Racine's career is defined by his gradual realization that Nicole had been right all along about the theatre. Fumaroli does not make a connection between the Imaginaires and Racine's unprecedented move of supplying a reference to an ‘empoisonneuse publique’ in the closing lines of the tragedy. Instead, he implies that this is a moment of anamnesis linking Phèdre to Corneille's Médée. Mauron does make the connection with the Imaginaires, but in passing (p. 252). Either way, the conclusion is much the same: the spiritual and psychic biography of Jean Racine may be read in the end of Phèdre, and the news is not good for the profane tragic stage. It has all been a scandal, an error, ‘criminel’, as Fumaroli puts it. Recognizing his error, ‘éclairci’, Racine moves on.

I would suggest, however, that the resurfacing of the image of the public poisoner at the end of Phèdre is about the theatre in much the same way as the discussion of the Imaginaires was about the theatre. The allegorical readings of this final scene argue very plausibly that Racine's own tragic muse is here being put to death. The theatre is certainly the overt subject of the discussion. But if discussion this is, if Racine's final word on his profane theatre may be understood as a continuation of the polemic in which he engaged with Nicole, then that polemic has as its subject generally a contest for rhetorical superiority, and specifically a test of how, why, and by whom the image shall be controlled. In this sense, it is a virtuoso move by Racine, for the confession of Phèdre is enabled by the manipulation of one particular image of error itself. This may well be Pascal's ‘erreur nécessaire’, the image without which an argument against the imagination, source of error, cannot be mounted. What Racine is demonstrating at this moment is not, or not only, that he has become his Phèdre and intends to die to the profane stage. It is also not, or not only, that he has become Medea, thus owning up at last to his own despicable status of ‘poète de théâtre’, a dangerous public poisoner. Instead, it is that he has become the one who demonstrates that one requirement of truth (‘Il n'était point coupable’) is the prior existence of error, ‘Un poison que Médée apporta dans Athènes’.

We should then be alert to a kind of discursive conclusiveness about Phèdre that would interact with the allegorical conclusiveness noticed by attentive readers. It is an oblique moment, dropped into a biographical trajectory that is far from simple in its relationship to Port-Royal. We know that Racine asked to be buried at Port-Royal in spite of the scandals of his past; we know as well that, towards the end of his life, he protested to Mme de Maintenon that in writing two entire sacred tragedies for her, at least three thousand lines of poetry, not one single passage of his work betrayed ‘l'erreur […] qui s'appelle jansénisme’.22 Scholars have not even agreed that Racine's preface to Phèdre, with its explicit reference to ‘quantité de personnes célèbres par leur piété et par leur doctrine’, addresses his tragedy to Port-Royal. H. Carrington Lancaster thought that it might well refer to the prelates of the court,23 and Roy C. Knight once cast doubt not only upon the preface's sincerity but also upon the very possibility that Racine's public theatre could attain the moralizing goal here set for it.24 However, if the preface's last paragraph, its ‘reste’ (‘Au reste,’ …), is read as an address to Port-Royal, then its closing words read like an urgent continuation of the Imaginaires, as affect-laden as though more than a decade had not intervened. Accordingly, another way in which to express the force of the reference to Medea would be: if one kind of truth is discursive, then it is a function of rhetorical considerations. To communicate its truth, Phèdre must in the first place, Racine is saying, attract an audience, and then that audience must be taken on a detour, led down the path of the imagination, ‘maîtresse d'erreur et de fausseté’.

The force of ‘un poison que Médée apporta dans Athènes’ is then arguably double. It is in the first place fully determined in the field of polemic, in which it serves triumphantly to conclude the Querelle des Imaginaires. It does this substantively, pointing up the necessity of Nicole's old formulation of the ‘empoisonneur public’ to the tragedy's ending truth. But we could certainly say in addition, following on from the readings of Mauron, Fumaroli, and Gearhart, that Racine's poisoning of Phèdre via Medea is fully determined as well in the field of allegory, in which, as etymological error, Errance, Medea is the ‘erreur nécessaire’ who allows Racine's own tragic muse to die in freedom. This double determination, or overdetermination, is one answer to the question of how it is possible to be too enlightened, ‘trop éclaircis’.

But these formulations of overdetermination and of dying in freedom are of course a reversion to or a spring towards biographical and theoretical concerns of Freud. Is there not a specifically early modern structure within which this doubled point of the tragedy's language may be understood? I would argue that the recuperation of emphasis upon the tragedy's polemic enables us to understand the status of its language as responding to a certain kind of Port-Royalist thinking about the sign. That is, the heritage of allegory is exegetical, its most ancient assumption, that it is ‘a human reconstitution of divinely inspired messages, a revealed transcendental language which tries to preserve the remoteness of a properly veiled godhead’ (Fletcher, p. 210). Allegory, in other words, is a symbolic mode of the discourse of God to man, while polemic, with its necessary concern for the public, is the discourse of man to man. In Racine's Medea, we may observe this doubled structure, which corresponds to the internal, Pascalian, critique of the Port-Royal Logique that Louis Marin once identified in La Critique du discours (Paris: Minuit, 1975). It is no accident, I would say, that the text that supports much of the weight of Marin's analysis, the ‘Entretien avec M. De Saci’,25 is concerned first with the slippage from the discourse of man to man (that is, philosophy) to the discourse Marin calls ‘de/sur Dieu’ (that is, theology) and, secondly, takes poison and the detour as the images of that slippage. It is Marin who places the emphasis upon Pascal's apology to Saci, and who argues that the movement of displacement and substitution in question is named by Pascal, ‘insensiblement’: ‘Je vous demande pardon, Monsieur, dit M. Pascal à M. De Saci, de m'emporter ainsi devant vous dans la théologie, au lieu de demeurer dans la philosophie qui était seule mon sujet; mais il m'y a conduit insensiblement’ (p. 296). This ‘insensiblement’, this vibration of the sign between man and God, is the slippage that Marin both patiently and energetically analysed, in the Critique and in numerous works that were to follow. Among those who think about the problem of allegory, the slippage was called ‘somehow’ (‘But somehow this literal surface suggests a peculiar doubleness of intention, […] a structure that lends itself to a secondary reading’ (Fletcher, p. 7)) until de Man carried the project of allegorical thinking to the level of the text, and so transformed it.26 But to one particular contemporary of Pascal, his interlocutor Le Maître de Saci, this slippage was precisely called poison: ‘Il [Saci] lui dit qu'il [Pascal] ressemblait à ces médecins habiles qui, par la manière adroite de préparer les plus grands poisons, en savent tirer les plus grands remèdes’, and the narrator of the ‘Entretien’ formulated this slippage as a detour, the delaying of a certain kind of arrival, not of the infamous witch, not of the dying queen, but of Pascal himself, ‘M. De Saci y étant arrivé tout d'un coup par la claire vue du Christianisme, et M. Pascal n'y étant arrivé qu'après beaucoup de détours, en s'attachant aux principes de ces philosophes’ (p. 297).

In taking a detour to truth via an errant poison, Racine's Phèdre follows an itinerary that was precisely formulated by his own contemporaries as Pascalian. On Racine's part, this represents the last word of a famous quarrel, and, at the same time, a defence that writes itself by virtue of the sign's structure. The nature of the ‘scandales’ of Racine's greatest tragic theatre, and thus the status of his gesture of renunciation, is accordingly not to be understood, as Fumaroli once argued, as criminal confession, but rather as strictly apologetic. Its epistemology is aporetic, depending that is, upon error for its truth. The problem presented by the attempt to develop a ‘reading’ of Phèdre, that it is both deeply secular and deeply sacred at the same time, is perhaps not a problem any more than is the sign a problem. Rather, the chasm of the sign, ‘absence et présence, plaisir et déplaisir’, is the sign's, and the tragedy's, engine.

However, as for the attempt to toss away Freudian notions as they may be understood with respect to the Racinian text in favour of an understanding demonstrably contemporary with that text itself, it might well be noted that Louis Marin, who has given one of the most profound and persuasive readings of the Port-Royalist sign, has been called ‘a staunchly Freudian historian’,27 and that one of the most enduring formulations of thinking on allegory prior to de Man includes a chapter on ‘Psychoanalytic Analogues: Obsession and Compulsion’ (Fletcher, pp. 279-303). Freud's Rat Man, according to Fletcher, provides a model for thinking about the allegorical level. But it is Freud's grandson who may provide a model for the doubled logic of tragedy and psychoanalysis. His Fort-Da game involved, according to Freud, a division into acts, a curtain, and, precisely, the staging of joyous appearances and troubling disappearances.28 Tragedy is the gap between the plaything and the mother of the Freudian text.


  1. ‘De Médée à Phèdre: Naissance et mise à mort de la tragédie “cornélienne”’, in Héros et orateurs. Rhétorique et dramaturgie cornéliennes (Genève: Droz, 1990), pp. 493-518 (p. 507).

  2. ‘Corneille, Racine, Oedipus’, in Convergences: Rhetoric and Poetic in Seventeenth-Century France: Essays for Hugh M. Davidson, ed. by David Lee Rubin and Mary B. McKinley (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989), pp. 82-100 (p. 96).

  3. L'Inconscient dans l'œuvre et la vie de Racine (Paris: CNRS, 1957), p. 166.

  4. ‘The Freudian Novel: History and Literature’, in Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. by Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), pp. 17-34 (p. 23).

  5. Roland Barthes, Sur Racine (Paris: Seuil, 1963); André Green, Un Œil en trop. Le Complexe d'Œdipe dans la tragédie (Paris: Minuit, 1969); Francesco Orlando, Toward a Freudian Theory of Literature, With an Analysis of Racine's Phèdre (Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

  6. See The Interpretation of Dreams in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. by James Strachey, 29 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), IV, 261-66, and ‘Psychopathic Characters on the Stage,’ in Standard Edition, VII, 304-10. Freud first explained his thoughts on Oedipus and Hamlet in the letter to Fliess of 15 October 1897 (The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904, trans. and ed. by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 270-73).

  7. ‘Par le recours au modèle œdipien, la subjectivité (de Freud) s'objective, trandis que le mythe “antique se subjectivise” (comme expression d'une loi psychique universelle)’ (L'Œil vivant II: La relation critique (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), pp. 286-319 (p. 313)).

  8. Recognitions: A Study in Poetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 176.

  9. ‘Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture’, in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, ed. by Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 210-24 (p. 210).

  10. The Interrupted Dialectic: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and their Tragic Other (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 2.

  11. Jean Racine, Phèdre, Act V, Scene 7, l. 1638.

  12. In his will, quoted by Charles Perrault, Racine asks that he be buried at Port Royal des Champs, in spite of the fact that he does not count himself worthy, ‘par les scandales de ma vie passée’ (Les Hommes illustres qui ont paru en France pendant ce siècle, 2 vols in 1 (Geneva: Slatkine, 1970), II, 82). Both in the early modern period, and more recently, the notion of scandal and that of error have been closely linked. According to Furetière, ‘scandale signifie, ce qui est occasion de tomber dans l'erreur, ou dans le peché’ (Antoine Furetière, Dictionnaire universal, 3rd edn (La Haye: Husson, Johnson, and others, 1727)). This linkage is reinforced by the iconographic tradition in which, for example, scandal, whose etymological meaning is a stumbling-block, is represented as the stumbling of the man who errs (‘Errore. A Man in a Pilgrims Habit, groping his way blind-fold. The cloth blinding him signifies mans Falling into Error, when his mind is darkned by worldly Concerns; the Staff, his being apt to stumble, if he take not the Guides of the Spirit, and of right Reason’, in Caesar Ripa, Iconologia or Moral Emblems (1709) (New York and London: Garland, 1976), p. 27, fig. 107). More recently, ‘scandales’ is misquoted by Picard as ‘erreurs’, in Racine: Œuvres complètes, ed. by Raymond Picard, 2 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1952), II, 1138. But Picard's error is in turn supported by Furetière's definition of ‘erreur’: ‘On le dit en general des fautes que l'on commet dans la conduite de la vie, ou dans l'usage du monde; des égarements oû l'on tombe. Il a grand regret des ses erreurs passées. Les folles erreurs de la jeunesse.’

  13. Bryant C. Freeman and Alan Batson, Concordance du théâtre et des poésies de Jean Racine (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968), p. 451.

  14. For a reading of this scene, see my Towards a Cultural Philology: Phèdre and the Construction of ‘Racine’ (Oxford: European Humanities Research Centre, 1999).

  15. The poisoning of Phèdre is not unique to Racine's version of the play, but its attribution to Medea is; see Claude Francis, Les Métamorphoses de Phèdre dans la littérature française (Québec: Pélican, 1967). Additional comparatist studies of Phèdre include Hans Schmitz, Die Bearbeitung der Phaedra-Hippolytus-Sage durch die französischen Dichter vor Racine (Leipzig: Fock, 1915); Charles Dédéyan, Racine et sa Phèdre, 2nd edn (Paris: Société d'édition d'enseignement supérieur, 1978); Jean Pommier, Aspects de Racine suivi de l'histoire (Paris: Nizet, 1954), pp. 331-417.

  16. On Medea, see Léon Mallinger, Médée: Étude de littérature comparée (1897; repr. Geneva: Slatkine, 1971); Seneca: Three Tragedies, ed. by Frederick Ahl (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1986), pp. 107-11; most recently, Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art, ed. by James J. Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997) and Ruth Morse, The Medieval Medea (Cambridge: Brewer, 1996).

  17. Further on thematics, see Ronald W. Tobin, ‘“Les Trachiniennes” et “Phèdre”: D'un poison à l'autre’, in Ouverture et dialogue: Mélanges offerts à Wolfgang Leiner, ed. by Ulrich Döring and others (Tübingen: Narr, 1988), pp. 421-27 (p. 426).

  18. Allegorical movement is analysed as ‘progress’, one of the two basic forms of allegory, and one based in part on allegorical interpretations of the Argonautica, in Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1964), p. 151.

  19. Blaise Pascal, Œuvres complètes, ed. by Louis Lafuma (Paris: Seuil, 1963), no. 44; Pensées, ed. by Philippe Sellier (Paris: Garnier, 1991), no. 78.

  20. For the chronology and context of the publication history, see Laurent Thirouin, ‘Les Provinciales comme modèle polémique: la Querelle des Imaginaires’, in Ordre et contestation au temps des classiques, ed. by Roger Duchêne and Pierre Ronzeaud, 2 vols (Paris, Seattle, WA, and Tübingen: Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, 1992), I, 75-92; Œuvres de J. Racine, ed. by Paul Mesnard, 9 vols, 2nd edn (Paris: Hachette, 1886), IV, 257-76. For the text of the letters and responses to them, see Mesnard, IV, 277-343; Racine's letters only are in the Picard edn (see note 12), II, 13-31.

  21. Louis Racine, Mémoires contenant quelques particularités sur la vie et les ouvrages de Jean Racine (1747), in Picard, I, 41.

  22. Letter of 4 March 1698, Œuvres complètes (Paris: Seuil), pp. 525-26 (p. 526).

  23. A History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century. Part IV: The Period of Racine 1673-1700 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; London: Milford; Oxford: Oxford University Press; Paris: Belles-Lettres, 1940), I, 122.

  24. Racine et la Grèce (Paris: Boivin, n.d.) pp. 334-67 (pp. 342, 365-67).

  25. Pascal, Œuvres complètes (Paris: Seuil, 1963), pp. 291-97. For textual criticism of the ‘Entretien’, see Entretien avec M. De Sacy sur Épictète et Montaigne, ed. by Pascale Mengotti-Thouvenin and Jean Mesnard (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1994), and Henri Gouhier, Blaise Pascal: Commentaires (Paris: Vrin, 1971), pp. 67-82.

  26. Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1979).

  27. Louis Marin, The Portrait of the King, ed. by Tom Conley, trans. by Martha M. Houlc (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. viii.

  28. ‘Jenseits des Lustprinzips’, in Studienausgabe, ed. by Alexander Mitscherlich, Angela Richards, and James Strachey, 11 vols (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1982), III, 211-72 (p. 225).

Véronique Desnain (essay date January 2001)

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SOURCE: Desnain, Véronique. “Les Faux Miroirs: The Good Woman/Bad Woman Dichotomy in Racine's Tragedies.” Modern Language Review 96, no. 1 (January 2001): 38-46.

[In the following essay, Desnain contends that Racine's plays clearly portray the importance of gender roles and promote certain rules of behavior for women, arguing too that the playwright's misogynistic depiction of women often uses the “virgin/whore” stereotype.]

To ascribe didactic intentions to a dramatist such as Racine is always dangerous: although he claims such a purpose in the ‘Préface’ to Phèdre, for example, his motivations are open to question: the ‘Préface’ clearly states his desire to ‘réconcilier la tragédie avec quantité de personnes célèbres par leur piété et par leur doctrine, qui l'ont condannée ces derniers temps.’ The Querelle des Imaginaires is undoubtedly still fresh in his mind and his moral stance could be seen as an attempt to defend and to legitimize his art. Nonetheless it has long been acknowledged that no literary work is free from ideological considerations and that authors inevitably project in their work, even when this work is critical, the dominant values of their time. I will therefore examine a recurrent feature of Racine's tragedies in the light of gender theory to show that, whatever Racine's conscious intentions may have been, his plays clearly portray the importance of gender roles and more specifically establish, or rather promote, rules of behaviour for women through plot and characterization.

Despite their apparent focus on eponymous heroines, Racine's tragedies often present us with other, equally important female characters. The importance of this ‘other woman’ is not always obvious: Aricie, Eriphile, Junie or Josabet present all the characteristics of secondary characters, be it in terms of their presence on stage or the role they play in the unfolding of events but they are nonetheless easily identified as ‘negative images’, in the photographic sense of the term, of the main female character. This dichotomy of characterization in Racine has often been noted: ‘en face de l'Aphrodite noire, la poésie racinienne dresse un autre type de créature féminine, image de tout ce qui est beau, pur, naïf, et vaincu d'avance’,1 although, as we will see later, it is significant that those women who appear ‘vaincu[es] d'avance’ are generally the ones who survive despite the odds. Some, like Ubersfeld, see this dichotomy strictly in terms of literary devices which play on fairytale-like, simplistic oppositions: ‘La poésie, pour Racine, c'est la beauté dans les larmes, la créature jeune et belle, désarmée devant la violence, irrésistiblement pathétique; une beauté nuancée de sadisme’ (Ubersfeld, p. 33). This description however also reveals a different set of oppositions that draw us back to patriarchal images of women as pure and untainted, the ‘light’ that shines in men's lives and for whom the active expression of passion is a crime. ‘Ces deux types de femmes, l'une inspirant la “pitié”, l'autre la “terreur”, l'une dont la poésie est faite de lumière, l'autre de ténèbres et de sang’ (Ubersfeld, p. 34) fit into a binary system in which women are either idolized or demonized. The former has sometimes be seen as a more positive portrayal of women when it is in fact as fallacious, and far more insidious, than that of hysterical female villains:

[But] putting women on pedestals is one of those devious masculine devices whose meaning is exactly the opposite of what it appears to be. Far from constituting a celebration of female power—where this one woman is concerned at any rate—it is a way of denying it: the woman we have honoured in this way is good, which is to say that her behaviour falls within acceptable parameters, and therefore she does not pose a threat to us, we do not need to worry about her.2

In other words Racine's portrayal of women seems to come close to the misogynist ‘whore/virgin’ stereotype. However it is viewed, this play of opposition is part of the Racinian mystique:

Une vieille tradition fait de Racine le peintre d'un univers féminin de la passion: le ‘tendre Racine’ peint des amoureuses élégiaques, Andromaque ou Monime, le ‘cruel Racine’ peint les tigresses, Hermione ou Roxanne. Même l'ambition appartient chez lui aux femmes: Agrippine et plus tard Athalie. Et il n'est que trop facile d'opposer à la vigueur des personnages féminins, la pâleur des Bajazet et autres Xipharès. Ainsi naît l'idée traditionnelle d'une tragédie féminine chez Racine, sensible, sensuelle, tout orientée par l'image de la femme impulsive passionnée, violente ou délicate.

(Ubersfeld, pp. 28-29)

This traditional view already hints at limitations in terms of each individual character: they have to belong to one or the other Racine and their ‘allegiance’ is all the clearer for being put on stage alongside their ‘negative’. Of course this seems at odds with Racine's insistence on his adherence to the Aristotelian principle that tragic characters should be essentially good people made to suffer through a ‘flaw’ or ‘error’ as summed up in his assertion that Phèdre is ‘ni tout à fait coupable, ni tout à fait innocente’. We are at a loss to find fault with Junie, Iphigénie, Aricie, Andromaque or Josabet. Within the confines of the social order in which they live, they seem to come close to perfection whereas Agrippine, Hermione or Athalie appear to present few redeeming features. Akermann points out that, in Iphigénie: ‘nous avons à faire à deux identités différentes, voire opposées—Iphigénie l'innocente et Eriphile la coupable’3 and, as we will see, it is perhaps in this register of guilt and innocence that the dichotomy comes into its own.

The dilemma presented by any attempt to reconcile Racine's characterization with his vision has been resolved by some through the assumption that his dichotomic female characters are in fact one woman, that when Racine talks about ‘cette autre Iphigénie’, he implies the multifaceted aspect of one woman as well as the coincidence of a single name as though the best and worst of a single personality had been split into two distinct characters. Eriphile is all that Iphigénie is not, she is the anti-Iphigénie, or rather the dark side of Iphigénie, ‘son double coupable et refoulé’.4 ‘Eriphile parle d'elle-même, et nous y apercevons tout de suite l'ombre d'Iphigénie: elle constitue sa propre existence en rapport inversé d'Iphigénie dans le mode négatif de “ne l'être pas.” En somme, comme elle se regarde dans la glace, elle se reconnaît elle-même dans Iphigénie.’5

Apostolidès suggests that there is, throughout the play ‘perte d'identité de deux personnages au profit d'un être unique, monstrueux, à double face.’6 Again he uses the concepts of ‘un jeu de miroirs’ and ‘image en négatif’ and concludes ‘leur opposition dissimule une gémellité profonde. […] De fait elles ne forment qu'un seul être, ambivalent et monstrueux’ (Apostolidès, p. 148). Although it is true that Eriphile could be seen as the repressed, rebellious side of Iphigénie, this attempt to merge the two characters to form a two-headed monster still accepts, and serves to justify, Racine's own vision of the tragic heroine. Yet it is clear, as early as in the ‘Préface,’ that the playwright positions Eriphile as a device ‘sans lequel je n'aurais jamais osé entreprendre cette tragédie’.7 Even though he tries to convince us that she is a tragic character in her own right, it is clear from the ‘Préface’ that Eriphile's main purpose is to allow him to create a tragic dilemma which revolves around ‘une personne aussi vertueuse et aussi aimable qu' […] Iphigénie’ and to rescue his heroine at the last moment so as not to upset his audience with an unjust sacrifice. His explanation that ‘tombant dans le malheur où cette amante jalouse voulait précipiter sa rivale, [Eriphile] mérite en quelque façon d'être punie, sans pourtant être tout à fait indigne de compassion’ (‘Préface d'Iphigénie’, Théâtre Complet, p. 510) is not entirely convincing, for if the fate of Eriphile, orphaned, captive, unlucky in love, is indubitably worthy of pity, this does not make her intrinsically a good person and what we see of her on stage tends to point to the opposite. Consequently her love for Achille hardly constitutes the ‘error’ that would give her a tragic dimension. When ‘bad’ people suffer we do not see their fate as tragic but simply as well-deserved retribution. We must therefore look elsewhere for Eriphile's raison d'être. Similarly it could be argued that a play such as Athalie ‘is thematically arranged around polar opposites which continually reinforce [this] [gender] dualism, such that the opposition “fils de David8/fille de Jézabel” carries over into oppositions such as spirituality/corporality, light/dark, fertility/sterility, cleanliness/corruption, law/transgression and temple/palace.’9

It would therefore be logical to assume that Racine merely uses the contrasting characters of Athalie and Josabet to balance the tragic economy of the play. A closer look suggests several good reasons for the presence of the ‘negative images’ and all of those point to a didactic rather than stylistic purpose: their presence is essential in defining the way we respond to the more prominent heroine. Where the ‘secondary’ female character is ‘bad’, one of her essential functions is that of scapegoat, which allows the survival of the good woman despite the apparent odds stacked against her. This is most obvious of course in Iphigénie where Eriphile, ‘l'autre Iphigénie’, is literally substituted for her namesake at the altar. In order for the sacrifice to be effective, the scapegoat must be from within the community yet at the same time distanced from it, thus:

The Iphigénie-Eriphile antinomy lies precisely there. Both girls are called Iphigénie and belong to the same noble family; they are both young and beautiful; both love Achille. But although Eriphile thus moves in a path parallel to her cousin's, she does so as through a distorting mirror. While Iphigénie dwells inside—in the midst of her family, in an army camp commanded by her father, near Achille—Eriphile on the other hand, stands on the outside, looking in.10

When Racine tells us that he could not bring himself to ‘souiller la scène par le meurtre horrible d'une personne aussi aimable et vertueuse qu'il fallait représenter Iphigénie,’ (‘Préface d'Iphigénie’, Théâtre Complet, p. 510) what he means is that it simply would not be acceptable to show the destruction of a woman who so rightly fits into society's perception of a ‘good woman’. It is therefore essential for ‘l'autre Iphigénie’ to be unarguably flawed and this flaw is made apparent not only by her actions, (since her position strips her of any power, her betrayal of Iphigénie's planned escape would at best have hastened events rather than changed them) but also by her temperament. Ultimately the dénouement will reveal the truth: ‘le signifiant Iphigénie recouvre deux signifiés, deux femmes opposées, l'une bonne, l'autre mauvaise’ (Apostolidès, Poétique 58, p. 151). Although the confusion created by Eriphile's dual identity sustains the dramatic tension, it is clear that her role is that of an alternative to the deus ex machina so that her more socially acceptable namesake can be spared. Eriphile's last act (to grab the sacrificial knife and take her own life) can be perceived as a last ditch and futile attempt to define her own identity and reject her scapegoat status: ‘The sacrificial rite […] can only loom, in Eriphile's mind, as the ultimate shameful act, the public stamp of approval affixed upon the role of outcast which had always been forced upon her’ (Freudmann, L'Esprit Créateur 8, p. 148). This refusal to conform to the role ascribed to her, along with her open expression of desire for Achille, is what places her outside the accepted parameters of female behaviour. Her outsider status is then compounded by her lack of genealogy in a social economy where women are only valued through their ties to men. Not so Iphigénie of course, who is clearly defined, in terms of her status as ‘Agamemnon's daughter’ and ‘Achille's wife’, and in terms of her own acceptance of her place in the social economy ‘Iphigénie simply does not conceive of struggling to preserve life at the cost of her alienation: quite to the contrary, she is willing to accept death, even to welcome it when it comes in this manner, from the hand of an official executioner in the midst of an approving multitude’ (Freudmann, L'Esprit Créateur 8, p. 145). In Iphigénie, as in all the tragedies which feature dichotomic female characters, it is this willingness to ‘fit in’ which saves the ‘good woman’. Inversely, it is the ‘bad woman's’ determination to ignore, or even to consciously confront, the social constraints imposed upon her by her gender that irrevocably condemns her. As pointed out by Reiss:

Between the death of one whose search never exceeds that of her own identity, and the life of the other, whose ‘search’ fits into the social pattern, there can be no hesitation by these practical men. [It is no] less fitting that it should be ‘la seule Iphigénie’ who weeps for the loss of Eriphile. […] Reduced once more to the object that will seal the ‘auguste alliance’ of Agamemnon and Achille, she alone, no longer an agent, appears to understand, and be concerned by, what is lost.11

Some scapegoats are less obvious but, although they may not die directly to save the more deserving character, their death is nevertheless necessary for the reestablishment of patriarchal order. One important feature of the ‘bad woman’ is her open expression of desire, which is seen as socially dangerous and reprehensible, and is often perceived as psychologically dysfunctional (hysterical), as are the active steps she takes to secure her individual happiness: Hermione, Roxane, Eriphile are all women who, although they may not always appear overtly rebellious, attempt to use the system to their own ends, and this in itself threatens it, for the system is designed to use women, not to be used by them. Therefore, whilst the deaths of Roxane or Hermione may not be strictly necessary and can even be seen as incidental to the denouement, they stress the underlying message of the play which is made clear by the triumph of the ‘good woman.’

Interestingly, the dichotomy works no differently when the ‘bad woman’ takes the main role, but there the purpose of the mirror image is rather more obvious. In dramatic terms she is often rather two dimensional, an addition whose existence appears at first to serve the sole purpose of giving the male hero a love interest, which often, especially in Hippolyte's case, translates as a weakness. Junie, Atalide and Aricie play such a role, although the plot line which introduces Aricie and hence renders Hippolyte ‘ni tout à fait coupable, ni tout à fait innocent’ appears rather contrived, as is highlighted by Forman: ‘In short, Racine may be justified in arguing that it is the invention of Aricie that turns Hippolyte into a tragic hero, but he seems most unfair in calling his love for her a “faiblesse” and in going on to use the adjective ‘coupable’ to describe this weakness and its victim.’12

Whilst endowing the otherwise ‘perfect’ Hippolyte with the necessary ‘flaw’, Aricie fulfils the further purpose of deflecting the accusations of misogyny, or perhaps even homosexuality, which could easily be levelled at Hippolyte. But she also performs a more insidious function. The contrast between Phèdre, the dangerous, lustful woman, and Aricie, the melancholic, apolitical female, who, although ‘in love’, professes no interest in physical love, is stark. When Descotes points out that ‘on peut concevoir [le rôle d'Aricie] comme n'existant que par rapport à Phèdre, afin que celle-ci ajoute, aux sentiments variés qu'elle éprouve déjà, le tourment de la jalousie’,13 he fails to take into account the fact that, although Aricie exists as a foil to Phèdre, she is far more than a catalyst for a brief outburst of emotion, an outburst which is in fact necessary to the plot but does not significantly add to Phèdre's characterization. Far more importantly, Aricie is to Phèdre what Iphigénie is to Eriphile, Andromaque to Hermione, Josabet to Athalie: the standard by which we can measure how far she has fallen. Aricie is the distorting mirror (in that it gives us a shallow and false image of femininity) which magnifies Phèdre's failings. Here she represents one of those: ‘Athénas de service, modèles parfaits de féminité, toujours voilées et parées de la tête aux pieds, très dignes, vous les reconnaîtrez à ce signe: elles sont extraordinairement séductrices, ce qui ne veut pas dire forcément séduisantes, mais faire l'amour, en fait, ne les intéresse pas.’14 Athena, of course, sprang fully formed from the head of the father and is at his service, more interested in war than in love, a fitting example perhaps for Aricie who, in her relationship to Hippolyte, seems to respond to a challenge rather than passion:

Mais de faire fléchir un courage inflexible,
De porter la douleur dans une âme insensible,
D'enchaîner un captif de ses fers étonné,
Contre un joug qui lui plaît vainement mutiné,
C'est là ce que je veux, c'est là ce qui m'irrite.

(l. 439)

Whilst Phèdre struggles (and ultimately fails) to express herself, Aricie remains static, firmly entrenched on the side of patriarchy, despite the position in which it places her, namely as a prisoner who is not even allowed to attempt to find private fulfilment in a relationship. The ‘good woman’ has endorsed the values of the patriarchy to such an extent that she receives the ultimate prize: she becomes the surrogate son. It is no doubt symptomatic of her function in the play that, far from suffering the indignity of being constantly judged for the actions of an infamous female line, as is the case with Phèdre, Aricie's background is entirely peopled by men: ‘Aricie, la Pallantide, la fille de Pallante-et-d'on-ne-sait-quelle-mère, Athénaienne faute d'être Athènienne, Aricie qui triomphe au dernier vers de la tragédie, elle l'héritière évincée par la loi salique, reconnue Filse-du-Père à titre de veuve de la Nation par la bouche de Thésée.’15 This judgment echoes Irigaray's theory that there exist ‘ici et là des Athénas de service engendrées par le seul cerveau du Père-Roi. Tout à sa solde, à celle des hommes au pouvoir, elles enterrent les femmes en lutte sous leur sanctuaire pour qu'elles ne troublent pas l'ordre nouveau des foyers, l'ordre de la cité, l'ordre unique désormais’ (Irigaray, p. 24). As a secondary character the ‘good woman's’ passivity, which is often mirrored by her relatively short appearance on stage (we hear about, far more than we see, the qualities of a Junie, an Aricie or a Josabet) easily emphasizes her counterpart's ‘excesses’. She, literally, ‘takes less space’ as we see less of her, and her appearance on stage, when contrasted with the more verbal and physical presence of the ‘bad woman’, serves to remind us of the ‘out-of-place’ quality of such female expression.

As I have already mentioned, it is an important characteristic of scapegoats that, whilst they first appear to be part of a community, their ‘otherness’ must become apparent. Thus the spectator is reassured that they are not threatened by such a fate as long as they remain part of the dominant social order. For women, the message is that they must keep their subservient place or else move to the periphery of society and run the risk of a fate similar to that of the ‘bad woman’. The ‘bad woman’ is often stripped, in the eyes of those around her, of her human status. Hermione is compared to the Furies which torment Oreste, Phèdre is ‘monstre’, as was her mother, Athalie is ‘élevée au-dessus de son sexe timide’ (l. 872) and therefore, implicitly, no longer a woman but a strange hybrid. In this respect it can also be argued that the ‘bad woman’ is mirrored, not so much in her counterpart in the play, but in every bad woman in every play: ‘Eriphile est sa sœur jumelle [Hermione's] sur scène: contre Iphigénie, aimable et qui lui témoigne de l'amitié, elle laisse éclater sa méchanceté et sa jalousie envers une rivale qu'elle méprise.16

Similarly all good women resemble each other, exhibiting, sometimes to an exaggerated degree, the attributes which allow women a place in society: passivity, maternal feelings, ‘tendresse’. This play of oppositions is particularly obvious in Athalie: both Athalie and Josabet are rarely mentioned by name alone but their positions and alleged qualities are constantly used to refer to them: Athalie is ‘cette reine jalouse’ (l. 31), ‘de Jézabel la fille sanguinaire’ (l. 59), ‘une impie étrangère’ (l. 72), ‘l'injuste Athalie’ (l. 206), ‘l'implacable Athalie’ (l. 244), ‘une reine cruelle’ (l. 291), ‘cette femme impie et meurtrière’ (l. 747) while Josabet is ‘Princesse’ (l. 165), ‘illustre Josabet’ (l. 162), ‘fille de David’ (l. 1020). Also symptomatic of a certain intrinsic misogyny is the fact that the term ‘femme’ is reserved for Athalie (most dramatically in Zacharie's mouth in Act 1 Scene 3) and never used alone to describe Josabet. The ‘good woman’ is the standard against which the ‘bad woman’ is judged. Hence Racine not only shows us how not to act but also the right way for women to behave, thereby providing both a warning and an answer. Because, as it was put by Maurice Descotes, ‘la tragédie, [aux yeux de Racine] ne postule pas un dénouement qui irait à l'encontre des exigences de la Justice distributive,’ the creation of a ‘jeune fille vertueuse, Victime à l'état pur’ necessarily demands the creation of an alternative victim, one who, according to the same principles of distributive justice, deserves to die: ‘Par contre-coup, se trouvent justifiés les dénouements sanglants qui frappent Hermione, Atalide ou Eriphile (et Phèdre bien entendu): elles sont toutes plus ou moins coupables.’17 The fact that, in the case of secondary characters, they have been created specifically for the purpose, to balance out the presence of another ‘tout à fait innocente’ woman on the tragic stage, points to a contradiction between Racine's conception of the tragic (which relies on the Aristotelian notion that characters should be neither totally good nor totally bad) and his creation, and this contradiction is perhaps best explained when we examine the didactic purpose served by the plays. The stage lends itself particularly well to this faux miroir device since it allows direct confrontation between the two women without the obvious intervention of a third, authorial voice. Of course this is a fallacy. In the seventeenth century, as in Ancient Greece, ‘l'instruction des femmes dans le spectacle théâtral se fait par une voix qui est censée être féminine.’18 Nonetheless, by situating the conflict within the female realm the playwright strengthens, willingly or not, the potency of the message by excluding men as active agents of oppression, which in turn masks or distorts the notion of a gender clash. Furthermore with the introduction of a sentimental element in which the two women are often vying for the same man, Racine reduces the gender clash to the mere quibbling of jealous lovers, which distracts the audience from the social pressures faced by his heroines:

D'ailleurs comme tous les grands analystes de la passion, Stendhal ou Proust, Racine a tendance à négliger les détails de la psychologie des sexes, (ces détails si dépendants de l'environnement historique), au profit des mouvements passionnels, infiniment moins soumis que l'on pourrait le croire aux différences sexuelles. Chaque fois que l'écrivain met l'accent sur les grandes lois de la psychologie passionnelle au détriment de la caractérisation sociale, il est conduit à estomper les différences psychologiques entre les sexes.

C'est le cas de Racine: ce peintre des femmes ne peint pas la condition des femmes.

(Ubersfeld, p. 30)

This also opens the door to a trivialization of the motives for the ‘bad woman's’ behaviour. Of Hermione, Gutwirth tells us: ‘cette vierge délaissée l'est au profit d'une femme mûre, elle est donc vaincue au zénith de ses charmes par une rivale moins jeune.’19 Even in Athalie the struggle between conflicting faiths and genders is suddenly reduced to the bitter hatred of the ‘bad woman’ for one better than herself (in other words, who is fulfilled as a wife) and this despite the absence of anything else in the play to support this motive: ‘Du mérite éclatant cette reine jalouse ❙ Hait surtout Josabet votre fidèle épouse.’ (ll. 31-32) It is also important to note that on the stage, any attempt by the ‘bad woman’ to defend herself or to present her position in more complex terms must take the form of self-appraisal and is therefore open to suspicion and the accusation of vanity.20

Ultimately, whichever way the women interact as major or minor characters, the final outcome remains the same: the ‘bad woman’ is punished, often by death, while the ‘good woman’ is rewarded, although it must be pointed out that her reward consists mostly of the right to live as long as she carries on exhibiting the same ‘womanly’ qualities of passivity and self-denial. This characterization serves as a warning, providing both role-models and cautionary examples and, even if this was not Racine's primary aim, the plays cannot help but reflect the patriarchal structures of oppression and thus provide the feminist reader with an alternative focus for reading. Racine's denouements, which would appear to provide closure, may well leave the feminist reader with a sense of outrage after having witnessed the social mechanisms involved in the destruction of the woman who is ‘subversive’ (or in other words ‘who is actively seeking individual fulfilment’). The mirror which Racine holds up to the female spectator does not reflect a true image but, instead, sets of opposing stereotypes (virgin/whore, good/bad, passive/aggressive), none of which offer a reflection of her true self. Of course, some will argue that Racine does at least portray strong women and that this could in itself redeem him in the eyes of the feminist reader, but the notion that showing women struggling against an oppressive patriarchal order is in itself an endorsement of the validity of their struggle does not withstand scrutiny. There is a wide chasm between the portrayal of a character's trials and tribulations, which makes the depiction of their anguish inevitable, and an active defence of their rights. As Auffret reminds us in Nous Clytemnestre: ‘Monstration de la souffrance, la tragédie s'oblige à considérer le point de vue de l'être qui souffre, à parler de son intérieur, mais ne lui donne aucunement “raison”’ (pp. 150-51). Whilst the ‘bad woman’ undoubtedly suffers, her suffering is seen as self-inflicted. Thus the depiction of this suffering does not constitute a critique of her status in society as it inevitably leads to her destruction and therefore covertly reinforces the status quo:

La morale de la tragédie n'est pas impartiale, parce qu'œuvre poétique, selon la forte remarque d'Aristote, la tragédie imite. Non qu'elle copie ou reproduise platement des faits particuliers s'étant réellement passés. Mais elle imite, c'est-à-dire re-présente, en acte, le sens profond de la geste sociale qui donne naissance au tragique et, selon les cadres que cette geste précise, en développe les possibles: ‘La tragédie imite, non pas les hommes, mais une action et la vie, le bonheur et l'infortune.’

Cette restriction sociale des cadres de l'action tragique ne se donne pas à voir au premier regard; la mise en scène et le masque, la construction dramatique, dissimulent le moralisme tragique, sa soumission à l'ordre politique dominant, sous l'apparence d'une égalité conflictuelle, d'une interrogation, qui est une réponse oblique.

(Auffret, pp. 18-19)

It could in fact be argued that, since tragedy not only represents but also validates social constraints, the predominance of female characters in Racine is not, as suggested by Goldmann,21 dictated by the particular ability of women to experience extremes of emotion, but rather could be interpreted as a warning to potential socially-dissident women. This is further supported by the introduction of the ‘mirror’, as the very presence of the ‘good woman’ shows us precisely where the ‘bad woman’ has deviated from the norm. It is in the contrast with her counterpart that she becomes truly monstrous and the appearance of the good woman on stage after her negative image has been disposed of, especially when coupled with a reward (Iphigénie marries Achille, Andromaque is crowned, Aricie is adopted by Thésée), signals the re-establishment of the patriarchal order: the ‘bad woman’ was ‘other’, alone among all women, an anomaly rather than an average human being struggling against an unjust system.


  1. Anne Ubersfeld, ‘Racine et la peinture des femmes’, Europe 428 (November-December 1964), 28-35 (p. 32).

  2. Joan Smith, Misogynies (London: Vintage, 1996), p. 83.

  3. Simone Akermann, ‘Iphigénie ou la tragédie du clair-obscur’, Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature, 25 (1986), 97-109 (p. 106).

  4. Alain Defaux, ‘Violence et passion dans l'Iphigénie de Racine’ Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature, 21 (1984), 685-715 (p. 694).

  5. Hiroko Mashimo, ‘La dramaturgie de la dissimulation’, Etudes de langue et littérature françaises, 58 (1991), 59-74 (p. 70).

  6. Jean-Marie Apostolidès, ‘La belle aux eaux dormantes’, Poétique, 58 (1984), 139-53 (p. 148).

  7. ‘Préface d'Iphigénie’, in Jean Racine, Théâtre Complet, ed. by Jacques Morel and Alain Viala (Paris: Garnier, 1980), p. 510.

  8. Although this refers to Joas, it could be seen to set out a ‘tribal’ polarization and therefore to extend to those who surround him and enable him to claim his place on the throne, including Josabet.

  9. Helen Bates McDermot, ‘Matricide and filicide in Racine's Athalie’, Symposium, 38 (1984-85), 56-69 (p. 56).

  10. Felix R. Freudmann, ‘Iphigénie: A Study in Solitude’, L'Esprit Créateur, 8 (1968), 139-48 (p. 146).

  11. Timothy J. Reiss, ‘Classicism, the Individual and Economic Exchange in Racine's Iphigénie’, L'Esprit Créateur, 13 (1973) 204-19 (p. 217).

  12. Edward Forman, ‘“Je commence à rougir”: Shame, self-esteem and guilt in the presentation of Racine's Hippolyte’ in Ethics and Politics in Seventeenth-Century France, ed. by K. Cameron and E. Woodrough (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996), pp. 233-45 (p. 235).

  13. Maurice Descotes, Les Grands Rôles du théâtre de Jean Racine (Paris: PUF, 1991), p. 95.

  14. Luce Irigaray, Sexes et parentés (Paris: Minuit, 1987), pp. 24-25.

  15. Alain Lipietz, ‘Phèdre: identification d'un crime’, Les Temps Modernes, 43 (June 1988), 93-130 (p. 119). ‘Filse’ is Lipietz's own spelling to suggest that only the son (fils) is endowed with any value. The connotations of the feminized version of the word are therefore very different from that of ‘fille’.

  16. Herbert Schulze, ‘Iphigénie, Mythe et tragédie’, Jeunesse de Racine (1967-71), pp. 26-42 (p. 37).

  17. Maurice Descotes, ‘Le dosage du tragique dans les dénouements de Racine’, Revue d'Histoire du Théâtre, 25 (1973) 229-38 (p. 235).

  18. Séverine Auffret, Nous Clytemnestre (Paris: des femmes, 1984) p. 129.

  19. Lucien Gutwirth, Jean Racine: Un Itinéraire poétique (Montréal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 1970) p. 54.

  20. Despite Athalie's assertion at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 4 that she does not need to ‘rendre raison du sang que j'ai versé’ (l. 466), she goes on to list the benefits her reign has brought her people in a speech which seems to imply that the end justified the means.

  21. In Situation de la critique racinienne (Paris: L'Arche, 1971) L. Goldmann remarks that: ‘À juste titre, Lanson remarque qu'en accordant plus de place à la passion, Racine a créé plus de personnages féminins et leur a donné plus d'importance que Corneille.’ (p. 97). Similarly essentialist theories have been offered by Thierry Maulnier in his Racine (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), esp. p. 212, and in studies based on a psychoanalytical approach such as those of Charles Mauron, L'Inconscient dans l'œuvre et la vie de Racine (Paris: José Corti, 1969), and Emy Batache-Watt, Profils des héroïnes raciniennes (Paris: Klincksieck, 1976).

Ann T. Delehanty (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5173

SOURCE: Delehanty, Ann T. “God's Hand in History: Racine's Athalie as the End of Salvation Historiography.” Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature 28, no. 54 (2001): 155-66.

[In the following essay, Delehanty maintains that in his biblical drama Athalie, Racine presents two opposing models of historiography: salvation history and teleological history.]

Generally, when we speak of a contemporary historical account, we mean a narrative text that describes, in a logically cohesive fashion, events that took place entirely in the past. The narrator of the account, the historian, must balance conveying the truth of what happened with creating a compelling narrative. In his discussion of the modern, narrative form of history, in The Content of the Form, Hayden White identifies the sign that a historical account may have gone too far in the service of a compelling narrative as “the embarrassment of plot” (21). In other words, reality is presumed to be without a plot or central theme; modern historical representations of reality ring false when too neatly ordered.1 Prior to the Enlightenment, however, the notion of a plot to history would not have been quite so embarrassing. In fact, in the western Christian tradition, it was generally acknowledged that history had some sort of a plot, in the form of a telos or purpose, which it was meant to follow. Old Testament history was seen as leading towards the necessary endpoint of Christ's advent; New Testament history and beyond was to lead towards the Apocalypse.2 The purview of history was not simply the past, but extended to include the present and the future. The ultimate goal of this historical continuum was the salvation of humankind at the future moment of final judgment, whence the name “salvation history.” With salvation as both the individual and common goal in life, the final meaning of all of history would be entirely determined (and judged) in relation to that purpose.

In Athalie, by choosing a story from the Old Testament, Racine clearly positions his drama in the context of salvation history. Because of the story's place in a strict economy of teleological meaning—i.e., a predetermined plot—, the changes that Racine made to the biblical account are particularly notable. The biblical passages in II Kings and II Chronicles3 begin by telling how Queen Athalie murders her grandchildren, the heirs to the line of David, in retribution for the murder of her son, Ochosias.4 Both biblical versions then skip over the seven years of Athalie's reign and go directly to the moment when Joad, the priest of the temple, reveals to Athalie that his wife, Josabeth, rescued one of the grandchildren, Joas. It is brought to light that Joas has been brought up in safety by Joad and Josabeth. With this news, Joas is restored to the throne and Athalie is put to death. Racine's version of the story, however, does not restrict the plot of the drama to the limits of the biblical text; rather, Racine fills in that unwritten space of biblical history during the seven years of Athalie's reign by describing how society changed when the heir to the line of David was presumed dead.5 Through this vision of history without a divine purpose, we can clearly see Racine's idea of what would happen if history's telos were to be lost. He paints a world caught in a stagnant present, full of moral ambiguity, and without a divine assurance of any meaning, a world where the queen, Athalie, has replaced the divine with political ends.

It is that space of unwritten history that is the subject of my analysis. In this essay, I am arguing that in Athalie, Racine stages a battle between two opposing models of historiography—salvation history and political history. The potential tragedy that hangs in the balance in the play is not simply the death of a single character but the end of transcendental meaning in history; the assurance that there is a deeper purpose to life than the present moment is at risk. Racine's portrayal of teleological history gone awry during Athalie's reign depicts the ambiguity that arises when the purposes of the state replace the divine purpose for the future. The play personifies this conflict between the divine and the political in the character of the monarch (both Athalie and Joas) who bears responsibility for the future end of history as well as the present purposes of the state. The incompatibility of these ends is what renders the play tragic. Given the political and religious climate at the end of the seventeenth century, when historiography was perched between salvation and political history, Athalie serves as a literary warning to Racine's contemporaries of the perils of severing the divine hand from history.6

In the opening scene of Athalie, one of the chief captains of the kings of Judah, Abner, gives a speech about the disastrous consequences after Athalie destroyed (as the people believe) the successor to the line of David by killing all of her own grandchildren. The day is Pentecost and Abner has just been to the temple.7 We enter the scene in medias res:

Oui, je viens dans son temple adorer l'Eternel;
Je viens, selon l'usage antique et solennel,
Célébrer avec vous la fameuse journée
Où sur le mont Sina la loi nous fut donnée.
Que les temps sont changés!


Racine's famous tendency to start his plays in mid-conversation here signals the unboundedness of history in the play. Because the teleological continuum has stopped and there is no clear order to history, the story must leap into the action whenever it can. Abner's speech tells us that time has entered a new rhythm where the old patterns are no longer observed, the future is uncertain and the present is unrecognizable. The faithful used to inundate the gates of the temple, bringing the fruits of the first harvest to offer up to God (I.1.9-11). Now, because of Athalie's murderousness, only a few dare to come to the temple; the rest, because of an “oubli fatal,” have converted to Baal, the chosen divinity of Athalie (I.1.17-18).8

By setting the play's events on a forgotten feast day, Racine further signals the alterations that history has suffered. If the harvest passes by without acknowledgment, the people have forgotten the most basic of temporal cycles. Racine says in his preface that, although no day when these events take place is indicated in the Bible, he chose Pentecost for his story since it celebrated the giving of the law on Mount Sinai to the Old Testament faithful (284).9 Because of the disappearance of the heir to the line of David, the Pentecost of this story points to the loss of that law. Without the law, there is no divinely ordained arbiter of morality; humans must judge themselves. The people are left in a stagnant present, without a historical sense of self, a knowable order, or a future: “Benjamin est sans force, et Juda sans vertu” (I.1. 94). The word of God, which might somehow rectify the situation has been silenced: “L'arche sainte est muette, et ne rend plus d'oracles” (I.1.103).

Joad, responding to Abner's apparent loss of faith, tries to convince Abner that God has not forsaken his people. But Joad's words have little effect on Abner, who responds with disbelief:

Ce roi fils de David, où le chercherons-nous?
Le ciel même peut-il réparer les ruines
De cet arbre séché jusque dans ses racines?
Athalie étouffa l'enfant même au berceau.
Les morts, après huit ans, sortent-ils du tombeau?


Abner responds only with questions; without history moving forward, he is condemned to the temporality of the interrogative which suspends assertions of meaning in favor of the atemporality of perpetual uncertainty.10 With no visible body of the heir to the line of David, Joad's assurances about the need to have faith in God become mere words. Abner no longer believes that God would have the power to restore time: the very roots of time have dried up and the dead are too long dead.

The people see no means to bring back the body that represents the promise of God and assures the purposeful relationship between the past, present, and future. Without the link between the promise (the telos of history) and the incarnate sign of the promise (the heir to the line of David), history cannot continue along its course. Only words remain and they are appropriated by Athalie and her followers to convert the faithful away from their former beliefs. The incarnate sign of the heir is replaced with simulacra of that sign. As a result, the play is filled with human doubles of the divinely ordained—the anti-God, Baal, the anti-priest, Mathan, and the anti-king, Queen Athalie. These doubles are meant to replace the forgotten God by capitalizing on the lost attachment between the word of the promise and the body of the heir.11

For example, in the second act, Athalie speaks to Abner and Mathan about the history of her reign. She begins by claiming that she did what she felt she had to do in slaughtering her progeny: “Ce que j'ai fait, Abner, j'ai cru le devoir faire” (II.5.467). Personal beliefs about morality and necessity (“j'ai cru le devoir faire”) replace the divinely instituted law. She justifies her breach of the law by arguing that because of her acts and subsequent leadership the realm has enjoyed calm during her reign:

Je ne prends point pour juge un peuple téméraire: […]
Le ciel même a pris soin de me justifier.
Sur d'éclatants succès ma puissance établie
A fait jusqu'aux deux mers respecter Athalie;
Par moi Jérusalem goûte un calme profond.


Athalie does not present her case as one meant to inspire faith or filled with promise for the future; on the contrary, she argues that her acts as queen speak for her. Athalie substitutes the political body, Jerusalem, for the divine body. She offers a peaceful, undivided nation, which would be subject only to human law and define its history through its past, to replace a promise of future redemption at an unknown time. In Athalie's historical model, political harmony in the present, due to prudent measures in the past, is the “end” of history.12

Because there is no impending future judgment and no appeal to others for judgment, Athalie's subjects are not tied to a moral law that regulates their actions. They can find success in her court through artful self-representation and dissimulation. Mathan admits to Nabal that he came to power by means of fashioning himself to reflect the members of Athalie's court:

J'étudiai leur cœur, je flattai leurs caprices;
Je leur semai de fleurs le bord des précipices;
Près de leurs passions rien ne me fut sacré;
De mesure et de poids, je changeais à leur gré.


Mathan ingratiated himself by getting to know the passions of those he wished to impress. He changed himself, then, in order to become more like the objects of his study; effectively, he became their double. Mathan's arrivisme demonstrates the manner in which representation supplants the real in this future-less history; through the creation of an image of the truth and a pretension to parity, Mathan becomes a member of the court of Athalie.

History built on dissimulation and doubles begins to crack in the play, however, as the incarnate sign of the promise, in the form of the hidden body of the heir, reasserts its presence. Both Mathan and Athalie are haunted by memories of the divine presence in history. Mathan says to Nabal in Act III:

Toutefois, je l'avoue, en ce comble de gloire,
Du Dieu que j'ai quitté l'importune mémoire
Jette encore en mon âme un reste de terreur.


Beneath the rhetorical surface of Mathan's persona, his soul is troubled by the memory of the God he abandoned; “un reste de terreur” cannot be eliminated. The historically real remains to terrify him in his world of representation. For her part, Athalie has recurrent nightmares where she is murdered by a young child: “J'ai senti tout à coup un homicide acier/ Que le traître en mon sein a plongé tout entier” (II.5.513-14). When she sees Eliacin (the name given to Joas by Josabeth and Joad), she recognizes the child of her visions. The representation of her dreams coincides with the real, forcing her to acknowledge a world order other than the one she wishes to represent.

The culmination of the play lies in the revelation of Eliacin's name and station as Joas the heir and the restoration of the visible sign of God's promise in history. The revelation begins when Athalie realizes that Eliacin is immune to the effects of her rhetoric. She tries vainly to convince the young Eliacin to come live with her. After questioning him thoroughly about his origins and receiving only responses filled with piety, Athalie proposes to Eliacin that he leave his bare existence as Joad's assistant and adopted son to live in splendor with her:

Vous voyez, je suis reine et n'ai point d'héritier:
Laissez là cet habit, quittez ce vil métier;
Je veux vous faire part de toutes mes richesses;
Essayez dès ce jour l'effet de mes promesses.
A ma table, partout à mes côtés assis,
Je prétends vous traiter comme mon propre fils.


Athalie's visible lack of an heir points to her own lack of a future, i.e., there will be no remaining incarnate signs of Athalie after her death. She offers herself as a substitute, reified God for Joas—complete with a set of promises replacing spiritual with material good. “Dès ce jour,” Joas could leave the temple for Athalie's worldly ends in order to be treated “as if” he were her child. Joas flatly refuses Athalie's offer, astonished at the verbal substitution of such a father (“quel père” II.7.699, which could be referring to God or Joad) for a mere representation of a mother.

Racine sets up the scene of the restoration of the heir as a drama within the drama which, through sacramental gesture and naming, converts Eliacin to Joas. Eliacin is set upon a throne and hidden behind a curtain to be revealed to Athalie. He is given the accidents of a king with “ce livre saint, ce glaive, ce bandeau” (III.8.1248), and, in preparation for the scene of revelation, he is consecrated by Joad with holy oil (IV.3.1411). These actions resonate with “le sacre du roi,” the king's coronation, as well as several of the Roman Catholic sacraments, more generally. Joas is then ‘resurrected’ in front of the people (V.5.1718), and proved to be the heir to the line of David through physical marks on his flesh (V.5.1720). Just as in the Catholic sacrament of communion, real presence is called back into history through this enactment. The scene revealing Joas' identity then dramatizes the reassignment of the word to the thing itself, giving history back its meaningful order.14 Josabeth, his adoptive mother, names him by saying: “De votre nom, Joas, je puis donc vous nommer.” and Joas responds with: “Joas ne cessera jamais de vous aimer” (IV.3.1419-20).15 With Josabeth's words, the telos of history is restored and the ordered future is once again assured. Joas signals this with his use of the future tense: “Joas ne cessera jamais …”.

Once the telos of history has been restored, the play seems to invite a typological reading of Joas where Joas' body would prefigure Christ. This is particularly indicated when, like doubting Thomas,16 Athalie recognizes Joas because of his scars:

Oui, c'est Joas; je cherche en vain à me tromper;
Je reconnais l'endroit où je le fis frapper;
Je vois d'Ochosias et le port et le geste;
Tout me retrace enfin un sang que je déteste.


Joas is known to Athalie through ‘le port,’ ‘le geste,’ and his scars. The heir to the line of David and the forerunner of Jesus is resurrected and recognized by his bodily marks, just as Jesus will be.

The typological reading becomes problematic, however, when we consider Joad's prophecy, from the third act. In his vision, he sees a priest of the temple lying murdered (III.7.1142-43). From the Bible story, we know that Joas as king will order Zacharie, the son of Joas and Josabeth, killed. At the end of the play, Athalie invokes this treachery by praying that Joas will repeat the tradition of atrocities that preceded him in his lineage.17 Through his future, murderous acts, we realize that Joas does not prefigure Jesus. Joas' betrayal of his adopted brother reveals, instead, that Joas is a figure of the murderous Cain.18 The scar on Joas' chest does not foretell Jesus' proof of his identity to the doubting Thomas—but is a return of the mark of Cain (“And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.” Genesis IV: 15).

This mention of the murderous acts of Joas serves to remind the reader or viewer of the play that the restoration of the divinely ordained future does not preclude the exercise of free will, for good or for evil, by the human actors in history.19 Along with the assurance of meaning in history comes the restoration of the law and the guarantee of judgment. Even the incarnate sign of the divine in history is subject to history's judgment. The last words of the play, spoken by Joad, are:

Apprenez, roi des Juifs, et n'oubliez jamais
Que les rois dans le ciel ont un juge sévère,
L'innocence un vengeur, et l'orphelin un père.


Joad proclaims the inevitability of a harsh judgment for those who, like Athalie, promote human ends instead of divine ones, or who, like Joas, forget the divine law in the service of their own interests. Through Joas' downfall, we once again witness the paradox of humankind's simultaneous possession of la gloire and la misère (to evoke Pascal's famous pairing). For the monarch, la gloire is found in his or her position as incarnate sign of the divine promise for history, and la misère lies in the assertion of private or political ends that do not lead towards future redemption. Thus, Athalie's status as glorious is derived from her position as mother who gave birth to the heir to the line of David, and as miserable, from her status as the murderer of most of her grandchildren. As for Joas, he possesses momentary glory as resurrected king, and then misery in the killing of his adopted brother.

With this in mind, we can see that Racine's play, through the vehicle of Old Testament history, provides an augury of a troubled future—without moral law and without meaning in history—if society loses sight of the presence of a divine order to history. By staging his play at a moment of historical crisis in the political and religious domains, Racine is able to articulate the dangers of exclusively political history as well as the ultimate triumph of religious history: all of Racine's viewers would have known that despite Joas' malevolant acts, the telos of Old Testament history was successfully fulfilled in the advent of Jesus Christ (at least as the Christian tradition sees it). Thus, the tragedy of history was averted within the temporal boundaries of the play as well as in its longer, teleological trajectory. This leads to another important question, however: did Racine intend his play to suggest the eventual triumph of Christian teleological history in his own day, when a similar crisis was underway?

Such a prediction of success was unlikely since Racine was probably aware of the waning power of Christian teleology. As Reinhard Koselleck has argued, the peace of Augsburg, more than a century before Racine's drama, signaled the beginning of the end of the Church's control over the future (23-24).20 Closer to Racine's day, Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes may have been an attempt to restore a unified religion in France with him presiding at its helm, but this attempt failed to restore the union of church and state that he had desired. Furthermore, Racine's return to an originary scene of division between church and state does not suggest that they can exist independently and peacefully within history. As Jean-Marie Apostolidès has argued about Athalie:

Il nous paraît aussi fructueux de considérer Athalie dans un contexte plus large, c'est-à-dire comme un objet culturel trouvant sa fin en soi. Vue sous cet angle, la pièce termine l'exploration des sources imaginaires de l'Etat en faisant un retour à l'origine. … Au moment même où le domaine politique doit se laïciser, comme l'ont montré les conséquences désastreuses de l'abrogation de l'édit de Nantes, cette tragédie revient au point de départ, comme pour mieux souligner la distance séparant désormais le rex du sacerdos.


Of equal importance, moreover, is the fact that religious historiography had also moved away from this teleological model by Racine's day. As Frank Kermode has aptly put it, “No longer imminent, the End is immanent” (25). That is to say, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had also influenced the theological interpretation of the concept of an “end-time,” shifting from the expectation of a future Apocalypse to an assertion of the continued presence of the divine within the present moment. Rudolf Bultmann demonstrates that such a shift had already happened numerous times throughout church history and the seeds of such an interpretation can be found in the gospel of John (48-49). He argues that one effect of this increased interest in the present is heightened attention to the sacraments—which, at least in the Catholic church and some reformed denominations in Racine's day, purported to bring divine presence into present history. Bultmann writes,

Two effects of sacramentalism were: (1) The interest of the believers was directed not so much to the universal eschatology, the destiny of the world, as rather to the salvation of the individual soul; to it a blessed immortality is guaranteed by the sacrament; (2) The powers of the beyond, which will make an end of this world, are already working in the present, namely, in the sacraments which are administered by the Church.


I would argue that Racine's play is sensitive to this shift in religious understanding and, in fact, provides an ideal example of a literary form that tries to represent divine presence in the present moment. The tragic form is a perfect medium for the representation of a pure present-time; even if the events depicted took place in the past, through its reenactment of those events, the play brings them into the present. Particularly in Athalie, Racine dramatizes this absolute “present-ness” by focusing on a moment when history seemed to have no future. Furthermore, the culminating moment of the play comes in the revelation of a hidden yet knowable divine presence within that present. In short, Racine's play embraces the vision of history that the sacramentalist model would imply. To this extent, we can conclude that Racine's play, while looking back to a kind of history that was of vital importance in the Old Testament, also reflects a late seventeenth-century model of religious history which responded to the particular changes of Racine's day.


  1. Undoubtedly, Hegel's Philosophy of History would prove to be one of the major, modern exceptions to this statement. I would suggest that Hegel's advocacy of a teleological model of history—where reason is the authority that discerns the purpose of history—resonates in interesting ways with Racine's (implicit) advocacy of teleology—where divine reason is the authority that discerns the purpose of history.

  2. Oscar Cullman defines Christian teleology in his book Christ and Time. He writes, “Because time is thought of as an upward sloping line, it is possible here for something to be ‘fulfilled’; a divine plan can move forward to complete execution; the goal which beckons at the upper end of the line can give to the entire process which is taking place all along the line the impulse to strive thither; finally, the decisive mid-point, the Christ-deed, can be the firm hold that serves as guidepost for all the process that lies behind and for all that lies ahead” (53).

  3. II Kings: 11, and II Chronicles (Paralipomènes): 22-23.

  4. The names of the Biblical characters are taken from the French version. In English, they have been translated as Athali'ah for Athalie, Ahazi'ah for Ochosias, Jo'ash for Joas, Jehosh'eba for Josabeth, and Jehoi'ada for Joad.

  5. This is not to say that the play exceeds the boundaries of a single day. The first act of the play is largely dedicated to describing how history has changed.

  6. Mitchell Greenberg discusses the use of the past to criticize the present when he distinguishes between history and historical tragedy: “History colonizes the past with the present, while historical tragedy represents the present as past” (53). Racine's play can certainly be categorized as the latter.

  7. See Robert Hill's essay, “Racine and Pentecost: Christian Typology in Athalie” for further discussion of the role of Pentecost in the play.

  8. If we think of Augustine's dictum, “ego sum, qui memini, ego animus” [“It is I who remember, I the mind” (X.16.25).], the “fatal forgetting” of the believers signals a double loss: of history and of self. To forget the divine plan for history is at the same time to forget the meaning that stems from the divinely-ordained relation between all things in the world, including one's self in relation to all other things.

  9. All references to Racine's work come from the Intégrale edition of Racine's Œuvres complètes.

  10. See Georges Poulet's chapter on Racine for an interesting discussion of the role of the interrogative in Racine's work.

  11. It is tempting to assign political meaning to this doubling, especially with regard to the Reformation and the proliferation of new faiths. See Jean Orcibal's La Genèse d'Esther et d'Athalie for an outline of how the political events in Athalie might be inspired by events in England in the mid-seventeenth century. Orcibal's account is rejected as improbable by Lancaster (301). There does not seem to be convincing evidence that Racine himself considered either of his biblical tragedies to be allegorical to contemporary events. Nevertheless, I would argue that the rhetoric and argumentation used to compel the public to one side or another of the religious camps of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (be they Jesuit and Jansenist, or Huguenot and Catholic) would be called to mind in the figure of Athalie, whether this was intended by Racine or not. It is undeniable that Racine's figure of a loss of hope during an age of a divided church would resonate with the public of his day. Probably, however, Racine would not have wanted the comparison to go much further, since these plays were written for Mme de Maintenon, of Huguenot descent, and, at the same time, could not offend Louis XIV, a Catholic king.

  12. See Jean-Marie Apostolidès' analysis of Athalie in Le Prince sacrifié for further discussion of the parallels between Athalie and the ancien régime. Apostolidès writes: “Athalie, le personnage négatif, est paradoxalement celui qui est le plus proche du monarque absolu d'Ancien Régime. Elle tente de gouverner sagement, a mis fin aux hostilités avec les pays voisins, est ouverte à la pluralité religieuse. Elle s'entoure de conseillers pris dans l'élite traditionnelle. Certains, comme Mathan, le prêtre rénégat, appliquent avant la lettre des maximes de gouvernement qu'on peut dire machiaveliénnes” (128).

  13. Mathan's words recall Pascal's pensée regarding the human willingness to live dangerously if one is deluded: “Nous courons sans souci dans le précipice, après que nous avons mis quelque chose devant nous pour nous empêcher de le voir” (n166-183).

  14. For an essay stressing upon the momentary nature of this restoration of history, see Erica Harth's article “The Tragic Moment in Athalie.

  15. Josabeth's naming functions as an interesting case of performative speech—her words effectively transform the body of Eliacin to the body and identity of Joas. See Stephen Fleck's article on speech act theory and Racine for a discussion of performativity in Racine's work.

  16. See John 20: 24-29.

  17. Conforme à son aïeul, à son père semblable,
    On verra de David l'héritier détestable
    Abolir tes honneurs, profaner ton autel,
    Et venger Athalie, Achab et Jézabel.


  18. Mitchell Greenberg, in a discussion of the role of children in Racine, captures the underlying effects of Joas' ancestry in his development into a murderer: “We are beginning to see the pattern of internal contradiction that emerges in Racine's theater and that focuses on the child. For in an obvious sense all Racine's characters are children and therefore all are monstrous. All bear the burden of a heterogeneous past that strives to free itself from its own heterogeneity, that strives for the realm of the absolute. It is this impossible denial, a denial that resurfaces in the violence of murder, of incest, of sexuality, that makes these children the victims of their secret monstrous origin, and coterminously makes this origin always the result of an even more primeval violence” (157).

  19. See Eléonore Zimmerman's book, La liberté et le destin dans le théâtre de Jean Racine, for a contrasting view of the role of free will in Racine's plays.

  20. On this subject, see also Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, and Rudolf Bultmann, The Presence of Eternity.

Works Cited

Apostolidès, Jean-Marie. Le Prince sacrifié. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1985.

Augustine. The Confessions. Trans. John K. Ryan. New York: Doubleday, 1960.

Bultmann, Rudolf. The Presence of Eternity. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957.

Cullman, Oscar. Christ and Time. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1950.

Fleck, Stephen H. “Barthes on Racine: a Different Speech Act Theory.” Seventeenth Century French Studies 14 (1992): 143-155.

Greenberg, Mitchell. Subjectivity and Subjugation in Seventeenth-Century Drama and Prose. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Harth, Erica. “The Tragic Moment in Athalie” in Modern Language Quarterly 33 (1972): 382-395.

Hegel, Georg. The Philosophy of History. Trans. J. Sibree. New York: The Colonial Press, 1899.

Hill, Robert E. “Racine and Pentecost: Christian Typology in Athalie” in Papers on French 17th Century Literature. 17:32 (1990): 189-210.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Koselleck, Reinhard. Le Futur-passé. Trans. Jochen Hoock and Marie-Claire Hoock. Paris: Editions de l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1990.

Lancaster, Henri Carrington. A History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century. Pt. 4. Vol. 1. New York: Gordian Press, 1966.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Orcibal, Jean. La Genése d'Esther et d'Athalie. Paris: Vrin, 1950.

Poulet, Georges. Etudes sur le temps humain: Mesure de l'instant. Volume 4. Paris: Editions du Rocher, 1968.

Racine, Jean. Œuvres complètes. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1962.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.

Zimmerman, Eléonore. La Liberté et le destin dans le théâtre de Jean Racine. Saratoga, CA: Amna Libri & Co., 1982.

Georges Forestier (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5657

SOURCE: Forestier, Georges. “The Racinian Hero and the Classical Theory of Characterization.” In Racine: The Power and the Pleasure, edited by Edric Calidcott and Derval Conroy, pp. 14-26. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Forestier discusses Racine's conception of characterization for the stage, focusing on his innovative contribution to the portrayal of tragic heroes.]

It is evident from a reading of Subligny's La Folle querelle ou la Critique d'Andromaque (1668) that the debate surrounding Andromaque immediately provoked contention regarding whether or not Racine was worthy of being considered Corneille's equal.1 As far as is known, it was never seriously considered that Quinault, despite his success, should even be compared to Corneille. In the case of Racine, however, the public genuinely felt that the young author had opened up a new path between Cornelian tragedy and la tragédie galante. Racine's new form, based on the tragedy of passionate love, was superior to la tragédie galante and could reasonably be compared to Cornelian tragedy. It is this aspect of passionate love that the first part of the preface to Andromaque (the extract from the Aeneid) set out to defend, and it does so by evoking the highest authority, Virgil. However, the second part of the preface, i.e. the preface proper, written by Racine, is entirely and exclusively devoted to the manner in which tragic roles are recreated for the stage, proving that contemporaries had clearly recognized that Andromaque's revolutionary quality also lay in its conception of characterisation.

Twentieth-century criticism of Racine, however, has generally concentrated on the preface purely as a basis for analysing and examining Racine's insincerity and his adroit deflection of charges against him by discussing issues that may not even have been controversial. Consequently, it is felt that Racine pretends to ignore the main reproach against him, namely that Pyrrhus's conduct towards Andromaque is no different to that of a courteous hero of a fashionable novel of the time. Instead, Racine deals with a niggling objection, one that may indeed never have been raised, and defends himself for having portrayed Pyrrhus as a little too brutal. Whence the argument judged to be supremely polemical:

J'avoue qu'il n'est pas assez résigné à la volonté de sa Maîtresse, et que Céladon a mieux connu que lui le parfait Amour. Mais que faire? Pyrrhus n'avait pas lu nos Romans. Il était violent de son naturel. Et tous les héros ne sont pas faits pour être des Céladons.

[I must admit that he is not sufficiently submissive to the wishes of his Mistress, and that Celadon was better versed than [Pyrrhus] in Perfect Love. But what can be done about it? Pyrrhus had not read our [French] Novels. He was of a naturally violent temperament. And not all heroes are cut out to be Céladons.]2

To which it is easy for one of the characters of La Folle Querelle to retort: ‘Je lui soutiens, moi, que Pyrrhus avait lu la Clélie’ [But I insist that Pyrrhus had read Clélie].3 It is true that Racine was accused of having portrayed a Pyrrhus for whom, ‘l'amour est l'âme de toutes ses actions’ [love is the motive for all his actions], a quality judged to be ‘indigne des grands caractères’ [unworthy of great characters].4 But he was also accused of the opposite, as the preface to La Folle Querelle illustrates:

M. Corneille, dis-je, […] aurait conservé le caractère violent et farouche de Pyrrhus, sans qu'il cessât d'être honnête homme, parce qu'on peut être honnête homme dans toutes sortes de tempéraments: et donnant moins d'horreur qu'il ne donne des faiblesses de ce Prince qui sont de pures lâchetés, il aurait empêché le spectateur de désirer qu'Hermione en fût vengée, au lieu de le craindre pour lui.

[I maintain that M. Corneille […] would have preserved the wild and violent character of Pyrrhus, without him failing to remain an ‘honnête homme’ because one can remain an ‘honnête homme’ with different kinds of temperament; and by giving less horror to the role than he accords to the weaknesses of this Prince, which are morally reprehensible, he would have avoided the spectators' desire to see Hermione get her own back on him, instead of fearing for his safety.]5

Thus it is evident that Pyrrhus was accused of being excessively ‘violent et farouche’ [violent and wild], qualities entirely inappropriate for a king, who must remain an ‘honnête homme’.

The first question raised by these contradictory criticisms concerns their interpretation. Can Pyrrhus be at once too galant and too violent? In effect, the contradiction is invaluable, as it prompts us to reflect upon Racine's work and to understand his innovative contribution to the portrayal of tragic heroes. Secondly, why does his argument deal only with one of the two criticisms levelled at him? Is it simply the manœuvre of a good polemicist? In fact, the question of whether it is necessary or not, in Racine's words, to transform ‘tous les héros de l'Antiquité pour en faire des Héros parfaits’ [all the heroes of Antiquity to make shining Heroes of them all],6 touches on one of the essential points of the poetics of tragedy: the relationship between bienséance (propriety) and the ressemblance (verisimilitude) of characters, a point which had proved to be an encumbrance for Corneille, but which Racine completely revolutionizes. In this way, the two issues become so closely linked that they form a single question.

In the seventeenth century, bringing a tragic role to the stage meant adhering to a complete series of criteria relative to his/her caractère (or what was referred to in the seventeenth century as his/her mœurs). These criteria had been defined by Aristotle and had been unanimously espoused by dramatists of the modern age, including Corneille.7 Based on the rhetorical typology of caractère, this series of specifications had proved itself over two thousand years, in judicial prosecutions as well as in the major literary genres, and none would have thought to question it. Three of these conventions were considered essential: convenance or bienséance, ressemblance and constance (consistency).8

Firstly, a tragic role must be bienséant, that is to say it had to conform to the human or social type to which it belonged. In chapter eight of his Poétique (1639), La Mesnardière wrote that it was necessary to

faire les Héros généreux, les Philosophes prudents, les Femmes douces et modestes, les Filles pleines de pudeur, les Ambassadeurs hardis, les Espions téméraires et peu soucieux de la vie, les Valets grossiers et fidèles: et ainsi des autres personnes, chacune selon sa fortune, son âge et sa condition.

[make Heroes magnanimous, Philosophers cautious, Women gentle and modest, Maidens full of modesty, Ambassadors bold, Spies hardy and reckless of life, Valets ungainly and faithful; and so on with other characters, according to their wealth, age, and condition.]9

Tragicomedy had progressively yielded to this convention since the controversy over Le Cid and criticism of the character not only of Chimène, whose conduct in front of Rodrigue was deemed inappropriate for a ‘fille pleine de pudeur’, but also of King Fernand whose perfunctory reaction, when informed of the threatened attack by the Moors, was considered unkingly. Consequently, in Andromaque, Oreste and Pyrrhus, respectively King of Argos and King of Epirus, must act in accordance with their royal status, which in the seventeenth century meant assuring the welfare of their kingdom, being généreux, and also being galant in love. As for Hermione, daughter of Ménélas and betrothed to Pyrrhus, she must act in accordance with the dignity pertaining to the status of princess. Secondly, a character must resemble the image which tradition has bestowed upon him/her. Thus, Oreste must be melancholy; Hermione, Racine's major borrowing from Euripides' Andromache, must be jealous and vindictive; and Pyrrhus, as Racine indicates in his preface, referring to Horace's Ars poetica, must be ‘farouche, inexorable, violent’ [wild, unyielding, violent].10 Needless to say, the ideal situation was one where a character was both bienséant and ressemblant, a situation which allows Andromaque to act freely both as a dignified and submissive captive princess, and also as the loyal and tearful widow of tradition. However, the extent to which these two conventions may prove to be contradictory in the case of the other three roles soon becomes evident. How can Pyrrhus, for example, a character on whom contemporary critics of Racine concentrated, be at one and the same time généreux and unyielding, galant and violent?

In his first Discours, Corneille had underlined the contradictory nature of bienséance and ressemblance, and judging it impossible to render them compatible, the only solution he found was to establish a system whereby these conventions were adhered to differently according to the type of subject:

Ainsi ces deux qualités, dont quelques interprètes ont beaucoup de peine à trouver la différence qu'Aristote veut qui soit entre elles sans la désigner, s'accordent aisément, pourvu qu'on les sépare, et qu'on donne celle de convenables aux personnes imaginées qui n'ont jamais eu d'être que dans l'esprit du poète, en reservant l'autre pour celles qui sont connues par l'histoire, ou par la fable, comme je le viens de dire.

[And so these two requirements, between which several interpreters are unable to distinguish despite Aristotle's uninformative insistence that a distinction should be observed, can easily be reconciled, but on the specific condition that they are separated from each other, and that the seemly roles be given to imaginary characters, whose existence was only ever in the mind of the poet, with the other requirement being matched by those who have been identified by history, or legend, as I have said.]11

Corneille's clever solution which, as we shall see, he did not apply in his own work, seems, in fact, to be the only possible solution. This is because the third Aristotelian convention, which demands that a character also be constant, or consistent, for the duration of the play, usually makes it impossible to solve the contradiction by alternating between bienséance and ressemblance. On this subject the most influential European theorist, the Dutch thinker Daniel Heinsius, explains: ‘If one begins by portraying a character as hard, cruel and volatile, he must remain in this disposition until the end of the tragedy’, unless, as he adds, the dramatist introduces a character who is by nature inconsistent, or unless, as in the case of Ajax, the character, during the course of the play, should temporarily lapse into madness before returning to reason.12

With all the above in mind, the extent of Racine's daring in the writing of Andromaque becomes obvious and the criticisms levelled at him much clearer. He dared to portray a Pyrrhus généreux and galant like a king of French tragedy, yet inexorable like his classical model. His Hermione is dignified and proud and never demeans herself by wishing for Andromaque's death, unlike the sterile, neglected and jealous matron in Euripides' play. However, like the Euripidean model, Racine's Hermione is also vindictive and jealous. Racine's Oreste conforms to his royal status and hesitates until the very end before assassinating another sovereign, but he also conforms to the tristis Orestes of legend, caught up in the throes of violent melancholy, which leads him ultimately to accept the idea of murder.13 Far from favouring bienséance over ressemblance, as most of his contemporaries did and which he himself had done in Alexandre le Grand, where few of the historical characteristics of Alexandre are evident, Racine did not hesitate to combine these two conventions despite their glaring contradiction. However, this was only possible by representing the third criterion of constance in a novel way. Given that the nature of passionate love is its irresistibility, its function becomes akin to that of Ajax's madness in that it permits a temporary rupture in the character's consistency. Thus Pyrrhus can be alternatively généreux and inexorable, galant and violent, in other words, inconstant, or inconsistent as dictated by the rhythm of passion's aberrations.

With his success in staging two-sided characters (i.e. variable and contradictory), Racine had forcefully challenged one of the pillars of dramatic poetics, the principle of bienséance, undoubtedly the most important remaining principle at a time when the question of the rules of unity had been resolved. Consequently, as he himself took pleasure in underlining, Racine had also run headlong into Cornelian and courtly conceptions of the perfect hero, which had derived from the epic and the heroic novel, and to which he had conformed in his first two tragedies:

Quoi qu'il en soit, le Public m'a été trop favorable, pour m'embarrasser du chagrin particulier de deux ou trois personnes, qui voudraient qu'on reformât tous les Héros de l'Antiquité, pour en faire des Héros parfaits. Je trouve leur intention fort bonne, de vouloir qu'on ne mette sur la scène que des hommes impeccables. Mais je les prie de se souvenir, que c'est n'est pas à moi de changer les règles du Théâtre. Horace nous recommande de dépeindre Achille, farouche, inexorable, violent, tel qu'il était, et tel qu'on dépeint son Fils.

[Whatever the case may be, the Public has been too indulgent to me for me to be seriously concerned by the distress caused to two or three particular people, who would like all the Heroes of Antiquity to be reformed into shining Heroes of today. I find their intention to put only perfect examples of behaviour on the stage entirely laudable, but I beg them to remember that it is not for me to change the rules of the Theatre. Horace urges us to portray Achilles as fierce, unmerciful, and violent, as he really was, and as his own son portrayed him.]14

While the Cornelian conception of the perfect hero is directly inherited from the hero of the epic (and of the novel and tragi-comedy), following the controversy over Le Cid, it was nevertheless validated by the pre-eminence accorded to the principle of bienséance of character. For a long time prior to his elegant 1660 theoretical solution to the articulation of bienséance and ressemblance (quoted above), Corneille had, in practice, privileged the principle of bienséance over ressemblance, whilst at the same time pushing the convention of constance to its limits. In addition, it was only in the case of historically virtuous or historically monstrous characters that Corneille applied his proposal for a theoretical distribution of conventions. However, each time one of his plots required a hero whose character was based on a doubtful past, bienséance took precedence over resemblance. The most striking example of this is the case of Nicomède, the parricidal king, whom Corneille depicts as a perfect prince, and who, contrary to historical fact, chooses to be led to his death rather than revolt against his father.15 As regards the manner in which he justifies his portrayal of Sophonisbe in the Avis au lecteur of the play of the same title, it is extraordinarily ambiguous (whilst at the same time revealing the same tendency).16 It is clear that alone amongst his predecessors and contemporaries, Corneille respects the principle of ressemblance. But in the name of what? In the name of what a seventeenth-century image of a Carthaginian heroine might be, in other words, in the name of bienséance!

In order to understand fully the extent of the break with the Cornelian and galant aesthetic, one need only examine the character of Hermione in Andromaque, in particular in the scene at the end of Act IV where Hermione and Pyrrhus meet. Hermione appears firstly as a typical Cornelian princess, not only in her refusal to lower herself by offering the slightest reproach to him who announces her rejection, but also in her constant ironic tone; she seems to have been directly modelled on the character of Éryxe from Corneille's Sophonisbe. However, from the moment that Pyrrhus answers her as though she were a Cornelian heroine (in summary, ‘forgive me for having being presumptious enough to think you loved me’), Hermione breaks down and becomes reminiscent of another model: i.e. that of Ovid's Heroides which is evoked in the informal address, insults, degradation, honest admission, jealousy, ultimate supplication, and veiled threat.17 More tellingly, when Hermione learns of Pyrrhus's death, Racine denies her any sense of avenged gloire, even if it were only to temporarily assuage her extreme distress. Subligny was precisely sensitive enough to this fact to criticize it by comparing it with the Cornelian model:

Enfin, [Corneille] aurait modéré l'emportement d'Hermione, ou du moins il l'aurait rendu sensible pour quelque temps au plaisir d'être vengée. Car il n'est pas possible qu'après avoir été outragée jusqu'au bout, qu'après n'avoir pu obtenir seulement que Pyrrhus dissimulât à ses yeux le mépris qu'il faisait d'elle: qu'après qu'il l'a congédiée, sans pitié, sans douleur du moins étudiée, et qu'elle a perdu toute espérance de le voir revenir à elle, puisqu'il a épousé sa rivale; il n'est, dis-je, pas possible qu'en cet état elle ne goûte un peu sa vengeance

[At least [Corneille] would have moderated the frenzy of Hermione, or rendered her vulnerable for a short time to the pleasure of being avenged. Because it is simply not possible after being insulted to the limit, after succeeding only in having Pyrrhus mask his contempt when actually talking to her; after being rejected by him without pity or remorse, after she has lost all hope, for her to see him return to her as the spouse of her rival; I repeat that it is simply not possible for her in this state not to savour to some extent her revenge.]18

It is clear from the first staging of the play that critics mooted the question of divergence from the Cornelian model, and therefore from the dominant norms, of the tragic heroine.

All this brings us to an analysis of the preface to Britannicus, where Racine continuously shelters behind Tacitus and at the same time justifies his portrayal of the character of Néron by the fact that ‘il ne s'agit pas dans [ma] Tragédie des affaires du dehors. Néron est ici dans son particulier et dans sa famille’ [my Tragedy is not about external matters. Nero is here in his private capacity, in the intimacy of his family].19 This has usually been perceived as bringing us to the crux of the rupture between the Cornelian and the Racinian aesthetic, not in relation to the concept of character, but in relation to the question of history and politics, as if Racine wished to underline that he was not trying to paint vast historical frescoes or to depict major political conflicts. Needless to say, if I deem it necessary to return to this well-worn interpretation it is because it seems to me to be based on a misinterpretation.

There is no doubt that there is a break with Corneille, but not in regard to the question of history and politics, not at least in Britannicus which is the play under consideration here. Once again, it is the conception of the tragic character which is at stake. This is immediately obvious when one compares Othon, Corneille's most recent tragedy, with Britannicus, its exact counterpoint. In both cases, according to Corneille ‘ce ne sont qu'intrigues de cabinet qui se détruisent les unes les autres’ [they are only closet conspiracies, which are mutually destructive].20 Also, in both cases power has been usurped, while clearly the place attributed to the ‘épisode amoureux’ is less ‘épisodique’ in Othon than it is in Britannicus. In short, a comparison of the two plays illustrates that maintaining the endless opposition between the two authors cannot be justified. The difference between the two poets, therefore, lies elsewhere.

Corneille constructed his characters from the image created by external circumstances. Othon, a debauched character of some notoriety, who had shared his wife with Nero, had subsequently presented an outward impression of being a virtuous provincial governor and also (for a short while) of being a righteous emperor. This allowed Corneille to apply the principle of bienséance without hindrance and to represent Othon as a perfect hero. Racine, however, constructs his heroes in the opposite way. Like Othon's final years, the early years of Nero's rule had created the image of a good emperor. But it was an outward appearance based on actions inspired by good counsellors, and the sequence of events tragically revealed that it was, in fact, just an image. Racine obviously uses this image, but he does so in order to contrast it to Néron's ‘true character’, which he could only reveal in his private surroundings, and the lengthy description of which in Tacitus provides the starting part for Racine.

As we have said, far from ignoring Néron's external image, inspired by Sénèque and Burrhus, the virtuous governors of the young emperor, Racine uses it as a counterpoint when Néron's ‘true’ character (the character as revealed through his ‘actions’) is revealed. The admirable scene in Act IV, where the tyrant, on the brink of committing a crime, yields to the tears of Burrhus, undoubtedly constitutes the most perfect illustration of the way the Racinian ethic works. The exceptional power of the scene derives from the fact that the ‘true Néron’ is placed face to face with his external image, which Burrhus tries to reflect, like a mirror, as though it were the true image of Néron's private self. Hence the ambivalence of this two-sided character, whom Racine characterizes in his celebrated formula: ‘c'est ici un monstre naissant’. This represents the essential characteristic which posterity has described as Racinian ‘psychology’: the dramatic principle of the two-sided character (which of course conforms to the ‘psychology’ of the latter half of the seventeenth century, based on the dialectic of mask and face).

We therefore have good reason to take seriously the conclusion to the preface to Andromaque, where Racine confirms his desire to apply to the letter the Aristotelian theory of the tragic flaw, which is linked to the conception of the imperfect hero. The tragic hero must be a virtuous man but capable of weakness. He is thus susceptible to committing an error, which provokes a calamity, and thus arouses fear and pity in the spectator. Clearly a subtle argument: Racine justifies his bending of the Aristotelian system of ‘character’ in the name of Aristotle. It is as though abandoning the perfect hero in favour of the two-sided character had allowed him to access the secret of the perfect tragic hero. Perhaps this preface was an a posteriori justification destined to silence all those who had criticized the behaviour of his principal characters. Whatever the explanation, the accidental merging of the two-sided character with the imperfect tragic hero would subsequently be exploited deliberately by Racine. From Britannicus it would become one of the bases of his formula for tragedy.

The subject of Britannicus, which is based on the subjugation of an innocent victim by an omnipotent tyrant, was the type of subject for which Aristotle had posed the problem of the tragic hero. According to Aristotle, pity is unquestionably the emotion elicited when the spectator is confronted with the undeserved suffering of an individual. However, at the same time, the vision of misfortune suffered by a completely innocent victim creates such an impression of injustice that it prevents all identification, on the part of the spectator, and gives rise to feelings which surpass fear and pity: repulsion and horror, that is to say a feeling that completely destroys the tragic pleasure. When Corneille dramatized the executioner versus victim plot (as in Rodogune, Héraclius, Théodore, Attila, for example), he had surmounted this difficulty by means of his dramatic art of the perfect hero. The heroic (and stoic) response offered by his heroes to oppression managed to replace repulsion by the modern feeling of admiration, in itself a combination of terror and pity. For Saint-Évremond, this was one of the reasons for modern tragedy's superiority over Greek tragedy.21

Having turned his back on the Cornelian principles of dramatic art in Andromaque, Racine was necessarily led, in choosing the subject of Britannicus, to reflect upon the way in which to oppose the executioner and the innocent victim. The technique of the two-sided character, introduced for the first time in Andromaque, allowed him firstly to mitigate the horror aroused by an outright tyrant, such as Tristan L'Hermite's Néron in La Mort de Sénèque. Hence the irony of his preface to Britannicus, in which Racine dismisses, one after the other, criticisms which held that his Néron had been depicted as too good or as too cruel. Hence the role he attributes to passionate love in the progressive unveiling of the monstrous nature of a character, who until then had carried out only virtuous actions, even if under the guidance of his good counsellors. At the same time, however, it was also necessary to moderate the extreme innocence of Britannicus: his excesses of love, fervour, candour and blindness result in him carrying out actions which, although innocently motivated, provoke the murderous wrath of the ‘monstre naissant’.22 In short, Britannicus is a hero who does not deserve his misfortune, but who is nonetheless partly responsible for it.

Apart from the specific experiment of Bérénice, this idea of the victim's part in his/her tragedy would consequently determine the representation of a significant number of Racine's heroes. It explains why, at the end of Bajazet, the innocent Atalide assumes complete responsibility for the tragic catastrophe before killing herself. It also explains, in the same tragedy, the variant which emphasizes Bajazet's guilt in his attitude towards Roxane. In the first performance of the play (1672), before he even considers himself ‘barbare, injuste, criminel’ (Act III. 4, l. 995), Bajazet declares:

Et je serais heureux, si je pouvais goûter
Quelque bonheur, au prix qu'il vient de m'en coûter.

(Bajazet, Act III. 4, ll. 943-4)

Later, in the 1676 and subsequent editions this became:

Et je serais heureux, si la foi, si l'honneur
Ne me reprochait point mon injuste bonheur.

This notion also explains why Mithridate, one of Racine's most admirable two-sided characters (apart from Phèdre), perishes because of the flaw of his own blindness. It explains the tragic nature of Agamemnon's role in Iphigénie, and finally, it explains the intense satisfaction of the poet who, in his preface of 1677, would describe Phèdre as the character ‘le plus raisonnable’ that he had put on stage.

However, in order to gauge exactly what Racine meant by ‘reasonable’,23 one must read what comes next:

Je ne suis point étonné que ce Caractère ait eu un succès si hereux du temps d'Euripide, et qu'il ait encore si bien réussi dans notre siècle, puisqu'il a toutes les qualités qu'Aristote demande dans le Héros de la Tragédie, et qui sont propres à exciter la Compassion et la Terreur. En effet Phèdre n'est ni tout à fait coupable, ni tout à fait innocente.

[I am not all surprised that this character had such success in the time of Euripides, and that it should have succeeded in our own time, because it has all the qualities that Aristotle demands of the tragic Hero, and which are conducive to the emotions of pity and terror. In fact, Phèdre is neither completely guilty nor completely innocent.]24

Phèdre effectively marks the end of a quest, a quest for the ideal tragic hero, who allows for the representation of the entire gamut of tragic emotions within the context of a tragic conflict. In short, Phèdre marks the accomplishment of the two-sided character, who emerged from the break with the system based on the rhetorical conception of ‘character’. And at the same time, Phèdre marks the apogee of the ‘Racinian psychology’ of contradiction, which for three centuries has been considered more natural than its Cornelian equivalent.

In conclusion, it is possible now to understand why, in his preface to Andromaque, Racine ignored criticism of Pyrrhus's galanterie—after all, this was only criticism regarding the degree of galanterie, since all tragic kings, as we saw, need to be courteous and galant according to the laws of bienséance. It also becomes clear why most of this preface is exclusively devoted to the problem of ressemblance. In fact, this issue sums up all the implications of Racine's revolution. It was a risk he could justify only in the name of the principle of fidelity to sources:

Mais véritablement mes Personnages sont si fameux dans l'Antiquité, que pour peu qu'on la connaisse, on verra fort bien que je les ai rendus tels, que les anciens Poètes nous les ont donnés. Aussi n'ai-je pas pensé qu'il me fût permis de rien changé à leurs mœurs.

[But to tell the truth, my characters are so well known from Antiquity, that if one is already familiar with them, it will easily be seen that I have presented them just as the poets of old did. Therefore I felt it was not legitimate to change anything in their behaviour.]25

In this respect Racine had support, dangerous support, which before long would be at the centre of another more general debate, known as the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. But that is another story.


  1. Subligny, Preface to La Folle Querelle, in Georges Forestier (ed.). Racine Oeuvres Complètes, I, Théâtre-Poesie, coll. de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1999).

  2. Preface to Andromaque, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 197. [The reference to Céladon is to the ‘héros galant’, and model of the ‘parfait amant’ in the famous novel Astrée (1607-28) by Honoré d'Urfé (1567-1625), completed by his secretary Balthazar Baro.]

  3. Subligny, La Folle Querelle, Act II. 9, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 280. [The reference to Clélie is to Madeleine de Scudéry's ten-volume novel, published between 1654 and 1660.]

  4. Ibid. (All italics are in the original).

  5. La Folle Querelle, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 262.

  6. Preface to Andromaque, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 197.

  7. Aristotle, Poetics, Ch. 15, ed. Russell, pp. 110-11. For a French edition, see R. Dupont-Roc and J. Lallot (eds), La Poétique (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980), pp. 84-5; Corneille, Discours de l'utilité et des parties du poème dramatique, in Couton, Corneille, 3; see especially pp. 129-33. Ch.15 of the Poetics is the one which Racine translated with most diligence. See Picard, Œuvres, 2, pp. 927-9.

  8. The fourth criterion, la bonté, will not be discussed here. For an analysis of its characteristics, see my Essai de génétique théâtrale: Corneille à l'œuvre (Paris: Klincksieck, 1996), pp. 222-3.

  9. La Mesnardière, Poétique (Paris: Antoine de Sommaville, 1640; repr. Geneva: Slatkine, 1972) p. 140. [First edition 1639].

  10. Preface to Andromaque, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 197.

  11. Couton, Corneille, 3, p. 132.

  12. Daniel Heinsius, De Tragœdiae constitutione (Leiden: Jean Baudoin, 1610), Ch. 1.

  13. Even when his passion has led Oreste to accept the idea of murder, Cléone's account of events in Act V. 2 reveals him to be unresolved until the very end. Furthermore his own account of events indicates that the Greeks set upon Pyrrhus before Oreste himself could intervene.

  14. Preface to Andromaque, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 197. The reference to Horace is to his Ars Poetica, ll. 120-2. See Horace, The Art of Poetry, in D. A. Russell and M. Winterbottom (eds), Ancient Literary Criticism. The Principal Texts in New Translations, trans. by Donald A. Russell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), p. 282.

  15. See also the elegant solution proposed in Cinna. The tyrannical and bloodthirsty image of Auguste is rejected in the accounts of the past that the conspirators give: each time Auguste is on stage (in fact from the moment he appears on stage), he presents an image of a perfect sovereign. For further analysis of the characteristics of Cornelian heroes, see my Essai de génétique théâtrale, Ch. 4, pp. 198-270. (For Auguste and Cinna, see pp. 212-15 and 225-9).

  16. Couton, Corneille, 3, pp. 382ff.

  17. See my article, ‘Écrire Andromaque. Quelques hypothèses génétiques’, Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France, 1 (1998), 43-63. See also my introduction to Andromaque in the Pléiade edition, pp. 136-8.

  18. La folle Querelle, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 262.

  19. Preface to Britannicus, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 372.

  20. Corneille, Preface to Othon, in Couton, Corneille, 3, p. 462.

  21. ‘J'aime à voir plaindre l'infortune d'un grand homme malheureux; j'aime qu'il s'attire de la compassion, et qu'il se rende quelquefois maître de nos larmes; mais je veux que ces larmes tendres et généreuses regardent ensemble ses malheurs et ses vertus, et qu'avec le triste sentiment de la pitié nous ayons celui d'une admiration animée, qui fasse naître en notre âme comme un amoureux désir de l'imiter. [I like to see the misfortune of a great man pitied; I like to see him draw compassion and tears from us, but I want those generous and understanding tears to take account of his misfortune and his qualities, and that with the melancholy feeling of pity we also have that of admiration, creating within us something like an affectionate desire to emulate him], Saint-Évremond, De la tragédie ancienne et moderne (1674), in Œuvres en prose, ed. by R. Ternois, 4 vols (Paris: S.T.F.M., 1962-9), 4, pp. 179-80.

  22. Love, fervour and blindness are among the main characteristics of the behaviour of the young, according to the traditional typology; these same characteristics, when excessive, can be the source of the ‘tragic flaw’, as Racine explains in his preface. For further detail, see my introduction to Britannicus, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 1418.

  23. Here ‘reasonable’ means appropriate (for tragedy).

  24. Preface to Phèdre, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 817.

  25. Preface to Andromaque, in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 197.

Christian Biet (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7183

SOURCE: Biet, Christian. “Women and Power in Britannicus and Bérénice: The Battle of Blood and Tears.” In Racine: The Power and the Pleasure, edited by Edric Calidcott and Derval Conroy, pp. 39-54. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Biet explores the aesthetic, anthropological, and ideological aspects of the motif of tears in Britannicus and Bérénice, focusing on the tears of the characters Junie and Bérénice.]

In a previous study on Racine, with a focus on the ‘passion of tears’,1 I was struck by the fact that the dramaturgical and emotional principle of tears was of primary importance in the majority of the Racinian tragedies, particularly in Britannicus, Bérénice, and Andromaque. Similarly, theatrical effects and their ideological consequences were connected in such a way that the tears of women, heroes and kings, and also the tears provoked by tyrants, constituted not only a significant issue but were also polysemic signs linking all Racine's plots. Although tears were initially characterized by an aspect galant, intended to attract a particular public, they rapidly outstripped this professional concern and came to signal ways of acting, of writing and thinking the body, of naming the passions, even of proposing access, albeit uncertain, to the divine. In this chapter, I want to develop my earlier analysis and attempt to understand the issues surrounding the aesthetic, anthropological and ideological motif of tears by focusing on the tears of Racine's female characters, and in particular those of Junie and Bérénice.


It is evident that, in his plays, Racine constructs the image of tears according to the public he seeks to attract. Racine is a great experimenter and, with almost every successive tragedy, changes or broadens his objective through his choice of subject and the aesthetic mode he adopts. His first play, La Thébaïde, allowed the young poet to gain a foothold in theatre by referring firstly to Greek tragedies (particularly those of Sophocles and Euripides), then explicitly to Aristotle (who, in his Poetics maintains that Œdipus Rex is the only truly tragic play),2 to Rotrou, and also, implicitly, to Corneille (Œdipe, 1659). Focusing La Thébaïde on the story of the entire house of Œdipus, Racine reveals how the Theban family is subject to a devouring libido dominandi, particularly between the frères ennemis, a theme to which he often returns. At the same time, the play succeeds in its aim of establishing the two essential tragic passions as recognized in the Poetics: terror and pity. In Alexandre le Grand and Andromaque, the two plays which followed La Thébaïde, pity takes on a more genteel aspect. With Alexandre, Racine seeks the approval and recognition of his sovereign by striking the right note of émotion galante so favoured by the ‘young court’. With Andromaque, he finds what would become his most faithful public, the socialite mondains, by adopting a plot borrowed from mythology and structured like a pastoral romance (A loves B who loves C who loves D …, in Barthes's now-famous formula), in which tears are the essential vector of the aesthetic developed. This prompted the galants and the mondains of a social élite, a considerable number of whom were women, to weep upon seeing the play thereby giving it all the appearance of success. Later, Britannicus provided Racine with an opportunity to convince an even wider public, more or less successfully, that his own weapon of sensitivity, allied to the technique of tears, matched Corneille on the latter's territory of Roman history. However, Racine's notion of pity, which he willingly acknowledged should feature in theatre, diverged somewhat from strictly held contemporary theories. For if the couple Junie-Britannicus is destined to arouse pity, the other couple, Junie-Néron, seems to be playing an entirely different game. Although this is centred on tears, the pity elicited is sometimes overwhelmed by a distinct sense of Schadenfreude, a point I shall return to below. Finally, with the creation of Bérénice, the significance of pity and tears changes once again. This time it seems Racine is anxious to rework his choice of a Roman setting for his tragedy. He also appears to want to push the question of dramatic simplicity even further, and to guide the spectator on a deeper, more complete, more troubling journey as regards pity and tears. Hence, he writes a tragedy of 1518 lines, adjusted to 1506 lines,3 with very little action, bloodshed or death, and with only the tears we find inventoried in the words of the three main characters. Indeed, all three express an ‘hélas!’ which is destined to become the play's emblem and which, in Antiochus's final line, is the very last word of the play.

If Racine's experiments in tragic dramaturgy are a bid for professional success, and designed to conquer an ever-wider audience, he also uses tears as a technique; similar to that used frequently by the religious in their intercessions, it is aimed at uniting the stage and the theatre, that is to say the characters and the audience, through a shared spirit of emotion. The sorrow and the chagrin of the stage character arouse the spectators' pity and move them to tears. The resulting elegiac tone reflects at once the characters' affliction and the spectators' compassion, allowing both to share in a compelling theatrical experience. Tears thus become a genuinely rhetorical effect and, in this case, a genuinely theatrical effect, a means of uniting the fictional characters with those watching them in the same physical, moral and aesthetic emotion. This process takes place firstly within a sort of courtly ceremony, but consequently, through the emotion aroused, achieves a moral effect which surpasses both pity and the pleasure of crying. In other words, from Aristotelian pity is elicited compassion, a moral and Christian emotion.

As eighteenth-century theorists noted, in particular Luigi Riccoboni in his Discours sur la comédie à l'impromptu (1721), Racine foregoes applause by exploiting silence and tears. In other words, by ensuring that the audience do not appreciate the aesthetic to the point of showing their pleasure, he guarantees that compassion, i.e. the link uniting the sorrow of the characters to that which the spectator might feel, is not compromised. Through the interplay of their glances and facial expressions, the actors create and maintain this link, and allow the public to participate in the experience of regret. The therapeutic function of tears can thus give rise to a sense of suffering which, paradoxically, is pleasurable and thereby provides a means of physically and morally tempering passions. Tears, however, are also signs; in this function they can indicate the extent to which both the idea of sin and the will to take the narrow and uncertain road to salvation are simultaneously present in the modern tragic system. Tears, in effect, can lead both to sin and to conversion, and it is mainly through his female characters that Racine represents this double aspect.

In Britannicus, Néron effectively attains the sweet and dark pleasure of making an innocent victim cry, and in this instance suffering can be viewed as a beautiful theatrical spectacle. But these same tears can also be transformed into the suffering which leads Junie to conversion when, in tears, she decides to enter the Vestals' temple and devote her life to God in an act of triple motivation: escape from the tyrant's threat, vengeance against Néron, and a gift of self to God. For Bérénice, tears lead to a decision to leave for a remote and pious life, and indicate the emergence of a divine emotion, when reason and the passions have failed. Consequently, from their tears as social signals to the divine tears of conversion, women are at the centre of the Racinian dramaturgical and ideological mechanism; by their very nature, they illustrate humanity's profound sensitivity more forcefully than men. Where Néron represents the cruel face of tyrants who revel in their power to make the innocent cry, where Titus is uncertain as to whether he should follow in the tradition of saintly kings and hesitatingly confines himself to regret and spontaneous, ‘natural’ tears, Junie turns to God through the sensuous and emotional vehicle of tears, while Bérénice takes a less defined route where tears will be the only way possible. The question remains, however, whether the characters can find salvation through tears, or whether they can only desire it without any real hope.


In the well-known example of Britannicus, Junie is physically at the centre of all attention. It is through her that the crisis begins insofar as Agrippine drops everything to present herself at her son's private apartments in the early morning in order to question him about Junie's imprisonment. Agrippine has waited for four acts to see him, just to see him, trying in vain to impose her lost power on him, and by-passing the grand protocol of formal entries, departures, and exits. It was the sight of Junie which was at the origin of Néron's superb phantasm: seeing a naked Junie arriving in the middle of the night, surrounded by the guards, he describes her as ‘Triste, levant au Ciel ses yeux mouillés de larmes’, and later adds, ‘J'aimais jusqu'à ses pleurs que je faisais couler’ (Act II. 2, ll. 387 and 402). It is precisely because of Junie and the phantasm he creates of her that Néron converts his political passion into a devouring amorous passion: originally he had intended to imprison her for political reasons but now he keeps her in his power for emotional reasons. Under his spying scrutiny (libido sentiendi), Junie finds herself moved to centre-stage, where he forbids her all discourse, wanting to manipulate her mind, body and soul in his favour. Throughout all this, the only resistance Junie can offer is her tears. In Racine ou La passion des larmes, I suggested how Néron-as-author, with recourse to traditional theatrical sequences and aesthetic rules, and by playing on diversity and tragic combinations, subjects all the other characters to his will and proves himself unassailable.4 He highlights, directs and tries to impose on Junie, a role he has composed for her by limiting her freedom. He thus obliges the most innocent character, the most external to the tragedy, to abandon everything which is authentically her or hers except her silence, which he also knows how to penetrate. However, through her suffering, Junie quickly learns the secrets of the theatre, to the extent that she manages to play Néron at his own game by making him suffer. This allows her ultimately to defend herself through her tears, and Néron, writer, author and actor, is powerless against God. He can enslave, poison, exile or destroy her loved ones, but he cannot counter Junie's free will to seek refuge with God.

To escape the confinement imposed on her by Néron, she can only choose that offered by God. Junie neither can, nor wants, to disguise her own tears, so much so that this Christian femme forte, as Racine's contemporaries fully recognized, imposes her virtue by embracing the Absolute. In one day she has learned the reality of the world and the theatre. She has learned that she was unable, or did not want, to play a role, even under duress, and could bear suffering but without being able to hide it (‘Je trouvais mes regards, trop pleins de ma douleur’ (Act III. 7, l. 1010)). She knows, therefore, that she must go even further with her newly found insight, and that she must leave this theatre and choose God instead of the persona that Néron offers her. More than death, her decision, taken in tears at the foot of the marble statue of Augustus (Act V. 9, l. 1749), to exile herself in the divine world, defeats Néron. Only then do the tyrant's ‘regards égarés’ (Act V. 9, l. 1778) become powerless, as does Narcisse's profane gesture, punished by the people in his guilty blood: the tears of the blessed confront the blood of the impious. Like a Christian heroine in communion with the people, Junie is protected by them in her desire to worship the Lord and escape from Evil. Her flight leaves an empty dramatic space for political, moral and religious questions. The final outcome remains unresolved, allowing Burrhus to say that it is still possible for the monster to mend his ways if he can be moved and show remorse. Consequently, the audience is enthralled and likely to be moved by Junie's piety, and even to show proof of Christian charity in the hope that Néron will redeem himself, thanks to the sacrifice of the innocent. Junie's character has, therefore, resisted both violence and the imposition of inappropriate trappings. This resistance to playing a role translates naturally into the exit of a character whom Néron had forced upon his stage in the intention of keeping her there. Hence, the Evil represented on-stage is contrasted with the Good off-stage.

But the theatre remains what it is, a contradictory representation which, through its exploration of cause and effect, seeks a complexity which frequently defies moral explanation. In fact, if Junie escapes from absolute evil, from the villain of the play and bloody tyrant which Néron is, it must be said that her tears are not simply an opportunity for the audience to sympathize. It would be naïve to deny that, even in the seventeenth century, the sight of Néron taking pleasure in seeing Junie cry is not without interest. Indeed, could it not be said that enjoying the sight of an innocent woman cry is not in itself a theatrical pleasure? For there is a dark pleasure in watching Racine's tragedies, an indignant horror mixed with a particular sweetness when, for example, we see Athalie resist to the death, or witness Néron impose his cruelty on all around him; it is a pleasure which is opposed to the pleasure of pitying, through tears, the victims' misfortunes. If we are saddened at Britannicus's death and reassured to know that Junie has taken refuge with the Vestals to live in tears and prayer for the rest of her life, we cannot but doubt both Agrippine's final hope and the wish expressed by Burrhus.5 As we know, Néron still has a long and cruel future ahead of him.6 Therefore, the seductive power of cruelty, which we experience upon watching another cry and taking pleasure in it, can be explained firstly by the horror with which we witness it, but also by its technique, its cold mechanism and its irresistible dynamic. What interests the spectator and reader even more, is to observe the way in which cruelty is vainly denied, and also, because it is repressed, the way in which it appears outside the text as an unspeakable violence. Because it is concealed, shut out and repressed, this cruelty is all the more audible, visible and present. Racine shows that cruelty does not and need not find expression in overstated performance, and that when it is tempered, mediated or silenced, an even greater cruelty is obtained, an absolute cruelty established by a subtextual, and therefore all the more perverse, mechanism. In Racine, cruelty, like God and Evil, is hidden and inexpressible. It is obvious then that without cruelty through tears, which is an evil, we would have little pleasure in governing, living, writing and reading, and very little enjoyment in pushing open the theatre's doors. I feel this point cannot be overlooked especially as, in Britannicus, it occurs as a representation of the fact, a mise en scène of this very pleasure, which enables spectators to see, over Néron's shoulder, an innocent female character in tears as well as an actress acting out the most perfect distress. In spite of all its prohibitions, and the ethical and therapeutic aspirations of tears, could it not be said that the theatre is the place where Evil takes place for the greater pleasure of the spectator, a pleasure which involves the feelings of fear, pity, compassion, and also Schadenfreude?


Although it is obvious from the very beginning of the tragedy, the decision to dismiss Bérénice is taken in the play's final scenes. These scenes are dominated by women, tears, politics, emotional outpouring, sorrow and disappearance, and end with the famous ‘hélas!’, the ‘grand mot’ of the up-dated sublime. At the risk of paraphrasing, I should like to revisit these concluding scenes of the play, and illustrate from a dramaturgical, political and emotional point of view the manner in which that final decision is taken, in order to elucidate the role played by tears in the play's ending. The question raised by these final scenes is how can the stage be emptied of its characters without any of them dying? How can the danger of suicide be transcended by a movement towards emptiness, or towards the aesthetic abstraction that must mark the play's finale? Flight, the nullification of signs, and the disappearance of the theatrical space all combine to represent only the memory of suffering, which is forever re-enacted, night after night and forever called on to go away.

Between the fourth and fifth scenes of Act V Antiochus speaks these words:

Qu'ai-je donc fait, grands Dieux! Quel cours infortuné
À ma funeste vie aviez-vous destiné?
Tous mes moments ne sont qu'un éternel passage
De la crainte à l'espoir, de l'espoir à la rage.
Et je respire encore? Bérénice! Titus!
Dieux cruels! de mes pleurs vous ne vous rirez plus.

(Act V. 4, ll. 1309-14)

After this address to the gods and to the two other characters the stage empties, as Forestier states in his edition, without even liaison de fuite or liaison de vue.7 Tension, therefore, is marked clearly and spatially by a divergence with theatrical convention, and the spectator, faced with this minor aesthetic transgression, is able to fear for Antiochus who, threatening to render his tears efficient, is in other words capable of suicide: the rage to hope would give way to a rage of despair, to the point that the tears of despair would force the doomed hero to end his days. But there is another consequence of this transgression. Spectators, who throughout the play have been aware of the strict adherence to the principles of liaison des scènes and liaison des actes, as well as the tragedy's continuity in time and in a single space that has never been empty, now have no solution other than to wait until someone enters the empty space, exactly as at the beginning of a tragedy. Paradoxically, what does fill the space is, precisely, emptiness. This void functions, therefore, both as a sign and as a prolepsis: it announces the dénouement and characterizes the entire tragedy.

This conclusion, based on a misunderstanding, can only be partial because nothing is yet resolved with regard to the main plot. The empty stage of Antiochus corresponds to the empty stage of the two lovers, and all that remains is to mix the two systems so that the stage is entirely empty once Antiochus, Bérénice and Titus are gone. It is, therefore, primarily a dramaturgical, even scenographic problem that Racine poses here: how does he achieve an entirely empty stage? As we know from the preface, in order to accomplish this the dramatist decides against violent means, and chooses the dramatic efficiency of tears.

The fifth scene begins with a word often used by Racine at the beginning of his tragedies, a ‘non’ spoken by Bérénice (Act V. 4, l. 1315), which expresses a refusal of the situation in which the character is trapped, and the will to decide in spite of the situation, which could also be referred to as cruel fate except that, in this case fate is explained by purely human and legal circumstances. The previous action is therefore played over again, and the stage continues to empty, but this time with Bérénice as the central figure instead of Antiochus. There are no words possible, no prolonging or arranging of time, no employable space, nothing, save for the exit of all the characters from the cabinet in which the tragedy takes place. It is as if everything which has been endlessly distended for five acts (speech, time and the occupation of a space whose only meaning lies in the past) has reached its limit; as though the mechanism of postponement, based on hardening recollections and therefore a sense of loss for words, places and past time, once faced with the emergence of the present political urgency could no longer be prolonged. The foreign queen no longer hears Titus's words, and only hears the angry crowd, while she herself sobs: ‘Tandis que dans les pleurs moi seule je me noie’ (Act V. 5, l. 1328). Earlier she claims, ‘Il n'est plus temps’ (l. 1319). In the end, the tragedy's very space has lost all meaning to the point that the queen, most unusually for a tragedy, is prompted to comment on the setting which, never before so clearly, no longer resembles a conventional stage set:

Je ne vois rien ici dont je ne sois blessée.
Tout cet Appartement préparé par vos soins,
Ces lieux, de mon amour si longtemps les témoins,
Qui semblaient pour jamais me répondre du vôtre,
Ces chiffres,(8) où nos noms enlacés l'un dans l'autre,
À mes tristes regards viennent partout s'offrir,
Sont autant d'imposteurs que je ne puis souffrir.

(Act V. 5, ll. 1332-8)

What this means from a scenographic and dramaturgical viewpoint is that the space of the cabinet, where the prince and the foreign queen met and where the tragedy occurred, can no longer exist. All that remains are traces and monograms of Titus and Bérénice, in other words the letters T and B intertwined, noble graffiti which no longer have any reason to exist and are only the cause of regrets because they refer to another time (‘cinq années’ as Titus indicates precisely in l. 1351), when a father reigned as sovereign and the prince was responsible only for himself. Following the sovereign's death and the prince's accession to power through hereditary rights, the décor-as-witness of the lovers' meeting place must yield to the outside world. In Titus's case this means Rome (the ‘sénat auguste’), and for Bérénice an unknown elsewhere. From tragédie galante, we have come to tragédie élégiaque via the political question. During the tragedy, space has been eviscerated in tears, in a great elegiac process of discursive postponement. Now the verse, which commented on the interlacing love of T and B, must also empty itself. Because it no longer has any purpose, except nostalgia, it must disappear in tears and in exclamations of ‘hélas!’

The play's finale marks not only the end of the dramaturgical experiment of valedictory postponement and the emptying of space, but also the end of discourse, as the rest of the text and the history of the variants indicate. In order for the elegy to continue indefinitely, Titus would have to take pleasure in watching Bérénice cry, and also cry himself (‘Quoi, dans mon désespoir trouvez-vous tant de charmes? / Craignez-vous que mes yeux versent trop peu de larmes?’, Act V. 5, ll. 1359-60). This is dramaturgically impossible, so the play must end. The most canonically acceptable ending would require either Bérénice or Titus, or both, to die, and indeed that seems exactly what is indicated in the letter that the queen gives him, if we are to believe what is said in Villars's La Critique de Bérénice.9 However, the violent spilling of blood is not acceptable in Racine's system, because everything must disappear, not in a simple and convenient action, but in a thinning-out which goes beyond elegy: it is the disappearance of places, times and words, more than that of the ‘life’ of the characters, which must take place. This may explain why, after the second performance, the letter was no longer read aloud; spectators no longer have any access to the expression of the will to die. They can no longer enter into Bérénice's words over Titus's shoulder, and the reading of her letter can only be replaced by a moment's silence. Suppressing the expression of the will to commit suicide without suppressing the idea (the audience knows that Bérénice wants to end her days once Titus, having read the letter, says so) amounts, once again, to the creation of a moment of expectancy and tension for the spectator who listens to the silence, or, rather, the silent reading. Furthermore, this dramaturgical device allows death to be suggested but not entirely expressed, as though something else must be imagined, stronger than blood, stronger than tender or valedictory tears: a total disappearance of the play and all its dramatic components, i.e. characters, time, space, speech.

If death is forbidden, then only silence or the indefinite prolonging of elegy and of Titus's hesitation remains. The spectator, therefore, watches an exceptional jeu de scène, rare in this kind of tragedy and thus very important for its interpretation. According to the stage directions, ‘Bérénice se laisse tomber sur un siège’ (end of V. 5), and does not speak again until the next scene, 105 lines later, if we exclude an ‘hélas!’, to which I shall return. What is happening? Firstly, a queen seats herself, an action which is in keeping with her role because, in tragedy, the act of seating oneself is a sign of mastery. However, this queen is also a lover under constraint (on Titus's orders, she cannot leave), and who ‘se laisse tomber sur un siège’, defeated and silent. This explains why her muteness, combined with her posture, produces a double effect. Firstly, her tears (as represented by her ‘hélas!’) provoke the tears of the spectator. On the other hand, through the physical and symbolic mastery of this posture and the emotion she is supposed to show, Bérénice is in a position to take the only possible decision open to her. She is herself emotionally moved, similarly moving others, falls silent, makes up her mind, and finally speaks. While Titus repeatedly replays the plot and threatens either to abandon his responsibility (which is expressly forbidden if he wishes to be virtuous) or to attempt suicide, thereby pleasantly mixing galant tenderness and elegiac distress, Bérénice remains silent and bears the signs of suffering as she sits in the centre of the stage. There is an identifiable link between tears and conversion, we have also seen that it is time for the play to end, that the space is disappearing, that the characters are fading or wish to die, and that discourse exists only between a silent character and a fairly stereotypical lover. A decision must be made, both for the characters and for the author; a conclusion must be envisaged and can be none other than a conversion to another world: political in the case of Titus, if not already accomplished, and an undefined world of suffering and tears for Bérénice.

But, prior to this, Racine imagines another dramaturgical challenge which proves the extent to which he sought to avoid a reversal or a ‘coup de théâtre’: Antiochus enters, declares himself a rival both in love and in générosité and, like Titus, leaves the decision to the silent, seated character who dominates the entire stage. Once tender love has failed, as have pity, blackmail, passion and threats, once the emotional outpouring has taken place and reason has only led to a series of hesitations, another noteworthy jeu de scène is presented: the distressed queen rises to her feet. Before this, as she listened to the princes, Bérénice, quite literally, sat in judgement. Vanquished and seated, she played the role of the weeping lover. Read by Titus, she saw herself denied a blood sacrifice; now she, in turn, can deny sacrificial death to the other characters.

Everything then seems to have failed: political reason firstly, because it has been moved into a private space which it cannot accept, which it can resist only by suppressing; so too has failed the galant and mondain plot, characterized by modish tears and by an a-historical vision of the classical Roman world, to such an extent that, even after crying, the happiness of escaping to a distant elsewhere with one's beloved remains inconceivable. Redemption through tears has also failed since sensitive tears resolve nothing, and only end in an elegy incapable of resolving the story which has been related. If the characters share a compassion for each other, and the spectator for all three of them, this compassion only leads to a splitting of judgements which favours all three roles. As it is impossible to decide which character has suffered most or who is most guilty, the plot cannot be resolved. Finally, the aesthetic establishment of the plot itself fails because the text once again finds itself at an impasse and is necessarily compelled to repeat the same passionate impulses in a flood of tears. In this great dramatic ceremony, the spectators and the characters are on the brink of sharing similar conclusions and of feeling together the same effects of their emotions through their collective crying. How then can the process be interrupted or ended? To what extent can it be preserved? Can the actors be expected to express such emotion indefinitely, and thereby provoke the risk of spectator fatigue?

In consequence, after the anger of Bérénice comes her written decision (not read aloud) to kill herself; after reasoning, Bérénice (seated as queen) has simultaneously examined both the situation and her feelings, has hesitated (defeated as lover) between blood and tears, before finally taking the decision to remove herself. Bérénice is a foreign queen, who, in spite of Racine, has difficulty hiding her past errors; indeed, Villars claimed that her exploits and incest were well known, to the point that he calls her the ‘Surannée’.10 She cannot fight against the fundamental laws of the kingdom or the Empire (the laws of succession, the right of primogeniture, and the inalienability of the royal domain); she can only resist as a private individual against the State, the Senate and Roman virtue. As she has no legitimate status in Rome, she considers, therefore, that after her tears of departure, she must accede to the determination to want nothing other than the complete effacement of her private state, expecting nothing more than the memory and example of a tragedy without bloodshed.

Suffering and suffering alone replaces all the other arguments of decision, and it is indeed this female character, foreign to Rome and to the State, who ensures the continued existence of this very State. In one move, Bérénice suppresses the opposition between the private place of the past and the public place of the present, between a happy a-historical time and the time of History, between galant discourse and royal discourse. It is thus seated that this female character decided to end the elegy and the play: Bérénice, the play, will be ‘un exemple de vertu inimitable’/‘an example of inimitable virtue’, as we read in La Princesse de Clèves,11 which echoes Bérénice's own brief summary of the tragedy. Bérénice, female character and foreign queen, external to Roman politics and outside History, knew how to end this tragedy by indicating through her tears that the difficult question to resolve is that of the soul and not politics, which, in itself, can be easily resolved (Roman law must triumph, as we know, from the beginning if we remain within the political domain). Bérénice transcends the plot by transcending her suffering, but in order to do so she must remove herself from the play and suppress place, time, and the political and romantic action, and, like Junie, go to a place where no one will follow her.

The question of the soul does not belong to tragedy, even if tragedy raises it, and it is by bringing this question into her private a-historical existence that Bérénice begins an inimitable journey after having been at the centre of a story of suffering. It is as if she had to trace an uncertain and distant path of salvation, which was unattainable in performance.


In Racine, women's tears are not solely galant or mondain, nor are they based on a simple or single emotion. Tears can be dangerous, or they can become a sign of perversity, of dark pleasure. Women's tears can give pleasure to those who cause them to flow or to those who see them flow: Néron enjoys Junie's tears before being defeated by their double power (they resist his enjoyment because they fight him and allow her to flee him), Bérénice accuses Titus of being charmed by her tears, and even the spectators themselves cannot limit themselves to pure and Christian compassion because they can also place themselves behind Néron. Because of the ambiguity of the feelings they signal (and of which they are the sign), tears are the anthropological witness to a way of showing feelings and, for Racine, a way to deepen meaning in his characters and to gain mastery of the spectators' response. Through tears, Racine shows that salvation may be possible, or rather that an inevitably troubled and uncertain way towards salvation is possible. As a therapy for passions, tears alone can contain emotional overflow, if sometimes only momentarily. Faced with Néron's political libido dominandi (the passion for dominating others), with his libido sentiendi (sensual passion), and with his amorous libido, Junie's only weapon are her tears, but initially she fails and reinforces the power of the passions. The power of faith remains, which, expressed in tears, allows one to glimpse the possibility of escape from the vanity of passions. But nothing says that the way is sure and that there again the efficacy of tears will not fail. However, even if Salvation cannot be known, tears are the only possible way to approach it or even to think of approaching it, if God decides it is possible. Even on stage, tears can change the heart and mind of the spectators, via compassion. It is then possible to attribute to them a moral, even religious efficiency. Given his religious position and Jansenist past, Racine must assume this if he wishes to avoid condemnation from Saint Augustine, Nicole and Port-Royal, so denying him and the theatre any right to, or possibility of, moral utility.

Racine must show that the ceremony of tears gives a chance to approach salvation or at least to indicate the way, because crying for Bérénice and with her, we do not cry for ourselves or for a lost love but for our own finitude.12 By showing Junie going to the Vestals to weep with God, and Bérénice in tears capable of taking a decision in the place of Titus and Antiochus, Racine moves the spectator and explains, or represents the fact, that emotion can lead those who cry, especially women, to a possible albeit uncertain representation of conversion and redemption. The audience, caught in the same tearful emotion, led by Junie as by Bérénice, can also take the same path, marked by the desire, intention and hope of salvation. After the despair and rationality, there is then a place for pure, useful emotion, for all parts of the theatre. But here again, the aesthetic mechanism, more apt, after a shared emotion, to incite reflection and distance, evokes again in the spectator uncertainty and judgement rather than an intimate communion with the characters.

It is as the hypothetical spectator, not being Bérénice, that ‘I’ cry for her, that I think about my own finitude, and that ‘I’ legitimately weep. It is because ‘I’ am not Junie, because ‘I’ cannot follow her to the Vestal convent, that ‘I’ realize my own failure. It is also because I take pleasure in seeing Néron enjoy Junie cry that I cannot reasonably envisage being holy or saved. These are the disappointing, even deceptive limits that Racine traces at the frontiers of his tragedies.

Tears, because they are emotional, are contradictory. They can be diabolical or show signs of holiness. Even if he realizes, and demonstrates, that they can be perverse, Racine must also show that they can mark a movement towards morality and salvation. As Saint Augustine said, ‘les larmes montent de l'abîme mystérieux de l'âme’ / ‘tears rise from the mysterious depths of the soul’, and the whole century knew that they can be a sign, sometimes false sometimes true, of conversion. They can also represent an invitation to a possible conversion for the audience and, through theatre, represent a step leading to something other than theatrical pleasure: meditation and contrition after the curtain has fallen. Through Bérénice and Junie, the spectator can think and meditate, leaving behind galant tears and ephemeral mondain pleasures, to convert their tears into moral and religious tears. It is important to understand here that Racine uses a technique of sacred rhetoric which Bossuet (who hated theatre) recommended, and which Bernard Lamy recommended to those who wish to stir in their audience a desire for conversion:

Les hommes ne peuvent pas remarquer que nous sommes touchez, s'ils n'apperçoivent dans nos paroles les marques des émotions de nôtre âme. Jamais on ne concevra des sentiments de compassion pour une personne dont le visage est riant: il faut avoir les yeux abattus ou baignez de larmes pour causer ce sentiment.

[People cannot notice that we are moved, if they do not perceive in our words traces of the emotions of our soul. Never would one feel compassion for someone with a happy countenance. A lowered countenance, and eyes bathed in tears are essential to evoke this emotion.]13

Through the dangerous and decried discipline of theatre, Racine demonstrates that his opponents are right to use tears; but, like them, he uses the same rhetoric and the same artifice, and for the right reason. If, as Saint Augustine says, tears are the ‘blood of the soul’,14 they are also the only way to find God. Obviously the problem is that Racine writes for theatre, a dangerous art that does not allow a single function for tears nor a single effect to ensue. Even if he thinks that it may be possible to separate himself from a sensibility which is solely human and galant in order to imprint on the soul, via tears, the necessity of morality and interest in virtue, Racine must also interest his audience, by showing on stage women crying, and must let his actresses seduce their captive audience with their feigned tears.

This is why Junie and Bérénice, representing female characters perhaps more sensitive than men, but above all conceived as external to the political intrigue (Junie is a political stake but has no political action of her own, and Bérénice is a foreign queen fighting against Roman law), can give a meaning to tears: a meaning at once private and apt to lead the spectator towards a reflection on the soul. If there is nothing to say that their sole status as women makes them more effective for this, we can infer, nonetheless, that it is because they are female characters that we can better observe the journey of their souls. Thus, more clearly than the other characters, they represent the status of all mankind.

Because they are different from Agrippine, for example, the roles of Junie and Bérénice are better suited to be at one and the same time objects for other characters and suffering souls who must decide their own way. It is impossible for Racine to glimpse the road to salvation without the necessary punctuation of tears, which is even more important than that of bloody sacrifice. Junie and Bérénice are not martyrs to be sacrificed but suffering souls, whose salvation is uncertain, and who nonetheless show that by refusing blood and taking the path of tears, it is possible to attain hope.

By observing this choice, the spectators can reflect on their own journey, can find themselves caught in their own enjoyment without escaping the pleasure but, by examining these examples, they can also convert their aesthetic tears into moral or religious tears, without knowing for all that if, by so doing, they will be saved.


  1. Christian Biet, Racine ou La passion des larmes (Paris: Hachette, 1996). [See also parallel treatments in Christian Biet, ‘Mithridate, ou l'exercice de l'ambiguïté: “Que pouvait la valeur dans ce trouble funeste?”’, pp. 83-98 and Suzanne C. Toczyski, ‘Two Sisters' Tears: Paralinguistic Protest in Horace’, pp. 221-9 both in Claire Carlin (ed.), La Rochefoucauld, Mithridate, Frères et Sœurs, Les Muses Sœurs, Actes du 29e congrès annuel de la North American Society for Seventeenth-Century French Literature, coll. Biblio 17, no. 111 (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1998)].

  2. Aristotle, Poetics, Chs 13 and 14, ed. Russell, pp. 106, 108.

  3. The edition of 1671 has 12 lines more than that of 1697.

  4. Biet, Racine ou La passion des larmes, pp. 67-79.

    Mais Burrhus, allons voir jusqu'où vont ses transports.
    Voyons quel changement produiront ses remords,
    S'il voudra désormais suivre d'autres maximes.
    Plût aux Dieux que ce fût le dernier de ses crimes!

    (Britannicus, Act V. 9, ll. 1785-8)

  6. Which makes reading Tacitus all the more pleasurable …

  7. Forestier, Œuvres, p. 1481; n. 1, p. 502.

  8. The word chiffres becomes festons in the 1697 edition.

  9. ‘Cependant l'amoureux Titus estime [la] vertu [de Bérénice], et se laisse tellement aveugler par l'amour qu'il a pour cette belle Surannée, que voyant dans le Madrigal Testamentaire qu'elle lui baille à lire, le dessein qu'elle a fait de mourir, il se détermine aussi à se tuer’ [But the amorous Titus respects [the] moral quality of [Bérénice] and allows himself to be so blinded by love for this lovely Lady of the Past that, recognizing in the Testamentary Madrigal that she offers him to read, her intention to take her life, he resolves also to kill himself’ (Forestier, Œuvres, p. 513. See also p. 1482, n. 2, p. 504).

  10. See n. 9 above.

  11. [The reference is to the last line of Mme de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves (1678).]

  12. Here Racine disagrees with Saint Augustine, Confessions, I, 13. See Biet, Racine ou La passion des larmes, pp. 129-30. (See Saint Augustine: Confessions, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 15-16.

  13. L'Art de parler (Paris: A. Palard, 1675), p. 66. See also Sheila Bayne's article, ‘Le rôle des larmes dans le discours de la conversion’, in La Conversion au XVII siècle, actes du colloque du CMR 17 (Marseilles: CMR 17, 1982).

  14. Sermo, 351, n. 7.

Derval Conroy (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8557

SOURCE: Conroy, Derval. “Gender, Power and Authority in Alexandre le Grand and Athalie.” In Racine: The Power and the Pleasure, edited by Edric Calidcott and Derval Conroy, pp. 55-74. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Conroy examines the dynamic between gender, power, and sovereign authority in Alexandre le Grand and Athalie.]

Attitudes towards women in power and women in authority permeate all forms of seventeenth-century discourse. While the debate concerning female sovereignty and female regency was at its most heated in the latter half of the sixteenth century, the reality of women in public government was kept very alive throughout the grand siècle both by the regencies of Marie de Médicis (1610-31) and Anne d'Autriche (1643-61),1 and by the reign of the neighbouring Christine de Suède (1632-54). Furthermore the issue of female governance was continually fuelled by the ongoing querelle des femmes, in which writers reflected on female ‘nature’ and capabilities, in order to support the idea of the superiority or inferiority of women, or the equality of the sexes. Parallel to this debate regarding women in authority, and their capacity to rule, a second discourse, separate from the first, although linked, concerned the exercise of power by women, or le pouvoir au féminin.2 Clearly many noblewomen played an extremely important role in court politics, either overtly as for example in the case of the frondeuses, or more covertly through their much-maligned intrigues and influence.3 In the figure of the queen (or in the case of contemporary France, the queen regent) became embodied overtones of both power and authority, nonetheless considerable for having been obscured from history.

Much seventeenth-century drama reflects the conflict in opinion on these issues; while many dramatists uphold the patriarchy to portray women as incapable of stable government, dangerous when in power, whose rightful place is one of subservience, other texts implicitly question male hegemony, overthrow seemingly fixed hierarchies, and present alternative realities, within which women either successfully and competently rule, imbued with an authority which is legitimately theirs, or within which their exercise of power is portrayed as a positive influence. Among the most obvious examples of strong, authoritative and powerful female sovereigns are probably those which feature in Corneille's work, a fact which has not escaped critics before now. However, despite the ubiquitous presence of the queen-figure in the Racinian corpus, a corpus in which moreover the theme of sovereignty is so often an important concern, the representation of female sovereignty or women in government has not, to the best of my knowledge, received adequate attention.4 The aim of this chapter then is to examine the dynamic between gender, power and (sovereign) authority in two plays where, to different degrees and in different ways, it is of considerable pertinence, namely in Alexandre le Grand and Athalie.

Any examination of this kind of dynamic requires definition of the terms concerned. The notion of gender then, as a conceptual category of analysis, hinges on an appreciation of the dynamics of sociocultural conditioning in defining what is appropriate behaviour for, and hence in constructing attitudes towards, both sexes. The concept of power, within the context of this chapter is used in two ways: firstly I use the concept in the precise sense as defined by Weber, in his classic distinction between power and authority. Power, for Weber, ‘is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests’. Authority on the other hand hinges on concepts of legitimacy, i.e. when a person has the legitimate ‘right’ to carry out his/her will.5 This then is what is meant by power and authority within the context of the plays themselves. However on a broader scale, I also draw on the Foucauldian definition of power as a network of relations which informs discourse.6 Since literature plays a role in the maintenance of hierarchical discursive relations, it is interesting to examine to what extent these two plays of Racine's can be seen to uphold or question the epistemological paradigms of the dominant discourses of the time.

Finally, the issue of power and authority necessarily evokes the theme of politics. Much ink has been spilt, as Pierre Ronzeaud's recent synthesis indicates, concerning the conflicting viewpoints of the importance of politics in Racine's œuvre.7 It is not the aim of this chapter, however, to enter into this debate, nor to analyse what Racine may have thought himself about female sovereignty. While clearly anxious not to reduce these plays to mere political statement, nor to see them naïvely as a transparent reflection of contemporary ideas, the following analysis aims to examine what role Racine attributes to Axiane and Athalie, and how their power or authority is represented.

Before analysing the representation of these two Racinian female sovereigns, Axiane and Athalie, it is necessary however to outline briefly the conflicting attitudes, alluded to above, which permeate seventeenth-century writings concerning women's power or their ability to rule, and which inform the backdrop of any seventeenth-century drama which discusses these issues. At the risk of simplification, what follows gives an idea of the two most extreme (but very widespread) viewpoints. As is well known, a falsification of the Salic law which excluded women from the French throne had been ratified as the first fundamental law of the state by the Paris parlement in 1593. This exclusion was justified throughout much political and legal discourse of the seventeenth century by a repetitive argumentation, marked by the same recurrent topoi. According to Cardin Le Bret, in a text which became the handbook of many theorists, Salic law was perfectly justifiable, since women were physically and intellectually weak and imperfect by nature, while men were endowed with courage, strength and judgement.8 Some years later, in his Testament politique, Richelieu elaborates the same idea and is clearly of the same opinion:

Le Gouvernement des Royaumes requiert une vertu mâle et une fermeté inébranlable. […] Les femmes, paresseuses et peu secrètes de leur nature, sont si peu propres au gouvernement que, si on considère encore qu'elles sont fort sujettes à leurs passions et, par conséquent, peu susceptibles de raison et de justice, ce seul principe les exclut de toute administration publique.

[The government of kingdoms requires masculine virtue and unwavering strength. […] Women, lazy and indiscreet by nature, are so little suited to government that, when one also considers that they are strongly subject to their passions, and consequently, little prone to reason and justice, this principle alone excludes them from all public administration.]9

While Le Bret and Richelieu may be the two best-known examples, they are certainly not the only ones: earlier Louis Turquet de Mayerne had also maintained that gynecocracy (i.e. female rule) can never be stable, since women are delicate and weak, subject to the sways of passion, and, unlike the male sex, bereft of royal virtues such as fermeté, prudence, and magnanimité,10 while in 1661 Jean François Senault takes another tack and highlights the opinion of ‘un grand nombre de Politiques’ regarding the pernicious consequences of the qualities which women do possess: according to Senault it is commonly held by these ‘Politiques’ that when women are admitted to, or called upon to assume, sovereign authority, they are ambitious and cruel, ‘fatales à leur Empire et funestes à leurs sujets’ [disastrous for their empire and fatal for their subjects].11 These few quotations, of which there are many other examples, illustrate the weight of what can be termed the exclusionist discourse. What becomes evident then is that the exclusion of women from the throne is justified and defended firstly through gender constructions based on an accumulation of essentialisms concerning women's ‘nature’—women, for example, are allegedly inconstant, fragile, malicious, false, rash, lascivious, ambitious—which constitutes the social and cultural construction labelled as Woman. It is furthermore justified through the mapping of a so-called natural order as patriarchal and paternalistic, and finally through the construction of sovereignty itself as exclusively male. The definition of the prerequisites for sovereignty in exclusively male terms results in the construction of sovereignty itself as exclusively male, and automatically excludes women. Essentialisms, and consistent use of binary opposites, combine to construct a reality whereby women are prevented from playing a public role by their inherent ‘natural’ flaws, and by their lack of ‘male’ virtues. In sum, the dynamics of what excludes them hinges on a fluctuating continuum between what women ‘are’ and what they ‘are not’.

There is of course the other side of the coin, which can be found in the writings of feminists such as Du Bosc, Le Moyne, Saint Gabriel, and Poullain de la Barre, all of whom maintain that women can rule. According to Le Moyne,

Les Estats ne se gouvernent pas avec la barbe, ny par l'austerité du visage: Ils se gouvernent par la force de l'Esprit et avec la vigueur et l'adresse de la Raison: et l'Esprit peut bien estre aussi fort, et la Raison aussi vigoureuse et aussi adroite, dans la teste d'une Femme que celle d'un Homme.

[States are not governed by a beard or by an austere facial expression. They are governed by strength of mind and by the vigour and skill of Reason; and a mind can be as strong, and Reason as vigorous and skilful, in a woman's head as in a man's.]12

Theories of intellectual and moral equality between the sexes are consistently toyed with, and are certainly not negligible in their attempt to redefine gender relations. They do, however, have to be treated with a certain caution, as one would treat a double-edged sword: while on the one hand these writings go a considerable way towards questioning the androcentric bias of society, on the other hand some (although not all) of their underlying principles can be seen to be as much of a disenablement as the exclusionist discourse, either once again founded on essentialisms such as douceur, délicatesse, portraying women as doubly strong and praiseworthy because ‘naturally’ weak, or relegating women to the sphere of the physical, the status of desired object, maintaining she rules by her beauty or physical traits.

As regards the ubiquitous discourse concerning the exercise of power by women, once again opinions are divided, although as with women in government the overriding attitude is negative. While on the one hand Louis himself warns his son against their pernicious influence,13 on the other hand feminists such as Gerzan are laudatory of the role they play, maintaining that promotion of men or of families often depends on the power-broking of their womenfolk.14

Against this backdrop, where, if anywhere, does Racine fit in? Examination of the representation of Axiane and Athalie may throw some light on the different ‘discursive elements’ concerning gender relations which surface, consciously or unconsciously, in Racine's work.15

It is a commonplace by now to say that traces of Corneille can be seen in Racine's early plays. However, while this Cornelian heritage in often perceived in terms of language or the portrayal of heroism, one of the most striking links is in the representation of women. What Harriet Allentuch has said of Corneille's women could equally be applied to many of Racine's early female characters. Allentuch maintains that ‘they pursue the characteristic Cornelian dream of complete self-mastery and strive like his heroes to shape their own destinies by the exercise of their will. […] They assert, in play after play, […] a desire to be judged by the same standards as men.’16 As the following analysis shall indicate, it is precisely in this fashion that Racine portrays Axiane, a figure doubly interesting since entirely invented by the dramatist, although one which seems to have largely escaped critical attention.17

One of the ways in which both dramatists accord their female characters greater autonomy is by refusing to restrict them to a ‘female’ ethic. Racine, as Corneille had done before him, transcends the discourse of what according to the bienséance is allowed for men and women; what are regarded as masculine and feminine universes may exist but they are not inhabited exclusively by the respective sexes. Male and female roles are reversed; the character most associated with douceur, usually perceived as a stereotypically female attribute, is Alexandre.18 Similarly, from the outset of the play it appears that far from embodying any allegedly feminine ethic, Axiane is on the contrary more easily aligned with a masculine military ethic. It is she who incites others to war. This becomes apparent from the very first reference to her, when Taxile describes her reactions to Alexandre's arrival (Alexandre le Grand, Act I. 1, ll. 71-6).19 Although his comments are marked by the neo-Platonist idea that women wield power through their beauty, an idea highlighted here by the language of galanterie used by her admirer, nonetheless her role is clear: ‘elle met tout en armes’. Porus later reiterates the same idea, reminiscing on how her beauty inspired neighbouring kings to battle.20 Interestingly, when it is given to Axiane herself to highlight her role, the emphasis on her beauty is dropped: although she is aware of the power she exerts over her two lovers, Racine nonetheless gives it to her to eschew the language which constructs her as an object of male desire, and which excludes her from the domain of real power. In her own speech, her emphasis is solely on her gloire. As she comments to Taxile:

Il faut, s'il est vrai que l'on m'aime,
Aimer la Gloire, autant que je l'aime moi-même …
Il faut marcher sans crainte au milieu des alarmes;
Il faut combattre, vaincre, ou périr sous les armes.

(Alexandre le Grand, Act IV. 3, ll. 1197-8, ll. 1201-2)21

The role she plays is clear, as she encourages Porus in his decision to fight (Act II. 5), announces her intention to try one last time to incite Taxile's men to battle (l. 667), and later tries to prompt Taxile himself to action (Act IV. 3, ll. 1225-8).

Despite this alignment with a military ethic, Axiane certainly does not fit into the often-eroticized myth of the warrior woman found in some contemporary representations of Zénobie and Sémiramis. However, it is precisely the fact that she is not a guerrière which makes her most interesting. Racine subverts the idea that the association of women with military values is only possible in portrayals of the guerrière; instead he constructs the dramatic reality of a woman whose sense of heroism and gloire is inextricably linked to a military ethic, but who does not actively participate in battle.22

Axiane's character is thrown into relief by its stark contrast with that of Cléofile, whose value system is a direct antithesis to that of the Indian queen, and who represents the embodiment of sovereign Reason.23 (Cléofile, as is well known, tries throughout the play to convince her brother Taxile not to fight Alexandre, with whom she is in love). Nowhere is this antithesis more apparent than in Act III. 1 which sees a confrontation between the two women. Resonances of enclosure, of control, and of the association of women with the interior, or private sphere, are evident from the opening lines of this central act when Axiane, furious, discovers that she has been confined within Taxile's camp:

Quoi, Madame, en ces lieux on me tient enfermée?
Je ne puis au combat voir marcher mon Armée?

(Alexandre le Grand, Act III. 1, ll. 685-6)

The enormous divide between the two women is clear as Cléofile's argument that Taxile is only worried about Axiane's safety (implying that the battlefield clearly is no place for a woman), and that she can be tranquil and safe within the camp, evidently only further infuriates Axiane.24 The confrontation with Cléofile can be read also as the confrontation of two ethics, one militarist, one pacifist, both represented here by a woman—further evidence of Racine's subversion of concepts of gendered universes; while there may be two opposing ethics, they are not gender-specific.

Axiane is also clearly an antithesis to Taxile, whom she openly castigates and even mocks throughout the play. Her sense of heroism is implicitly contrasted with his in III. 2 and in IV. 3 when she is evidently disgusted by his hesitancy to act (ll. 781-4 and 1229-32). She is aligned in the play only with Porus. This notion of an equality between them, an equal sense of gloire (misguided though it may be),25 is highlighted in her monologue in Act IV. 2 where, believing Porus to be dead, she maintains that she too will seek death; as she says of Alexandre, in an apostrophe to Porus:

Il me verra, toujours digne de toi,
Mourir en reine, ainsi que tu mourus en roi.

(Alexandre le Grand, Act IV. 1, ll. 1031-2)

For Axiane, to die as a queen is the same as to die as a king, i.e. with one's gloire intact. She perceives her refusal to accept Alexandre's peace and her quest for immediate death as of an equal stature to Porus's death on the battlefield, since she perceives their gloire as of equal proportions.

Axiane's sense of heroism clearly influences her attitudes towards her throne and her sovereignty, attitudes which subvert the received idea of women's ambition and thirst for power. Axiane is furious when Taxile implies that her throne would become a gift from her enemies, and that her reign would hinge on an obligation to Alexandre: it becomes clear that she would rather not reign at all, than reign under those conditions (ll. 807-10, ll. 815-16). Interestingly, both Cléofile and Alexandre misjudge Axiane; both believe that Axiane, when offered what Cléofile calls ‘l'empire’ (l. 834) and what Alexandre refers to as ‘trois diadèmes’ (l. 870), will accept Taxile as a husband. Neither fully understands the importance to her of her gloire, and how she perceives it. Further light is thrown on the issue when she distinguishes between her own ambition and that of Alexandre, juxtaposing the fact that she and Porus were satisfied with their own states, with his policy of conquest, which, echoing Porus (ll. 529 ff.), she criticizes (ll. 110 2 ff.). This comparison is important since it further illuminates Axiane's motivations and makes her more sympathetic a character. Racine ensures that we do not accept unequivocally the portrait of the proud, hard, inflexible queen which the others paint of her, and points to the ambiguities within her character. Not only does her tirade to Alexandre implicitly support the idea that her militarism is associated more with a defence ideal, a defence of her states and her subjects,26 but in addition her reference to Porus, and their mutual feelings (‘charmés l'un de l'autre’) indicates to what extent Axiane embodies not only a military ethic, but also an affective ethic. Furthermore, while her character for the most part hinges on the dynamic between the two, it seems at times, certainly in her monologue in IV. 1, that her love for Porus is more important to her than her gloire:

J'expliquais mes soupirs en faveur de la Gloire,
Je croyais n'aimer qu'elle. Ah pardonne, grand Roi,
Je sens bien aujourd'hui que je n'aimais que toi.

(Alexandre le Grand, Act IV. 1, ll. 1010-12)

Through the alleged loss of Porus, Axiane then reaches a greater self-awareness.27

What ultimately defines Axiane, however, lies not in her militarism, nor in her love for Porus, but in her sense of self. In Alexandre's invitation to her to continue reigning (ll. 1166-9) and to reassure her states by choosing a husband (i.e. Taxile), Racine reminds us of the very common topos that an unmarried queen cannot reign on her own but must marry.28 However, the dramatist imbues Axiane with a self-determination which overrides even her interest in her throne, and which is most clearly revealed in her resistance to the patriarchal order, her refusal to conform. While she never insists on her right to reign alone, she does, nevertheless, refuse to marry a man she does not love. Even when Taxile is finally provoked by her insults to reply with a vague threat, that her fate and indeed states, are essentially in his hands (ll. 1237-40), it falls on deaf ears; she continues her defiance until the very end—clearly preferring death to subjugation (ll. 1251-2), still railing against her confinement in the camp (l. 1397), challenging Alexandre (ll. 1448-50, ll. 1461-4), and refusing to be used as an object of barter or exchange.29 Even after Taxile's death, Axiane is prepared to die, proclaiming her love for Porus (ll. 1543-6). Her autonomy as a person transcends even her role as sovereign, and as a young unmarried woman she can be read here, in the same fashion as Anne M. Menke has read the seventeenth-century widow, namely as ‘a site of resistance to the political and sexual economies’.30

What makes this refusal even more remarkable is that it affects everyone. One of the criticisms aimed at Racine when this play appeared, and indeed to which the dramatist replied in his preface, was the idea that Alexandre was depicted as of lesser heroic stature than Porus.31 The central character of the play has usually been seen to be one of these two or, more unusually, Cléofile.32 However, it is arguable that much of the power is in fact in the hands of Axiane. Not only does she exert a large influence over Taxile and Porus and their respective fates, but most interestingly Cléofile and Alexandre are also implicated in her actions: Axiane's decision concerning Taxile indirectly affects the possibility of Alexandre's marriage to Cléofile. As Alexandre comments, regarding Taxile:

Et puisque mon repos doit dépendre du sien
Achevons son bonheur pour établir le mien.

(Alexandre le Grand, Act III. 6, ll. 983-4)

Since Cléofile's marriage requires Taxile's consent (l. 957), Alexandre's happiness depends on Taxile's, which in turn depends on Axiane. If Alexandre can persuade (or force) Axiane to marry Taxile, the latter would be more likely to favour the union between Alexandre and his sister. Cléofile, who initially persuaded Taxile not to fight Alexandre, and feels responsible on this account for the fact that her brother incurred Axiane's scorn, is equally aware of the potential consequences of Axiane's refusal on her own fate. As she comments regarding her brother:

Tant que Porus vivra, que faut-il qu'il devienne?
Sa perte est infaillible, et peut-être la mienne.
Oui, oui, si son amour ne peut rien obtenir
Il m'en rendra coupable, et m'en voudra punir.

(Alexandre le Grand, Act V. 1, ll. 1333-6)

Twice Alexandre appears to grant Taxile power over Axiane (l. 869 and ll. 1418-20), but it becomes clear that it is an empty power (just as Alexandre's own power is consistently thwarted by Axiane since he insists in channelling it through Taxile); potentially bereft of her states, a virtual prisoner, Axiane is nonetheless empowered by her refusal. It is she who, at the centre of this chain reaction, is the controlling mechanism. It is in fact only Taxile's death—the elimination of the element which Axiane refused to accept—which finally restores Alexandre's power to him in the final scene. The dynamics of power then shift, as Alexandre decides the fate of Axiane and Porus. What is particularly interesting about this fictional universe, is that while Axiane's power throughout the play could have been portrayed as a negative force, leading ultimately to her own death if Alexandre had not spared Porus (since she was determined to die with him), and allowing her self-determination and triumph only in death, Racine on the contrary allows this young rebellious queen to triumph alive. That this triumph is a necessary corollary of Racine's insistence that the real subject matter of the play is the générosité of Alexandre,33 cannot entirely deprive it of significance. We are nonetheless presented with a portrait of this central figure as a defiant and independent queen, an agent of her own destiny and to a large extent that of others, who insists on her autonomy as an individual as any male hero would. While her capacity to rule is not explicitly discussed, this entirely invented souveraine is depicted as successful and capable, interested in the defence of her states; she is a character who exemplifies none of the qualities common in exclusionist argumentation, who does not rule solely through douceur, and whose representation subverts both gender constructions of woman, and the concept of sovereignty as male. In a century in which women are clearly excluded from the throne, it seems to me that Racine manages to create a dramatic universe which presents an alternative reality to that which predominates in the political, legal and even feminist discourses, without creating an exceptional or ‘male’ heroine.

If gender is implicitly an issue in Alexandre le Grand, it is clearly explicitly so in the powerful representation of the eponymous Athalie. While Axiane seems to have been much neglected by critics, Athalie's characterization, and moreover Athalie's depiction as sovereign, has certainly not escaped recent critical attention. What is most remarkable about the characterization of Athalie is the vast discrepancy between the reported discourse concerning her, and the impressions we receive of her both through her own speeches and through her actions on stage. It becomes clear in fact that Athalie's character can be analysed as a triptych of clearly demarcated (although interlocking) portraits: firstly the queen as she is represented by her enemies, secondly as she represents herself, and finally as she appears on stage—a triptych therefore which, broadly speaking, focuses on Athalie as monster, as sovereign and as woman. It is along these three lines that this analysis shall proceed.

The images of the queen which predominate in the first act (which are all reported since of course Athalie is entirely absent throughout the act) are those of a bloodthirsty, vengeful figure. In describing the massacre of the princes, Josabet comments:

Un poignard à la main l'implacable Athalie
Au carnage animait ses barbares Soldats,
Et poursuivait le cours de ses assassinats.

(Athalie, Act I. 2, ll. 244-6)

Racine reminds us of this role of hers by reiterating the same gory image later, referring to her preparations to attack the temple with her troops (l. 1537). References to her rage, her cruelty and her fury pepper the text, as do allusions to her as impie, insolente and injuste. The monstrosity of her actions is highlighted since the princes were her own descendants: Athalie is not only a murderer but an infanticide—‘une mère en fureur’ (l. 1295). She has (in the past at least) smothered all maternal instinct, and has acted against ‘Nature’. Her own maternal lineage is frequently evoked pejoratively by her opponents, who refer to her as ‘de Jézabel la fille sanguinaire’ (l. 59), ‘cette autre Jézabel’ (l. 761) and ‘de Jézabel la Fille meurtrière’ (l. 1329). This portrait of Athalie, hardly surprisingly one propagated by her enemies, contrasts hugely with the Athalie whom we initially see in the play; this contrast is itself highlighted by the differences between her reported entrance into the temple in Act II. 1, and her actual entrance in Act II. 2 and account of the same incident. In Zacharie's account, her violation of convention is highlighted:

Une Femme … Peut-on la nommer sans blasphème?
Une Femme … C'était Athalie elle-même.
Dans un des parvis aux hommes réservé
Cette Femme superbe entre le front levé,
Et se préparait même à passer les limites
De l'enceinte sacrée ouverte aux seuls Lévites.

(Athalie, Act II. 3, ll. 395-6, 397-400)

The idea of spatial, religious and gender transgression (the latter emphasized by Racine's use of anaphora) are highlighted by Joad's immediate outburst,34 which apparently she greets with an ‘œil farouche.’

All this contrasts radically with her actual arrival on stage, clearly a distracted and anxious figure. Her opening words are of trouble, faiblesse, and impotence (‘je ne puis’); she appears dependent on her male advisers (sending for Mathan immediately, and later insisting that Abner stay), and in constant pursuit of peace which clearly escapes her (ll. 435-8). It also contrasts with her account of her visit to the temple, in which it becomes clear that she was motivated by ‘la frayeur’, and by instinct, anxious not to blaspheme (as Zacharie (l. 408) had earlier presumed), but to pacify the god of the Jews by offering him gifts (ll. 526-9). What is reported then as her defiant transgression in one account becomes the efforts of an anxious woman to ward off danger in her own account (not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive). While flashes of Athalie's authority and pride continue to appear throughout this first appearance of hers (II. 3-II. 7), nonetheless the overriding image is one of confusion and anxiety. To what extent this second portrait is essentially one of Athalie as stereotypical Woman is a point to which I shall return below. Suffice to say here that by continually reminding his spectators that the images of Athalie as monster are belied by the anxious, troubled character with which we are presented for the most part, Racine highlights the ambiguities in Athalie's character, and manages to evoke considerable sympathy for his heroine.35

The third aspect of Athalie's characterization, the queen as sovereign, plays a vital role in her self-definition and representation. As Grégoire indicates in a stimulating article concerning the patriarchal law in Esther and Athalie, the monarchical maxim of ‘une foi, une loi, un roi,’ to which Racine adhered is unwittingly undermined by another reality throughout these two plays which could be summed up as ‘des fois, des lois, des reines’.36 In this respect, her key speech of II. 5 is particularly revelatory, and merits lengthy quotation:

Je ne veux point ici rappeler le passé
Ni vous rendre raison du sang que j'ai versé.
Ce que j'ai fait, Abner, j'ai cru le devoir faire.
Je ne prends point pour juge un peuple téméraire;
Quoi que son insolence ait osé publier,
Le Ciel même a pris soin de me justifier.
Sur d'éclatants succès ma puissance établie
A fait jusqu'aux deux Mers respecter Athalie.
Par moi Jérusalem goûte un calme profond
Le Jourdain ne voit plus d'Arabe vagabond
Ni l'altier Philistin, par d'éternels ravages,
Comme au temps de vos Rois, désoler ses rivages;
Le Syrien me traite et de Reine et de Sœur.
Enfin de ma Maison le perfide Oppresseur,
Qui devait jusqu'à moi pousser sa barbarie,
Jéhu, le fier Jéhu, tremble dans Samarie;
De toutes parts pressé par un puissant Voisin,
Que j'ai su soulever contre cet Assassin,
Il me laisse en ces lieux souveraine maîtresse.
Je jouissais en paix du fruit de ma sagesse.

(Athalie, Act II. 5, ll. 465-84)

In her version of past events, there is no elaborate justification of her past actions, but rather a brief indication that she was motivated by a notion (misguided or other) of duty (l. 467). Elaborating some scenes later, she justifies her actions in terms of vengeance—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—and self-defence:

Oui, ma juste fureur, et j'en fais vanité,
A vengé mes Parents sur ma postérité. […]
Où serais-je aujourd'hui, si domptant ma faiblesse
Je n'eusse d'une Mère étouffé la tendresse,
Si de mon propre sang ma main versant des flots
N'eût par ce coup hardi réprimé vos complots?

(Athalie, Act II. 7, ll. 709-10, ll. 723-6)

As Bruneau comments, ‘[elle] n'a fait que obéir à la loi juive du talion’.37

Secondly, what also becomes apparent in II. 5 is that contrary to Joad's perception (l. 73), Athalie clearly perceives herself not as the usurper but rather the legitimate ruler, an idea with which seventeenth-century political thought would have concurred. In the many seventeenth-century political treatises which broached the questions of tyranny, usurpation and political legitimacy, it was commonly upheld, as is well known, that a usurper whose reign was successful became in time legitimate.38 Racine ensures that what emerges from Athalie's speech is precisely the image of a successful recent reign, which she in turn interprets as divine justification of her actions, and hence proof of her legitimacy.39 References to the success, power, respect, calm, peace, wisdom of the queen are juxtaposed with the mention of the ravages of previous kings, a juxtaposition underlined by the subversion of the roi/père topos of patriarchal thought to reine/sœur. It is of further interest to note that this success is depicted as founded on political skill and ability: Athalie has created a situation politically, through the creation of a powerful alliance, which Jéhu cannot change, and which protects her and her subjects from him. The authority of this souveraine maîtresse, and the association of her reign with peace and calm, clearly do not spring from any male-constructed so-called female douceur but rather from her political skill. Certainly, no description of any reign could be more opposed to the common topos of female government as being synonymous with chaos and disarray, le monde à l'envers. Later in the scene a certain political astuteness is once again hinted at, as she outlines what appears to be politically expedient tolerance in her treatment of the Jewish priests:

Vos Prêtres, je veux bien, Abner, vous l'avouer,
Des bontés d'Athalie ont lieu de se louer.
Je sais sur ma conduite et contre ma puissance
Jusqu'où de leurs discours ils portent licence.
Ils vivent cependant, et leur Temple est debout.

(Athalie, Act II. 7, ll. 593-7)

Aware of the priests' criticisms of her and her power, she turns a blind eye, prepared to allow different creeds within her kingdom in order to maintain stability. However, Athalie is not prepared to do so any more if pushed to the limit, and is unafraid to exercise her authority and to ensure she is obeyed; as she comments to Abner, ‘Je puis, quand je voudrai, parler en Souveraine’ (l. 592).40

Be that as it may, apart from rare flashes of authority such as this, it is clear that for the most part, Athalie's political skill is portrayed as an attribute of the past, to be implicitly contrasted with her political errors of the present.41 Her considered and swift judgement is now replaced by fatal indecision, a metamorphosis due less to her dream than to her encounter with Joas. While clearly disturbed by her dream (which explains the inhabitual behaviour to which Abner (ll. 51-2) referred to), she is also aware of the dangers, and orders Mathan to round up her Tyrian mercenaries (ll. 615-16). However, it is following her encounter with Joas that she most hesitates, giving rise to Nabal's and Mathan's comments regarding ‘ses voeux irrésolus’ (l. 869) and ‘son courroux chancelant, incertain’ (l. 885)—an indecision all the more surprising since she is aware that Joad knows more about Joas's origins than he pretends (ll. 909-10). It is the physical presence of Joas apparently that has altered Athalie. It is left to Mathan to sum up this change:

Ami, depuis deux jours je ne la connais plus.
Ce n'est plus cette reine éclairée, intrépide,
Elevée au-dessus de son sexe timide,
Qui d'abord accablait ses ennemis surpris
Et d'un instant perdu connaissait tout le prix.
La peur d'un vain remords trouble cette grande âme.
Elle flotte, elle hésite, en un mot: elle est femme.

(Athalie, Act III. 3, ll. 870-6)

Athalie was then, in the past, beyond her sex (here constructed by Racine as the weaker); according to her adviser (and, it would seem, to Racine), her fearlessness, political awareness and astuteness are qualities that are essentially beyond women, just as success as a sovereign is not a female prerogative. Athalie is exceptional to her sex, in a way Axiane never was. Where Athalie was in the past beyond her sex, she is now stereotypical Woman, identifiable by her hesitancy and fear.

This idea of her being beyond her sex is constructed within the play along two (related) axes. Firstly she is perceived as exceptional and can rule solely because she plays a male role; secondly it is precisely in smothering all so-called female instinct that she succeeded as she did. As we have seen, she herself has earlier referred to her necessity to smother all maternal instinct; it is the interview with Joas which awakens it:

Quel prodige nouveau me trouble et m'embarrasse?
La douceur de sa voix, son enfance, sa grâce,
Font insensiblement à mon inimitié
Succèder … Je serais sensible à la pitié?

(Athalie, Act II. 7, ll. 651-4)

Nonetheless, lest spectators become too sympathetic towards his anti-heroine, Racine incorporates elements of her own greed and vanity into her downfall. To my mind, however, it is debatable what importance should be attached to her greed (which prior to Act V merits one brief mention (l. 48)) in her entrance into the temple;42 it seems on the contrary that Racine, having built up considerable sympathy for Athalie, not least by his (unwitting?) portrayal of the so-called original legitimate order as represented by Joad as intolerant and fanatical, needs now to justify her death, and so once again emphasizes her pride and greed.

Ultimately, what defines Athalie is not her depiction as monster, or as sovereign, or as woman, but a complex interplay of all three. On one level, it is arguable that she dies because she is no longer a ‘monster’, because she allows her smothered so-called emotional feminine qualities to resurface and decide her actions. According to Grégoire, as a ‘man’ Athalie could rule; however ‘redevenue femme’, and therefore caught up by her emotions, she can no longer enforce the royal law.43 This return to her so-called femininity is signalled not only by her maternal reaction to Joas, and her trouble, but also by her loss of political astuteness which Racine reflects in her lack of wariness regarding what all seventeenth-century theorists warned consistently against: the perfidious, flattering adviser.44

On another more profound level though, it can be argued that Athalie dies not because of her return to what essentially is a gender construction of Woman, but rather because she is, in reality, a woman in power, a threat to the patriarchy which must be removed. As Bruneau indicates:

si Athalie est exclue par les Juifs, c'est bien sûr parce qu'elle sert d'autres dieux que le leur, mais d'une autre façon bien plus rédhibitoire, parce qu'elle est femme et qu'elle échappe à la domestication patriarcale et à la symbolisation monothéiste.

[if Athalie is excluded by the Jews, it is of course because she serves other gods than theirs, but in another more damning way, because she is a woman and because she escapes patriarchal domestication and monotheist symbolization.]45

Furthermore, in sacrificing her to the patriarchy, Racine paradoxically questions its tenets. According to Grégoire, Racine weakens both the prestige of the patriarchal order and its law, and paradoxically invites reflection on the nature of power, and those who exercise it.46 Despite Athalie's sometime power, she finishes stripped of both her sovereign authority and power, and is subverted back into the patriarchy by the dénouement of the play: it is through the dénouement then that Racine ultimately upholds the patriarchy.

Now while the purpose of this chapter is certainly not to compare these two radically different plays, it does seem justifiable to say that what was possible to dramatize as a reality in 1665 no longer was the case in 1691. Nonetheless, I cannot agree with Jean Dubu, who maintains that Athalie clearly indicates that women are unable to exercise political power.47 While that is ultimately what the dénouement implies, we cannot neglect the constant references to the past success of this souveraine. In fact, one of the ambiguities of the play is that Racine has in fact demonstrated that women can rule. What he seems to imply, however, is that they should not. Theory and practice unwittingly collide.

To conclude very briefly, it seems to me that the exclusionist discourse examined at the beginning is, to varying extents and in different ways, undermined by these two plays of Racine's. In this respect Racine joins a host of other playwrights who, consciously or unconsciously, question the epistemological paradigms of the dominant discourses of their own society. The ‘known fact’ that women cannot rule is challenged, the fact that women are ‘by nature’ excluded from power is therefore challenged, and alternative possibilities are presented.


  1. While Anne d'Autriche's regency ended officially on 7 September 1651 at the declaration of the majority of Louis XIV, she nonetheless continued to run the country with Mazarin until the latter's death in 1661.

  2. For a wide-ranging appreciation of the forms these powers took, see Danielle Haase Dubosc and Éliane Viennot (eds), Femmes et pouvoirs sous l'ancien régime (Paris: Rivages, 1991); Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier and Éliane Viennot (eds), Royaume de fémynie. Pouvoirs, contraintes, espaces de liberté des femmes de la Renaissance à la Fronde (Paris: Champion, 1999), and XVIIe siècle, 144 (1984).

  3. See Ch. 10, ‘Women in Political and Civic Life’ in Wendy Gibson, Women in Seventeenth-Century France (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 141-67.

  4. One notable exception is Anne M. Menke's article ‘The Widow Who Would Be Queen: The Subversion of Patriarchal Monarchy in Rodogune and Andromaque’, Cahiers du dix-septième, 7. 1 (1997), 205-14. On the dynamic between power and authority, see Simone Ackerman, ‘Roxane et Pulchérie: Autorité réelle et pouvoir illusoire’, Cahiers du dix-septième, 2. 2 (1988), 49-64. On sovereignty, see for example Timothy J. Reiss's ‘Banditry, Madness and Sovereign Authority: Alexandre le Grand’, in Sylvie Romanowski and Monique Bilezikian (eds), Homage to Paul Bénichou (Birmingham, AL: Summa, 1994), pp. 113-42.

  5. See Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, trans. and ed. by Talcott Parsons (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

  6. See for example Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (Brighton: Harvester, 1980), p. 198.

  7. Pierre Ronzeaud, ‘Racine et la politique: la perplexité de la critique’, Œuvres et Critiques, 24. 1 (1999), Présences de Racine (Tübingen: Gunter Narr), pp. 136-58.

  8. Cardin Le Bret, De la Souveraineté du Roy (Paris: Jacques Quesnel, 1632), p. 31.

  9. Richelieu, Testament politique ou Les Maximes d'Etat de Monsieur le Cardinal de Richelieu (Paris: Complexe, 1990), pp. 31-2. (This text was probably written between 1630 and 1638 and, although unpublished at the time, would have circulated in manuscript).

  10. Louis Turquet de Mayerne, La monarchie aristodemocratique, ou le gouvernement composé et meslé des trois formes de legitimes Republiques (Paris: J. Berjon, 1611), pp. 59, 62.

  11. Jean François Senault, Le monarque ou les devoirs du souverain (Paris: Pierre le Petit, 1661), pp. 43-4.

  12. Pierre Le Moyne, Gallerie des femmes fortes (Paris: A. de Sommaville, 1647), p. 10. On the debate regarding gender and reason, particularly the idea that reason in women could prevent societal decay, since anti-violent and anti-militarist, see Timothy Reiss, ‘Corneille and Cornelia: reason, violence and the cultural status of the feminine; or how a dominant discourse recuperated and subverted the advance of women’, Renaissance Drama, 18 (1987), 3-41.

  13. ‘Dès lors que vous donnez la liberté à une femme de vous parler des choses importantes, il est impossible qu'elles ne vous fassent faillir. La tendresse que nous avons pour elles, nous faisant goûter leurs plus mauvaises raisons, nous fait tomber insensiblement du côté où elles penchent, et la faiblesse qu'elles ont naturellement leur fait presque toujours prendre le mauvais parti’ [Whenever you give a woman the opportunity to talk to you about important matters, it is inevitable that you will be misadvised. The tenderness we feel for them inclines us to accept their worst reasoning, making us adopt their own point of view, and their natural weakness always makes them follow the wrong course of action]. Mémoires pour l'année 1667, cited in Marie-Odile Sweetser, ‘Les femmes et le pouvoir dans le théâtre cornélien’, in Pierre Corneille (Paris: PUF, 1985), pp. 605-14 (p. 606, n. 4).

  14. François Du Soucy, sieur de Gerzan, Le Triomphe des Dames (Paris: chez l'autheur, 1646), pp. 143-5. See Carolyn Lougee, Le Paradis des Femmes: Women, Salons and Social Stratification in Seventeenth-Century France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 48-9.

  15. I use the idea of discursive elements as defined by Foucault in his conception of discourse: ‘We must conceive discourse as a series of discontinuous segments whose tactical function is neither uniform nor stable. To be more precise, we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies. It is this distribution that we must reconstruct’. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Vol. 1, trans. by Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978), p. 100.

  16. Harriet Allentuch, ‘Reflections on Women in the Theater of Corneille’, Kentucky Romance Quarterly, 21 (1974), 97-111 (p. 97).

  17. For a critical bibliography of the play, see Jean Racine, Alexandre le Grand, ed. Michael Hawcroft and Valerie Worth (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1990), pp. xlvi-l.

  18. See for example ll. 185, 803, 1030, 1125. This association is of course further underpinned by a general contemporary move away from a military ethic towards one of pacifism, or away from heroism towards tendresse and galanterie.

  19. Les beaux yeux d'Axiane, ennemis de la Paix,
    Contre votre Alexandre arment tous leurs attraits.
    Reine de tous les cœurs, elle met tout en armes,
    Pour cette liberté que détruisent ses charmes,
    Elle rougit des fers qu'on apporte en ces lieux,
    Et n'y saurait souffrir de tyrans que ses yeux.

    (Alexandre le Grand, Act I. 1, ll. 71-6)

  20. C'est vous, je m'en souviens, dont les puissants appas,
    Excitaient tous nos Rois, les traînaient aux combats.

    (Alexandre le Grand, Act II. 5, ll. 651-2)

  21. See also Act IV. 3, ll. 1225-8.

  22. This is not to say of course that Racine necessarily applauds a military, or violent, ethic. On the contrary, as Timothy Reiss has shown, throughout Alexandre le Grand, Racine continually highlights the devastation and destruction inherent in any such ethic. See Reiss, ‘Banditry, Madness and Sovereign Authority’, passim.

  23. Ibid., p. 123.

  24.                                         Et c'est cette tranquillité
    Dont je ne puis souffrir l'indigne sûreté.
    Quoi lorsque mes sujets, mourant dans une plaine,
    Sur les pas de Porus combattent pour leur Reine,
    Qu'au prix de tout leur sang ils signalent leur foi,
    Que le cri des mourants vient presque jusqu'à moi,
    On me parle de Paix, et le Camp de Taxile
    Garde dans ce désordre une assiette tranquille.

    (Alexandre le Grand, Act III. 1, 703-10)

    She later adds ‘Ab de ce camp Madame, ouvrez-moi la barrière …’ (728).

  25. See Reiss, ‘Banditry, Madness and Sovereign Authority’, pp. 125-8 on the idea of false glory within the play.

  26. See also Act IV. 3, ll. 1226-7, where she incites Taxile to avenge their freedom and to defend their respective thrones.

  27. It has often been remarked upon that there are no confidentes in Alexandre le Grand, and that it can be therefore more difficult than usual for spectators to pinpoint the characters' motivations or feelings (see for example Hawcroft and Worth (eds), Alexandre le Grand, pp. xxvi-xxvii). Racine then seems to attach a certain importance to Axiane by according her the only lengthy monologue in the play (48 lines), which does allow us to a certain extent to understand her character better. (The only other monologue in the play is Taxile's brief eight lines in Act IV. 5, which likewise nuances his character, since it is the first time we see him stirred to action.)

  28. This recurrent theme in exclusionist discourse was adhered to among others by Bossuet: ‘le peuple de Dieu n'admettoit pas à la succession le sexe qui est né pour obéir; et la dignité des maisons régnantes ne paraissoit pas assez soutenue en la personne d'une femme, qui après tout était obligée de se faire un maître en se mariant’ [Christian people did not admit to rights of succession members of the sex which is born to obey; and the dignity of ruling houses did not appear to be adequately maintained in the person of a woman, who, in the last analysis, had to recognize a master when she married], Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Politique tirée des propres paroles de l'Ecriture sainte ed. Jacques Le Brun (Geneva: Droz, 1967), p. 58.

  29. See ll. 1429-70; while this passage (omitted in later editions) is somewhat ambivalent, her seeming acceptance (l. 1447) is undermined by the threats and challenges with which it is followed; furthermore since it becomes clear that she does not save Porus, it would seem that she adheres to her refusal.

  30. Menke, ‘The Widow Who Would Be Queen’, p. 205.

  31. According to Saint-Évremond for example, ‘Il paraît qu'il a voulu donner une plus grande idée de Porus que d'Alexandre.’ (Saint-Évremond, Dissertation sur le grand Alexandre, in Forestier, Œuvres, pp. 183-9 (p. 183)). For Racine's reply, see Forestier, Œuvres, p. 126.

  32. For Cléofile's role, see Philippe Lacroix, ‘Le langage de l'amour dans Alexandre le Grand de Racine’, XVIIe siècle, 146 (1985), 57-67 (p. 61), and Reiss, ‘Banditry, Madness and Sovereign Authority’.

  33. Forestier, Œuvres, p. 26.

  34. Reine, sors, a-t-il dit, de ce lieu redoutable,
    D'où te bannit ton sexe et ton impiété.

    (Athalie, Act III. 3, ll. 404-5)

  35. Bruneau concurs with this idea when she indicates how Racine undermines the biblical version of the story by allowing Athalie to give her own account, and by representing her opposing clan as ‘méchant, injuste, fanatique et contradictoire’. See Marie-Florine Bruneau, Racine, le jansénisme et la modernité (Paris: Corti, 1986), pp. 125-7. See also Zimmermann (La Liberté et le Destin, pp. 137-9), who highlights the unease within the play, and the similarities between the orders which Joad and Athalie represent.

  36. Vincent Grégoire, ‘La femme et la loi dans la perspective des pièces bibliques raciniennes représentées à Saint-Cyr’, XVIIe siècle, 179 (1993), 323-36 (p. 323).

  37. Bruneau Racine, le jansénisme et la modernité, p. 130.

  38. As Bossuet comments, ‘[Des] empires quoique violents, injustes et tyranniques d'abord, par la suite des temps et par le consentement des peuples peuvent devenir légitimes.’ [Empires which are violent, unjust and tyrannical initially, can in time and with the consent of the people become legitimate] (Politique tirée des propres paroles, p. 50).

  39. The situation is of course made more complex by the sacred context of the play. On legitimacy see Zimmermann, La Liberté et le Destin, pp. 40-1.

  40. For a similar analysis of Athalie as monarch see Bruneau (Racine, le jansénisme et la modernité, pp. 127-31) and Jean-Marie Apostolidès Le Prince sacrifié (Paris: Minuit, 1985), p. 128. It is also noteworthy that the idea of Athalie as a successful sovereign has no foundation in the Bible and is an invention of Racine's.

  41. This is, of course, on one level, part of the divine order since Joad has prayed to God that she become confused and imprudent (ll. 300-4).

  42. For a more negative reading of Athalie's arrival in the temple, see Dubu's chapter ‘La Venue au Temple’ in Jean Dubu, Racine aux miroirs (Paris: SEDES, 1992), pp. 199-406.

  43. Grégoire, ‘La femme et la loi’, p. 333. See also Zimmermann, La Liberté et le Destin, p. 143.

  44. Racine often reminds us of Mathan's role in Athalie's downfall. Referred to as ‘plus méchant qu'Athalie’ (l. 36), it is he who has put it into her head in the first place that there is a treasure (ll. 49-50), whose plotting it is feared by Joad (l. 1097), whose lies to the queen incite her to take action (ll. 888-94).

  45. Bruneau, Racine, le jansénisme et la modernité, p. 135.

  46. Grégoire, ‘La femme et la loi’, p. 336.

  47. Jean Dubu, Racine aux miroirs, p. 388.

Jane Conroy (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Conroy, Jane. “Constructions of Identity: Mirrors of the ‘Other’ in Racine's Theatre.” In Racine: The Power and the Pleasure, edited by Edric Calidcott and Derval Conroy, pp. 75-99. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Conroy explores the quest for identity and notions of “self” and “Other” in Racine's plays, looking at collective ethnic groups and individual strangers in various works before focusing on the depiction of the “Oriental” in Bajazet.]

Julian Huxley has provided us with a negative formulation of the relationship between the Other and the creation of collective self-identity: ‘A nation is a society united by a common error as to its origin and a common aversion to its neighbours.’ However, in considering Racine's plays as cultural narratives, I should prefer to adopt two more positive lines of thought from Paul Ricœur which are not, of course, exclusively his. Firstly, the notion of narrative identity: the belief that we create a sense of self through our narratives of our own life experience, that this is a shifting ‘récit’ which perforce requires another to be the hearer. And, of course, that on the macro level this shifting narrative is part of the process of definition of collective identity.1 One can view the characters in tragedy as performing in front of us this act of narrative identity construction. This is particularly true in Racine's tragedies with their well-known primacy of Logos over Praxis, or where in fact Logos is Praxis. Secondly, the idea that the past, as narrated by one or many, is not a burden on the present, but requires us to acknowledge it: what Ricœur calls the ‘debt to the dead’.2 And he emphasizes its role in determining a future. Through dramatizations of historical consciousness Racine, like others, rehearses answers to the questions: ‘who are we?’ and ‘what may we become?’ To quote Louis van Delft:

À l'instar du navigateur, tout individu, pour survivre, a besoin de se repérer: il lui faut avant tout se situer lui-même, situer autrui, se situer par rapport à autrui. […] Or, l'aventure existentielle se ramène, pour l'essentiel, à des rapports à autrui, à une constellation de rapports psychologiques.

[Like the navigator, for survival all individuals need to be able to locate themselves: they need above all to situate themselves, others, and themselves in relation to others … As it happens, the existential adventure comes down in essence to a question of relations with others, and to a myriad of different psychological connections.]3

One aspect of Racine's enterprise, and the legacy of his tragedies, is to provide a terrain for this exploration, along with a series of route-maps. In particular the figure of the stranger, in a variety of forms, places within the plays a device for heightening the sense of self and other. I shall deal briefly with collective ethnic groups, then individual ‘strangers’, before considering the specific case of Bajazet as an extended instance of ‘rapprochement’ through ‘mise à distance’, and in conclusion I shall look at its relationship with Mithridate.

The use of the collective ‘Other’ as a foil for the collective ‘Us’ was not a new enterprise. Self-definition through tragedy has a long history. Of the one thousand Greek tragedies estimated to have been composed in the fifth century bc, some three hundred have left traces. Nearly half of these portrayed barbarian characters, or were set in a non-Greek land, or both. Even those with an all-Greek cast display ‘a pervasive rhetorical polarization between Greeks and Barbarians’. They forged a discourse of the ‘other’, built on a ‘complex system of signifiers denoting the ethically, politically and psychologically “other’” with lasting consequences, especially in their ‘portrait of the Asiatic peoples as effeminate, despotic and cruel’.4 When it comes to their approach to pitting the ‘then-and-there’ of the foreigner against the ‘here-and-now’ of the audience, the most salient difference between the Greek dramatists and Racine is that Racine does not bring his own nation on stage. On the level of collective identity the comparisons between French and foreigner remain implicit.

A glance at Charles Bernet's vocabulary analysis5 confirms the textual existence of a wide range of ancient and more modern peoples in the plays: Romans, Greeks, Jews, Trojans (naturally), but how many other races, tribes, ‘nations’ are pulled from their relative obscurity, their distant fastnesses, or the oblivion which befalls the conquered: Chaldeans, Dacians, Indians, Parthians, Pannonians, Phrygians, Sarmatians, Scythians, Syrians, Thebans, Tyrians, and so on? Often, it is true, just a passing nod to local colour. Some are barely named, without so much as a qualifying adjective, for example in Mithridate's tirade where the Dacians and Pannonians are one-dimensional participants in the imaginary coalition which will include the Spanish, and ‘surtout’ the Gaulois, who have already been hammering at the gates of Rome (Mithridate, Act III. 1, ll. 790-862). It is flattering that the great Mithridate should count the Gaulois among the forces to reckon with in 63 bc, alongside ‘la fière Germanie’.6 Their textual presence serves to enhance the sense of an impending Götterdämmerung: Rome's later downfall is already written, pre-presented in an enumeration of potentially insurgent provinces and kingdoms. An allusion which functions as the most succinct form of ‘prolepse externe’, anticipating the culmination of a strand of the plot, a culmination which lies beyond the boundary of the narrative proper.7

Aside from the exoticism of any non-Roman, non-Hellenic, non-Jewish, and hence ‘uncivilized’ peoples of Antiquity, and aside from the contemporary Ottoman Empire, other non-ethnic figures flit around the edges of Racine's stage. In the spread of identities running from the totally aberrational to the highly civilized, monsters, giants and brigands compose a sub-group representative of the moral outer limits. Louis van Delft,8 followed by Maurice Delcroix,9 among others, has shown how Racine makes use of monsters from La Thébaïde through to Athalie. To the disturbing question ‘How would we be if we were not what we are?’ the ancient study of teratology used to provide a ready answer: we would be monsters. History intimated we would be barbarians. Psychiatry would later suggest we would be psychopaths.10 Racine's monsters, chillingly internalized, lie somewhere between history and psychiatry. As for his brigands, so famously slain by Thésée, leaving none for Hippolyte, despite their rather unimpressive numbers,11 they deserve mention because as early ‘hors-la-loi’, they represent another extreme figure of a-social barbarity.12

If we turn to the micro level, to those individual ‘étrangers’ who actually appear on Racine's stage, their position is variable. What follows here is not an exhaustive list, merely a survey of the most revealing ‘cas de figure’. Each of his ‘strangers’ provides a new ‘foyer’, a particularly clear conflicting focus within the play. Each is a vocal incarnation of that ‘contrapuntalism’ advocated by Edward Said.13 Whether they are right or wrong, good or evil, they embody another civilization and speak with distinctive opposing voices. Racine, through them, heightens the effect of ‘heteroglossia’, to use Bakhtin's term.14 They may be hated figures, the most recent product of an evil race—Athalie, Aman—or the sad figure of a virtuous displaced person, a captive, an exile. Each of them, as called upon by the conventions of tragedy, and the need for exposition, recounts their story, each constructing, as do other major characters, their own ‘identité narrative’. An extreme case is, of course, Andromaque, whose ineradicable recollection determines present and future.

Among these ‘étrangers’, the dominant figure of foreignness is, unsurprisingly, female. Unsurprisingly, given the patrilocal practices of the civilizations evoked by Racine, and which the married women in his audience could readily understand: Bérénice, Monime, Phèdre, Esther, Athalie, possibly Roxane, are where they are because of marriage, or plans to marry. Some are captives. The captive is not always foreign (Aricie), the foreigner is not always captive (obviously), but when the foreigner is captive, as in the case of Andromaque, Racine can mine the rich paradoxes inherent in her political vulnerability yet erotic or sentimental hold over her captor:

Étrangère … Que dis-je? Esclave dans l'Épire,
Je lui donne son Fils, mon Âme, mon Empire.

(Andromaque, Act II. 5, ll. 689-90)

Andromaque herself is an early instance of a motif which was to flourish in later literature, especially ‘littérature fantastique’, a piece of deadly exotica brought home, a ‘souvenir de la Guerre de Troie’, a psychological Trojan horse, which destroys the peace and life of its acquirer.

Among the exiles, the greatest pathos attaches to Bérénice whose exile is self-imposed, or imposed by love, but whose foreignness is an insuperable bar to integration. Roman xenophobia, as explained by Paulin, forever excludes her:

Rome par une Loi, qui ne se peut changer,
N'admet avec son sang aucun sang étranger.

(Bérénice, Act II. 2, ll. 377-8)

It is a law which by another neat paradox turns Titus into an alien in the Imperial City: ‘Gémissant dans ma Cour, et plus exilé qu'elle’ (Act III. 1, l. 752). But the pathos is largely concentrated on the isolated Queen of Palestine, producing that ‘pitié née de l'affliction’ of which Christian Biet speaks in his contribution to this volume:

Étrangère dans Rome, inconnue à la Cour,
Elle passe ses jours, Paulin, sans rien prétendre
Que quelque heure à me voir, et le reste à m'attendre.

(Bérénice, Act II. 2, ll. 534-6)

The resonances of these lines were no doubt particularly strong for the foreign princesses at Versailles, as was the situation of that other exile, Esther, and of the equally exiled daughters of Sion, with which, like many a foreign-born queen, she has surrounded herself:

Jeunes et tendres fleurs, par le sort agitées,
Sous un ciel étranger comme moi transplantées.

(Esther, Act I. 1, ll. 103-4)

It is identity, or rather the concealment of identity, of ‘sa race et son pays’ which provides the mainspring of the plot, and which of course inspired Voltaire's caustic comment on ‘un roi insensé qui a passé six mois avec sa femme, sans savoir, sans s'informer même qui elle est’.15

Monime, as an Ephesian, descended from ‘ou Rois, Seigneur, ou Héros, qu'autrefois / Leur vertu chez les Grecs mit au-dessus des Rois’ (Mithridate, I. 3, ll. 249-50), considers herself to be an ‘esclave couronnée’ (I. 3, l. 255) among the less thoroughly hellenized followers of Mithridate. Her situation, and struggle for autonomy, is a mise en abyme of one of the projects of tragedy: the recognition and definition of a personal, and collective, identity, in the midst of a world which for her is filled with foreignness.

It is only in Esther that the term ‘race’ is used to mean ‘nation’, or ethnic group. Elsewhere it means ‘house’ or ‘blood-line’. The determinism associated with that needs no further commentary, except (since we are dealing with ‘alterité’) to note the horror of mixed blood, or fear of miscegenation, expressed, for example, through Joas and Phèdre. In the mixed race, it is the worse blood which triumphs. One explanation for the future degeneration of Joas may well be the rôle of flatterers, and the corrupting effect of absolute power, which as Joad warns, ‘ont des rois égaré le plus sage’ (Athalie, Act IV. 3, ll. 1387-1402). The other, and more disturbing, explanation is the one suggested by Athalie. Joas, indeed, one day will be as she hopes ‘fidèle au sang d'Achab’ (Athalie, Act V. 6, l. 1786). Her dying wish presages the later evils committed by the now polluted blood of David. Similarly Phèdre is dominated by Pasiphaë's legacy: ‘Phèdre est d'un sang, Seigneur, vous le savez trop bien …’ (Phèdre, Act IV. 2, l. 1151).16

The quest for identity is expressed in anxiety about origins, most obviously in Ériphile, the ‘fille sans patrie’, the serially rejected outcast of Iphigénie, who nonetheless contrives to find sources of unhappiness more profound even than her status as ‘étrangère, inconnue et captive’. The case of Éliacin-Joas is quite different: however crucial the revelation of his identity is to others, he personally experiences no anguish at being without knowledge of his genealogy or homeland since he has found adoptive parents, and sanctuary—‘Ce Temple est mon pays; je n'en connais point d'autre’ (Athalie, Act II. 7, l. 640). Almost as bad as having the wrong origins, of being, say, of the ‘race de Laïus’ (La Thébaïde, Act I. 1, l. 28), or ‘fils d'Atrée’ (Iphigénie, Act V. 4, l. 1686), or ‘de Jézabel la fille’ (Athalie, Act I.1, l. 59), is having the obscurest sort. Of Roxane, it is almost impossible to say what her origins are, from where she has ‘arrived’: ‘Esclave barbare’ (Bajazet, Act V. 8, l. 1658)—the epithet is Atalide's—her status as former slave makes her as much an alien as Athalie. A double maxim in Corneille's Cinna summarizes the irremediable nature of such exclusion:

Jamais un Affranchi n'est qu'un esclave infâme;
Bien qu'il change d'état, il ne change point d'âme.

(Cinna, Act IV. 6, ll. 1409-10)

There is, finally, Athalie, usurper and idolator, ‘impie étrangère’. The figure of the stranger is here the means of expression of a radical separation from even the closest kin:

David m'est en horreur, et les fils de ce Roi
Quoique nés de mon sang, sont étrangers pour moi.

(Athalie, Act II. 7, ll. 729-30)

It is an alienation which enables her to ‘veng[er] [s]es Parents sur [s]a postérité’ (Act II. 7, l. 710). But it is, as we know, ‘la fille d'Achab’ who is the true stranger. Stranger to the Jews, and estranged from herself. Controlled by the ‘impitoyable Dieu’ of the Jews, and ‘vingt fois en un jour à [s]oi-même opposée’ (Act V. 6, ll. 1774, 1776).

It is, ultimately, this internalization of the sense of alien otherness which dominates Racine's exploitation of the connotations of words such as ‘étranger’, ‘barbare’, ‘monstre’, and the struggles of a ‘moi-même à moi-même opposée’. He constructs, through the dramatis personae, and the ‘para-personnages’, a continuum extending from soi-même/nous autres to the extremes of alien otherness. This sliding scale measures difference on both the collective and the individual level. It implicitly positions the subjects of Louis XIV at the opposite pole to, let us say, the Scythians who, proverbially, lie beyond the limits of civilization, or those seemingly civilized monsters who flourished in Rome itself: ‘Caligula, Néron / Monstres … / … qui ne conservant que la figure d'Homme …’ (Bérénice, Act II. 2, ll. 397-9). But also the ‘Other’ is the other-who-oppresses-me. Perhaps an-other. Or perhaps oneself. Through a characteristically Racinian process of internalization, the Scythian, or the monster, or the barbarian, lurks within the individual consciousness.17 The continuum is in the heart and mind of man, the barbarian has invaded the citadel. The history and diversity of human civilization are potentially present in each human microcosm.18

For early modern Europe, however, the quintessential ‘Other’ was the Oriental. What was Racine undertaking when he decided to compose a modern ‘Turkish’ play? When he wrote Bajazet, instead of recolonizing an old myth to explore current identity, he was developing a new one, by drawing together new and old elements. And he was abandoning the culturally close Graeco-Roman world for a wholly foreign one. Bajazet is, in that sense, a myth of transition. Pierre Ronzeaud, in a valuable recent survey of virtually everything which has ever been written about the political aspects of Racine,19 underlines the contradictions and perplexity displayed by critics in this area. He warns against the tendancy to see Racine's plays as allegories, or a series of coded commentaries on contemporary events—a tendancy typified by René Jasinski and, to a lesser extent, Jean Orcibal. However, he is more indulgent towards readings which incline towards the contextual, rather than the allegorical, and that is the direction I shall briefly explore in looking at the image of the dark empire of Islam projected by Racine in Bajazet.

It was in 1670 that the Compagnie du Levant was created. The importance of the Levant within Louis XIV's overseas strategy is well known. One of its cultural signs was the marked upturn in the inward flow to Paris of oriental texts. Between 1645 and 1682 the number of oriental manuscripts in the Bibliothèque du Roy had tripled.20 Their presence, and the competition which existed for their acquisition, a competition led by the King, is a clear statement of an opening out of the reign towards the East. However little might have been understood of their contents, such visible testimony of a sophisticated Other World could hardly fail to induce some relativist thoughts.21 Certainly they represent an impressive degree of cultural activity on the part of French orientalists, and the second half of the century saw Paris become an important market for the dispersal of oriental books and manuscripts, as London had in the previous half century. When we consider Racine's sense of things Eastern, a significant aspect of this upsurge of interest in oriental civilization is the involvement with Port-Royal of the noted orientalists, Eusèbe Renaudot and Antoine Galland (1646-1715, translator of the Mille et Une Nuits).22 The marquis de Nointel, another fervent Jansenist, was sent in 1670 as ambassador to the Sublime Porte, and with Antoine Galland, at the behest of Louis XIV, obtained ‘attestations’ from the Patriarchs of the Eastern churches regarding their eucharistic beliefs.23 The engagement with the East was not merely political, economic and aesthetic, but also philosophical and theological.

Apart from the well-known sources used by Racine (Segrais's Floridon (1656), the verbal account given by M. de Cézy, and, more distantly, Théagène et Chariclée) there are three types of discourse which provide a general intertextual background: firstly, accounts of the Levant provided by missionaries and travellers, secondly, discourse on French imperial claims, with their highly motivated scrutiny of French origins, and finally the growing output from French orientalists. At the ontological outset there is the crucial fact that Racine's knowledge of Greece and Rome comes from Greek and Roman texts, his knowledge of the Orient, like that of his audience, comes from sources which are not oriental. While Alain Grosrichard is correct in saying that the growing number of travel accounts of the Levant familiarized French audiences with some of the details of its history,24 its geography and what passed for its beliefs and mores, these accounts remained heavily stereotyped, while the works of the more erudite orientalists who examined Persian and Turkish texts in the original were of much lesser influence.25

If we accept the hypothesis of a Racine conscious of Louis as one ideal ‘destinataire’ of Racine's tragedies from Alexandre on, we can suppose that Bajazet, to some extent, is intended to fit with the king's attitude to discourses offered elsewhere on his prospect of one day ruling the world, or a larger part of it. The view that this may come to pass is not merely expressed in encomiastic literature, as a hyperbolic expression of Louis's present powers, personal merit and moral authority, it is still in the post-Fronde period a serious topic of politico-juridical debate, and indeed the object of prophecies.26 If Louis, or ‘Mars Christianissimus’ as Leibniz was to call him in 1684,27 required justification for his ambitions, Bajazet certainly could be read as just what was needed. By showing a competing Empire, that of the Ottomans, in the worst possible light it enhances the image of a ‘roi juste et bon’. In other words, if the imperium romanum provided the ideologues of Early Modern Europe with the language and political models they required to construct new empires, the Ottoman empire, reign of darkness, in Racine's version and in the travel literature of the time, could provide a black or inverse image of the government of Louis. It may even be possible to see in Bajazet a consciousness of French claims to the vacant throne of the basileus. Constantine was allegedly originally from Gaul (according to Raulin and Charron) and French polemicists frequently laid claim to the throne of the Eastern Empire, without an incumbent since the fall of Constantinople (1453).28

Bajazet thus belongs to the category of works which ‘sought to define the character of European culture by ideological opposition with the oriental order’,29 as opposed to those orientalist texts which offered displaced critiques of European culture. When Montaigne, through praise of the ‘cannibales’, implies criticism of his own society, he does so by absolving them of the vices of the inhabitants and institutions of Europe. In this he follows a rhetorical topos, evocations of the Golden Age being traditionally expressed in terms of the absence of defects, precisely because they are conceived as the reverse of a description of the ‘here-and-now’ of the author.30 In a symmetrically opposite manner Bajazet, through its negative projection of Ottoman society, implies that Louis XIV's France is enjoying, if not a Golden Age, at least a lesser set of evils.

On the purely political level such a message has several uses: to induce a feel-good factor at home; to disparage a dangerous rival power, albeit an ally; and implicitly to justify France's activities in the New World. The idea of French colonialism as ‘mission civilisatrice’ had already taken root. We can take two contemporary examples among many. Charles de Rochefort, in 1665, in his Histoire naturelle et morale des Iles Antilles de l'Amérique, claims that the sole object of the first French colonies had been ‘the edification and instruction of the poor barbarians’.31 Panegyrics such as Balthazar de Riez's two-volume disquisition on L'incomparable piété des très-chrétiens rois de France, dedicated to Louis XIV, in 1672 linked claims to the Imperial crown with wider world domination, and, in part, justified them by the missionary activity promoted by Louis XIV, so zealous for ‘la conversion des peuples Infideles qui sont dans le Canada, dans la nouvelle France, dans l'Empire du Turc & du Persan’.32 It is thus possible at one level to read Bajazet as a cultural aition of expansion. Redrawing geopolitical boundaries requires the support of all kinds of fictions. Racine's projection of the Orient parallels a process engaged in the Iliad, whose poets at a non-literal level produced ‘a discourse which tamed and subordinated in the Greek imagination the land mass which came to be known as Asia, by creating Troy’. As Greek cities expanded all over the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, ‘Asia was […] familiarized and defused by assimilation into hexameter poetry’.33 A similar dynamic informed the literature of the discovery of America and such heavily mediated colonialist discourse as, for example, The Tempest.

How successful is Racine's projection of another contemporary civilization? Audience reaction was mixed. On the one hand, Bajazet's ending appeared too arbitrarily brutal to Mme de Sévigné. Its justification eluded her: ‘on n'entre point dans les raisons de cette grande tuerie’ (16 March, 1672). Robinet on the other hand levelled the same type of reproach against Bajazet as had earlier been made against Pyrrhus, and as Dryden would later make against Hippolyte: the hero is not sufficiently brutal. Racine has created a ‘Turc aussi doux qu'un François’, a ‘Musulman des plus courtois’, which for Robinet is evidently an oxymoron. Donneau de Visé, tongue in cheek, agrees that Racine is right to invent ‘des caractères d'honnêtes gens et de femmes tendres et galantes’ rather than create ‘barbares’ who would be less pleasing to the ladies.34 Critics have at times tended to see Bajazet as another ‘turquerie’ in a superficial sense, simply exhibiting some of the symbols and trappings of the Ottoman world. Today one can only agree with Louis van Delft in doubting whether Racine's statement in the preface to Bajazet that he has aimed to preserve the ‘coutumes et mœurs de la nation’, and that he has underlined the ‘férocité de la nation turque’ constitute sufficient grounds for thinking that he is involved in a ‘caractérologie des nations’.35 But in a more creative, poetical manner Racine converts the essential features of Islam (as they were perceived in his day) into the very conditions which tragically destroy individual freedom. Whether ‘tuerie’ or ‘turquerie’, the play provides a specular image of French society, both in itself and in the comments it provokes.

Racine, in locating Bajazet in Byzance-Constantinople (Istanbul), is using a ‘lieu de mémoire’ almost as potent as Jerusalem, or Rome. The poignant, yet ambivalent, image of Byzantium, like that of Jerusalem, carries the sense of a fall from grace (through its schismatic defiance of Roman papacy) and, like Rome, the suggestion of decadence. Although it was a place where the remaining Christians were tolerated, their numbers decreased, and the impression given would have been of a slow asphyxiation. Accounts of the Levant dwell on the harem. The ‘sérail’ in Bajazet, of which much has been written (should we see there the shared fantasy of literary critics?), is indeed an ‘antre tragique: lieu exemplaire du désir et du pouvoir’,36 an ‘ensemble clos et labyrinthique’,37 accentuating the frenetic and futile nature of the characters' ever more urgent twisting and turning. It offers Racine a location in which to develop ‘à sa condensation maximale l'unité de lieu’,38 which is his trademark, and where, as Christian Delmas remarks, the enclosed space of the action contrasts with the vast distance separating Byzantium from Babylon, where the real power lies, where the ‘Grand Seigneur’ as military commander deals with those other Orientals, the Persians. The contrasting concentration and distension of space accentuate the sense of ‘sans appel’. But the ‘sérail’, or the harem, and the ‘volcanic temperament’ of Eastern women, are already obsessions of travellers, not to mention missionaries, of the period. There is a significant intertext at work, which is mentioned in Racine's second preface. Against the accusation that his ‘Héroïnes étaient trop savantes en amour et trop délicates pour des Femmes nées parmi des Peuples qui passent ici pour barbares’ [His heroines were too knowledgeable in love and too refined for women born among peoples who are considered here to be barbarians], he instances all the ‘Relations des Voyageurs’ which bear him out. As for the ‘sérail’, the contrast with local French and European courts is marked by a rhetorical question: ‘Y a-t-il une Cour au monde où la jalousie et l'amour doivent être si bien connues que dans un lieu où tant de Rivales sont enfermées ensemble, et où toutes ces Femmes n'ont point d'autre étude dans une éternelle oisiveté, que d'apprendre à plaire et à se faire aimer?’ [Is there a Court in the world where jealousy and love can be more rampant than in a place where so many rival women are locked up, and where all these women have nothing else to do in their endless idleness than to learn how to please and be loved?].39 The Court of Lubricity is undoubtedly the Court of Evil, when judged from the moral standpoint of Racine's contemporaries. Even Versailles can appear virtuous in such company.

The ‘sérail’ is also presented in travel accounts as the place where the contrast between the outside and the inside, appearance and reality, is particularly marked: beyond the severity of the blank walls, the armed guards and the locked doors, there is a world of unbridled sensuality, or so the the travellers' stories go. Bajazet takes the audience into that inaccessible world. The ‘sérail’ becomes, in Racine's play, the habitus of duplicity, in a play dominated by artifice, pretence and concealment, and desperate efforts at reaching the truth. A further contrast (and another fantasy) underlies the Western construction of the ‘sérail’. From the ‘possédées de Loudun’, whose possession is ascribed to the effect of ‘la fureur utérine’,40 through to Diderot and beyond, communities of women, particularly convents, exercise the minds of men. The ‘sérail’ as the reverse of the convent, is an avatar of the inverted Satanic world; Racine's later description of Port-Royal provides its antithesis, from which all hint of sensuality is banished and where the interior is in perfect harmony with the exterior.41

The ‘sérail’ is then both ‘gynécée’ and prison. It would not be a tragic prison if there were some hope of escape, something like a tiny grid high in the dungeon wall, through which the sky is visible. Or the discreet window in the seraglio from which the ladies of the harem could look out, but not be seen. Bajazet, like Hippolyte, dreams of a wider world, of earning a name, asserting an identity. But these hopes are futile. In Bajazet, doors open only to close, as Jean Dubu has shown in his semiotic reading of the ‘portes du palais’ and the Sublime Porte,42 which emphasize the claustration of the ‘sérail’. Turned in upon itself it becomes a self-sustaining ‘microcosme infernal’.43 With its ‘Esclaves obscurs, / Nourris loin de la guerre, à l'ombre de ses murs’ (Bajazet, Act IV. 7, ll. 1419-1420) it is a dark enclosure, reminiscent surely of the prisons in which Christian slaves languished, those into which Guez de Balzac imagined he saw the rays of Louis XIII's benevolence penetrating,44 those prisons which are so prominent in missionary and polemical accounts of the Orient and Barbary Coast, as, for example, in René de Lucinge's Histoire de l'origine, progrez, & declin, de l'Empire des Turcs (1614),45 or in le Père Pierre Dan's Histoire de la Barbarie & de ses corsaires (1637).46 In the mind of the audience aware of the Turkish slave trade, the ‘foule […] d'Esclaves’ (Bajazet, II. 1, l. 435) may be partly composed of Christians. The same audience might well have been less aware of another irony: the fact that slaves were regularly bought from the Turks for the galleys of Louis XIV's Navy, among them Eastern Rite Christians from Greece and Central Europe. The King personally gave instructions regarding the acquisition of slaves ‘aux meilleures conditions’.47

Another sharp contrast with French practice is seen in Roxane, ‘un des personnages les plus noirs de Racine’ [one of the darkest characters of Racine],48 who embodies the perversion of power, although she possesses only the illusion of power. The ignominy of her origins is exceptional in a protagonist (Narcisse, Ériphile, Œnone, Aman are all secondary characters). Her position of authority symbolizes the reign of unreason, is yet another form of inversion, in this play of inverted values. Narcisse, in Britannicus, had offered a similar but less developed exploration of the slave mentality. As Eléonore Zimmermann remarks, Roxane as a slave can see only the exterior aspects of freedom, while Bajazet has an interiorized concept.49 With Orcan and Zatime we descend the degrees of humanity: Orcan, of the ‘visage odieux’, ‘né sous le ciel brûlant des plus noirs Africains’ adds blackness to his slavish status: black slave of a black sun (Amurat is the anti-Sun-King, whose realm is darkness), while Zatime is ‘d'une esclave barbare esclave impitoyable’. The ‘muets’ [mutes] are the ultimate victims of despotism, for to be deprived of speech, in Racine's world, is the final extinction of identity.

Against these forces the individual's struggle for autonomy appears hopeless. Bajazet presents, in a sense, an inversion of genre. It is, as Georges Forestier has pointed out, a black pastoral, with a ‘trame’ [plot] borrowed from that genre, and set in the least pastoral of locations, the closed and glittering world of the Ottoman court. Bajazet, a ‘berger en rupture de paradis’ [a pastoral shepherd bereft of paradise],50 provides the most acute instance of disparity between the aspirations of a hero and the choices open to him. The world and the individual are locked in deadly combat. In the words of Alain Viala, ‘autour du Sérail, l'Empire bouge, l'armée au loin triomphe, et leurs forces énormes noient dans l'inutile les soubresauts des amants qui se débattent sur scène’ [around the Harem, the Empire stirs, far afield the Army triumphs, and their enormous forces swamp in futility the antics of the lovers who tumble about on stage].51

Ancestry, lineage, especially of royal or imperial families, may be a source of legitimacy and stability. However, in the world of Bajazet, reverential reference to the Ottoman blood has an ironic ring. It is not the defiant attachment to a notoriously impure bloodline displayed by ‘la fille de Jézabel’.52 Bajazet's nostalgia for the ‘grands noms de [sa] race’ (Act II. 5, l. 738) is heard rather as the error of a hero whose points of reference, unbeknownst to him, are dubious.53 The effect here, as in his rememoration of specific ancestors, an earlier Bajazet, or Soliman, or Osman, is pathos. Similarly when Atalide swears by le ‘Ciel’, and ‘Par ces grands Ottomans, dont [elle est] descendue’ (Bajazet, Act V. 5, ll. 1597-8), there is tragic irony in her emprisonment in a belief system which is doubly erroneous: her ‘ciel’ [heaven] is a Mahometan one, and the ruling dynasty is not hallowed. It is logical that she should similarly and tragically remain a prisoner of her passions. The genealogical impulse, here as elsewhere, corresponds to an attempt ‘to reinscribe the time of the narrative within the time of the universe’.54

The notion of a legitimate translatio imperii, a central argument in French commentary on French rights to the empire, is perverted in Bajazet. In the Ottoman empire, the transfer of power as described by Acomat is illegitimate: the route to the throne is over the dead body of one or several brothers. If Bajazet kills Amurat he will merely be perpetuating a tradition of violence:

L'exemple en est commun. Et parmi les Sultans,
Ce chemin à l'Empire a conduit de tout temps.

(Bajazet, Act II. 1, ll. 443-4)

Racine presents here the violent alternative, in a dynastic system, to a strict adherence to the law of primogeniture, the unquestioned inheritance by the eldest brother. The inevitable enmity between brothers, while it is, of course, a feature of Racine's tragedies, must here be seen as regressive, archaic, even primitive, in the context of one of the seventeenth century's great powers. The recent history of France had contained examples of tension between royal brothers but Louis XIV's reign saw, on the contrary, public displays of royal fraternal harmony, and a proliferation of paintings and medals celebrating that solidarity—for example, Louis conferring the Order of the Saint-Esprit on Monsieur, or the series of medals and portraits showing the extended royal family. In this way Bajazet provides a gauge of French progress. The seizure of power by Bajazet, although he is ‘of the blood’ and morally superior to Amurat, would then be little more than a coup militaire supported by the Janissaries, a regression to the practices of the dark days of a decadent Roman Empire, and the violent antithesis of the sacred rites associated with the conferring by the Pope of the imperium on Charlemagne, or the transmission of royal power at the sacre. The equivalent ceremony in this play, should Bajazet decide to oust his brother, would hardly appear adequately solemn: Roxane would display the Divine Prophet's dread banner to the terrified people, and Acomat would proclaim Bajazet emperor (ll. 847-52). So Bajazet enhances Bourbon legitimacy. The people are ‘épouvanté’ (l. 847), ‘alarmé’ (l. 244), ‘rempli d'une juste terreur’ (l. 851), ‘craintives’ (l. 1669), and ‘effrayés’ (l. 1670). Of course, a docile population is generally seen as a desirable quantity in seventeenth-century political discourse, including tragedy. But here it is a blind obedience, a characteristic stressed by contemporary French commentaries on Islam. It is a sign of servility, of a mercenary system, of the consequences of despotism. So Roxane can boast that the ‘people’ of the ‘sérail’ [harem] are her creatures, bought and paid for, over whom she has unlimited rights:

                    … [ces] âmes asservies
M'ont vendu dès longtemps leur silence et leurs vies.

(Bajazet, Act II. 1, ll. 437-8)

This power is eloquently attested in Act V, scene 8, by Zatime's obstinate silence: ‘Il y va de ma vie, et je ne puis rien dire’ (l. 1654).

The absence of Amurat (only emissaries penetrate the ‘sérail’, slaves with deadly instructions) symbolically expresses a perception of the ‘vide’ which runs through the orthodox exegesis of oriental life and beliefs. And rather as the absence of the Moors from the actual stage of Le Cid can be seen as their concealment and absorption within the dominant discourse,55 the absence of Amurat is also a form of denial of the power of the sultan-emperor. In European portrayals of Ottoman rule the very absence of sedition is interpreted as a sign of despotism. What might otherwise pass for civic order is construed as alien, almost idolatrous. Orcan, for example, anticipates that the sight of the Sultan's written order will produce instant submission, a form of adoration, on the part of Osmin:

‘Adorez, a-t-il dit, l'ordre de votre Maître’.

(Bajazet, Act V. 11, l. 1683)56

The foundation of the Turkish Empire is the concentration of power in the person of the Sultan. As Rycaut, one of Racine's sources, puts it: ‘la puissance sans bornes de l'Empereur, est le principe de l'Empire des Turcs’ [the limitless power of the Emperor is the principle of power among the Turks],57 and he cites as a further ‘maxime de la politique des Turcs’ that ‘le Prince soit servi par des personnes, qu'il puisse élever sans envie, & ruiner sans danger’ [the Prince should be served by persons whom he can elevate without envy and destroy without risk].58 This policy to European eyes seemed to abolish any proper hierarchy of power, leaving a void where the aristocracy should be.

The only power other than that of the Sultan, and the precarious Vizir, lies with the dangerously volatile Janissaries (who previously murdered Osman, on the pretext that he had married against their wishes), a military force but not an aristocracy. If the Sultan were to suffer a defeat at Babylon, the Janissaries, ‘à la haine joignant l'audace’ (Bajazet, Act I. 1, l. 66) would interpret it as ‘un arrêt du ciel qui réprouve Amurat’ (Act I. 1, l. 68); this was obviously not the type of superstitious judgement to which any military leader, for example Louis XIV, would wish to be exposed. But should he succeed they will display ‘une aveugle et basse obéissance’ (Bajazet, l. 62). The fidelity of the ‘braves janissaires’ (l. 29) to Amurat is, then, as suspect as that commanded by any despot, and as suspect as Bajazet's ‘foi’. Their heart is a difficult text to read: ‘Dans le secret des cœurs, Osmin, n'as-tu rien lu / Amurat jouit-il d'un pouvoir absolu?’ (ll. 31-2). His ‘pouvoir absolu’ has the usual limitation. The fate predicted for Néron59 is experienced by Amurat. He is feared by the Janissaries and his position is thus insecure:

Moi-même j'ai souvent entendu leurs discours,
Comme il les craint sans cesse, ils le craignent toujours.

(Bajazet, Act I. 1, ll. 43-4)

The spiritual predicament is as grave as the political. Mahometanism was, in Christian eyes, an empty display, and a distortion of Christian truth: ‘Il n'y a personne qui ne sçache que la Religion des Turcs est un composé extravagant de celle des Chrétiens & de celle des Juifs’ [Everybody knows that the religion of the Turks is an excessive mixture of the Christian and Jewish faiths].60 The benighted subjects of the Sultan are as credulous in religious matters as their religious leaders are corrupt. By her ‘brigues secrètes’ Roxane has won over the ‘sacrés interprètes’ of the Muslim Faith. Her order, ‘rentre dans le néant dont je t'ai fait sortir’, is, as Eléonore Zimmermann has pointed out,61 tantamount to arrogating the rôle of God to herself. Bajazet's world is one which is ‘atrocement humain’, more or less deprived of divine law. In such a world, without the ‘true’ faith, the characters are exposed to destructive doubt, and obsessively pursue elusive reassurance. The word ‘foi’ is used 24 times in the play, ‘fidèle’ and ‘infidèle’ 14 times. It is a world where promises, as Acomat states, are never binding on the ruler. Moral values are so inverted that to keep a promise is, for Acomat, to act like a slave: ‘Le sang des Ottomans / Ne doit point en Esclave obéir aux serments’ (ll. 643-4), and the throne, which is supposedly ‘si saint’ has as foundation ‘la foi promise et rarement gardée’ (l. 650).

In the context of the confusion which was commonly believed to reign in the minds of the followers of Mahomet, there is peculiar significance in Racine's use of the word ‘nœud’. Racine in Bajazet uses it in a way which is properly poetic, if we adopt the definition proposed by Maurice Delcroix, speaking of the ‘monstre’: ‘il spécule sur la plurisémie du mot’.62 The word ‘nœud’ is indeed remarkably polysemic. Most commonly in tragedies it elegantly expresses the union, variously perceived as ‘funeste’, ‘saint’ etc., between man and wife, or the bonds of kinship or friendship. It thus holds society together. But the ‘nœud’ is also a difficulty, or problem—the Gordian knot, the heart of a litigation. Hence its dramaturgical meaning of ‘l'endroit de la pièce où la principale intrigue se forme, où les affaires commencent à s'embarasser' [the part of the play where the main plot begins to form, and the situation becomes complex].63 As he had done in Britannicus with the notion of ‘poison’, and would later with ‘monstre’ in Phèdre, Racine adopts an emblematic term, stretching it between its figurative (rather overworked) meaning and the first-level or primary meaning. Thus the ‘nœuds par le sang commencés’, which formed in childhood between Atalide and Bajazet, are distinct from the conjugal ‘nœud sacré’ which Roxane demands, the marriage ‘en bonne et due forme’ which will bind Bajazet to her, that demeaning bond to be the paradoxical price of his freedom. As the dénouement approaches, the real ‘nœud’—the noose—shows itself and achieves concrete form in the ‘nœuds infortunés’ with which Roxane threatens to have Bajazet strangled. The sadistic ambiguity of her promise to Atalide exploits the multiple meanings of ‘nœud’:

Loin de vous séparer, je prétends aujourd'hui
Par des nœuds éternels vous unir avec lui.

(Bajazet, Act V. 6, ll. 1631-2)

A further meaning surfaces in Atalide's final use of the word, rightly berating herself for having woven the web of deceit in which Bajazet is snared:

Moi seule j'ai tissu le lien malheureux,
Dont tu viens d'éprouver les détestables nœuds.

(Bajazet, Act V. 12, ll. 1739-40) (my emphasis)

The association is made between the multiple twists in the plot and the complexity and artifice which had become synonymous with Byzantium and oriental sophistication, as well as the horrific manner of Bajazet's death. To an aristocratic French mind, this is a particularly ghastly end. The tragic hero—and indeed any noble d'épée—would prefer to perish by the sword. Execution by strangulation is both ignominious and one of the cultural differences which caracterize, in French eyes, the ‘barbarity’ of the Ottomans.64

In his ‘Preface’ to Bajazet, Racine invites us to consider the Ottoman Empire as a throwback: ‘les Personnages Turcs, quelque modernes qu'ils soient ont de la dignité sur notre Théâtre. On les regarde de bonne heure comme Anciens. Ce sont des mœurs et des coutumes toutes différentes. Nous avons si peu de commerce avec les Princes et les autres Personnes qui vivent dans le Sérail, que nous les considérons, pour ainsi dire, comme des gens qui vivent dans un autre siècle que le nôtre’ (my emphasis) [Turkish characters, however modern they are, have a certain dignity on our stage. They can easily be viewed as Ancients. They have customs and usages which are very different from ours. We have so few dealings with the Princes and other persons who live in the harem, that we consider them, so to speak, as a people who live in another time].65 He revealingly draws the parallel between Athenian dramatists' treatment of Persians, notably Æschylus's treatment of Xerxes's mother, and his own approach to the seventeenth-century Levant. The ‘Preface’ displays the tendency common in ‘récits de voyage’ to identify the unfamiliar societies encountered in long-distance travel with one's early ancestors; exoticism merges with a primitivism which is also chronological.66 Bakhtin's concept of the chronotope is also useful here, in conveniently summarizing the way in which the literary imagination represents time as a malleable, unevenly paced and unevenly distributed phenomenon.67 The Byzantium ruled over by Amurat is outside the highroad of progress. Or, in Christian Biet's words, speaking of Mithridate, the Occident is the world of History, the Orient is infra-history.68

As a corollary of this, comparison with former selves is for Racine's audience a way to measure progress. According to Christian Delmas, Racine, like Delacroix ‘pressent […] que l'Orient n'est que l'Antiquité vivante’ [feels that the Orient is simply Antiquity brought to life].69 The cultural distance, as much as the geographical, produces the gap in which ‘l'élaboration poétique de la matière tragique’ may take place. This is the crossover of the distances (space/time) applied in his Greek and Roman tragedies: the Greeks are culturally closer, temporally further off. In a study of the play's debt to Othon, Jacques Morel remarks on this same sense of non-progress: the Turkish ‘férocité’ claimed by Racine in the ‘Preface’ seems equally applicable to Rome in the aftermath of Nero.70 Perhaps, like Hegel, Racine viewed Asian cultures as a prelude to European civilization. It is nonetheless true that in Bajazet his refiguration of time is a new departure in his continuing exploration of the ‘entrecroisement entre l'histoire et la fiction’.71

Bajazet is not a propaganda piece. It does, however, project an image of a dark empire, a parallel realm to the luminous, legitimate world of Louis XIV. Its inhabitants are lost in the toils of deceit and false appearance, in a world of Error, with its secular and its religious connotations. It is, too, a displacement onto the Orient of the darker fears of the individual confronted with the reality of absolutism. The characters' autonomy, their liberty, the relative liberty of Roxane and of Acomat, is never more than an illusion. These are ‘marionnettes dérisoires en attente d'exécution’ [absurd puppets awaiting execution].72 Virtue here presents itself like an astonishing, paradoxical aberration: in Bajazet the real strangers are Bajazet and, to a lesser extent, Atalide.

Racine produces in his plays his own ‘histoire universelle’, one which is much more readable than Bossuet's. Where Bossuet is moralistic, I would claim that Racine is ethical, in Ricoeur's sense of ‘the search for self and communal identity [as strengthening] the ethical dimension of history.’73 When we view his plays as cultural narratives, and as an attempt to locate French identity in the vast sweep of human civilization, the links between them are worth attention. They cast an often ironic light on history: Iphigénie prequel to Andromaque, Athalie prequel to Esther, Mithridate prequel to Bajazet. On the relationship between these two ‘oriental’ plays, Paul Mesnard in 1865, while recognizing that Roman accounts of Mithridate's domestic arrangements suggest parallels with the mores of the Sultans, rejected any intention of reduplication on Racine's part.74 His commentary betrays the difficulty he, and others of his time, had in reconciling ‘grandeur’ with ‘barbare’: Mithridate, he says, has a ‘grandeur’ which is ‘toute romaine’. Clearly he would have been happy to erase the memory of the oriental half of Mithridate's ambiguous identity, another ‘indigne moitié d'une si belle histoire’. However, despite their very different dramatic structure, there are enough similarities between these two oriental plays for the connection to be valuable: there is common ground in the series of illusions experienced by the characters of both plays, and in the cruelty and tyranny of Mithridate, precursor of Amurat and yet his superior.

There is a meaning to be derived from the relationship between Mithridate and Bajazet. According to the general verdict, Mithridate passes for one of Racine's more cheerful plays, ‘an optimistic interlude’,75 or an almost operatic ‘tragédie lyrique’,76 where, for the first time the young couple are not separated at the end. Yet it carries a dark message about civilization. Certainly about the impermanence of empires. For not only does Mithridate's empire crumble around him, it has itself possessed lands which once had held sway over its own heartland. Monime is, in a sense, a piece of Greek booty,77 albeit acquired in less violent circumstances than Andromaque. Thus we have within the play, in the person of the reluctant fiancée, the image of Greece, and a hellenized Asia Minor, succumbing to Mithridate. If Mithridate represents active resistance, Monime is emblematic of the colonized. Her body may go to the altar with Mithridate's, her mind and heart, to use the metaphor of the time, will resist. Her point of revolt is Pharnace: Pharnace would be a conqueror too many.78 Her parents' submission to Mithridate's will summarizes the submergence of Greek civilization by the ‘Eastern threat’, with all the resonances that situation might have for a seventeenth-century audience, accustomed to hearing that ‘les Turcs sont aux portes de Vienne’.79 But Mithridate represents a nation which is seen at the point where the Roman Empire overwhelms it. Within the play the fall of Rome is itself predicted. Racine's layering of these time-frames, when taken in conjunction with the image of the Ottoman empire in Bajazet, conveys not merely the mutability of political power, but the painful possibility of a teleological reading of history which leads downwards, and away from progress. Seventeen centuries, the ‘benefits’ of Roman civilization, the reign of Constantine, Christianity, the rise and the fall of Byzantium, modern ‘progress’, contacts with Europe have changed nothing. An implication of this may, of course, be that a political saviour is ready and available, to lead seventeenth-century Europe away from any such catastrophe: ‘Mars Christianissimus’ is waiting in the wings.

Leibniz, in 1671-2, drew Louis XIV's attention to the desirability of a new crusade against the Turks—the irony here is that his real purpose is to divert France's attention from Europe, by providing a new ‘theatre’ for Louis's war-games.80 The Turkish threat has become a way to divert the French threat. What could more aptly illustrate the complexity of the relations between the nations of Europe and the Ottoman Empire? And the fact that Amurat might not lie so far from Louis.

Finally, Racine was perhaps not a relativist, in Todorov's sense. But he was supremely aware that ‘civilization’, whether individual or collective, and in whatever land it is found, is a fragile thing.


  1. See particularly: Paul Ricœur, Temps et récit. III. Le temps raconté (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1985), pp. 355-9, 371-4; and Soi-même comme un autre (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1990), 5th and 6th ‘études’.

  2. Ricœur, Temps et récit. III, Ch. 3 ‘La réalité du passé historique’, Ch. 5, ‘L'entrecroisement de l'histoire et de la fiction’.

  3. Littérature et anthropologie (Paris: PUF, 1993), pp. 88-9. Of particular interest here is the section on the ‘caractères des nations’ where the moral profiling of nations is envisaged as a cartography of human nature: the character of a particular race, in its particular geographical place, becomes a ‘lieu’ [topos] in the rhetorical sense.

  4. Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian. Greek Self-definition through Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), p. 2.

  5. Le vocabulaire des tragédies de Jean Racine (Genève-Paris: Slatkine-Champion, 1983). See pp. 307-14.

  6. Racine's audience would probably have been familiar with the arguments which established the French as ancestors of the Germans (rather than the reverse, as was thought ‘outre-Rhin’). Here the less active role is that attributed to the latter, who await a leader, whereas the Gaulois have already breached the walls of Rome.

  7. It is an instance of what one might call prememoration, where historical tragedy embraces the known ‘future’. In Jacques Truchet's words, ‘il n'est de tragédie que prophétique’ [all tragedy is prophetic], and in its temporal sweep history meets future and, beyond human time, eternity. For this particularly French view of tragedy, see Jacques Truchet, La Tragédie classique en France (Paris: PUF, 1975, 1989, 1997), p. 28.

  8. In Racine. Mythes et Réalités, Actes du Colloque de la Société d'étude du XVIIe siècle and University of Western Ontario, 1974, special no., XVIIe siècle (1976), 11-24.

  9. Maurice Delcroix, ‘La poétique du monstre dans le théâtre de Racine’, in Christine M. Hill (ed.), Théâtre et Poésie. Actes du 3e colloque Vinaver (Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1991), pp. 175-90.

  10. This paraphrases Maurice Daumas's answer to the same question (La tendresse amoureuse, XVIe-XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Perrin, 1996), p. 202). It was not until the nineteenth century that scientists finally concluded that there was no such species as homo monstruosus.

  11. Apart from being twice mentioned in Phèdre, they are referred to only once, when Mithridate recalls the Romans' willingness to follow Spartacus: ‘S'ils suivent au combat des Brigands qui les vengent, / De quelle noble ardeur pensez-vous qu'ils se rangent / Sous les drapeaux d'un Roi longtemps victorieux, / Qui voit jusqu'à Cyrus remonter ses Aïeux?’ (Mithridate, Act III. 1, ll. 823-6).

  12. They also provide me with a tenuous if not very flattering Irish link: Ménage derives the word from the ‘Brigantes, peuples d'Hybernie, qui sous l'Empire Romain passerent en Angleterre où ils ravagerent toute la partie Septentrionale’ [Brigantes, a people of Hibernia, who at the time of the Roman Empire moved to England, where they destroyed the entire North (Les Origines de la langue françoise, 1650, article ‘Brigands’). He was aware of the rival etymologies proposed by Nicot and by Fauchet (Traité de la Milice). Modern scholarship has absolved the Hibernians and given the etymology, and the blame, to mediaeval Italy, the currently accepted etymology being brigante, irregular soldier. My wish to bring this in here is an illustration of how we, like Racine's audiences, scrutinize his texts for every scintilla of reference to ourselves, with which to build our identities.

  13. See his Culture and Imperialism (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1993).

  14. For Bakhtin on dialogism, see ‘Discourse in the Novel’ in Michael Holquist (ed.), The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 259-422.

  15. Le Siècle de Louis XIV (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966), 1, p. 358.

  16. In a more socially conscious way, one reason for Bajazet to refuse Roxane is his horror at the thought of allying his Ottoman blood with an ‘Esclave attachée à ses seuls intérêts’ (Act II. 5, l. 719).

  17. This is, of course, another way of expressing those conflicts of the two-sided character which Georges Forestier's chapter in this volume addresses.

  18. Self as barbarian is an image linked to conduct of affairs of the heart, ranging from the preciosity of Alexandre's ‘Vous croyez donc qu'à moi-même barbare / J'abandonne en ces lieux une beauté si rare?’ (Alexandre le Grand, Act III. 6, ll. 925-6), through Titus's ‘Non, je suis un barbare. / Moi-même je me hais. Néron, tant détesté, / N'a point à cet excès poussé sa cruauté’ (Bérénice, Act IV. 6, ll. 1212-14) and Bajazet's ‘Je me trouvais barbare, injuste, criminel’ (Bajazet, Act III. 4, l. 995). The image of self as monster is rarer, with Phèdre, of course, providing the clearest case. It must be an intentional irony that of all Racine's characters the one most often qualified as ‘barbare’ is the very Greek Agamemnon (ten times).

  19. ‘Racine et la politique: la perplexité de la critique’, Œuvres et Critiques, 24. 1 (1999), Présences de Racine (Tübingen: Gunter Narr), pp. 136-58.

  20. This figure is reached if one compares Jacques et Pierre Dupuy's catalogue, at the start of the reign, to the inventory prepared by Nicolas Clément and others in 1682, where the manuscripts are methodically organized into linguistic categories. The Royal Library benefited from transfers from Fouquet's library and the Collège Mazarin, as well as from the acquisitions made by Colbert's envoyés (e.g. Jean-Michel Vansleb deputed in 1671 to track down valuable works throughout the Middle East). Some, of course, ended up in the ‘Colbertine’. See Marie-Rose Séguy, ‘L'Orient—Attrait de l'Exotisme’, in Roseline Bacou, Marie-Rose Séguy and Hélène Adhémar (eds), Collections de Louis XIV: dessins, albums, manuscrits. Orangerie des Tuileries, 7 octobre 1977-9 janvier 1978 (Paris: Éditions des Musées nationaux, 1977), pp. 198-200.

  21. Just as the Jesuits' accounts of the history of China had led Isaac de La Peyrère to develop his theory of the Pre-Adamites, thereby construing the Bible as merely the history of the Jews, rather than of mankind, as testified by his Systema theologicum ex Preadamitarum hypothesi, 1655.

  22. Their knowledge of Greek and Oriental languages was to prove useful in the preparation of studies and works of controversy.

  23. These were of interest not merely to Port-Royal but to Louis XIV, who wished to have proof of the Greek and Eastern Church views on transubstantiation. These superbly illuminated ‘attestations’ were deposited in the Royal Library.

  24. Alain Grosrichard, Structure du sérail. La fiction du despotisme asiatique dans l'Orient classique (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1979), pp. 26-7. Quoted by Marie-Odile Sweetser, ‘Visions de l'autre dans la tragédie classique: le Romain et l'Oriental’, French Literature Series, 23 (1996), p. 63.

  25. For example André Du Ryer's translation of the Coran (L'Alcoran de Mahomet, translaté d'arabe en françois, Paris: A. de Sommaville, 1647) was virtually ignored in France, where preference was given to modern editions of Pierre Le Venerable's twelfth-century Latin version, and subsequently to Maracci's 1698 translation, itself based on the medieval one, and where each sourate was accompanied by its refutation. Du Ryer's work was, in fact, better known in England, where in 1649 it was ‘Englished’ for the benefit of ‘all that desire to look into the Turkish vanities’, as the title proclaims. For details concerning the diffusion and reception of the Coran in France see Dominique Carnoy, Représentations de l'Islam dans la France du XVIIe siècle. La ville des tentations (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1998).

  26. Alexandre Yali Haran in ‘Les droits de la couronne de France sur l'Empire au XVIIe siècle’ (Revue historique, 299. 1 (1999), 71-91) provides an account of the arguments in favour of French imperial claims, and the survival into the seventeenth century of a current of Messianic prophecy regarding French universal dominion. See also: Gaston Zeller, ‘Les Rois de France candidats à l'Empire: Essai sur l'idéologie impériale en France’, Revue historique, 173 (1934), 273-311; Klaus Malettke, ‘Le Saint Empire Romain Germanique et sa constitution vus par des juristes et historiens français au XVIIe siècle’, in Wolfgang Leiner (ed.), Horizons européens de la littérature française. Dixseptième colloque du Centre méridional de rencontres sur le XVIIe siècle (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1988), pp. 185-95. On the general decline in enthusiasm and respect for the notion of the Holy Roman Empire in seventeenth-century France, see Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World. Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France, c. 1500-1800 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

  27. Mars Christianissimus autore Germano Gallo Graeco ou Apologie des Armes du Roy Trèschrestien contre les Chrestiens (Cologne: David Lebon, 1684).

  28. Antoine Aubéry: ‘nos roys … sont les vrays successeurs des anciens Empereurs, tant de Rome que de Constantinople’ [our Kings are the true successors of the former Emperors, both of Rome and Constantinople], De la prééminence de nos Roys et de leur préséance sur l'Empereur et le Roy d'Espagne (Paris: chez Michel Soly, 1649), p. 182). Earlier French kings (Charles VIII in 1494, and François Ier) had obtained the title, an empty one unless the Ottoman empire were destroyed.

  29. Bashir El-Beshti, ‘Signifying Texts and Displaced Contexts: Orientalism and the Ideological Foundations of the Early Modern State’, in David Lee Rubin (ed.), EMF, Studies in Early Modern France, 3 (Charlottesville: Rookwood Press, 1997), pp. 80-93; see p. 84.

  30. Tzvetan Todorov, Nous et les autres. La réflexion française sur la diversité humaine (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1989), pp. 356-7. The paradox of exoticism, he states, is its wish to be an elogium without genuine knowledge of the culture in question.

  31. Charles de Rochefort, Histoire naturelle et morale des Iles Antilles de l'Amerique, p. 283. Quoted in Pagden, Lords of All the World, p. 35.

  32. L'incomparable piété des très-chrétiens rois de France, et les admirables prérogatives qu'elle a méritées à Leurs Majestés, tant pour leur royaume en général, que pour leurs personnes sacrées en particulier, par le R. P. Balthazar de Riez, 2 vols (Livre I: Paris, G. Alliot, 1672; Livre II: Aix, imp. de C. David, 1674). See ‘Épitre’, third page (unpaginated).

  33. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian, p. 48.

  34. Rohou, Théâtre, p. 995.

  35. van Delft, Littérature et anthropologie, pp. 97-8.

  36. Rohou, Théâtre, ‘Notice de Bajazet’, p. 979.

  37. Georges Forestier, ‘Introduction’, in Bajazet (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1992), p. 27. Also Œuvres, p. 1504.

  38. Christian Delmas, ‘Préface’, in Bajazet, coll. Folio Théâtre (Paris: Gallimard, 1995), p. 11.

  39. 2nd Preface (1676), in Forestier, Œuvres, p. 626.

  40. ‘On appelle en Medecine fureur uterine une maladie de la vulve ou matrice qui jette des fumées au cerveau qui causent de grands emportements & deshonnestes aux femmes qui ont une passion d'amour indomptable. La plus-part des Religieuses qu'on croit possedées, ne sont que des malades de fureur uterine’ [The disease of the vulva, or the womb, is called in Medecine the uterine rash, which causes vapours to the brain, and great excesses and unreliability among women provoked to insatiable amorous passion. Most of those Nuns who were believed to be possessed were only sick with uterine rash] (Furetière, Dictionnaire universel, 1690, article ‘uterin’; cf. Thomas Corneille, Dictionnaire des Arts et des Sciences, 1695). The blame, as we can see, has shifted most rationally from the devil to the physiological composition of women.

  41. Port-Royal, as it appears in the Abrégé provides the opposite pole to the harem, where industry and holiness reign both within and without the walls: ‘Tout ce qu'on en voyoit au dehors inspiroit de la piété. […] Mais combien les personnes qui connoissoient l'intérieur de ce monastère y trouvoient-elles de nouveaux sujets d'édification! Quelle paix! Quel silence! Quelle charité! Quel amour pour la pauvreté et pour la mortification! Un travail sans relâche, une prière continuelle, point d'ambition que pour les emplois les plus vils et les plus humiliants, aucune impatience dans les sœurs, nulle bizarrerie dans les mères, l'obéissance toujours prompte, et le commandement toujours raisonnable’ [Everything that could be seen from without inspired Christian devotion […], but what new sources of edification were revealed to those who knew the life within the walls! What peace! What silence! What charity! What love of poverty and self-denial! A ceaseless labour, unremitting prayer, only ambition for the most menial and humiliating tasks prevailed, no impatience amongst the Sisters, no moodiness in the Mother Superiors, always prompt obedience and moderate instructions], Abrégé de l'histoire de Port-Royal, in Œuvres complètes, ed. Luc Estang (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1962), p. 323.

  42. Bajazet: “serrail” et transgression’, in Racine aux miroirs (Paris: SEDES, 1992), pp. 137-48.

  43. Eléonore M. Zimmermann, La Liberté et le destin dans le théâtre de Jean Racine, suivi de deux essais sur le théâtre de Jean Racine (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1999), p. 14 (orig. Saratoga, 1982).

  44. ‘Quelle apparence, que je ne me réveille point à ce grand bruit, qui se levant icy, se fait entendre aux extremitez de la terre, et que je ne reçoive aucune impression d'une lumiere si proche et si éclatante, qui s'épand desja au delà de la mer, et jette ses rayons jusques dans les cachots de Barbarie?’ [What an idea, that I should never wake up to this great din which arising here can be heard in the far extremities of the Earth, and that I should not receive any impression of a light so close and brilliant, spreading already beyond the sea, and casting its rays even into the cells of Barbary?], Le Prince (Paris: La Table Ronde, 1996), p. 45. This passage follows his encounter with a Flemish gentleman who had been captured at sea and sold as a slave in Algiers.

  45. The full title is: Histoire de l'origine, progrez, & declin, de l'Empire des Turcs. Où sont declarees les causes de l'agrandissement & conservation de leurs Estats. Et comme on les pourroit destruire & ruiner. Avec une Complainte d'un Esclave Chrestien, adressee aux Princes Chrestiens (Paris: chez Pierre Chevalier, 1614).

  46. Paris: P. Rocolet, 1637; 2nd edition in 1649.

  47. Quoted by André Zysberg, Les galériens, vies et destins de 60 000 forçats sur les galères de France 1680-1748 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1987), p. 67. The market in humans was conducted in a number of ports of the Christian Mediterranean (Leghorn, Venice, Malta, Alicante, Majorca, Cagliari). To the galley slaves provided by the Turks were added, experimentally, Iroquois, and black Guineans who were to be ‘acclimatés’—in the latter case the experiment was as short-lived as the slaves themselves who proved unable to survive the conditions. After October 1685, of course, Huguenots, the ‘galériens pour la foi’ [galley slaves of religion], helped to make up the numbers.

  48. Forestier, ‘Introduction’ in Bajazet (Livre de Poche, 1992), p. 32.

  49. Zimmermann, La Liberté et le destin dans le théâtre de Jean Racine, pp. 17-18.

  50. Forestier, Bajazet (Livre de Poche), p. 44.

  51. Racine. La stratégie du caméléon (Paris: Seghers, 1990), p. 151.

  52. Cf. Athalie, Act II. 7, ll. 709-30 and V. 6, ll. 1768-90. [This study was completed before the publication of Volker Schröder's La Tragédie du sang d'Auguste. Politique et intertextualité dans Britannicus, coll. Biblio 17, no. 119 (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1999).]

  53. In this he is a little like Junie who only sees among her ancestors the virtuous Augustus. This point is made by Eléonore M. Zimmermann: ‘De même que Junie ne voit chez ses ancêtres qu'un Auguste vertueux, Bajazet puise sa force dans un passé mythique’ [Just as Junie identifies among her ancestors only a virtuous Augustus, so Bajazet derives his strength from a mythical past], La Liberté et le destin dans le théâtre de Jean Racine, p. 17.

  54. Ricœur emphasizes the role of genealogical references as a form of symbolical and biological inscribing of the self in time (Temps et récit. III, Ch. 3).

  55. This view of Corneille's decision to relegate Spain's enemies to the ‘coulisses’ is developed by Michèle Longino in ‘Politique et théâtre au XVIIe siècle: Les Français en Orient et l'exotisme du Cid’, in Dominique de Courcelles (ed.), Littérature et exotisme, XVIe-XVIIe siècle (Paris: École des Chartes, 1997), pp. 35-59.

  56. In the original edition, ‘adorez’ is replaced by ‘connaissez’.

  57. Paul Rycaut, Histoire de l'État présent de l'Empire des Ottomans contenant les maximes politiques des Turcs, traduit de l'anglois […] par M. Briot (Amsterdam: Wolfgank, 1670), title of Ch. II. My emphasis.

  58. Ibid., title of Ch. V.

  59. ‘Craint de tout l'univers, il vous faudra tout craindre’ (Britannicus, Act IV. 3, l. 1452).

  60. Rycaut, Histoire de l'État, p. 249. The religion of Islam is presented as both a confused mixture of truth and error, and, in some of its manifestations, as a direct opposite of Christianity. For example, when describing the Order of ‘Kalendivis’, Rycaut states that ‘Ceux qui font profession de cét Ordre, méritent mieux d'estre appelez Epicuriens, que personnes retirées du monde pour mortifier leurs passions, comme font tous les autres Religieux Turcs. Cependant ces phanatiques prétendent par une voie toute opposée à celle des autres, estre de bons religieux en s'abandonnant au libertinage & au relâchement …’ [Those who belong to this Order deserve to be called Epicureans rather than people who retire from the world to mortify their passions, as do all other Turkish religious communities. However, these fanatics claim by a completely opposite path to the rest, to be good holy people in surrendering to a life of laxity and libertinage], ibid., p. 264.

  61. Zimmermann, La Liberté et le destin dans le théâtre de Jean Racine, p. 72.

  62. Delcroix, ‘La poétique du monstre’, p. 179.

  63. Dictionnaire de l'Académie Françoise (1694), article ‘nœud’.

  64. The association is so strong that it surfaces in unexpected places: Richelet, defining ‘lacs’, informs us that ‘Les muets du serrail estranglent des Princes, des Visirs, avec des lacs de soye’ (Dictionnaire, 1694).

  65. Forestier, Œuvres, p. 625.

  66. Todorov, Nous et les autres, p. 358.

  67. ‘Forms of time and of the chronotope in the novel’, in Holquist (ed.), The Dialogic Imagination.

  68. Mithridate, ou l'exercice de l'ambiguïté’, in Claire Carlin (ed.), La Rochefoucauld, Mithridate, Frères et Sœurs, Les Muses sœurs, coll. Biblio 17, no. 111 (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1998), pp. 83-98 (p. 89).

  69. Delmas, ‘Préface’, in Bajazet, p. 26.

  70. ‘Racine lecteur d'Othon’, in Agréables mensonges. Essais sur le théâtre français du XVIIe siècle (Paris: Klincksieck, 1991), pp. 237-8. The original text appeared in the ‘Preface’ to Corneille: Othon, ed. J. Sanchez (Mont-de-Marsan: José Feijoo, 1989).

  71. See Ricœur for this relationship: ‘… l'entrecroisement entre l'histoire et la fiction dans la refiguration du temps repose, en dernière analyse, sur cet empiètement réciproque, le moment quasi historique de la fiction changeant de place avec le moment quasi fictif de l'histoire. De cet entrecroisment, de cet empiètement réciproque, de cet échange de places, procède ce qu'il est convenu d'appeler le temps humain, où se conjuguent la représentance du passé par l'histoire et les variations imaginatives de la fiction, sur l'arrière-plan des apories de la phénoménologie du temps’ [… the interweaving of history and fiction in the refiguration of time rests finally upon this reciprocal trespassing, on the quasi-historical moment of fiction changing places with the quasifictive moment of history. From this interweaving, from this reciprocal trespassing, comes what is commonly called human time, where history's representing of the past and the imaginative variants produced by fiction come together, against the background of the phenomenology of time and its aporias], Temps et récit. III, p. 279.

  72. Rohou, ‘Notice de Bajazet’, p. 988.

  73. Edi Pucci, ‘History and the Question of Identity: Kant, Arendt, Ricœur’, in R. Kearney (ed.), Paul Ricœur. The Hermeneutics of Action (London: Sage, 1996), pp. 125-36 (p. 134). For this aspect of Ricœur's view of the past see in particular Soi-même comme un autre, ‘Le soi et la visée ethique’, pp. 199-236.

  74. ‘Notice’ for Mithridate, in G.E.F., Œuvres, 3 (Paris: Hachette, 1865), p. 3.

  75. William J. Cloonan, Racine's Theatre: The Politics of Love (University, Miss.: Romance Monographs, 1977), title of chapter on Mithridate.

  76. Alain Niderst, ‘Mithridate, opéra?’, in Carlin (ed.), La Rochefoucauld, pp. 125-36.

  77. Plutarch, Racine's main source for Monime, underlines this theme of exile among savage men: ‘She […] often bewailed her beauty, that had procured her a keeper, instead of a husband, and a watch of barbarians, instead of the home and attendance of a wife; and, removed far from Greece, she enjoyed the pleasure which she proposed to herself only in a dream, being in the meantime robbed of that which is real’ (Plutarch on Pompey, trans. by John Dryden in Plutarch. Lives, translated […] by several hands (London, 1716)).

  78. Her situation, as representative of a subjugated people, is close to that of Esther. In both instances the dominated but, as the seventeenth-century scale of values would have it, the more civilized race and weaker sex has acquired unusual power over the (quasi) barbarian: ‘… le Persan superbe est aux pieds d'une Juive’ (Esther, Act I. 1, l. 28). Cf. Andromaque, whose status as supposedly less civilized Trojan vis-à-vis supposedly more civilized Greek creates a different but equally ironic configuration.

  79. Since Suleiman the Magnificent's siege of Vienna (1529), this expression had become a topos, as Laura Alcoba has pointed out (‘La question du pouvoir au miroir Ottoman: Le Viaje de Turquía’, in de Courcelles (ed.), Littérature et exotisme, pp. 17-33 (p. 23)). To the longstanding threat posed in the Mediterranean by Turkish naval strength was henceforth added the menace of a major land force. The fear of encirclement is a fear of asphyxiation. Western European anxieties about this slow strangulation are projected in Bajazet's wish for expansion beyond the prison of the ‘sérail’, and in the whole emphasis on death by garotting.

  80. As well as extolling the spiritual and material advantages to be gained from attacking Egypt, he explicitly attempts to persuade Louis that ‘une guerre européenne serait inconsidérée’ [a European war would be foolhardy], Projet d'expédition d'Égypte présenté à Louis XIV, in Œuvres de Leibniz publiées pour la première fois d'après les manuscrits originaux, ed. A. Foucher de Careil (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1864), p. 5.

Roland Racevskis (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Racevskis, Roland. “Subjective Dispersion in Iphigénie or the Unbearable Fullness of Being.” French Forum 27, no. 2 (spring 2002): 13-27.

[In the following essay, Racevskis contends that Iphigénie is a tragedy about the universal human predicament of being caught on the threshold between self and others, present and future, duty and desire, knowledge and ignorance, immanence and transcendence.]

Racine's Iphigénie (1674) is a drama of anticipation in excess. With the gods' all-powerful yet undisclosed will hanging over them, this tragedy's characters stumble in the dark, interrogating their destinies in a present moment overfilled with potential, on the cusp of the future. In typically Racinian fashion, they find their circumstances unbearable, so filled are they with a strong yet vague sense of what is to come. As tensions mount, the waiting leads to confusion, to experiential saturation, and eventually to the dispersion of identities. Among Racine's secular tragedies, Iphigénie evokes most poignantly the human predicament of being caught between knowledge and ignorance, between awareness of the weight of the gods' wishes and obliviousness to what will become of the situation at hand.

The Greek fleet, ready to embark on the war against Troy, is held in check by an inert sea and sky. An oracular pronouncement has informed the Greek nation and their king Agamemnon that the blood of Hélène must be spilled, in the person of Iphigénie, in order for the spell that has stilled the bay of Aulis to be broken. While the oracle seems to require the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigénie, it will eventually be revealed that Eriphile, daughter of Hélène and Thésée and thus a kind of substitute Iphigénie, will serve as the chosen sacrificial lamb. Her death will appease the gods and set the war machine in motion. But this revelation occurs only in the final scene of the tragedy. In the events leading up to this sacrifice, everyone onstage is equally in the dark about what the gods have decreed.

Pregnant with a vague but strong sense of what is to come, Agamemnon, Clytemnestre, Achille, Eriphile, and Iphigénie desperately try to articulate their experience through language and, when language fails them, to project elements of themselves into the world around them. Blindly grasping for answers and sounding their future, Racine's dramatis personæ function as vessels for the heavy burden of human responsibility in a world dominated by invisible, transcendent forces. Filled to overflowing with their tragic situation, they perform a drama of human pain and radical uncertainty at the threshold between the terrestrial and the transcendent, between self and others, between responsibility and powerlessness, and between knowledge and its absence.


Iphigénie starts on a note of ambiguity, in a crepuscular scene of two characters, Agamemnon and Arcas, searching themselves and for each other. From the outset, nothing is self-evident, and Arcas must make an effort to recognize his king:

C'est vous-même, Seigneur! Quel important besoin
Vous a fait devancer l'Aurore de si loin?
A peine un faible jour vous éclaire et me guide.
Vos yeux seuls et les miens sont ouverts dans l'Aulide.(1)

Dialogue and action begin at the liminal moment of dawn, a transitional temporality that stretches the time unity, raising the question of whether it is the day before or the fatal day at hand. Arcas and his sovereign converse at the outset of the play in an in-between state from which they interrogate their own situations and destinies. As Arcas points out, they occupy a privileged position in comparison to the rest of their social collectivity: they are out and about while the rest of the city, and even Neptune (1.1.9), the god who is keeping the Greek army in port, sleeps peacefully, unaware of the thoughts that trouble Agamemnon. In spite of the vigilance that distinguishes them from their fellow citizens, these characters undergo the pain and uncertainty of talking about and examining their lives during this shadowy break of day.

Still, at this stage of events, language is working reasonably well for Agamemnon, who as we find out later has not always had such an easy time giving voice to his thoughts and emotions. Upon hearing Calchas pronounce the oracle that calls for the blood of (an) Iphigénie, “Je demeurai sans voix, et n'en repris l'usage, / Que par mille sanglots qui se firent passage” (1.1.65-66). He remembers a time when he was bereft of a voice, on the borderline between speaking and simply making noise. He sobbed profusely in the face of destiny, uttering thousands of sounds that carried a strong meaning but did not allow him for all his expressive prolixity to enter the symbolic order of reasoned speech.2 The final image of the king at the end of the play has him withdrawing from all communication, hiding his face to conceal his tears (5.5.1708-10).

In this respect the king resembles Eriphile, who also deals in a half-accomplished kind of utterance representing a scattered self.3 In her attempts to communicate with others, Eriphile experiences the same kind of vocal frustration as the king himself. Although she is most often considered to be an excluded party, having nothing to do with the familial and/or political/military ties that bind together the rest of the characters in this tragedy, Eriphile in fact shares a good deal in common with the ostensible center of social and political legitimacy, Agamemnon. While Eriphile is a kind of half-heroine, half an Iphigénie—and this is enough for her to function as the sacrificial lamb (or black sheep) in the play's tragi-comic denouement—Agamemnon, with the weight of the gods' will hanging over his love for his daughter, feels like only half the man he used to be.

For Roland Barthes, Agamemnon's underlying weaknesses are revealed in his uses and misuses of language: “[C]omme tout être faible, il vit abusivement dans le langage; c'est par le langage qu'il est attaqué, il redoute et fuit les discours de Clytemnestre; et c'est par le langage qu'il s'est protégé, s'enveloppant nébuleusement dans l'aphorisme, les considérations rancies sur la nature humaine.”4 In the same way that he wanders under cover of night, in the ambiguous moments between yesterday and today, Agamemnon shrouds himself in the vagaries of his practices of utterance. His sobs, his clichés, and his attempted acts of benevolent deception all reveal the clouded mind of the king in a play in which confusion reigns supreme.5

Agamemnon's uncertain uses of language—both his painful bleats of terror and frustration and his all-too comfortable banalities—point to the king's inability to communicate with others. The difficulty in the opening scene of entering into conversational contact with Arcas is in this sense revealing. Perhaps the best argument for the meaning of this murky exchange comes from Felix Freudmann:

With the play's opening lines, Agamemnon's isolation rises before us out of the night. The lonely king stumbles through the darkness among his sleeping people and wishes to be heard; very much as he will move blindly among sundry schemes which will come to naught, schemes rooted in instincts as ancient and obscure as the night's shadows and which relate of necessity to other individuals in dreamy pursuit of their own visions. Few tragic heroes suffer so clearly from a breakdown in communication with others and even from the lack of a clear perception of their own motives.6

Agamemnon is detached from the world around him, by the very reason that he was attached to it, through his concern for his kingdom and his love for his daughter. When military objectives and paternal love come into direct conflict, the individual subject begins to break down. In contrast to Corneille's Horace, who without hesitation kills his kin in order to preserve the social order, Racine's beleaguered leader in Iphigénie cannot come to a decision. He thus takes part, along with Eriphile, in an ongoing theme of this work—the confusion, alienation, isolation, and subjective disintegration that result from the quintessentially tragic predicament of the direct conflict between public obligation and private desire. Standing at this crossroads, the king undergoes a series of communicational and cognitive lapses that hamper his interactions with others in his family and in his immediate military and political circles.

Clear thinking and consciousness are absent when the gods visit Agamemnon at night, further aggravating his unease by means of carefully timed reproaches that strike their object in the state between wakefulness and sleep:

Pour comble de malheur, les Dieux toutes les nuits,
Dès qu'un léger sommeil suspendait mes ennuis,
Vengeant de leurs Autels le sanglant privilège,
Me venaient reprocher ma pitié sacrilège,
Et présentant la foudre à mon esprit confus,
Le bras déjà levé menaçaient mes refus.


The predicament of this tragedy's most developed character takes on the extended dimensions of duration, constructed in his recent memory, in this description of sleepless nights and supernatural encounters. It was during such nocturnal bouts that he started, over time (“toutes les nuits”), to get the sense that the sword of Damocles was hanging over his head, in the form of the menacing raised arms of the gods, who stood before him and brought the thunder and lightning of utter disapproval.

Frightening and imposing though the gods may be, Agamemnon has trouble understanding their message. His mind is confused and his perceptions clouded in the liminal state of consciousness in which they find him. Like Charlemagne's dreams, the gods' oniric appearances offer insights but demand further exegesis and interpretation, in anxious anticipation of events to come.7 These dreamy visions become the object of narrative and fuel the desire to recount the situation to another character. It is in that difficult space, where one tries to understand what is being handed down from above, or where one aims to enter into contact and communication with another, that narrative desire comes into play. The attempt to tell others what is taking place, as a means to ease the pervasive tension, only highlights the fact that the characters in Iphigénie at key moments have a difficult time finding themselves and one another.

Before Clytemnestre and Iphigénie can come into contact with Agamemnon during the course of the dramatic action, they err for a few moments in a forest. Eurybate's account of a relatively brief time of confused wandering in the woods introduces the arrival of the mother and daughter on the scene:

La Reine, dont ma course a devancé les pas,
Va remettre bientôt sa Fille entre vos bras.
Elle approche. Elle s'est quelque temps égarée
Dans ces bois, qui du Camp semblent cacher l'entrée.
A peine nous avons dans leur obscurité
Retrouvé le chemin que nous avions quitté.


These woods are a dark and uncertain space, offering difficult access to the tent of the sovereign and the fatal shores that lie in the background. Like the coast of Aulis, the forest is a place of passage and a momentary obstacle, though not nearly as serious an impediment as the inert sea that prevents the Greeks' departure under Neptune's iron hand. The woods cause only a momentary “égarement,” but it is a kind of wandering that is by no means insignificant. Why should Iphigénie pass through this forest before speaking to Agamemnon? Was she subconsciously avoiding this meeting with her father and with destiny?

The dark woods play optical tricks as she stumbles through them. The wanderers are barely able to set themselves back on the right path again once they have strayed from it. Strangely the woods somehow do not fully hide the entry to the camp, but rather “semblent cacher l'entrée.” The curious compound verb describes a quizzical illusion: how can a forest only seem to hide an army camp? The combined verb form is pregnant with the overdetermination of these woods as an inbetween space of confusion, a temporary obstacle to the further progression of the action. This “quelque temps” is a time of deferral that facilitates the mounting of Agamemnon's confusion and the perplexity of his entire family in the face of destiny. Perhaps throughout Iphigénie the dramatis personæ all wander in the forest in the hope of finding the clearing that might show them an unequivocal meaning for the will of the gods and an indication of what their future holds.


Suspense clearly constitutes one of the key elements of Iphigénie. The action is temporally situated in anticipation of a major mytho-historical event. As Nina Ekstein has explained, unlike a number of other plays in which the past ostensibly exerts much greater pressure than the future, in Iphigénie the future hangs over characters as the predominant temporal dimension structuring dramatic action.8 For Ekstein, the radical instability of the future contributes to the characters' general confusion. Suspense and interrogation of the future are motivated by the oracles to which the personæ on numerous occasions refer, the central oracle being the one that announces the necessity of Iphigénie/Eriphile's eventual death. As a result of the pronouncements and predictions that structure their understanding of the world, the characters in this tragedy, rather than carrying around just the baggage of the past, are also filled to overflowing with the future, with the possibilities of their own actions and of the situations in which they find themselves.

Although we may see him, following Barthes, as a character of limited means and initiative, Agamemnon is close to the gods and in communication with them, maintaining a kind of continuity with divinity but still dominated by its invisible forces. Agamemnon wants no part of this high station or the fame and fortune that accompany it. Arcas has to remind his king of the great import of the circumstances at hand and of the immense potential of the Greek fleet aligned on the shore:

Quelle gloire, Seigneur, quels triomphes égalent
Le spectacle pompeux que ces bords vous étalent,
Tous ces mille Vaisseaux, qui chargés de vingt Rois
N'attendent que les vents pour partir sous vos lois?


The adjectival group “chargés de vingt Rois” weighs on the noun “Vaisseaux,” which it modifies with the burdensome force of the gods' will on Agamemnon's worried mind. The shores of Aulis are a transitional space, on the cusp of departure toward Troy, that is full to overflowing with the potential of war. The positive value that Arcas sees in the unequaled pomp and sprawl of this maritime scene is precisely what Agamemnon finds unbearable, for he stands on the uncomfortable thresholds between human endeavor and transcendent will, between public and private life, between duty and desire. Thus he uses a bitter rhetoric to describe the burden of sovereignty:

Triste destin des Rois! Esclaves que nous sommes
Et des rigueurs du Sort, et des discours des Hommes,
Nous nous voyons sans cesse assiégés de témoins,
Et les plus malheureux osent pleurer le moins.


He finds himself in a paradoxical position, an intermediary state between mortality and immortality. As we have seen, Agamemnon does indeed dare to cry, rather copiously, to overflow with the tears of his terrible responsibility.

Agamemnon's brimming eyes provide one of the images of saturation that serve in Iphigénie to give form to the pregnancy of the tragic moment at Aulis. While the shores are full to overflowing, the sails of the Greek ships are flat and devoid of the winds that would carry them to Troy. Their absent volume is displaced in different, individual human spaces. Eriphile, bereft though she may be of socially approved identity, seethes with anger, frustration, and unrequited love. She states quite clearly to Achille that she holds more knowledge of her destiny than she is willing to divulge:

Souffrez que loin du Camp, et loin de votre vue,
Toujours infortunée, et toujours inconnue;
J'aille cacher un sort si digne de pitié,
Et dont mes pleurs encor vous taisent la moitié.


In the absence of the desired state of affairs, she opts to harbor the sorrow that she will not in the current scenario fully express. It is as if she, like Andromaque, were offering to take an unwanted child off to a deserted land to cry in peace and isolation.9 With the resolution of the crisis still on the horizon, Eriphile is filled with the forces that she cannot currently unleash.

Near the play's end, Calchas, the vehicle for the gods' oracular pronouncements, inspires awe as he stands on the threshold between present and future:

Déjà de traits en l'air s'élevait un nuage.
Déjà coulait le sang prémices du carnage.
Entre les deux partis Calchas s'est avancé,
L'œil farouche, l'air sombre, et le poil hérissé,
Terrible, et plein du Dieu, qui l'agitait sans doute.


The double “Déjà” places us on the verge of seeing a change in the circumstances holding back the Greek armada. Situated in the intermediary space between Achille's followers and the rest of the army, Calchas serves as a vessel for the transcendent will that hangs over the destinies of the play's characters. What agitates him is the very same force that, with the catalyzing action of Eriphile's spilling blood, will fill the sails of the motionless fleet and send them off to Troy.

In anticipation of this scene, after Calchas's initial announcement that he will make the necessary sacrifice, Achille observes the ships that are otherwise ready for departure on the static shores and projects his impatience onto these vessels, conjuring up the image of their imminent deployment:

Les Dieux vont s'apaiser. Du moins Calchas publie
Qu'avec eux dans une heure il nous réconcilie,
Que Neptune et les Vents, prêts à nous exaucer,
N'attendent que le sang que sa main va verser.
Déjà dans les Vaisseaux la voile se déploie.
Déjà sur sa parole ils se tournent vers Troie.


The period after “s'apaiser” is what one might call a pregnant pause. “Dans une heure,” “prêts,” and the anaphoric “Déjà” combine to construct one of the predominant temporalities of Iphigénie, the overfilled moment of anticipation, the time of imminence that takes in Achille's observations the clear conceptual shape of the final hour, a temporal notion that assumes the imaginary form of the ships' unfurling sails on the shores of Aulis.10 The vessels turn toward Troy and their sails start to fill, in this pregnant moment of potential, taking us to the brink, going forward but not yet there, still agonizingly interrogating the near future that will be even more closely approached in the final scene.

The repetition of “Déjà,” a poetic and rhetorical device employed by Racine, both reveals Achille's strong desire for the continuation of the campaign and his inability to pursue actively the emerging Greek nation's objectives. He remains trapped in a pattern of repetition for emphasis because, contrary to the dynamic image he attempts to conjure, nothing is yet in motion. The intransitivity of the repetition emerges in tension with the successful act of utterance. We are, after all, in the domain of language, at least one step ahead of Agamemnon and Eriphile's inarticulate tears of rage and sobs of grief.

The response to the unbearable fullness of being in this play is initially to put things into words, to exteriorize parts of what is taking (or not taking) place in symbolic form. The weight of external circumstances simultaneously threatens to crush the characters and prompts them to speak. Paradoxically they are both paralyzed and incited to utterance by the overdetermination of their tragic situations. Confronted with a daunting externality, characters find that they have simply interiorized too much. Desperately trying to ease the burden of existence, they use language to represent and project elements of their experience outward, into the world around them. As we will see in the following section, this process of exteriorization is extended on an ontological level to a veritable projection of self into the external world. But the first step is simply to speak. Arcas, burdened with the knowledge that Iphigénie is to be sacrificed, finally says that he cannot hold out any longer, that he must reveal Agamemnon's plan and enlist the aid of Achille:

Autant que je l'ai pu, j'ai gardé son secret.
Mais le fer, le bandeau, la flamme est toute prête,
Dût tout cet appareil retomber sur ma tête,
Il faut parler.
Je tremble. Expliquez-vous, Arcas.
Qui que ce soit, parlez, et ne le craignez pas.


The comma at the hemistich after “pu” in line 904 denotes Arcas's moment of decision. At the limit of individual ability and capacity, Arcas reflects on the recent past during which he has served as the keeper of the truth of Agamemnon's secret travails. But the situation has changed, and the hard fact of external necessity drives the impersonal expression stating the need for disclosure: “Il faut parler.” Clytemnestre's reaction, in anticipation of Arcas's announcement, is visceral. Achille, in his practically minded posture, always ready for action, expands the call for utterance into a more generalized kind of disclosure—somebody, anybody, speak! And yet there is something still unsaid that language is trying to say, some blockage, something just beyond what characters can think of or say, the unimaginable, the unspeakable, just beyond their reach; to be human is to continue interrogating this void, to continue gazing into the abyss of what cannot currently and can perhaps never be said. It is as if language were not enough, as if Racine's characters were arriving at the threshold between their pained speech and other, even more dolorous forms of self-expression.


When the self is full to overflowing Racine's characters react by casting parts of that subjectivity into the world of interpersonal relations, through communication in the form of language, and, in an ontological sense, into the physical world around them. Iphigénie is marked by strong images of identities attempting to project themselves physically into material reality. This suggests one way of reading Iphigénie's statement of desire to make contact with Achille:

Je l'attendais partout, et d'un regard timide
Sans cesse parcourant les chemins de l'Aulide,
Mon cœur pour le chercher volait loin devant moi,
Et je demande Achille à tout ce que je vois.


Iphigénie describes a projection of self into space and of the other onto people and objects in space. Her interpolation of everything and everyone she sees places Achille into contact, in Iphigénie's view of the world, with everything that surrounds her.11 The spatial separation she describes between her heart and her identity in “volait loin devant moi” is doubled by the distance between the first-person possessive “Mon” and the first-person tonic pronoun “moi,” at the beginning and end of line 607 respectively. This line thus represents in verse form a distended subjectivity, coming to grips with the pain of a love that is in conflict with external circumstances. The difficulties of the advancement of action toward war with Troy and the weighty decisions that must be made impregnate characters with a critical mass of responsibility. Their reaction is first to speak and then, in the case of Iphigénie, who is under the most pressure, to throw a privileged portion of herself, her heart, out into the world, in the desperate hope of being able to reintegrate this externalized part of self into a whole and healed identity. Selves in Iphigénie are disarticulated, nowhere at home with themselves.

Iphigénie points to the crux of this tragedy by referring to Agamemnon's difficult choice as a dispersion of self through blood: “Quel Père de son sang se plaît à se priver?” (3.6.1015). Agamemnon is being asked to throw a portion of himself and his family to the gods so that the nation, to which he is also intimately attached, may reconstitute itself in an organized assault on Troy.12 As is indicated by the strong alliteration of “Père,” “plaît,” and “priver” (also carried into the following line's “pourquoi,” “perdrait,” and “pouvait”), this loss of self is the result of a violent and painful process that must be initiated masochistically by that very self. Iphigénie shows a greater ability than her own father to make this kind of sacrifice:

Je saurai, s'il le faut, Victime obéissante,
Tendre au fer de Calchas une tête innocente,
Et respectant le coup par vous-même ordonné,
Vous rendre tout le sang que vous m'avez donné.


Ironically, although the daughter acknowledges the debt of ancestral blood, an identity that she owes her father and the ill-fated house of Atreus, she is far more capable than Agamemnon of spilling that blood out into a world that supposedly needs it. As in the scene where she showed her heart flying forth in search of Achille, here again Iphigénie articulates a desire to offer up parts of herself as a reaction against the unbearable weight of being that this tragic situation has created.

Eriphile, of course, will top them all and actually spill the blood at Diana's altar that the gods and the Greeks have in fact been demanding all along. Eriphile had foreshadowed her capacity for self-disarticulating masochism when she expressed her sadistic desire to project a portion of herself onto others:

Une secrète voix m'ordonna de partir,
Me dit qu'offrant ici ma présence importune,
Peut-être j'y pourrais porter mon infortune,
Que peut-être approchant ces Amants trop heureux,
Quelqu'un de mes malheurs se répandrait sur eux.


She has come to Aulis so that, like a disease, her pain and frustration might spread to the happy couple. Barthes sees in this passage a light that Eriphile wishes to shed on Achille and Iphigénie. In an opposing direction, Charles Mauron offers the more appropriate image of a shadow being cast on the happiness of the would-be lovers.13 I would propose to identify in this statement the more visceral metaphor of disease, a kind of germ warfare practiced by Eriphile, whose proximity to and contact with others is intended to sow seeds of pain and despair.14

As numerous critics have remarked, selves and society are in a state of precarious order verging on disorder during the moment preceding the Greek fleet's departure for Troy. Eriphile describes one form that this feverish sense of self takes—it is a question of a heightened sensitivity to external forces, a visceral reaction to the world that takes the form of an agitation of the blood:

Tout le Camp n'en sait rien. Doris, à ce silence
Ne reconnais-tu pas un Père qui balance?
Et que fera-t-il donc? Quel courage endurci
Soutiendrait les assauts qu'on lui prépare ici.
Une Mère en fureur, les larmes d'une Fille,
Les cris, le désespoir de toute une famille,
Le sang à ces objets facile à s'ébranler,
Achille menaçant tout prêt à l'accabler.


The familial situation takes a disturbing, disorderly shape that sets the blood in uncomfortable motion. From silence to tears, to cries, to the impending threat of Achille's bad temper, all of these factors create a kind of agitation that thoroughly destabilizes Eriphile's sense of self. She who will finally undergo an actual dispersion of self at her own hands is emblematic of the predicament that all characters share in the midst of the suspense of Iphigénie.

Even Calchas, who seems all-powerful not only as a religious figure but also in a sociopolitical sense (5.3.1625), is hampered by his own set of limitations. We find out that “Il sait tout ce qui fut et tout ce qui doit être” (2.1.458). In addition to the kind of knowledge we would usually associate with the seer—Calchas has intimate familiarity with what is to come—the soothsayer also knows the past, in an analogous way, as is indicated by the symmetrical repetition of “tout ce qui.” In regard to the present, however, the verse reveals nothing. Calchas stands on a void in the present, impregnated with a sense of what is to come, but equally at pains as other characters are with the hyperbolically distended final hour before the departure of the Greek fleet.

In the essay “Nos affections s'emportent au-delà de nous,” Montaigne gives an account of what he considers to be the inescapable human relation to the present:

Ceux qui accusent les hommes d'aller tousjours béant après les choses futures, et nous apprennent à nous saisir des biens presens et nous rassoir en ceux-lá, comme n'ayant aucune prise sur ce qui est à venir, voire assez moins que nous n'avons sur ce qui est passé, touchent la plus commune des humaines erreurs, s'ils osent appeler erreur chose à quoy nature mesme nous achemine, pour le service de la continuation de son ouvrage, nous imprimant, comme assez d'autres, cette imagination fausse, plus jalouse de nostre action que de nostre science. Nous ne sommes jamais chez nous, nous sommes tousjours au delà. La crainte, le desir, l'esperance nous eslancent vers l'advenir, et nous desrobent le sentiment et la consideration de ce qui est, pour nous amuser à ce qui sera, voire quand nous ne serons plus. “Calamitosus est animus futuri anxius.15

Iphigénie is the dramatic realization, in the age of French classicism, of this universal human predicament. Awaiting a future that weighs on their present, distending their experience of the final hour of the tragic day, Racine's dramatis personæ in this play grope their way through a world whose driving principles elude them and oppress them at the same time. As a result they are doomed to exist outside of themselves and thus never to be at home with themselves. Their struggles take the form of language and, when utterance falls short, of projections of self into external reality. While the sails of the Greek fleet remain flat and still, the individuals coming to grips with the situation created by an inexorable oracle are filled to overflowing with their responsibility to live the present on the threshold of the future, to undergo the private experiences that lead to the renown of public, historical record. Standing on numerous thresholds, between self and others, between present and future, between duty and desire, knowledge and ignorance, immanence and transcendence, Agamemnon, his family, and his emerging nation strike a theatrical pose that is both unique and wholly characteristic of Racine's highest art.


  1. Racine, Œuvres complètes, ed. Georges Forestier, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1999), 1.1.3-6. All references to Racine are from this edition and will be indicated parenthetically in the text, as in the reference above (1.1.3-6), according to act, scene, and line numbers respectively.

  2. We may recall here the scene in which Euripides's Agamemnon anticipates the meaningful sobs of Iphigenia's younger brother: “Orestes, from his station near us, will cry in childish accents, inarticulate, yet fraught with meaning” (Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, in Great Books of the World, vol. 5, Æschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, trans. Edward P. Coleridge [Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952], 429).

  3. According to Richard Goodkin, Eriphile's failure in communication contributes to Racine's implicit questioning of heroic mythography: “Half outside and half inside, Eriphile and her half-silent tears thus teach a lesson at the play's midpoint: that heroic representation allows external expression of only half of oneself, and silences the rest” (The Tragic Middle: Racine, Aristotle, Euripides [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991], 133).

  4. Roland Barthes, Sur Racine (Paris: Seuil [Coll. “Points”], 1963), 107-8. For Barthes, “Agamemnon n'est pas un monstre, c'est un médiocre, une âme moyenne” (Ibid., 107). In his analysis of Agamemnon as a model of the Aristotelian tragic hero, Forestier examines the complexities of the king's situation and thus tempers Barthes's view (Racine, op. cit., 1574). For a study of Agamemnon's difficulties with language and utterance, see Ehsan Ahmed, “Racine's Agamemnon: The Problem of Voice in Iphigénie,Romanic Review 79, no. 4 (November 1988): 574-84.

  5. In a study of processes of representation and knowledge-formation, Sylvie Romanowski has analyzed the central role of uncertainty in Iphigénie: “While referring to the necessity for clarity and unequivocal reference, the play is one long representation of confusion and ambiguity” (“Sacrifice and Truth in Racine's Iphigénie,” in Homage to Paul Bénichou, ed. Sylvie Romanowski and Monique Bilezikian [Birmingham AL: Summa, 1994], 145).

  6. Felix R. Freudmann, “Iphigénie: A Study in Solitude,” L'Esprit créateur 8, no. 2 (summer 1968): 140.

  7. La Chanson de Roland, ed. and trans. Pierre Jonin (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 111-13, 257-61.

  8. Nina Ekstein, “The Destabilization of the Future in Racine's Iphigénie,The French Review 66, no. 6 (May 1993): 919. See my “Generational Transition in Andromaque,Dalhousie French Studies 49 (winter 1999): 63-72, for an examination of the significance of the future in a play whose action has somewhat reductively been seen as entirely dominated by the past. The seminal argument for the weight of the past in Andromaque can be found in Georges Poulet, “Notes sur le temps racinien,” in Etudes sur le temps humain, vol. 1 (Paris: Plon, 1952), 148-65.

  9. In an attempt to rescue Astyanax from the blackmail of Pyrrhus and the jealous rage of Hermione, Andromaque proposes a willing exile that would allow the child's military potential to lie forever dormant: “Laissez-moi le cacher en quelque Ile déserte. / Sur les soins de sa Mère on peut s'en assurer, / Et mon Fils avec moi n'apprendra qu'à pleurer” (3.4.882-84).

  10. As Jean-Marie Apostolidès describes it, “Le temps d'Iphigénie est un moment de suspension longuement étiré, une courte période d'hésitation qui se prolonge pendant cinq actes: tout est tenu en balance, tout est encore possible, et pourtant tout est déjà joué” (“La belle aux eaux dormantes,” Poétique 58 [April 1984]: 145). Erec R. Koch discusses a “non-time or rather a between-time” that structures the suspended action of Iphigénie, where entropic stasis pervades the scene set on Aulis's shores: “On the road to Troy, the Greek machine of war has been reduced to a state of entropy, that natural state in which all ordered movement comes to a halt. Like movement, time itself has been suspended; it is merely the perpetuation of the same moment” (“Tragic Disclosures of Racine's Iphigénie,Romanic Review 81, no. 2 [March 1990]: 163, 162).

  11. Iphigénie also evokes the image of Eriphile taking Achille's heart away from her, as she herself willingly participates in this disarticulation of her lover's and her own selfhood: “Moimême à votre char je me suis enchaînée. / Je vous pardonne, hélas! des vœux intéressés, / Et la perte d'un cœur, que vous me ravissez” (2.5.694-96).

  12. For Apostolidès the eventual departure for Troy signals not only the reconstitution of the army and the Greek nation, but also the passage from tribal social organization to the modern world of nation-states at war with one another (op. cit., 144-45).

  13. Barthes, op. cit., 103; Charles Mauron, L'Inconscient dans l'œuvre et la vie de Racine (Gap: Ophrys, 1957), 139.

  14. One of the meanings given in the 1690 Dictionnaire de l'Académie française for the verb “se répandre,” which Eriphile uses in line 520, is the following: “On dit aussi fig. de la peste, d'un mal contagieux, qu'Il s'est respandu dans tout le pays.

  15. Montaigne, Essais, ed. Maurice Rat, vol. 1 (Paris: Garnier, 1962), 11.

Simon Critchley (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11015

SOURCE: Critchley, Simon. “I Want to Die, I Hate My Life—Phaedra's Malaise.”1New Literary History 34 (2003): 17-40.

[In the following essay, Critchley discusses the title character of Phèdre, considers the nature of her melancholy, and characterizes the play as an antipolitical Christian tragedy.]

Faced with the ever-enlarging incoherence of the present, characterised by war without end, the increasingly frantic shoring up of the imperium, the deepening contagion of ethnic, religious, and civil conflict, and the fatuous theologization of political life with the categories of good and evil, I would like to turn to seventeenth-century neoclassical French drama, in particular the case of Jean Racine's 1677 tragedy, Phèdre, “the masterpiece of the human mind,” as Voltaire declared. I must confess at the outset that the reasons for this choice are not entirely clear to me and this essay is not intended as allegory. But I cannot deny that it was written with an eye to the present. I will let the reader make of this what he or she will and turn in detail to the play and its fascinating philosophical implications.

My focus is on the character of Phaedra and the nature of her malaise. I begin by trying to elicit the dramatic pattern of Phaedra's confessions of her desire, a desire that produces a guilty subjectivity that I illustrate with reference to Augustine's Confessions. I go on to describe Phaedra's existence as defined by the fact that, unlike the conventional tragic hero, she is unable to die, that existence is, for her, without exit. I pursue this thought by turning to Emmanuel Levinas's brief reading of Phèdre and linking it to what is arguably the enabling motif of his work, namely that existence is not the experience of freedom profiled in rapture, ecstasy, or affirmation, but rather it is that which we seek to evade in a movement of flight that simply reveals—paradoxically—how deeply riveted we are to the fact of existence. Counterintuitively perhaps, I try to show how this Levinasian thought has its home in Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit, in particular in his treatment of the concept of Befindlichkeit (state-of-mind or attunement) and its relation to thrownness and facticity. This is the ontological meaning of Phaedra's guilt: one's fundamental self-relation is to an unmasterable thrownness, the burden of a facticity that weighs one down without one's ever being able to pick it up. I try to show how this experience of guilt injects a fearful languor into Phaedra's limbs, a languor that I trace to the experience of erotic stupefaction: Phaedra is hypnotized by the desire that she loathes and it is here that she languishes. After linking languor to the concept of original sin, I seek to take seriously the possibility of Christian tragedy, that is, an essentially antipolitical tragedy that would consist in the rejection of the worldly order and the radical separation of subjectivity and the world. I conclude with a remark as to how Racine's Phèdre might lead us to question some of our critical and theoretical doxai about the nature of tragedy.

I want to die, I hate my life. Such is the malaise of Phaedra. Yet why does Phaedra feel this malaise? Well, adultery, incest, and murder of an innocent are not mere moral baubles, even for one descended from the line of the gods. Phaedra was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë, and granddaughter of Pasiphaë's father, the Sungod or Helios, whose light burns Phaedra's eyes and whose scorching gaze she cannot bear, but from whom she cannot hide. The Sun watches her throughout the play: silent, remote to the point of absence, but of piercing intensity, like the Deus absconditus of Jansenism. Her father was King of Crete and later judge in Hades. She married Theseus, King of Athens, who brought her back to Greece after slaying the Minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth. Aphrodite, as she is wont, inflamed Pasiphaë with a monstrous passion for a bull. Daedalus, the artificer, made a hollow wooden cow where Pasiphaë could crouch to be fucked by the bull. From this union was born the Minotaur. It is the overwhelming power of her mother's predestined passion that now flows through Phaedra's veins.

Venus is in Phaedra's blood: it flows through her like a virus, the sickness of illicit erotic desire. With Theseus away for over six months on one of his adventures, she burns with passion for Hippolytus, Theseus's virginal son and her stepson. When Phaedra first saw Hippolytus, she declared, “darkness drenched my eyes.” She languishes in dark desire, Venus clawing at her heart, her mother's sin boiling in her blood. Worn down by the guilt of this passion, and the division it creates within her, she resolves to die. This is how we first encounter her in the play, dragging herself into the light to greet her grandfather, the Sungod, for the last time, “Soleil, je te viens voir pour la dernière fois.”2

Phaedra's silence about her sin is broken on three occasions, in three confessions that mark the dramatic highpoints of the play. Believing Theseus dead and at the promptings of her Iagoesque confidante Oenone, Phaedra with great reluctance confesses her love for Hippolytus:

Tu vas ouïr le comble des horreurs.
J'aime … A ce nom fatal, je tremble, je frissonne.
J'aime …
Tu connais ce fils de l'Amazone,
Ce prince si longtemps par moi-même opprimé?
Hippolyte! Grands Dieux!
C'est toi qui l'as nommé.
Prepare to hear the crowning woe.
I love … I tremble, shudder at the name;
I love …
You know that prince whom I myself
So long oppressed, son of the Amazon?
You have pronounced his name.]


This is why Roland Barthes calls Phèdre a nominalist tragedy.3 Phaedra's culpability is crystal clear to her from the beginning of the drama; the only issue is getting her to name it, to break her silence. As Theramenes says in the first scene, she suffers from a malady “qu'elle s'obstine à taire.” The central issue in the tragedy is the naming of the monstrous, the monstrous desire that produced the Minotaur, the monster that Theseus killed, the desire for his virginal son that now courses through Phaedra's body. She names the truth a second time in a scene of awesome erotic intensity, where Phaedra, in a sort of trancelike rapture, confesses to Hippolytus:

Hélas! Je ne t'ai pu parler que de toi-même.
Venge-toi, punis-moi d'un odieux amour.
Digne fils du héros qui t'a donné le jour.
Délivre l'univers d'un monstre qui t'irrite.
La veuve de Thésée ose aimer Hipployte!
Crois-moi, ce monstre affreux ne doit point t'échapper.
Voilà mon Coeur. C'est là que ta main doit frapper.
Impatient déjà d'expier son offense,
Au-devant de ton bras je le sens qui s'avance.
Frappe. Ou si tu le crois indigne de tes coups,
Si ta haine m'envie un supplice si doux,
Ou si d'un sang trop vil ta main serait trempée,
Au défaut de ton bras prête-moi ton epée.
[My foolish heart, alas, too full of you,
Could talk to you of nothing but yourself,
Take vengeance. Punish me for loving you.
Come, prove yourself your father's worthy son,
And of a vicious monster rid the world.
I, Theseus's widow, dare to love his son!
This frightful monster must not now escape.
Here is my heart. Here must your blow strike home.
Impatient to atone for its offence,
I feel it strain to meet your mighty arm.
Strike. Or if it's unworthy of your blows,
Or such a death too mild for my deserts,
Or if you deem my blood too vile to stain
Your hand, lend me, if not your arm, your sword.
Give me it!]


Phaedra is making two extraordinary demands here marked by the two monosyllabic exclamations that break up the rhythm of the alexandrine line: “Frappe,” “Donne” (strike, give). If Hippolytus will not strike at the monstrous desire within Phaedra with his physical ardor, piercing her heart with his arm as she rises to meet him, then she will take his sword from him and do it herself: “give.” She removes his sword from him in a gesture that it would simply be too facile to describe in terms of castration.

Hippolytus—the chaste, the hunter; and Artemis, the goddess of hunting, is also the goddess of chastity—is appalled. He flees. When rumors of Theseus's death come to appear somewhat exaggerated, Phaedra concocts the story that Hippolytus had raped her in order to protect herself. After learning this news from sly Oenone, Theseus banishes Hippolytus, damning him with a prayer for vengeance to the god Neptune. Resolved to tell the truth to Theseus, events take a sudden turn for Phaedra when she learns that Hippolytus, whom she believed indifferent to all women, loves Aricia, last surviving descendent of the line of kings of Athens usurped by Theseus. Hippolytus could love, but loved not Phaedra. Suddenly consumed by jealousy, she stands in silence while Hippolytus is violently and rather operatically drowned by Neptune's sea monster. Phaedra takes poison and, after confessing her guilt to Theseus, dies. Theseus—poor, wooden, uncomprehending, two-dimensional comic-book hero that he is—concludes the play: “D'une action si noire / Que ne peut avec elle expirer la mémoire!” (5.7).4 He embraces Aricia as his daughter and exits stage left to find his son's body. Such is the story.

She wants to die, she hates her life. But does Phaedra die? Well, yes and no. I would like to look at Phaedra's third and final confession that effectively concludes the drama at the end of act 4—act 5 is little more than dramatic housekeeping, tidying up a few loose ends. Still burning for Hippolytus, Phaedra sees that she has sunk into a web of criminal deception fueled by incestuous desire. In her wretchedness, she turns to face her ancestors, the gods. Let me cite the text in Paul Schmidt's free and muscular rendering and then in the original French:

Oh, Oenone! … am I going mad?
How can I ask a husband I've betrayed
To avenge my sinful love for his son?
I'm sinking in a sea of criminal designs:
Adultery, incest, and murder of an innocent—
Tell me to stop! Tell my ancestor the sun
To burn away my pain to paltry ashes.
My grandfathers were gods, the stars above
Shine in the shape of my ancestral lineage;
The universe is part and parcel of my blood.
Where can I run? How can I ever get away?
My father is the fatal judge of Hell,
What will he do when he sees his daughter confess to crimes that
Make the demons stare?
Become my executioner?
Find me a fitting form of eternal punishment?
Tell him the family curse lives on.
Oh god, if only I'd enjoyed my love! Just once!
To die like this, unsatisfied,
And full of nothing but remorse!
Que fais-je? Où ma raison se va-t-elle égarer?
Moi jalouse! Et Thésée est celui que j'implore!
Mon époux est vivant, et moi je brûle encore!
Pour qui? Quel est le coeur où prétendent mes voeux?
Chaque mot sur mon front fait dresser mes cheveux.
Mes crimes désormais ont comblé la mesure.
Je respire à la fois l'inceste et l'imposture.
Mes homicides mains, promptes à me venger,
Dans le sang innocent brûlent de se plonger.
Misérable! Et je vis? Et je soutiens la vue
De ce sacré Soleil dont je suis descendue?
J'ai pour aïeul le père et le maître des Dieux;
Le ciel, tout l'univers est plein de mes aïeux.
Où me cacher? Fuyons dans la nuit infernale!
Mais que dis-je? Mon père y tient l'urne fatale.
Le sort, dit-on, l'a mise en ses sevères mains:
Minos juge aux enfers tous les pâles humains.
Ah! Combien frémira son ombre épouvantée,
Lorsqu'il verra sa fille à ses yeux présentée,
Contrainte d'avouer tant de forfeits divers,
Et les crimes peut-être inconnus aux enfers!
Que diras-tu, mon père, à ce spectacle horrible?
Je crois voir de ta main tomber l'urne terrible,
Je crois te voir, cherchant un supplice nouveau,
Toi-même de ton sang devenir le bourreau.
Pardonne. Un Dieu cruel a perdu ta famille:
Reconnais sa vengeance aux fureurs de ta fille.
Hélas! Du crime affreux dont la honte me suit
Jamais mon triste coeur n'a recueilli le fruit.
Jusqu'au dernier soupir, de malheurs poursuivie,
Je rends dans les tourments une pénible vie.
[What am I doing? I have lost my mind!
I, jealous? And 'tis Theseus I implore!
My husband is alive and yet I pine.
For whom? Whose heart have I been coveting?
At every word my hair stands up on end.
Henceforth the measure of my crimes is full.
I reek with foulest incest and deceit.
My hands, that strain for murder and revenge,
Burn with desire to plunge in guiltless blood.
Wretch! And I live and can endure the gaze
Of the most sacred sun from which I spring.
My grandsire is the lord of all the gods;
My forebears fill the sky, the universe.
Where can I hide? In dark infernal night?
No, there my father holds the urn of doom.
Destiny placed it in his ruthless hands.
Minos judges in hell the trembling dead.
Ah! How his horror-stricken shade will start
To see before him his own daughter stand,
Forced to admit to such a host of sins
And some, perhaps unknown even in hell!
What, father, will you say to that dread sight?
I see your hand slip from the fateful urn;
I see you searching for new punishments,
Yourself and your own kin's executioner.
Forgive me. Venus's wrath has doomed your race.
Your daughter's frenzy shows that vengeance forth.
Alas, my sad heart has never enjoyed
The fruits of crimes whose dark shame follows me
Dogged by misfortune to my dying breath,
I end upon the rack a life of pain.]


Burning and wretched, she turns to face the Sun, her grandfather. In this movement of turning, she reveals the division at the heart of her subjectivity. Phaedra is watched throughout by the Sun and she is acutely conscious of being watched by this silent, distant, but omnipresent Jansenist God. The Sun is a murderous power, inescapable and distant, a divinity much closer to Yahweh than to an incarnate, loving Christ or any being in the Greek pantheon. As Lucien Goldmann persuasively argues, at the center of the tragic vision of Racine and Pascal is a God who is hidden to the point of absence, who never intervenes in the drama of the world, and yet who watches intensely and who, for the tragic hero, is more present than anything else: “[T]he God of tragedy is a God who is always present and always absent.”5 What Goldmann is bringing to bear on Racine is Georg Lukács's understanding of tragedy in an essay from his first book, Soul and Form. The first lines of the essay seem to capture precisely Phaedra's situation: “A drama is a play about a man and his fate—a play in which God is the spectator. He is a spectator and nothing more; his words and gestures never mingle with the words and gestures of his players. His eyes rest upon them: that is all. ‘Whoever sees God dies,’ Ibsen wrote once; ‘but can he who has been seen by God continue to live?’”6 Phaedra's answer to this last question is a resolute “no,” but, as we shall see, it is a negativity that must remain an aspiration.

Against the divinity of the Sun, there is the virus of Venus in her blood, “a cruel God,” the darkness of her mother's desire. Phaedra's subjectivity is torn between these two poles, the Sun and Venus, which could be redescribed as the call of conscience and the pressure of libidinous desire. But Phaedra's experience of her subjectivity is cosmic, her forebears fill the skies, the universe is constituted by the opposed forces aiming at her tragic destruction. These forces are metaphorically coded in the imagery of light and dark that fills the play. The merciless light of the sun is obscured by the shadow of Venus, producing what Phaedra oxymoronically calls “une flamme si noire,” “such a black flame.”7 Phaedra's guilt—and all guilt I would be tempted to add—is experienced as movement, an oscillation between opposites. Guilt is stretched between these two poles of conscience and desire, of the Sun and Venus. It is in this movement that Phaedra's subjectivity is rent.

Phaedra is a paradox: she detests her desire, yet she cannot give way on it; she fears the burning conscience of the Sun, yet she constantly calls to him. The gravity of her desire is constituted by her will to pull free of it in the experience of conscience. The promised ecstasy of libidinous transgression is directly proportionate to the power of moral prohibition. For Phaedra, and this is her paradox once again, her sad heart has never experienced the fruits of the crimes that she has committed. Hers is a sin of the heart, not a sin of the flesh. She never experiences erotic pleasure with Hippolytus, she never couples with the bull like her mother, and the truth is that she could not because her conscience would not let her, not even if some crafty Daedalus built her a wooden engine of disguise. She is unable to sin fulsomely. This is why she ends her life upon a rack of pain. For this, finally and pathetically, she asks forgiveness, in a simple “Pardonne,” which echoes and qualifies the “Frappe” and “Donne” of the previous scene.

To my mind, what Racine is dramatizing here is the inner conflict that constitutes Christian subjectivity in Augustine's Confessions, a work whose influence on the theology of Jansenism cannot be overstated. Cornelius Jansen's 1,300-page commentary on Augustine was posthumously published in 1640 and quickly condemned as heresy by the Inquisition, the Jesuits, and the Pope himself. In book 8 of the Confessions, Augustine describes himself as “still tightly bound by the love of women,” which he describes as his “old will,” his carnal desire.8 This will conflicts with his “new will,” namely his spiritual desire to turn to God. Alluding to and extending Paul's line of thought in Romans 7, Augustine describes himself as having “two wills,” the law of sin in the flesh and the law of spirit turned towards God. Paralyzed by this conflict and unable to commit himself completely to God, these two wills lay waste Augustine's soul. He waits, hesitates, and hates himself. Seeing himself from outside himself, from the standpoint of God, Augustine is brought face-to-face with his self and sees how foul he is, “how covered with stains and sores” (C 193). He continues, “I looked, and I was filled with horror, but there was no place for me to flee away from myself.” But where Augustine finds peace in conversion to God at the end of book 8, Phaedra continues to burn in the dark fire of self-division, unable to free herself.

Such are the fatal circuits of what Foucault would call the Christian hermeneutics of desire opposed to the pagan aesthetics of existence.9 In a seminar at New York University in 1980, Foucault is reported to have said that the difference between late antiquity and early Christianity might be reduced to the following questions: the patrician pagan asks, “Given that I am who I am, whom can I fuck?” The Christian asks, “Given that I can fuck no one, who am I?”10 Foucault's insight is profound, but let me state categorically and without a trace of irony that, as a committed atheist, I side with the deep hermeneutics of Christian subjectivity against the superficial pagan aesthetics of existence. The question of the being of being human—who am I?—the fundamental issue of philosophical anthropology that begins with Paul and is profoundly deepened in book 10 of the Confessions arises in the sight of God. The problem is how that question survives God's death. This is Rousseau's question in his Confessions, it is Nietzsche's question in Ecce Homo, and it is Heidegger's question in Sein und Zeit.

Everything wounds Phaedra. When she first appears onstage, she is barely able to bear the weight of her body, her knees—trembling—threaten to give way: “mes genoux tremblants se dérobent sous moi” (1.3). Her jewels, veils, and the very braiding of her hair are felt as afflictions. Her first action onstage, in one of Racine's rare stage directions, is to sit, “elle s'assied” (1.3). She experiences her existence as a sheer weight, as the body being pulled to earth by the gravity of erotic desire, the virus of Venus. Existence is not something to be affirmed; nor is it the ground for one's freedom, understood as a projective leap towards the future. No, life is pain. Destiny is predestined. Existence is thrown. It is to this thrownness, this rack of pain, that Phaedra is riveted. She is riveted to herself, to her curse, to the sin that flows in her blood, to the sheer fact of her life. That is the cause of her malaise.

So, where can she hide? Nowhere. What is unique about Phaedra's life—and this is the crucial point for my interpretation—is that it cannot be escaped in death. Death brings no end to her malaise because death, for her, is not an end. In the cruel words of Theramenes in the first scene of the play, Phaedra is “une femme mourante et qui cherche à mourir” (1.1). Her existence is what Barthes calls “une mort-durée.”11 With this in mind, consider again Phaedra's third confessional speech: her ancestors were gods, the sun and stars above shine in the shape of her ancestral lineage, the universe is part and parcel of her blood, her cosmic subjectivity. But if her forbears fill the sky, dividing her guilty subjectivity between conscience and desire, then can she escape into the dark infernal night of Hades? Can she escape from this rack of pain by killing herself? No, because her father is the fatal judge of hell, and holds the urn of doom. And what will he do? Forgive her? Forgive such unspeakable crimes that continue the horror of the family curse? It is hardly likely. Will he kill her? He cannot, as she is already dead. He will therefore have to find some fitting new form of eternal punishment.

If Phaedra's existence is defined by malaise, then this malaise will continue after her death. Which is to say that death is not death, but simply a deeper riveting to the fact of existence and its eternal curse. Phaedra's discovery is death's impossibility. Death is not the possibility of an escape hatch, something she can dispose of through the controlled leap of suicide. Rather, there is a fate worse than death, namely that of an existence without end, whether here-above in the sight of her grandfather, Helios, or there-below at the mercy of her father, Minos. After her death at the end of the play, Phaedra's sufferings will continue only more intensely in the dark suffocacy of Hades. Existence is without exit.

Which raises the following question: if Phaedra does not die, then of which subject is this play the tragedy? Who or what dies in this tragedy? In my view, the corpse on stage at the end of the play is not that of Phaedra, but that of the city, the state, the world. The moral of the tragedy is that life in the world is impossible. I will come back to this.

She hates her life, she wants to die, but she cannot. Learned readers might have noticed that I have been glancing over my shoulder at Levinas while pondering Phaedra's malaise. Levinas cites part of the above passage from Racine—together with Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth and modern examples from Poe and Maupassant—in his discussion of what he calls the il y a in De l'existence à l'existent:

Le ciel, tout l'univers est plein de mes aïeux.
Où me cacher? Fuyons dans la nuit infernale!
Mais que dis-je? Mon père y tient l'urne fatale.(12)

For Levinas, Phaedra confronts what he calls “le ‘sans issus’ de l'existence,” the exitlessness of existence. With the il y a, Levinas asks us to undertake a thought-experiment, “Let us imagine all beings, things and persons, reverting to nothingness” (EE 93). But what would remain after this reversion? Nothing? Levinas's claim is that the very nothingness of all things is experienced as a kind of presence: an impersonal, neutral, and indeterminate feeling that “quelque chose se passe,” what he elsewhere calls “an atmospheric density, a plenitude of the void, or the murmur of silence.”13 The il y a is this murmuring, the indeterminate sense of something happening in the absence of all things, expressed with the neutral or impersonal third-person pronoun. The present absence of the il y a is a descendent of the hidden Jansenist God.

To illustrate phenomenologically the experience of the il y a, Levinas writes, “We could say that the night is the very experience of the il y a” (EE 94). This is what Maurice Blanchot calls the essential or other night towards which the desire of the artist tends. The night into which all familiar objects disappear, where something is there but nothing is visible, the experience of darkness, the density of the void where lucid objectivity collapses into a swarming of points. This is the night of insomnia, the passive watching in the night where intentionality undergoes reversal, where we no longer regard things, but where they seem to regard us: la nuit me regarde. This is what Levinas calls “la veille,” which denotes both watchfulness and wakefulness, a vigil, a night-watch, but also the state of being on the brink or verge (EE 111). Borrowing Blanchot's definition of the artist, we might say that Phaedra is “l'insomniaque du jour,” the insomniac of the day.14 Like all of Racine's tragic heroes, she cannot sleep. During her first appearance on stage, Oenone says, “Les ombres par trois fois ont obscurci les cieux / Depuis que le sommeil n'est entré dans vos yeux [Thrice have the shades of night darkened the skies / Since sleep last made its entry into your eyes] (1.3). One is reminded of Pascal's extraordinarily austere words, “Jesus is suffering the torment of death until the end of time. We must not sleep during that time.”15 These words find a more or less direct echo in Estragon's words in Waiting for Godot, in what is possibly the best line ever written: “Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?”16 In her sleeplessness, and on the brink of madness, Phaedra watches wakefully and is watched constantly by the sleepless gods, whether the vengeful transcendence of the Sun or her father's eternal night in Hades.

The mood that accompanies this experience of being riveted to existence is not anxiety or fear, but rather horror. As is so often the case, Levinas is using Heidegger as a critical lever to open his own thought. In Sein und Zeit, anxiety is the basic or fundamental mood experienced in the face of being-towards-death. Therefore, the most horrible thought would be that of conceiving the possibility of my own death, of that fatal moment when I slip over into nothingness. Against this, Levinas claims that “horror is in no way an anxiety about death” (EE 99). What is most horrible, then, is not the possibility but rather the impossibility of my death. “Demain, hélas! Il faudra vivre encore”17—such is the sentiment of the world of horror, the world of vampires and zombies, the undead and the living dead. What is truly horrible is not death, but the irremissibility of existence, of awakening underground in a coffin with nobody to hear your sobbing or your finger scratching on the wood; of being paralysed and speechless while a team of doctors casually discuss what they diagnose as your permanent vegetative state, and so on and so on. Horror is possession by that which will not die and which cannot be killed—something wonderfully demonstrated by Maupassant in his short story “The Horla.” Phaedra feels herself possessed by that which she cannot escape, both by the sin of Venus in her blood and the mute presence of the Sun in her conscience. Of course—and this is the entire paradox of horror—what she is possessed by is herself, by her consciousness of sinfulness. The subject of horror is the subject's horror at itself, at that demonic hither-side of itself that it seeks to evade. There is no need for demons—it is the subject itself that is demonic.18

Phaedra's horror at herself provokes malaise, but what is it exactly to be mal à l'aise? Levinas writes the following in his stunning first original essay from 1935, “De l'évasion”: “Le malaise n'est pas un état purement passif et reposant sur lui-même. Le fait d'être mal à son aise est essentiellement dynamique. Il apparaît comme un refus de demeurer, comme un effort de sortir d'une situation intenable. … Cést une tentative de sortir sans savoir où l'on va, et cette ignorance qualifie l'essence même de cette tentative” (Malaise is not a state that is purely passive and reposing upon itself. The fact of being in a state of malaise is essentially dynamic. It appears as a refusal to remain, as an effort to leave an untenable situation. … It is an attempt to leave without knowing where one is going, and this ignorance qualifies the very essence of the attempt).19 Thus, malaise is not a passive or quiescent state, it is a dynamic state, even a dramatic state, that arises as a refusal to remain in existence. Malaise is a movement that attempts to evade existence. Phaedra is riveted to her existence and this fact provokes a malaise that makes her want to evade it. This is how I understand what might otherwise appear to be her madness: “Insensée, où suis-je? Et qu'ai-je dit? / Où laissé-je égarer mes voeux et mon esprit” [Madness! Where am I, what have I said? / Whither have my desires, my reason strayed] (1.3). She would like to be “insensée,” but she is not insane. Madness would be an escape, an evasion from her curse, but she remains tragically lucid throughout.

She wants to die, but she cannot. She would be mad, but remains sane. In the agonizing meanwhile of her suffering, she seeks to evade herself. In what? In death, but she cannot die. In eroticism, but she cannot even commit the sins for which she lacerates herself. In the Wooster Group's extraordinary version of the play, Phaedra is submitted to violent and noisome enemas as if seeking to evacuate and evade her own body. Around her, the other characters abstractedly play badminton. This is the world, it would appear: a distraction, a farce, a comic game. Phaedra tries to play, but lacks the strength even to lift the “birdie” or “shuttlecock” (possibly an even sillier word than “birdie”). Phaedra is enchained to the fact of herself and this is what she wants to evade by fleeing towards the world. Existence, the being of being human, is not something to be embraced, it is rather that in the face of which we take flight towards the world in a movement that Levinas calls “excendence”: “Ainsi, au besoin d'évasion, l'être n'apparaît pas seulement comme obstacle que la pensée libre aurait à franchir, ni comme la rigidité qui invitant à la routine, exige un effort d'originalité, mais comme un emprisonnement dont il s'agit de sortir” [Thus, for those needing to evade, being does not simply appear as an obstacle that the free movement of thought would be able to cross, nor as a routineproducing rigidity demanding an effort of originality, but rather as an imprisonment which it is a question of leaving behind] (DE 377). Being is not our home; its house is a prison, the cell of the self constantly surveyed by the murmuring of the il y a. This prison is airless and Phaedra is constantly close to asphyxiating. The space of the drama is claustrophobic and enclosed. The tragic hero is a captive. There is no wind and the characters in the drama cannot breathe. One has the sense of the action taking place in a box, a lit-box that is being watched, not just by the audience, but by the players and by the gods themselves. It is a little like the play within the play in Shakespeare's Hamlet—The Mousetrap—an intrigue by which players are caught, guiltily riveted to themselves, where “conscience does make cowards of us all” (3.2, 3.1). After noting that the desire for evasion can “revêt une forme dramatique,”20 Levinas goes on, “Dans l'identité du moi, l'identité de l'être révèle sa nature d'enchaînement car elle apparaît sous forme de souffrance et elle invite à l'évasion. Aussi l'évasion est-elle le besoin de sortir de soi-même, c'est-à-dire de briser l'enchaînement le plus radical, la plus irrémisible, le fait que le moi est soi-même” [In the identity of the ego, the identity of being reveals the nature of its enchainment because it appears under the form of suffering and it invites evasion. Thus, evasion is the need to leave oneself, that is, to break the most radical and irremissible enchainment: the fact that the ego is itself] (DE 377). Existence is enchainment not emancipation. Phaedra experiences it as suffering and as the desire to evade oneself, to flee towards the world, to excend herself in empty distraction by playing badminton or whatever. But the movement of flight is held tight by the chain that binds me to myself. Such is the basic fact of the human condition: that I am myself, hélas!

Counterintuitively perhaps, the Levinasian thought with which I am trying to understand Phaedra's experience has its home in Sein und Zeit, but it is a Heidegger read very much against the grain. It is specifically the concept of Befindlichkeit that is of interest here: state-of-mind, attunement or already-having-found-oneself-there-ness. Heidegger's claim is that I always already find myself attuned in a Stimmung, a mood or affective disposition. Such a mood discloses me as geworfen, as thrown into the “there” (Da) of my being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, these three terms—Befindlichkeit, Stimmung, and Geworfenheit—are interconnected in bringing out the nature of what Heidegger calls Faktizität, facticity. Heidegger's early work—and this is a debt that Levinas repays from the first to the last word of his published work, despite his unflinching horror at Heidegger's political commitment—is a hermeneutics of facticity, a description of the everyday ways in which the human being exists.

In being disposed in a mood—and here we begin to hear Phaedra's voice—Dasein is satiated or weary (überdrüssig) with itself, and as such its being becomes manifest as a burden or load (eine Last) to be taken up. The burdensome character of one's being, the sheer weight of the “that-it-is” (Das es ist) of existence, is something that I seek to evade. Heidegger writes, “Im Ausweichen selbst ist das Da erschlossenes” (In evasion itself is the there disclosed).21 This is fascinating, because Heidegger is claiming that the being of Dasein's Da, the there of its being-in-the-world, is disclosed in the movement that seeks to evade it. Evasion discloses that which it evades. It is precisely in the human being's turning away (Abkehr) from itself that the nature of existence first becomes manifest. I find myself as I flee myself and I flee myself because I find myself. Heidegger rather enjoys the paradox “gefunden in einem Finden, das nicht so sehr einem direkten Suchen, sondern einem Fliehen entspricht” [found in a finding that corresponds not so much to a direct seeking, but to a fleeing] (SZ 135). What is elicited in this turning away of Dasein from itself is the facticity of Dasein's being delivered over to itself (Faktizität der Überantwortung) and it is this that Heidegger intends by the term thrownness, Geworfenheit.

The parallels between Heidegger and Levinas in the above-cited passages, although striking, should not be overstated. True, the concept of Befindlichkeit reveals the thrown nature of Dasein in its falling movement of turning away from itself. But two paragraphs later in Sein und Zeit, Heidegger will contrast this movement of evasion with the concept of Verstehen, understood as ability-to-be, which is linked to the concepts of Entwurf (projection) and Möglichkeit (possibility). That is, Dasein is not just thrown into the world, it can throw off that thrownness in a movement of projection where it seizes hold of its possibilities-to-be. This movement of projection is the very experience of freedom for Heidegger. Dasein is a thrown project—but where Heidegger will place the emphasis on projection, possibility, and freedom as the essential elements in the movement towards authenticity, Levinas might be read as following out another possible trajectory of the existential analytic of Sein und Zeit. This trajectory is what might be called “originary inauthenticity.” Let me explain myself.22

Originary inauthenticity begins by accepting that what I reluctantly confront in my evasive turning away from myself is the fact of my facticity. This stares back at me like an enigma, the enigma of who I am, the past whose opacity constantly threatens to overwhelm me, like the virus of Venus in Phaedra's blood. In the wisdom of Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 movie Magnolia, “You might be through with the past but the past isn't through with you.” Originary inauthenticity is the thought that human existence is fundamentally shaped in relation to the brute fact of a thrownness that cannot be mastered through any existential projection. The virile surge of freedom is the mere rattling of bars in a prison cell. Authenticity slips back into a prior inauthenticity from which it cannot escape but which it would like to evade. From this perspective, human existence is something that is first and foremost revealed as a burden, a weight, a load, as something to which I am riveted without being able to know why or know further. This is how we first meet Phaedra in Racine's drama. Inauthentic existence has the character of an irreducible and intractable thatness, what Heidegger called “das Daß seines Da.” I feel myself bound to “the that of my there,” the sheer Faktum of my facticity.

Dasein learns to take up this burden in the experience of guilt (Schuld), understood as indebtedness (Verschuldung) or existential lack. As Heidegger writes in his extraordinary pages on guilt, Dasein is a thrown basis (ein geworfene Grund). As this basis, Dasein continually lags behind itself, “Being a basis [Grund-seiend], that is to say existing as thrown [als geworfenes existierend—one of Heidegger's nicely oxymoronic formulations], Dasein constantly lags behind its possibilities” (SZ 284). The experience of guilt reveals the being of being human as a lack, as something wanting. In the light of these remarks, we might say that the self is not, as many would have Heidegger believe (and arguably as he believed himself at the time of writing Sein und Zeit), the ecstasy of a heroic leap towards authenticity energized by the experience of anxiety and being-towards-death and consummated in the moment of vision (der Augenblick). Such would be the reading of the existential analytic that sees its goal in autarky, self-sufficiency or self-mastery. Rather, the self's fundamental self-relation is to an unmasterable thrownness, the burden of a facticity that weighs me down without my ever being able to pick it up. Expressed temporally, one's self-relation is not the living present of the moment of vision, but rather a delay with respect to oneself that is perhaps best expressed in the experience of fatigue and languor. This, I would claim, is the ontological meaning of Phaedra's guilt, its existential movement, prior to any ontic penumbrae.

Phaedra desperately tries to project or throw off her thrownness through life in the world. But this movement of throwing off catches her in its throw and inverts the movement of possibility. She finds herself, mood-wise as Heidegger might have said, riveted to the fact of her self, to her facticity. Phaedra's word for facticity is blood, which is not to be understood biologically. Rather, there is a whole metaphysics of blood at work in Racine's tragedy: blood is the existential mark of the past, of one's bindedness to a past that you might think you are through with, but which is not through with you. Contaminated by the virus of Venus that flows in her veins, Phaedra cannot exist in the present, let alone the future of projective freedom. Rather, she is a prisoner of her past, the facticity of her mother's monstrous desire and her grandfather's conscience. Phaedra's present continually lags behind itself. She cannot make up her time. She is always too late to meet her fate and this is why she is so utterly fatigued.

The horror of being riveted to one's facticity injects a fearful languor into Phaedra's limbs. The virus of Venus that flows in her blood weighs her down. She writhes, she burns. Her body possesses or is possessed by an unbearable gravity that pulls her earthwards. Languor is her affective response to the exitlessness of existence, to the fact of being chained to herself. What interests me greatly here is the experience of languor as a bodily response to facticity, of the body being coursed through by a desire that is experienced as alien, the virus of Venus in the veins. This desire overtakes me and slows me down, inducing a languid sluggishness, a lethargy, a creeping inertia, a sort of Trägheit—which is Freud's word for describing the death-drive, that cosmic-sounding force that provides a compelling analogue to the world of Phaedra's experience.

Languor makes me an enigma to myself. I find myself enchained to a facticity whose very nearness makes me lose focus and unable to catch my breath. I burn, breathless, in my languor. This experience is wonderfully described by Augustine in Confessions, book 10, where he is agonizing about the virtue involved in the sensual pleasure of religious music. He writes, and think here of Phaedra's sense of being watched by God, “But do you, O Lord my God, graciously hear me, and turn your gaze upon me, and see me, and have mercy upon me, and heal me. For in your sight I have become a question to myself and that is my languor [mihi quaestio factus sum et ipse est languor meus]” (C 262). Augustine's words are cited here in Jean-François Lyotard's remarkable, and remarkably obscure, posthumously published La confession d'Augustin, an extremely Christian text for such an avowed pagan.23 My languor is the question that I have become for myself in relation to the present-absent Deus absconditus who watches me, who may heal and have mercy upon me, but whom I cannot know and whose grace cannot be guaranteed. The questions I pose to God make me a question to myself. Lyotard adds, gnomically, “Lagaros, languid, bespeaks in Greek a humor of limpness, a disposition to: what's the point? Gesture relaxes therein. My life, this is it: distentio, letting go, stretching out. Duration turns limp, it is its nature” (CA 18).

The experience of languor, for Lyotard, is both the body's limpness, its languid quality, and time as distension, as stretching out, procrastination. In languor, I suffer from a delay with respect to myself, my suffering is experienced as what Lyotard calls, in language reminiscent of Blanchot, “waiting”: “The Confessions are written under the temporal sign of waiting” (CA 70). Originally inauthentic, the weight of the past makes me wait, and awaiting, I languish. I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. I am filled with longing. Lyotard, close to dying as he is writing, quotes the above passage from Augustine for a second time, and adds, “[I]pse est languor meus. Here lies the whole advantage of faith: to become an enigma to oneself, to grow old, hoping for the solution, the resolution from the Other. Have mercy upon me, Yahweh, for I am languishing. Heal me, for my bones are worn” (CA 70).

Phaedra languishes. In an existence without exit, time stretches out and she waits for an end that will not come. She experiences languor as a mental and physical weariness, a sheer fatigue in the face of her thrownness. But her languor also has strong erotic overtones: it is a feeling of dreaminess and laxity, closer to the Middle English “love-longing” and the German Sehnsucht, yearning.24 This is the sort of eroticized sickness that afflicts Troppmann, the hero of Georges Bataille's Le bleu du ciel, languishing in his disgrace and burning with hallucinatory sexual desire and thoughts of his own death. The book begins, “I know. I'm going to die in disgraceful circumstances.”25 In Phaedra's confession to Hippolytus, she says, “Oui, Prince, je languis, je brûle pour Thésée” [Yes, Prince, I languish, I burn for Theseus] (2.5). And again, “J'ai langui, j'ai séché, dans les feux, dans les larmes” [I languished, I dried up, in the fire, in tears] (2.5).

Phaedra's malaise is the experience of languor as an affective response to the fact of being riveted to herself. Guiltily bound to the fire of Venus that burns in her blood with the distant Sungod watching impassively, she languishes sensuously in this captivity. Life is a trance for Phaedra, a sort of agonized fainting away that produces moments of erotic stupefaction where she is hypnotized by the desire that she loathes. In this trance, past and present merge and she finds in Hippolytus the image of Theseus, so that when she says to the former that she burns for the latter, then these words are directed to the same erotic fantasm.

If Phèdre is a nominalist drama, then there is a name that my entire discourse is dishonestly circling around without discussing, namely sin. Might not originary inauthenticity be another name for sin? Is this entire project not therefore an attempt to recover the concept of sin? This remains an open—if not gaping—question.

Immersed as he was in Christian theology, Heidegger's existential analytic is alert to this question and neatly sidesteps it. First, he insists that his concept of falling, das Verfallen, should not be understood as a fall from a state of grace to a state of sin (SZ 280). Second, Heidegger rather cutely claims that as sin is ontic and the Dasein-analytic is ontological, his concept of guilt proves nothing either for or against the possibility of sin (listen to the sound of a philosopher eating his cake and having it). Now, such a move would be justified if one could restrict the concept of sin to the ontic domain. But I have my doubts: if the concepts of falling and guilt can be raised to the dignity of ontology, then why not also sin? I do not mean sin as an ontic feature of everyday (im)moral action, but rather as an essential feature of the being of being human. This would exclude venial, mortal, or actual sin, which might indeed be classed as ontic, but include original or hereditary sin, which is a claim about the being of being human. All that I have said about the inauthentic subject finding itself in flight, disclosing itself in its evasive turning away from itself, might be redescribed as an attempt to recover the notion of hereditary sin. For what is hereditary sin but the claim that the being of being human is originally constituted as a lack, as a radical indebtedness to a past that cannot be made up by the subject's own volition? Original sin constitutes the subject in a state of want, as a thrown basis that cannot throw off that thrownness in a movement of free projection. Existence is that load or burden to which I am enchained and in which I languish. I languish in sin, like Oswald at the end of Ibsen's Ghosts, whose final Phaedra-like words before he collapses into the languor of his hereditary sickness are “the sun, the sun.”26

Heidegger, however, comes close to acknowledging the ontological status of original sin in the protocol of a two-part talk given in Rudolf Bultmann's seminar in 1924, “The Problem of Sin in Luther.” Although the original manuscript was lost and the short published text is a student transcript written in reported speech and consisting largely of quotations from Luther, Heidegger speaks of the movement of sin as an experience of flight: “He who flees once flees in such a way that he constantly wishes to distance himself further.”27 More intriguingly, Heidegger endorses Luther's critique of the scholasticism of Catholic theology and follows the Protestant emphasis on the ontological centrality of sin, writing that the “the being of man as such is itself sin,” and again, “sin is not an affixing of moral attributes to man but rather his real core. In Luther, sin is a concept of existence” (PS 108). The perspective of authentic faith can only be attained when one has fully understood the originally inauthentic being of sin. The difference between Heidegger and Luther consists precisely in the attainability of authentic faith: for Heidegger, it is my ownmost possibility which I can seize hold of by affirming my finitude, whereas for Luther it is God's possibility, namely the giving or withholding of grace.

I would like to conclude with a remark about tragedy and comedy. Racine's Phèdre is a tragedy, is it not? Yet, what happens in a tragedy? Why is tragedy tragic? Tragedy is tragic because someone dies, sometimes a whole stageful of personae. If Phaedra is the tragic heroine, then we have seen that her death is at least ambiguous and possibly, on the view argued for in this paper, impossible. She dies, but her existence does not come to an end. It continues in the twilight of Hades with the same awful languor and malaise, the same experience of being riveted to the original sin of who she is, with the gods still watching on. Is Phaedra therefore a tragic figure? One might wonder whether her fate is more tragic than tragedy, inspiring not so much pity and terror as horror.

But, if Phaedra does not die, then of whom is this drama the tragedy? Who is the subject of this tragedy? On this point, Goldmann's interpretation of Phèdre proves once again invaluable in leading us back to Racine's Jansenist inspiration.28 At the core of Jansenism is a refusal of the world and a turning of the subject towards a hidden, watchful God. In what Goldmann calls Racine's “tragedies of refusal,” what gets shown is the impossibility and futility of life in the world. What therefore happens at the end of Phèdre is not so much her actual death as her death to the world. What Phaedra is forced to renounce is the temptation of life in the world, of the temporary satisfaction of desire, of some sort of contentment.

The world is a farce, a mere bauble, a comic illusion where individuals appear light, empty, and two-dimensional. To a much stronger degree than any other tragedy I know, Phaedra is not only the eponymous protagonist of the drama, but also the only substantial character onstage. The other onstage characters are slight and, indeed, slightly comic: Oenone is little more than a sounding board for Phaedra's essentially solitary dialogues, Theseus is something of a flatfooted oaf throughout, and poor, virginal Hippolytus is an unworthy object of such ferocious desire. Besides Phaedra, the only real characters are offstage: the gods and ancestors to whom Phaedra addresses her monologues. In the face of the farce of the world, it is to the gods that Phaedra is obliged to confess. No one else has the capacity to understand. She is a deep Christian trapped in a superficial pagan world. To this extent, the drama of Phèdre once again presses against the limits of the genre of tragedy and one wonders whether its depiction of the world is not in fact closer to Hegel's understanding of the world of comedy as that of illusion, deception, and insubstantiality. At times, Phaedra appears like some lost beautiful soul withdrawn from an uncomprehending world.

This brings me back to the Wooster Group's dramatisation of PhèdreTo You, the Birdie!—which is deeply comic, often farcical, and where bathos replaces tragic pathos. The weapons of tragedy—swords, shields, and daggers—are comically sublimated into badminton racquets and shuttlecocks. The comic effect is reinforced by the Wooster Group's use of technology, where the performance is punctuated with noises reminiscent of some anachronistic video game or an imagined soundtrack to a silent movie. Unwittingly or not, the Wooster Group are true to the Jansenist inspiration of the play. By playing tragedy as comedy, what is achieved is the radical separation of the character of Phaedra from the noisy and senseless sport of the world that surrounds her.

Is this to say that the tragic, the truly and deeply tragic—the experience of being riveted to the sheer fact of existence, and the games we pursue to evade this fact—is something that can only be played comically? Does the tragic have to be comic for us, here, now, whosoever we are and whatever moment of history this passes for? One might speak of tragic-comedy, after all there are good Beckettian precedents. Is the tragic only tragic as the comic? If it is—and I am inclined to think so—then this is not funny, not funny at all.

This is how I would read another stunning contemporary rewriting of the Phaedra story, Phaedra's Love by Sarah Kane from 1996.29 Turning the previous versions of the play on their head, Hippolytus is here pictured as an inert, heartless, sexual hedonist sprawled on a sofa surrounded by electronic toys, eating hamburgers and crisps while he masturbates pleasurelessly into a sock. After confessing her love for him, Phaedra gives Hippolytus oral sex, after which he reveals both the fact of his gonorrhoea and that he has already slept with Phaedra's daughter. For his sins, he is eventually castrated and disembowelled by Theseus, giving Hippolytus the only glimmer of pleasure that he feels in the entire play. But what I find particularly compelling is the way in which the bleakness of Kane's drama is sustained by moments of deliciously dark humor. For example:

Does he have sex with you?
I'm sorry?
Does he have sex with you?
I'm his stepmother. We are royal.

(PL 66)

Or again:

Love never dies. It evolves.
You're dangerous.
Into respect. Consideration. Have you considered your family?
What about it?
It's not an ordinary family.
No. None of us are related to each other.

(PL 93)

Returning to Racine, but keeping both the Wooster Group and Sarah Kane in mind, it would seem that Phèdre is not exactly the tragedy that one might imagine. Something dies, but it is not Phaedra. What dies is the world, and the corpse onstage at the end of the play is not Phaedra's, it is that of the illusion of the polis, the city, the state, the political order. The tragedy here is that of the political order, of Helleno-Hegelian Sittlichkeit, or Heideggerian In-der-Welt-Sein. As with Milton's Samson Agonistes, a tragedy almost contemporary with Phèdre, the ship of state is a wreck at the end of the play. Built up through war, conquest, bloodshed, and usurpation, it is destroyed by them too. The moral inference is that life in the world is a game of power, a farce of force, a murderous illusion. It is senseless.

The antipolitical nature of Racine's tragedy is what arguably separates it most profoundly from the entire spirit of ancient Greek tragedy. Attic tragedy dramatizes the agon at the heart of the constitution of the political order, whether that between the old and new gods (Orestes versus the Furies) in Aeschylus's Oresteia or between the laws of the family and the laws of the polis (Antigone versus Creon) in Sophocles' Antigone. The essence of Attic tragedy is the conflict between opposed, yet mutually justified, claims to justice. Such conflict results either in the dissolution of an unjust polis, as is the case with the Antigone, or the institution of a new political order of justice, as in the Oresteia. Attic tragedy concerns the conflictual nature of political substance. Seen from this perspective, Phèdre is something completely different. It is what Nietzsche would see as a monstrous contradiction in terms: a Christian tragedy. Antipolitical in its essence, the moral of Phèdre is the utter rejection of the temporal world. The true life is elsewhere.

The differences between Attic and Christian tragedy become obvious when one compares Phèdre with Euripedes' Hippolytus.30 Although there are many obvious Euripedean borrowings in Racine, it is the additions and subtractions that catch the eye, most strikingly the terrible economy of Racine's verse in comparison to the slight loquaciousness of Euripedes. As the play's title would suggest, Phaedra is more marginal to the action in Euripedes than in Racine, where Phaedra's subjectivity is center stage. The chorus, which plays a large role in Euripedes, is absent from Racine, as is much of the moralizing judgment one finds in the former. The character of the nurse is more central in Euripedes and she is presented as a more caring and interesting character. Also, Hippolytus's loathing of women is much more obvious, which makes his death by a bull emerging from the waves all the more poignant. But the main thematic action is in terms of the divine opposition between Artemis (hunting and chastity) and Aphrodite (eros). Hippolytus is the enemy of the latter and friend of the former and the drama consists in the revenge of Aphrodite, the Cyprian as she is called, upon Artemis. Sin is central to the Hippolytus but it is here that the difference with Racine is most clearly marked. Theseus sins in killing his son by bringing down Poseidon's curse upon him, but this sin is pardoned and pardon is the central theme of the drama, with characters requesting forgiveness for their actions. This is crystallized in the closing scene, where Artemis appears in a deus ex machina and pardons Theseus in front of his dying son, “Men may well sin, when gods so ordain.” This forgiveness is then echoed by the expiring Hippolytus, who breathlessly mutters to his father, “No, you are free. I here absolve you of my death.” That is, sin can be forgiven, which is unthinkable in Racine, whereas Phaedra expires asking for but not receiving forgiveness: “Pardonne.”

For Racine, only Phaedra lives in the truth. And she lives in the truth by refusing to live in the world. It is the world that dies in the tragedy and Phaedra who lives … after a fashion. This gives a very intriguing twist to the Aristotelian conception of tragedy characterized by peripeteia and anagnorisis. Having resolved to die at the beginning of the play, Phaedra becomes persuaded to live in the world. Her recognition at the end of the play is that this is impossible and she revolves to die once again, only to discover that this is also impossible. Aristotle might understandably have been perplexed.

The truth of subjectivity has to be lived apart from the world. Such is the tragic vision of Jansenism and its many heirs, from Kantian moral autonomy in a political kingdom where means are justified by ends, to Levinas's defense of subjectivity as separation in a world dominated by the political horror of war. There are many other heirs. But how far apart are subjectivity and the world? Here we confront the most acute dialectical paradox of Phèdre. If the lesson of Racine's tragedy is that life in the world is impossible, that the true life transcends the world, then I am still obliged to live in the world. The world is the only reality of which I can be sure and there is no question of a mystical intuition or a higher state of authentic awareness within the tragic vision. I live immanently in a world which is real and of which I can be sure, yet I experience a demand for transcendence that exceeds the world, but also my powers of cognition: the incomprehensible source of the moral law in Kant, the transcendent ethical demand of the other in Levinas. Hence the need, in Pascal, for the wager, which is not some intellectual game for a sceptical, urbane, seventeenth-century audience, but is rather the best bet of that which I cannot be sure. The tragic vision is a refusal of the world from within the world, as Goldmann writes, “Tragic man is absent and present in the world at one and the same time, exactly as God is simultaneously absent and present to man.”31

The human being, like Phaedra, is a paradox: we are ineluctably in the world, but we are not of the world. That is, we are not what we are in. Such is the curse of reflection. We are confronted with a world of things, but we are not at one with those things, and that experience of not-at-one-ness with the world is the experience of thinking. In other words, the human being is an eccentric creature, an oddity in the universe. Such eccentricity might be described as tragic, but it might be even better approached as comic.

Without God, the drama of Racine's Phèdre is reduced to being some story about a crazy woman trying to commit incest at court. We have to believe that Racine believed. Yet, what if we do not believe what he believed? What if we want to accept a tragic vision without God? Can that thought really be endured? Can it? Really? We will have to find out for ourselves.


  1. These thoughts were initially prompted by an invitation from Andrew Quick and Adrian Heathfield to respond to the Wooster Group's version of Phèdre, entitled “To You, the Birdie!” performed at the Riverside Studios, London, May 2002, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, with Kate Valk as Phaedra and Willem Dafoe as Theseus. I make extensive use of Paul Schmidt's excellently direct unpublished version of Racine's text, prepared for the Wooster Group for the original New York production. Aside from its presentation to generous audiences at London, Cork, New York, and Iceland, this text was the 2003 Simone Weil Lecture at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney and Melbourne. I am grateful to Rita Felski, Rai Gaita, Tom McCarthy, and, in particular, Jill Stauffer and Gabriela Basterra for their responses. All references to Phèdre are to the Pléiade edition, Oeuvres Complètes, vol. 1, ed. Raymond Picard (Gallimard: Paris, 1950). With minor adaptations, I have used the John Cairncross translation in Phaedra and Other Plays (London: Penguin, 1963). All subsequent page references will be given in the text by act and scene number.

  2. “Sun, I come to see you for the last time.”

  3. See Roland Barthes, Sur Racine (Paris: Seuil, 1960), 115-22.

  4. “With her, such a black act cannot be expunged from memory.”

  5. Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God. A Study of A Tragic Vision in the “Pensées” of Pascal and the Tragedies of Racine, trans. P. Thody (London: Routledge, 1964), 50, and cf. 36-37.

  6. Georg Lukács, “The Metaphysics of Tragedy,” in Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Merlin Press, 1974), 152. Interestingly, one can also find the words “Whoever sees God dies,” without acknowledgement to Ibsen, in Maurice Blanchot's “Literature and the Right to Death,” The Gaze of Orpheus (New York: Station Hill, 1981), 46.

  7. For a helpful discussion of the imagery and language of Phèdre, see Edward James and Gillian Jondorf, Phèdre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 19-52.

  8. The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans J. K. Ryan (New York: Doubleday, 1960), 188-89; hereafter cited in text as C.

  9. Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, vol. 2, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1985), 5-6, 11-13.

  10. I owe this anecdote to conversations with Bernie Flynn.

  11. Barthes, Sur Racine, 116.

  12. Emmanuel Levinas, De l'existence à l'existent, 2nd ed. (Paris: Vrin, 1986), 102; hereafter abbreviated EE.

  13. Emmanuel Levinas, Le temps et l'autre, 2nd ed. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1989), 26.

  14. Maurice Blanchot, L'écriture du désastre (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), 185.

  15. Cited in Goldmann, The Hidden God, 67, 80.

  16. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, in The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber, 1986), 84.

  17. “Tomorrow, alas! it will still be necessary to live.”

  18. I owe this remark to conversations with Rudi Visker.

  19. Emmanuel Levinas, “De l'évasion,” Recherches philosophiques 5 (1935-36): 380; hereafter cited in text as DE.

  20. “… take on a dramatic form.”

  21. Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 15th ed. (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1984), 135; hereafter abbreviated SZ. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson as Being and Time (New York: Harper, 1962).

  22. My overall interpretation of Heidegger's Sein und Zeit can be followed in more detail in Simon Critchley, “Enigma Variations: An Interpretation of Heidegger's Sein und Zeit,Ratio 15.2 (2002): 154-75.

  23. Jean-François Lyotard, The Confession of Augustine, trans. Richard Beardsworth (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 18, 55; hereafter cited in text as CA.

  24. Longing is interestingly discussed by Lukács in “The Metaphysics of Tragedy,” 162.

  25. Georges Bataille, Blue of Noon (London: Boyars, 1979), 23.

  26. Henrik Ibsen, Four Major Plays, ed. James McFarlane, trans. James McFarlane and Jens Arup (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 164.

  27. Martin Heidegger, “The Problem of Sin in Luther,” in Supplements, ed. John Van Buren (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002), 109; hereafter cited in text as PS.

  28. The Hidden God, 371-91.

  29. Sarah Kane, Phaedra's Love, in Complete Plays (London: Methuen, 2001), 63-103; hereafter cited in text as PL.

  30. Euripedes, Three Plays: Hippolytus, Iphigenia in Tauris, Alcestis, trans. Philip Vellacott (London: Penguin, 1953), 81-128.

  31. The Hidden God, 60.

Ellen McClure (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5316

SOURCE: McClure, Ellen. “Sovereign Love and Atomism in Racine's Bérénice.Philosophy and Literature 27 (2003): 304-17.

[In the following essay, McClure asserts that Bérénice reflects the influence of Epicureanism, Cartesianism, and contemporary controversies concerning the material nature of the universe, particularly in the portrayal of the character Antiochus.]

Although critics have noted links between the new science of the seventeenth century and the works of La Fontaine and Molière,1 a similar influence of Epicureanism or even Cartesianism upon French classical tragedy is harder to trace. No two areas of seventeenth-century cultural life would seem farther apart than the emerging science, with its rejection of Aristotelian categories as inadequate to experienced reality, and classical French tragedy, with its antimaterialism and claims to universal truth often bolstered by references to none other than Aristotle himself. Yet René Pintard reminds us that the 1660s and 1670s—the period when many of the tragedies we regard as “classical” were written—saw a strong renewal of interest in the philosophies articulated in the first half of the century.2 So widespread was this interest that Pierre Gassendi's friend and follower Bernier was able to publish an edition and translation of the philosopher's works in 1674-1675 which proved to be a resounding success. It is hard to believe that the much-discussed new science somehow missed writers of tragedies, especially given the extensive contacts between Molière, La Fontaine and Racine.

In this article, I demonstrate this influence by positing that Racine's play Bérénice, ostensibly a reworking of a well-known love story that Corneille was also producing on the Paris stage at the same time, is in part a reflection on the pressing question of what holds the universe together. Through his exploration of the possibility of satisfactory love between two independent sovereigns, Racine explores issues that the revival of Epicureanism had brought into the philosophical foreground. This reading of the play brings into focus the incredibly important, yet too-often neglected,3 role of Antiochus, the character whom Racine invented for his version of the play. I will show that his tragic in-betweenness offers a necessary alternative to Titus' and Bérénice's valorization of self-contained sovereignty.


Before embarking on a close reading of the play itself, however, I would like to offer a brief survey of the debate to which I believe Racine refers. Both Michel Foucault and Timothy Reiss have identified the seventeenth century as a transitional period between the age of correspondences exemplified in Aristotelian philosophy and the age of representation and quantification that characterized eighteenth-century thought.4 This transition, however, was far from smooth, as philosophers sought to articulate a universe whose separate and radically dehierarchized elements remained somehow joined together.

For most seventeenth-century philosophers, the sacrifice of Aristotelian categories and scholasticism in no way lessened the imperative for a sense of divine order and causation. Gassendi's often self-contradictory efforts to reconcile Epicurus and Christianity provide perhaps the most striking example of this transitional struggle. The atomism posited by Epicurus through Lucretius posed particular difficulties for a Christian worldview. A world governed by the chance interactions of atoms eliminates any sense that things happen for a purpose; God cannot be the benevolent author and overseer of the universe. Gassendi's equal respect for atomism and for Christianity should be read as evidence of the profound struggle between separateness and interconnection (or, as Gassendi would call it, harmony) taking place during this period.5 For, as Bloch points out, although Gassendi partially reconciled the demands of the two systems by situating atoms in an uncreated, infinite, and contiguous space and time, he continued to hold to the profoundly troubling existence of the void in the universe. Once again, the chief objection to the void implicit in atomism was religious, since if God is everywhere, the void cannot exist, and likewise, God cannot create nothing. The revival of stoicism supplied instead a vision of the universe ultimately comprised and held together by an ethereal pneuma that some neo-Stoics did not hesitate to identify as a sort of divine presence.6 Descartes himself made heroic attempts, in his Principes de la philosophie, to eliminate the void through a complex system of vortices and screwlike particles that preserved the contact between substances that he felt was necessary for motion to occur. These efforts did not convince Gassendi, nor did they seduce one of Descartes's followers, Géraud de Cordemoy, who failed to understand how Descartes's worldview excluded the possibility of atoms and the void, and who attacked Descartes's example of the empty vase whose edges would collapse if there was indeed nothing filling it up.7 Yet if the void truly existed, Descartes may have objected, what prevents the universe itself from collapsing, ceasing to move, or dissolving into its various parts?

These questions applied not only to the physical world, but to geometry as well. In 1635, Jean-Baptiste Poysson asked the leading philosophers of the time, including Mersenne and Gassendi, to solve the following problem which had preoccupied thinkers since Aristotle8: it essentially asked, “do points compose lines and other continuous magnitudes and, if they do, how can a line or continuous magnitude still retain the features that make it continuous?” (Joy, p. 84). Without a strict separation between mathematics and nature—a separation that Gassendi would argue for in proposing his solution, but that was by no means a given at the time—the problem of how points can make a line and still remain points was seen to be similar to the problem of how matter holds itself together if it is ultimately composed of atoms. It was only natural that someone would pose this question again in a period where the topic of discreteness versus continuity was being explored in almost every imaginable fashion.


As in our own time, the temptation to extend these questions outside of science and into society and culture was irresistible. Taking their cue from Jean Bodin, who first articulated a sovereignty defined precisely by its indivisibility and incommunicability, several writers used the language of atoms and points to characterize monarchy. In 1632, Cardin Le Bret proclaimed that “sovereignty is no less indivisible than a point in geometry.”9 Charles Loyseau, some years earlier, in his Traité des seigneuries (1610), stated that “sovereignty consists in absolute power, which is to say a power perfect and entire in each point, which the Canonists call plentitude of power. And consequently, sovereignty is without any degree of superiority, because that which has a superior cannot be supreme or sovereign, and without limitation of time, for otherwise it would neither be absolute power or even seigneurie.10

The similarity between Loyseau's description of sovereignty and its perfection and the debate concerning points and lines that would occupy thinkers about twenty-five years later is striking. Once communicated, or joined to something else, sovereignty ceases to exist as such, just as it would seem that a point that is part of a line must have lost some of its pointness. Again, it must be pointed out that just as the renewed interest in atomism in France represented a break with the Aristotelian universe, this description of sovereignty is profoundly different from the traditional view of kingship, in which the monarch was part of a natural hierarchy—equally applicable to the natural and the political world—that ensured the smooth and unquestioned transmission of social order from God to his kingdom. This emphasis on the independence and incommunicability of sovereignty would persist throughout the century, entering into tension with the obvious need for ministers and ambassadors in day-to-day governance. Pierre Le Moyne, in his De l'art de règner: Au roy (1665), even seriously considers the question, further developed by Racine himself, of whether love and sovereignty can coexist.


To what extent was Racine aware of these ongoing debates which struck at the core both of scientific and political philosophy? As a member of the Académie Française, Racine was certainly exposed to discussions of these questions; it is often overlooked that Racine's famous address welcoming Pierre Corneille's brother Thomas to the Académie in 1685 also celebrated the diplomat Bergeret's replacement of Cordemoy in that body. Although in this speech Racine chiefly refers to Cordemoy as a historian, rather than as a scientist, the playwright must have been aware of Cordemoy's other activities. More significant evidence of Racine's awareness of atomism as both a scientific and a social phenomenon lies in his correspondence. In a letter to his friend the abbé Le Vasseur, dated June of 1661, Racine playfully makes reference to Lucretius, applying the language of the composition of the universe to his friendship with Le Vasseur: “So, as imperfect things seek naturally to join themselves to more perfect things, I would make a monster of nature if, being as hollow [creux] as I am, I refused to join and attach myself to the solid, especially since this same solid tries to attract the hollow to itself.”11 In case Le Vasseur has any doubts about the origin of this language, Racine goes on to cite Lucretius directly, appealing to the abbé's seeming predilection for the philosopher: “… you must have read Lucretius yourself, for it seems to me that the letter which you wrote to that great partisan of the solid [M. L'Avocat], is full of the maxims of this author. He says, like you, that everything cannot be so solid that there is not any hollow [creux] among it: “Nec tamen undique corporea stipata tenentur / Omnia natura; namque est in rebus inane12 (RO, p. 393). This last quotation proclaims the existence of void in the world, an assertion which we have seen to be profoundly controversial.

Although Racine goes on to profess his ignorance of such complicated scientific issues—“but let's leave this matter, which is itself too solid, and let's mix in some of our own hollowness”—this letter to Le Vasseur demonstrates the playwright's familiarity with the Epicurean poet, as well as his friendship with others interested in the emerging new science. Racine's playful use of atomistic language to describe his own friendships would continue for a while in the correspondence; writing to Le Vasseur from Uzès in December of the same year, he refers to Pellisson's imprisonment following the Foucquet trial in the following terms: “That must teach M. L'Avocat that the solid is not always the most stable, since M. Pellisson was disgraced for having preferred it to the hollow, and, to tell the truth, although it is fairly hollow on the Parnassus, one is more at one's ease there than in the Conciergerie” (RO, p. 411). While these letters were written almost ten years before the first performances of Bérénice, they show Racine's awareness, if not endorsement (atomistic opinions are almost always attributed to others, such as l'Avocat), of current controversies concerning the material nature of the universe and the question of how its parts fit together and cohere. Indeed, the offhanded attitude that Racine seems to adopt to these debates is in itself an illustration of how mondains and poets would have discussed such matters long before writers like Fontenelle turned their attention to popularizing an increasingly difficult and specialized science to the literate public.


Racine's play Bérénice, read in light of these debates, would certainly seem to illustrate the interaction of creux and solide, as the solid sovereignties of the two main characters preclude their union. The question may be asked, however, of why Racine would choose this play in particular as a vehicle for the exploration, more playful and poetic than strictly scientific, of the composition of the human universe. I believe the answer lies not just in the subject matter itself—the story of the impossibility of love between sovereigns—but also in the play's well-known, and admittedly meager, subject matter. The theater public of the seventeenth century would have been quite familiar with the basic plot of the story, if only through the other theatrical renderings of the episode preceding Racine's own version. Yet the story was not only so well-known as to become a near cliché, it was also based on the thinnest of antique sources—just one line from Suetonius. Indeed, in the preface to the play Racine makes his famous claim that “all invention consists in making something of nothing.”

It is not impossible to imagine that Racine alluded to the problem of creux and solide throughout the play in order to embroider a fairly simple story, rendering it more interesting at least to himself, if not to a contemporary audience that may or may not have understood the references, for the basic plot of the play is strikingly similar to the problem posed by Poysson in 1635 concerning points and lines. Can a ruler fall in love with another ruler and still remain sovereign? From the very first page, Racine's play demonstrates the puzzle of interconnectedness between sovereigns. The scenic directions note that the play takes place “in a cabinet that is between the apartment of Titus and that of Bérénice.” By placing the action between the rulers' apartments, Racine both indicates the self-contained nature of his main characters and makes clear his intention to explore the possible mediation between them. This detail is especially striking because Bérénice is a guest in Titus's kingdom, and therefore would not ordinarily have an apartment in his palace (indeed, in Corneille's version, Bérénice is located outside the kingdom itself at the play's outset). Yet for this reading of the scenic indication to prove significant, it must be shown that Titus and Bérénice view their own sovereignty in the atomistic terms of incommunicability and discreteness.

That this is the case is especially evident in these characters' references to time.13 As I have shown, the question of whether time is continuous or comprised of discrete moments is an issue intimately connected with the corresponding view of matter and the composition of the universe (albeit not always in ways that one would expect). When Bérénice finally makes her first appearance in the play, her speech demonstrates her view of time as discrete. Reminding Antiochus of her love for Titus, she states that she has told him “one hundred times” that she only loves the ruler for himself, and that Titus has in turn assured her of his love “a thousand times.” The identity of this “time” with the moment is quite clear in the French, where the discrete “fois” is distinct from the continuous, and nonquantifiable “temps.” This distinction between “fois” and “temps” is echoed in Titus's own conversation with his confidant, Paulin. In Act II, scene ii, Titus recounts his own love for Bérénice, which is “a thousand times more ardent than you can believe” (422). He continues by stating that “I have needed every day / To go and see her, love her, make her love me.”14 The predominance of the moment in his thinking extends itself throughout this speech, which contains references to “one hundred times [fois],” “one thousand oaths,” and, later, to “twenty times in eight days,” “twenty times” again, and finally, to the tragic “last time.” Repeating time in terms of “fois” is an efficient way to show the violent nature of the attraction between the two rulers, as it separates their sudden passion from the “brother-sister love” between Antiochus and Bérénice and to which Roland Barthes has made reference as a key component to Racinian tragedy. Yet if this opposition between the coup de foudre and the more continuous, siblinglike love can be found in almost all of Racine's tragedies, here it echoes with the characters' identities as rulers of their own kingdoms, and this in a story, well-known by the audience, in which sovereignty—Titus's status as emperor of Rome, and, although to a lesser extent, Bérénice's status as queen—comprise precisely the obstacles to their love.

In a distinctly Corneillian move, however, Racine makes this very plenitude and discreteness as much the grounds for Bérénice's attraction to Titus as it is the obstacle for that love's fulfillment. Antiochus knows this, as he almost mockingly adopts the two rulers' language in telling the queen, “Titus came, saw you, and won your love [Titus, pour mon malheur, vint, vous vit, et vous plut]” (194). His use of the passé simple here marks the violent impression of Titus's presence on the queen. And in a private conversation with her confidante, despite her claim elsewhere to love Titus for himself rather than for his status as emperor, Bérénice recreates this moment of love at first sight by enumerating a striking list of imperial attributes. The night, the torches, the bonfires, the eagles, legions, lictors and populace that surround Titus's “majesty” demonstrate the queen's attraction to the discrete, the quantitative, and the cumulative—qualities that, as we shall see, contrast sharply with the constant, pining presence of Antiochus.

Bérénice's bitter question to Titus, “Are you entirely (pleinement) happy with your glory?” (1331) uses the language of plenitude, which resonates with the language used in seventeenth-century treatises on sovereignty, to reveal her awareness of their dilemma. The political plenitude conferred upon Titus by the senate simultaneously attracts Bérénice and precludes their union. That Titus recognizes this paradox at least unconsciously is evident in his reply to her query. In order to preserve the plénitude inherent in his political situation, he can only refer Bérénice back to the (counted) moments of his love:

But what a time (moment) to choose, great Gods! To level
Such cruel and baseless accusations on me!
You do not know me. Go back these five years
And reckon all the moments, count the days
Of my most wild and most tempestuous passion.
Nothing was like today. [Ce jour surpasse tout …]


What Bérénice demands (but not necessarily what she wants) is precisely what Titus, due to his status as emperor, cannot give her—a love predicated not on discrete moments, however full, but rather on continuous temps.

To underscore the importance of self-containment and unity for the story of the sovereigns, Racine includes a striking illustration of the partial dissolution of both rulers due to their love, in the fifth scene of the fourth act—the only scene in which the two characters appear on stage unaccompanied by their confidants or by other characters. Bérénice arrives in tears to ask Titus if Antiochus's declaration that the lovers must separate is true. Tears, a sign of the violation of the body's limits throughout classical tragedy, play a similar role here, as Titus reminds Bérénice to regain her integrity, both physical and emotional: “Stifle the voice of love” (1051). But Titus himself makes reference to his own tears, “that constantly escape him,” ultimately provoking Bérénice's well-known exclamation, “Seigneur, you are the Emperor, and you cry!” (1154). This heartbreaking scene of “déchirement” follows and extends the near-chaos of Titus's monologue in the previous scene, wherein the neat compartmentalization of the “solid” elements of his glory break down into a confused dialogue between Titus the emperor and Titus the lover. The prevalence of tears in this scene on the part of both Bérénice and Titus would seem to denote a melting of the boundaries and independence that their royalty demands. The similarity between the two lovers' regard and respect for discreteness, expressed by their descriptions of time as comprised of moments, is replaced by a much more troubling similarity—that of their dissolution expressed through their tears, which in and of itself points to the dangers inherent in their love for each other.

The contrast of these similarities demonstrates that there is no middle term possible for the two lovers. Either they remain physically separate and discrete, yet in love, or they come together too closely, and the line between the two characters dissolves, and is no longer clear. They are unable to achieve a link with one another that would allow their relationship to continue while preserving their respective identities. As a result, the only possible outcomes are a complete, yet disastrous, union that would compromise Titus as emperor while destroying the person that Bérénice came to love in the first place, or a complete, and equally tragic, separation.

In keeping with Racine's earlier observation that “nothing should be so solid that there is not any hollow [creux] among it,” however, the possibility of linking, rather than union, is provided by the character of Antiochus. If Titus is described in terms of the discrete elements of his power and his own perception of time as comprised of moments, Antiochus is the very opposite, as Bérénice's reference to him as another Titus indicates. Throughout the play, Antiochus is defined (and defines himself) by his very lack of clear definition, expressed in terms of betweenness and constancy. Not only is he the first character to appear, thereby associating himself with the corridor separating, yet linking, the rulers' two apartments, but from his first monologue, his speech is littered with references not to “fois” or “moments,” but rather to “always [toujours]” and “a long time [longtemps].” Indeed, Bérénice is so aware of his constant, sustained presence that his decision to leave on the day of her marriage startles her:

… Antiochus
Whose constant care the whole of Rome has seen
And all the Orient, who never failed me
But followed me in all my chequered fortunes
With equal zeal … ?


The constancy to which Bérénice refers here is amply echoed in Antiochus's own words, both explicitly (“the too-constant victim of love,” 255) and implicitly, as his use of the imperfect tense offers a stark contrast to Titus's tendency to act in the passé simple. After a passage where the heroic actions of Titus are described in these sudden terms (“he conquered [il dompta],” “he left [il laissa]”), Antiochus recounts his own activities during this period:

You went with Titus and appeared in Rome,
And all the Orient was desolate.
Meanwhile I loitered long [je demeurai longtemps errant] in Caesarea,
Enchanted realm where my heart had adored you [vous
          avait adorée]
I searched [cherchais] to trace your footsteps, and I wept.


This ghostlike haunting of the places that Antiochus shared with Bérénice before Titus's conquest of Palestine is fully in keeping with Antiochus's status as somehow between life and death itself. As Arsace explains in a récit in the first act, Antiochus fought valiantly during the siege, but almost lost his life: “That was the day that might have been your last: / Titus embraced you prostrate in my arms, / And all the conquering army mourned you dead” (112-14). Antiochus therefore, in his life as well as in his role in the play, is condemned to perpetual betweenness. As a result, he is denied the plenitude of the moment that Titus and Bérénice enjoy. As Antiochus himself notes, “all of my moments are only an eternal passage / From fear to hope, from hope to rage” (1299-1300).15 Indeed, as the play progresses, Antiochus's name disappears from the other characters' speech as even his identity seems to be subsumed by his intermediary position between the two main characters. If to be named is to enjoy a brief, full moment of recognition by one's interlocutor, Antiochus, characterized by Bérénice as “another Titus,” is nothing but the ghostlike shadow of the emperor himself. The contrast between the other characters' relative refusal to name him and his own interpellation of Arsace (in Act I, scene iii, Antiochus names his friend almost each time he speaks, while Arsace merely calls him “Seigneur”) represents a poignant attempt to command visibility and attention for himself.

As I have shown, this plenitude of self is precisely what attracts Bérénice to Titus, and what prevents the heroine from even considering an attachment to Antiochus. Titus realizes this, even as he recommends a relationship between Bérénice and Antiochus. He characterizes this relationship not in terms of union, but rather in terms of linking and joining, which contrast with the periodic, momentary invocation of his own name in their shared future:

That noble bond, let it become unending,
And let my name be often on your lips.
To draw your kingdoms closer to each other
Their common boundary shall be the Euphrates.
The Senate knows your name; it will confirm
With one accord, I know, what I have said.
I'll join Cilicia to your Commagene.


If we contrast this proposed marriage between Antiochus and Bérénice with the collapse of difference experienced by Titus and Bérénice in the fourth act, we see that Titus recognizes that a link between Bérénice and Antiochus is possible. Both of their states, bordered by the waters of the Euphrates (rather than corrupted internally, as it were, with tears) would retain their separateness and identity after the marriage he proposes. Yet it should be pointed out that if the senate is “full” of Antiochus's name, in the lengthy speech which this passage concludes, Titus himself never names Antiochus.

As Titus's question to Bérénice, “what time do you choose? [quel temps choisissez-vous?]” (617) indicates, Bérénice is caught between two mutually exclusive models of time and even existence. On the one hand, there is the momentary plenitude of Titus, characterized most often by the passé simple and the references to quantifiable “fois,” which is attractive and in keeping with his sovereignty as emperor, but which precludes, by its very nature, any sustainable happiness. On the other hand, there is the continuity and constancy of Antiochus, expressed in the imparfait and in references to “temps” and “toujours,” which in turn precludes any moments of romantic exaltation or excitement, as Antiochus himself seems to disappear behind the emperor. The careful division of these qualities between the two individuals courting Bérénice marks the impossibility of resolving the conflicting models of point and line, since Bérénice obviously cannot marry—or even love—them both. Antiochus' final speech demonstrates his recognition of the problem, as he notes his inability to incorporate the singularity of the moment into his own existence and love for Bérénice. By stating that “to no longer love her I fought one hundred times [fois] / I could not forget her; at least I remained silent” (1445-46), Antiochus admits that his effort to break up the constant, “linear” aspect of his love through moments of forgetting—moments that are the mirror image of the moments of presence and exhilaration often described by Titus—has failed. Rather than renounce this love, then, Antiochus tries to confer its status upon the two rulers, sacrificing himself and his “unhappy days” to their happiness. In what he views as his parting words to the couple, he voices his hope that this sacrifice will in some manner provide the missing link between the moments of their love: “I pray the Gods to pour on both your heads / Unnumbered blessings [mille prospérités] in an endless chain” (1463-64).

Yet Antiochus does not yet have the final word, for this solution would imply his complete disappearance from the story, with death as his only option. Although Bérénice does not love Antiochus, she has always understood the necessity of his presence, and she refuses his offer to die by pointedly stating that all three of the characters should live and serve as examples to the universe (1502). For Antiochus appears in almost as many scenes as Titus (fourteen, to the emperor's fifteen, numbers that further reinforce the individuality of the latter), and if we view him as the continuity that holds the play and indeed the couple together, despite his near-invisibility he is essential to the play, just as pneuma, vortices, or continuous time were viewed as essential to philosophies that proposed a universe comprised of discrete particles. Unfortunately, most critics of the play have not shared Bérénice's conviction of Antiochus's central role, and have left him out of their readings of the play. In suggesting that the unnamed, the continuous, and the “hollow” are just as important as the striking glory and discrete sovereignty of the emperor, Racine demonstrates a profound awareness of the problems involved in building a society—not to mention a universe—out of seemingly unconnected, and unconnectable, parts.


  1. For La Fontaine, see Jean-Charles Darmon, Philosophie épicurienne et littérature au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998). Molière integrated some of the ideas of the new science into his plays, was friends with some of the freethinkers of the time, and himself translated Lucretius into verse, although this translation has been lost. On this subject, see Roger Duchêne, Molière (Paris: Fayard, 1998), p. 42.

  2. René Pintard, Le libertinage érudit dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle (Geneva: Slatkine, 1983), p. 570.

  3. James J. Supple, in his “The Role of Antiochus in ‘Bérénice’” (Seventeenth-century French Studies 11 [1989]: 151-62) addresses this neglect, but by treating Antiochus's role in the play as that of moral exemplar only strengthens the division between the critics' view of Antiochus and that of the characters themselves, who seem to ignore his contribution to the story.

  4. See Timothy Reiss, The Discourse of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982) and Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).

  5. For a perceptive account of the fundamental dualism of Gassendi's philosophy, see Olivier René Bloch, La Philosophie de Gassendi: Nominalisme, Matérialisme et Métaphysique (La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971).

  6. See Margaret J. Osler, Atoms, Pneuma and Tranquility: Epicurean and Stoic Themes in European Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), as well as Samuel Sambursky, Physics of the Stoics (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1959) and Robert D. Hicks, Stoic and Epicurean (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910) for fuller accounts of the differences between the two philosophies. The best discussion of void and atomism in this period, however, is Edward Grant's Much Ado about Nothing: Theories of Space and Vacuum from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  7. Géraud de Cordemoy, Oeuvres philosophiques (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), p. 104. With the exception of the passages from Bérénice, all translations are my own.

  8. For a detailed account of the problem and its respondents, see Lynn Sumida Joy, Gassendi the Atomist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 83ff.

  9. Cardin Le Bret, De la souveraineté du Roy (Paris: Toussaincte du Bray, 1632), p. 71.

  10. Charles Loyseau, Traité des seigneuries (Paris: 1610), II, p. 2.

  11. Racine, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), vol. 2, p. 393, hereafter RO.

  12. “But not all bodily matter in tight-packed / By nature's law, for there's a void in things.” Lucretius, The Way Things Are, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), lines 329-30.

  13. Many thanks to Roland Racevskis for his analysis of time in Bérénice, which inspired this article. His essay, “The Time of Tragedy: Andromaque, Britannicus, Bérénice” can be found in Ronald Tobin, ed., Racine et/ou le classicisme (Tübingen: Narr, 2001), pp. 113-23. Richard Goodkin, in his “Racine and the Excluded Third (Person),” in Continuum, vol. 2 (New York: AMS Press, 1990), pp. 107-45, also treats this issue, as well as the mediating role of Antiochus, although with a different focus from my own.

  14. The translation I am using is that of R. C. Knight (Durham: Durham Academic Press Ltd., 1999), although I occasionally adjust his translation when necessary. The line numbers refer to the French edition of Bérénice.

  15. Although here the translation is my own, Knight reflects Antiochus's nature in the lines that come before: “What have I done, great Gods, to earn the chain / Of linked misfortunes blasting all my days?” (1273-74). However, in the following lines, cited in the text, he eliminates the phrase “éternel passage,” which is why I have supplied my own translation.

Further Reading

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Brereton, Geoffrey. Jean Racine: A Critical Biography. London: Cassell, 1951, 362 p.

Widely regarded to be the best biography of Racine in English.


Abraham, Claude. Jean Racine. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 180 p.

General study of Racine and his plays for the nonspecialist; includes chapters on individual plays and an annotated bibliography of secondary sources.

Auchincloss, Louis. La Gloire: The Roman Empire of Corneille and Racine. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996, 90 p.

Compares the Roman plays of Racine with those of his older theatrical rival, Pierre Corneille.

Barnwell, H. T. The Tragic Drama of Corneille and Racine: An Old Parallel Revisited. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, 275 p.

Comparative study that considers Corneille's and Racine's attitudes toward tragedy and history and contrasts their dramatic techniques.

Cloonan, William. Racine's Theatre: The Politics of Love. University, Miss.: Romance Monographs, 1978, 149 p.

Concentrates on the themes of gloire and love in Racine's plays.

Dalhousie French Studies 49 (winter 1999).

Compendium of 25 essays in honor of the tercentenary of Racine's death.

L'Esprit Créateur: Special Issue on Racine 38, no. 2 (summer 1998).

Collection of ten essays in a special issue on Racine.

Hiscock, Andrew. Authority and Desire: Crises of Interpretation in Shakespeare and Racine. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1996, 320 p.

Focuses on aspects of political discourse in a selection of Shakespeare's Jacobean dramas and Racine's tragedies.

Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Racine: Mythos and Renewal in Modern Theater. University: University of Alabama Press, 1971, 271 p.

Judicious, comprehensive study of the Racinian theater, with chapters on individual plays.

Melzer, Sarah E. “Myths of Mixture in Phèdre and the Sun King's Assimilation Policy in the New World.” L'Esprit Créateur 38, no. 3 (fall 1998): 1-11.

Demonstrates how Phèdre reflects key political issues of assimilation and national identity relevant to monarchical France.

Parish, Richard. Racine: The Limits of Tragedy. Tübingen, Germany: Papers on Seventeenth-Century Literature, 1993, 268 p.

Argues that Racine places the problematics of tragedy close to the surface of his works.

Reilly, Mary. “Racine's Visions of Violence: The Case of Bajazet, Britannicus and Bérénice.Nottingham French Studies 38, no. 1 (spring 1999): 12-23.

Seeks to examine the images evoked by offstage violence in Britannicus.

———. “Infernal Visions and the Afterlife in Racinian Tragedy.” Nottingham French Studies 42, no. 2 (autumn 2003): 1-11.

Explores Racine's unorthodox treatment of death in his tragedies.

———. “The Moral Perspective in Racinian Tragedy.” Neophilologus 88, no. 1 (January 2004): 33-41.

Examines some problematic areas of what the critic views as the distorted moral vision in Racine's works, scrutinizing the use of ideas and language about sin, guilt, punishment, forgiveness, confession, shame, and remorse in their linguistic and dramatic contexts.

Seventeenth-Century French Studies 22 (2000).

Special issue on Racine that contains essays in English and French, with topics ranging from punctuation and capitalization in the first editions of his plays to themes of war and commerce in the tragedies.

Swinden, Patrick. “Translating Racine.” Comparative Literature 49, no. 3 (summer 1997): 209-26.

Considers why it is impossible to even approximate in English the effect of Racine's French.

Tobin, Ronald W. Jean Racine Revisited. Boston: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1999, 195 p.

Detailed biographical-critical study; includes an annotated bibliography of secondary sources.

———, ed. Racine et/ou le classicisme. Tübingen, Germany: Narr, 2001, 505 p.

Collection of thirty-three essays in French and English covering a wide range of topics, from Racine's dramaturgy to his views on history, from his concerns with myth and religion to the classical influences in his work.

Turnell, Martin. Jean Racine: Dramatist. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972, 370 p.

Popular study of Racine that derides more academic approaches.

Additional coverage of Racine's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 268; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors Module; European Writers, Vol. 3; Guide to French Literature: Beginnings to 1789; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 28; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; and Twayne's World Authors.

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