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.
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.
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.
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.