Jean Racine 1639–1699
French dramatist and poet.
With Pierre Corneille, Racine was one of the premier authors of French dramatic tragedy during the reign of Louis XIV. His more renowned plays, all of them written in verse, include Bajazet (1672), Mithridate (1673; Mithridates), Iphigénie (1674; Iphigenia), and Phèdre (1677; Phaedra), tragedies which rework themes from classical Greek models. As in Greek tragedy and Corneille's works, Racine's plays emphasize the exposition of character and spiritual conflict, eliminating nearly everything not central to each drama's theme. His accomplishment was summarized in glowing terms by Anatole France, who wrote that Racine's "period, his education, and his nature, conspired together to make of him the most perfect of French poets, and the greatest by reason of the sustained nobility of his work."
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 which emphasized the complete perversity of the natural human will and the belief that sin is overcome only in the lives of individuals predestined for such 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, having entered into friendships with Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, and Nicolas Boileau, he began writing for the Parisian stage, with the neoclassical theorist Boileau being an especially strong influence upon 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; these works brought their author much acclaim. But when Alexander opened, Racine acted upon the first of several key decisions that brought him strained relations with friends—if not influential enemies—throughout his career. Immediately dissatisfied by Molière's production of Alexander 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 ill-spirited caricatures of
and anecdotes about key Jansenist figures. Having split with the Jansenists and now considered a rising rival of Corneille, Racine embraced the worldliness of the Parisian dramatic world, taking actresses for mistresses and actively competing in dramatic popularity with the older writer. In the drama Britannicus he not only ventured into political drama, at the time considered Corneille's exclusive domain, but he also attacked Corneille himself (though not by name) in his introduction, having come to believe that a cabal led by Corneille had sought to undermine his drama's success. He also answered Corneille's El Cid with his own Andromaque (1667; Andromache) and pitted his superior Bérénice (1670; Berenice) against Corneille's Tite et Bérénice, which appeared almost simultaneously. The other plays by which Racine is most distinguished appeared during the next few years, and in 1674 he was elected to the Académie Française, becoming its youngest member. But by the mid 1670s, the ill will he had engendered among his peers and their admirers affected his own career. One of his more powerful enemies, the Duchesse de Bouillon—a niece of Cardinal Mazarin and sister of the Duc de Nevers—learned of Racine's Phaedra during its composition and persuaded a minor dramatist, Jacques Pradon, to write a rival version of the play, which opened two days after Racine's production. Further, it is said that she reserved many of the main seats for the earliest performances of Racine's play, leaving these seats empty on the crucial opening nights. Although Phaedra was eventually seen as superior to Pradon's tragedy, Racine was badly shaken by this episode and its aftermath, which included having his personal safety threatened by the Duc de Nevers. Thus, at the height of his career, he retired from the professional theatre; he 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 travelled 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, 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 (Athaliah), which was performed at Saint-Cyr two years later. During his remaining years, he wrote four spiritual hymns (Cantiques spirituelles) and a history of Port-Royal (Abrégé de l'histoire de Port-Royal). Racine died in 1699 after a long illness.
Several scholars have written that in Racine, the world of Jansenist Port-Royal and the neoclassical world were in constant warfare. But they were arguably complementary, in style and in form. The influence of Jansenist teaching, which stressed human depravity and predestined salvation, is evident in Racine's dramatic characters, who—like their forerunners in classical Greek drama—are undone by their passions, driven to ruin by ungovernable impulses. The simple neoclassical tragic form was well fitted to Racine's themes and poetic style, which has been praised for its simplicity, harmony, and rhythmic flow; of all his contemporaries, Racine was the first to achieve success within a framework which had been deemed too difficult to master since its inception during the Italian Renaissance. His style has been described as simple yet polished, smooth yet natural. Robert Lowell has praised Racine's dramatic verse for its "diamond edge" and "hard, electric rage," calling Racine "perhaps the greatest poet in the French language." In most of his plays, Racine employed a basic plot structure in which a monarch demands something of a particular underling, often a prince or princess, who denies this demand. The monarch then attempts to force his subject's obedience, with tragic results. Launched upon a course of impending doom, Racine's characters know what must be done to avert disaster but are unable to subdue their desires to take prudent action. This is readily discernable in Phaedra, the tragedy often considered Racine's finest. Based upon Euripides's Hippolytus, this play concerns a woman who wrestles unsuccessfully with her unlawful love for her stepson, Hippolytus, and is struck down by him or her husband, Theseus, each time she moves toward redemption. Kenneth Rexroth went so far as to say that the protagonist of Phaedra "is damned, and predestined to damnation." Racine's only comedy, Les plaideurs (1668; The Litigants), is the single exception to this general pattern.
During their author's lifetime, Racine's dramas, though popular, were attacked for what some critics considered their crude realism and their focus upon passion. Jean de La Bruyère wrote of Corneille and Racine that "the former paints men as they should be, the latter paints men as they are." Like La Bruyère, many critics compare the intents and accomplishments of Racine with those of Corneille, often to Racine's advantage. "Unlike Corneille," wrote Irving Babbitt, "Racine moved with perfect ease among all the rules that the neo-classic disciplinarians had imposed upon the stage. Indeed, it is in Racine, if anywhere, that all this regulating of the drama must find its justification," here speaking of the unities of time, space, and action prescribed by neoclassical theorists. Over time, Racine's work grew in critical stature and popularity. In one of the seminal discourses upon Racine's achievement, Racine et Shakespeare (1823-25), Stendhal wrote of Racine—in his preoccupation with passion—as an artist of romantisicme, the literary element which satisfies an ever-changing standard of beauty. Several scholars have compared the theatricality of Shakespeare and Racine, with David Maskell observing that they "provide examples of a common visual vocabulary which is the peculiar feature of theatrical language, and which unites dramatists who can exploit its rich potential." Other major French critics of Racine's work have included Jules Lemaître, Ferdinand Brunetière, Jean Giraudoux, François Mauriac, and Roland Barthes, while English-language criticism and translation of Racine's works has been dominated by Martin Turnell, Geoffrey Brereton, and Kenneth Muir, among others. Many scholars concur in spirit with the judgment of George Saintsbury, who wrote of Racine, "Of the whole world which is subject to the poet he took only a narrow artificial and conventional fraction. Within these narrow bounds he did work which no admirer of literary craftsmanship can regard without satisfaction."