Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1466

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 ...

(The entire section contains 90022 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Jean Racine study guide. You'll get access to all of the Jean Racine content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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."

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 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 60

La Thébaïde, ou Les frères ennemis [The Thebans, or The Enemy Brothers] (drama) 1664

Alexandre le Grand [Alexander the Great] (drama) 1665

Andromaque [Andromache] (drama) 1667

Les plaideurs [The Litigants] (drama) 1668

Britannicus (drama) 1669

Bérénice [Berenice] (drama) 1670

Bajazet (drama) 1672

Mithridate [Mithridates] (drama) 1673

Iphigénie [Iphigenia] (drama) 1674

Phèdre [Phaedra] (drama) 1677

Esther (drama) 1689

Athalie [Athaliah] (drama) 1691

Oeuvres complètes (dramas) 1962

Elizabeth Inchbald (essay date 1808)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

SOURCE: "Remarks: The Distressed Mother," in British Theatre; or, A Collection of Plays, Vol. XVIII, translated by Ambrose Philips, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1808, pp. 3-5.

[Inchbald was an English dramatist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the excerpt below, she remarks upon the dramatic effect of The Distressed Mother, Ambrose Philips's translation of Andromaque.]

The French and the English stages differ so essentially, that every French drama requires great alteration, before it can please a London audience, although it has previously charmed the audience of Paris.

The gloomy mind of a British auditor demands a bolder and more varied species of theatrical amusement than the lively spirits of his neighbours in France. The former has no attention, no curiosity, till roused by some powerful fable, intricate occurrences, and all the interest which variety creates—whilst the latter will quietly sit, absorbed in their own glowing fancy, to hear speeches after speeches, of long narration, nor wish to see any thing performed, so they are but told, that something has been done.

The Distressed Mother [a translation of Andromaque] partakes of the common quality of French dramas in this respect—much more is described to the audience than they see executed: but every recital is here in the highest degree interesting; and the dignity of the persons introduced on the stage seems to forbid all violence of action, which might endanger their respective grandeur.

The mere falling on the knee, by Andromache, when she exclaims to her victor—

Behold how low you have reduced a queen!

is perhaps more affecting, more admirable, in the character of a mother, haughty, like the queen of the Trojans, than any event which could have occurred in the play, than any heroic deed, which, either in grief or in rage, she could have performed.

The love of Hermione for Pyrrhus, founded on ambition, is, again, as natural a representation of that love, which but too often governs the heart of woman, as could be given: and Orestes, doting with fondness, the more he finds she, whom he loves, loves another, is equally as true a picture of this well-known passion, as it rules over the heart of man.

Frequently as this tragedy has been acted, and much as it has been approved by an English audience, it will still gain more favour with a reader than a spectator. Imagination can give graces, charms, and majesty, to Hector's widow, and all the royal natives of Troy and Greece, which their representatives cannot always so completely bestow; and, as the work is chiefly narrative, reading answers the same purpose as to listen.

C. A. Sainte-Beuve (essay date 1855)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4255

SOURCE: "Racine," in Portraits of the Seventeenth Century, Historic and Literary, translated by Katharine P. Wormeley, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904, pp. 283-314.

[Sainte-Beuve is considered the foremost French literary critic of the nineteenth century. Of his extensive body of critical writings, the best known are his "lundis"—weekly newspaper articles which appeared over a period of several decades, in which he displayed his knowledge of literature and history. While Sainte-Beuve began his career as a champion of Romanticism, he eventually formulated a psychological method of criticism. Asserting that the critic cannot separate a work of literature from the artist and from the artist's historical milieu, Sainte-Beuve considered an author's life and character integral to the comprehension of his work. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1855, he surveys the career of Racine, offering high praise for his overall accomplishment, especially the religious dramas Esther and Athalie.]

The great poets, the poets of genius, independently of their class, and without regard to their nature, lyric, epic, or dramatic, may be divided into two glorious families which, for many centuries, have alternately intermingled and dethroned one another, contending for pre-eminence in fame: between them, according to periods, the admiration of men has been unequally awarded. The primitive poets, the founders, the unmixed originals, born of themselves and sons of their own works,—Homer, Pindar, Æschylus, Dante, and Shakespeare,—are sometimes neglected, often preferred, but are always contrary to the studious, polished, docile geniuses of the middle epochs, essentially capable of being educated and perfected. Horace, Virgil, and Tasso are the most brilliant heads of this secondary family, reputed, and with reason, inferior to its elder, but, as a usual thing, better understood by all, more accessible, more cherished. In France, Corneille and Molière are detached from it on more sides than one; Boileau and Racine belong to it wholly and adorn it, especially Racine, the most accomplished of the class, the most venerated of our poets….

Racinian poesy is so constructed that at every height are stepping-stones, and places of support for weaklings. Shakespeare's work is rougher of approach; the eye cannot take it in on all sides; I know very worthy persons who toil and sweat to climb it, and after striking against crag or bush, come back swearing in good faith that there was nothing higher up; but, no sooner are they down upon the plain than that cursed enchantment tower appears to them once more in the distance, a thousand times more imperatively than those of Montlhéry to Boileau. But let us leave Shakespeare and such comparisons and try to mount, after many worshippers, a few of the steps, slippery from long usage, that lead to Racine's marble temple….

We find him, in 1660, in communication with the actors of the Marais about a play the name of which has not come down to us. His ode on the Nymphes de la Seine, written for the marriage of the king, was sent to Chapelain, who "received it with all the kindness in the world, and, ill as he was, kept it three days to make remarks upon it in writing." The most important of these remarks related to the Tritons, who never lived in rivers, only in the sea. This poem won for Racine the protection of Chapelain, and a gift in money from Colbert….

[His] ode on La Renommée aux Muses won him another gift of money, an entrance at Court, and the acquaintance of Boileau and Molière. The Thébaïde followed rapidly.

Until then, Racine had found on his path none but protectors and friends. But his first dramatic success awakened envy, and from that moment his career was full of perplexities and vexations which his irritable susceptibility more than once embittered. The tragedy of Alexandre estranged him from Molière and Corneille; from Molière, because he withdrew the play from him and gave it to the actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne; with Corneille, because the illustrious old man declared to the young man, after listening to the reading of the piece, that it showed great talent for poesy in general, but not for the stage. When it was performed, the partisans of Corneille endeavoured to hinder its success. Some said that Taxile was not an honourable man; others that he did not deserve his fate; some that Alexandre was not lover-like enough; others that he never came upon the scene except to talk of love. When Andromaque appeared, Pyrrhus was reproached for a lingering of ferocity; they wanted him more polished, more gallant, more uniform in character. This was a consequence of Corneille's system, which made all his personages of one piece, wholly good or wholly bad from head to foot; to which Racine replied, with good judgment:

Aristotle, far from asking us for perfect heroes, wishes, on the contrary, that the tragic personages, that is to say, those whose misfortune makes the catastrophe of the tragedy, shall be neither very good nor very bad. He does not wish them to be extremely good, because the punishment of a good man would excite more indignation than pity in the spectators; nor that they be bad to excess, because no one can feel pity for a scoundrel. They should therefore have a mediocre goodness, that is to say, a virtue capable of weakness, so that they fall into misfortune through some fault that causes them to be pitied and not detested.

I dwell on this point, because the great innovation of Racine, and his incontestable dramatic originality, consist precisely in this reduction of heroic personages to proportions more human, more natural, and in a delicate analysis of the secret shades of sentiment and passion. That which, above all, distinguishes Racine, in the composition of style as in that of the drama, is logical sequence, the uninterrupted connection of ideas and sentiments; in him all is filled up, leaving no void, argued without reply; never is there any chance to be surprised by those abrupt changes, those sudden volte-faces of which Corneille made frequent abuse in the play of his characters and the progression of his drama.

I am, nevertheless, far from asserting that, even in this, all the advantage of the stage was on the side of Racine; but when he appeared, novelty was in his favour, a novelty admirably adapted to the taste of a Court in which were many weaknesses, where nothing shone that had not its shadow, and the amorous chronicle of which, opened by a La Vallière, was to end in a Maintenon. It will always remain a question whether Racine's observing, inquiring method, employed to the exclusion of every other, is dramatic in the absolute sense of the world; for my part, I think it is not; but it satisfied, we must allow, the society of those days which, in its polished idleness, did not demand a drama more agitating, more tempestuous, more "transporting"—to use Mme. de Sévigné's language; a society which willingly accepted Bérénice, while awaiting Phèdre, the masterpiece of Racine's manner.

Bérénice was written by command of Madame [Henriette], Duchesse d'Orléans, who encouraged all the new poets, and who, on this occasion, did Corneille the ill-turn of bringing him into the lists in contest with his young rival. On the other hand, Boileau, a sincere and faithful friend, defended Racine against the clamouring mob of writers, upheld him in his momentary discouragements, and excited him by wise severity to a progress without intermission. This daily supervision of Boileau would assuredly have been fatal to an author of freer genius, of impetuous warmth or careless grace, like Molière, like La Fontaine, for instance; it could not be otherwise than profitable to Racine, who, before he knew Boileau, was already following (save for a few Italian whimsicalities) that path of correctness and sustained elegance in which the latter maintained and confirmed him. I think, therefore, that Boileau was right when he applauded himself for having taught Racine "to write with difficulty easy verses"; but he went too far if he gave him, as it was asserted that he did, "the precept of writing the second line before the first."

After Andromaque, which appeared in 1667, ten years elapsed before Phèdre, the triumph of which came in 1677. …

For some time past, since the first fire of youth, the first fervours of mind and senses were spent, the memory of … [Port-Royal] had again laid hold upon Racine's heart; and the involuntary comparison forced upon him between his peaceful satisfaction in other days, and his present fame, so troubled and embitered, brought him to regret a life that once was regular. This secret feeling, working within him, can be seen in the preface to Phèdre, and must have sustained him, more than we know, in the profound analysis he makes in that play of the "virtuous sorrow" of a soul that sees evil and yet pursues it. His own heart explained to him that of Phèdre; and if we suppose, what is very probable, that he was detained in spite of himself at the theatre by some amorous attachment he could not shake off, the resemblance becomes closer, and helps us to understand all that he has put into Phèdre of anguish actually felt, and more personal than usual in the struggles of passion.

However that may be, the moral aim of Phèdre is beyond a doubt; the great Arnauld himself could not refrain from recognising it, and thus almost verifying the words of the author, who "hoped, by means of this play to reconcile a quantity of celebrated persons to tragedy, through their pity and their doctrine." Nevertheless, going deeper still in his reflections on reform, Racine judged it more prudent and more consistent to quit the theatre, and he did so with courage, but without too much effort. He married, reconciled himself with Port-Royal, prepared himself in domestic life for the duties of a father, and when Louis XIV appointed him, at the same time as Boileau, historiographer, he neglected none of his new duties: with these in view, he began by making excerpts from the treatise of Lucian on "The Manner of Writing History," and he applied himself to the reading of Mézeray, Vittorio Siri, and others.

From the little that we have now read of the character, the morals, and the habits of mind of Racine, it is easy to foretell the essential fine qualities and defects of his work, to perceive to what he might have attained and, at the same time, in what he was likely to be lacking. Great art in constructing a plot; exact calculation in its arrangement; slow and successive development rather than force of conception, simple and fertile; which acts simultaneously as if by process of crystallisation around several centres in brains that are naturally dramatic; presence of mind in the smallest details; remarkable skill in winding only one thread at a time; skill also in pruning and cutting down rather than power to be concise; ingenious knowledge of how to introduce and how to dismiss his personages; sometimes a crucial situation eluded, either by a magniloquent speech or by the necessary absence of an embarrassing witness; in the characters nothing divergent or eccentric; all inconvenient accessory parts and antecedents suppressed; nothing, however, too bare or too monotonous, but only two or three harmonising tints on a simple background; then, in the midst of all this, passion that we have not seen born, the flood of which comes swelling on, softly foaming, and bearing you away, as it were, upon the whitened current of a beauteous river: that is Racine's drama. And if we come down to his style and to the harmony of his versification, we shall follow beauties of the same order, restrained within the same limits; variations of melodious tones, no doubt, but all within the scale of a single octave.

A few remarks on Britannicus will state my thought precisely, and justify it, if, given in such general terms, it may seem bold. The topic of the drama is Nero's crime, the one by which he first escapes the authority of his mother and his governors. In Tacitus, Britannicus is shown to be a young lad fourteen or fifteen years of age, gentle, intelligent, and sad. One day, in the midst of a feast, Nero, who is drunk, compels him to sing in order to make him ridiculous. Britannicus sings a song in which he makes allusion to his own precarious fate, and to the patrimony of which he has been defrauded; instead of laughing and ridiculing him, the guests, much affected and less dissimulating than usual because they were drunk, compassionated him loudly. As for Nero, though still pure of shedding blood, his natural ferocity has long been muttering in his soul and watching for an occasion to break loose. He tries slow poison on Britannicus. Debauchery gets the better of him; he neglects his wife Octavia for the courtesan Actea. Seneca lends his ministry to this shameful intrigue. Agrippina is at first shocked, but she ends by embracing her son and lending him her house for the rendezvous. Agrippina, mother, granddaughter, sister, niece, and widow of emperors, a murderess, incestuous, and a prostitute, has no other fear than to see her son escape her with the imperial power.

Such is the mental situation of the personages at the moment when Racine begins his play. What does he do? He quotes in his preface the savage words of Tacitus on Agrippina: Quœ, cunctis malœ dominationis cupidinibus flagrans, habebat in partibus Pallantem, and adds: "I merely quote this one sentence on Agrippina, for there are too many things to say of her. It is she whom I have taken the most pains to express properly, and my tragedy is not less the downfall of Agrippina than the death of Britannicus." But in spite of this stated intention of the author, the character of Agrippina is inadequately expressed; as an interest had to be created in her downfall, her most odious vices are thrown into the shade; she becomes a personage of little real presence, vague, unexplained, a sort of tender and jealous mother; there is no question of her adulteries and her murders beyond an allusion for the benefit of those who have read her history in Tacitus. In place of Actea we have the romantic Junia. Nero in love is nothing more than the impassioned rival of Britannicus, and the hideous aspects of the tiger disappear, or are delicately touched when they must be encountered. What shall be said of the dénouement? of Junia taking refuge with the Vestals, and placed under the protection of the people?—as if the people protected any one under Nero! But what, above all, we have a right to blame in Racine, is the suppression of the scene at the feast. Britannicus is seated at the table; wine is poured out for him; one of his servants tastes the beverage, according to the custom of the day, so necessary was it to guard against crime. But Nero has foreseen all; the wine is too hot, cold water must be added, and it is that cold water which must be poisoned. The effect is sudden; the poison kills at once; Locuste was charged to prepare it under pain of death. Whether it were disdain for these circumstances, or the difficulty of expressing them in verse, Racine evades them; he confines himself to presenting the moral effect of the poisoning on the spectators, and in that he succeeds. But it must be owned that even on that point he falls below the incisive brevity, the splendid conciseness of Tacitus. Too often, when he translates Tacitus, as he translated the Bible, Racine opens a path for himself between the extreme qualities of the originals and carefully keeps to the middle of the road, never approaching the sides where the precipice lies.

Britannicus, Phèdre, Athalie, Roman, Greek, and Biblical tragedy, those are the three great dramatic claims of Racine, below which all his other masterpieces range themselves. I have already expressed my admiration for Phèdre, and yet one cannot conceal from one's self that the play is even less Greek in manners and morals than Britannicus is Roman. Hippolytus, the lover, resembles Hippolytus, the hunter, the favourite of Diana, even less than Nero, the lover, resembles the Nero of Tacitus. Phèdre, queen-mother and regent for her son, on the supposed death of her husband amply counterbalances Junia, protected by the people and consigned to the Vestals. Euripides himself leaves much to be desired as to truth; he has lost the higher meaning of the mythological traditions that Æschylus and Sophocles entered into so deeply; but in him we find, at any rate, a whole order of things—landscape, religion, rites, family recollections, all these constitute a depth of reality which fixes the mind and rests it. With Racine all that is not Phèdre and her passion escapes and disappears. The sad Aricia, the Pallantides, the divers adventures of Theseus, leave scarcely a trace in our memory.

This might lead us to conclude with Corneille, if we dared, that Racine had a far greater talent for poesy in general than for the drama in particular. Racine was dramatic, no doubt, but he was so in a style that was little so. In other times, in times like ours, when the proportions of the drama are necessarily so different from what they were then, what would he have done? Would he have attempted it? His genius, naturally meditative and placid, would it have sufficed for that intensity of action that our blasée curiosity demands? for that absolute truth in ethics and characters that becomes indispensable after a period of mighty revolution? for that higher philosophy that gives to all things a meaning, that makes action something else than mere imbroglio, and historical colour something better than whitewash? Had he the force and the character to lead all these parts of the work abreast; to maintain them in presence and in harmony, to blend, to link them into an indissoluble and living form, to fuse them one into the other in the fire of passion? Would he not have found it more simple, more conformable to his nature, to withdraw passion from the midst of these intricacies in which it might be lost as if poured into sand? to keep it within his own channel and follow singly the harmonious course of grand and noble elegy, of which Esther and Bérénice are the limpid and transparent reservoirs? Those are delicate questions, to which we can only reply by conjectures. I have hazarded mine, in which there is nothing irreverent towards the genius of Racine. Is it irreverent to declare that we prefer in him pure poesy to drama, and that we are tempted to ally him to the race of lyric geniuses, of religious and elegiac singers, whose mission here below is to celebrate Love—love as Dante and Plato saw it?

The life of retirement, of household cares, and study, which Racine led during the twelve years of his fullest maturity, seem to confirm these conjectures. Corneille also tried for some years to renounce the theatre; but, though already in declining years, he could not continue the attempt and soon returned to the arena. Nothing of this impatience or this difficulty of controlling himself appears to have troubled the long silence of Racine. His affections went elsewhere; he thought of Port-Royal, then so persecuted, and took delightful pleasure in memories of his childhood…

He woke with a start, at forty-eight years of age, to a new and wonderful career, taken in two steps: Esther for his first attempt, Athalie for his masterpiece. Those two works, so sudden, so unexpected, so different to the others, do they not confute our opinion of Racine, and escape all the general criticisms I have ventured to make upon his work?

Racine on Hebrew subjects is far otherwise at ease than on Greek and Roman subjects. Nurtured from childhood on sacred books, sharing the beliefs of the people of God, he keeps strictly to the Scripture narrative; he does not think himself obliged to mingle the authority of Aristotle in the action of the play, nor, above all, to place at the heart of his drama an amorous intrigue (and love is of all human things the one which, resting on an eternal basis, varies most in its forms according to the ages, and consequently leads the poet more surely into error). Nevertheless, in spite of the relationship of religions, and the communion of certain beliefs, there is in Judaism an element apart, inward, primitive, oriental, which it is important to grasp and put forward prominently, under pain of being tame and unfaithful; and this fundamental element, so well understood by Bossuet in his Politique Sacrée, by M. de Maistre in all his writings, and by the English painter, Martin, in his art, was not accessible to the sweet and tender poet who saw the Old Testament solely through the New, and had no other guide to Samuel than Saint Paul.

Let us begin with the architecture of Athalie; with the Hebrews all was figurative, symbolical; the importance of forms was part of the spirit of the law. Vainly do I look in Racine for that temple wondrously built by Solomon, in marble, in cedar, overlaid with pure gold, the walls gleaming with golden cherubim and palm-trees. I am in the vestibule, but I see not the two famous columns of bronze, eighteen cubits high, one named Jachin, the other Boaz; nor the sea of brass, nor the brazen oxen, nor the lions; neither can I imagine within the tabernacle the cherubim of olive-wood, ten cubits high, their wings stretched out and touching one another until they encircled the arch of the dome. The scene in Racine takes place under a Greek peristyle, rather bare, and I am much less disposed to accept the "sacrifice of blood" and "immolation by the sacred knife" than if the poet had taken me to the colossal temple, where King Solomon offered unto Jehovah, for a peace-offering, two-and-twenty thousand oxen and one hundred and twenty thousand sheep. Analogous criticism may be made upon the characters and speeches of the personages.

In short, Athalie is an imposing work as a whole, and in many parts magnificent, but not so complete nor so unapproachable as many have chosen to consider it. In it Racine does not penetrate into the very essence of Hebraic oriental poesy; he steps cautiously between its naïve sublimity on the one hand, and its naïve grace on the other, carefully denying himself both.

Shall I own it? Esther, with its charming gentleness and its lovely pictures, less dramatic than Athalie, and with lower aims, seems to me more complete in itself and leaving nothing to be desired. It is true that this graceful Bible episode is flanked by two strange events, about which Racine says not a single word: I mean the sumptuous feast of Ahasuerus, that lasted one hundred and eighty days, and the massacre of their enemies by the Jews, that lasted two whole days, at the formal request of the Jewess Esther. With that exception, and perhaps by reason of that omission, this delightful poem, so perfect as a whole, so filled with chastity, with sighs, with religious unction, seems to me the most natural fruit that Racine's genius has borne. It is the purest effusion, the most winning plaint of his tender soul, which could not be present where a nun took the veil without being melted to tears—an incident of which Mme. de Maintenon wrote: "Racine, who likes to weep, is coming to the profession of Sister Lalie."

About this time, he composed for Saint-Cyr four spiritual canticles, which should be numbered among his finest works. Two are after Saint Paul, whom Racine treats as he has already treated Tacitus and the Bible; that is to say, by encircling him with suavity and harmony, but sometimes enfeebling him. It is to be regretted that he did not carry this species of religious composition farther, and that in the eight years that followed Athalie he did not cast forth with originality some of the personal, tender, passionate, fervent sentiments that lay hidden in his breast. Certain passages in his letters to his eldest son, then attached to the embassy in Holland, make us conscious of an inward and deep-lying poesy which he has nowhere communicated, which he restrained within himself for long years; inward delights incessantly ready to overflow, but which he never poured out except in prayer at the feet of God, and with tears that filled his eyes…

From his own time until ours, and through all variations of taste, Racine's renown continues, without attack and constantly receiving universal homage, fundamentally just, and deserved as homage, though often unintelligent in its motives. Critics of little compass have abused the right of citing him as a model; they have too often proposed for imitation his most inferior qualities; but, for whoso comprehends him truly, there is enough, in his work and in his life, to make him for ever admired as a great poet and cherished as a heart-friend.

Paul Verlaine (essay date 1894)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2035

SOURCE: "Shakespeare and Racine," in The Fortnightly Review, Vol. LVI, No. CCCXXXIII, September, 1894, pp. 440-47.

[A nineteenth-century French poet, Verlaine captured the musicality of the French language perhaps more than did any other poet. By using rhyme structures and meters that had previously been rare in French poetry, he is said to have liberated French poetics from the strictures of classicism and the rhetoric of Romanticism, and helped define the Symbolist theory of poetics. In the following excerpt, Verlaine compares the accomplishment of Racine with that of Shakespeare, finding the former in some ways superior.]

Some young men, who keep guard over what they are pleased to term my reputation, have, in all good faith, rashly asserted that, in the familiar chat of a café, I said, in opposition to my master and friend Auguste Vacquerie, that Racine was to be preferred to Shakespeare.

Every one is free to have an opinion, but I do not prefer one man to another in point of art, when those in question are "in the realm of equals," as Victor Hugo expresses it in his fine work on "William Shakespeare."

Being myself French, perhaps, I love and admire Racine enormously, above all as a man more distinguished by passion than by anything else, and I love Shakespeare (how can I express my admiration for him?) as a man rather more intellectual than passionate. For unquestionably Racine has surpassed Shakespeare in the delineation of woman, in throwing a strong light upon her and revealing some of the innermost recesses of her nature. The divine imagination of Shakespeare has chiefly depicted her in an idealised form, impersonal, like Lady Macbeth, who represents Ambition; Desdemona, the passive creature, the modest woman; Ophelia, the young girl, a pure dream: all are types. How different from Racine's women! Phèdre and Bérénice are Love in its two extremes; Monime is the calm heroine; Athalie, the queen who was beautiful and remembers it; Esther, the woman who is beautiful and knows it: all are characters. Racine holds woman in his hand, Shakespeare in his mind: what poets and malicious wits they both are! Both held her in their hearts, but there is no doubt that Racine cherished her the more deeply, and in all literature there is only Molière, that I am aware of, who perhaps knows, detests, adores, and raves about her, more than he does….

[Shakespeare's] inexhaustible eloquence, whatever forms it may borrow, the most vulgar or sublime, never repeats itself and never rants wildly. It is a beautiful, at times, a terrible torrent, a majestic stream or a river winding among grass and flowers, a dreamily murmuring if not a babbling merry brook.

This is so; yet since the course of this article logically takes me back to the "divine Racine," as Victor Hugo describes him, in the precocious but sweeping "Preface to Cromwell"—is Racine, who is the most fluent of talkers, as well as a great poet, wearisome at all? Bon dieu, non! but a certain regularity, a beauty, perhaps, that rather lacks variety, in his pure, easy language, might, though very unjustly, be considered monotonous in some passages, and I shall now endeavour to prove my deep conviction that such an accusation is quite unfounded. It is evident that the despotic metre created by Ronsard and Malherbe, and subjected to the severe test of Corneille's handling which Racine was forced to use for his tragedies, contributed to the appearance of excessive regularity, inasmuch as the author of the Plaideurs had already evolved the most wonderful instruments of rhythm and rhymes which the cleverest, most skilful modern versifiers, like Banville, have chiefly adopted from the "master" and reverentially ascribe to him. But all this more strongly confirms me in my assertion that Shakespeare, in spite of his prolixity which is never tedious, or even of his few rare insipidities, which come upon us as pure surprises—one would think they were put there on purpose—is always and under all circumstances amusing: amusing in the sense in which Baudelaire applied the word to the Iliad and to Edgar Poe's stories—always interesting as legend, as

philosophy, almost as theology (for instance, in passages of Hamlet and of several other plays, the titles of which have escaped my memory), and also as fairy and ghost lore! It is this quality of being a story, tragic, grotesque, philosophical, or fantastic, the special attribute of the Shakespearean drama, which renders it perpetually amusing, since, be it understood, the master's touch is always present. Racine's tragedy, on the other hand, to quote the words of Napoleon I. in speaking of French tragedy in general, is a crisis: in it passion reaches its culminating point; it has nothing to do with anecdotes, it is Venus, it is Mars, always some keen feeling,

A leur proie attachés.

Hence the tension of the style is adequate to the tension of the action, and it is obvious that the poetry itself, divested of all parasitic ornament and entirely directed to the immediate end, contracts a stiffness and a certain inevitable dryness from its very precision. Still Racine knew how to cover and mitigate these necessary sacrifices with his harmonious language, the most harmonious of all French language, without ever weakening their effect. We must therefore give more credit and feel more grateful to Racine than to all other French dramatists worthy of the name (I allude to Corneille, Rotrou, sometimes Crébillon the elder, and even Voltaire), for the literary interest, for the literary amusement even, if I dare so to speak, attaching to the famous and severely-modelled French drama of more than one or two centuries ago.

From all that I have said in Racine's praise do I mean to infer that Shakespeare, when the situation requires it, is lacking in the necessary gravity and sobriety? Not by any means! Do Macbeth and his worthy spouse declaim so many metaphors and inflame their passions in such interminable speeches as that would imply? Does not Othello, when he once makes up his mind, fall into a superb fury that is quite natural and direct? Does not even the hesitating, troubled Prince Hamlet rush at last, almost without a word, upon Polonius, after dismissing his mother with a quiet gesture? But there it is! the texture of the Shakespearean drama would not, until the very end, permit the use of this sober language, perhaps too much so for the taste of many people, which is the supreme honour of the, in other respects, and even in spite of this quality, truly, intensely, essentially, poetic Racine, who can also justly claim the lyric crown, for he and Victor Hugo are certainly the greatest French lyrists. Read his canticles, his translation of some of the Psalms of David and, above all, the sublime choruses of the Esther and the Athalie:

D'un cœur qui t'aime,

Mon Dieu, qui peut troubler la paix? …

Quelle Jérusalem nouvelle
Sort du sein des déserts, brillante de clarté?

Au delà des temps et des âges,
Au delà de l'Eternité.

If we now speak of wit, who had more of it than Shakespeare? No one. And how it sparkles upon a dazzlingly luminous background! White upon white, as in Whistler and a few other painters, who are so modern as to be existing almost in the future! His dialogue is inexhaustibly diverting in the noblest sense of the word: witty both in the French and English meaning of the word spirituel and full of the English high spirits and animal spirits, expressions which can scarcely be translated into French, for the words belle humeur and bonne humeur convey no adequate idea of their meaning.

Well, Racine is supremely gifted with this belle humeur, this bonne humeur; it is first seen in the Plaideurs, which is a rolling fire of wit, also in his epigrams, which are at times so cruel, in most of his prefaces, and lastly in his youthful letter to the "Messieurs" of Port Royal, in which he lashes their crass pedantry and odious dévocieuseté, if I may risk the ungainly word.

The nature of the mind of these two great men, though essentially the same, was evidently modified in each case by their early education and the life that ensued.

Racine, the son of a state functionary, had the advantages of a thorough education and a pecuniary competence. He was brought up in habits of sincere piety, but still a little too much in the fashion of his age to be deeply influenced by the fanatical or the enthusiastic in religious matters; he was brought up, moreover, in Paris, and was precociously clever; soon he became a courtier (indeed, a very worthy one) of dignified and most respectable behaviour, and although amongst the most brilliant of his rank, he was even then greatly honoured as a man of letters; a courtier, in short, whom death broke sooner than bent—what a contrast to the poacher, the theatre callboy, etc., etc., the son of a butcher, who in the prime of his youth, already precocious at fifteen, "killed his oxen with some pomp," as a biographer says.

Shakespeare was quite an unpolished youngster, able only to read with fair ease, to write badly, and to count in a way. He completed this most elementary instruction by desultory reading of fables, Mother Goose's stories, chronicles, songs, more often learnt through the ears than from books; he possessed the classics, Plutarch, etc., only in translations, most frequently from the French; Racine, on the other hand, to annoy his masters, once learnt by heart and copied from memory a Greek novel, Theagenes and Chariclea!

So Shakespeare borrows his jests from all sources, and invests them with a charm peculiarly his own, free, fantastic, reminiscent of the artisan, the peasant, even the courtesan, if needful, and always entirely original, genuine and genial, cleverly graceful, or extremely grotesque, like Cellini's figurines, like architectural masks, heraldic serpents and tarasques. Racine's gaiety, light and smart as it is, slightly savours of the student and the gentleman. The Attic salt often (though not too often) seasons his Gallic humour—very Gallic when necessary.

Tirez, tirez, tirez …. Les Plaideurs.

There exists therefore between these two geniuses, so apparently dissimilar, not a little through the fault of curiously special conditions in each case, a similitude on the whole which seems to me the result of the kind of parallel which I have dared, dwarf as I am, to venture upon in regard to the work and a little in regard to the life of these giants. It is true, that so many stupidities and platitudes respecting them have been vomited forth in French, English, German, and every other European language that this modest and only too justly timid study of mine might in some sort make me proud. For what has been left unsaid, if we start from Voltaire, who damned Racine with faint praise, blasphemously attacked Corneille and lost all his intelligence when it came to Shakespeare, down to fat Dr. Johnson, that malicious pedant, and even to the literary myrmidons of every land, of both sexes, I was about to say, of every… gender?

Brander Matthews (essay date 1903)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1406

SOURCE: "The Development of the French Drama," in The International Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 3, March, 1903, pp. 14-31.

[An American critic, playwright, and novelist, Matthews wrote extensively on world drama and served for a quarter century at Columbia University as professor of dramatic literature; he was the first to hold that title at an American University. Matthews was also a founding member and president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Because his criticism is deemed both witty and informative, he has been called "perhaps the last of the gentlemanly school of critics and essayists" in America. In the following excerpt, Matthews presents an overview of Racine's significance and the nature of his accomplishment, comparing Racine to Corneille in many areas,.]

Racine, who followed Corneille, as Euripides followed Sophocles, took over the form of tragedy which the elder poet had marked with his own image and superscription, altho the younger poet modified it in some slight measure to suit his own powers and his own preferences. Corneille had been over-lyric at times, altho he had been far less epic than many of his predecessors as a playwright; Racine was more rigorously dramatic. Accepting the limitation imposed by the rules of the Three Unities, which were in accord with his temperament, Racine condensed still further the themes he treated. He focussed the attention upon fewer figures; and he simplified again the action until English critics are wont to deem his plays bare and cold, altho in fact a fire of passion is ever glowing within them. He was an adept in construction; and his plots, narrow as they may be, are exquisitely proportioned, revealing the most consummate art in the conduct of the story. Always does he avoid scrupulously all digressions and underplots and parasitic episodes.

The extraordinary situations that Corneille had been delighted to discover in history, Racine rejected altogether, choosing rather to deal with what was normal and natural, the growth of a man's love for a woman who loved another or the consequences of a woman's mad passion for a youth who cared nothing for her. He handled like a master this common stuff of life, which is ever tragic enough in the sight of those who can understand it. In his plays, as indeed often in Corneille's also, the action is internal rather than external; and the moral debate within the heart of man is not always accompanied by mere physical action, visible to the heedless spectator. Racine did not seek to interest the audience in, what his characters were doing before its eyes but rather in what these characters were in themselves and in what they were feeling and suffering. He was an expert playwright as well as a master of psychologic analysis, and this is why he was able to accomplish the difficult feat of making his study of the inner secrets of the human soul effective on the stage. His story might be slight, but in his hands it was always sufficient to express a tensity of emotion and to command abundant sympathy.

In the tragedy of Andromaque spectator is made to see how Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, is about to abandon his promised bride, Hermione, daughter of Helen, because he is desperately enamoured of Andromache, widow of Hector. On behalf of the Grecian chiefs, Orestes, son of Agamemnon, comes to demand of Pyrrhus the sacrifice of the son of Hector and Andromache. Orestes loves Hermione, who loves the faithless Pyrrhus, who longs for Andromache, who is devoted to her husband's memory. To save her son Andromache weds Pyrrhus, resolved to slay herself as soon as the boy's safety is assured. In the agony of her jealousy, Hermione hints to Orestes that she will be his, if he will slay Pyrrhus before the wedding with Andromache. But when Pyrrhus is killed and Orestes comes to claim his reward, Hermione recoils with horror and reproaches him for his evil deed; and then she rushes forth to put an end to her own life upon the bier of the man she had loved in vain. The death-dealing blows are never given before the eyes of the spectators; and yet this artistic reticence results in no loss of interest, since the attention of the audience is directed, not to the mere doings of the characters but to the effect of these doings, first upon Hermione and then on Orestes.

His conscious possession of the power of arousing and retaining the interest of the playgoers of his own language in his minute discrimination between motive and emotions, may be one of the reasons why Racine was prone to choose a woman as the central figure in most of his plays; and here again is a point of resemblance to Euripides. He was led also to make use of love as the mainspring of his action, partly, perhaps, because the passion of man for woman had not often been considered by Corneille, and partly because this was of all the passions the one Racine himself best understood. A loving woman Racine would ever delineate with delicate appreciation and with illuminating insight. His touch was caressingly feminine; whereas the tone of Corneille was not only manly but even stalwartly masculine. Corneille, argumentative as he was at times and even declamatory, was forever striving to fortify the soul of man, while Racine with a softer suavity was seeking rather to reveal the heart of woman,—to lay it bare before us, palpitating at the very crisis of passion. As we gaze along the gallery of Racine's fascinating heroines, we observe that desire often conquers duty; but when we call the roll of Corneille's heroes, we behold men curbing their inclinations and strong to do what they ought.

Thus it may be that Racine was the nearer to nature, since it is often a strain upon the spectator to lift himself up to the level of Corneille's exaltation. Racine's language also was more familiar than Corneille's, easier, homelier, and therefore less open to the accusation of being stilted. Not only had Corneille a lyric fervor, but he was also a minter of maxims, an incomparable phrase-maker; Racine sought rather to be simple and never strove for sententiousness, which is not a feminine characteristic. On the other hand, the younger poet had a gift of pictorial evocation; and his verse had often an insinuating and serpentine grace. It was admirably adjusted to the organs of speech; it lent itself to delivery on the stage; and yet there were few purple patches in Racine's plays and scarcely a bravura passage existing for its own sake. The poetry was not something applied from the outside; it was the result rather of a perfect harmony between the sentiment and its expression. Racine's melodious verse is evidence that French is not so unpoetical a language as those have said who cannot feel its music or who dislike its nasal tone.

But even in Racine's hands the rhymed Alexandrine seems to us distended and monotonous. As a dramatic meter it is inferior to the dignified iambic of the Greeks and to our own varied blank verse; and even if rhyme is really needed in a language as unrhythmic as French, it cannot but appear artificial to those who happen to be unaccustomed to it. This impression of artificiality is deepened by Racine's enforced employment of the conventional vocabulary of gallantry to express sincere and genuine emotion. It was the misfortune of Corneille also, that he had to deal with the universal in terms of the particular; and that his plays, like Racine's, were conditioned by the sophisticated taste of the playgoers before whom they were performed. If we contrast the courtly audiences of Racine with the gathering of Athenian citizens to judge a drama of Sophocles, and with the spectators of all sorts thronging to applaud the plays of Shakespeare, we can see one reason why French tragedy lacks the depth and the sweep of the Greek, and why it has not the force and the variety of the English. French tragedy appeared, as Taine has told us, "when a noble and well-regulated monarchy, under Louis XIV., established the empire of decorum, the life of the court, the pomp and circumstance of society, and the elegant domestic phases of aristocracy"; and French tragedy could not but disappear "when the social rule of nobles and the manners of the antechamber were abolished by the Revolution."

Lytton Strachey (essay date 1908)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 395

SOURCE: "Racine," in Books and Characters: French & English, Chatto and Windus, 1922, pp. 3-24.

[Strachey was an early twentieth-century English biographer, critic, essayist, and short story writer. He is best known for his biographies Eminent Victorians (1918), Queen Victoria (1921), and Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928). According to P. Mansell Jones, translator of Eugène Vinaver 's Racine and Poetic Tragedy (1955), "Curiosity about Racine was considerably stimulated in Anglo-Saxon countries by the publication of Lytton Strachey's essay [in Books and Characters] in 1922." In the following excerpt from that essay, originally published in the New Quarterly in 1908, Strachey summarizes the difficulty of fixing Racine's place among the world's poets, and comments upon the great emotional power of his dramas.]

It is difficult to 'place' Racine among the poets. He has affinities with many; but likenesses to few. To balance him rigorously against any other—to ask whether he is better or worse than Shelley or than Virgil—is to attempt impossibilities; but there is one fact which is too often forgotten in comparing his work with that of other poets—with Virgil's for instance—Racine wrote for the stage. Virgil's poetry is intended to be read, Racine's to be declaimed; and it is only in the theatre that one can experience to the full the potency of his art. In a sense we can know him in our library, just as we can hear the music of Mozart with silent eyes. But, when the strings begin, when the whole volume of that divine harmony engulfs us, how differently then we understand and feel! And so, at the theatre, before one of those high tragedies, whose interpretation has taxed to the utmost ten generations of the greatest actresses of France, we realise, with the shock of a new emotion, what we had but half-felt before. To hear the words of Phèdre spoken by the mouth of Bernhardt, to watch, in the culminating horror of crime and of remorse, of jealousy, of rage, of desire, and of despair, all the dark forces of destiny crowd down upon that great spirit, when the heavens and the earth reject her, and Hell opens, and the terriffic urn of Minos thunders and crashes to the ground—that indeed is to come close to immortality, to plunge shuddering through infinite abysses, and to look, if only for a moment, upon eternal light.

George Saintsbury (essay date 1911)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775

SOURCE: "Racine," in French Literature and Its Masters, edited by Huntington Cairns, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946, pp. 68-83.

[Saintsbury was a late-nineteenth and early-twentiethcentury English literary historian and critic. Hugely prolific, he composed histories of English and European literature as well as numerous critical works on individual authors, styles, and periods. In the following excerpt from an article which originally appeared in the 1911 Encyclopœdia Britannica, Saintsbury offers a summary appraisal of Racine's significance, noting his accomplishment as both a dramatist and poet.]

Racine may be considered from two very different points of view,—(1) as a playwright and poetical artificer, and (2) as a dramatist and a poet. From the first point of view there is hardly any praise too high for him. He did not invent the form he practised, and those who, from want of attention to the historical facts, assume that he did are unskilful as well as ignorant. When he came upon the scene the form of French plays was settled, partly by the energetic efforts of the Pléiade and their successors, partly by the reluctant acquiescence of Corneille. It is barely possible that the latter might, if he had chosen, have altered the course of French tragedy; it is nearly certain that Racine could not. But Corneille, though he was himself more responsible than any one else for the acceptance of the single-situation tragedy, never frankly gave himself up to it, and the inequality of his work is due to this. His heart was, though not to his knowledge, elsewhere, and with Shakespeare. Racine, in whom the craftsman dominated the man of genius, worked with a will and without any misgivings. Every advantage of which the Senecan tragedy adapted to modern times was capable he gave it. He perfected its versification; he subordinated its scheme entirely to the one motive which could have free play in it,—the display of a conventionally intense passion, hampered by this or that obstacle; he set himself to produce in verse a kind of Ciceronian correctness. The grammarcriticisms of Vaugelas and the taste-criticisms of Boileau produced in him no feeling of revolt, but only a determination to play the game according to these new rules with triumphant accuracy. And he did so play it. He had supremely the same faculty which enabled the rhétoriqueurs of the 15th century to execute apparently impossible tours de force in ballades couronnées, and similar tricks. He had besides a real and saving vein of truth to nature, which preserved him from tricks pure and simple. He would be, and he was, as much a poet as prevalent taste would let him be. The result is that such plays as Phèdre and Andromaque are supreme in their own way. If the critic will only abstain from thrusting in tierce, when according to the particular rules he ought to thrust in quart, Racine is sure to beat him.

But there is a higher game of criticism than this, and this game Racine does not attempt to play. He does not even attempt the highest poetry at all. His greatest achievements in pure passion—the foiled desires of Hermione and the jealous frenzy of Phèdre—are cold, not merely beside the crossed love of Ophelia and the remorse of Lady Macbeth, but beside the sincerer if less perfectly expressed passion of Corneille's Cléopâtre and Camille. In men's parts he fails still more completely. As the decency of his stage would not allow him to make his heroes frankly heroic, so it would not allow him to make them utterly passionate. He had, moreover, cut away from himself, by the adoption of the Senecan model, all the opportunities which would have been offered to his remarkably varied talent on a freer stage. It is indeed tolerably certain that he never could have achieved the purely poetical comedy of As You Like It or the Vida es Sueño, but the admirable success of Les Plaideurs makes it at least probable that he might have done something in a lower and a more conventional style. From all this, however, he deliberately cut himself off. 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 admiration. It would be unnecessary to contrast his performances with his limitations so sharply if those limitations had not been denied. But they have been and are still denied by persons whose sentence carries weight, and therefore it is still necessary to point out the fact of their existence.

Malcolm Cowley (essay date 1923)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3148

SOURCE: "Racine," in The Freeman, New York, Vol. VIII, Nos. 187 and 188, October 10 and October 17, 1923, pp. 104-06; 132-33.

[An American critic, editor, poet, translator, and historian, Cowley made valuable contributions to contemporary letters with his editions of the works of such American authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Ernest Hemingway, his writings as a literary critic, and his chronicles and criticism of modern American literature. In the following excerpt, Cowley places Racine's technical, stylistic, and thematic accomplishment within the context of his era.]

Versailles is one of two perfect expressions of the seventeenth century in France. The other is the tragedies of Jean Racine.

He expressed a definite society and therefore could not exist without it. One can imagine him, with effort, against the background of another age, but rather as politician or general: a man of action, in any case, with a terrible or proud career. It was the conditions of his own century which led him to verse and the stage. His work depends on the thousand anonymous collaborators with which it supplied him: anonymous in the sense that their names are printed on the titlepage of none of his editions, and collaborators because they made his work possible. They are such men as Vaugelas, of the earliest French grammar; Chapelain, who first enforced the rule of the three unities; Lancelot and his Garden of Greek Roots; all the humble malignant critics and all the literary salons of the day, to omit great names like Malesherbes and Corneille and Boileau. They formed a tradition which suited his genius better than theirs. A tragedy like Phèdre is the summary of all their achievements, the inscription on all their monuments.

No century was more articulate or more critical than the seventeenth, and this in spite of its lacking what we understand as the machinery of criticism. There was, in Racine's day, exactly one review which took an interest in the theatre; with this exception there were few periodicals of any sort. The great mass of criticism was oral. It was broadcasted not through weekly journals but rather by means of a dozen literary salons, among which the French Academy was dullest and supreme. Printing was a later resort. In general it was regarded only as a method of recording and reduplicating the spoken word, and the pamphlet often retained the form of dialogue. The age forced everybody to hold literary opinions. Review, pamphlet, salon: if all these means of vulgarizing literature are justified, it is only to form an intelligent public, which in turn exists to make an intelligent literature possible, or more specifically an audience for the highest form of literature, which is the poetic play.

His audience was ready for Racine; in all ways it seemed that his age had conspired to make him great. It educated him in its best school, gave him an important prize before his majority, and after his second tragedy—undoubtedly his worst—wished to compare him already with the grand Corneille. One might almost be led to say that the seventeenth century produced Racine as a sort of natural fruit, but to reach this extreme would be a profound mistake. What it produced was a milieu in which he could exist as a dramatist. It produced a society, which can be studied elsewhere, and this society evolved a set of conventions by which the tragedies of Racine are governed….

The Racinian tragedy resembled his in the sole respect of containing five acts, but the scene never changed and during the course of no act could the stage be emptied. Rhyme was demanded and a metre which was not left to the caprice of the author: lines of twelve syllables with a caesura after the sixth and couplets whose rhymes were alternately masculine and feminine. The tragic vocabulary was limited to a couple of thousand words; none of them could name too definite objects; to be vulgar was the last of crimes.

In the creation of a tragedy, every circumstance was contrived to suppress trivialities and detail, but none more skilfully than the arrangement of the stage itself. Imagine for setting a temple, a palace or some other abstraction of the carpenter, without properties, without a single attempt for local colour. Were any such attempt to be made, the presence of spectators on the stage would defeat it surely. The actors are magnificently dressed as the Romans, Turks or Spaniards of convention. They advance; they speak, pompously, in the full understanding that it is not prose but verse which they declaim; they announce Theseus returning from the dead or lament the dead Britannicus; their gestures are measured to the dignity of an assumed rank. People often speak of a tragedy by Racine as being realistic, but when used in his connexion the term needs definition. To actors who deliver rhyming couplets on a stage empty of properties and crowded with spectators; to an author who writes for production on such a stage, any illusion of everyday reality is impossible. It becomes necessary to create another reality instead; a reality which is an affair of the emotions purely, which is produced by a sort of lyrical technique, and which condenses into a single cry of pity or guilty love or terror at some astonishing moment before the curtain falls.

Of all forms of literature it is the drama which most depends on its audience. One can imagine a lyric poem whose manuscript is lost for several centuries; it is discovered finally, and printed, and is great. The fortunes of a play are different: it exists to be played; the audience is one of its vital organs, just as the drama itself is one of the functions of each particular civilization. To be universal is the privilege of other arts. As for the classical tragedy, French or Greek, it can be translated into foreign civilizations, praised with violence, but it must be altered out of recognition or else, by the change of dramatic and moral values, cease to be tragedy. There is no other moral to be drawn from the attempts to naturalize Racine in England. The translators could supply a text which would retain one or more of the qualities of the original, but the Racinian public was impossible to supply.

It was an element in all his dramas: a collaborator and critic that determined the sole conditions under which the playwright was allowed to work. It determined them even with a tyrannous attention to detail that would seem to make any sort of writing difficult and original writing almost impossible. However, in Racine's case, the conventions it dictated and which he followed produced an opposite effect: by regulating the details of composition they made writing easy. Such questions as the number of acts, the style, the choice of subject hardly existed, and as a result he could devote his attention to expressing emotions and unfamiliar characters in the most polished verse of which he was capable; or better, as he phrased it himself, to creating "a simple action, sustained by the violence of the passions, by the beauty of the sentiments and by the elegance of the expression."

If the conventions simplified writing for the stage by emphasizing important problems, their effect went considerably farther, and notably they were useful by suppressing the accidents of plot or setting. A Racinian tragedy can depend on no mechanical details to take the place of thought or feeling; such details are regulated in advance by the conventions, or else ignored. I can remember one of Mr. Belasco's productions which succeeded because of a cat which yawned nightly when it crossed the stage. From Phèdre or Andromaque one carries a different sort of memory: that of a single clear emotion like the love of Andromaque for her dead husband or Phèdre's incestuous love. Everything else is subordinated. To use the jargon or the studios, a tragedy by Racine is stylized to such an extent that it becomes a sort of abstract painting of an emotion.

The curtain rises; an emotion takes form. During a little more than four acts it follows an ascending curve of intensity. The curve is broken by minor climaxes, little emotional peaks, till it reaches a final summit and descends abruptly into disaster. Or, to use another comparison, a tragedy by Racine is not a series of events but rather a situation which opens like a flower. The first act is the perfect bud of the catastrophe, containing all its elements. The progress of the play is the revelation, to one character after another, of a secret which affects their fortunes and their resolves. When the situation has been revealed to the last of them, when it has poisoned the last of them, the curtain falls. The whole action could be diagrammed into one or more abstract figures.

The elements of literature are not words but emotions and ideas. To be abstract a literature need not be unintelligible; on the contrary. An abstract literature is one in which ideas or emotions, expressed with the greatest possible exactness, are combined into a unity which possesses a formal value, and which is something more than a copy of experience. Evidently Racine comes nearer this ideal than Gertrude Stein, and immensely nearer than our contemporary neoclassicists, most of whom have never even conceived it. The Racinians of to-day are not writers but painters: men like Picasso or Braque whose attitude toward the exterior world is much the same as his, and who, by utilizing conventions almost in his fashion, arrive at a fantastically similar result.

They invent most of their own conventions; Racine was more fortunately born to observe those which existed already. His originality, and nobody ever questioned it, was an affair not of vocabulary but syntax, not of the subject but his fashion of conceiving it. His interest in a situation began two minutes before the crisis, when emotions had already reached the heat of explosion. Their violence is too painful, too great; they require to be softened by distance and dignified by the importance of the characters. For all these reasons the conventions embarrassed him not at all: neither those of language, nor of history, nor the three famous unities. If they had not existed, he might have wasted most of his career to create them and to force them on an untrained audience. He demanded a discipline. Left to himself he would have evolved another set of rules, but he would have followed them as faithfully and it is doubtful whether they would have served his purpose better….

In France the classical theatre has persisted with so few changes that you feel actors and scenery and even the audience to have survived from an age more heroic and slightly ridiculous. When somebody taps a little bell three times, when the curtain rises on a velvet hanging and four pillars, when a young man in a white peplum reaches out his arms to a young man in a purple peplum, surely your first instinct is to laugh. Who designed these pillars, so painfully Corinthian, so shaky that the least touch makes them hesitate on their crazy pedestals? Who copied these two androgynes from a vase? Listen! they are reciting verses; their posture announces a splendid phrase; eyes are raised toward the fourth gallery and arms drape forward. What archaeological interest stifles your guffaw? Somebody applauds instead. The play continues.

As it proceeds you suddenly discover yourself to be taking an interest in these people. You have known them a long time, and thoroughly. They have created their own background in your mind: a background not physical but emotional, being composed of passions and memories. They are people living so near that you could almost touch them, and yet there is more than the wall of the footlights holding you back; there is a sort of glass before your eyes that magnifies their actions into heroisms. To place them three thousand years in the past was a purely mechanical device with little more than a mechanical value. Racine went further: he made the action depend on their personal memories to the extent that it is really not Andromaque or Pyrrhus who is chief actor in his tragedy, but the buried Achilles and the dead unburied Hector. Before your eyes he is creating a poetry of distance. The first act ends with scattering applause.

The play continues, suggesting definitions which you can frame only a long time afterwards. The characters of Racine have the dignity of cats. They purr in alexandrines till passion or terror startles them; suddenly they hiss, claw, scream, forsaking their social dignity for a dignity of another kind, which is that of natural forces in action. The action is hidden from your eyes; words are the symbol of it and acquire tremendous meanings; you have the feeling that every speech is the pressing of an electric button which produces upheavals and catastrophes. The characters are only the foci of their passions. The stage itself is a focus. Love and death are events without dignity, but Racine invests them with an importance so terrible that you feel tears to be a vulgar tribute. He has made language the instrument of death. "Who told you?" asks Hermione, and Oreste goes mad, first thanking the gods for bearing him to the absolute summit of human misfortunes. And Hermione herself, dead, sacrificed where the corpse of Pyrrhus lies. Or is it Phèdre that fails of a slow poison, under our stare, to a music out of the past or from undersea?

It is difficult to analyse the impression that persists after a tragedy by Racine, especially because it has always been outside my powers to decide whether a given emotion was moral or æsthetic. I admire the facility with which the disciples of Croce settle such questions, but in the case of Racine aesthetics and morality are mingled to such a degree that it requires nothing less than a Crocean act of faith to disentangle them. Racine himself made no such attempt. In the preface to Phèdre he explains how the least faults of his characters are severely punished, and how the mere thought of crime is regarded with as much horror as crime itself; he might be writing a pageant for Holy Week; and yet, in the preface to Bérénice, where he gives a general definition of his art, he mentions only the "beauty of the sentiments," as if he disregarded their moral value. One has a choice of interpretations. However, even Croce might be surprised to find that it is the tragedies written with a definite moral purpose which are most satisfying from the standpoint of pure æsthetics. Can a pure æsthetic exist? To deny that literature has moral significance leaves the conception of morality intact, but it subtracts an important element from literature.

As a matter of fact, the Racinian tragedy, for all its plastic value, is moral to a supreme degree. It is moral for reasons which neither Croce nor Racine himself has mentioned: because it reasserts, in the face of doubts which assail us constantly, the importance of man's destiny, the reality of his passions, the dignity of the human animal. We are apt to lose interest in these qualities. Our actions have no more meaning than is conferred on them by art or religion. To write about fashions, travels, books, is a trade which any intelligence can perform; judge an author rather by his manner of describing death and maternity and love, or by his courage to assail these commonplace subjects. After Racine the mass of contemporary literature seems tangential and petty. He takes our attention violently, and it is precisely the violence of his tragedies that makes them a moral spectacle.

The statement holds good for Webster or John Ford; there are more bonds than a common subject between Phèdre and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. But the tragedies of Racine have another quality, foreign to the Jacobean drama. After a performance of Phèdre, of Athalie, even of Andromaque, the impression which persists is one of absolute perfection. These verses you have heard can not be considered as more or less successful; they are right: in all this audience, in all this city there is nobody who could change them for the better. The action pleases you or displeases; you have no power to improve it; the characters have a life independent of your own. The tragedy as a whole is perfect, not in the sense of something excavated from a former civilization and pronounced more elegant than the Venus de Milo, but perfect as a living organism to which nothing can be added and which any amputation leaves grotesque. It is the attainment of the classical ideal. There is no English translator, from Otway to John Masefield, who has not tried to improve on Racine.

Since the beginning of our century, a return to classical standards has been agitated, but nobody has succeeded in explaining what these standards are. To define romanticism is considerably easier; it is a historical phenomenon which can be limited in time; by describing the characters of the era which began in England with the close of the eighteenth century, in Germany somewhat earlier and in France more exactly in 1830, one can arrive with sufficient precision at the meaning of the word. Classicism also is a historical phenomenon. However, it can not be confined to a single epoch; it belongs to the age of Pericles and that of Augustus; it is the atmosphere of the reigns of Anne and Ming Huang and Louis XIV: periods which differed widely one from another and still more widely from the fourth-hand classicism of to-day. When demanding classical standards, to which of these periods, or to which qualities of all the periods, do theoreticians refer? Are they not falling into a sentimental reverence for the past, a vague ecstasy which is the opposite of every classicism? Who comes nearest their ideal: Pope or Chaucer or the Greek odists?

It would be wiser to agree on Racine as the classical type. In this case classicism becomes possible of definition: it is an approach, through arbitrary conventions, to a form which is perfect and abstract. It remains intelligible at the same time, and human. It is concerned with people instead of with nature or the supernatural; it considers the moral rather than the picturesque value of their actions; it does not avoid their most rigorous ideas or their most violent emotions. It is a discipline and the spirit of discipline. Such an ideal is tenable in any age, to-day more than ever, for by following its principles one can create a literature which is fresh and unimitative, which is contemporary, and which avoids the excesses of contemporary sentiment.

Maurice Baring (essay date 1924)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5927

SOURCE: "Racine," in Punch and Judy & Other Essays, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1924, pp. 145-73.

[During the early twentieth century, Baring—along with G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc—was considered one of the most important Catholic apologists in England. He was proficient in a number of different genres, but is remembered mainly as a novelist. He also wrote several acclaimed books on Russian and French literature and introduced English readers to the works of Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and other prominent Russian authors. In the following excerpt, Baring discursively examines several of Racine's dramas, particularly Bérénice, while addressing the question of Racine's stat ure as a dramatic poet.]

Is Racine the greatest of French poets? I will not be so bold as to answer. There is Molière, and there is La Fontaine. Molière as a dramatist is more universal, and La Fontaine as a poet is more peculiar—by more peculiar I mean more exceptional. He is a product of France and of France only, and is hors concours in his line, whereas Racine competes with all the poets of the world. It is unnecessary to draw up a list, to place him here or there, above this one or below that one. It is enough to say that he is a great poet, and I think one could safely add that his work constitutes the purest gem of French dramatic literature. There is no drama in French literature which is at the same time so passionate, so strong (as far as the matter is concerned), so disciplined as to the form, so truthful, and so poetical. Let us take him first as a dramatist. As a playwright, he is a writer of human plays—of plays which, although they are about kings and queens, ancient Greeks, Roman emperors, Jews, Turks, and Sultanas—are in reality French men and French women of the epoch of Louis XIV. That is to say, they are men and women, and that is enough. The style in which they talk matters no more than their wigs, or their broad brocaded hoops. All that is a question of externals; it is the frame, the vehicle, the cup; if the cup is exquisite, the wine is none the less exhilarating. Mozart's music is none the less divine because it is written for an eighteenth-century harpsichord.

Under the trappings of the eighteenth century, Racine discerned and portrayed the eternal passions of the human heart, and although his verse has the accent of his epoch it has also, since it is sincere, noble, and beautiful, an underlying note which belongs to all time. There is nothing tedious about his drama in itself; actors can make it tedious by acting it badly; but when it is well acted, it is not considered tedious by the crowd, by the holiday-makers in Paris: it fills a large theatre; it is popular; it pays. Badly acted it disgusts—to see Phèdre badly acted is an excruciating experience—that is another question. It is not of any age, but for all time; the theme, and the manner in which the theme is dealt with, appeals just as much to an audience of the present day as it did to audiences in the days of Louis XIV. Take, for instance, the play of Bérénice. It is built out of a sentence of Suetonius. Titus reginam Beronicen, cui etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur … statim ab urbe dimisit invitus invitam; or, as Racine translates it, "Titus qui aimoit passionnément Bérénice, et qui même, à ce qu'on croyait, lui avait promis de l'épouser, la renvoya de Rome, malgré lui, et malgré elle, dès les premiers jours de son empire." That is the whole subject of the play. There are no incidents and no action….

There is no action, but out of this rein Racine has made a perfect work of art, which rivets our attention and touches our feelings by the passion, the beauty of what is felt and how it is said.

I wish to analyse this play; but I wish to translate it from the particular terms in which it is written into more general terms. The subject of the play, as it is written, concerns the marriage of Titus, emperor of Rome, and Bérénice, queen of Palestine: an unsuitable match. The marriage has been arranged; it is to happen—such is the latest gossip—immediately. Titus, the emperor of Rome, is desperately in love with Bérénice, queen of Palestine, and is determined to marry her whatever the drawbacks may be; but there is another person who is in love with Bérénice, and you can call him Antiochus, king of Commagene, or you can call him Mr. Jones. In the first act we learn through a conversation between Mr. Jones and a friend of his that Mr. Jones has loved Bérénice for five years, but that she has never loved him. At last he presents an ultimatum; he tells her that he has made up his mind to leave Rome for ever; and when she asks him why, he says to her: I have loved you all this time although I have said nothing about it, and I can no longer bear your "friendship," which means that you tell me every day, in detail, how and how much you love some one else. He says good-bye; and his way of expressing what he feels affords a fine example of Racine's talent; of his knowledge of the human heart, and of his power of expressing what he knows. The words might have been spoken in Rome in the days of the Cæsars, or at Versailles at the Court of Louis XIV., or in Paris or in London to-day, or anywhere. So long as unrequited passion exists, and so long as a man loves a woman who in her turn needs him merely as a friend—so long as this situation exists, the following speech will always seem poignant and new:

J'évite, mais trop tard,
Ces cruels entretiens où je n'ai point de part.
Je fuis Titus; je fuis ce nom qui m'inquiète,
Ce nom qu'à tous moments votre bouche répète:
Que vous dirai-je enfin? Je fuis des yeux distraits,
Qui, me voyant toujours, ne me voyaient jamais.
Adieu. Je vais, le cœur trop plein de votre image,
Attendre, en vous aimant, la mort pour mon partage.
Surtout ne craignez point qu'une aveugle douleur
Remplisse l'univers du bruit de mon malheur;
Madame, le seul bruit d'une mort que j'implore
Vous fera souvenir que je vivais encore.

So much for the first act.

In the second act we see Titus, emperor of Rome, the statesman, the public man, the man of duty, talking over the question of his marriage with his private secretary. He asks his secretary what impression his marriage would make on public opinion, on the man in the street; he tells him he wishes to know the truth. The secretary tells him the truth; and the truth, as usual, is unpleasant; it is to the effect that the Emperor's marriage with the Queen of Palestine would be looked upon by the man in the street as a disgrace, an insult, a national calamity. The Emperor repeats the story of his love—it has never been stronger than it is now—he confides the hope he has entertained that his love might one day be fulfilled with the crowning end of marriage; but at the same time he confesses that he has no delusions about the effect of his marriage. He knows quite well what his subjects would think about it. He only says this so as to hear his own feelings confirmed by another. He knows quite well that he must sacrifice his own private happiness to the public welfare, and he realises what it will mean both to her whom he loves and to himself. His friend—the man we have called his private secretary—whom Racine calls Paulin—applauds his patriotism and his sense of duty, and the Emperor speaks as follows:

Ah! que sous de beaux noms cette gloire est cruelle!
Combien mes tristes yeux la trouveraient plus belle,
S'il ne falloit encor qu'affronter le trépas!

Bérénice, he says, was the cause of his regeneration and his victories, those which he won over himself and those which he won over his enemies:

Je lui dois tout, Paulin. Récompense cruelle!
Tout ce que je lui dois va retomber sur elle:
Pour prix de tant de gloire et de tant de vertus,
Je lui dirai: Partez, et ne me voyez plus.

Nothing could be more true to life, nor more subtly expressed, than the speech … in which he tells his friend the truth about his relations with Bérénice. It is what we call modern; when in a Greek play, or in Cicero's Letters, or an Icelandic Saga, we feel that something hits the bull's-eye because it expresses what we ourselves have felt, we call it modern; it would be more correct to call it human, because it is neither ancient nor modern, but eternal….

After this Titus tried to tell Bérénice the truth, but he breaks down; he cannot bring the words across his lips. He leaves her in bewilderment, but with a faint suspicion of the truth; she suspects it, but dismisses it from her mind.

In the third act the Emperor commands his friend to tell the whole truth to Bérénice, and, further, he commits her to his charge; he bids them both leave Rome together. But the friend in question is almost convinced that if he should break the news to Bérénice, her love for the Emperor would turn to hate. He breaks the news to her as gently as he can; at first she disbelieves it, but when, at last, she is convinced, stunned and overcome by the news, she bids the Emperor's friend, namely, Antiochus, king of Commagene, or Mr. Jones, leave her sight, and never come back no more.

In the fourth act we come to the climax. Titus and Bérénice meet when she is fully aware of the truth. Titus tells her that life to him without her will be as death; his life can but end with their separation:

Scheiden ist der Tod!

after that, he will go on reigning, but not living. She answers him in what are, perhaps, the most beautiful lines of the play:

Hé bien, régnez, cruel, contentez votre gloire:
Je ne dispute plus. J'attendais, pour vous croire,
Que cette même bouche, après mille serments
D'un amour qui devait unir tous nos moments,
Cette bouche, à mes yeux s'avouant infidèle,
M'ordonnât elle-même une absence éternelle,
Moi-même j'ai voulu vous entendre en ce lieu.
Je n'écoute plus rien: et, pour jamais, adieu, …
Pour jamais! Ah, seigneur! songez-vous en vousmême
Combien ce mot cruel est affreux quand on aime?
Dans un mois, dans un an, comment souffrironsnous,
Seigneur, que tant de mers me séparent de vous;
Que le jour recommence et que le jour finisse
Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice,
Sans que de tout le jour je puisse voir Titus?

Here we reach the high-water mark of Racine's verse: the words are those of everyday conversation, the sentiments exactly what a woman in the situation of Bérénice would say at any time in any country, and the effect that of great poetry. Never has the immense despair of separation been contracted into so close an utterance. For the moment Titus hesitates, but, finally, he regains his self-control, and he recalls the countless examples of self-sacrifice on the part of his ancestors. Bérénice leaves him saying she means to kill herself, and the Emperor is summoned to the Senate House.

In the last act Bérénice has decided to take her life; she means to leave Rome, leaving a letter behind for the Emperor, telling him what she has done. The Emperor, being informed that she means to go, insists on seeing her once more: they meet. He tells her that this love is stronger than ever, and she upbraids him with toying with her despair. He reads the letter which she had written to him when she meant to kill herself, and he says his cup of sorrow is full, that since she is determined to die, he can no longer battle with life; but—and this is what gives nobility and dignity to his character and to his speech—he is resolved more than ever now, not to disobey the dictates of his conscience, nor to thwart the wishes of his people:

L'Empire incompatible avec votre hyménée
Me dit qu'après l'éclat et les pas que j'ai faits
Je dois vous épouser encor moins que jamais.

He will not leave all and follow her, for, he says, she would merely be ashamed of him for having chosen thus.

The end is brought about by Antiochus (Mr. Jones), who reveals to the Emperor that he has loved Bérénice for so long. Now that I have brought you together, I hope that you both will live happily for ever after; as for me, I shall not live at all; I shall kill myself. Bérénice, self-disgusted, blames herself for being the cause of all this trouble, and, with serene resignation, bids a last farewell to Titus. She explains to him what she has passed through. She had feared at first that he had ceased to love her; but now that she has realised her mistake, she is willing to leave him, and ready to live. She bids Antiochus learn submission from her example, and from that of Titus….

Racine shows his instinct in ending the drama softly with a sigh: the "Hélas" of Antiochus. Thus, at the end, dimisit invitus invitant. Coventry Patmore's "Ode" applies to the final situation:

With all my will, but much against my heart,
We two now part.
My Very Dear,
Our solace is, the sad road lies so clear.
Go thou to East, I West.

This play would be just as interesting if transposed in terms of 'Arry and 'Arriet, and if it all took place in Green Park, or on Hampstead Heath, on a Bank holiday.

I have analysed the play thus, in detail, in order to show the framework of Racine's architecture—to show how out of nothing he produces a play more rich in human interest, more poignant and passionate, than dramas crowded with incident and noisy with action; arousing our pity and our interest, simply, as he says, by the nobility of the sentiments, the conflict of the passions, and the beauty of the language: and thus attaining high ends by simple means. Bérénice remains, and probably will remain, the final utterance of the tragedy of lovers separated by the conventions of the world. Just as, in Macbeth, Shakespeare said the last word on the subject of murder, and touched every fibre of the psychological situation, so does Racine in Bérénice exhaust the possibilities of the subject of the seemingly causeless but inevitable separation of lovers; the conflict between love and duty which it brings with it; the various phases of hope, fear, doubt, altercation, despair, reconciliation, and submission which this twofold conflict passes through.

Even in a bald analysis such as I have made, the harmonious proportions of the construction will be apparent. But the play must be read, and still better, seen played (fortunate are those who have seen Madame Bartet—the ideal Bérénice—in the part!), for the delicate gradations to be appreciated by which the scale of passion rises, swells, and subsides, and dies away on a note of melancholy resignation. The architectural beauty of Racine's work, the reasonableness of proportion, the purity of outline, the absence of any jarring note, of anything forced, exaggerated, or unnecessary, are nowhere better displayed than in this play. The drama arises naturally and inevitably from the characters, and the circumstances in which the characters are placed—the one acting on the other—and proceeds, step by step, to its logical and inevitable close. We know from the first that, given the character of Titus, and the circumstances in which he is placed, he cannot possibly marry Bérénice, and that however deeply she may suffer, no misunderstanding can be finally possible between the two lovers. The great merit of this kind of work is apparent when we compare it with that of lesser masters. In such plays the drama, instead of arising out of the characters of the persons, is brought about by an external and fortuitous Deux ex machina. Misunderstanding is caused in such plays not tragically, by the blundering of souls in the darkness, but in a concrete fashion, by the intercepting of letters, or the overhearing of conversation behind doors, or possibly the arras. Racine, on the other hand, knows and is able to show, that there is quite enough in the human soul to cause tragedy, without having recourse to the adventitious aid of any melodramatic trickery, accident, or coincidence. Here character is destiny and "passions spin the plot." To find a parallel to this in modern drama, we have to turn to Ibsen and Maeterlinck; or to Turgenev's novels and Tolstoy's and Tchekov's plays.

I said that in Bérénice Racine exhausted the subject of separation. You will realise this if you see or read one of the most successful plays of modern times: M. Donnay's Amants, the play which made the author's reputation. It is a modern Bérénice, or rather, as M. Lemaître called it, a Bérénice; its fundamental framework is built upon precisely the same lines as Racine's work.

Bérénice illustrates in the subtlest manner the first great fact about Racine's genius; his power of psychological analysis and presentation. The psychology of all his dramas is as true, as subtle, and as "modern" as that of any modern French or even Russian psychologist. The "classical" drama arising from the incidents of everyday life is just as strong as is the "realist" drama of Ibsen. The passion from being expressed with dignity and restraint is none the less vehement and even violent. Racine's women are as wild in their impulses, as uncontrolled in their passion, whether it be ambition or love, fear or rage, as any of the heroines of Bourget or Alexandre Dumas fils, or Bernstein. If you wish to test the quality of Racine's dramatic power at its youngest and at its freshest, you must turn to Andromaque. Here the quality of the passion is swifter and more fiery, more youthful, perhaps, than in any of his other plays. Andromaque is to Racine's work what Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon is to his other plays; it has the high, pure note as of silver cymbals and celestial harps. The verses blossom like white lilies, and march past in white and shining ranks. But in order to realise Racine's full power as a dramatist and as a psychologist, his insight into the human heart, his sensibility;—his unique blend of sensitiveness and violence, it is necessary to study Phèdre; to read it and to re-read it, and to see it played.

Phèdre is without doubt the most important play in the French classical repertoire. It is the Hamlet of the French stage, and the actress who triumphs in the part must needs be a great personality. Phèdre is too well known to need any analysis or description; but there is one point to which I should like to call attention. It is this: the objection which is made to all Racine's plays about the discord between the remoteness of his subject-matter and the seventeenth-century accent and tone of his characters, has been more vehemently urged in the case of Phèdre, since, whereas the framework and central idea of the play are Greek, its spirit is Christian. But in making Phèdre herself a Christian, conscious of her guilt, and horrified at herself, Racine has merely heightened the tragedy of her plight. Again, what I have already said about the eternal fundamental essence of Racine's characters and the superficial and external nature of their manner and accent, applies especially to this case. For the important fact about Phèdre is that, just as in Bérénice, Racine wrote the eternal tragedy of separation, so in Phèdre he gives us the eternal tragedy of the woman who is the prey of an involuntary criminal passion; and nowhere has this passion been more faithfully portrayed, nor the gradation of the martyrdom more subtly traced. Here are two instances of Racine's delicacy of treatment. The first occurs in the initial scene between Phèdre and Œnone, before she has confessed her guilty secret; she lets the first hint of it be perceptible when suddenly, in a moment of distraction—and unconsciously giving way to her dominating preoccupation; the thought of Hippolyte—she says:

Dieux, que ne suis je assise à l'ombre des forêts?
Quand pourrai-je, au travers d'une noble poussière,
Suivre de l'œil un char fuyant dans la carrière?

Could any indication be more subtly introduced?

The second passage occurs when Phèdre, after having confessed her passion to Hippolyte, learns that her husband Theseus is still alive.

Mourons. De tant d'horreurs qu'un trépas me délivre;
Est-ce un malheur si grand que de cesser de vivre?
La mort aux malheureux ne cause point d'effroi.
Je ne crains que le nom que je laisse après moi.
Pour mes tristes enfants quel affreux héritage!
Le sang de Jupiter doit enfler leur courage:
Mais quelque juste orgeuil qu'inspire un sang si beau,
Le crime d'une mère est un pesant fardeau,
Je tremble qu'un discours, hélas! trop véritable
Un jour ne leur reproche une mère coupable!
Je tremble qu'opprimés de ce poids odieux
L'un ni l'autre jamais n'osent lever les yeux.

Nothing could be more exquisitely delicate and tender; nothing more true: no utterance more dignified. It is especially in his women that Racine is psychologically most successful. Women in his work play a more important part than men, although the studies of Mithridates, and of Nero in Britannicus rival those of Hermione and Phèdre in subtlety. Certainly among his women-characters the most subtle and striking of all is Phèdre.

One more word about Phèdre. It is sometimes said that Racine's drama, fine as it is, is vastly inferior to the Hippolytus of Euripides; that in Racine's drama the character of Hippolyte himself, with his trumpery love affair for Aricie, is a poor creature compared with the fatal victim and unblemished devotee of Artemis. But this simply means that Euripides was a Greek and Racine a Frenchman, and it would have been altogether wrong and untrue to nature for Racine to have portrayed an Hippolytus after the manner of Euripides in the setting and atmosphere and among the other personages he chose for his play. His play is a reflection of his period, just as Euripides' drama is a picture of his time; but if you wish, from the purely technical point of view, to study how extraordinarily skilful a dramatist Racine is, you have only to read the opening dialogue in the Greek play between Phèdre and the nurse, and then turn to the French play and see what Racine has made of the same situation….

And yet Phèdre, although it is the most subtle, the most theatrically effective, the most arresting, the most rich in human interest, is not generally reckoned Racine's masterpiece. Racine himself preferred it to all his plays. But I think it is universally recognised among French critics that his crowning masterpiece is Athalie. Other poets have written plays as fully charged with passion and subtlety as Phèdre; no one has written just such a work as Athalie; it is in its way unique, unique as Lycidas and The Tempest are unique. Nobody in the world could have written it save Racine. Phèdre may be said to suffer from the comparison with the Hippolytus of Euripides; no such damaging comparison can be made in the case of Athalie, although the influence of Euripides is felt in Athalie, and contributes to its beauty. Voltaire, writing about Athalie, called it "l'ouvrage le plus approchant de la perfection qui soit jamais sorti de la main des hommes." Sainte-Beuve said the final word on the subject: "Athalie, comme art, égale tout." The work is the fruit of the maturity of the poet's genius; the fruit of twelve silent years of meditation. It is as if Shakespeare had written a play after his six years of retirement at Stratford. All Racine's qualities are seen here in their highest development: his nobility, his religious fervour, his passion for the Scriptures, and for antiquity.

But what makes Racine's plays so great is not only that the human passions in them are dealt with by a master hand, and that the psychology is subtle, interesting, and true, but also that the background, the historical and mythological background, is poetical. There is no local colour in Racine's plays, and yet he suggests a mythological, legendary, or historical setting, as the case may be, by the subtlest means. He has atmosphere; and here again he proves that he is a great poet. So much for Racine as a dramatist. To sum up: he is not only a dramatist, but a psychologist—the first Frenchman to introduce psychology into drama—and one of the greatest, most subtle analysts of woman's heart. Even in a translation, even in the baldest prose translation, any student of human nature would admit this to be true, should he read of the doings and follow the utterances and actions of Racine's heroines: Phèdre, Hermione, Roxane, Bérénice, and Athalie. There is another great fact about Racine: he is a truthful writer; he does not shun the truth even although it may hurt and shock his principles or his beliefs. He depicts human nature as it is; he faces facts as fearlessly as a surgeon.

Last of all, his diction, his verse is poetic, and he is, perhaps, the greatest of all French verse-writers. It surprises and even shocks intellectual Englishmen if you say that Racine is a greater poet than Victor Hugo, or Musset, or Leconte de Lisle; but there is nothing more surprising or shocking in such a statement than there is in saying that Milton is a greater poet than Byron, Shelley, or Keats. You may maintain the contrary—I do not say that one theory is more right than the other—but I do say that, just as you can make out a case for considering Milton a greater poet than any of the later English poets, so, and in exactly the same way, you can prove that Racine is a greater poet than Victor Hugo or any of the French poets of the nineteenth century.

To compare him with Victor Hugo may be said to be unfair; because Victor Hugo is a lyrical poet and Racine is a dramatic poet. But Victor Hugo has also written plays—plays in which he sought to shatter the tradition established by the plays of Racine; plays which are still acted with triumphant success. Some critics indeed, and among them one of the most scholarly and delicate of judges (William Cory, for instance), say that Victor Hugo's plays are the finest that have been written since those of Shakespeare. But the French put the qualities of Racine still higher. At first sight the range of Victor Hugo's work, the elemental quality of the passions with which it deals, the lyrical heights to which it rises, the depths of feeling into which it dives, the variety and multiplicity of the strings of his lyre, would seem to form a more portentous achievement; compared with this multitudinous orchestration the work of Racine seems like the thin utterance of four stringed instruments delicately played in an eighteenth-century drawing-room. This, however, is exactly the point. Let us say that in an eighteenth-century drawing-room four fiddles or a fiddle and a clavier are interpreting the music of Mozart or of Beethoven. What actually takes place? Bach or Beethoven or Purcell—let alone Mozart and Schubert—can write a melody, perhaps one of three bars only, or even of one single bar, and review it in all its architectural possibilities; and this review, which may entail the marriage of the tune with another tune (thence permutation and commutation), will need for its interpretation perhaps only four stringed instruments, perhaps only a fiddle and clavier, harpsichord, or pianoforte; perhaps only a little portable clavichord—the instruments were played possibly in an eighteenth-century drawing-room by people in cities, or on a London concert platform by spectacled Teutons, and yet … from this simple conception and with these limited means of execution things are said and suggested, doors are opened, temples and pyramids are built, unearthly fabrics, whose building the educated and cultivated musician will enjoy consciously, and the uneducated and uncultivated listener will (if he hears it often enough) enjoy unconsciously, and whose architecture and proportion will not escape him; and these unassuming methods, this seemingly modest and limited means and vehicle of expression, may and do lead the listener up to a catastrophe, when he feels as if he were standing on the edge of his own planet, and enjoying the sense of being caught up in the wheels of unchangeable harmonious laws, or of being borne on a stream that

Broadens for ever to infinity,
And varies with unvariable law,

and of being whirled into eternity.

This effect will seem greater to the musician than the catastrophe achieved by terrific engines, by hypnotic persuasion, complex machinery, and accessories in the music dramas of Wagner, in which the factor of literary inspiration is almost always present.

To some, Wagner's catastrophe will seem in comparison with that of Bach or Beethoven or Mozart like a railway accident.

Now, in the opinion of the French, Racine is to Victor Hugo much like what Beethoven or Bach is to Wagner in the opinion of the trained musician. Of course the comparison must not be pushed too far, but the principle of Racine's greatness, and the reason of his superiority over Victor Hugo (in the eyes of those who think he is superior), resembles the principle of the greatness of the music of Purcell; say, for instance, "When I am laid in Earth" in Dido and Æneas, or any of Beethoven's or Mozart's great phrases and melodies that seem to open out their arms and embrace the universe; and the reason of their superiority over Wagner (in the eyes, that is to say, of those who think they are superior).

This was written before any one had discovered that Beethoven had no sense of "musical form." Perhaps some one will discover that in Racine's verse there is no scansion, no order, no shape, and no sense.

One of the secrets of the greatness of Racine's verse is, as in the case of Milton, his nobility of purpose and design, and his loftiness of utterance. Since in Racine's poetry the form is inseparable from the subject-matter, by illustrating the one it is possible to indicate the other; for his diction, at its finest, is accompanied generally by a majestic and magnificent gesture, which appertains alone to great souls.

The following passage from Andromaque represents his diction at its finest:

Non, non, je te défends, Céphise, de me suivre;
Je confie à tes soins mon unique trésor:
Si tu vivais pour moi, vis pour le fils d'Hector.
De l'espoir des Troyens seule dépositaire,
Songe à combien de Rois tu deviens nécessaire.

Veille auprès de Pyrrhus. Fais-lui garder sa foi:
S'il le faut, je consens qu'on lui parle de moi.
Fais-lui garder l'hymen où je me suis rangée;
Dis-lui, qu'avant ma mort je lui fus engagée;
Que ses ressentiments doivent être effacés;
Qu'en lui laissant mon fils, c'est l'estimer assez.
Fais connaître à mon fils les héros de sa race;
Autant que tu pourras, conduis-le sur leur trace.
Dis-lui par quels exploits leurs noms ont éclaté,
Plutôt ce qu'ils ont fait, que ce qu'ils ont été.
Parle-lui tous les jours des vertus de son père,
Et quelquefois aussi parle-lui de sa mère….

Here is an instance of his simplicity. The words are spoken by the child Joas in Athalie:

Dieu laissa-t-il jamais ses enfants au besoin?
Aux petits des oiseaux il donne leur pâture.

The passages which I have quoted, although few, are sufficient to illustrate the qualities of Racine as a poet; in order to appreciate his merits as a playwright, you must see his plays well acted, and acted by the players of the Comédie française, who are trained in the ancient traditions of declamation. If an Englishman is able to perceive beauty in these quotations, he is able to appreciate the genius of Racine; if not, he is tone-deaf to the language, and there is an end of the matter. He should admit it, and pass on; as a rule, he is not content with such a course. Unable to apprehend these beauties, he denies their existence, just as one denies the likeness of a portrait which, perceived by others, does not strike one's own eye. Yet the beauties are there; to the French they are an object of reverent adoration; the richest jewel of their national inheritance. They are perceptible, too, to all continental artists and critics who know French well. It is only the proud and insular Briton who has the arrogance to deny their existence. Matthew Arnold maintained that French poetry was not poetry; but Matthew Arnold's criticism of French poetry has the same value as would have had Dr. Johnson's criticism of German music. Charles XII. and Prince Eugene, Schiller and Dostoyevski, bore witness to the beauties of Racine. Napoleon said that Racine was son favori. I have tried to indicate the nature of his qualities, to illustrate his peculiar charm and excellence. But when all is said and done, when we have pointed out the harmony of proportion, the absence of effort and emphasis, the delicate tact and talent of selection, the suppleness, the grace, and the distinction which mark the works of Racine, there is still something left—an indefinable suavity, an intangible sense of perfect balance, an elusive play of light and shade, a delicacy and charm of texture, a tenderness, a sensitiveness, which cannot be defined by any stereotyped formula. All we can say is, that Racine is among the noble few of whom in reality it deserves to be said that they "built the lofty rhyme"—and he built it after the serene and noble fashion of Sophocles. He ranks with the radiant children of Apollo, whose notes of music are like fountains of pure water. He may not be with Homer, Shakespeare, and Dante; but he is with Praxiteles, with Virgil, and Mozart….

Benedetto Croce (essay date 1928)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2202

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Racine," translated by Raffaello Piccoli, in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 6, June, 1928, pp. 483-88.

[An Italian educator, philosopher, and author, Croce developed a highly influential theory of literary creation and a concomitant critical method. In defining the impetus and execution of poetry, Croce conceives of the mind as capable of two distinct modes of thought, which he terms cognition and volition. Cognition mental activity is theoretical and speculative, while volition is the mind's practical application of ideas originating in the cognitive realm. For Croce, a poem, as an intuitive creation, belongs to the cognitive sphere, and exists within a poet's mind as a complete, independent, and unified image. In his view, the original conception of a poem must be motivated by a dominant emotion, and this emotion must be clearly and effectively translated into the actual poem if the work is to succeed as art. From these theories, Croce derives his definition of the proper role of criticism: to determine a poem's original, intuitive image, to ascertain the emotion that both prompted it and is an integral part of it, and, finally, to judge the relationship between these two factors. In the following excerpt from a review of Karl Vossler's German-language study Jean Racine (1926), Croce focuses upon the high poetic achievement of Racine's dramas, notably Athaliah.]

There is good reason to-day for reverting to the poetry of Racine; not as poetry merely, founded upon an incomparable purifying power, but because qualities in it uniquely provide an antidote to loose, noisy tendencies in contemporary pseudo-poetry….

Looking for a "point of view" from which Racine's poetry should be considered in order to determine its constitution, the law peculiar to it, and its motive, Vossler first makes it clear to us that it is essentially an interior force—an active principle or will, but not of the kind that exhausts itself in external action, for then it would shine in its successes as in epic poetry or in history, where deeds and works are more important than individuals. It would be broken, driven back or withdrawn, hindered, curbed, repentant. Instead of achieving its aim and dying, it rebounds to its author and kindles a consuming flame in his breast. It is, in a way, always failure that is celebrated in these tragedies; not failure in the abstract, however, as we know it in pessimistic lyric or satire; and its virtue lies in that self-evaluation, that getting hold of self, which it induces in the characters. This is Racine's true inspiration. Thus Vossler examines and interprets the tragedies, from the Thébaïde to Athalie, not omitting the comedy of the Plaideurs, in which the same fundamental situation reappears. Only in the two last plays, the two religious plays, Esther and Athalie, do the characters achieve success, and in them not through the exercise of the personal and particular will, but by submitting to one which is higher and is universal; and these two plays are also the only ones in which unity of place is not observed—exceptions which confirm the rule.

This is subtle and ingenious although slightly artificial and perhaps too subtle, too ingenious since still bound up with the concepts of "drama," "epos," and "lyric," as things that can be rigorously distinguished; and it cannot be applied to the whole of Racine's work, for there are various exceptions, notably in the instance of the last tragedies; especially the last and greatest one. It seems to me that critical interpretation might proceed more simply and satisfactorily by considering again the common verdict which makes Racine—in opposition to Corneille—the "poet of the passions": a verdict which is rather vague but deserving of attention because, like all popular verdicts on poetry, it conveys the impression which the poetry made for the most part, and is still making. To be more explicit we might say that Racine's inspiration is the mysterious and rapacious character of passion—delighting itself or tormenting itself. Passion in a pure or impure, in a mild or fierce, in a noble or evil heart; passion relapsing in ruin and death, or issuing triumphant; passion aided or crushed: by powers human; by powers divine: by the principle of good, leading to salvation; by the power of evil oppressing and destroying: such are the protagonists of Racine's plays; but the constant centre of each is always passion, and it is passion transfused into poetry that invests them with charm. It is passion in Andromaque who, loyal to the memory of Troy and Hector, eager for solitude and oblivion for herself and her surviving son, is ready to find peace in death, but determined to preserve untainted that fidelity to the past which is her secret source of strength; it is passion in Bérénice who struggles persistently for the possession of the man she loves, and who—unwilling to surrender—finally, in the very strength of her passion, finds strength to overcome it and make it subordinate in the complexity of human interests. She becomes aware that Bérénice "ne vaut pas tant d'alarmes," that personal affection must not overthrow the social order and make "l'univers malheureux." In Eriphile, the lonely, furtive child of guilt, it is burning passion—a turbid, unwholesome mania, irremediable till destroyed in the ill-born creature's self-destruction; and the passion of Phèdre is in origin and growth a little similar to, and a little different from Eriphile's, accompanied as it is by consciousness of sin and feelings of self-abhorrence. But it is also Acomat's wholly political and ambitious passion for power and revenge, undeviating, careful, and deliberate but instantaneous in action, contemptuous of love except as the tool of strategy, and annoyed by it only as it interferes with higher game; it is passion in Mithridate, an illimitable dream of empire, of beneficent salvage, and of the conquest of Rome; and by way of conclusion, it is passion in Joad and in Athalie—a manifestation in the former from the depths of traditional Jewish priestly dominance; aroused in the latter by the shedding of her kindred's blood, in avenging which with blood, she founds on bloodshed a tyrannic power which intoxicates yet frightens her. Critics who have interpreted passion in these plays as purely erotic, delimit Racine's soul, unless eroticism be synecdoche for passion in general; on the other hand I should say that Vossler also narrows the concept by emphasis on renunciation, which is but a single aspect or transmutation of passion. Nor can I entirely disagree with those critics who deny religious feeling to Racine, even in his religious plays; not that he is not earnestly religious, or that the religious accent in his plays seems false, but because the impact predominately is that of passion as such, not that of religious exaltation. One remembers what Madame de Sévigné said of those plays: "Il aime Dieu comme il aimait ses maîtresses; il est pour les choses saintes comme il était pour les prophanes."

If we keep in mind this poetic centre in Racine's work, we can understand why the tragedies seem rich poetically, in proportion as they become the song of passion, and why those passages which speak most directly to our souls, which become part of our souls, are the situations and moments of passion, the passionate and emotional characters—the greater ones which we have cited and lesser ones like Junie in Britannicus, and Monime in Mithridate. But almost invariably in the tragedies there is also something else: there is the dramatic tissue, with the characters and actions that weave it and stretch it; and such actions and characters are often from the point of view of poetry merely decorative, though dramatically essential. Which characters and actions, one may ask? And I should say, the ones that do not speak, or that speak not so directly to our souls—that we do not cherish in memory equally with the rest. Racine studies them always with very great care and with a fine power of psychological analysis; but they spring rather from intellect than from imagination; from requirements of plot, not at the voice of the emotions. Such elements are to be found in all the tragedies, in differing proportions and degree: Oreste and Pylade, even Pyrrhus, and Oenone in Andromaque, have this aspect of the made character if we may call it such. This may also be said of Hippolyte and Thésée in Phèdre, and of one or other character in each play. Their language tends to be madrigalesque, flowery, polite, and courtly, while Andromaque knows how to speak the simple words: "Quel charme ont pour vous des yeux infortunés!" and thus Bérénice: "Mais parliez-vous de moi quand je vous ai surpris?" and Acomat: "Moi, jaloux! Plût au ciel qu'en me manquant de foi, L'imprudent Bajazet n'eût offensé que moi!" A critical examination of single tragedies cannot but establish this varying relationship between personal-fantastic creation on the one hand, and construction on the other; the naive reader is conscious of it and it constitutes indeed the critical problem in Racine as in other poets. This relationship must be dealt with delicately for the two things often pass into each other, and Racine is always the exquisite artist, permitting himself no unconsidered separation of the poetic from the non-poetic; but it is a thing we must take into account….

There are two plays, however, in which the critical problem no longer consists in that relationship since its terms are not found in them, or at any rate are not distinct and contrasting: namely, those two plays of religious argument composed by Racine after his twelve years' silence, Esther and Athalie. In the former the contrast is lost in the fairy-tale intonation, that something of lächelnder Märchenzauber which is so well perceived by Vossler, whose analysis I accept entirely; in the latter it is submerged in the wholly passionate, wholly mysterious into nation, full of horror sacer, which gives life to that admirable play and creates its characters, its plot, its scenes. Vossler, like all critics, feels the greatness of this work, the greatness of the masterpiece; but in consequence of his definition of Racine's dramatic sentiment—as of the relationship between Misserfolg and Selbstbesinnung—he remains bewildered in its presence; so much so that, in order to elude his perplexity, he adopts Imbriani's definition of Faust: a mistaken masterpiece, with the emphasis on the second word. For him, Athalie "transcends dramatic form," and the action loses itself "in epic grandeur and in prophetic distance"; "the style of Racine's times was not prepared for, and fortified against, the vigour of that poetry." To tell the truth Athalie transcends the preestablished criterion, the somewhat scholastic concept of dramatic action, but does not transcend poetry—the only thing that matters. Athalie does not belong to a Racine attempting the impossible, but rather to a Racine who has reached the perfection of his passionate expressive tendency. The hero of the play, the priest Joad, is not "a hero after Racine's heart," says Vossler, "but Racine need not on this account belittle him, suspect him, or disapprove of him: it is impossible to speak either of inclination or of repulsion in the presence of a mere phenomenon such as this is." And it is true that this phenomenon, the phenomenon of passion, the "phenomenal passion," dark, religious, sanguinary, all will and all obedience to the will of God, which attracts Racine—attracts him to Joad as, some-what differently coloured, it attracts him to Athalie, impious and tyrannical, to Mathan, corrupt and sacrilegious, and to the predestined child Eliacin-Joas: we do not know what he will be in the future, after taking power in his hands; so respectful and pious and so perfectly educated by the priest, concentrating in himself the heritage of so much blood and of so many evil deeds, having, as Vossler observes with great penetration, a Janus head. In the light of prophetic hints, against the background of his preceptor's preoccupations the lovely child's face presents to us das abgewandte Verbrechergesicht, the averted profile of a criminal.

Jean Giraudoux (essay date 1930)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

SOURCE: "The World and the Theatre, in Theatre Arts Monthly, Vol. XIV, No. 9, September, 1930, pp. 727-30.

[A French dramatist and novelist, Giraudoux is recognized primarily for his highly stylized works centering around the elemental themes of love, death, and war. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in a longer form in La Nouvelle Revue Française, he discusses Racine's method, emphasizing the dramatist's exemplary accomplishment while working within an established context: his own, distinctly literary age.]

Those who believe in genius have the opportunity, when contemplating Racine, to verify the fact that a civilization which has reached its pinnacle … is itself a genius—the genius of Pericles or of Louis XIV…. One of its virtues is that, instead of the smaller means by which writers in less complete epochs acquire their experience—misfortune, observations of men in daily life, affairs of the heart or conjugal crises—there is substituted in these happier periods, an instinctive knowledge of great spirits and great moments. Racine is the most perfect illustration of this. No childhood was further removed than his from the laws of childhood…. His adolescence was not less theoretical…. Studying and the joys of studying were to him the substitutes for all contact with life, all happiness, all catastrophes, up to the day when he entered a world even more devoid of steadiness: the theatre. He knew people and actions only in fancy-dress. Yet, from the contact of this young man without youth and this artificial society, was suddenly born the most direct and most realistic work of the century.

Aesthetic laws are, no doubt, as rigid as mathematical laws: Racine evolves his discoveries about human beings with an abstraction, a detachment from humanity as lofty as the indifference of the geometrician for the family life of figures. There is not one sentiment in Racine that is not a literary sentiment…. Nothing in him is visionary or real, frantic or discouraged. His bitterness, when he is bitter, does not come from his being lame or imposed upon; his mellowness from being at peace; his power from being athletic—but from his being a writer.

His method, his only method, consists in taking from the outside, through style and poetics, as through a fish-net, a catch of truths of which he himself only suspects the presence…. The yeast of his talent is purely literary. Not only did Racine never take his inspiration from the questions that the intellectual currents … urged upon his time … but he did not let even one of them touch his inner life….

There was no "question of the theatre" at the time Racine began to write…. It would have irritated him, moreover, to waste time in reforms and innovations. The theatre is a microcosm where the poetical, moral and material preferences and tastes of an age should shine forth in their greatest splendor and passions, but the theatre cannot create perceptions in the spectator; it takes them for granted. A literary generation, a literary age, can end with a theatrical era but never starts with one. Good drama is an accumulation of perfections; although the reader may look for new discoveries in the course of his reading, the spectator wants only enjoyment from his spectacle. This excludes from the theatre every manifestation which is only a quest or a lesson; which does not instinctively embrace dramatic life such as actuality has created it…. Great drama is the drama which convinces minds already convinced, moves souls already shaken, dazzles eyes already enlightened. It is as a student submitting to the customs and the laws of its genre that Racine came to the theatre.

M. Joubert (essay date 1939)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2815

SOURCE: "Racine," in Contemporary Review, Vol. 156, December 1939, pp. 729-36.

[Below, Joubert offers a general essay on the accomplishment and significance of Racine, noting his artistic statements against governmental tyranny.]

In a broadcast for French schools dealing with Racine's place in the history of dramatic literature, the lecturer pronounced the significant words: "In spite of Racine's unquestionable superiority as poet and psychologist, the French nation will, during the time of a national crisis, always turn to Corneille." This statement seems to me to represent in a nutshell the historical and aesthetic valuation of the two greatest dramatists of French literature, and at the same time to emphasise the necessity of a comparison between them, without which an appreciation of the younger poet's position as innovator of French dramatic technique would be futile.

Corneille represents artistically and morally—the two terms are inseparable in French drama—the definite end of a period, Racine the beginning of a new era which has not yet reached its end. Corneille, the grand old man of French drama, wrote for an audience whose chief interest was politics, taking part as actors or spectators in the vicissitudes of the Fronde, a struggle in which unbending will-power turned ordinary mortals into heroes, but also their speech, as the Mémoires of the Cardinal of Retz show us, often into heroics. Corneille's art was in full accordance with his political background and with the moral spokesman of his time, Descartes, whose Traité des Passions had become the breviary of his contemporaries: "By the outcome of those struggles we can gauge the power or weakness of our soul." This strength of character can, of course, prove its mettle only in situations of great moment demanding weighty resolutions, patriotism, renunciation, uncompromising faith, etc. Corneille thus relegates love into the background, replacing the wavering, storm-driven impulses of sexual passion by the sublime and heroic, painting, according to La Bruyère's famous comparison between Corneille and Racine, "men as they ought to be." His characters, therefore, are often the outcome, not the creators, of the dramatic situation, ready-made moral abstractions, suffering from a hieratic hardness and rigidity, obsessed by an all-absorbing ethical idée fixe, looking in one direction only with the metallic stare of a Russian icon.

Compare with this attitude Racine's self-portrait in one of his Canticles:

Mon Dieu, quelle guerre cruelle!
Fe trouve deux hommes en moi:
L'un veut que, plein d'amour pour toi,
Mon cœur te soit toujours fidèle,
L'autre, à tes volontés rebelle,
Me révolte contre ta loi!

With Mazarin's death a new generation enters upon the political and social horizon. The young, temperamental and politically autocratic Louis XIV surrounds himself with a coterie vastly different from a La Rochefoucauld or a Madame de Longueville of the time of the stiffnecked Fronde. Madame Henriette d'Angleterre, Mademoiselle de La Vallière, Madame de Montespan now give rhythm and colour to the voluptuous symphonic poem composed and conducted by the Roi-Soleil. Politics has become too dangerous to be mentioned and is replaced by the multi-coloured carnival of pomp and circumstance and amorous intrigues before which Corneille's supermen are paling into oblivion. The stage clamours now for heroes less heroic, for heroines more human than Polyeucte or Chimène, briefly for the dramatic analysis of the tender passion. For a short time Quinault supplies this want, thus becoming the link between Racine and Corneille, who bitterly complains that now "la seule tendresse est toujours à la mode."

With Andromaque (1667) this "tendresse" became changed into "sentiment."

Quinault's delineation of love as a modish, somewhat affected descriptive programme to the lavender-scented clavecin music of his day (he was a really charming librettist), developed under Racine's magic wand into the powerful portrayal of a universal instinct. This new dramatic motive, evolving out of a mere safety-valve for the political passions of the day, no longer to be indulged in, became since Racine the corner-stone of French drama, conveniently labelled as "amour-passion." As such it forms the basic element of Racine's art and deserves therefore a closer study. The idea of love was, as most things in France, from the earliest times subject to fashion. The chevaleresque woman-worship of the medieval trouvères, the reckless passion of the learned ladies of the Renaissance, the metaphysical sentimentality of the Précieuses in the seventeenth century, tinged according to clerical influence at Court with religious fanaticism, the dissolute life of actors and actresses, all this forms a kaleidoscopic picture which might well tempt an artist of Racine's strong sensuous temperament.

But multiform and complex as his excursions into the Bluebeard chamber of erotic sensations were, he felt prevented from giving free play to his innate naturalist tendencies by three weighty considerations. First: by the ever-present religious background of the seventeenth-century society, second by his stern moral upbringing at Port-Royal, third by the philosophical training of French thought constantly directed towards the dissection and diagnosis of emotions. The first acted as a kind of invisible but rigorous censor, the second deeply coloured Racine's psychological and ethical treatment of human passions, the third provided him with the scientific insight into the last causes of the impulses and inhibitions of his heroines and heroes. But the most powerful influence in his artistic complex was his Jansenist education, an influence often apparently counteracted and even obliterated, owing to the worldly surroundings of his career as dramatic poet. In an age fettered by tradition and the double autocracy of an all-powerful Church and King, Racine represents youth in art and outlook on life. In the eyes of his teachers of Port-Royal he even became a heretic, owing to his unequivocal stand for separation of religious discipline from the dramatic expression of psychological facts. This becomes evident in Racine's virulent attack upon his old master Nicole, who had dared to rank dramatic poets amongst public poisoners of the soul. And yet the very characters in Racine's plays which most interest the modern reader, audience, actor and actress, are those in which the poet endeavours—and how subtly and successfully!—to apply the Jansenist tenets to the study of the human soul. Phèdre, Eriphile (Iphigénie), Athalie, Bérénice, Agrippine, Néron, they all are tormented, recalcitrant pupils of Port-Royal, analysing their own état d'âme, accepting reluctantly the fatality of their sinful passions, condemning them, and yet following their lure to the bitter end, for how can they resist, free will being denied to them?

And there Corneille's and Racine's ways part; the older poet rigidly establishing the moral law as legislator in his dramas, the younger, and this makes him almost our contemporary, letting our ethical conclusions arise out of the swaying, passion-ridden souls of his dramatis personœ. It is this monastic trait in Racine's character, which neither the sirens of the theatre nor the intoxicating splendour of the Court of Versailles could eradicate, that gives us the clue to the generally misunderstood reasons for his retirement from the theatre at the age of 38.

With the adaptability of his fluid nature, he followed the trend of events at Court. Military disasters, the growing misery of the people and the prevailing influence of the Jesuits upon Madame de Maintenon, who had become more and more the King's spiritual director, had plunged the Court into an atmosphere of gloom and depression, a veritable Ash Wednesday following the frenetic carnival of joie de vivre, unfavourable for the appreciation of Racine's dramatic genius, as displayed in his Phèdre, whose Jansenist spirit had reconciled him with Arnauld of Port-Royal, but had alienated the King's favour. To all that must be added the failure of his Phèdre (the affaire Pradori), the desertion of his mistress and best actress, La Champmeslé, the threat of assassination, owing to a brilliant but tactless sonnet written by the poet against the Duc de Nevers, brother of his arch-enemy, the Duchesse de Bouillon, and the general feeling of frustrated hopes and ideals. In a fit of Pascalian despair he intended becoming a monk, "un Amen continuel au fond du cœur" (Fénelon). Racine had started his spiritual education at Port-Royal, had flagrantly denied its teaching through the worldliness of his life, whilst subconsciously applying it to his dramatic work, and was finally rediscovering its soothing balm in the afterglow of a retrospective existence and in the statuesque grandeur of his swan-song, Athalie.

Racine foreshadowed with an almost prophetic power some problems which beset the spiritual life of our day: the instability of sexual relations, the craving for domination, the brittleness of moral and religious convictions, though all eventually corrected and settled by a theodicy whose high priest has received his training in Port-Royal. The fearless advocate of justice does not shun his sovereign's displeasure by scarcely veiled political allusions. Already in his second play, Alexandre le Grand, we find an outbreak of indignation against autocracy which could only have passed unnoticed in this early drama of the still little-known poet and which even to-day might give food for thought to present-day fascist demi-gods:

Porus: "Quelle étrange valeur qui, ne cherchant qu'd nuire,
Embrase tout sitôt qu'elle commence à luire:
Qui n'a que son orgueil pour règle et pour raison;
Qui veut que l'univers ne soit qu'une prison,
Et que, maître absolu de tous tant que nous sommes,
Ses esclaves en nombre égalent tous les hommes.
Plus d'états, plus de rois; ses sacrilèges mains
Dessous un même joug rangent tous les humains."
(Alexandre, ii, 2.)

In Bérénice, that moving dramatisation of Suetonius' "Invitus invitam dimisit," Racine's contemporaries were invited to draw a parallel between Titus-Bérénice and the young Louis XIV and Maria Mancini whom he too had to renounce: "invitus invitam"!

And Esther, Racine's first play in which la grande passion is replaced by racial patriotism and religious ecstasy, which made Madame de Sévigné exclaim: "Racine has surpassed himself! He loves God as he used to love his mistresses." Esther must have appealed to the elect audience of Saint-Cyr as an undisguised plea for the official recognition of Madame de Maintenon as Queen of France: Ahasuerus' command: "Soyez Reine" (i, I) sounded like a trumpet-call to King and nation.

But the poet's most courageous attack upon the King's autocratic indifference to justice is the High Priest's warning to Joas (Athalie, iv, 3), symbolising Fénelon's pupil, the little Duc de Bourgogne, heir-apparent to the thorne:

Loin du trône nourri, de ce fatal honneur,
Hélas! Vous ignorez le charme empoisonneur.
De l'absolu pouvoir vous ignorez l'ivresse,
Et des lâches flatteurs la voix enchanteresse.
Bientôt ils vous diront
Qu'un roi n'a d'autre frein que sa volonté même;
Qu'aux larmes, au travail le peuple est condamné.
Que, s'il n'est opprimé, tôt ou tard il opprime.

We need not be surprised that neither King nor Court savoured such home-truths and that Athalie was not granted a public performance. Nor is Schiller's Don Carlos performed in Hitler's Germany!

I believe that our current text-books emphasise too much Racine's insistence upon the sexual problems presented in his dramas. In two plays, Bérénice and Mithridate, he proved that he was able successfully to steal the thunder from his elder rival. "Renunciation and will-power," Corneille's slogans for his whole dramatic work, are acting also as levers in Bérénice, with the sole difference that in Racine's play the clash between duty and desire is never lost sight of. The most Corneillean of his tragedies is Mithridate, in which the poet's art makes the Pontian King's imposing personality, like Wotan in Gotterdämmerung, seem ever-present, even when bodily off the stage. The Racine, however, who claims the interest of the modern reader is the feminist whose field of psychological research is almost exclusively the emotional life of woman. His heroes, with the exception of Oreste (Andromaque), Néron, Mithridate and Joas (Athalie), occupy a second, or even third place in his gallery of character portraits. I single out Oreste as a curious study in Freudian inhibition, and as a romantic anachronism in the seventeenth century, a René (Chateaubriand) with a touch of Hamlet.

Fe ne sais de tout temps quelle injuste puissance
Laisse le crime en paix et poursuit Pinnocence.
(Andromaque, iii, I.)

and in the same scene:

Excuse un malheureux qui perd tout ce qu'il aime,
Que tout le monde hait, et qui se hait lui-même!

Racine's most sombre study in depravation is Néron. A sadist by nature,

Fe me fais de sa peine une image charmante
(ii, 8.)

he is the dramatic counterpart of Tacitus' verdict: "He was made by nature to hide his hatred under the cover of treacherous gentleness":

F'embrasse mon rival, mais c'est pour l'étouffer.
(iv, 3.)

But Racine's most complex characters will always remain his heroines. From the touching simplicity of unselfish love:

F'aimais, Seigneur, j'aimais, je voulais être aimée
(Bérénice, v, 7.)

to the outbursts of primitive passion, goaded on by the infuriated goddess, a terrifying picture of prehistoric, ritualist Greek life:

C'est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée
(Phèdre, i, 3.)

Racine has gone through the whole gamut of passions ravaging a woman's soul. Andromaque's self-sacrificing love for her child and mystic devotion to Hector's memory, Agrippine's thwarted craving for domination over Rome and her son:

Britannicus le gêne, Albine, et chaque jour
Fe sens que je deviens opportune à mon tour

culminating in Athalie's lurid personality, oriental in thought and speech, treacherous, despairing before the doom awaiting her, and, autocrat that she is to the end, tormented by feminine hysteria:

La peur d'un vain remords trouble cette grande âme;
Elle flotte, elle hésite, en un mot, elle est femme
(iii, 3.)

and at last, breaking down with the heart-rending confession of defeat, but still as equal to equal:

Dieu des Fuifs, tu l'emportes!
(v, 6.)

These three instances of heroic types chosen from the poet's plays show us that the "tendre" Racine knew very well when the situation arose, how to create heroines which could rival Shakespeare's greatest achievements. When drawing the sum-total of Racine's portraits of tragic women, Phèdre, "the incestuous queen, a Christian to whom divine grace is denied" (Arnauld), the sinner whom confession and penance lead out of the wilds of demon-haunted Greece into the precincts of Port-Royal, and Athalie, who, more than any of Racine's heroines, can claim to produce in the listener the Aristotelian reaction of cleansing terror and pity, these two figures will stand out as the poet's sublimest dramatic creations. With Racine woman has come into her own in French drama.

No appreciation of Racine's work can be adequate without an analysis of his technique; his language is based on the French of the seventeenth century, clipped, polished, but, also, impoverished and almost drained of all poetical possibilities by that "gratteur des syllabes" Malherbe. Words which may seem to us affected and stereotyped have to be understood in their original sense, e.g. Madame, Seigneur, ennui, aimant, gêner and that terrible word "tendre," which contributed so much to the misunderstanding of the poet's artistic personality. But once familiar with this aspect of Racine's idiom, we can only admire the supreme art with which he wielded the weapon handed on to him. Though writing verse, he was no versifier. His chief aim was the psychological development of his plot, and for that reason he sketched his plays first in prose; then he could safely say: "Now I have only to transcribe it in metre." In the use of the antithesis he went farther than Corneille, but with the difference that he always treated it as a vehicle of psychological significance. Two instances will show what I mean:

Hippolyte est sensible et ne sent rien pour moi.
(Phèdre, iv, 5.)

F'entendrai des regards que vous croirez muets.
(Britannicus, ii, 4.)

Racine developed his æsthetic views in his Préfaces, analytical studies of the poet's technique compared with that of Corneille and the Ancients. He was also an innovator in the treatment of the confidant(e), whom Corneille still accepts as a necessary evil. In Racine's plays they act the part of the modern raisonneur, frequently, as in the case of Oenone (Phèdre), rising to superb dramatic heights.

With regard to his metrical skill and infinite variety of musical shades, he is beyond praise or cavil. Jules Lemaître's words on his prose can be literally applied to the poet's verse: "Racine's prose is delicious. It is the most winged, most ethereal of the seventeenth century." But, I may add, for this very reason untranslatable. Racine is the only representative of French classical tragedy who has survived all the vicissitudes of schools and fashions. Inimitable craftsmanship, dramatic genius of the highest order, all crowned by lofty idealism and understanding for human frailties: these qualities alone will secure to Racine his place amongst the Immortals.

A. F. B. Clark (essay date 1939)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10797

SOURCE: "The 'Profane' Plays, 1664-1677, in Jean Racine, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939, pp. 99-221.

[In the following excerpt, Clark examines Andromache and Brittannicus in depth, noting the close thematic relationships between the plays.]

When one has said the best one can of Racine's first two tragedies, the fact remains that they are mediocre works and give no intimation of the genius that suddenly unveiled its full radiance with the performance of Andromaque at the Hôtel de Bourgogne or at court some time in November 1667. It is no exaggeration to say "its full radiance," for though personal taste may place this or that play of Racine ahead of Andromaque for one reason or another, though the extreme greatness of the title role may give Phèdre precedence, though the dramatist may be deemed to have achieved a firmer and chaster style in Britannicus and his religious plays, yet he never wrote again a play so instinct with life and passion in every nook and cranny of its being, so completely an emanation of his own genius and so independent of extraneous influence, nor one with so many equally interesting characters and written in such a successful blend of colloquial and poetic speech. In Andromaque Racine emerges completely from the shadow of Corneille which had clouded his natural gifts before, and which is to dog him again in the tragedies that follow; the influence of Quinault, though present in greater measure, is of a superficial kind. No more "great souls" plotting schemes of ambition, no more political debates on the rights of kings and conquerors; on the other hand, no more dallyings of languorous worldconquerors with coquettish queens. Racine's own particular contribution to drama and literature, the revelation of amour-passion in all its tragic splendor, its exaltations and despairs, its self-sacrifice and its criminality, bursts forth in a perfect carnival of love and hate which engulfs three of the four leading characters and leaves only the serene figure of Andromache above the storm.

Such a sudden passage from the literary exercises of a clever sophomore to the searing truth of life itself seems to suggest the intervention of a personal experience on the part of the dramatist….

Andromaque is often counted among the tragedies imitated from the Greek. But, as Racine points out, the subject of Euripides' Andromache is quite different from his own play, and he borrowed little from it except some suggestions for the portrait of Hermione. Some similarities between situations in Racine's play and those of French predecessors, like Rotrou's Hercule Mourant and Corneille's Pertharite, have been pointed out, but their importance is slight. The main source of Andromaque is the passage of eighteen lines from Virgil's Aeneid, Book III, which Racine quotes in his Preface. The framework of the play recalls that type of the old pastoral drama which presented a chain of lovers (Orestes loves Hermione, who loves Pyrrhus, who loves Andromache). The influence of Quinault is perhaps to be seen in the extent to which the dialogue is studded with the jargon of gallantry—one of the few serious blemishes in an otherwise almost perfect work of art.

The situation at the opening of the play may be summarized as follows: The scene is the palace of Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, and now king of Epirus. Pyrrhus is in love with his Trojan captive, Andromache, who, however, in her fidelity to her dead husband, Hector, refuses to yield to his advances. Also at the court of Pyrrhus is Herimone, daughter of Menelaus and Helen, waiting for Pyrrhus to carry out his promise of marriage to her. When the play opens, Orestes, an old lover of Hermione's, has just arrived, ostensibly as ambassador of the Greeks to persuade Pyrrhus to hand over to them Astyanax, the son of Hector

and Andromache, but with the secret hope of winning Hermione away from Pyrrhus. Obviously, the less he succeeds in his ambassadorial mission, the more likely he is to accomplish his own hopes; for, if Pyrrhus refuses to give up Astyanax, Andromache in gratitude may accept his love, and Hermione in despair may return to Orestes. Such is the ideal crisis-situation with which we are presented when the curtain goes up, and which must be settled within twenty-four hours. The interest will consist in watching how, out of this situation, Racine spins his web of psychological action and reaction.

The four characters mentioned in this summary—Pyrrhus, Orestes, Andromache, and Hermione—obviously will mark the limits of the magnetic field over which the electric current of the action is to play. There are some minor characters of the confident variety, whom we can deal with as we meet them. But the four protagonists are among the most remarkable of Racine's or, indeed, of any dramatist's creations. They all have the three-dimensional qualities of Shakespeare's people, which can hardly be said of so many of the characters in any other one play of Racine. They all attain a universal quality through blending the traditional Greek figure with the traits of Racine's own contemporaries; they even seem to take on a surprisingly modern coloring at times. Andromache adds to her prestige as the widow of Hector the charm of a Christian tenderness and resignation (as Chateaubriand pointed out), and one cannot help fancying that some memory of the pious, serene women of Port-Royal went into her composition; it has even been suggested that that great political exile, Henriette de France, widow of Charles I and mother of Racine's patroness, the Duchesse d'Orléans, may have sat for the portrait in part. Hermione is not only the daughter of Helen; she is also a grande dame, full of sensitive orgueil like the Duchesse de Bouillon, and ready, like her, to dabble in crime when her sensibilities are hurt. Pyrrhus is a barbarian king, but he is also an amorous monarch like Louis XIV. He is more of a mixture even than that; in his interviews with Hermione, he shows himself something of a psychological bully, not to say a sadist; he is something we do not associate with French classicism, "a problematic nature," as the Germans used to say. As for Orestes, he is, under the guise of a man pursued by the Furies, an extraordinary portrayal of the neurotic, suffering from an inferiority complex, trying desperately to keep his hysteria down, but bursting out in accesses of fatalistic bitterness until finally he goes down in defeat and madness.

The structure of the play illustrates perfectly Racine's art of bringing an apparent simplicity into a rather complicated action. There are really two separate themes, the attempt of Pyrrhus to gain the love of Andromache, and Orestes' plan to carry off Hermione. But, by making Hermione's attitude to Orestes depend on Andromache's attitude to Pyrrhus, Racine has made Andromache and her decision the pivot of the play, thereby giving the latter perfect unity and fully justifying Andromache's place in the title.

With this preamble let us attempt the task of analyzing (with the aid of quotations) that most representative of all Racine's tragedies, Andromaque. This attempt, if it has any measure of success, should carry us straight into the heart of Racine's dramaturgy.

Act I

The first scene is an admirable example of the scène d'exposition which the crisis-character of French tragedy necessitates at the beginning in order to put the hearer in possession of the situation. The art is to combine this with dramatic naturalness. When the curtain goes up we find Orestes in conversation with his old friend Pylades, whom he is surprised to meet at the court of Pyrrhus. Explanations are naturally called for on both sides, and in the course of the dialogue we learn of Orestes' "mélancolie." Then in a long speech, which is a perfect model of well-composed exposition but at the same time a passionate self-revelation, Pylades and we are informed both of the ostensible and the underlying reasons for Orestes' appearance at Pyrrhus' court. The speech reaches its culmination in these closing lines, which reveal Orestes' desperate fatalism and his ultimate purpose, and which illustrate well Racine's flexible use of the Alexandrine line for expressing the quick succession of various emotions, resignation, passionate resolve, and urgent curiosity:

Je me livre en aveugle au destin qui m'entraîne.

J'aime: je viens chercher Hermione en ces lieux,
La fléchir, l'enlever, ou mourir à ses yeux.
Toi qui connais Pyrrhus, que penses-tu qu'il fasse?
Dans sa cour, dans son cœur, dis-moi ce qui se passe.
Mon Hermione encor le tient-elle asservi?
Me rendra-t-il, Pylade, un bien qu'il m'a ravi?

Pylades sends the neurotic suddenly into ecstasy by the artfully dropped remark about Hermione, when he is relating her humiliation at Pyrrhus' hands:

Quelquefois elle appelle Oreste à son secours,

then urges him to concentrate on his actual mission and deliver his message to Pyrrhus in such a way as to anger him against the Greeks and thus bring him and Andromache closer together.

Pressez: demandez tout, pour ne rien obtenir.

This line of Pylades is the clue to the policy Orestes pursues in the next fine scene, which is the interview between Pyrrhus and the ambassador. The courtly dignity of Orestes' opening address to the monarch might be a model for one of Louis XIV's own ambassadors appearing at a foreign court. Nor does he make in this speech any overt threats; he simply sets forth the displeasure of the Greeks at the protection offered the Trojan child by Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus answers without anger at first, but with that ironical impatience we shall see is characteristic of him. The tone of lordly contempt at once characterizes him:

La Grèce en ma faveur est trop inquiétée.
De soins plus importants je l'ai crue agitée,
Seigneur; et, sur le nom de son ambassadeur,
J'avais dans ses projets conçu plus de grandeur.

But, as his speech continues, his rising anger is registered with great delicacy, until the final words,

L'Epire sauvera ce que Troie a sauvé.

Now, Orestes, seeing his scheme working out as he hoped, decides to clinch the matter by introducing threats. At once the action warms up. To the preceding long speeches succeed fragments of dialogue. Pyrrhus blazes out at the Greek threats. Let them come and attack him!

Qu'ils cherchent dans l'Epire une seconde Troie.
At Orestes' mention of Hermione, who will, he says, intervene on behalf of the Greeks, Pyrrhus relapses into bored irony:
Hermione, Seigneur, peut m'être toujours chère;
Vous pouvez cependant voir la fille d'Hélène
Après cela, Seigneur, je ne vous retiens plus,
Et vous pourrez aux Grecs annoncer mon refus.

Now the action is started! Pyrrhus has made a decision—the decision Orestes hoped he would make.

After Orestes departs to see Hermione, Phoenix, the confidant of Pyrrhus, expresses surprise that the latter should send Orestes to Hermione, his old love. At this Pyrrhus' irritation bursts out and he reveals his true attitude to Hermione in this realistically expressive speech:

Ah! qu'ils s'aiment, Phoenix, j'y consens. Qu'elle parte.
Que, charmés l'un de l'autre, ils retournent à Sparte:
Tous nos ports sont ouverts et pour elle et pour lui.
Qu'elle m'épargnerait de contrainte et d'ennui

He is about to make further explanations when Andromache appears; at once he is all eyes for her.

Andromache is wafted onto the stage on the wings of lines as soft as swan's-down. These exquisite verses not only sing to us all of Andromache's subdued sorrow and resignation, but they paint for us all the refinement and delicacy of her character. Their effect seems only attainable in a language having the peculiar evenness of accent of French:

Je passais jusqu'aux lieux où l'on garde mon fils.
Puisqu'une fois le jour vous souffrez que je voie
Le seul bien qui me reste et d'Hector et de Troie,
J'allais, Seigneur, pleurer un moment avec lui:
Je ne l'ai point encore embrassé d'aujourd'hui.

But Pyrrhus is determined to utilize his decision to protect Astyanax in order to wrest an acceptance of his love from Andromache. He begins to allude darkly to Greek threats. Andromache shows alarm, whereat Pyrrhus allays her fears but at the same time pleads for some reward for his protection of her son. Andromache upbraids him for being generous only for the sake of a reward. This nettles Pyrrhus somewhat, but he restrains himself and offers, in return for Andromache's love, to restore her son to the throne of Troy. Andromache's answer is admirable for its mingled pathos and pride:

Seigneur, tant de grandeurs ne nous touchent plus guère.
Je les lui promettais tant qu'a vécu son père.
Non, vous n'espérez plus de nous revoir encor,
Sacrés murs, que n'a pu conserver mon Hector!
A de moindres faveurs des malheureux prétendent,
Seigneur; c'est un exil que mes pleurs vous demandent.
Souffrez que loin des Grecs, et même loin de vous,
J'aille cacher mon fils, et pleurer mon époux.

Votre amour contre nous allume trop de haine;
Retournez, retournez à la fille d'Hélène.

Pyrrhus replies that he cannot, and remarks how much joy the love he shows Andromache would cause Hermione if he showed it toward her. At that, all Andromache's suppressed memories of Pyrrhus and his father's wrongs to her and her race well up, and she bursts out:

Et pourquoi vos soupirs seraient-ils repoussés?
Aurait-elle oublié vos services passés?
Troie, Hector, contre vous révoltent-ils son âme?
Aux cendres d'un époux doit-elle enfin sa flamme?
Et quel époux encor! Ah! Souvenir cruel!
Sa mort seule a rendu votre père immortel,
Il doit au sang d'Hector tout l'éclat de ses armes,
Et vous n'êtes tous deux connus que par mes larmes.

Stung by these defiant words, Pyrrhus, in his turn, fires up. He threatens to revoke his decision not to hand over Astyanax to the Greeks.

La Grèce le demande, et je ne prétends pas
Mettre toujours ma gloire à sauver des ingrats.

Mollified somewhat by Andromache's sorrow at this threat, he dismisses her with the following words, which close the act and leave once more the great decision in suspense, after we thought it had been settled:

Allez, Madame, allez voir votre fils.
Peut-être, en le voyant, votre amour plus timide
Ne prendra pas toujours sa colère pour guide.
Pour savoir nos destins j'irai vous retrouver.
Madame, en l'embrassant, songer à le sauver.

Act II

The second act is Hermione's, as the first was Andromache's. That makes our task of analysis more difficult, for, settledness of purpose being Andromache's dominant trait, a scene in which she appears lends itself fairly well to summary, whereas there is no way of representing in abbreviated form the infinite variety, the constant twistings and veerings of Hermione's impetuous, impulsive temperament under the pressure of her humiliating situation. Nowhere in literature has an agitated spirit been represented with more minute fidelity than in the amazing portrait of Hermione in this and the following acts. But we must renounce the hope of giving here even an approximate idea of that portrait and concentrate on following the main line of the action.

At the rise of the curtain we find Hermione awaiting Orestes' visit. She has consented to see him, but is already regretting having given that consent. She tells her confidante, Cléone, that she shrinks from meeting the man whose love she had once slighted and who now will be in a position to triumph over her. Cléone tells her not to fear; Orestes loves her too madly to think of triumphing over her. Why not leave with Orestes, since she says she hates Pyrrhus anyway? To which Hermione replies, deceiving herself, that she wants to break with Pyrrhus violently, not just slip away; then she says, brokenheartedly:

II n'y travaillera que trop bien, l'infidèle.

Cléone is horrified to think that Hermione is waiting for some greater insult and suggests that, if Pyrrhus could ever offend her, he has done enough to offend her already. Hermione replies with a speech which is very typical of her agitation; it passes from pathos and self-pity to anger, which leads to the decision to leave; then she is pulled up by the thought of Pyrrhus' possible repentance after she left; then her anger wells up again; then she decides to stay in order to torture the lovers. I quote this whole speech as a fine example of Racine's subtle analysis:

Pourquoi veux-tu, cruelle, irriter mes ennuis?
Je crains de me connaître en l'état où je suis.
De tout ce que tu vois, tâche de ne rien croire;
Crois que je n'aime plus, vante-moi ma victoire;
Crois que dans son dépit mon cœur est endurci;
Hélas! Et s'il se peut, fais-le moi croire aussi.
Tu veux que je le fuie. Hé bien! Rien ne m'arrête:
Allons. N'envions plus son indigne conquête:
Que sur lui sa captive étende son pouvoir.
Fuyons…. Mais si l'ingrat rentrait dans son devoir!
Si la foi dans son cœur retrouvait quelque place!
S'il venait à mes pieds me demander sa grâce!
Si sous mes lois, Amour, tu pouvais l'engager!
S'il voulait…! Mais l'ingrat ne veut que m'outrager.
Demeurons toutefois pour troubler leur fortune;
Prenons quelque plaisir à leur être importune;
Ou, le forçant de rompre un nœud si solennel,
Aux yeux de tous les Grecs rendons-le criminel.
J'ai déjà sur le fils attiré leur colère:
Je veux qu'on vienne encor lui demander la mère.
Rendons-lui les tourments qu'elle me fait souffrir;
Qu'elle le perde, ou bien qu'il la fasse périr.

Then Cléone objects: If Andromache had any complicity in the affair, why should she show so much coldness to Pyrrhus? This brings a very human retort from Hermione. In her jealousy she suspects Andromache's apparent coldness of being a form of coquettishness, and she contrasts this supposed subtlety with her own straightforwardness; she has not "led" Pyrrhus "on" enough….

Then, in a striking passage, she recalls the romantic circumstances (the return of the heroes from Troy) in which she fell in love with Pyrrhus, ending with the absurdly natural reproach to Cléone that she and all the others, who shared her enthusiasm for Pyrrhus, were responsible for her betrayal, even before Pyrrhus betrayed her. After all, Orestes has his points.

Il sait aimer du moins, et même sans qu'on l'aime.
Et peut-être il saura se faire aimer lui-même.
Allons, qu'il vienne enfin.

But when Cléone says, "Here he is!" out comes this exquisite cri du cœur:

Ah! Je ne croyais pas qu'il fût si près d'ici.

The scene between Hermione and Orestes is an extraordinary duet in which each tries to be diplomatic and at the same time unconsciously wounds and exasperates the other. Hermione wants to keep Orestes for possible use and yet cannot help showing him that all her love is for Pyrrhus; Orestes wants to persuade her to leave with him but keeps offending her by reminding her that Pyrrhus is neglecting her. Here is a fragment of this fencing-match:

But when he says incidentally,

Car enfin il [Pyrrhus] vous hait; son âme ailleurs éprise
N'a plus…,

her pride stiffens up and she interrupts,

Qui vous l'a dit, Seigneur, qu'il me méprise?
Jugez-vous que ma vue inspire des mépris?
Peut-être d'autres yeux me sont plus favorables.

Then Orestes in his turn stiffens:

Poursuivez: il est beau de m'insulter ainsi.
Cruelle, c'est donc moi qui vous méprise ici?

Finally she bids him go to Pyrrhus and tell him he must choose between Astyanax and her. If he chooses Astyanax, then she will leave with Orestes. Another decision has been made, and Orestes, already knowing, as he supposes, Pyrrhus' decision, goes into a characteristic rhapsody of triumph after Hermione has left.

Then comes the first great coup de théâtre or péripétie of the play. While Orestes is exulting with that hybris which, according to the Greeks, always invites divine Nemesis, Pyrrhus enters and with a few hammer-strokes annihilates Orestes' happiness. He apologizes for rejecting so abruptly Orestes' overtures in the name of the Greeks, and announces his final decision to hand over Astyanax to him. While Orestes is trying to recover from this blow, Pyrrhus staggers him with the further announcement that he will marry Hermione the next day, and then delivers the knockout blow with the ironic command to Orestes to carry this news to Hermione and to prepare to give her in marriage the next day to him (Pyrrhus).

Then we remember that the first act closed with Andromache going off to make her final decision, and we realize that this decision, an unfavorable one, has been communicated to Pyrrhus and has motivated his change of heart, but that Racine, with cunning art, so as to provide a tremendous surprise at this point, has not put this scene between Pyrrhus and Andromache on the stage.

The current of the play now sets in a contrary direction. Yet so careful is Racine to prepare his most distant effects, and so nuancé is his psychology, that in the last scene of this act, after Orestes has staggered off the stage, he suggests that that current might easily resume its first course again. This is the scene where Pyrrhus, after thumping himself, so to speak, on the chest and boasting to Phoenix that he has mastered his love instincts, begins to slip back immediately toward Andromache, and ends with proposing to have another interview with her, deceiving himself with the idea that his purpose is to show her more completely his scorn for her. Phoenix, however, holds up the mirror to his true backsliding, and the scene ends with Pyrrhus reluctantly consenting to carry out his resolve to marry Hermione. It is really a scene of the most exquisite high comedy, worthy of Molière, and shows that Racine could have excelled in that genre as well as in the farce-comedy of Les Plaideurs. This caused great heart-searchings among contemporary critics like Boileau who appreciated the truth to nature of the scene but knew they should not approve of such mingling of comedy with tragedy. For the modern reader, exempt from such qualms, it adds to the fascination of the play.


The effect of Pyrrhus' announcement on the neurotic Orestes is to drive him into a state of desperation, which appears in his dialogue with Pylades in scene 1. He will carry Hermione off by violence. Pyrrhus' cruel irony has particularly got under his skin:

II veut pour m'honorer la tenir de ma main.
Ah! Plutôt cette main dans le sang du barbare….

The last line prepares us for the denouement. Racine then gives a remarkable picture of a man suffering under the delusion of persecution. Pyrrhus is marrying Hermione only to make him (Orestes) desperate:

Le cruel ne la prend que pour me l'arracher.

And just at the moment when Hermione was turning to him!

Ses yeux s'ouvraient, Pylade; elle écoutait Oreste,
Lui parlait, le plaignait. Un mot eût fait le reste.

But Pylades does not believe that.

Jamais il ne fut plus aimé.

Orestes would be well-advised to forget her. If he married her, she would hate him all her life.

Orestes makes a remarkable answer:

C'est pour cela que je veux l'enlever.
Non, non, à mes tourments je veux l'associer.

His bitterness reaches great heights, and in lines of power and metallic resonance Racine practically draws the picture of the homme fatal of Romanticism:

Mon innocence enfin commence à me peser.
Je ne sais de tout temps quelle injuste puissance
Laisse le crime en paix et poursuit l'innocence.
De quelque part sur moi que je tourne les yeux,
Je ne vois que malheurs qui condamnent les Dieux.
Méritons leur courroux, justifions leur haine,
Et que le fruit du crime en précède la peine.

Pylades abandons the hope of dissuading him from his plans to carry off Hermione, and promises to aid him; only let him conceal his purposes. He sees Hermione approaching and leaves.

The situations of Hermione and Orestes in this interview are reversed. Now it is Hermione who must restrain her temptation to triumph. Her new embarrassment is as skillfully portrayed as her previous one. Through her deprecating utterances one feels (and Orestes feels) her joy bursting forth:

Qui l'eût cru, que Pyrrhus ne fût pas infidèle?
Je veux croire avec vous qu'il redoute la Grèce.
Mais que puis-je, Seigneur? On a promis ma foi.
L'amour ne règle pas le sort d'une princesse.

But this make-believe only irritates Orestes. However, he restrains his anger, and takes leave of Hermione with bitter dignity:

Tel est votre devoir, je l'avoue; et le mien
Est de vous épargner un si triste entretien.

After his departure Hermione expresses to Cléone her surprise at his moderation, but Cléone opines that there is something ominous about it. When Cléone suggests that there may be a connection between the ultimatum of the Greeks and Pyrrhus' decision, Hermione bursts out in indignation, then in triumph:

Tu crois que Pyrrhus craint? Et que craint-il encor?
Non, Cléone, il n'est point ennemi de lui-même.
Il veut tout ce qu'il fait; et, s'il m'épouse, il m'aime.
Mais qu'Oreste à son gré m'impute ses douleurs;
N'avons-nous d'entretien que celui de ses pleurs?
Pyrrhus revient à nous. Hé bien, chère Cléone,
Conçois-tu les transports de l'heureuse Hermione?
Sais-tu quel est Pyrrhus? T'es-tu fait raconter
Le nombre des exploits…. Mais qui les peut compter?
Intrépide, et partout suivi de la victoire,
Charmant, fidèle enfin, rien ne manque à sa gloire.

Here Hermione has her great moment, as Orestes had had his in the previous act. And her exultation, her hybris, is rising, as did his. Will it bring Nemesis, as his had done? We are in the middle of Act III, where the final decisions of Fate are made. Hermione must beware.

At this critical climax of the tragedy, Andromache enters in tears. The scene which follows is short, but it is the keystone of the play. We spoke above of the galbe of French tragedy, its symmetry as of a shapely vase. Here it is beautifully illustrated. This clinching scene is in the precise mathematical center of the play; it is the only one in which the two main protagonists meet; and it settles everything. It is at the apex of the dramatic pyramid, which rises to it on one side and falls away on the other.

It is Andromache who is in despair now over the fate of her son. In lines of exquisite pathos and eloquence she pleads with Hermione to use her influence with Pyrrhus to save him:

Mais il me reste un fils. Vous saurez quelque jour,
Madame, pour un fils jusqu'où va notre amour;
Mais vous ne saurez pas, du moins je le souhaite,
En quel trouble mortel son intérêt nous jette,
Lorsque, de tant de biens qui pouvaient nous flatter,
C'est le seul qui nous reste, et qu'on veut nous l'ôter.

This alone was lacking to Hermione's triumph. Will she be able to keep her head and answer with wisdom and magnanimity? No. She answers with cold scorn, and thereby decides her own fate and that of all the other people in the play:

S'il faut fléchir Pyrrhus, qui le peut mieux que vous?
Vos yeux assez longtemps ont régné sur son âme.
Faites-le prononcer; j'y souscrirai, Madame.

As Hermione sweeps from the stage, Andromache is at first overwhelmed. It is Céphise, the humble confidante (as I pointed out above), who, at this very apex of the drama, suggests that Andromache take Hermione's ironically proffered advice literally:

Je croirais ses conseils, et je verrais Pyrrhus.
Un regard confondrait Hermione et la Grèce.

At this moment Pyrrhus appears. He pretends to be seeking Hermione and not to notice Andromache, who points out to Céphise how little influence she can have on him. But Pyrrhus' asides to Phoenix tell us that he is only waiting for Andromache to show that she notices him. When Pyrrhus utters ostentatiously the words,

Allons aux Grecs livrer le fils d'Hector,

Andromache throws herself at his feet and implores his pity. He is unresponsive at first, but when, in her desperation, she has appealed to him by some harmless flattery which has caused her to be accused of "coquetterie vertueuse," he says briefly to his confidant,

Va m'attendre, Phoenix,

and we know that again he is in Andromache's power if she decides to make the slightest concession. It is his turn to make an eloquent plea to her to accept his love for her son's sake as well as for her own. But at the close his plea takes on a very firm and menacing tone, and we know that this time Andromache's decision will be final for both of them….

When he leaves the stage, Andromache remains with Céphise. The closing scene is an expression of the most heart-rending anguish, as Andromache wrestles with her contending passions of fidelity to Hector and love for her son. She comes to no decision, but undertakes to arrive at one after consultation with the dead.

Allons sur son tombeau consulter mon époux.

It is in the course of this scene that there occurs one of those few passages of set rhetoric that can be quoted (and this one often is quoted) apart from their context. It is the famous picture of the sack of Troy, the vision which Andromache calls up of that dreadful night when Pyrrhus first burst upon her view. How, she says to Céphise, can she accept the hand of the man whom she first saw in those circumstances?

Songe, songe, Céphise, à cette nuit cruelle,
Qui fut pour tout un peuple une nuit éternelle,
Figure-toi Pyrrhus, les yeux étincelants,
Entrant à la lueur de nos palais brûlants,
Sur tous mes frères morts se faisant un passage,
Et de sang tout couvert échauffant le carnage.
Songe aux cris des vainqueurs, songe aux cris des mourants,
Dans la flamme étouffés, sous le fer expirants,
Peins-toi dans ces horreurs Andromaque éperdue:
Voilà comme Pyrrhus vint s'offrir à ma vue;
Voilà par quels exploits il sut se couronner;
Enfin, voilà l'époux que tu me veux donner.

This is often quoted as an example of the "rhetoric" of French tragedy, but in its context the heightened style corresponds to the climactic moment of Andromache's desperation. The reader of the preceding pages will not think it typical of Racine's normal style, though quite suitable in the place where it occurs.

Act IV

At the close of Act III the issues of the play were in suspense again, as they were at the end of Act I. But in Act IV the irrevocable decisions are finally arrived at. It is an act heavy with fate and contains some of the most powerful scenes a dramatist has ever composed.

In scene 1 we find Andromache and Céphise together, and learn from Céphise's first speech that Andromache has decided to accept Pyrrhus' hand. But Céphise does not know all of Andromache's decision, and when Andromache says, "Allons voir mon fils," Céphise wonders why there is any hurry about that, as she is free to see him any time now. She is horrified at Andromache's reply:

Céphise, allons le voir pour la dernière fois.

It then appears that Andromache has decided to marry Pyrrhus, thereby binding him (for she has no doubt of his honor) to protect her son, but then to slay herself after the ceremony and thus preserve her fidelity to Hector. She then bids Céphise promise to bring up her son, and her instructions to her regarding his education are couched in verse of incomparable beauty, bearing the same authentic stamp of Andromache as the verse which first introduced her:

Fais connaître à mon fils les héros de sa race;
Autant que tu pourras, conduis-le sur leur trace.
Dis-lui par quels exploits leurs noms ont éclaté,
Plutôt ce qu'ils ont fait que ce qu'ils ont été.
Parle-lui tous les jours des vertus de son père,
Et quelquefois aussi parle-lui de sa mère.
Mais qu'il ne songe plus, Céphise, à nous venger:
Nous lui laissons un maître, il le doit ménager.
Qu'il ait de ses aïeux un souvenir modeste:
II est du sang d'Hector, mais il en est le reste:
Et pour ce reste enfin j'ai moi-même en un jour
Sacrifié mon sang, ma haine et mon amour.

These smooth legato measures make a dramatic contrast with the shrill staccato outbursts of Hermione in the rest of the act; for all the remainder of it belongs to her, and it is one of the most remarkable feats in sustained and intense passion drama has ever seen. On the departure of Andromache and Céphise, Hermione and Cléone come on the stage, and Cléone's first words suggest the dangerous mood Hermione is in. She is consumed by deep and silent fury, having learned of Pyrrhus' new betrayal. On Cléone's expressing alarmed astonishment at her continued silence regarding this insult, she snaps out these words:

Fais-tu venir Oreste?

At this moment Orestes arrives and launches out in a rapturous expression of gratitude for being summoned by Hermione. But she cuts him short with:

Je veux savoir, Seigneur, si vous m'aimez.

Orestes starts protesting his devotion, to be cut short again with:

Vengez-moi, je crois tout.

Orestes misunderstands; he thinks she means he should stir up the Greeks to attack Pyrrhus. She soon sets him right:

Orestes is aghast, but his hesitation infuriates Hermione. In her mad impatience she pours out in a furious tirade her hatred and her love for Pyrrhus all mixed together, logic and consideration for Orestes' feelings all thrown to the winds:

Ne vous suffit-il pas que je l'ai condamné?
Ne vous suffit-il pas que ma gloire offensée
Demande une victime à moi seule adressée;
Qu'Hermione est le prix d'un tyran opprimé;
Que je le hais; enfin, Seigneur, que je l'aimai?
Je ne m'en cache pas; l'ingrat m'avait su plaire,
Soit qu'ainsi l'ordonnât mon amour ou mon père,
N'importe: mais enfin réglez-vous là-dessus.
Malgré mes vœux, Seigneur, honteusement déçus,
Malgré la juste horreur que son crime me donne,
Tant qu'il vivra, craignez que je ne lui pardonne.
Doutez jusqu'à sa mort d'un courroux incertain:
S'il ne meurt aujourd'hui, je puis l'aimer demain.

To Orestes' further pleading for postponement of the murder until that night, at least, comes the dreadful cry:

Mais, cependant, ce jour il épouse Andromaque.
Revenez tout couvert du sang de l'infidèle;
Allez, en cet état soyez sur de mon cœur.

At Orestes' further protests, her fury rises to the pitch of madness:

C'est trop en un jour essuyer de refus.
Je m'en vais seule au temple, où leur hymen s'apprête,
Où vous n'osez aller mériter ma conquête.
Là, de mon ennemi je saurai m'approcher:
Je percerai le cœur que je n'ai pu toucher;
Et mes sanglantes mains, sur moi-même tournées,
Aussitôt, malgré moi, joindront nos destinées:
Et, tout ingrat qu'il est, il me sera plus doux
De mourir avec lui, que de vivre avec vous.

When Orestes gives his desperate consent to do the deed and rushes out, Hermione is left a prey to doubts as to whether she can trust him to really do it. She thinks for a moment of doing the deed herself. Then she wonders whether Orestes, if he does slay Pyrrhus, will make him realize he is dying Hermione's victim. And, above all, Andromache must be kept away from his dying gaze! Last comes the savage cry:

Chère Cléone, cours! Ma vengeance est perdue,
S'il ignore en mourant que c'est moi qui le tue.

Just at the height of this deafening fortissimo, Pyrrhus is seen approaching. A terrific revulsion occurs in Hermione. Perhaps at the last moment Pyrrhus is coming back to her:

Ah! Cours après Oreste; et dis-lui, ma Cléone,
Qu'il n'entreprenne rien sans revoir Hermione.

A last terrible disillusionment is in store for poor Hermione. The scene which now begins (the last of Act IV) is perhaps the most original in the play. It anticipates the modern fondness for morbid moods and piquant psychological situations, and shows astonishing accuracy in the notation of them. It is also instinct with pathos and tragedy of the profoundest kind. It is the last chance both for Pyrrhus and Hermione—his last chance to escape death, her last chance to recover her lover. I wish I could quote this whole great scene. It consists of four fairly lengthy speeches, two by each of the characters. Pyrrhus' first words reveal his curious mood of frank apology mingled with what I called above "psychological cruelty." There is something still stranger; there is the confession that Andromache is marrying him without loving him, and even out of this he seems to get a grim and morbid satisfaction:

L'un par l'autre entraînés, nous courons à l'autel
Nous jurer, malgré nous, un amour immortel.
Après cela, Madame, éclatez contre un traître,
Qui l'est avec douleur, et qui pourtant veut

Pour moi, loin de contraindre un si juste courroux,
Il me soulagera peut-être autant que vous.

Hermione, who sees by these words that her last hope, which had flickered up once more at Pyrrhus' approach, is gone, utters slowly and heavily a speech charged with all the hatred into which her love has been temporarily transformed. With withering scorn she sneers at Pyrrhus' pretended frankness and his real inconstancy:

Non, non, la perfidie a de quoi vous tenter;
Et vous ne me cherchez que pour vous en vanter.
Me quitter, me reprendre, et retourner encor
De la fille d'Hélène à la veuve d'Hector?
Tout cela part d'un cœur toujours maître de soi,
D'un héros qui n'est point esclave de sa foi,

then, in two terrible lines, she seems to correctly diagnose his attitude,

Vous veniez de mon front observer la pâleur,
Pour aller dans ses bras rire de ma douleur.

(Notice how the throwing-back of the accent to "rire" makes the word almost scream out Hermione's indignation at Pyrrhus' cruelty.)

If a man could say anything fitted to raise Hermione's cold fury to a still higher pitch, Pyrrhus replies by saying that thing. He takes her hatred at its face value, not as love turned inside out:

Je rends grâces au ciel que votre indifférence
De mes heureux soupirs m'apprenne l'innocence.
Mes remords vous faisaient une injure mortelle;
Il faut se croire aimé pour se croire infidèle.
J'ai craint de vous trahir, peut-être je vous sers.
Rien ne vous engageait à m'aimer en effet.

The poison of these words reaches the depths of Hermione's heart, and she reacts in one of the most passionate speeches that Racine ever wrote. I shall quote most of it. Notice the way in which the meter, the accenting of the syllables, infallibly brings out the emotional emphasis; notice the ebb and flow of passion, now headlong and menacing, now subdued and pleading; and observe particularly the subtle shift during several lines from the tu to the vous form of address, where for the moment the fierceness of her love-hatred which justifies the familiar second singular gives way to a restrained, courteous form of final appeal made in the formal second plural; and finally note how, as she scrutinizes Pyrrhus' face and sees no sign of sympathy or coöperation, her passion surges up again and she reverts to the brutal-tender tu:

Je ne t'ai point aimé, cruel! Qu'ai-je donc fait?
Je t'aimais inconstant, qu'aurais-je fait fidèle?
Et même en ce moment où ta bouche cruelle
Vient si tranquillement m'annoncer le trépas,
Ingrat, je doute encor si je ne t'aime pas.
Mais, Seigneur, s'il le faut, si le ciel en colère
Réserve à d'autres yeux la gloire de vous plaire,
Achevez votre hymen, j'y consens. Mais du moins
Ne forcez pas mes yeux d'en être les témoins.
Pour la dernière fois je vous parle peut-être:
Différez-le d'un jour; demain vous serez maître.
Vous ne répondez point. Perfide, je le voi,
Tu comptes les moments que tu perds avec moi!
Ton cœur, impatient de revoir ta Troyenne,
Ne souffre qu'à regret qu'un autre t'entretienne.
Tu lui parles du cœur, tu la cherches des yeux.
Je ne te retiens plus, sauve-toi de ces lieux:
Va lui jurer la foi que tu m'avais jurée,
Va profaner des Dieux la majesté sacrée.
Ces Dieux, ces justes Dieux n'auront pas oublié
Que les mêmes serments avec moi t'ont lié.
Porte aux pieds des autels ce cœur qui m'abandonne;
Va, cours. Mais crains encor d'y trouver Hermione.

As Hermione rushes with this last warning from the stage, Phoenix expresses fear as to her purpose. But Pyrrhus turns coolly to him, saying:

Andromaque m'attend. Phoenix, garde son fils.

Act V

The last act begins with a long distracted monologue by Hermione, more or less in the tradition of French tragedy. Even at this more than eleventh hour she wavers between her love and her hatred of Pyrrhus. At the end of the speech she is inclining toward saving him at the last moment:

L'assassiner, le perdre? Ah! devant qu'il expire….

At this juncture Cléone enters and informs Hermione of Pyrrhus' radiant happiness as he leads his bride to the altar. In a line that paints vividly the bridegroom's bliss, she tells how she saw him

S'enivrer en marchant du plaisir de la voir.

At once Hermione is again all hate. But she longs to know if Pyrrhus did not give some sign of worrying about what she might do.

Mais as-tu bien, Cléone, observé son visage?
Goûte-t-il des plaisirs tranquilles et parfaits?
N'a-t-il point détourné ses yeux vers le palais?

Cléone replies,

Madame, il ne voit rien. Son salut et sa gloire
Semblent être avec vous sortis de sa mémoire.

Here let us give a full section of the dialogue:

Cléone says that Orestes had entered the temple, still hesitant. Then Hermione flies into another fury, where the humiliation and despair of the proud woman whom both suitors have gone back upon are rendered once more with great power. Her outburst ends with wild and whirling words, announcing she will do the deed herself:

Je ne choisirai point dans ce désordre extrême:
Tout me sera Pyrrhus, fût-ce Oreste lui-même.
Je mourrai; mais au moins ma mort me vengera:
Je ne mourrai pas seule, et quelqu'un me suivra.

As she utters this shriek, Orestes, pale and haggard, suddenly appears in the doorway, and she hears these words:

Madame, c'en est fait, et vous êtes servie:
Pyrrhus rend à l'autel son infidèle vie.

From Hermione comes nothing but three stunned words,

Il est mort?

Orestes, oblivious to the transformation that is taking place in Hermione, gives a detailed account of the scene in the temple where Pyrrhus, just as he was putting the crown on Andromache's head, was attacked by such a crowd of Greeks that Orestes himself could not find a place to strike. He himself saw Pyrrhus fall at the altar; and then he hurried out to come and carry off his beloved Hermione. Hermione has yet only half realized what has taken place. She gasps out,

Qu'ont-ils fait?

Orestes thinks she is disappointed that he did not slay Pyrrhus with his own hand as her envoy.

Pardonnez à leur impatience.
Mais c'est moi dont l'ardeur leur a servi d'exemple;
Madame, et vous pouvez justement vous flatter
D'une mort que leurs bras n'ont fait qu'exécuter.
Vous seule avez poussé les coups….

These words, intended to appease her, have the effect of arousing her at last to full consciousness of what has happened; all her hatred for the dead Pyrrhus vanishes and her love comes rushing back in a tide. She springs at Orestes like a tigress, and overwhelms him with a tirade which ends with that famous cry, the masterpiece of irony and unreason, "Qui te l'a dit?"

Here the play, as psychological action, virtually ends. The rest is the clearing-up of "unfinished business" which the tradition of tragedy, as Racine states in one of his prefaces, requires. We have Orestes' consternation, then the news of Hermione's suicide and Andromache's succession to control of the state, and finally the onset of Orestes' madness.

I trust that my analytical summary of this play will have made clear to the reader Racine's methods in the conduct of plot, the nature of his characterization, and the main features of his style. No play of his could represent all of these so fully as Andromaque. It is to be hoped that some tenacious misconceptions about French tragedy have been dispelled and that its passionateness, the continuity of its psychological action, its elimination of every irrelevance, its vivid portraiture of real life, and the forceful simplicity and directness of its style have impressed themselves on the reader.

Andromaque had a sensational success, equaling that of Le Cid thirty years before. Madame de Sévigné, who saw it played by a country troupe at Vitré near her country residence of Les Rochers in Brittany, had to admit its effectiveness: "I went to the play; it was Andromaque, which made me weep more than six tears; that's enough for a country troupe." However, the Corneille clique, on the whole, gave it grudging admiration. Saint-Evremond, in a Lettre à M. de Lionne, said, "All in all, it is a fine play, much above the average but a little below greatness," and in a second Lettre made the curious remark that "one might go further in the passions." From the stinging epigrams of Racine against the Marquis de Créqui and the Comte d'Olonne we infer what their conversational criticisms against Andromaque were. But the sharpest attack on the play was the parody by Subligny, La Folle Querelle ou la Critique d'Andromaque, played by Molière's troupe in 1668 and suspected by some at the time of being from Molière's own hand.

The criticisms against Andromaque were mainly of the niggling sort, such as were characteristic of seventeenth-century criticism and such as Corneille had had to put up with a generation before. Racine had failed to observe some of the minute laws of the theater; he had altered history more than a dramatist is permitted to do; he had not observed verisimilitude in making a gentleman like Pyrrhus go back on his engagement, etc., etc. Often the criticisms destroy each other: to some Pyrrhus is too brutal, to others he is too refined and galant for a barbaric king. But there were just two lines of criticism that got under Racine's skin. One was Subligny's objections to certain of his expressions as insufficiently correct and pure. The style of Britannicus will be noticeably more carefully worked over, chaster than that of Andromaque. Above all, the critics, while praising the moving character of his play, seemed to question his ability to rise to the "beautés pleines" of Corneille and write a great historical and political tragedy. Racine's reply will be to write Britannicus….

Britannicus was first performed at the Hôtel de Bourgogne on December 13, 1669. In the "Second Preface" (written for the 1676 edition of his plays) Racine said: "This is the one of all my tragedies on which I may say that I have bestowed the most pains … if I have done anything solid and deserving of praise, most connaisseurs agree that it is this same Britannicus." From this passage of Racine himself comes the common designation of this play as the "pièce des connaisseurs." This phrase, taken along with Racine's remarks, suggests very neatly both the stronger and the weaker points of Britannicus. Racine has put into the making of this play all his talent and artistic conscience, but, I think, a somewhat less full measure of spontaneity than he put into Andromaque. As a matter of fact, Britannicus is what the French call a gageure; it originated in the deliberate desire to beat Corneille at his own game, the great Roman play of political ambition and plots. This inevitably put a certain constraint on Racine, and it is a great tribute to the flexibility of his talent that he came off with such honors as he did.

The central theme of the play is the emergence of Nero the monster from Nero the benevolent monarch of the early years of his reign; and the immediate provocation of this vicious development is the sudden sensual passion he conceives for Junia, the fiancée of Britannicus, and his resulting jealousy and criminal intents regarding the latter. This is the real Racinian core of the play and of all that is most typical of the dramatist in its characterization and situation. But this inner plot is enmeshed in a grandiose fabric of Agrippina's machinations to recover her influence over Nero out of the hands of his adviser Burrhus and of the tug of war between Burrhus, the virtuous counsellor and Narcissus the evil one, for the soul of Nero. The play ends with the poisoning of Britannicus by Nero.

Racine found his material mainly in Tacitus, to whom his debt extends far beyond the limits of the historic facts. In his second Preface, indeed, he is rather overmodest about his own originality: "I had copied my characters from the greatest painter of antiquity, I mean from Tacitus. And I was then so filled with my reading of this excellent historian that there is hardly a striking touch in my tragedy that did not come from his suggestion." It may be added that many of the speeches are veritable centos of Tacitus. But Racine's deepest debt to Tacitus, probably, is the atmosphere which pervades the play, and this is perhaps its most striking feature. Andromaque seems to take place outside of time and space, so complete is the interpenetration of ancient and modern traits in its characters. Britannicus is definitely localized in Nero's Rome. The spell of imperial Rome—and of just that moment of imperial Rome—is upon us from the first line to the last, its grandeur and its corruption, its sense of world-responsibility and its criminality; and this is subtly conveyed without any recourse to the Romantic methods of calling up local color, without any descriptions of Lucullan banquets or visions of the Circus Maximus. To a large extent this atmosphere is summoned up simply by the style itself, which is of Tacitean terseness, like the inscriptions hammered out on a Roman coin. Here, instead of the passionate expansiveness of Andromaque, we have a menacing reticence and concentration. The music is not that of the high notes of the violin and the woodwinds; it is the diapason of the double-basses and the tubas. This is, no doubt, what Boileau meant when he said that Racine had never written more "sententious verses." Ever since the seventeenth century, critics have been agreed that the style of Britannicus has a sustained purity and firmness unequaled by any of his other "profane" tragedies, and is freer from the abuses of the jargon of gallantry.

The center of interest, of course, is Nero himself, one of the greatest portraits of a historic figure in dramatic literature. From the moment the young voluptuary enters the stage, saying to Narcissus:

Narcisse, c'en est fait, Néron est amoureux

to the last terrible line—surely one of the most remarkable that ever ended a play—in which the horrified Burrhus leaves us, as the curtain falls, looking down a perspective of the criminal future,

Plût aux Dieux que ce fût le dernier de ses crimes!

we sit spellbound before this remorseless unfolding of a vicious nature. For that is what it is—an unfolding, not a development. There would be no time within the twenty-four-hour scheme of French tragedy for the development of a virtuous nature into a criminal one. Racine says: "I am not representing him as a virtuous man, for he never was one. In a word, he is a monstre naissant." The rapid unfolding of the monster is explained by the sudden concourse of his violent passion for Junia with Agrippina's insistent nagging and Narcissus' wily temptings. The psychological action of the play is made up of the alternating advances of Nero toward villainy and his relapses into virtue according as he lends an ear to Narcissus or to Agrippina and Burrhus.

And just there we put our finger on what seems to me a relative weakness in the play as compared with Andromaque. The sparks which the current of the plot—or the dialogue—is constantly emitting in the latter play come from the fact that all the characters between whom the current passes carry an equal charge of emotion. Now in Britannicus Nero himself is heavily charged, but the other personages who converse with him—though we know theoretically that they too are feeling intensely—too often use an oratorical style, full of moral and political argument rather than of direct passion. This does not apply to the superb duel between Nero and Britannicus in Act III, nor, in general, to the interviews between Nero and Narcissus, especially the masterly decisive interview in Act IV. In the latter Racine manages to make us feel, under the reasonings of Narcissus—surely worthy of rank with Iago as one of the two arch-insinuators of literature—the throbbing of his evil and self-seeking heart. I must confess that I do not feel these throbbings under the well-marshaled arguments of Burrhus nor even under those of Agrippina, grand as this latter figure is in its statuesque way. As for Britannicus and Junia, though they come to life occasionally they are admitted to be, on the whole, rather conventional figures. Corresponding to this lower tension of the psychological action is the relatively archaic character of the dialogue. In Andromaque Racine had developed a wonderfully flexible scheme of broken and semi-colloquial dialogue within the framework of the Alexandrine couplets. In Britannicus he reverts, again under the shadow of Corneille, to the older forms of the long harangue—Agrippina's speech to Nero in Act IV has over one hundred lines—and of stichomythia (the modeling of the retort in a dialogue on the same lines as the speech of the first interlocutor).

I should be very sorry, however, if, by using several times the expression "the shadow of Corneille," I left the impression that the net result of Racine's gageure was the production of an imitation of Corneille. I am speaking of a cause, not of an effect. The general effect of the play is not Cornelian, but thoroughly Racinian. Even Agrippina, the nearest of all Racine's characters, except Mithridates, to the heroic types of the older dramatist, is a study in nuances that Corneille would have been either incapable or contemptuous of. She is shown not merely as the ambitious plotter but as the mother who resents the loss of her influence over her son, not merely as the clever dialectician but as the woman liable to imprudent fits of temper. Similarly Burrhus and Narcissus are much more complex, much less tout d'une pièce, than such types would be in Corneille. Burrhus' virtue is mitigated by certain prudential considerations; Narcissus is a villain of a subtlety and psychological insight never before seen in drama outside of Shakespeare.

After these general considerations on Britannicus, I shall refer to or quote some of the more striking passages of the play, without, however, attempting a continuous analysis of the action after the manner of our dissection of Andromaque.

The first act is Agrippina's. In two long discussions, one with her confidante Albine, and one with Burrhus, she complains of the way in which Nero and his advisers are treating her; she is particularly alarmed by the news of the abduction by Nero of Junia, Britannicus' fiancée. Britannicus had been jockeyed out of the succession to the imperial throne on the death of his father, Claudius, by Agrippina's machinations in behalf of Nero, her son by Domitius Ahenobarbus. But now Agrippina, in order to preserve a sort of balance of power, is supporting the marriage of Britannicus and Junia against Nero's wishes. Agrippina's speeches are imposing in their metallic Roman gravity and show the "sententious" quality of the style at its most striking….

The second act begins with the fine scene between Nero and Narcissus containing the justly celebrated speech in which the former describes the circumstances under which his sudden passion for Junia flamed up. The description is not only marvelously picturesque in itself (it has been compared to a Delacroix painting)—thereby dispelling the idea that Racine's style is always abstract—but the importance attached to the influence of romantic accessories in the genesis of a love affair is surely very modern. Further, the whole aesthetic coloring of the passage suggests the Nero who died exclaiming, "Qualis artifex pereo"; certain lines even suggest discreetly the decadent and the sadist in him. The piece is striking also for the musical beauty of the verse….

Later in the act comes the almost equally fine scene between Nero and Junia in which he declares his intention to make her his wife. The dissimulation, the steel hand under the velvet glove, and the cruel irony of Nero are painted in masterly strokes. Did the pride of the Roman emperors ever blaze forth in such terrifying splendor as in the short dialogue where Nero declares his plans to the astounded Junia? Junia has just said that, in paying court to her, Britannicus is but following Agrippina's, and therefore, she supposes, Nero's own wishes.

Toward the end of this scene Nero adds horror to her amazement by announcing a cruel stratagem. He has told Narcissus to admit Britannicus to Junia's presence and to leave him under the impression that this interview has been procured for him without Nero's knowledge. He now announces to Junia that Britannicus is about to appear before her. Her joy at this announcement is quelled by Nero's further explanation:

Je pouvais de ces lieux lui défendre l'entrée;
Mais, Madame, je veux prévenir le danger
Où son ressentiment le pourrait engager.
Je ne veux point le perdre. Il vaut mieux que lui-même
Entende son arrêt de la bouche qu'il aime.
Si ses jours vous sont chers, élognez-le de vous,
Sans qu'il ait aucum lieu de me croire jaloux.
De son bannissement prenez sur vous l'offense;
Et soit par vos discours, soit par votre silence,
Du moins par vos froideurs, faites-lui concevoir
Qu'il doit porter ailleurs ses vœux et son espoir.

When Junia objects that, even if she could obey Nero in her words, her eyes would betray her real feelings to Britannicus, Nero replies,

Caché près de ces lieux, je vous verrai, Madame.
Renfermez votre amour dans le fond de votre âme.
Vous n'aurez point pour moi de languages secrets:
J'entendrai des regards que vous croirez muets:
Et sa perte sera l'infaillible salaire
D'un geste ou d'un soupir échappé pour lui plaire.

(Note the boldness of expression of the fourth line in the above.)

This scene is not only very dramatic in itself, but it ushers in another scene (the interview announced) the peculiar intensity of which can be imagined from the very way in which it is announced. Junia carries out Nero's cruel instructions with great skill. She warns Britannicus in these significant, yet noncommittal words:

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

Britannicus, naturally, misunderstands her attitude and goes out heartbroken.

The high-spot of Act III is the superb encounter between Nero and Britannicus. While Agrippina and Nero are in consultation, Junia escapes to seek Britannicus and, finding him, reveals the secret of her strange behavior during the recent interview. As Britannicus throws himself at her feet in remorse for his misunderstanding of her intentions, Nero enters. The spirited passage at arms which follows, in which Racine manages to convey the majesty of a Roman emperor as well as the jealousy, the controlled fury, and the arrogance of Nero, is largely composed in the archaic form of stichomythia mentioned above, which gives it a flavor of the encounter between Don Diègue and Don Gomez in Le Cid….

The famous scene between Agrippina and Nero in Act IV, which begins with the mother's homely and patronizing,

Approchez-vous, Néron, et prenez votre place,

to the son who has just put her under virtual arrest, and which ends with Nero's apparent yielding to her wishes, is utterly incapable of illustration by extracts. But some idea of the snakelike Narcissus at his best (or worst) in the last scene of Act IV where he neutralizes the effect of Burrhus' pleadings in the preceding scene may be gained from the following fragment. Narcissus arrives with the news that preparations are complete for the poisoning of Britannicus. Note the cool cynicism of his first speech, his quick utilization of Nero's revised decision to enforce still more strongly his own point of view, and the short, sharp struggle with Nero's conscience which he brings to triumphant issue by his poisonous allusion to Agrippina's boastings.

It is impossible to quote the lengthy closing speech of the scene; but the psychological subtlety of Narcissus is well illustrated by this fragment:

It is unnecessary to dwell on Act V. Except for the effective final line (quoted above), the denouement has been usually admitted to be lacking in power and to be too long drawn-out. It has nothing of the sharp dramatic impact that is so striking in the close of Andromaque.

Britannicus was not a success at first. This was a great chagrin to Racine, for he considered it, as we have seen, one of his most painstaking efforts. Yet in his second Preface he admits "that its success did not at first come up to my hopes." This is confirmed by the testimony of Boursault, who in the opening pages of his novel Artémise et Poliante (1670) has left us a vivid account of the play's first performance. We see old Corneille "alone in a box" and the members of the authors' cabale scattered about, "for fear of being recognized." Boursault reports that all admitted the beauty of the verse but criticized severely the action and the characters. From pointed and bitter references in Racine's first Preface we gather that Corneille had put himself at the head and front of this critical offending. One of the objections that Racine takes up concerns his alteration of the ages of Britannicus and Narcissus. "I should not have spoken of this objection," he adds, "if it had not been made with some heat by a man who has taken the liberty to make an emperor reign twenty years who reigned only eight." This is an unmistakable reference to Corneille's Héraclius. Later on he asks, "What would one have to do to satisfy such finicky judges? It would be easy, if one were willing to betray good sense. All that would be necessary would be to depart from nature in order to plunge into the fantastic … for example, represent some drunk hero who would fain make his mistress hate him out of pure gayety of heart, a Lacedæmonian who is a great talker, a conqueror who did nothing but utter love-maxims, a woman who gave lessons in pride to conquerors." These last are definite allusions to Corneille's plays Attila, Agésilas, and Pompée. Britannicus had the effect therefore of exacerbating the quarrel between Racine and Corneille's party.

It is probable that from the reception of his Britannicus Racine concluded that the taste for great political discussions was passing away and that he would do better to confine himself to the passion of love, which, after all, was his forte and which had served him so well in Andromaque. In Bérénice he was to find a way of doing this and at the same time of preserving a Cornelian element.

Paul Valéry (essay date 1942)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3218

SOURCE: "On Phèdre as a Woman," in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry: Occasions, translated by Roger Shattuck and Frederick Brown, Bollingen Series XLV, Princeton University Press, 1970, pp. 185-95.

[A prominent French poet and critic, Valéry is one of the leading practitioners of nineteenth-century Symbolist aestheticism. His work reflects his desire for total control of his creation; his absorption with the creative process also forms the method of his criticism. In his prose, Valéry displays what is perhaps his most fundamental talent: the ability to apply a well-disciplined mind to a diversity of subjects including art, politics, science, dance, and aesthetics. His critical writings are collected in the five volumes of Variéte (1924-44; Variety) and his personal notebooks, the Cahiers (1894-1945). In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1942, Valéry ruminates upon the psychological inferences of Phèdre's character.]

After reading Phèdre, or seeing the theater curtain fall, I am left with the idea of a certain woman, a sense of the beauty of the verse; a future reserve resides in me in these durable effects and values.

The mind resumes its normal course, which is a riotous stream of sensations and thoughts, but unknowingly it has selected from the work the elements that it will henceforth treasure among its supply of ultimate standards and criteria of beauty. It never fails to single out, unconsciously, these elements from the pretexts and combination of happenings which had to be contrived so that the play might exist. The plot, the intrigue, the incidents soon fade, and whatever interest may have attached to the dramatic apparatus as such vanishes. It was merely a crime: wished-for incest, murder committed by proxy, with of course a god to carry out the act. But what can be made of a crime once the horror of it has subsided, once justice has been done, and death has claimed the innocent and the guilty alike, for death like the sea closes over every temporary scheme of events and acts. The emotion born of the presence and condensation of the drama disappears along with the decor, while the gripped heart and eyes, which had so long remained fixed, find relief from the constraint exerted upon the whole being by the speaking, luminous stage.

Everyone disappears, save the queen: poor, pitiable Hippolyte, the moment he lies shattered on the resounding shore; Théramène, his message just declaimed; Thésée, Aricie, Œnone, and Invisible Neptune himself—all melt into absence. They have stopped pretending to be, having been only to serve the author's essential design. They were not made of lasting substance; their roles have used them up. They live only long enough to incite the ardor and wrath, the remorse and terrors typical of a woman insane with desire; they are used to bring forth from her Racinian depths the noblest expressions of concupiscence and remorse ever inspired by passion. They do not survive, but she does. Memory reduces the work to a monologue; within me it changes from its originally dramatic form into a purely lyric one—for lyricism is precisely that, the transfiguration of a monologue.

Love, provoked beyond measure in the person of Phèdre, has none of the tenderness it assumes in Bérénice. She is ruled by the flesh whose sovereign voice calls, unanswerably, for the possession of the beloved's body and has one single goal: the perfect attunement of concordant ecstasies. Life thus falls prey to images so intense that its days and nights, its duties and its falsehoods are torn apart. The power of physical passion, forever thirsting because it is never slaked, may be compared to an open wound which keeps aggravating itself: it is an inexhaustible source of pain, for the pain can only increase while the wound remains open. That is its law. By definition, one cannot get used to it for it insists on its hideous presence as though it were always new. It is the same with an incurable love lodged in its victim.

With Phèdre, nothing veils, mitigates, ennobles, adorns, or elevates her sexual frenzy. The mind, with its profound, subtle, shifting play, its outlets, its intuitions, its inquisitiveness, its refinements, can do nothing to embellish this consummately simple passion or divert it from itself. Phèdre has read nothing. Hippolyte is, for all we know, a fool. What does that matter? This incandescent queen needs only enough mind to serve her vengeance, invent stratagems, and enslave itself to instinct. As for the soul, it becomes nothing more than its obsessive power, the ruthless and unwavering will to clasp its prey, draw him under, to moan and die of pleasure at his side.

This love, devoid of metaphysics, is love as described or presupposed in the literature of an age which rarely mentioned the soul except in philosophical speculations, an age when lovers were never seen invoking the universe between embraces and fretting over "the World as Will and Idea" by their bedside….

Racine knew better than to sweeten that desire in the raw which Phèdre radiates and sings. She could scarcely have inherited from her makers, Minos and Pasiphaë, what was not in their nature. It was not given them to feel as we do, when we yield unreservedly to the weakness of cherishing another person, a surge of tenderness that deliciously calms and eases all the forces of the soul. They were a callous pair of beings. Primitive love, as it appears in most myths, shows nothing but its implacably instinctive essence. It is, at this stage, simply a "force of nature," borne and acknowledged as such. It does not yearn for the exaltation that comes of One and One uniting beyond, through, above their keenest mutual spasm: it is satisfied to be this visceral lurch, for nature requires nothing more enduring than a flash. In simple love, anything that distracts from the consummation of pleasure runs contrary to nature. This necessary and sufficient love is too intent on seizing the body of its prey to spare its sensibilities; it will get what it wants by hook or by crook. It is not at all above fraud, rape, abduction. The gods of that age, whose sole function it was to enact the designs vainly suggested to us by our desire, accomplish effortlessly what we can only dream of doing: they make sport of feelings as well as of natural laws and, by force, by guile, or even by corrupting if need be, they satisfy their cravings. Mythology is essentially bestial. Zeus turns into a swan, an eagle, a bull, a shower of gold, a cloud, thus refusing to take advantage of his identity. The conquest itself is all that matters to him: he does not care to figure in dreams. But perhaps these metamorphoses are only symbols of the various tricks and ploys men use to achieve their sensual goals, replying, as the occasion and their wits dictate, on one advantage or another, on a repertory of grimaces, exploiting their visible manliness, their fortune, their fame, their brilliance—or the opposite of all these, for there are unfortunates whose misfortune, whose ugliness, even to deformity, will excite a feeling of pity verging on love, and move some heart to give its all; nothing is impossible where human taste is concerned, and I have observed the oddest conquests.

Though his Phèdre is largely ruled by instinct, Racine presents her feral nature in the most elegant terms, revealing its depths as the drama unfolds. The particular case that his tragedy lays bare would, moreover, appear to be less anomalous than deplorable. Unrequited love cries for vengeance. God Himself says to us, "Love me, love me or I shall deal you eternal death." And in the Bible we read that "Joseph, being well-made and comely, it came to pass that the wife of his master cast her eyes upon him, and said, 'Lie with me.'" Courteously rebuffed, Potiphar's wife denounced him, charging him with seeking to take her by force, just as Thésée's wife accused Hippolyte and so brought down upon him the paternal curse, executed by Neptune. I fear, then, that in our mind's eye we must see Phèdre in the same pitiless light as Rembrandt saw Potiphar's wife. In his engraving he showed her furiously twisting and stretching toward Joseph, who is straining to get away. The etching is remarkable for its powerful lewdness. In it, the biblical female, her belly naked, fleshy, dazzling white, exposed, clings to Joseph's robe, while he strives to tear himself from the clutches of this stark madwoman whose transport drags not only her ponderous flesh, but the whole soft bulk of her devastated bed, spilling a tangle of sheets to the floor. Everything focuses on this delirious belly, which sustains, concentrates, and radiates the painting's luminous power. Never has desire unleashed been portrayed so brutally, with a keener sense of the ignoble force that compels flesh to offer itself like the yawning of a monster's jaws. The Egyptian woman is not beautiful, but there is no reason why she need be. Through her plainness she shows how confident she is that her aroused and desperate sex will prevail unaided. This is not an uncommon error; it is not always an error. Yet I cannot imagine Phèdre otherwise than very beautiful, in the full flower of beauty, of her beauty, which I shall come to presently.

The passion of love secretes a fatal poison that is, at first, only faintly active, easily eliminated, and passes unnoticed. But a few trifles can quicken it so that, suddenly, it can overwhelm all our powers of reason, and our fear of men and gods.

By this I mean that, in becoming strongly enamored of

someone, we unconsciously invest the object of our love with a power to make us suffer which far surpasses the power we grant him or her (and look for) to make us rapturously happy. And if the need to possess some one person takes such complete hold of us as to form the condition of life itself (which is the way absolute love works), this now-vital affection, once it is torn by despair, sets little store by life. It familiarly entertains the idea of murder. This soon mingles with the idea of suicide; which is absurd, thus natural.

Having lost hope, Phèdre kills. Having killed, she kills herself.

Phèdre cannot be a very young woman. She is at the age when women who are truly, one might even say expressly, born for love, come into possession of their powers. She has reached that moment when life recognizes its fullness and its unfulfillment. In the offing are physical decay, rebuffs, and her own ashes. But here and now, bursting with life, she can experience feeling to its uttermost degree. What she is worth dictates, in the recesses of her mind, what she desires, so that her burdensome resources very gradually devote themselves to some potential but unknown plunderer who will take them by surprise, exalt and then exhaust them; whoever he is, for he has not even appeared yet, he is already gifted with all the charms conferred on him by impatient suspense, by a thirst every moment more searing. The internal processes of our living substance lose their normal function, which is to assure the survival of the organism. The body comes to anticipate the self, and to see farther ahead. It floods with a superabundant sense of being, and the mysterious anxiety arising from this excess riots in dreams, in temptations, in risks, in feverish attention alternating with lapses of mind. The flesh itself becomes a proposal. Like a plant overwhelmed by the weight of its own fruit, and bent forward as though begging to be plucked, woman offers herself.

Perhaps this has to do with some dark conflict being waged between the forces that so strangely coexist in our beings—and ones which continually produce us, that is, which keep us living, and the others which tend only to reproduce us. The individual succumbs to the species, which insidiously promotes itself throughout the whole person whose sensibility and general economy are invaded by the energies of a minute egg as it ripens, becoming at once the product, the disturbing component, the enemy, and finally dominating the whole living body. The injunction to outlive struggles and pits itself against the importance of living. The indefinable sensations provoked by an unmated seed influence, by remote control, the whole mental disposition, which has been so primed for the coming adventure that it will see in it, when it does unfold, an event of infinite magnitude. Venus calls the tune and Psyche plays.

Phèdre is in the midst of her second puberty, and embodies all the alienation, the anxiety of that age.

What I have said up to now was by way of preparation for that eminently noteworthy adjective set in the famous line:

C'est Vénus tout entière….

So Venus is the culprit, and Venus "tout entière." How can this name Venus be translated into nonallegorical language, and what is the precise meaning of "tout entière," an expression so admirable and felicitous that I hesitate to belabor it? Racine could take such perfection in his stride, without lingering over it, but today these words have connotations which his age did not as yet clearly recognize. We are able to uncover treasures the author did not suspect he had buried and see in his words evidence of a prescient mind. This prescience refers to the physiological aspect which, for lack of knowledge, I shall not explore, but I believe I have suggested the lines that someone more expert might follow, and I shall confine myself to what little I can say, offhand.

With Phèdre having come to the unstable pass I have described, her life has all the makings of an emotional tempest. Suddenly the event takes place. Someone appears and is at once recognized as the very one who was destined to appear. Why not someone else? We are always free to wonder if any other captain of handsome presence might have brought matters to a head. But no, it was Hippolyte, who draws down upon himself the burden of desire that weighed so heavily on her uneasy soul. Instantly, everything is transformed, within her—and around her. The days change color. Even the passage of time becomes irregular. The body's organic routines are upset. The heart is caught, and the breath as well: a glance, a hesitation, a hint, a footfall, a shadow will quicken or suspend them. The basic functions of life have found their master … in a phantom, in a troubling figment. Incredible superstitions gain credence. Her mind has astonishing lapses, or pays obsessed attention; it gives birth to the maddest inventions, or falls into a stupor lasting for hours, for days during which it shows no palpable signs of thought, as if it were arrested, like the body of a wounded man who expects intolerable pain to come of his least movement. All those vain ornaments, those veils, would not seem so heavy to the queen were she not a woman already overwhelmed by love. Her entire life is reorganized around a fundamental anxiety, all values are at the mercy of a whim that is not hers, subordinated to the infinite Value she attaches to Another, to the promise he seemed to embody. And when, having offered him her entire being (a gesture that in itself compromises her organic, psychic, and social equilibrium), this all-embracing gift is answered with resistance and refusal, then all the honey of prospective ecstasies, all the sap of hopedfor love, whose influence had overcharged her inmost vitality, all this turns into a poison of the rarest virulence. There is nothing which that distillation of hatred and fury does not attack, corrode, and eat away. The vital exchanges, the natural functions, the habits, the ethical and civil laws that firmly establish a person within his life, fall apart. C'est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée. When Venus first grew fast to her, the woman in love appeared transfigured by a relish for life, by a will to ascend the highest heights of ecstasy, her desire exerting such influence that her very flesh grew increasingly desirable as her desire grew increasingly ardent. Phèdre, beautiful in her own right but, like all beautiful women, beautiful even before love, attains the full splendor of her beauty when she declares her passion. I say splendor because the fire of a decisive act illumines her face, makes her eyes glow and animates her entire person. But afterward, that sublime brow falters; it is overwhelmed by pathos; it sags beneath its burden, and the eyes grow dim. Pain, the lesion of the soul, contrives a new and frightful beauty—a mask whose pinched features alter to those of a Fury. Venus is at last abandoning her prey. The venom of love has done its work. A woman has passed through the successive stages of passion; there is nothing left for her to do on earth. One draught of a different poison, the product of ordinary chemistry, will spirit her to Hades for a final reckoning.

As for the language of this play, I shall not importune the reader by saying the obvious, or what has been said before, very often and very well. I shall not sing the praises of a form that achieves the consummate synthesis of art and the natural, that carries its prosodic chains so lightly as to make of them an ornament, a kind of garment draping the nakedness of thought. In Phèdre, the strict discipline of our Alexandrine retains and fosters a higher form of freedom; it makes eloquence sound so easy that one does not at first realize what craft and labors of transmutation that ease must have entailed. I shall take the liberty of relating an experience I had once, for in my mind it is inseparably bound to what I have just written. I hope that this personal anecdote will not be seen as an intrusion of vanity. Not many years ago, I composed the libretto of a cantata, and had to do it rather quickly, in Alexandrines. One day, I laid this work aside to go to the Academy and, my mind still absorbed in working out the cadence of a period, I found myself gazing absent-mindedly through a shopwindow on the quai, where a lovely page of verse stood on display, beautifully printed in large typeface. A remarkable interchange sprang up between myself and this fragment of noble architecture. As though still at work on my draft, unconsciously, for the better part of a minute I began to try out word conversions on the exhibited text. I felt like a sculptor who had seized a chunk of marble, while dreaming that he was molding soft and still moist clay.

But the text would not allow itself to be rehandled. Phèdre resisted me. I thus learned, through direct experience and immediate sensation, what is meant by perfection in a work. It was a rude awakening.

Wallace Fowlie (essay date 1948)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2604

SOURCE: "Second Cycle: Racine, the Sun in Phèdre" in Love in Literature: Studies in Symbolic Expression, 1965. Reprint by Books for Libraries Press, 1972, pp. 51-7.

[Fowlie is among the most respected and comprehensive scholars of French literature. His work includes translations of major poets and dramatists of France (Molière, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Claudel, Saint-John Perse) and critical studies of the major figures and movements of modern French letters (Stephane Mallarmé, Marcel Proust, Andre Gidé, the Surrealists, among many others). Broad intellectual and artistic sympathies, along with an acute sensitivity for French writing and a firsthand understanding of literary creativity (he is the author of a novel and poetry collections in both French and English), are among the qualities that make Fowlie an indispensable guide for the student of French literature. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1948, he explicates Phèdre as a play representative of Racine's vision of "the human heart finding its pleasure in suffering, jealous of every unknown agony and form of sadism."]

Each age is comprehensible and distinct according to its doctrine on human suffering. In the seventeenth century the evolution of this doctrine forms a unified and complete lesson. The hero of Corneille seeks his happiness and safeguards it in life and in death. Pascal, a tragic hero like Horace and Polyeucte, sought for his salvation and safeguarded it in the suffering of his body and in his spirit tormented by the agony of his God. The heroine of Racine completes this evolution because she seeks not only to destroy herself but to destroy all those who exist around her. If Corneille seeks to avoid suffering and Pascal to embrace it, Racine represents the triumph over suffering and the immeasurable widening of its domain. He represents the human heart finding its pleasure in suffering, jealous of every unknown agony and form of sadism.

After the image of man always accompanied by woman which Corneille gives us, and after the solitary humanity of Pascal, Racine offers us the image of solitary woman. Hermione, Bérénice, Phèdre are alone with themselves, but they keep the memory of the species and preserve the meaning of continuity. Each one of his heroines appears on the stage bearing over her features the mask of eternal woman, eternally alone, eternally necessary to man who turns his back on her and escapes from her. At each entrance of Phèdre, the stage becomes empty and she remains alone with her memory peopled by its own species, alone before all the elements of nature, alone as if she were some bewildered victim who had wandered away from her executioner.

The first words which Racine has Phèdre say, her first apostrophe which never ceases resounding throughout the tragedy, her

soleil, je te viens voir pour la dermière fois,

announces everything. The radiation of the sun is the permanent symbol of tragedy in Phèdre. The triumph of the sun—it is at the zenith when Phèdre comes to contemplate it for the last time—first marks the tragedy. The sun is not only the ascendency of Phèdre, since her mother, Pasiphaé, was daughter of the Sun—it is also the triumph of man in his phallic symbolism, the piercing power of the male which Phèdre in her woman's flesh cannot extinguish or embrace. The sun, at first a god for Phèdre to whom she is bound by close consanguinity, is above all for her the image of young Hippolyte who mounts with the day like a corporeal star and descends into the night to fill it with his presence and his memory.

At the beginning of the play, Phèdre appears under the full light of the sun, and it is impossible for her during all the unfolding of the tragedy to retire within the shade, to sit down, as she longs to, 'à l'ombre des forêts'. Rather than diminishing, the force of the sun grows in each act. The soul of Phèdre grows more and more shining under the solar rigour, and at the end of the work, the intensity of suffering, which is intensity of light, reaches the moment of conflagration. Phèdre perishes in her own flames. The tragedy ends in a chemical and supernatural fire.

Phèdre herself never becomes, even for an instant, the sun. She never leaves the purity of her own drama. She is always the victim of love, of the sun, and of man. She is the victim who receives, if not the fecundating and real force of love, at least its imagined and cruel force. She receives, during this one day of the tragedy, all the superabundant energy of the sun, as if the energy of the cosmos was being spent for her in some effort of nature to perfect divine creation by destroying her. Racine created in his work a solemn and terrible cult. The sun-ravisher strips Phèdre of her clothes and leaves her nude before the eyes of the spectators. Each line she recites, as in some propitiatory sacrifice, translates an act of the sun perpetrated on her flesh and on her soul. Before our eyes she is slowly consumed by the love which strikes her in the heat and the light of the sun. The force which Phèdre would like to have felt in Hippolyte, she feels in all of nature which rushes through her in flames of poison. Love is not for her a man, it is the sun incapable of appearing in a human and desirable form. The supernatural surrounds Phèdre and wards off the natural.

When she learns, in the fourth act, of the love of Hippolyte for Aricie, and when jealousy, the new and final suffering, is added to her passion, Phèdre, in her most poignant line, evokes the innocency of that other love by means of a familiar image:

Tous les jours se levaient clairs et sereins pour eux.

The passion of Hippolyte and Aricie unites them in a love comparable to the light and the justification of the day. The world of men welcomes this kind of love, as the universe welcomes the return of the sun, but Phèdre, who seeks to flee the light, cannot escape from the sun before falling inert and consumed by its force. Alone before the sun, Phèdre presents to it the flesh of her body and suffers even in the memory of all her race. The sun captures all the agitations in the being of this woman who, during the moment of her race when it was permitted her to live, dared oppose the celestial fires and arrest their burning menaces. This was Phèdre's struggle against the natural cosmos and against the divine order of the cosmos. Her disorder, which is felt, imperceptibly at least, by all beings, is suppressed by them and relegated to the secret parts of the subconscious. Most men prefer to forget or destroy such a passion rather than to live in the vast solitude it exacts, with nature itself, the sun and all the stars, as the eternally vigilant enemy destined to triumph.

Phèdre is never separated from her heart, as most men and women are daily. Her tender and terrible faith is reminiscent of the solemn perfection of Jansenism, that philosophy of man in which Racine as a boy had learned to touch the most intimate secrets of the heart. Phèdre is not a criminal because her love for Hippolyte is not literally incestuous, but she foresees the crime for the future and at the same time she dreams of the past. She dreams of her mother and thereby suffers for all the maternal sins. This is the way in which horror and monstrosity stifle Phèdre. She deceives us, and we believe, in listening to her, that passion is incorruptible. We learn to believe that this daughter of Pasiphaé has warded off all the angels of the resurrection and that she will always remain faithful to her flesh, accomplishing her mission of fidelity to the earth, eternally remembering the rocks and the trees, dissimulating nothing of what is in her nature and no part of the sun's dark action on her.

But this drama of the flesh ends in the drama of purity. After the first scene when Phèdre remains alone with the sun composed of her ancestors, of her heart, and of the terrible future, and after the central scene when jealousy heightens her passion and transforms her soul into a site of paroxysm, comes the final scene when Phèdre, in the presence of the spectators, and her ancestors, and all of nature, enters death while experiencing for the first time in her body an unknown coldness, and while converting her heart into a purity worthy of rivalling the purity of daylight. The last speech of Phèdre resembles the poison which is flowing through her veins and diminishing all the signs of life in her body. Her very words denude and transform the meaning of life. Only material substance counts, and the words are lost in the new conversion where flames triumph over the body and where Phèdre fails for the first time to see the sun because she is entering it in the midst of her ancestors. This final drama of purity is the congenital catastrophe where Phèdre, after struggling against the cosmos, is assimilated by the cosmos into its most immaterialized sphere.

The principal action of Phèdre is therefore not so much her attack against modesty as her struggle against the sun which she is forced to look at and which is destined to destroy her. Racine understood above all in the character of Phèdre the maternal and primitive trait of woman who struggles for the preservation of the race and whose tragedy is the loss of self before the re-creation and justification of self. Every woman is tragic who is unable to become, in her racial and solemn rôle, mother of all men and history. The absolutism of passion, manifested in Racine's Phèdre and in Shakespeare's Cleopatra is the absolutism of the void and of ashes, that absolutism which crowns both works in the implacable resolution of the final purity. Purity absolves the passion of Phèdre and Cleopatra by destroying it, even in its memory.

Woman is with the race and creation, but man is alone, more tragically alone. That is why the tragedy of a woman, alone with her passion and incapable of converting it or appeasing it in accordance with the simple and practical law of reproduction, appears more monstrous than all the tragedies of men. Phèdre and Cleopatra both have in their speech a sequence of words which describe the evolution of their passion: its unfolding and its death in the cosmic fire:

The two tragedies of passion contain a similar evolution in their imagery. In Antony and Cleopatra, it is progress from fertility to dissolution, and in Phèdre, it is progress from desire to dissolution. For Cleopatra, love is at first symbolized by the earth and the mud of the Nile, and at the end of the tragedy, it is vaporized into flames and into the air. The transformation which Phèdre undergoes is similar, because the transports of love she feels at the beginning of the tragedy are metamorphosed into the purity of day. The love of Phèdre and Cleopatra was always death, but it is called by its real name for the first time at the end of the tragedies in the purgation of all the terrestrial elements. Born from passion, Phèdre and Cleopatra expire in passion.

Both tragedies describe a cycle of overpowering and total passion. Phèdre, goddess and lover, personifies the terrible unity in love and death exacted by the gods and the psychology of woman. Cleopatra, actress and lover, personifies the diversity in this unity. For Phèdre, the sun is lover and executioner, beginning and end of an experience which wilfully destroys her in agreement with the orders of the gods and of men. For Cleopatra, the Nile and the fertile lands periodically covered by the waters of the Nile symbolize the love of abundance she claims, but this same soil, when it is used and worn out symbolizes the exhaustion of love. The language of Phèdre mounts toward the sun until the moment it catches fire and is extinguished in the flames. The language of Cleopatra descends toward the Nile and the over-rich lands of the Nile until the moment it loses its form in the viscous slime.

Phèdre is a profoundly religious work. An eschatalogical work. As the heroine's language mounts toward the sun, the meaning of sacrifice becomes increasingly clear. At the conclusion of the work, Phèdre appears as a victim suspended between heaven and earth. The victim and the target of the sun.

Thy face
From charred and riven stakes, O
Dionysus, Thy
Unmangled target smile.
(Hart Crane, Lachrymae Christi)

The stake of Dionysus, god of vegetation, of wine, recalls the Cross of Jesus, God of men. But in the last scene of Racine's tragedy, the body itself of Phèdre is a stake and a cross while it becomes for an instant the target of men and of the gods. Dionysus, in expiating passion, is the target of the world's concupiscence; Christ, in expiating sadism, is the target of the world's sin; and Phèdre, who will be replaced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the artist, in expiating pride, is the target of the world's cruelty.

The fury of Phèdre is impossible to conceive without the dogma of grace. Grace exists by its absence in the tragedy of Phèdre. It is grace which, absent or present, places on the face of a woman her tragic mask. Without grace, Phèdre would be purely a woman and would not be that creature we know solicited by all the demons and all the angels. Without the concept of grace, Phèdre would resemble Molly Bloom who, in the long soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, sings solely of the carnal and cosmic principle of women, and reproduces the circular movement of the earth, the natural history of the cosmos, the woman waiting in her bed for her husband and who is going to say yes to him in adherence to the instinctive law of the species.

In the heroes of Corneille, carnal passion is subordinated to the passion of order: it becomes in Rodrigue, and to a certain degree in Chimène also, philosophic passion. In the thought of Pascal, love reproduces the order of charity in which man surpasses himself, after he had been made greater, purely as man, in the universe of Corneille. In Racine, love seems always to equate self-annihilating passion. Phèdre incarnates tragic passion which is dissolved. Thus Corneille, finding what is noblest in man, announces Pascal who, finding outside of man what is divine, yields his place to Racine who finds in man what is most corrupt.

As if what is corrupt in man hasn't the right to exist, Racine prepares for the final scene a conflagration in which the whole being of Phèdre, contaminated by evil, burns and loses its form. And this woman, who had never renounced the spirit during her dream of the flesh, rediscovers in death that purity of spirit which the saints rediscover in life through their denial of the flesh.

Eugène Vinaver (essay date 1951)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5999

SOURCE: "Discords and Resolutions," in Racine and Poetic Tragedy, translated by P. Mansell Jones, 1955. Reprint by Manchester University Press, 1962, pp. 27-46.

[In the following excerpt from an English-language edition of a volume originally published in French in 1951, Vinaver examines Racine's tragic poetry, particularly its employment in Andromaque, Brittanicus, Bajazet, Bérénice, and Mithridate.]

It would be unjust to reproach the contemporaries of Racine with the small account they made of his originality. Belonging to an epoch which believed less in genius than in talent, they could not pay him greater homage than to place him by common accord in the rank of the worthiest craftsmen of the regular theatre. In the funeral oration which he pronounced at the Academy on the 27th of June 1699, Valincour with his fine sagacity did indeed recognize in the author of Andromaque and Phèdre the merit of having opened 'new roads'; he praised him even for having 'filled his audience with that terror and that pity which, according to Aristotle, are the veritable passions which tragedy should produce'. But twelve years before, La Bruyère had said of these passions that they constituted the common ground of all tragedy, that of Corneille as well as Racine's. And as for those privileged witnesses who on the 17th of November 1667 had applauded in the Queen's apartments the first presentation of Andromaque, all we know is that they judged its author capable 'one day of equalling and perhaps surpassing' the great Corneille. Those for whom feeling came first naturally honoured Andromaque with their tears; this was the case with the Duchess of Orléans, to whom Racine had read the piece, and with Madame de Sévigné who, a few years later, saw it played by a provincial company. But the accredited critics, those whose mission it was to judge the first great tragedy of the young poet, gave it their approval just in so far as it exemplified the purest and most esteemed type of play.

The astonishing thing is that we have advanced so little beyond that point: not through literary conformity, but out of obedience to a method which willingly sacrifices the text to the 'movement'. A cruel sacrifice when one thinks that still today Racine's tragedies serve to consummate it. From the eighteenth century there has been no lack of commentators to 'place' his work. Nearly all however have refused to discern the least conflict between the Racinian conception of tragedy and the framework within which it moves. It is in vain that the author of a celebrated work on Philippe Quinault affirms that 'the tragedy of Racine is, in the history of the theatre, a happy exception', and that another critic says that in Racine's century his tragedy 'represents an exception of the most extraordinary kind'. His tragedy fits so well into the contours of the type of theatre called classical, and brings it to such a degree of stability, that it has no defence to offer against the efforts ceaselessly renewed to reconcile it with the spirit of its time. What more 'regular' indeed than the structure of Andromaque? What a masterstroke in favour of the unity of purpose and of interest is this simplification of an action which passes between four characters and offers at first glance a double plot! 'Notice', says Paul Janet in his study of Les Passions et les Caractères dans la Littérature du XVIIe Siècle, 'what is the subject and the nucleus of his tragedy: three pairings of four persons who repel and attract one another at the same time. You could almost give this quadrille the form of an arithmetical proposition and say: Hermione and Pyrrhus are the two means of which Oreste and Andromaque are the two extremes. Oreste is to Hermione what Pyrrhus is to Andromaque. And what is the action of the drama? It is entirely in the coming and going of the two middle terms, now approaching, now withdrawing from the two extremes. Sometimes Pyrrhus in desperation turns from Andromaque and comes back to Hermione who then hastens to abandon Oreste; and thus the two extremes remain alone, Andromaque in her joy, Oreste in his fury. 'Sometimes, on the contrary, hope brings Pyrrhus back to Andromaque; and Hermione, in her turn desperate and exacerbated, returns to Oreste, full of scorn and rancour at first, then of rage and vengeance.' What Paul Janet does not say is that this skilful construction is Racinian only in the perfection of its balance. It is inspired by a banal procedure, that of the dramatic utilization of a chain of passions. Brought into fashion by the Diana of Montemayor these 'elusive' passions had been a great success at first in the non-tragic genres: the novel, the pastoral play and tragi-comedy. In the Alphée of Alexandre Hardy they had served to relate one to another seven characters, each enamoured of the person who had no love for him or her. Mélanie desires Euryale who has promised his heart to a dryad; the latter covets a satyr who pursues Corinne; Corinne is promised to Daphnis who adores Alphée. Similarly in the Délie of Donneau de Visé, played by the troupe of the Palais Royal some weeks before Andromaque, a shepherdess loved by two shepherds, Licidas and Cléante, is obliged to make a choice; she ends by declaring for Licidas to the joy of Orphise who is in love with Cléante. This pattern is no less frequent in the regular theatre: it recurs in the Mort de Commode and the Camma of Thomas Corneille as well as in the two pieces which Racine had in mind when writing Andromaque: the Pertharite of Pierre Corneille and the Hercule Mourant of Rotrou. To animate a type of subject-matter so polymorphous as Greek legend, Racine had only to apply a formula consecrated by usage and capable of resolving the dramatic problem it presented—a formula which of itself set all the springs to work, thus assuring perfect unity of action.

And it is precisely with reference to the structure of this play that an attentive reader would be tempted to wonder how Racine succeeded in preventing it from destroying the tragic nature of the subject. If it is necessary that to each movement of the dramatic springs there should correspond a new pattern of feelings and that these feelings should be conceived in view of a simple concordance with the rhythm of the action, the moral life of the character is bound to present itself as a regular alternation of happy and unhappy states. Now tragedy in the authentic sense of the term, that 'song of despair' of which, according to the words of Pierre-Aimé Touchard, one must not demand either solutions or vain illusions, supposes an ever-deepening vision of the misery of man, an understanding ever more complete of the ineluctable in life. It is this that the Greeks felt to be the divine malediction, confounding and crushing human beings and leaving them only capable of feeling its terrible effects. For this ironic game of the divine powers a world freed from Olympus must substitute an act of tragic consciousness which reveals in the misfortune overwhelming man the faithful image of his condition. What will become of such an act when man allows himself to be enticed by the movement of a plot, the object of which is to procure him moments of relaxation and respite?—when a Pyrrhus, a Britannicus, a Bajazet, caught in the wheels of drama, believe they can weight their chances of safety? Is it not to be feared that at such moments their triumph will appear possible? Pyrrhus thinks, and the spectator agrees, that he will succeed against the scruples of Andromaque and the rages of Hermione. He rushes to the temple, sure of seeing 'this storm dissipate in tears'. Hence in the spectator the absence of all dismay, of all feeling of terror, as if he beheld an indifferent event arising outside the tragic zone of life. As much could be said of the adventure of Britannicus and Junie. These young persons, strangers to the tragic, traverse sunlit regions where faith is reborn in a happiness fully deserved, and only the resurgence of the 'monstre naissant' deprives them of all hope. How can we prevent ourselves, on seeing the snare into which they slip, from thinking that things could have happened otherwise and that the stratagem of Narcisse which at the decisive moment forces the determination of Nero, could have been countered or postponed? Britannicus and Junie, just like Pyrrhus, play a game of equal chances with fate. This is what is required by the facture of a 'regular' drama with its vaunted alternations of hope and fear.

If despite the presence of this pattern Andromaque impresses us as a genuine tragedy, it is because a more profound action, entirely inward, rules the fate of Oreste, Hermione and Andromaque herself. Horace thought that Orestes should be always a sad character, tristis Orestes, and Louis Racine is right in saying that this precept is 'well carried out' in the French Andromaque: 'Oreste's every word bears witness to a man plunged in melancholy.' On two occasions Pyrrhus's conduct has repercussions along the whole length of the chain of passions, propelling Oreste towards the illusion of happiness. Not once however does he indulge in it as the spectator does at times, and as a hero would who was submissive to the discipline of reversals. In vain Hermione shares his alarms and desires to see him; in vain she tells him

Vous que j'ai plaint, enfin que je voudrais aimer;

Oreste never forgets what his share really is:

Le cœur est pour Pyrrhus, et les vœux pour Oreste.

And even when Hermione summons him a second time and charges him with the task of avenging her, no hope slips into his bruised heart, unless it be that of preventing the death of Hermione and Pyrrhus in each other's arms. It is not the possibility of a recompense which urges him on: he knows beforehand that to make him expiate the murder, Hermione's eyes will tell him what they have always told him. He acts under the impetus of a destiny similar to that of his Greek prototype, the murderer of Clytemnestra: knowing like him his victim, he also knows before acting the full horror of his deed. Like the celebrated scene in the Electra of Euripides, the dialogue with Hermione fixes for ever his fate and his torment. For Electra's rending appeal is substituted the cry of vengeance of the insensate lover, for the parricide's gesture of despair the voluptuous enjoyment of a blind submission. Indifferent to the changing scene which displays happiness and misfortune, joy and suffering, the Oreste of Racine remains faithful to the tonality of immutable legends. A tragic hero, he frees himself from the bonds of the plot.

Less resigned to destiny, Hermione yields at first to the lure of varying situations. In the happy moments which the arrangement of episodes reserves for her, she thinks she can recover Pyrrhus and triumph over her rival: Pyrrhus revient à nous! But immediately terror seizes her:

Dieux! ne puis-je à ma joie abandonner mon âme?

Andromaque appears and, advancing towards her, in the humblest words touches the most painful spot:

N'est-ce point à vos yeux un spectacle assez doux?

The irony is doubtless involuntary; involuntary too but pitiless this reminder of a truth which Hermione had almost succeeded in concealing from herself:

Je ne viens point ici, par de jalouses larmes,
Vous envier un cœur qui se rend à vos charmes.

That is enough: long before the 'treason' of Pyrrhus, before the fatal change of mood which must provoke the vengeance of Hermione, her happiness proves to be illusory. More distraught even than Andromaque, she flings this reply at her, as cruel for herself as for her rival:

S'il faut fléchir Pyrrhus, qui le peut mieux que vous?

She need hardly wait to learn the misfortune which she announces almost unwittingly: she guesses it already; she knows that the gleam on the horizon is only a mirage which will vanish as soon as perceived. She knows Pyrrhus has but one thought: when he seems to listen to her, his looks are elsewhere, his mind is lost in a dream she fears to know as she fears 'to know herself in the state in which she is'. As Racine reveals her to us at the beginning of the second act, so she remains until the end of her torment, now seeking to believe that 'her offended pride has hardened her heart', now shuddering at the single name of Andromaque, without her voice ever leaving the tragic mode.

To the ample themes of Oreste and Hermione is added the more constrained theme of Andromaque. Whoever seeks to subordinate it to the oscillations of a pendulum is obliged like Paul Janet to assume an Andromaque who, once abandoned by Pyrrhus, 'remains in her joy'; an assumption so unreal as to condemn the theory which requires it. When does Andromaque know joy? Certainly not at the moment when Pyrrhus exclaims:

Que de pleurs vont couler!
De quel nom sa douleur me va-t-elle appeler?

Nor in that scene in which, a prey to mortal anxiety, she weeps at the feet of Hermione. From the moment she goes to find her son, her words reveal an ever-increasing distress, a pain which becomes the very principle of her life. It cannot even be said that she behaves like a character involved in a drama of the conscience. From the end of the first act, she sees herself thrown back upon her fate: to save her dearest possession, the memory of Hector, she must lose her son. Like the Andromache of the Trojan Women of Euripides, she strives in spite of all to snatch him from the vengeance of the Greeks. But faced by the menace which weighs on this beloved being, she keeps clearly in sight her one duty, her one passion. Ready for all renunciations, she sees only the image of a lost hero and seems to aim in the great scenes of the third act simply at understanding better the sense of her loss. Would it not be to mistake the bearing of these scenes of horror and pity—an almost colourless fresco of a woman whose eyes are 'always veiled in tears'—to examine them for velleities of compromise or for the promise of a change from bad to good? It is certain that these are scenes of action; for the suffering that has gone to the depth of a pure and inviolable soul reveals a latent energy, that of a consciousness which itself traces the curve of its misfortune. But instead of dividing her thoughts between hope and fear, Andromaque, the least violent of Racine's heroines and whose pain alone confers beauty on her acts, advances with her head high towards her chosen destiny. And when three years later Racine declares in the Preface to Bérénice that only an action which is 'simple and great' is tragic, he will recall without naming it this first encounter with the tragic in a human situation which had enabled him to represent, under the features of a character drawn from drama and placed in a cadre skilfully contrived, the purest and most simple of the themes of tragedy. One thinks of that transposition of Antigone in which three centuries later Anouilh makes the chorus say:

It's clean, is tragedy. It's restful, it's safe…. In drama with its traitors, its desperate villains, its persecuted innocence, those avengers, those Newfoundland dogs, those gleams of hope, it becomes dreadful to die, like an accident. You might perhaps have been able to save yourself, the good young man could perhaps have arrived in time with the police. In tragedy there is nothing to worry about. For one thing we are all in it. And every one of us is innocent! And then above all it's restful because you know there is no more hope, filthy hope; you know you are caught, caught at last like a rat, with the whole sky on your back.

Need we then be surprised that this form of the tragic, safe, restful, ineluctable, free from all accident, 'with the whole sky on your back', should be so rare in the theatre, and that Racine himself did not always light upon it? The cult of curiosity in French tragedy of the seventeenth century and the indifference it showed to the pathetic were such that if Racine had been content to obey the taste of his time, no really tragic work could have come from his hands. As a beginner, he had not been able to avoid the temptation of tragicomedy and of heroic tragedy. 'He had conceived in his childhood', Louis Racine tells us, 'an extraordinary passion for Heliodorus: he admired his style and the marvelous art with which he tells his story.' It was during his sojourn at Uzès that he had begun Théagène et Chariclée, a play drawn from the novel of Heliodorus, which he abandoned subsequently, 'no doubt because he felt that romantic adventures were not worthy of the tragic stage'. Then he sought to confront on their own ground the masters whose fame embarrassed him. The announcement of a Thébaïde by Boyer made him think of this subject consecrated by antiquity and he took the plunge with La Thébaïde ou les Frères ennemis, a play in which Rotrou and Corneille had greater shares than Racine and Euripides. Then came Alexandre le Grand. Still more than La Thébaïde this second essay in tragedy was the work of a disciple, and it was necessary to wait for Andromaque to see him set out on 'new roads'. But before long, with Britannicus, he returned to the genre consecrated by his elders, not to go beyond it but to perfect it. Anxious above all to conduct the action to its close with a perfect economy of means, he gripped and mastered it from the start as it gushed forth. What craftsmanship in the sketching of characters, in the adjustment of scenes, in the conduct of the dialogue! Two violent characters who dispute absolute power, two 'genii' who symbolize one good, the other evil, and two innocent victims; each act divided into symmetrical sections which now retard, now precipitate the catastrophe; each reversal arriving at a definite point following a series of speeches skilfully disposed. It is only when the plot is unfolded and Burrhus comes 'to weep over Britannicus, Caesar and the whole state' that one sees appearing the pathetic theme, the importance of which Racine emphasizes in his first preface: the last monologues of Agrippine (Poursuis, Néron…) and of Albine (Pour accabler César d'un éternel ennui…) are, he says, listened to 'with as much attention as the close of any tragedy'. Beyond the peripeteia of the drama the pathetic, he seems to say, attains a higher plane, that on which is played the fate of Rome. And the fate of Rome, we know, is the destiny of entire humanity, of man victim of the violence he bears in himself, of the blind fury which 'enflames itself in its course'. A new world rises in this final scene, a world unknown to pity, implacable as the look in the tyrant's eyes, and like him constant in its indifference: the world created by man to abolish what is human. But confronted by the symbolical vision of the banquet at which Britannicus dies—a vision more dramatic than moving in its impact—one does not think of Junie or Agrippine or even of Britannicus. Instead of becoming incarnate in the characters, terror spreads over a stage which is henceforth empty save only for the witnesses of the action, while that powerful poetry which works in the abstract lights up the problems and situations in which people are involved rather than the depths of their existence, thereby cutting itself off from access to what is tragic in man. Hence the perfect coherence of this 'play for connoisseurs', in which Corneille recognized himself better than in any other work of his young rival; it made him indignant at an intrusion in a domain where he thought himself destined to reign alone. For Britannicus represented the apogee of the genre that owed its fame to him: high political tragedy which, when once circumscribed in its facts and ideas, refuses to quit its luminous area for the vague horizons of the individual conscience. A fair and rich tradition to which all that had been lacking so far was naturalness in handling the action and the spell of poetry.

As if the better to yield to this spell Racine passes immediately to another Roman subject, the least dramatic that could be: Titus reginam Berenicen dimisit invitus invitam. 'That is,' he says at the beginning of his Preface, 'Titus who loved Bérénice passionately … sent her away from Rome in spite of himself and of her, in the first days of his rule.' ¢ subject quite as simple', he says again, 'and at the same time quite as rich as that of the separation of Aeneas and Dido.' What does he mean by that? How does he conceive a subject at once simple and rich, which is enough 'for a whole canto of heroic poetry' and which, according to him, constitutes in itself alone the subject of a tragedy? He explains this by saying, 'it suffices that the action should be great', that is, 'appropriate to the theatre by the force of the passions it is able to excite'. Instead of compressing into the limits of five acts submitted to the discipline of the unities a vast ensemble of facts, why not allow a subject infinitely reduced in extent to develop freely in depth—a development 'intensive' in essence, the value of which would be in inverse ratio to the duration it required? The form of art to which it would accommodate itself best would be precisely that which deprives the event of all efficacy and suppresses with 'blood and dead men' all vain expectation. 'Idyll', 'eclogue', 'charming and melodious fancy', say the critics who despair of being able to place Bérénice in the dramaturgy of the period.

The reason is that this tragedy of sacrifice and of sacrificed souls, the truest 'tragedy' of all those which Racine wrote, seeks its references beyond the tragedy of his time, beyond Seneca even and Euripides, in the canon of tragic beauty fixed by Sophocles. At the level at which is abolished all constraint external to man, it is no longer Rome which rules the behaviour of the characters, but their knowledge of the will of Rome. All is silent: only the tormented soul of Titus is unfolded before us, preparing the sacrifice. What can the speeches of Paulin teach him that he does not already know?

Si je t'ai fait parler, si j'ai voulu t'entendre,
Je voulais que ton zèle achevât en secret
De confondre un amour qui se tait à regret.

No messenger comes to confirm him in the idea that Rome will remain implacable: the piece is played en vase clos, in an infinitely reduced space, sustained to the end by the 'cruel constancy' of souls worthy of their fate and capable of measuring its significance. Where Titus thought he was going to find a solution, he perceives he has done nothing but turn in a circle; his monologue of act IV, punctuated by exclamations which contradict one another: Tes adieux sont-ils prêts…. Rome sera pour nous…. Rome jugea ta reine, is split into two sections which represent the one the apogee, the other the collapse of the illusion. Titus discovers in himself a power more cruel still than the laws of Rome: one which puts him into a state of lucidity before an ill without remedy. Bérénice reaches lucidity at the same moment, after having traversed all the distance which separates 'a heart content with its lover' from the sacrifice of its dearest possession: for this it is necessary that she should not know her fate, that she should learn it, refuse to admit it, then that she should attain martyrdom without ever knowing any other reason for doing so than her constancy, nor other pain than her passion. Never was human speech more autonomous or more decided. The characters advance towards the crisis as Andromaque had done, without the help of a tragic deed, driven to the very end by the sheer intensity of their misfortune. But while Oreste and Hermione substitute themselves for Andromaque to carry the play to its conclusion, in Bérénice only the pure souls are called to bring the action to its close. A bold conception, too bold doubtless for Racine to dare resort to it again. The attraction of purity had led him to the extreme limit of the genre, to the point at which tragic art by dint of decanting itself risked losing all substance. The heroic experience obliged him to seek another way.

And now this first Racine 'who abandons himself' or, according to the happy expression of Sainte-Beuve, 'who forgets Boileau', is superseded by the playwright who in Bajazet seems to forget Racine. The poet who declared 'blood and dead men' useless and sought to abolish the plot to the advantage of the pathetic presents two years later a play with a conspiracy which ends in a frightful massacre. 'One cannot perceive the reasons for this great butchery,' said the judicious and, as we should say today, the impressionistic Madame de Sévigné. After three centuries of exegesis, the reasons escape us still. Atalide and Bajazet, caught in a snare, act each of them with so much ingenuity that their safety appears, if not assured, at least probable: one ruse more in their game of skill and nothing could spoil their happiness. Only a theatrical trick ruins them—the letter that Zatime steals from Atalide—and the same letter decides the fate of Roxane. 'Frightful like an accident,' Anouilh would say. For Roxane who up to that point 'wants to know nothing', also does not know those depths of the soul in which Hermione and Phèdre recover each instant their terrible lucidity. She belongs to another spiritual family, that which never feels itself menaced from within, the line of ferocious souls who obey only the laws of fighting to the death. Among her ancestors she counts the Roxelane of Mairet, the Amalfrède of Quinault and the Arsinoë of Boyer—fierce princesses who had taught the French public the taste for their bloody adventures and the sweetness of their cold vengeances. Amalfrède consents 'with joy and without trouble' to make Théodat perish to prevent him from marrying Amalasonte, just as Roxane quietly assumes the role of arbiter over the life of Bajazet and sends him to his death as soon as she learns that he loves someone else. The tragic colour it is customary to lend to the Sortez! of act V is belied by the sangfroid of Roxane herself who thinks henceforth only of multiplying murders. The final accident alone prevents her from enjoying her triumph, an accident which no inner motive calls for and which comes from the level of mere faits divers. We recognize its penalty in the amorphous lines with which the piece is decked out:

Mon malheur n'est-il pas écrit sur son visage? . .

Ah! de la trahison me voilà donc instruite.

Not a tone of Racine's voice is heard and even the few trouvailles which one picks out—such as the tranquil fury of Roxane—remain, in the general atonality, too much dispersed to restore the poetic current.

This silence of the tragic muse is due also to the nature of the subject, to the falsely exotic climate of those 'grandes tueries' which delighted the public of the period. The great obstacle in subjects of this kind is the lack of crystallization, that active force which, as archaeology is well aware, only a fertilizing tradition, a beneficent influence and a regenerative experience can bring to the imagination of an author. These conditions are indispensable to prevent the work falling into the snare of local colour and to save it, at moments when the historical matter is exhausted, from the terrible mundus senescit which so often frustrates the effort of the poet. The tradition is originally a vital urge which, coming from a remote time, is quickly displaced by the fable which deforms it. Once transmitted from one generation to another, it represents the collaboration of fiction with the teaching of history. Before the story reaches the author innumerable infiltrations gradually help to establish a reasonable basis of agreement which commentators honour with the name of influence. In this lies the secret of the consensus of human interest in the ancestral images of the biblical and homeric epics. Lastly without experience guided by the instinct of recreation the exotic subject-matter dries up: it becomes no more than an expressionless exchange between the author and the public, as it had been between the author and the event. It is because he had not found in the subject of Bajazet any of these conditions of renewal that Racine attempted in his second Preface to reassure the reader by an argument ad hoc: 'The remoteness of the countries compensates to some extent for the too great proximity of time.' He knew that this too great proximity was irremediable and that even by modifying the psychological data he could not purify the theme: it gained nothing in feeling because the feelings had not been reinforced. The rawness of the facts, undeformed because traditionally undeformable, had veiled the fatalism of the motives and at one blow suppressed the mystery through which are disclosed the will of the gods and the all-powerfulness of destiny.

It is only with Mithridate that Racine begins a new period of experiments in the realm of the tragic; and it is to the liberty he enjoys when confronted by a subject already deformed by history that the stuff of this piece, cast in the same mould as Bajazet and originating in the same climate, owes not only a certain grandeur but its fitness for rejuvenation. The ancients themselves had related the facts a long time after they had happened. The characters in the story and their contemporaries had long disappeared when Plutarch produced the portrait of Mithridates and his family. After him, to judge by their contradictions, Appian, Dion Cassius, Justin and Sallust contributed to the development of the written traditions. This marked the progress towards crystallization. From that point to a certain degree of legendary truth there was but a step: the diversity of judgments and the exaggerated combination of oriental and late-hellenistic mœurs made it possible to work in a fluid subject-matter, and to develop characters and events in depth. The centuries had created more distance than space itself had done and it was above all on distance that depended the success of the effort. As in Bajazet, Racine attaches exaggerated value in Mithridate to the plot and its potentialities. Recurrences of fear and hope correspond here again to real chances of ruin and escape. Each of the principal characters knows that a ruse can lose or save him. The relation of Xipharès and Monime to Mithridate is in all points analogous to that of Bajazet and Atalide to Roxane: their fate is in the hands of a jealous tyrant. But it is precisely this resemblance which brings out the development. For the oriental prince, a contemporary of the author and of the spectators in the stalls, is substituted a princess 'snatched from the soft bosom of Greece', heroic without gestures and condemned by the very purity of her sentiments to suffer in her heart the most inhuman of tortures:

En quelle extrémité, Seigneur, suis-je réduite?

That extremity, we are told, is the risk she runs of betraying herself, but it is also the fact that her whole being rises against a state of things she has accepted, against a bitter and humiliating constraint which she takes as legitimate and which leaves her scarcely a few moments' respite. It is in flashes and almost without believing in it that, with her 'soul rent in secret', she glimpses the day when she will contrive to liberate herself. The very resonance of the verse warns us that the fires of the tragic spectacle, extinguished, it would seem, since Bérénice, are ready to flare up again:

Les dieux me sont témoins qu'à vous plaire bornée,
Mon âme à tout son sort s'était abandonnée.

That resonance is prolonged when, at Monime's side, appears the tyrant 'nourished on blood and athirst for war', who while confronting her in the very situation of Roxane before Bajazet, yet attains true greatness. 'The piece', says La Harpe, 'has the movement and tone of a tragedy only from the moment when Mithridate is announced.' Not that this proud warrior forgets to play the role which is allotted to him in the strategy of the piece: he too, like Roxane, is an oriental tyrant, habituated to blood and treason; skilled in replying to crime with more crime, he lacks nothing to reinforce the plot in which he is involved. But over this cruel face marked by the flight of time, gleams pass now and then which confer upon it a rare dignity. And at the moment when Mithridate prepares to drag from Monime the avowal of her love for Xipharès, unexpected accents escape him:

Enfin, j'ouvre les yeux et je me fais justice.
C'est faire à vos beautés un triste sacrifice
Que de vous présenter, Madame, avec ma foi,
Tout l'âge et le malheur que je traîne avec moi….
Et mon front, dépouillé d'un si noble avantage,
Du temps qui l'a flétri, laisse voir tout l'outrage.

This greatness which condemns itself, this majestic denunciation of a glory declining with age—is not this something other than a skilful manœuvre? And can we be sure that Monime, before being disarmed by the 'adroit falsehood' of Mithridate, has not allowed herself to be convinced by the emotion betrayed by his words and his tortured heart? To the torment of suspicion which Roxane experienced is added that of a terrible certitude:

Ah! qu'il eût mieux valu, plus sage et plus heureux,
Et repoussant les traits d'un amour dangereux,
Ne pas laisser remplir d'ardeurs empoisonnées
Un cœur déjà glacé par le froid des années!
De ce trouble fatal par où dois-je sortir?

Scattered gleams, it is true, gleams which the 'gloire' of Mithridate never catches. His pride demands 'other sentiments than those of pity'. His barbarian lands, hardly touched by the sun of Greece, remain as ignorant as he is of the ultimate meaning of the myth created by man to unwind the skeins of destiny: only the spectator dimly feels the myth is at hand.

John Gassner (essay date 1954)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3023

SOURCE: "Corneille and Racine: Polite Tragedy," in Masters of the Drama, third revised edition, Dover Publications, Inc., 1954, pp. 267-85.

[Gassner, a Hungarian-born American scholar, was a great promoter of American theater, particularly the work of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. He edited numerous collections of modern drama and wrote two important dramatic surveys, Masters of Modern Drama (1940) and Theater in Our Times (1954; 3rd ed. 1954). In the following excerpt from the former, Gassner surveys Racine's career as a dramatist and assesses his significance in the development of Western drama.]

Racine was fortunate in possessing two indispensable qualifications for tragedy: he possessed a dramatic temperament and a strange perturbation of the spirit. His talent may be likened to a small volcano covered with a patch of flowers. His polished lines are more dramatic than a casual reading, particularly in their inadequate English translations, would reveal. Recited by a competent artist, not to speak of a Rachel or a Sarah Bernhardt, the precise phrases rise and fall with emotion. Lines like Hermione's cry in the Andromaque, after she has ordered the assassination of the man she loves, are typical:

Où suis-je? Qu' ai je fait? Que dois-je faire encore? …
Errante et sans dessein, je cours dans ce palais.
Ah! ne puis-je savoir si j'aime ou si je hais?

Such lines are not merely plentiful in Racine's work but preponderant.

Nor are the passions he describes dammed up by victorious reason or morality, as in Corneille's plays. They are too strong to be restrained even when their danger is apparent to the individual himself, and from his characters' inability to liberate themselves from an obsession arise inner conflicts that are little short of infernal in their agony. It is, indeed, customary for English readers to condemn Racine as undramatic on very insufficient grounds. He has held the French stage for more than two and a half centuries and his heroines have been played by nearly every self-respecting French actress….

His first tragedy Amasie was bought but not produced by the Bourgogne company. Fortune smiled on him, however, when Molière befriended him and produced his second play Thebaide in 1664. It proved successful and was followed by another treatment of Greek material—a study of Alexander the Great, Alexandre le Grand. Ungratefully, Racine gave the play to Molière's rivals at the Hôtel de Bourgogne shortly after it was produced by his benefactor's company. The Bourgogne players being more adept at tragedy than Molière's Comédiens du Roi, the comparison of the two productions was unfavorable to the latter. Molière, who had lent Racine money and continued the run of La Thebaide at a loss, was deeply hurt and never spoke to Racine again.

Racine, however, was pleased to find the excellent Bourgogne company at his service, and soon, in 1667, gave them his first memorable tragedy, Andromaque or Andromache. The play is a powerful study of character and passion. Andromache, Hector's widow, is loved by her conqueror Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles who had slain her husband at Troy. The memory of the hero she had loved is too great for her to bear the thought of a second love. But bear it she must because only by marrying Pyrrhus can she save her infant son from destruction by the Greeks who are eager to remove the seed of Hector. She agrees, therefore, to marry Pyrrhus after exacting from his a promise to protect her son and resolving to kill herself after the marriage ceremony. The tragedy comes to a climax when the Greek princess Hermione, whose love for Pyrrhus is a consuming obsession, has him assassinated by her lover Orestes and then stabs herself.

Although the theme is remote, Racine succeeds in giving emotional reality to the inner conflicts of a woman who is loyal to her first love but must accommodate herself to circumstance and of a girl whose passion drives her to destroy the man she loves. The subtleties of Racine's dramatic method are exemplified by such a detail as Hermione's exclamation concerning Pyrrhus,

And do not trust my anger's wavering
Till death removes this monster; for unless
He dies today, tomorrow I may love him.

Only the wooden behavior of Orestes reduces the potency of this play. Of course, too, the whole situation may easily strike us as narrow. It is never so when treated by Euripides who knew how to make his tragedies a criticism of life because he had the gift of seeing mankind in the large whereas Racine rarely rose above the immediate situation of his play. But Racine's tragedy also has its validity—as a psychological drama. It is a moving elaboration of human passion.

Racine next turned to comedy with an amusing and mordant adaptation of Aristophanes' Wasps entitled Les Plaideurs or The Litigants. He wrote most of the piece in a fashionable tavern as an exercise of wit, not putting much stock in the piece. But this did not prevent him from extracting considerable comic vitality out of his judge who is so enamored of his calling that he sleeps in his judicial robes and out of the overzealous lawyer who opens his plea with an account of the Creation of the World. Moreover, after this casual excursion into foreign territory, Racine returned to his own domain in Britannicus, a powerful representation of Nero and his court.

Racine could not write a chronicle of Nero's life within the confines of the unities of time, place, and action. He could only concentrate on one situation which ushered in this tyrant's career. Nero's ambitious mother Agrippina, who has made him king, soon has reason to regard his future course with misgivings. He is unscrupulous in his passions and allows himself to be guided by an evil counselor Narcissus. Being infatuated with Junia, who is betrothed to the legitimate heir to the throne Britannicus, he seizes her and poisons Britannicus while pledging friendship to him. Junia flees to the vestals and dedicates herself to the gods and Narcissus is killed by an outraged populace when he tries to drag her from the altar. Nero is overcome with helpless rage, and his mother and tutor can only hope that this crime will be his last. Nero is thus left at a critical point in the development of his character. What the Elizabethans would have made merely the beginning of a tragedy here becomes the complete play. Nevertheless, Racine makes the crisis which dominates the entire play exciting and fraught with psychological and dramatic portent.

Mithridate, written in rivalry with the aging Corneille, was another effective drama of a man's passion for a woman, even if it lacked the scope and depth of Britannicus. Its superiority over Corneille's work was patent and its success considerable. About this time, too, Racine won the signal honor of being elected to the French Academy which chose him instead of Molière when the latter refused to abandon the humble acting profession.

Racine had begun to make enemies with his sharp tongue and haughty behavior, and the friends of Corneille hated him wholeheartedly. One of those literary cabals which keep the French at boiling point was organized against him, and the new playwright Pradon was trotted out and pushed into eminence. Racine, however, countered with his Iphigénie, a version of the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis that was full of gratifying sensibility. Racine triumphed again, even if his new tragedy was not for the ages. Nor could there be any dispute about the distinction of his next depredation on Euripidean drama, Phèdre.

In Euripides' Hippolytus, Racine found a theme of love-passion which called forth his greatest powers. When it is compared with the Greek tragedy, Racine's drama is only a minor triumph. Gone in the French tragedy is the provocative symbolic conflict between the two human instincts respectively represented by Artemis and Aphrodite. Gone, too, is the deep psychological symbolism of a young man destroyed by the love instinct or the Aphrodite he has denied in himself. Here, instead, is a neatly composed obbligato played on the one string of a woman's consuming passion for her stepson Hippolytus. The latter is even supplied with a sweetheart, since Louis XIV's bright courtiers would have found the chaste young man of the Greek story an object of ridicule. There is consequently much "prettification" and sentimentalization in Phèdre. Still, within the limits of French classicism, the play could only appear as a tremendous tour de force, since it is remarkable for its exploration of the recesses of a passion-obsessed mind.

The growth of Phèdre's passion for her husband's son and her struggle against her infatuation, which is making her pine away, are vividly realized. She has rejected food for three days. Finally, Oenone, her nurse, discovers the source of her malady and devotedly proposes to heal it. Since, in particular, Theseus is reported to have been killed during his travels, she argues that Phèdre's passion is no longer criminal. In an anguished scene Phèdre, therefore, reveals her passion to Hippolytus. But she is rebuffed by him, and overwhelmed with shame she hurries away. Suddenly Theseus returns and fearing that Hippolytus will accuse her mistress to his father, the devoted nurse resolves to accuse him first. Hippolytus, too honorable to cast shame upon his mother by justifying himself, allows himself to be cursed by his father. The curse destroys him, and Phèdre, overwhelmed with grief, kills herself.

The elaborate and sensitive presentation of Phèdre's passion, shame, and grief requires a more extended analysis than can be given in a synopsis. No one can question its effectiveness, and the role of Phèdre is so magnificent that it became the pièce de resistance of every French tragedienne. The famous Rachel and Sarah Bernhardt won no laurels more honorable than their triumphs in the part.

By now, however, the cabal was up in arms against Racine and hit upon the expedient of getting another Phèdre by Pradon produced two days after the premiere. Buying seats for Racine's opening they left them unoccupied, casting a chill over the performance. Instead they repaired to Pradon's play and made it a signal success. The affaire Phèdre was such a conspicuous example of viciousness and Racine was so deeply wounded by it that he retired from the stage. Sick at heart he returned at the end of 1677 to Port Royal, which eagerly took its prodigal son back into the fold. Theologically, they could argue, his last play had been sound Jansenism; was it not the tragedy of a woman who possessed every quality but the grace of God without which there can be no salvation! Dominated by her flamme funeste, and supremely conscious of her guilt and damnation, Phèdre was a heroine decidedly acceptable to the Jansenists. Port Royal won its author back completely, and gave the erstwhile lover of popular actresses a pious wife who never read a line of his plays. Racine himself began to regard them as a crime against the true religion.

Racine, it is true, did not wholly give up the world and remained a courtier to the last. He resumed residence in Paris and continued his literary labors as historiographer to the king, a position which he owed to the favor of Louis XIV's Madame de Montespan. But he returned to playwriting only on two occasions, both sacerdotal, when the King's pietistic new love Madame de Maintenon requested him to write two biblical plays for her girls' school at St. Cyr. Esther, the first of them, retold the familiar story of Haman and the Jewish queen who saved her people from an early pogrom. Written in excellent verse and supplied with choruses of great beauty, the piece was received enthusiastically when it was produced in 1689 before an audience which included the King and Mme. de Maintenon. It was particularly appreciated for its allusiveness; Ahasuerus was Louis XIV, Madame de Maintenon was the pious Esther, and the discarded first queen Vashti was none other than Madame de Montespan who had recently suffered a similar débacle. The analogy between Queen Esther and Madame de Maintenon, who had belonged to the Huguenot Protestant sect which was being oppressed by Louis, who revoked the Edict of Nantes, was strained, since the new French Queen had been too discreet to intervene in behalf of her former co-religionists. But the discrepancy between Esther and de Maintenon was not regarded as a criticism of the latter. Nor was the suggestion in the play that a king could be misled in signing a decree prejudicial to religious liberty considered an allusion to Louis XIV who had signed the Edict of Nantes only four years before. That indefatigable letter-writer Madame de Sévigné echoed the opinion of the literati concerning Racine: "He now loves God as he used to love his mistresses." Esther, which strikes this reader as only a cut above a beautiful academic exercise, won the admiration of the court.

Although Racine refused to countenance its presentation in the public theatre, he turned to the drama again with renewed enthusiasm, and within a year he produced the second St.-Cyr tragedy Athalie or Athaliah which many consider his greatest work. The tragedy met Madame de Maintenon's request for a loveless drama to perfection and none of her tender charges had their innocence tempted by so much as a word. Nevertheless, Athaliah is a stirring work. Nowhere is Racine's lyric power greater and nowhere did he fill his severely limited stage with so much movement and excitement. The idol-worshiping queen Athaliah who had assumed power by murdering the royal family is troubled by a dream that warns her that an heir to the throne still lives. He does in the person of young Joash who had been rescued by the high priest and brought up in the temple. Athaliah enters the temple, interviews Joash without learning who he is, and is singularly moved by affection for him. But the time has come to enthrone the young prince, who will observe the true Hebrew religion faithfully. The high priest, therefore, arms the Levites, separates Athaliah from her guards, and has her slain. The play concludes with a rhapsodic hymn of triumph.

The powerful characterization of the guilt-laden Queen and of the sweet-tempered lad, the effective dialogue, and the magnificent lyrics of this tragedy create an impression of rare majesty. If some of us must find its labors academic, it is difficult to withhold one's admiration for Racine's virtuosity or deny this work the right to be considered the greatest of all biblical plays.

Although again withheld from the public stage, Athaliah was produced with resounding success in 1691 at both St. Cyr and Versailles. Nevertheless, Racine's last days were clouded by disgrace at court…. He worried himself into an illness and died on April 21st, 1699, in extreme pain.

Racine left a heritage in his collected works which gave expression to some of the most typical elements of French genius. Its sensibility and converse with the passion of love live splendidly in his plays, but the national talent for order, cerebration and analysis is likewise present in them. The famous critic Jules Lemaître has put this more precisely when he declared that Racine expressed "la génie de notre raceordre, raison, sentiment mesuré, et force sous la grâce"—order, reason, measured sentiment and force underlying gracefulness. Racine substituted character analysis and emotionalism for the major Corneillian motives of moralization and "admiration"—that idealization of human behavior which is supposed to evoke admiration for the protagonists. Except indirectly in his biblical plays, Racine wrote drama of "admiration" only in Berenice, in which Titus denies his love in deference to the Roman custom which forbade an emperor to marry foreign royalty.

Passion was the proper province of the playwright of whom it has been said that his female characters were "fair women full of Attic grace but who lack the grace of God." Whereas Corneille celebrated man's strength, Racine, always a partial Calvinist, dramatized man's weakness, and the tragic failure of his characters in most of his plays represents the victory of the passions over reason. It is in this manner that Racine paid dual tribute to the "sensibility" prevalent in the courtly life of his times and to the rationalism that dominated both political theory and philosophy. And the same dualism appears in his technique, which is more orderly than Corneille's. Concentration on the crucial moment in the lives of the characters rather than on the developments that led to the crisis makes for a compact, rationally ordered dramatic form. Action, moreover, is relegated to off-stage events, reported by messengers, and becomes secondary to analysis in works of this order; "what happens is of less importance than the mental reactions of the characters … action is practically confined to the mind." Nevertheless, his compression of passion into one major crisis generally provided the greatest intensification of feeling.

To the Anglo-Saxon reader such compactness seems the acme of literary constipation, and the analytic approach to the emotions strikes him as a form of pernicious anemia or atrophy of emotion. There is, indeed, little doubt that Corneille and especially Racine made a contribution to the drama and humane letters that does not meet the modern demand for action. Nevertheless, their real limitation is not structural. If one can be irritated by Corneille, it is because he is so high-flown and sententious. If one can dislike Racine it is because one can become sick of the passions, the "soupirs et flammes," of his heroines; one tires so easily of torrid femininity. In introducing order into playwriting, Racine, as a matter of fact, made an important advance which was to serve the realistic drama greatly. The later drama of prose and of ordinary life could not afford the diffuseness of Elizabethan or later romantic tragedies. Plays like Ghosts or Hedda Gabler, no matter how greatly they may depart from Louis Quatorze taste in other respects, possess a compactness of structure without which they would lose most of their power.

Lucien Goldmann (essay date 1956)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5483

SOURCE: "The Structure of Racine's Tragedies," in Racine, translated by Alastair Hamilton, Rivers Press, 1972, pp. 3-22.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1956, Goldmann narrowly defines dramatic tragedy and then discusses how Racine structured his dramas as tragedies.]

The concept of tragedy and the "science" of literature

If we denote any attempt to understand reality as science or theoretical thought we must admit that a considerable discrepancy has appeared between what are normally known as the "exact sciences"—mathematics, physics, chemistry—and the "human sciences". This discrepancy can be seen not only in the contrast in the scope and precision of the findings achieved in each of these domains, but also as far as the terminology is concerned. The terms habitually employed in the human sciences lack both precision and functional capacity, two essential properties if investigators are to agree, if not about their theories and analyses, at least about the actual object of their study, about the nature of the truths they investigate and the ideas they advance. Besides, a similar discrepancy also exists within these human sciences—we need only compare the "science of literature" with the other branches of sociology and history—and at present the scientific study of literature is far more an aspiration than a reality.

There is nothing surprising, therefore, in my starting this study of Racine with the problem of language and definition. The collective consciousness, or the "common sense" of critics and spectators, has produced a statement which I am quite ready to accept, anyhow for the time being: Racine is above all a tragic writer. But in order to use this statement as my starting point it has to be given a precise meaning and this presupposes the definition of the terms tragedy and tragic.

Though most historians and critics agree to classify a certain number of writers—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Racine, and, partially, Shakespeare—as tragedians, they also refer to the "tragedies" of Rotrou, Quinault, Corneille and even Victor Hugo. They hardly ever ask themselves whether all the theatrical works of writers reputed to be tragic are really tragedies.

From the vast quantity of literature devoted to tragedy there emerges one hypothesis, formulated with greater or less clarity: an essential bond exists between the idea of tragedy and the idea of destiny or fatality. And there is no doubt that this can be applied to a whole series of works by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Shakespeare, as well as to Racine's Phèdre. Had this hypothesis, however unsatisfactory it might be, been taken more seriously it would no longer have been possible to speak of the "tragedies" of Quinault, Gamier or Corneille. A considerable advance would have been made in the knowledge and use of words, for, though the idea of destiny, regarded as an incomprehensible fatality dominating the hero's existence and acts, is valid for characters like Orestes, Oedipus, Macbeth or Phèdre, it obviously cannot be applied to Antigone, Andromaque, Junie or Titus. Rather than give up this idea, therefore, we should merely regard it as the characteristic of one form of tragic literature. What we still need to do is to find a definition capable of embracing the two forms of tragedy.

Another idea, implicit rather than explicit, which appears together with that of destiny in most works on tragedy, is the idea of the "serious play". But this is far too general to have any functional value. Besides, it includes the concept of drama, which is just as vague but which seems to have a different significance. I therefore suggest that we adopt, temporarily and for as long as it is practicable, a distinction which might be a first step towards the development of a precise and scientific terminology. I shall call a "tragedy" any play in which the conflicts are necessarily insoluble, and a "drama" any play in which the conflicts either are solved (at least on a moral level) or fail to be solved because of the fortuitous intervention of a factor which, according to the laws governing the universe of the play, might not have operated.

If we bide by this definition not only plays like Le Cid, Horace or Polyeucte, but Bajazet, Mithridate, Iphigénie, Esther and Athalie are dramas and not tragedies, the term tragedy only being applicable to Britannicus, Bérénice, Phèdre and, up to a certain point which I shall examine in due course, Andromaque. No intramundane solution exists to the problems facing Junie, Titus, Phèdre and, to a certain extent, Andromaque, while Bajazet's and Athalide's scheme fails accidentally (owing to a swoon and the discovery of a letter) and might have succeeded and formed a splendid comedy in the style of Marivaux. In the other plays all the problems are solved in the end, except for those of Eriphile, a tragic character, but one on the outskirts of the play who has no influence on the coherent and closed world constituted by the leading characters.

Let us pause to consider the implications of my original hypothesis—that tragedy is defined by the necessarily insoluble nature of the conflicts which occur. To start with this means that, in every tragedy, there is an absolute primacy of morals over the actual state of affairs, of what ought to be over what is. It means that a tragedy is the representation of a universe dominated by a conflict of values and that every attempt to understand it on the basis of the characters' psychology is a misapprehension and is doomed to fail. Indeed, the conflicts between the various "egoisms", conflicts of interest or passion, are never essentially insoluble. It is always by accident that the passions of two particular individuals are not reciprocal, that Oreste loves Hermione, while Hermione loves Pyrrhus, who loves Andromaque. On the other hand it is an absolute moral duty for Andromaque to remain faithful to Hector and to do everything in her power to save the life of Astyanax. Similarly it is always by accident that one of the antagonists triumphs over the other in a conflict of interests or ambition, that Néron should get the better of Agrippine and not vice-versa.

So all these characters are in themselves essentially dramatic, and if the plays where we encounter them are tragedies it is precisely because the unity and coherence of their universe only appears from the point of view of other characters who are entirely different, characters like Andromaque, Junie, Titus and Phèdre who are dominated by an ethical need, and whom we can call tragic heroes.

Yet it is not enough to characterise tragedy solely by the primacy of morality and the conflict of values, for the universe of drama is also frequently based on an ethical problem: take Corneille's plays and Racine's dramatic works, Mithridate, Iphigénie or Athalie. The tragic universe is one where values and their corresponding moral requirements are absolute, dominated by the category of all or nothing, without the slightest notion of degree or compromise. The tragic universe knows no nuance. It only knows right and wrong, reality and unreality, and contains neither graduality nor transition.

In tragedy an insuperable gulf separates the characters lacking value and reality (either because they live a compromise or because they are so obsessed by passion or ambition that they lack any form of consciousness) from the real tragic characters, who are aware of both their needs and their limitations and whose every act counts, independently of all motives and psychological explanations, with the same force and intensity.

Apart from historic hope and action, inaccessible to the tragic view, everyday life consists of unawareness, selfish ambition and blind passion, approximate and partial accomplishments and half-realized hopes. Its inhabitants either resign themselves to it or seek consolation in an inner life or in dreams. This is why everyday life remains a confused and ambiguous mixture without ever becoming a clear, univocal structure. This is also why it never reaches that extremely elevated threshold of consciousness and rigour required by the tragic universe whose law Pascal expressed when he said that all that is not fully valid with relation to the infinite, all that is not true and right, is equally valueless, false and wrong. We see why tragic conflicts are insoluble from the start. The need for absolute values, for the totality which rules the universe of every tragedy, is radically and irremediably opposed to a world dominated by compromise, relativity and the more or less.

Here, then, are three constituent elements of every tragedy: an essentially insoluble conflict resulting from the clash between a world which knows only relativity, compromise, the more or less, and a universe dominated by the need for absolute values, for totality, and governed by the law of all or nothing.

But who is it who demonstrates this need in the eyes of the world? Sometimes, or more precisely, in the tragedies "without peripeteia or recognition", it is the tragic hero himself: Andromaque, Junie or Titus. But these characters remain aware that they are conforming to an external need which surpasses them. And what of the tragedies of fatality "with peripeteia and recognition", as in the cases of Oedipus, Orestes or Phèdre? There is only one answer, and it brings us to the third and most important figure in the tragic universe: fatality, transcendency, God.

This last term is probably the most precise provided we realize that it does not mean the God of any specific religion. Tragedy is no more connected with Christianity than with the religion of the Greeks, although the Christian God, like the Greek gods, or those of any other religion, can have a tragic aspect. Consequently, Racine had no difficulty in transposing an almost unmodified version of Port-Royal's concept of Christianity into a pagan universe.

We have thus come to a fourth essential element of every tragedy: the existence of a figure who demands the realization of an absolute justice alien to any compromise and who observes the unfolding of the action. Tragedy can be defined as a spectacle under the permanent observation of a deity.

But we still have to specify the characteristics of the tragic God or gods whose most salient trait is primarily negative. The deity who rules the universe of tragedy is the very opposite of the providential God, for he never shows the hero which path he should follow in order to realize an authentic existence. Though he is always present this God remains a hidden god, a god who is always absent. This is the key to tragedy. The protagonists are perfectly capable of living both away from the deity, in the absence of God (all those who form the world do so), and in the presence of God and under his protection. The paradox of his continual presence and absence alone obstructs the "false consciousness" of an ignorant world as much as it does the certainty of the mystic. It makes life impossible.

In the words of the greatest tragic thinker in French literature the perpetual presence of the deity prevents men from "falling asleep", while his perpetual absence turns this sleeplessness into an agony (Pascal, Pensées). Moreover, the absence, the hidden nature of the deity, can appear in the two different ways which constitute the two forms of tragedy. As in most Greek tragedies and in Phèdre, the gods can blind man; they can leave him a prey to evil, to the illusion of being able to live, although he has long entered the universe of their absolute and implacable justice, only at the last moment revealing to him his fault and its consequences. These are the avenging gods of the tragedy "with peripeteia and recognition", of the tragedy of destiny. Or they can give the hero from the outset that which, in the other type of tragedy, they only allow him at the end: the full awareness of the divine requirements and of the impossibility of satisfying them in this life. But they then become spectators. Under their observation Junie, Titus, Bérénice (at the end of the play) and (up to a point) Andromaque act as the heroes of tragedies "without peripeteia or recognition". They act as the heroes of tragedies of human greatness and refusal.

In both cases, however, the tragic God remains a hard and implacable God, a God whose sentence disregards any motive or explanation, a God who knows neither forgiveness nor meekness and who judges nothing but the act (whenever the act has touched the essence, from however great a distance and for however short a time) and not the man, his life, his intention. He is also a God who disregards the unessential world which is too unreal and transparent to detain his attention.

Racine's tragic hero

I have just enumerated the three main figures or characters of tragedy in general and of Racine's tragedies in particular: God, man and the world. I shall now proceed to analyse each of them in turn.

The first thing that characterises the tragic deity, apart from his hidden nature (his avenging and justiciary nature in the tragedies of destiny and his nature as a spectator in the tragedies of refusal), is the fact that his requirements, which constitute the very existence of the hero, cannot be satisfied in the world. In the language of a being who lives in the world or confronting the world, they are consequently contradictory.

A man, said Pascal, "does not show his greatness by being at one extreme, but by touching both extremes at once and by filling in the space between them." But he also knew that this was impossible in life and in the world because "the extremes meet and reunite precisely because they are far apart … in God and in God alone." This need to reunite the two extremes dominates all of Racine's tragedies, from Andromaque to Phèdre. The gods' requirement, and the sole meaning of the heroes' existence, is totality, the union of opposites. Thus Andromaque needs to save Astyanax's life and to remain faithful to Hector, Junie to save Britannicus' life and to marry him, Titus to observe the Roman law and to marry Bérénice, Phèdre to satisfy both love and honour. Seventeenth century tragedy expresses the conflict between the pseudo-morality of the world (which is a morality of choice) and the new morality of the tragic man who lives in the sight of God—a morality of totality and refusal.

For totality, the reunion of opposites, is only accessible in God. Even at the height of tragic consciousness man remains equidistant from God and from the world. Too far from the latter to renounce his need for totality and too far from the former to be able to satisfy it, suspended between a world without God and a God who has abandoned and forgotten the world, the hero is the last link between the constituent elements of the universe. It is precisely because of this that he can act in the universe by deluding himself or by rejecting existence, but it is also because of this that he cannot live in it authentically. At every moment the hero's consciousness reminds him not only that all choice is a crime against God and the truth since all choice is a sin against the essence, but also that every need for totality, for the reunion of opposites, is absurd, criminal and unrealizable in the world.

The tragic hero is therefore a being who lives in the sight of God, a God who, as Lukács pointed out, recognises nothing but the essence and disregards and destroys all that is accidental—a God for whom the "miracle" alone is real. Now, in a world in which every demand for true truth and for just justice is paradoxical and contradictory, the miracle is called clarity and absence of ambiguity. In the tragic universe once the conversion has taken place the hero's existence is no more than an immutable demand for clarity, for a miracle. And the miracle is never performed, the contradiction subsists, and life becomes impossible. But, by demanding a miracle, an unachievable clarity, the hero pits himself against the equivocal world for he is the only being who is clear and unambiguous either from the start (Andromaque, Junie, Titus) or by the end of the play (Bérénice, Phèdre). He thus constitutes the only real miracle in the tragic universe, the only real being for a deity who sees nothing but the essential.

As I have said, this appears in the hero's consciousness in the form of two contradictory requirements. But we should beware of critical analysis, concepts and philosophy. There are never any concepts in the universe of a work of literature: there are only individual beings, situations and things. Thus the contradictory requirements of the deity are usually expressed by a division of the deity himself. The hidden God of Racine's tragedies frequently possesses two faces: Hector and Astyanax, the Roman people and love, the Sun and Venus (we shall later see why there is no such division in Britannicus, in reference to the Temple of Vesta).

Observed by the deity's double, but at the same time single, eye, and confronted by the deity's contradictory requirements, man finds himself pulled with equal strength towards the two opposite extremes, and every step he takes, every gesture he makes towards one of them, simply increases his sense of failure before the other extreme and makes it all the more attractive. As Pascal said:

Nature has placed us so delicately in the middle that if we alter one of the scales we inevitably disturb the other one too. This leads me to believe that there are certain mechanisms within our heads which are arranged in such a way that whoever touches one of them also affects its opposite.

For the tragic hero, enamoured of justice and purity, every worldly action is a conscious or unconscious fault, and, in the tragic universe which lacks any form of degree, this is tantamount to mortal sin. So the real content of all Racine's tragedies is the same: the hero's "conversion" and his refusal of life and the world, the only free and valid act that he can perform.

Yet the statement that the content of all Racine's tragedies is the universe engendered by "conversion" requires closer analysis. "Conversion" is the sudden and atemporal passage from nothingness to being, from error to truth. It is the passage from an intramundane life without God, dominated by selfish, criminal (because partial) pleasures, by passion and ambition, to the clear awareness of the new morality, dominated by the need to reunite opposites, for totality. Finally, it is the passage to the awareness that authentic life is life observed by a God who is real and absent from the vanity of the world. Man's only liberty is the choice which he must make, and which he cannot avoid making, between nothingness and being, between apparent life in the world and real life in eternity. Conversion is a radical break both with the present world and with the past, with all that has existed or exists in time and space. This can hardly be expressed better than by Lukács:

Too alien to be enemies, the unveiled and the unveiler, chance and revelation, confront each other. For whatever reveals itself through an encounter with chance is alien to chance; it is more elevated and hales from another world. It is with alien eyes that the soul which has found itself now judges its previous existence. It seems incomprehensible, unessential, unreal to it. At most the soul could have dreamed of being otherwise—for its present existence is existence, whereas once a chance occurrence used to put dreams to flight and the accidental chimes of a distant bell used to bring morning awakening.

This "conversion", this moment of awareness which separates men from the world, does not necessarily create an obvious and tangible bond, a community between him and the deity. Indeed, the same awareness of the unremitting need for absolute values which makes every bond between him and the world inconceivable also makes him fully aware of his own limitations and of the infinite distance still separating him from the deity.

In the Ecrit sur la conversion du pécheur, one of the masterpieces of tragic thought, Pascal started by describing the position of the soul between a vain and tangible world on the one hand and the real and hidden God on the other:

Pious exercises appear even more obnoxious to it than the vanities of the world. On the one hand the presence of visible objects touches it more than the hope for invisible ones, and on the other the solidity of the invisible objects affects it more than the vanity of the visible ones. Thus the presence of the former and the solidity of the latter compete for the soul's affection, while the vanity of the former and the absence of the latter stimulate its aversion, thereby leading to disorder and confusion within the soul.

The soul, he concluded,

begins to know God and desires to accede to Him; but since it has no idea how to do this, if its desire is genuine and sincere, it follows the course of the man who, aware of having lost his way, asks people who know it and … It decides to act in accordance with His wishes for the rest of its life; but since its natural weakness, together with the fact that it has grown accustomed to the sins in which it has lived, have made it incapable of reaching this state of happiness, it begs Him, in His mercy, to show it the way of acceding to Him, of joining Him and of remaining eternally united with Him … It thus realizes that it must worship God as a creature, render the thanks that are due to Him, give satisfaction to Him as a sinner, and pray to Him in its need.

This is to say that the tragic hero, equidistant from God and from the world, is radically alone. So alone is he that the real problem of the tragedy is to know how a dialogue can still exist in this absolute solitude, where there is no more than a paradoxical bond between man and God—a fundamental and unremitting bond, no doubt, but at the same time one which is completely hidden and is bereft of any ostensible concrete existence. For if tragedy is the expression of a universe and a solitude, it nevertheless remains a play containing five acts which presuppose two or three hours dialogue between several characters.

How can the hero's absolute solitude and the impossibility of forming the slightest real bond between him and the world as well as between him and the deity be expressed? The problem is not, of course, really insoluble. In order to solve it Racine disposed of three elements, different combinations between which enabled him to write his four tragedies:

(a) Intramundane dialogues between the characters forming the world: Pyrrhus-Oreste, Oreste-Hermione, Néron-Agrippine, Néron-Britannicus;

(b) Pseudo-dialogues between the tragic character and a character of the world: Andromaque-Pyrrhus, Junie-Néron, Bérénice-Antiochus, and finally

(c) the essential element of tragedy, dialogue between the hero and the deity, a paradoxical dialogue in which only one of the interlocutors talks to the other, who never answers and may not even be listening. Speaking of Phèdre, the distinguished critic Thierry Maulnier used the term "incantation". I prefer the more precise term "solitary dialogue", coined by Lukács.

The solitude of the tragic hero, the abyss separating him both from God and from the world, presented Racine with a further problem of composition—the chorus. Like most modern tragedians Racine was constantly preoccupied with it and was always looking for a means of introducing it into his plays as the ancients had done. But this problem was, and remains, insoluble. The chorus has a specific significance. It is the voice of the human community and therefore the voice of the gods. Greek tragedy told of the destiny of a hero who, in a universe made harmonious by the accord between community and deity, broke the traditional order with his "hybris" and drew divine vengeance on himself by leaving the community and enraging the deity.

In Racine's tragedies—and in all great modern tragedies—the authentic community of men has long disappeared, and not even a memory of it remains. The world, which is no longer linked to the hero, is a jungle of rapacious selfishness and oblivious victims. It is this world which, according to Pascal, crushes humanity; but man is greater than the world, for he knows that he is being crushed while the world is unaware of it. This is why he can no longer be a frightened, or merely impassive, witness of events.

In Racine's tragedies God's silence, the lack of a chorus and the hero's radical solitude are three aspects of one and the same phenomenon. They therefore all disappear as soon as the only valid transcendence of tragedy which the hero can acknowledge, the divine universe, appears behind the scenes or—in the sacred dramas—on the stage. In this universe man is no longer alone, for he returns both to God and the authentic community, the people, to which mundane characters such as Néron and Pyrrhus can never gain admission.

When Junie seeks refuge in the Temple of Vesta the people who protect her interpose themselves between her and the world, killing Narcisse and preventing Néron from entering. The last scene of Britannicus clearly shows the two opposing universes, that of the gods, legitimate royalty, the people and purity, and that of ambiguity, tyranny and crime….

In Bérénice, too, when Titus is informed of the arrival of the people and the Senate, he does not doubt for a second that it is the voice of the gods which is reminding him of their requirements:

(Rutile: My lord, the tribunes, the consuls, the senate are asking for you in the name of the State. A great mob is following them and impatiently awaits you in your chambers.

Titus: I hear you, great gods! You want to reassure this heart which you see on the verge of going astray.

Paulin: Come, my lord, let us go to your chambers. Let us see the senate.

Antiochus: Go to the queen!

Paulin: What, my lord! Could you trample upon the majesty of the empire by committing such an indignity? Rome …

Titus: Enough, Paulin. We shall hear them. (To Antiochus) Prince, I cannot avoid this duty. See the queen. Go. I hope that on my return she will no longer doubt my love.)

Finally, when Racine goes beyond tragedy, in Esther and Athalie, and presents the universe of the triumphant God on the stage, the hero is no longer solitary but finds a genuine community with the chorus.

A classical writer is primarily a realist. Racine, who was above all a classical writer, never succumbed to the illusion of being able to unite tragedy and the chorus artificially. They were incompatible elements and it was aesthetically impossible to situate them in the same universe.

The atemporal instant

In connection with the problems of composition I should also mention the problem of unity of time, entailing the two other unities of place and action. It has become something of a commonplace to say that the rule of the three unities, which constituted a more or less external corset for Corneille, never troubled Racine. We are still bound to explain why what, for Corneille, was a problem of reducing the events to twenty-four hours, became, for Racine, one of filling five acts with an essentially atemporal action.

It seems to me that the answer has already been outlined in the preceding pages. The "time" of the tragedy is the time of the "conversion", of the refusal of the world and life, of the voluntary choice between solitude or death. Now, "conversion" is an instantaneous event, sudden and with no preparation, which is to say it has no duration. At the moment when the curtain rises in Andromaque, Britannicus and Bérénice, the conversion of the hero, or at least of one of the heroes, has already taken place. The die has been cast, the future has long been settled, and the past is an ever-present, imminent threat. The three dimensions of temporality are thus contracted into an atemporal present which leads only to eternity. The tragedy is set at the moment of refusal or of death, at the time when the hero's relationship with what he loved is coming to an end, when he sees the object of his love "for the last time."

The twenty-four hours undoubtedly exist for the beings of the world, for Hermione, for Néron who will slay Britannicus, for Bérénice who will only be converted at the end of the play, thereby entering the universe of tragedy:

But these twenty-four hours could equally well be two hours or forty-eight hours—that is of no importance. The world is inessential, and, in the sight of that God who creates the tragic universe, only the essence, the "miracle" (and that means the tragic character alone) really exists. There is no time, no future for Andromaque, Junie, Titus or Bérénice after her conversion: they live—it comes to the same thing—in the instant and in eternity. In relation to the world their existence is simply a no, an inexorable refusal, nothing else.

No doubt time appears to exist for Phèdre, but it is the time of an illusion, a paradoxical time, circular and deceptive. Phèdre starts with the same situation as the three other tragedies, Soleil, je viens te voir pour la dernière fois (Sun, I come to see you for the last time. Act I, scene 3) and ends at the moment when Phèdre again encounters the initial situation. In the play her final conversion, which suppresses the past, removes all reality from the process whose accomplishment she obviously demanded. Thus Phèdre ends with the same negation of time with which the other tragedies had begun.

The tragic fault

Of the three figures between whom tragedy is played, God, man and the world, I have tried to describe the first two. We come now to the third.

The world of tragedy is a world without God, in which no real value can ever be either realized or approached. It is a world in which the pseudo-existence of the protagonists (in relation to the constituent values of tragedy) is defined by injustice and error, a world of beasts and puppets. I said earlier on that all opposition of interests, ambitions or passions, taken as the subject of a play, must necessarily be accidental and therefore dramatic. But when this opposition is situated within the tragic universe it is, in as far as it is an accident, typical or representative of a world which does not know and can never attain the essence.

I must now introduce a notion of paramount importance: the fault. In the tragic universe we must distinguish between worldly faults—injustice and error, which both imply complete absence of consciousness—and the tragic fault which is the consequence of the sharp and clear consciousness accorded to man by his entry into the tragic universe, his "conversion". In this context to know means to know the absolute needs which separate the hero from the world, as well as his limitations which separate him irremediably from God. …

In 1653, long before Pascal had written his Pensées or Racine his tragedies, the Church condemned what it called "the Jansenist heresy" for having asserted that the most perfect state which man could attain, the true human state, was not that of Adam or the angles, but that of St Peter who denied Jesus, the state of the just sinner. A long and fastidious philological discussion ensued, and still continues three centuries later, in order to establish whether Jansen did or did not really support these propositions. But barely forty years after the condemnation the little group of French Jansenists had given birth to the two masterpieces of tragic literature, Pascal's Pensées and Jean Racine's plays. This, it seems to me, cuts across the debate more efficiently than any theological or philological discussion. By formulating the "five propositions" Rome defined Jansenism with amazing concision, better, perhaps, than the best theoreticians of Port-Royal could have done. But, by condemning them, Rome also condemned the tragic thought and literature which constitute one of the human mind's most realistic, most powerful and most valid forms of expression.

Kenneth Muir (lecture date 1959)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6173

SOURCE: "Racine," in Last Periods of Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen, Wayne State University Press, 1961, pp. 61-88.

[In the following excerpt from the text of a lecture delivered in 1959, Muir focuses upon the final two dramas of Racine, Esther and Athaliah, finding the latter in particular a reflection of Racine's effort to, in effect, repudiate the libertinism of his middle years and return to the Christian practice of his youth.]

Between 1664 and 1676, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-seven, a space of twelve years, Racine wrote ten plays. During this next twelve years, between the ages of thirty-seven and forty-nine, he wrote nothing for the stage. Then, in his last period, he was persuaded to write the two Biblical plays, Esther and Athalie. Any critic of Racine's work is confronted with the twelve years' silence following the twelve years of continuous dramatic activity. However we explain his long retirement from the stage we can be sure that there was more than one reason, and it is not difficult to guess that the reasons were interrelated. In the first place, he gave up the irregularities of his sexual life, as many men do on the threshold of middle age, and married a pious woman who seems to have disapproved of the stage, the more heartily because one of Racine's discarded mistresses had taken the leading role in his tragedies. Second, Racine became reconciled to his former teachers at Port Royal, who objected to most secular literature and disliked plays as violently as the Puritans of Shakespeare's day. Nicole, who taught Racine Latin, declared in a pamphlet that plays and novels were horrible when considered according to the principles of Christianity. A dramatist, he said,

is a public poisoner, not of the bodies but of the souls of the faithful; who ought to regard himself as guilty of an infinity of spiritual murders. … The more care he takes to cover with a veil of respectability the criminal passions which he describes, the more dangerous he has made them, and the more capable of surprising and corrupting guileless and innocent souls. Such sins are all the more dreadful, in that these books do not perish, but they continue to spread their venom amongst those who read them.

Racine was aware of Nicole's views on the immorality and profaneness of the stage and, it would seem, increasingly uneasy about his profession. In the preface to Phèdre, the last of the secular plays, Racine is careful to point out how scrupulous he has been to depict virtue in a favorable light, to punish severely the smallest faults, to regard the very idea of a crime with as much horror as the actual deed:

The passions are presented only to show all the disorder of which they are the cause; and vice is everywhere depicted in such colors as to make people recognize it and hate its deformity. That, indeed, is the aim which every man who works for the public should propose for himself.

Racine had, of course, always held the view that tragedy has a moral function; but in this preface he was particularly anxious to claim that, in spite of Phèdre's incestuous desires, and in spite of the sympathy aroused for her, the moral tone of the play is unexceptionable.

But Racine could not be reconciled to Port Royal so long as he was writing for the stage, and the desire on his part to be reconciled was one cause of his retirement from the stage. Another factor, perhaps, was the failure of Phèdre, when it was first performed, through the intrigues of his enemies. They got to hear that he was writing a play about Phaedra and Hippolytus and they commissioned a second-rate poet to write a play on the same subject. They filled the theatre of his rival with an enthusiastic audience and boycotted Racine's play.

The last cause of Racine's retirement from the stage was his appointment as historiographer royal, and this appointment was made on the understanding that he would sever his connection with the theatre. He seems to have regarded the post as more respectable than that of being the greatest poet of the century, and even in his youth he seems to have looked on his genius as a means of social advancement. Before we condemn Racine we should recall that Shakespeare had moods when he disliked the theatre and that he was anxious to obtain the right to call himself a gentleman.

The various motives I have mentioned reacted one upon the other. Like Jason in Anouilh's play, Racine wished to lead a more orderly life, to marry, to settle down; he wanted to make his peace with his religious advisers and to escape from the bitter conflicts of the theatre; and his official appointment provided him with a suitable opportunity.

In spite of which, the twelve years of silence were not without problems for the poet. On the one hand, he loved, admired, almost worshipped Louis XIV; on the other, he had become reconciled to his old teachers who were persecuted by the King: so that Racine was inevitably torn between his love for Port Royal and his desire for advancement at court. Giraudoux, indeed, in his brilliant essay on Racine, suggests that the two Biblical plays may be explained by the Catholicism of the King, rather than by that of the author, and that his

period of dissipation had never been a period of impiety; he was reconciled not with God, but with his aunt; he had himself buried not at the feet of a saint, but at the feet of the man who had taught him Greek verbs.

This is witty; but, like most witty remarks, it is not entirely true. It is part of Giraudoux's argument that Racine's inspiration was wholly literary. In fact, his conversion, his reconciliation with Port Royal, was genuine, and it was a landmark in his life. He had written the greatest tragedies in the French language, but he was still profoundly dissatisfied. As Giraudoux puts it, "The purest French that had been written was no longer the perfect language for Racine but the dialect of a country he had deserted." During the next twelve years Racine translated seventeen hymns from the Breviary, as Milton, during the years before he began to compose Paradise Lost, versified a number of Psalms. Racine's hymns are not so feeble as Milton's psalms, but no one would suspect that they were written by a great poet.

Madame de Sevigné observed that Racine loved God as he had formerly loved his mistresses. She might have added that whereas his mistresses had inspired Andromache and Phèdre, God seemed, at first, to be less fortunate in the work he inspired. In 1688, however, a way was found to reconcile poetry and piety. Racine was invited by Madame de Maintenon to write a Biblical play to be performed by pupils of a girls' school of which she was the patron. Somewhat unwillingly, Racine accepted the invitation; and the play, Esther, was a great success. Madame de Maintenon asked him for another religious play; but the King stipulated that there should be no dresses or scenery, and the first performance of Athalie was little more than a recitation in an ordinary room. It was afterwards performed at court. There was one performance before the exiled James II, who must have viewed the overthrow of Athalie with mixed feelings. There is good reason to believe that Racine chose his subject partly with the Glorious Revolution in mind; but, of course, he did not regard the revolution as glorious. Although the play shows a successful rebellion against a reigning monarch, both he and his audience would identify Athalie not with James II, but with the usurper, William III; and they would identify Joas with the infant son of James II, who had escaped from England with his mother. The restoration of this boy to the throne would not merely involve the overthrow of the usurper, it would restore the true religion in place of the worship of Baal, or Protestantism. Yet Louis did not approve of the play. Nor is this surprising: Joad, the High Priest, might reasonably be regarded as a Jansenist; and Mathan, the renegade, had gained his sovereign's ear by arts which resembled in some ways those by which the Jesuits were thought to control Louis XIV:

My soul
Attached itself entirely to the court,
Till by degrees I gained the ear of kings,
And soon became an oracle. I studied
Their hearts and flattered their caprice. For them
I sowed the precipice's edge with flowers.

François Mauriac suggests that Louis might have used of Arnault, the head of Port Royal, the phrase which Athalie addresses to Joad in the last act of the play: "Eternal enemy of absolute power." Indeed, the picture painted by Racine of the corruption of absolute power in the Queen's entourage was, however unconsciously, an attack on the whole principle of absolutism, absolute power corrupting absolutely. Although Racine could declare, in prose, that Louis was "the wisest and most perfect of all men," he put into the mouth of the chorus a description of Athalie's court:

Within a court where Justice is unknown,
And all the laws are Force and Violence,
Where Honor's lost in base obedience,
Who will speak up for luckless Innocence?

No intelligent tyrant could listen to such sentiments without seeing that the cap fitted. These lines were either omitted from the first edition of the play—either by accident or because Racine realised that they were dangerous—or else they were added in the second edition. But there were plenty of others on the dangers of absolute power which apply as accurately to the reign of Louis XIV. One of Joad's speeches, in the scene in which he reveals to the boy Eliacin that he is the lawful king, is a most moving account of the evils, and the dangers, of absolutism.

My son—1 still dare call you by that name—
Suffer this tenderness; forgive the tears
That flow from me in thinking of your peril.
Nurtured far from the throne, you do not know
The poisonous enchantment of that honor.
You do not know yet the intoxication
Of absolute power, the bewitching voice
Of vilest flattery. Too soon they'll tell you
That sacred laws, though rulers of the rabble,
Must bow to kings; that a king's only bridle
Is his own will; that he should sacrifice
All to his greatness; that to tears and toil
The people are condemned and must be ruled
With an iron sceptre; that if they're not oppressed,
Sooner or later they oppress—and thus,
From snare to snare, and from abyss to abyss,
Soiling the lovely purity of your heart,
They'll make you hate the truth, paint virtue for you
Under a hideous image. Alas! the wisest
Of all our kings was led astray by them.
Swear then upon this book, and before these
As witnesses, that God will always be
Your first of cares; that stern towards the wicked,
The refuge of the good, you'll always take
Between you and the poor the Lord for judge,
Remembering, my son, that, in these garments,
You once were poor and orphaned, even as they.

It is significant that nearly a hundred years later, on the eve of the French Revolution, this speech was interrupted at almost every line by enthusiastic applause. It is still more significant that Fouché, the head of Napoleon's secret police, compelled the actors to omit it. Poets, as Plato realised long ago, are dangerous people in a totalitarian state; for even when they consciously desire, as Racine apparently did, to gain the favor of a tyrant by flattery, they are impelled by forces stronger than themselves to tell the truth. Racine, when he wrote Athalie, was certainly doing his best to please Madame de Maintenon and the King; he had no wish to intrude Jansenist and, still less, disloyal sentiments; but all great poets are George Washingtons in spite of themselves—they cannot tell a lie. Racine's conception of the good king was constant throughout his career. In Berenice Titus declares that he undertook the happiness of a thousand who were unhappy and later asks, "What tears have I dried? In what satisfied eyes have I savored the fruit of my good deeds?" In Esther the chorus distinguishes between a victorious king, who triumphs through his valor, and the wise king who hates injustice, prevents the rich from grinding the faces of the poor, who is the protector of the fatherless and the widow, and to whom the tears of the righteous suitor are precious. It must have been difficult to identify Louis XIV with such a monarch, though such is the mystique of royalty that many probably did. …

[We] do Racine a great injustice if we regard him as a tyrant's laureate. Athalie is not only a great tragedy, a great work of art, it is also a precious manifesto in the history of human freedom, and as Voltaire said, a masterpiece of the human spirit.

On the other hand, religious people have not always been judicious in their praise of the play. The Abbé Bremond, for example, says that Athalie should be studied in the chapel rather than in the classroom. Either fate seems to me undeserved for what is after all a great dramatic masterpiece. Just as misguided critics have argued that King Lear cannot be acted, so some French critics have said that to act Athalie is as sacriligious as to touch the Ark of the Covenant.

There is a long doctoral thesis on Racine's use of the Bible in the play. We are not likely to get much illumination from that angle. The use Shakespeare made of his sources in one possible road to an understanding of his genius; but the story of Athaliah in the Bible is so brief, and Racine takes such liberties with it, that we can learn very little about his genius from this kind of approach. But one thing does emerge from a study of the Bible which explains in part why Racine chose this particular story. Joas was in the direct line of descent between David and Jesus. That is why his preservation, both in his infancy and during the course of the play, is of cosmic importance. On his safety depends, one might almost say, the redemption of man. That is why Joad's prophecy about the Messiah is perfectly appropriate, and why Maulnier says that in Athalie the celebration of fate is associated with the celebration of faith. "The unity of action is established here, by divine command, the unity of place by the sanctuary, the unity of time by the sacrifice."

One of the most remarkable things about Athalie arises from the poet's consciousness of the significance in religious history of the action of the play. He contrives in the two hours' traffic of the stage, in incidents which take no longer than the time of representation, to show both the past and the future. Jezebel's death is described by Joad in Act I, twice by Athalie herself in Act II, and there is a reference to it in the last act. The murder of Ahaziah's children and the escape of Joas are described by Josabeth in the first act, by Athalie in the second act, by Joad in Act IV, and there are continual references to it throughout the play. The long feud between Athalie's family and the priests makes her a victim of circumstances. We have for her something of the pity Thomas Hardy evokes for Jezebel in the poem describing the "proud Tyrian woman who painted her face":

Faintly marked they the words "Throw her down" rise from time eerily,
Spectre-spots of the blood of her body on some rotten wall,
And the thin note of pity that came, "A King's daughter is she,"
As they passed where she trodden was once by the chargers' footfall.

Racine was prevented by his artistic conscience from making Athalie merely detestable, and indeed from making Joad entirely sympathetic—Voltaire regarded the character as fanatical and superstitious. Athalie not merely gives her name to the play: she is the dominating character, and she is depicted not without sympathy. Over and over again we are reminded of the savage way in which her mother had been murdered. She tells Josabeth:

Yes, my just fury—and I boast of it—
Avenged my parents' deaths upon my sons.
I saw my father and my brother butchered,
My mother cast down from her palace window,
And in one day (what a spectacle of horror!)
Saw eighty princes murdered! For what reason?
To avenge some prophets whose immoderate frenzies
My mother justly punished.

Even more striking, and more calculated to arouse sympathy for Athalie, is her famous dream, in which Jezebel appears to her and warns her that the God of the Jews will soon prevail over her also:

In uttering these frightful words,
Her ghost, it seemed, bent down towards my bed;
But when I stretched my hands out to embrace her,
I found instead a horrible heap of bones,
And mangled flesh, and tatters soaked in blood
Dragged through the mire, and limbs unspeakable
For which voracious dogs were wrangling there.

I am not, of course, suggesting that Racine was, as Blake asserted that Milton was, of the Devil's party without knowing it. It was simply that, like every good poet, Racine believed in giving the Devil his due. Shakespeare (as Keats declared) took as much delight in depicting an Iago as an Imogen; and Racine took as much delight in depicting an Athalie as a Joad. Indeed, the greatness of the play depends partly on the tension in the poet's mind between his artistic integrity and his religious feelings and, in the play itself, on the tension between the drama as a work of art and the drama as an act of worship. Racine on his knees and Racine in his study were not quite the same in their thoughts and feelings.

In her last speech Athalie prophecies that the innocent child, Joas, will do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord, profaning his alter, and so avenging Ahab, Jezebel and Athalie. Although Joas prays that the curse shall not be accomplished, we know from the Bible that he afterwards turned against the priests, thereby fulfilling the curse. Athalie was, in fact, triumphant after her own death, even though David's line—the line of descent between David and Jesus—was preserved. The knowledge of Joas' subsequent fall, which Racine could assume in his audience, makes some passages in the play unbearably poignant in their irony.

The scene in Act II where Athalie questions the boy about his life in the temple shows the haggard old queen, corrupted equally by her power and her crimes, face to face with innocence. The boy is later described by the chorus by the use of imagery which stresses this quality:

The irony of the scene depends not only on the fact that we know Joas will be corrupted, but also on the strange tenderness which Athalie feels for the boy who, in her dream, had stabbed her to the heart and who was eventually to be the cause of her death. For her love of Joas is the love of an old woman for her lost innocence, the maternal love which she had repressed at the bidding of vengeance. The weakness which blinds and destroys Athalie is the pity she thought she had conquered in herself. She is destroyed by the milk of human kindness, by the small residue of her virtue.

According to Aristotle, the most moving thing in tragedy is when a course of action intended to produce a certain result produces the reverse. So Athalie, by demanding from Joad the treasure of David and the boy Eliacin, and by threatening to destroy the temple if her demands are refused, is herself delivered into Joad's hands. What she thinks will be her final triumph over Jehovah turns out to be his final triumph over her. She asks for the child and for David's treasure, and she discovers that the child is the treasure and is the treasure precisely because he is her own successor. Her recognition of the truth is a good example of another of Aristotle's points:

Although I have stressed the fairness with which Racine depicts Athalie, it would be quite wrong to pretend that there is nothing to choose, morally, between the two parties and the two religions. All through the play there is a contrast between the worldly glory of the court and the service of righteousness in the temple; between the time-serving, hypocritical, treacherous Mathan, who does not believe in the religion he professes, and the austere and noble Joad; between the low standards of morality accepted by the worshippers of Baal, and the righteousness demanded by the worshippers of Jehovah. Some critics, it is true, have condemned the equivocation of Joad in the last act of the play, when he pretends to Abner that he will hand over to Athalie the treasure she had demanded. He does not tell a lie, though he deceives Abner by a calculated ambiguity. Racine, in the notes he jotted down on the play, defends Joad's prevarication by Biblical and Patristic precedents. But since Athalie is being lured into the temple so that she can be assassinated, it is needless to complain of Joad's deceit which is necessary for the purpose. The art of war consists very largely in making the enemy believe something which you wish him to believe. The prevarication, moreover, is necessary if Abner's integrity is to be preserved.

It will be noticed that in spite of the significance of the plot as a means of preserving David's line, and in spite of Joad's prophecy about the Messiah and the New Jerusalem,

In spite of this passage the general spirit of the play is Hebraic rather than Christian. In this Racine was wiser than some of his critics, for the intrusion of a Christian spirit into the more primitive story of Jezebel and Athaliah would have been unhistorical. Though Racine was probably more consciously religious after his conversion than Shakespeare had ever been, and though his last two plays were written on Biblical subjects, the plays of Shakespeare's last period, with their emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness, seem to me to be much more Christian in spirit than either Esther or Athalie.

It is significant that whereas Shakespeare was treating afresh in his last years themes which had exercised him before—jealousy, treachery, the reunion of those who had been separated, the forgiveness of sins—Racine moved away from the themes with which he had formerly been concerned. This was partly due to the fact that as the plays were being performed by school-girls, he had been asked to avoid the subject of love. They had performed Andromache with its murderous jealousies and suicidal loves, and Madame de Maintenon was afraid the girls might imbibe feelings of the wrong sort. Most of Racine's heroines are unsuitable models for well brought-up young ladies. Hermione incites Orestes (who loves her) to murder Pyrrhus (whom she loves but who prefers Andromache). Roxane first makes Bajazet choose between marriage to her and death; and when he wisely chooses death she gives him a final opportunity of watching the strangling of the woman he loves:

Follow me instantly
And see her die by the mutes' hands. Set free
Then, from a love fatal to glory's quest,
Plight me thy troth. Time will do all the rest.

Phèdre, on being repulsed by her stepson, allows him to be accused of having attempted to ravish her. Agrippine is a murderess. Beside these furies, the virtuous heroines appear very colorless. Aricie is unwilling to elope with a man whose life is in deadly danger until she has her marriage certificate in her pocket; Junie is merely pathetic; and Andromache derives all her interest from the tragic situation in which she is placed.

Although both Racine's Biblical plays illustrate the workings of Providence, it has been said that he found in Athalie a fate more pitiless than that of the ancients. Instead of the Greek destiny he had used in Andromache and Phèdre he showed a Jehovah who "with more native cruelty than Zeus ordained a precise destiny for man." Josabeth, a sympathetic figure, filled with maternal love, hails with delight the murder of the old queen. Perhaps Maulnier exaggerates when he says that there is more ferocity in Athalie than in the tragedies of sexual passion:

Between the fate which orders the murder and the murder itself the body and its lover no longer serve as intermediaries; the road of crime no longer passes through the territory of desire and exaltation.

The supernatural ferocity of the play, however much we may wish to modify Maulnier's views, is dependent on Racine's deliberate restriction of the action to those scenes which God himself, as it were, had prepared. "The different moments of the action are no other than the different moments of His thought." The divine action is substituted for the human action.

Neither does the actor suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.
(T. S. Eliot)

Of course, in a sense, in Shakespeare's last plays the divine action supersedes the human action or interpenetrates it. But whereas the villains in Esther and Athalie are destroyed, in Cymbeline and The Tempest Iachimo and the three men of sin are brought to repentance, and even Caliban decides to be wise hereafter and seek for grace. The spirit of Athalie is nearer to the spirit of Samson Agonistes than to that of The Tempest. Milton's Old Testament tragedy, though ending avowedly with "calm of mind, all passion spent," has as its climax the destruction of the Philistines, both innocent and guilty, by the champion of the Lord, and the chorus, with Milton's approval, sings a hymn of triumph. This, like the concluding sentiments of Athalie, is in accordance with the spirit of the stories on which the plays are based; but, of course, it is significant that both Racine and Milton should choose such subjects out of all the possible ones in the Old Testament.

The characteristics which have been found in Athalie by modern critics—brutality, ferocity, frenzy, murderous rage, religious exaltation—do not suggest the marmoreal calm of classic art. The classical form serves as a dam which controls and utilises an enormous pressure of emotion. Primitive passion and violent hatreds are combined with a passion for righteousness; and all are expressed with the deceptive clarity and simplicity of great art.

There is, I suppose, some prejudice amongst Englishspeaking readers against French classical tragedy, just as many Frenchmen, at the bottom of their hearts, regard Shakespeare as an "erring barbarian." It is unfortunate that typical English classical tragedies have been written by scholars for scholars. Daniel's Cleopatra and Philotas, with all their delicacy and charm, seem deliberately designed to avoid arousing any excitement: they are the ideal plays for people who have already had one attack of coronary thrombosis. Even All for Love is a decorous affair compared with Antony and Cleopatra; and the Victorian lady who remarked at a performance of Shakespeare's play, "How unlike the life of our own dear queen!" would not have been upset by Dryden's. Addison's Cato is a byword for laudable dullness; and no one, I suppose, has read Arnold's Merope more than once. But Racine's plays possess the intensity which Keats rightly demanded of a work of art, and this intensity is increased rather than diminished by the rigid classical form. Racine, unlike Corneille, obeys the rules so easily that the audience is unconscious of them. In Athalie, as I have mentioned, we live as much in the past as in the present; and we are made to realise that we are witnessing one episode in the continuous war between idolatry and righteousness.

The eloquence and order which the older critics found in Racine's work are, of course, to be found there. But recent critics have tended to stress the chaos and frenzy on which the order is superimposed, the terror which is never far beneath the surface. A scene in his plays has been described as "the explanation which closes for the time a series of negotiations between wild beasts." Racine's heroes "confront each other on a footing of terrible equality, of physical and moral nudity…. It is an equality and truth of the jungle." His plays are often terrifying. Beneath the civilised surface there is a volcano of passion. The characters, periwigged and elegant as they are, are often frenzied creatures plotting violent crimes. They address each other as "Seigneur" and "Madame," but they recall often the animal imagery of King Lear and Othello:

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame these vile offences,
It will come—
Humanity must perforce prey on itself
Like monsters of the deep.

In fact the perverted passions of Racine's characters are more horrifying than the straightforward violence of the jungle, and the order which is imposed on chaos at the end of the play is more often the quiet of exhaustion than the conscious restoration of an order which has been overturned by human passion.

I have mentioned Giraudoux's theory that Racine's inspiration was entirely literary and that it dated from his reading of the classics: his true liaisons were with the heroines of Greek plays, and the experience embodied in his tragedies was derived from the literary passions he had experienced in adolescence with the complicity of his schoolmasters. This is all very well, and it is a useful corrective to the theory that the tragedies may be explained by his love of Marquise du Parc and Mlle. Champmeslé; or the recent theory of René Jasinski that Agrippine, in Britannicus, is a symbol of Port Royal, the devouring mother from which Racine is unable to free himself. It is unnecessary to accept either the theory that the plays were purely literary in their inspiration or that they were symbolic representations of events in the dramatist's life. There have been hundreds of writers who studied Greek drama at school without afterwards being obsessed with the passions therein displayed; and we may suppose that Racine found in Greek plays something that combined with later experience.

It is a pity that after English critics have exploded what Charles Jasper Sisson calls "the mythical sorrows of Shakespeare" French critics should now try and explain the more classical plays of Racine as the reflection of his personal experience, in any narrow autobiographical sense. But it is probably true that in a broad sense they do reflect his own experience of life. He chose to write on sexual passion and power. It is significant that he was apparently never tempted to write on Oedipus or Antigone, and that although he started a scenario of the Iphigenia in Tauris he never progressed beyond the first act. Phèdre already reveals the conflict in his mind which led to his abandonment of the theatre; and his last two plays reveal both what Mauron calls the regressive form of religion into which he relapsed in his later years and his views on the corruption of the court.

Although no one would pretend that The Winter's Tale and The Tempest are greater works of art than King Lear or Macbeth, it is arguable that they display a ripeness of wisdom and a sense of reconciliation with life which was not present in the great tragedies. They do not repudiate the tragic sense of life: they recollect it in tranquillity. In Racine's last plays, on the other hand, partly because the subject-matter is different, he seems rather to have turned away from his former themes and obsessions. He has not subsumed them under his new religious outlook in which forgiveness plays very little part. It is significant that the converted poet should refer in contemptuous terms to a woman he had loved for years, the actress who had created Phèdre. There are, however, some positive values expressed in Esther and Athalie.

M. Raymond Picard calls Esther "a spiritual canticle in action," and it is, except for Bérénice, the most immediately attractive of Racine's plays. The choruses, however, which carry the chief burden of religious sentiment, seem to me be little more than a pleasant libretto, of small poetical importance:

O sweet Peace!
O eternal Light!
Beauty ever bright!
Happy the heart which thou dost please!
O sweet Peace!
O eternal Light!
Happy the heart which loves thee without cease!

We have already touched on the positive values in Athalie—the stern sense of righteousness, the lofty courage of Joad, the loving-tenderness of Josabeth, the puzzled integrity of Abner, the faith and innocence of the chorus. The lyrical interludes of the chorus are excellent poetry in their own right and are the best answer to the corruption of Athalie's court and Mathan's false religion. But perhaps the scene which best expresses the unspoiled innocence of life in the temple is the scene between Eliacin and Athalie. Shakespeare when he wishes to symbolize the age of innocence usually presents two young lovers—Perdita and Florizel, Miranda and Ferdinand—or a pastoral life such as that led by Imogen's brothers. Once, at the beginning of The Winter's Tale—in lines I quoted in my last lecture—he speaks of the boyhood of Polixenes and Leontes and their denial of hereditary guilt, original sin. But Shakespeare, whether because of the pagan settings of The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline or for some other reason, avoids any overt religious reference. He seems to express a faith in the natural goodness of man when not corrupted by society. Racine, on the other hand, emphasizes the religious basis of Eliacin's innocence. The life Eliacin led in the temple is perhaps an indirect tribute to the atmosphere of Racine's schooldays at Port Royal.

Athalie asks Eliacin (Joas) who looked after him in his infancy. He replies:

Has God ever left
His children in want? He feeds the tiniest birds;
His bounty stretches to the whole of nature.
I pray to him daily, and with a father's care
He feeds me with the gifts placed on his altar.

Athalie's fear and hostility gradually change to love. She asks Joas what he does with his time:

I worship the Lord and listen to his law.
I have been taught to read his holy book,
And I am learning now to copy it.

The law states

that God demands our love;
That he takes vengeance, soon or late, on those
Who take his name in vain; that he defends
The timid orphan; that he resists the proud
And punishes the murderer.

Athalie asks what his pleasures are; Joas answers:

Sometimes to the High Priest at the altar
I offer salt or incense. I hear songs
Of the infinite greatness of Almighty God;
I see the stately order of his rites.

She invites him to live in the palace and tells him that there are two gods; he retorts that his god is the only true god and that

The happiness of the wicked passeth away
Even as a torrent.

It will be noticed that there is some justification for Athalie's complaint that the boy has already been indoctrinated and taught to hate her and all she stands for. Racine's innocent already has been taught to distinguish between good and evil; but one is bound to believe that Racine would not have been able to dally with the innocence of love.

Great as Athalie is as a play, it represents not the natural culmination of Racine's work but rather an achievement in a totally new field of drama. The long conflict in his mind between the secular and the religious, which had begun in his schooldays, could not be resolved by compromise. At Port Royal he had defiantly read the Greek romances which his teachers had regarded as pernicious. After his initial failures as a poet, he had dallied with the idea of becoming ordained. Then he had broken with Port Royal and written plays which had shocked them more than his sexual irregularities. When he turned his back on the stage and became reconciled to Port Royal he could consecrate his poetry to his jealous God, but he could not interfuse the emotions of his past life with spiritual significance—he could only repudiate them altogether.

Robert Lowell (essay date 1961)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

SOURCE: "On Translating Phèdre" in Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1987, pp. 230-31.

[Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, Lowell is generally considered the premier American poet of his generation. One of the original proponents of the confessional school of poetry, he frequently gave voice to his personal as well as his social concerns, leading many to consider him the prototypical liberal intellectual writer of his time. Lowell was also a widely acclaimed translator and playwright as well as critic and editor. In the following excerpt from the introduction to his 1961 translation of Phèdre, he comments upon the difficulties of translating Racine's poetry, with "the justness of its rhythms and logic, and the glory of its hard, electric rage."]

Racine's plays are generally and correctly thought to be untranslatable. His syllabic alexandrines do not and cannot exist in English. We cannot reproduce his language, which is refined by the literary artifice of his contemporaries, and given a subtle realism and grandeur by the spoken idiom of Louis XIV's court. Behind each line is a for us lost knowledge of actors and actresses, the stage and the moment. Other qualities remain: the great conception, the tireless plotting, and perhaps the genius for rhetoric and versification that alone proves that the conception and plotting are honest….

No translator has had the gifts or the luck to bring Racine into our culture. It's a pity that Pope and Dryden overlooked Racine's great body of works, close to them, in favor of the inaccessible Homer and Vergil.

Racine's verse has a diamond edge. He is perhaps the greatest poet in the French language, but he uses a smaller vocabulary than any English poet—beside him Pope and Bridges have a Shakespearean luxuriance. He has few verbally inspired lines and in this is unlike Baudelaire and even La Fontaine. His poetry is great because of the justness of its rhythm and logic, and the glory of its hard, electric rage.

Martin Turnell (essay date 1972)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9813

SOURCE: "Approach to Racine," in Jean Racine: Dramatist, Hamish Hamilton, 1972, pp. 3-25.

[Turnell has written widely on French literature and has made significant translations of the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Guy de Maupassant, Blaise Pascal, and Paul Valèry. In the following excerpt, he quotes several critics contra Racine, using them as a springboard to his thesis that "when properly performed, Racine is still the greatest French tragic dramatist" and that the negative pronouncements of Racine's critics speak more to the issue of access than to that of dramatic accomplishment.]

'Of all our authors', François Mauriac once said, 'Racine is one of the least accessible to the peoples of other countries'.

Racine presents special difficulties for foreigners. They are by no means confined to foreigners. There are at present two generally accepted approaches to the French classic dramatists. You can either wipe away the veneer which has accumulated with the passage of time and obscures the work of the master and try to think yourself back into the seventeenth century, or you can argue that no great writer belongs exclusively to a particular period and insist on the importance of the plays as dramatic experience. The first of these approaches is the safer, the second the more rewarding and also the more dangerous.

The dangers are illustrated by a controversy which began in France some fifteen years ago and is perhaps still not ended. In 1955 the Compagnie Madeleine Renaud-Jean-Louis Barrault decided to mount a production of Bérénice at the Théâtre Marigny and to mark the event by the publication of a special number of the company's Cahiers devoted to Racine. Henry de Montherlant was invited to write the introduction to it. He called his article 'Racine Langouste'. He drew a comparison between the conventions of seventeenth-century drama and the lobster's shell. If you scrape and prod long enough and hard enough, you may get a few tasty morsels from the animal. In the same way you may extract a few fragments of poetry from Racine—Montherlant put the aggregate at twenty-seven lines for the twelve plays—if you are prepared to spend your time 'painfully and interminably removing the shell'.

Four years later Jean Vilar, who had consistently opposed all attempts to persuade him to add Racine to the repertoire of the Théâtre National Populaire on the grounds that he was not suitable for 'popular' consumption, yielded to public pressure and produced Phèdre with Maria Casarès in the name part. It was Roland Barthes' turn to enter the lists. In an article published in Théâtre Populaire, the TNP's own journal, he declared that the production was a misfortune for Casarès who 'had risked a lot and lost a lot'. The dramatist did not escape. If we go to see Phèdre, said Barthes, 'it is on account of a particular actress, a certain number of felicitous lines, some famous tirades set against a background of obscurity and boredom. We tolerate the rest.' 'I do not know,' he concluded, 'whether it is still possible to perform Racine today. It may be that on the stage his work is three-quarters dead.' …

It cannot be too often repeated that the true test of a dramatist is his effectiveness, or his continuing effectiveness, on the stage. Racine's critics were not suggesting that owing to a lean period among the sociétaires of the Comédie Française Racine should be given a rest. They were saying that though he had undoubted merits as a poet, the plays themselves were no longer actable, that they should be removed permanently from the theatre to the study, that Racine should in fact be treated like Robert Garnier, the great sixteenth-century writer, whose works are almost certainly no longer actable because they are dramatic poems rather than plays.

The thesis I am going to defend is that when properly performed, Racine is still the greatest French tragic dramatist and that the pronouncements of the critics from Montherlant to Barthes and Dutourd are perfect examples of Mauriac's problem of access.

One way of tackling the problem is to take a look at Racine's imagery. The setting of eight of the tragedies is a palace. In Athalie it is a temple with a palace not far away; in Alexandre and Iphigenie a military camp. This means that at the start of nine of the tragedies we, the public, find ourselves metaphorically speaking outside a stately building, separated by a formidable array of masonry from a world which, as one critic put it, does seem 'far from us'. Our job is to secure 'access' to the palaces and the temple, to find out what is going on behind those walls and to merge ourselves in palace life. Racine himself provides a clue—we might almost call it a 'pass'—in the opening scenes of three of the plays.

In Bérénice Antiochus says to his confidant:

Arrêtons un moment. La pompe de ces lieux,
Je le vois bien, Arsace, est nouvelle à tes yeux.

In Bajazet the vizir asks his confidant to follow him into the palace and report on the mission he has just completed. The confidant replies:

Et depuis quand, Seigneur, entre-t-on dans ces lieux
Dont l'accès était même interdit à nos yeux?

Finally, in Esther the queen's confidant says to her mistress:

De ce palais j'ai su trouver l'entrée.
O spectacle! O triomphe admirable à mes yeux,
Digne en effet du bras qui sauva nos aïeux!

In each of the plays a person who knows the way round introduces a confidant or servant into a palace which is totally unknown to him or her. Their reactions are different. In Bérénice the accent falls on novelty and grandeur; in Bajazet on the difficulties and dangers of 'access'; in Esther on the staggering sight which greets the confidant's eyes.

In every case it is an ordinary person who is admitted or finds a way into the palace and is confronted by what seems an entirely new mode of life. That is the position of the audience. It is not enough to watch a production of Racine as though it were a faintly remote spectacle and cavil at the way in which it is mounted. We have to identify ourselves with the newcomer, follow him into the palace, listen to the explanation that the guide offers, which is Racine's exposition, and then see for ourselves.

The moment we enter we are conscious of a marked change of atmosphere. We have somehow been translated to a different plane. On the surface everything looks, sounds, feels different from the world we know. Next, we have the contradictory feeling that life in the palace has a strange dualism about it. It is at once very unlike and very like our world: unlike because of the setting; like because of the human frailty of its occupants. We are aware from the first of an almost suffocating tension in the air combined with a desperate effort to maintain some sort of control which frequently breaks down. The tension is pervasive; it is also contagious. It is the atmosphere which produces fascinating and frightening revelations about human nature—about ourselves. It is only by surrendering to it that we gain psychological as well as physical access to Racine's world and that we come to share his vision.

The palaces vary considerably in style. Three are Greek, two Roman, three oriental. They have one thing in common. There is something of the prison about them. We have the impression that the community is somehow confined within their walls, that while 'access' may be difficult, once you are in it is almost impossible to get out again. The sense of confinement is partly psychological, but in some of the palaces we shall find that one or two members of the community are literally prisoners. Some of the palaces are more disturbing than others. They are huge, dark, claustrophobic. They give the occupants the alarming impression that they are constantly being watched, that their lives are in danger and that disaster may overtake them at any moment.

The situation of the palaces is important. Four of them stand by the sea; most of the others are within reasonable distance of it. One of the palaces looks out on a sunlit sea which seems, tantalizingly, to beckon to the prisoners, inviting them to abandon their troubles, to leave the claustrophobic palace and enjoy freedom in the open air—to live instead of to languish. In another we hear the waves beating, a trifle ominously, against the walls of the building. In still another the waves merely 'lap' against the palace walls. The occupants of most of the palaces are acutely aware of the proximity of the sea. They mention it repeatedly in their conversation; their language contains what on the face of it appears to be a surprising number of nautical images. There are references to storms at sea, to shipwrecks, to people flinging themselves or being flung into the sea and drowning, and in one instance to a phenomenal calm at sea which actually determines the unfolding of the drama. At the same time their attitude is decidedly ambivalent. The sea does, indeed, offer a prospect of escape from their prison and their troubles, but in their heart of hearts they know that it is an illusion, that the hope will never be realized, or if it is their escape will turn out to be not freedom but separation from the loved one, or they themselves will be dead by the time their henchmen, who have survived a palace massacre, make a bolt by way of the sea.

If the prospect of escape is an illusion, there is nothing illusory about the threat from the sea. It is in a sense a two-way traffic. For practical purposes the outward journey is never accomplished; the inward journey from the sea invariably is. It is the sea which brings all sorts of people to the palace who have a dangerous and disrupting effect on life inside: the outsider posing as an ambassador who provokes disaster; the return of a tyrannical father, reported missing believed dead; the murderous slave who stabs nearly every occupant of the palace to death.

It is time to turn from the buildings to their inmates.

The palaces are royal in every sense. The inhabitants are for the most part kings, queens, princes, princesses, and their retainers. The structure of society is a simple one. There are strictly speaking only two classes: masters and servants, the rulers and the ruled, royalty and 'the people'. Yet the combination of the two, as we shall see, plays an important part in the development of the drama.

We are not merely inside a palace; we are at court. The court is a small one. There are two or three people belonging to the same family. They are joined on occasion by some one from outside: a prince seeking the hand of one of the royal daughters, or a princess who is betrothed to a member of the family as well as by the dangerous outsiders and unwanted relatives who arrive by sea.

The protocol plays a large and important part in the life of the court. The members know one another intimately, but their deportment strikes the visitor as curious. Parents, to be sure, address their children familiarly except when a monarch loses his temper and switches from 'enfant' to 'Prince'. So do brothers and sisters. In a moment of euphoria a young man may call his girl 'Belle Monime!' Or an angry woman may scrap all titles and simply call the man who has rebuffed her by his name. In most other cases, whether they are husband and wife, engaged couples or simply servants speaking to masters and mistresses, they use, or begin by using, the standard form of address: 'Seigneur', 'Madame', 'Prince', 'Princesse'.

This sounds at first like mere convention. In these palaces it is a good deal more. It is a sign of the occupants' status certainly; it is also a sign of their state of mind from moment to moment. It serves to some extent as a safety device. As long as the standard forms of address are in use the speakers retain some degree of control over their emotions. When they go, everything goes. They are in fact the life line. The life line snaps. This produces the tragedy.

It is obvious from the moment we enter the building that this is no ordinary day in the life of the palace, that we have arrived in the middle of a major crisis. As we watch the expressions on the faces of the occupants and listen to what they are saying, we realize that they are intelligent, civilized, sensitive, perceptive, but that they are also incredibly highly strung, 'touchy' in the extreme. They are visibly making prodigious efforts to control themselves, to maintain some sort of balance, but the artificial restraint does nothing to diminish the growing tension. It simply intensifies to an almost unheard of degree the violence of the outbursts and the final explosions when they come.

There are only two people in the room: a young prince and his father's middle-aged confidant. The prince is telling the confidant that he has just heard that the army of the king, his father, has been routed by the Romans and the king himself killed in the battle. He goes on to speak of his bad relations with his half-brother who is suspected of plotting a sell-out to Rome. It is the first news of the family feud which is characteristic of palace life. Then comes the most serious thing of all which the prince describes, significantly, as his 'secret'. He is deeply in love with his father's youthful fiancée and believes that the treacherous half-brother is after her too. The prince suddenly catches sight of the fiancée and hurriedly dismisses the confidant. She has in fact come to enlist his help against his half-brother who is 'importuning' her. This is too much for the prince who plunges into a declaration of love. The half-brother joins them. The argument begins. Then the fiancée's confidant rushes breathlessly into the room with the worst news of all. The king is not dead. He had just landed at the port—'come in from the sea'. All three are badly shaken. The fiancée and her confidant depart, leaving the half-brothers to discuss the situation. The potential traitor proposes a pact. He gets no response. They leave. The fiancée returns with her confidant and proceeds to disclose her 'secret'. She is in love with the young prince. They leave. The king makes his entry with his two sons. He sends them away and remains alone with his confidant. He explains that he is still desperately in love with his betrothed. He is suspicious of his sons' attitude and questions the confidant. The confidant ducks. The fiancée reappears. During our day at the palace we shall find that after several meetings the king very basely tricks her into revealing her 'secret'.

This sets the pattern and the pace. The word 'secret' is on everybody's lips. Nearly everyone has something to hide from some one else. The 'secrets', as we can see, are concerned with love and politics. They divide the community into factions, into pursuers and pursued, aggressors and victims.

The attempts of one party to hide and the other to discover its 'secrets' determine the pace of palace life. The palace is a hive of activity. The occupants are perpetually on the move. There are continual comings and goings: meetings, encounters, separations. Racine's casts are small. It is unusual for more than three of the principal characters to be present at the same time and this only happens occasionally. For the most part the activity consists of a rapid succession of couples, sometimes with and sometimes without their confidants: unhappy meetings of thwarted lovers; stormy encounters between pursuers and pursued; furious clashes between 'rivals'. They are interspersed with conversations between individuals and their confidants. Voices drop to a murmur as a problem is debated by a young man and a young woman, or by lovers and their confidants. Suddenly a voice rises in anguish or ends in a scream. With every meeting the crisis gathers momentum.

Although there is nothing comparable to the conferences which take place in the Cornelian palaces with most of the court assembled, some meetings are rather more formal than others. A king is receiving an ambassador or outlining plans for a military campaign. On other occasions a speaker makes highly provocative or even deeply wounding remarks, but though the people to whom they are addressed may be twitching with rage the situation is governed by the protocol. They do not interrupt; they hear him out and hold their fire until he has had his say. These occasions bring home to the visitor one important point. There is a basic language which is common to all the inhabitants of the palaces. It is simple, measured, dignified or, to borrow an expression used by Valbuena Prat of one of the Spanish seventeenth-century dramatists, it is the 'sober, elevated palace style'. It provides a background which underlines and throws into relief the contrast between the formal meetings and those scenes in which disappointed lovers and angry rivals let their hair well and truly down. For the meetings between the couples are usually highly emotional. That is the crux of the matter. It is not only what people say that counts; it is the tone in which it is said: the voice that goes straight to the heart and does more than almost anything to involve the visitor in the life of the palace. And here one might interject that one of the most important qualifications for the Racinian actor or actress is a rich, strong, vibrant voice. The content of the speech naturally determines the tone, but speaking for myself it is the tone that finally 'gets' me.

The palaces are massive; there are long winding corridors with innumerable rooms leading off them. But we, the visitors, are only admitted to a single room. The whole of the drama is concentrated inside it. In that one room every major decision is taken or, if not, it is duly reported there. Equally, almost every word of importance is spoken in our hearing and before our eyes. The drama is an internal one. What interests us most is what is happening inside the occupants' minds and comes out in their speech. Except for an occasional suicide, there is properly speaking

no action in the room: no duels or only furious verbal duels and threats; no lovemaking; simply word and gesture. At the same time, we are aware that the room, or more accurately, the palace, is a world within a world which it is trying to dominate. We hear people talking about 'the empire', 'the world' and even 'the universe'. Messengers come hurrying in and deliver terrifying reports of actions taking place in the outside world or in a distant part of the palace. A king has been assassinated; a lover has been done to death in a different room, or a mistress has committed suicide on the steps of an altar where her lover married a rival; rebellion by the army or the people is imminent. The message is nearly always: 'All is lost'.

Confinement to a single room contributes enormously to the claustrophobic atmosphere and greatly increases the tensions. There is no relaxation, or if there is it is illusory and a prelude to a vast storm. There is no escape either from pursuers who have a nasty way of turning up at precisely the wrong moment and finding a 'rival' slumped at the girl's feet. When they have discovered, or think they have discovered, the other party's 'secret' they denounce their behaviour in the most violent terms. This is the signal for an explosion.

The explosions are frequent, sudden, complete. The protocol goes by the board, producing an extraordinary contrast between past dignity and present violence. The last vestiges of civilized deportment vanish. There are no titles, only savage denunciation or agonized protest, or both. The Words 'perfide', 'infidèle', 'traître' and 'barbare' echo and re-echo all over the palace. There are switches from the polite 'vous' to the bitingly contemptuous 'tu'. The language of the courtier is replaced by the harangues of the fishwife. The ferocious denunciation turns into a verbal battle which will end in murder or suicide. The aggressors, who are not invariably male, behave like wild beasts determined to drag the victims into bed, or failing that, to tear them to pieces. The victims of the male aggressors are distraught women staggering through the rooms of the palace or falling to the ground and describing themselves as 'égarées' and 'éperdues'.

The contrast between the outward dignity of palace life and the ferocious passions unleashed is so extraordinary, the ending with reports of violent deaths pouring in and the sight of principals who have poisoned or stabbed themselves to death, intensified in one instance by the ranting of a madman, that we feel slightly dazed, wondering how it could all have happened, how people could have got themselves into quite such a mess. It is not difficult to explain. At the root of most of the trouble is the erotic instinct. A loves B who is in love with C who returns his or her love. This form of triangle is basic in palace life. We can anticipate by saying that A is usually the aggressor, B and C the victims. A father, as we have seen, returns defeated from the wars to find that not one, but both his sons are in love with his betrothed. An emperor is sick of his unexciting wife whom he was forced to marry against his will for political reasons, and is carried away by his half-brother's fiancée. He murders the half-brother and the fiancée takes the veil. A sultana is tired of being bedded by a lecherous sultan and is madly in love with the sultan's half-brother who is in love with his childhood sweetheart. She has the man murdered, is murdered herself by the sultan's slave and the girl commits suicide. Another father returns from a womanizing expedition to discover after endless misunderstandings that his wife has tried unsuccessfully to seduce her stepson and is nearly mad with jealousy because the stepson, too, has fallen for another girl. In still another case A loves B who is in love with C, but is prevented from marrying him by Roman law. This does for the lot of them as completely as the dagger or the poison cup.

Although the origins of several of the tragedies are sexual there is a close connection between public and private interests. Royalty are never free agents. They have naturally enough a public as well as a private role and their private actions have public repercussions. Unless the individual is subordinated to the public personage, there is bound to be trouble. The union of A and B or B and C may be open to moral, political or legal objections, or to all three. When the objections are disregarded, as they usually are, the consequences are catastrophic. They create divisions in public and private life. There is a danger of uprisings by the army or the people and of the awakening of homicidal impulses in the family, producing the family feud. War is often in the air. In one case the enemy is actually advancing on the capital in order to capture the monarch and probably to burn his palace to the ground. The sexual rivalry of a father and son leads to civil war with father and son on opposite sides. In another play there is a danger of a war which was supposed to be over and done with breaking out afresh, or of a preventive civil war to put a stop to it. In still another a sultan has defeated a foreign enemy and is on his way back home in order to put down a palace revolution only to find, on arrival, that the family feud has done the job for him.

It is evident that the crisis is caused mainly by the fact that, whatever the cost and even if it means that everybody will perish in the process, A is absolutely determined to get B. That is where the confidants come in.

Racine's confidants have been sweepingly dismissed as faceless individuals only fit to run errands, deliver messages and try to comfort masters and mistresses. This might be a possible comment on Corneille for the simple reason that his protagonists are usually too tough morally to need the sort of help confidants can offer. It cannot be accepted without considerable reservations in the case of Racine. It is true that some of his confidants are nonentities, but others have an important role. Although they are all born into the same class there are sub-divisions. A number have risen from the ranks, become commanders, governors or advisers to their masters. A few are more complex than the rest and look like projections of their masters' and mistresses' good and bad impulses. The bad confidants encourage the protagonists' weaknesses and hasten the disaster. The good ones adopt a much more positive attitude. They are simple people partly no doubt because the structure of the tragedies does not leave room for the elaborate characterization of confidants even if it were desirable, but mainly because what Racine needed in these parts were simple, honest, clearsighted, down-to-earth people. The right kind of confidant is the one who is class-conscious in a wholly laudatory sense, who sees himself as the representative of 'the people' and does his best to protect their interests against the vagaries of royalty. These confidants stand for common sense; they take an objective view of the situation; they weigh the pros and cons; they know which path the master ought to take and do everything they can to convince him of it. The fact that they nearly always fail is immaterial. It is they who help to provide a balance—the balance found in a single individual in Corneille—and enable us to see the actions of the protagonists in their true perspective.

We can perhaps summarize the function of the palaces in this way. They are not simply impersonal buildings which provide a setting for the tragedy or mere status symbols of the occupants. They represent a particular order. The drama centres round the fortunes of this order. It is in control at the beginning of the play, but its fate varies from one play to another and is of critical importance. In some plays it is preserved; in others it is destroyed. In others still there is a conflict between two orders which ends in the destruction of one and its replacement by the other.

The drama centred on order naturally has an immediate impact on the inmates of the palace and is largely responsible for dividing them into parties or factions: those who are trying to maintain the existing order and those who are trying to escape from its clutches or replace it by another order. I have said that there is something of the prison about the palaces, that their effect is partly physical and partly psychological. The inmates not only suffer from a sense of confinement; the palaces often isolate, and in some cases insulate, them from everyday life, cut them off from 'the people'. That is why many of them get their values so badly wrong and why I have emphasized the importance of the confidants.

The occupants are continually using a group of words expressing their sense of confinement: 'captif, 'captive', 'esclave', 'dompter', 'fers', 'lier', 'piège', 'joug', 'noeud'. They are the 'prisoners', 'captives' or 'slaves' of an order or a régime. In many cases they are equally the 'captives' or 'slaves' of their own impulses or the impulses of other people. They get caught in 'traps', are forced to submit to a 'yoke', are bound by 'fetters' or a 'knot'. Release is impossible unless they manage to dodge the 'trap', shed the 'yoke', or cut the 'knot'.

This shapes the action which on occasion takes the form of a palace intrigue or a palace revolution. 'Secret' is also one of a recurring group of words: 'cacher', 'dissimuler', 'déguisement', 'feindre', 'tromper', 'artifice', 'stratagème'. The drama is taken up with the attempts of the aggressors to wrest their victims' 'secrets' from them and the victims' efforts to safeguard their rights by preserving their 'secrets'. In order to do so they are obliged at times to resort to the same subterfuges—the 'artifices' and 'stratagèmes'—as the aggressors. This adds up to a desperate attempt to shed the 'yoke', cut the 'knot' or simply to 'escape'. 'Fuir' and its variants are used 165 times in the plays. They usually stand for frustration and failure. And that spells death and disaster, or at best a refuge in the sanctuary of the Vestal Virgins after the aggressor has poisoned your beloved.

I want to take a closer look at what I have called the erotic instinct. I was once scolded by an academic for speaking of the references to 'bed' in Racine. The truth of the matter is that he is a sexier writer than appears on the surface. He suffered from the inhibiting effect of the bienséances which left French dramatists with much less freedom than their English and Spanish contemporaries or even than contemporary French authors of prose fiction. It applies particularly to Spanish dramatists who did not mind a rape or two or a stepmother actually bedding her stepson though the penalties admittedly were devastating. It would no doubt be an exaggeration to describe Bajazet as Racine's X Certificate play, but he came as near in it as he dared to writing a sex play. He was still a long way off as we can see by comparing it with one of his sources—the novelist Segrais' story, 'Floridon ou L'Amour imprudent'. And whatever Louis XIV's relations with Marie Mancini, I always goggle at the idea of that five years' courtship in Bérénice without a single go!

Discussion of the erotic instinct brings us to some of the differences between Corneille and Racine. Corneille, as we know, was a pupil of the Jesuits, Racine a pupil of the Jansenists. There is a tendency at present to play down the influence of Jansenism on Racine's work. This seems to me to be a mistake. Jansenism was much more a matter of atmosphere than of doctrine. The Jesuits laid great stress on free-will. Jansenist teaching was strongly coloured by the Lutheran teaching on original sin. The Fall had led to the complete ruin of human nature which was incapable of any good action without the direct intervention of divine grace. The Jansenists also leaned towards the doctrine of predestination. This added to the gloom, but it fitted in quite neatly with the conception of destiny in those of Racine's plays which were Greek in inspiration.

Corneille's protagonists are fighters. They use their will power to the full in withstanding the ravages of original sin. When faced with a moral dilemma they stand back, take stock and decide on the right course of action. Even if they lose their lives in the process they end up as better men than they started. They have experienced the moment of truth: the transcendental moment when they see what they must do and know that they have the moral strength to do it. In Corneille the conflict is purgatorial: in Racine it is plain hell. The drama opens with the proverbial coup de foudre. A man catches sight of a girl or a girl of a man. The damage is done. They are predestined to disaster from that very moment. They at once become the victims of an irresistible impulse which sends them down the dizzy slope to destruction. The dagger or the poison cup which ends their lives is no more than consummation on the physical plane of the total ruin which has already taken place on the psychological plane.

This has sometimes created the impression that the conflict in Racine is not a moral conflict, but simply a clash of personalities who are determined to batter the beloved into submission or smash a rival. The short answer is that if this were so Racine would not be the master that he is. Violence is endemic in his work; there are times when will power scarcely seems to exist and his principal characters are certainly people of extremes. It does not mean that they are unaware of what they are doing or are devoid of all moral scruples. It depends on the nature of the erotic impulse.

We can best approach it by way of Corneille's celebrated pronouncement in the dedication of La Place Royale:

It was from you that I learnt that the love of a decent man (honnête homme) should always be voluntary; that we must never let things reach a stage at which we cannot stop loving; that if we go as far as that love becomes a tyranny whose yoke must be cast off; and that lastly, the person whom we love has much more reason to be grateful for our love when it is the result of our choice and her merit than when it comes from blind inclination (inclination aveugle).

Although the dedication was published two years before Racine was born, our reaction is obvious. It sounds, we say, like a commentary on Racine. It is a forthright statement of the 'rules' of love. Corneille's own greatness depends on the fact that his finest characters never fail to keep them; Racine's on the fact that his seldom fail to break them. We must, however, distinguish. I have spoken so far as though there were only one kind of love in Racine. This is not so. There is the frantic passion of the aggressors and the moderate and reasonable love of the victims. For simplicity therefore I shall call the first 'passion' and the second 'love'.

With this reservation, we may fairly describe the dedication as an intriguing account of Racinian passion. A number of phrases leap to the eye: 'voluntary', 'tyranny', 'cast off the yoke', 'blind inclination', as well as the references to 'choice' and the 'merit' of the loved one. In Racine passion is never 'voluntary'; it is always 'tyrannical'; the characters never manage to 'cast off the yoke'; it is invariably a 'blind inclination' which is never the result of reasoned 'choice' or the 'merit' of the beloved. Corneille's characters announce the victory of 'reason' over 'inclination'; Racine its total defeat. This is Corneille:

Une femme d'honneur peut avouer sans honte
Ces surprises des sens que la raison surmonte;
Ce n'est qu'en ces assauts qu'éclate la vertu,
Et l'on doute d'un coeur qui n'a point combattu.
(Polyeucte, I, 3)

Ma raison, il est vrai, dompte mes sentiments;
Mais quelque autorité que sur eux elle ait prise,
Elle n'y règne pas, elle les tyrannise;
Et quoique le dehors soit sans émotion,
Le dedans n'est que trouble et que sédition.
(Polyeucte, II, 2)

This is Racine:

Puisqu'après tant d'efforts ma résistance est vaine,
Je me livre en aveugle au destin qui m'entraîne.
(Andromaque, I, 1)

Je me suis engagé trop avant.
Je vois que la raison cède à la violence.
(Phèdre, II, 2)

There are people who regard the moral conflict in Corneille with a certain degree of scepticism. What I want to stress here is its power and its authenticity. There is nothing facile or mechanical about it, no conventional adulation of 'reason'. In Corneille 'reason' is the faculty which imposes order and preserves the unity of the person. For Pauline its workings are decidedly painful as we can see from the contrast between the verbs 'régner' and 'tyranniser'. She is outwardly calm, but her mind is in a state of turmoil. In the present context—she is speaking to Sévère—'trouble' has a sexual undertone, but it is widely used and is a comparatively mild word. It is followed by the strong word, 'sédition', which matches 'tyrannise'. It will be observed that Pauline sees the conflict in political terms as a conflict between public and private interest. 'Reason' has to operate 'tyrannically' and repress by force an uprush of the senses which in moral terms are trying to violate the rights of the husband in favour of a rival and are therefore 'seditious'. The accent falls finally on words signifying victory: 'surmonte' and 'dompte'. In the passages from Andromaque and Phèdre the words 'livre', emphasized by 'aveugle' and 'cède', are the sign not merely of defeat, but of a rout. Corneille's characters accept 'reason' as a necessary discipline however painful its operation: the attitude of Racine's is usually one of unqualified hostility:

Pylade, je suis las d'écouter la raison.
Tant de raisonnements offensent ma colère.
(Andromaque, III, 1; IV, 3)

Although Racine's characters are inclined to treat 'reason' as an exasperating obstacle which keeps them out of the beloved's bed, it will be apparent that in both Racine and Corneille the conflict is basically the same: a conflict between public and private interests or between personal inclination and the rights of another human being. The difference lies in the result and there it is absolute.

The position becomes clearer still when we look at two other sets of words. They are 'trouble', 'agité', 'inquiet', 'transport', 'désordre', 'égaré', 'éperdu' and their opposites: 'repos', 'tranquillité', 'douceur', 'clarté', 'bornes', 'ordre'. They represent the two ways of life which offer themselves to the protagonists. For Corneille once again they are a positive goal. The use of the verbs 'surmonter', 'dompter', and in another place 'vaincre', show that it is not only attainable, but has been attained. In Racine the first set of words is the reality, the second the mirage.

Two of the lines I have quoted from Polyeucte deserve a second look:

Ce n'est qu'en ces assauts qu'éclate la vertu,
Et l'on doute d'un coeur qui n'a point combattu.

In spite of its painfulness, Pauline welcomes the conflict because it puts her to the test and demonstrates her integrity. This explains the difference in the moral weight of the words 'vertu', 'honneur' and 'gloire' in the two dramatists. In Corneille the victory of 'vertu' is a sign of 'honneur' or personal integrity which leads to 'gloire' or a public reputation for moral integrity. Except when used of victory on the battlefield, Racine's 'gloire' is a much more personal and much less moral affair, really amounting to little more than self-esteem. Racine's characters are very sensitive to their reputations which means that on occasion they are prepared to sacrifice 'vertu' to something which is no more than keeping up appearances, however deceptive. So we have Oenone's advice to Phèdre:

pour sauver notre honneur combattu,
II faut immoler tout, et même la vertu.

When we come to Bérénice, we shall find that even when reason or will power appears to triumph, the effects are destructive. We are back at the formula I once used in another place. Corneille's characters are people qui se construisent, Racine's people qui se défont. Corneille's moment of truth is matched in Racine by the moment of disintegration when the character begins to have doubts about his identity.

I have drawn a distinction between the 'passion' of the protagonists and the 'love' of the young couples who are sometimes known as the jeunes premiers. Although their love is doomed to disaster through the intervention of the protagonists, they stand for a virtuous and a balanced love which if satisfied would bring happiness without harming the rights of anybody. They have an obvious and a close link with the more impressive confidants. They provide perspective and contrast; they show that tragedy could have been avoided if the protagonists had possessed the same restraint, the same respect for the given word as themselves.

The reason why innocent love is only satisfied in two or the plays is explained by the word 'tyranny'. The protagonists, too, are convinced that success in love will bring them happiness, but their obsession has reached such an extreme degree that they are faced with the choice between union with the victim of their passion or death. Their peculiar helplessness in the throes of a passion which has turned into a malady is evident in one of Pyrrhus's pronouncements:

Je meurs si je vous perds, mais je meurs si j'attends.

The tyranny is twofold. The protagonists suffer from the tyranny of a passion which they are powerless to resist. It is because of their anguish that they themselves become tyrants. The word 'blackmail' has been used by more than one critic. In five of the plays A, whether a man or a woman, is a tyrant who is determined to blackmail B into breaking off relations with C and marrying him or her. The blackmailer holds the carrot, usually a crown, in one hand, and the dagger or the poison cup in the other. There is Néron's ultimatum to Junie which is disguised as an offer:

ne préférez point, à la solide gloire
Des honneurs dont César prétend vous revêtir,
La gloire d'un refus, sujet au repentir.

And when the unhappy Junie does precisely that Britannicus is handed the poison cup in the guise of a 'loving cup'.

The tragedy is the outcome of impassioned individuals who break all the rules, brush aside morality, the law, the claims of State and the rights of fellow human beings certainly; it is equally the outcome of the determination of the victims to preserve their integrity, to fulfil their pledges, to remain in a literal sense 'faithful unto death'.

I must return now to the criticisms that I mentioned at the outset and attempt a more specific assessment of Racine's relevance for the present age. They amount to two main charges, neither of them particularly original. The first is that Racine's tragedies are simply a reflection of seventeenth-century life, that his metaphorically periwigged figures are anachronisms and that his psychology is out of date. The second is that the rules of classical drama were so rigorous and so artificial that even if what he said were relevant, communication, at any rate on the stage, has become impossible.

Nobody doubts any longer that like Corneille Racine was very much a man of his time. One critic has gone to extreme lengths in trying to discover 'originals' for virtually every character in the secular plays except the confidants. There have been others who sought to establish a connection between the action of some of the plays and political events such as the English Revolution. I am not convinced myself that this kind of speculation does much to increase our appreciation of Racine's art, but it helps to situate him. No writer can be indifferent to contemporary events which even in a classical period are bound to leave some impression on his work or possibly provide him with inspiration. We shall see in due course that in some of the plays there are tributes to Louis XIV, and that Bérénice probably contains a reference to an early love affair, but we shall also see that the importance of the age is somewhat different.

What seems to me to matter is less the events and personalities than the ethos in which Racine lived and wrote. It is a change of ethos which goes a long way towards explaining the celebrated rivalry between Corneille and Racine and the differences in their work. Corneille's first masterpieces are heroic plays in the strict sense. One of the reasons for the failure, or comparative failure, of the plays of the middle period is that the heroic age was past, and that in trying to go on writing heroic plays Corneille was writing against the grain of the new age. It was a belated recognition of the situation which led to a changed approach, to what is known as 'the eclipse of the hero', in the last plays of all which show a move in the direction of Racine. Now Racine was the product of an unheroic age which is reflected in nearly all his plays from the first one to the last. There are no heroes in them in the Cornelian sense for the simple reason that, as I have said, one of his principal themes is the frailty of human nature. The ruler is always a tyrant; the society is aristocratic; there is a contrast between the polished surface and the internal corruption; the disaster is the result of the predatory designs of the tyrant. This was no doubt an accurate picture of the periods in which the tragedies are set; it is certainly a fair picture of Racine's own age. We may as well call things by their names. Racine lived under an absolute monarchy which was the seventeenth-century equivalent of the modern dictatorship; he moved in aristocratic circles; there was the same startling contrast between the outward splendour of 'the Golden Age' and its inner weaknesses and corruption. It was the century of unhappy love, the mariage de raison which so often went wrong with the most unfortunate consequences. Louis XIV himself is a good example. As a young man he was compelled for political reasons to abandon his projected marriage to Marie Mancini. It is a fair inference that if he had been in a position to decide for himself he would have done nothing of the sort, but would have set out to get the girl with the same ruthless determination, the same disregard of everybody else's interests as a Racinian protagonist. This was followed by the spectacle of a neglected queen weeping alone in her room; La Vallière departing in tears to a convent; the arrival of Mme de Montespan, a woman with the mentality of a Roxane; her eventual dismissal and replacement by the prudish Mme de Maintenon. There is one other resemblance between Louis and the Racinian protagonists. The Bourbons were a notoriously highly sexed family. In his later years the king still insisted on two goes a day with his morganatic spouse. She got no comfort when she complained to her confessors about the monarch's 'excessive demand'. They told her bluntly that she was bound to perform her wifely duties in order to prevent her husband from indulging in still more adulterous associations.

The parallels between past and present draw attention to one of the more curious contradictions between the man and the writer. From the first the ambitious young man set out to cultivate the king. When he abandoned the theatre to become one of the royal historiographers, he also became one of the most obsequious of courtiers. Although it was no doubt unconscious, it can hardly have been accidental that four of the plays are attacks on the kind of regime under which he was living. In Britannicus a tyrannical order is strengthened; in Bajazet it is preserved, and in Mithridate it is destroyed. We shall find that in Athalie he goes furthest of all. With the help of religion he not only delivers his most vigorous attack on despotism; he exposes the inherent dangers of absolute power.

One of the principal claims made by and for classical periods is finality. The writers are convinced that they see humanity sub specie aeternitatis, that it is basically unchanging and that what they see remains true for succeeding generations. There is a good deal of substance in the view that it was precisely because Racine was so much a man of his time that he was able to concentrate on aspects which are valid for all time. His contemporaries were right in arguing that his characters were not Greeks or Romans or Turks, but Frenchmen. They were wrong in holding it against him. The greatness of his work depends not only on his findings, but on the way in which they are integrated into their environment, on the matching of the inner and the outer man. Although integration is an artistic essential, we must recognize that the vision of a great writer transcends time. When we look into it, we can see that his interests and the reactions of his characters are remarkably like our own and would be the same if they found themselves in the twentieth century. What he shows bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the happenings of the present age: ruthless dictatorships; the horrors of wars in which all human standards go by the board; conflicts between public and private interests, between the desires of the individual and the rights of a fellow human being which today are consistently leading to murder and suicide; the spread of violence to every walk of life.

We have seen something of the workings of the erotic instinct in his work. Now the French theory of the femme fatale is not entirely moonshine. We have to admit, if we are honest with ourselves, that whatever our beliefs or principles, there exists somewhere in the world a man or a woman who would be fatal to us, would send us straight off the rails and make us behave in much the same fashion as Racine's protagonists if we had the misfortune to meet him or her as Racine's protagonists always do.

We must take a closer look at what might be called individual psychology. I mean by this, particular characters, the way in which they appear to us and the interpretations we put on them today. We must do so because the claim to universal validity is not restricted to Racine or to France. The criticisms I have been discussing could be, in some cases have been, applied to other dramatists in other countries; to Shakespeare in England, to Lope de Vega and Calderón in Spain.

Although she apparently supports the claim to universal validity, Annie Ubersfeld has observed in an illuminating essay on Andromaque that Pyrrhus is a seventeenth-century monarch and Hermione a seventeenth-century princess, and thinks that it would be difficult to envisage them in any other capacity. This was not exactly the view of the great Louis Jouvet. Here is what he said about Junie to one of the girls—her name was Viviane—attending his practical acting course at the Paris Conservatoire in 1939:

The characters of the classics are whatever one likes to make of them. According to the period, Junie has been a young virgin martyr, a young Christian, a young republican. A character in one of the classics is a revolving lighthouse. It all depends where you happen to be standing in relation to the lighthouse; you are caught by certain flashes which light you up. Junie will touch you by flashes which are sensitive and human and which you will receive from the character because you are you, Viviane.

The same might be said of Shakespeare. Hamlet is a seventeenth-century prince, an intellectual, an Elizabethan melancholic whose melancholy incidentally (metaphysics apart) has affinities with Oreste's. Without going so far as the late Ernest Jones, it is not difficult to see him as a twentieth-century neurotic with a touch of the Oedipus complex which wrecks his relations with poor Ophelia. Whichever way we look at him, his soliloquies do not cease to grip. And think of the interest the French took in him in the nineteenth century. What again could be more 'modern' than Shakespeare's Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, or more horrifying than the 'stratagem' he uses to defeat the gallant Hector in the field—an all-time dirty trick? …

The conclusion I reach is that in the case of the masters the claim to universal validity is justified and that it is precisely this which distinguishes the true master from the lesser figures: Shakespeare from a Webster or a Tourneur; Pierre Corneille and Racine from a Thomas Corneille or a Quinault.

The second criticism of Racine is a matter of pure artistic judgement. If one critic can only find an aggregate of twenty-seven lines of poetry in the whole of the plays; if another thinks that 99 per cent of the verse in Bajazet is rhetoric and only 1 per cent poetry, we are bound to suspect that they have failed signally to secure 'access'. But since these views have been expressed by sensitive and intelligent people, they cannot be dismissed out of hand. An attempt must be made to answer them briefly in general terms.

There is one factor which cannot be too strongly emphasized. Racine displays enormous skill in placing his characters in a virtually impossible situation which is a combination of temperament and circumstance. It is impossible in the sense that none of the characters can extricate themselves from it and live happy, peaceful lives without inflicting irreparable damage on other characters. The basic situation explains the immense impact of the greatest of the tragedies when properly presented to the right audience. It can only be communicated because the other qualities of the work match the dramatist's genius in devising the basic situation.

Although it is necessary for the purpose of analysis and appreciation to discuss versification, language, structure and psychology separately, the end-product naturally depends on a very close synthesis of all these elements. Versification and language are largely responsible for the formality which is characteristic of palace life. Together they have the effect of raising tragedy to the special plane which is proper to it. Structure, which is the method of presenting situations dramatically, is necessarily of the first importance: it makes or mars the play. Lytton Strachey once remarked that the technique of Elizabethan drama had been taken over by the novelists and that Racine's technique had been adopted by modern playwrights. Comparisons between Racine and modern dramatists must not be pushed too far, particularly as Strachey's comment was made nearly sixty years ago, but in substance it is correct. Racine's genius enabled him to turn even the rule of the three unities to his advantage. The essence of the tragedies is their intense concentration on emotional states. For this he relies on simplicity of action, tightness of structure—the way in which one scene leads to another, in which they fit into one another, contrast with or are parallel to one another, in which words and phrases from different scenes echo and answer one another—and above all the speed with which the drama unfolds, the couples come and go, which explains why Racine unlike Corneille is now always performed without an interval, as he should be. We are near boiling point at the start; we are carried along by the rising temperature and gathering momentum until we reach the tremendous ending.

It is hardly surprising in an age like our own that critics have tended to dwell on the psychology of his characters and to treat him primarily as a master psychologist. Their view has recently been attacked by Raymond Picard. 'The psychological depth which is commonly admired in Racine', he writes, 'is to a large extent an optical illusion.' This does not or should not mean that Racine's psychology is shallow or that the findings of a psychoanalytical critic like Charles Mauron are necessarily wrong. It simply means that the form of classic tragedy inevitably precluded a minute and leisurely examination of the characters' psychology and that the dramatist was mainly confined to the basic human emotions. Although Baudelaire once spoke of 'the power of Racinian analysis' the truth is that, as I have said in other places, there is no such thing in Racine as analysis. His characters do not brood over their feelings, argue about them, take them to pieces. Their discoveries are the result of intuition, the sudden insights into their own and other people's minds. The expression of emotion is spontaneous and immediate. It is something like 'instant' emotion: the direct presentation of the basic impulses unencumbered by the kind of detail that we find in the psychological novel. What I want to stress is that the closeness of the synthesis mentioned above depends to a large degree on this psychological simplicity of presentation.

I have discussed the importance for the final synthesis of four different but closely connected elements. It remains to add that there is one other which is difficult to define, which is something more than a combination of versification and language, something that transcends them. It is the poetry. For it is the poetry which provides the unifying element and transforms the play into an experience which has an immediate impact on the audience and is ultimately responsible for transmitting the dramatist's vision to them.

If there are grounds on which Racine is open to criticism, the main one is that though his insight into human nature often went deep the field is comparatively narrow and several tragedies are variations on the same theme. This takes us back to comparisons between Corneille and Racine. Corneille's supporters admired him because they found his plays uplifting. They criticized Racine's because they were not. 'Tendre' in its seventeenth-century sense was not a term of unqualified praise; it meant that Racine was sensitive, easily moved and that though his tragedies were moving, too, they were not exalting and did nothing to boost morale.

The answer is of course that their professional rivalry is a thing of the past, and that they are both 'constants' of the French genius who complete and possibly correct one another. They both give expression to something permanent in human nature. It is the sign of a master that he is irreplaceable. Corneille occupies a place that Racine could never have filled and the same is true of Racine. Their effect on us is entirely different. We love Racine because he speaks to us as man to man, exposes our weaknesses to our shocked and fascinated gaze. This should not prevent us from responding to the immense élan, the enormous 'lift', that comes from a good production or even a proper reading of Corneille. Speaking for myself, there are some moods in which I prefer Racine and others in which I prefer Corneille. But of one thing I am certain: they are both necessary to me.

Geoffrey Brereton (essay date 1973)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4706

SOURCE: "Jean Racine," in An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the Present Day, revised edition, Methuen & Co Ltd, 1973, pp. 67-81.

[Brereton is an English scholar who has written extensively on French literature of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. In the following excerpt, he examines specifically the poetry of Racine's dramas.]

Racine is considered here almost exclusively as a poet. He was, in fact, a dramatic poet and any division is necessarily artificial. But any attempt to do justice to the dramatist would lead us far beyond the bounds of our subject and we must be content with illustrating this side of his genius with a single example. To go further in that direction might obscure a truth which English readers sometimes find it difficult to accept—that, apart from the requirements of the stage, Racine was a supreme verbal artist. His verse, as verse, has been admired by poets of such radically different temperaments as Voltaire and Valéry and has influenced them profoundly.

An admirer himself of Malherbe, no rebel against the conventions of préciosité, an imitator of the Greeks and a respecter of contemporary good taste, his verse should have been well-mannered and slightly dull. Possibly it even appears so on a first acquaintance, but to be halted by this surface impression is to turn back on the brink of a new world—an alien world, perhaps, but one full of power, subtlety and beauty. That such qualities should have emerged from the influences current in Racine's day, and which he did not reject but fulfilled and reconciled, is one of the perennial surprises of literature. Is there, after all, a virtue in the French classical formula, as applied to poetry, which can inspire work of the highest kind, given the artist to execute it? Or can the great artist transform any formula, however unpromising, into a recipe for excellent work?

Faced with the incompatibility between 'classical' theory (words should be tailored to fit sense) and Racinian performance (words and meaning coalesce, and are impregnated in addition with a seemingly natural poetic perfume), some critics have been driven into supposing a Racine who slipped into greatness by accident and never fully realized what he was achieving. If, as a conscious artist, he followed Boileau, how could he have written as he did? The explanation is sometimes sought in the historical moment—but a moment which somehow eluded the Malherbe-Boileau hour-hand. For Jean Giraudoux, writing of Racine's extraordinary psychological penetration, Racine was perhaps only a 'supreme talent'; the 'genius' was in the age which produced him and which gave him 'an inborn knowledge of great hearts and great moments'. For Marcel Raymond, writing more specifically of the poet,

he had the good fortune to appear at one of the mature stages of a culture and a language; he had mastered his technique; and an infallible intuition, a feeling of continuous beauty, enabled him to create—as though just at the emergence from sleep, in the white light of the first morning—that potent instrument, that royal language which still holds us enthralled.

This second appreciation is the more acceptable. It imputes no more to the age than can be readily conceded. One would allow the debt of almost any poet to the culture and idiom of his time. Yet even Marcel Raymond, while rightly refusing to see Racine as an unconscious operator, places him as near to the unconscious as possible—at the emergence from sleep, when the dream may still be in possession of the mind.

There should be nothing remarkable about such a process. No one is surprised when a revolutionary poet like Rimbaud produces, part consciously, part unconsciously, a highly original body of work from the books read in the classroom and in the municipal library at Charleville—and from the particular nature of his lived experience. But when Racine, who was not in appearance revolutionary, follows the same road, the need for some explanation seems to be felt. Either he was moving with some cultural current different from that of which he was aware; or perhaps he was deceiving his contemporaries into accepting at its face-value work which he knew perfectly well had another significance. Either Racine misunderstood himself, or his age misunderstood him.

Much has been written on this point and more could be. But, whatever the complexity of Racine's art and psychology, this particular difficulty need never have arisen. If Racine had been studied first as an individual case, one contradiction at least would have disappeared. But instead—as with the 'baroque' writers—a picture has been built up of 'classicism' based partly on literary theory, partly on a simplification of the historical background. Racine does not entirely fit into this picture. Hence the artificial 'paradox' of a classic who transcends classicism. Much confusion could be avoided if it were recognized that it is the picture, or rather the map, which is out of scale, not the individual writer. The first is always expendable and can be redrawn if necessary. The second, whether more or less well explored, is a landmark which certainly exists. It would continue to exist if all the maps were lost….

For all his apparent simplicity, Racine is a difficult poet. The best approach to him is to follow what was certainly his own approach and to begin by considering his dramatic verse in its functional aspect.

It is functional because it is always suited to the character who is speaking and renders every shade of his reactions to the situation in which he finds himself. At the same time, it explores for the audience, sometimes with a closely controlled irony, all the implications of that situation. It does this without becoming out of character, or rather without going beyond character to state some general truth. Racine is never the moralist that Shakespeare often is. When Gloucester observes:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport,

or Macbeth soliloquizes

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow …

they are moving outside their immediate situation, or at least enlarging it. Racine's characters do not do this. They keep strictly to the point—to the particular circumstances which bear on their dilemma. What is lost is the more strikingly 'poetic' quality of what might possibly be called Shakespeare's baroque style—the rhetorical extension which becomes, in the right hands, a link between the particular and the universal. Racine denies himself this kind of poetry. His characters are turned inward so that all their discoveries are made in the depths of their own natures and expressed in terms of themselves. Psychologically, therefore, his plays appear self-sufficing and self-contained—which in theory is one of the attributes of French classicism. Poetically, an element is lost. This element may be called the impingement of the infinite on the finite, the association of the macrocosm with the microcosm, or simply the metaphysical imagination. In its absence, what remains but the small change of poetry—the minor and technical qualities? To this highly difficult question no wholly satisfactory answer has ever been given, yet it is a matter of experience that Racine's verse, whether read or heard in the theatre, is 'poetic'. It delights the ear, stirs the feelings, fascinates the intellect and even—both occasionally and in its total effect—excites the imagination, though along lines deliberately traced by the poet. With no justification at all could it be described as merely rhymed prose.

This is true even when it is most 'functional'.

In the fourth act of Britannicus, the Dowager Empress of Rome, Agrippina, is attempting to bring to heel her son Nero. He has been made emperor by her intrigues—in plainer words, her crimes—and is now beginning to defy her. Struggling to regain her influence, the unscrupulous old woman recalls how, as a widow, she had made a second marriage with the late emperor Claudius; how she had persuaded him to set aside Britannicus, his own son by a former marriage, and to adopt her own son, Nero, as his heir; and how, when Claudius was about to die and at last realized the true position, she consummated her plan:

Cependant Claudius penchait vers son déclin.
Ses yeux, longtemps fermés, s'ouvrirent à la fin:
Il connut son erreur. Occupé de sa crainte,
Il laissa pour son fils échapper quelque plainte,
Et voulut, mais trop tard, assembler ses amis.

The tone is factual, brisk, completely ruthless in its context. The dying Claudius, whom she had married, is envisaged purely as an instrument which must be discarded before it causes complications:

Ses gardes, son palais, son lit m'étaient soumis.
Je lui laissai sans fruit consumer sa tendresse;
De ses derniers soupirs je me rendis maîtresse.

The second line—'I let him fret out his affection fruitlessly'—must be one of the cruellest ever spoken on the stage, unless it is surpassed by the third: 'I took control of his last sighs.'

Her business now was to keep the disinherited Britannicus away from his father until the latter was dead. The death is noted in two words, the rumour that she had caused it by poison is shrugged off in seven:

Mes soins, en apparence épargnant ses douleurs,
De son fils, en mourant, lui cachèrent les pleurs.
Il mourut. Mille bruits en courent à ma honte.

It will be noticed that no relevant feature of the material situation or the physical scene has been blinked. Nothing is veiled or inflated. Yet, while the reader has everything necessary to reconstruct the scene realistically in his imagination, if he so wishes, the language used is largely figurative. The figures are conventional, but instead of hanging limply they are recharged with their full literal meaning and more, so that they acquire the elastic strength of the understatement. When Claudius was 'drawing towards his end', suddenly 'his eyes were opened'. 'He realized his mistake—but too late,' adds his widow laconically. He was completely in her power: 'Ses gardes, son palais, son lit m'étaient soumis.' 'Sans fruit' is almost a cliché. So is 'derniers soupirs', but here they are completely apt expressions. 'Mes soins'—an abstract word which might be translated here as 'ministrations'—has, of course, a double edge. This colourless word, whose associations range from the petits soins of the salon lover to the soins officieux of the poisoner Locusta who a little later in Racine's play 'zealously' provides a poison after first demonstrating its efficacy on a slave, gives an effect comparable to Lady Macbeth's:

What cannot you and I perform
On the unguarded Duncan?

But Agrippina, a more hardened criminal than Lady Macbeth and certainly no sleep-walker, has not finished her recital. She had to conceal the death of Claudius until the army had taken an oath of allegiance to Nero as his successor. Meanwhile the Roman people, on her orders, had been offering prayers to the gods for the recovery of the old emperor, until the moment came when it was safe for him to be shown to them, already dead. In these narrative lines can be detected—again if one wishes—Agrippina's sardonic pleasure in the situation. On a more open level is her insistence on her own role in the affair—'conduit sous mes auspices'—'mes ordres trompeurs'—underlined now to stress Nero's present indebtedness to her:

J'arrêtai de sa mort la nouvelle trop prompte;
Et tandis que Burrhus allait secrètement
De l'armée en vos mains exiger le serment,
Que vous marchiez au camp, conduit sous mes auspices,
Dans Rome les autels fumaient de sacrifices;
Par mes orders trompeurs tout le peuple excité
Du prince déjà mort demandait la santé.
Enfin des légions l'entière obéissance
Ayant de votre empire affermi la puissance,
On vit Claude; et le peuple, étonné de son sort,
Apprit en même temps votre règne et sa mort.

These, concludes Agrippina (with much else previously related), were all my crimes. The tone is that of an injured lover excusing himself for having been perhaps too attentive:

C'est le sincère aveu que je voulais vous faire:
Voilà tous mes forfaits.

This single example must suffice to suggest the force and subtlety which lie in Racine's apparently conventional use of imagery and metre. In the same verse-form he can be ironic, vigorous, brutal, or even flat, as the situation demands:

Est-il juste, après tout, qu'un conquérant s'abaisse
Sous la servile loi de garder sa promesse?


Mais je m'étonne enfin que, pour reconnaissance,
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.

or simply—the depth of utility:

Madame, tout est prêt pour la cérémonie.

In using and perfecting the alexandrine—his almost exclusive medium—Racine mastered it completely. It was his vehicle both for the 'Roman' tone of Britannicus and for the comic effects of Les Plaideurs:

Voilà votre portier et votre secrétaire;
Vous en ferez, je crois, d'excellents avocats:
Ils sont fort ignorants.

On occasion he broke most of the technical rules laid down by his less gifted contemporaries and which the Romantics flung overboard so noisily a hundred and fifty years later. But his infringements were discreet and never wanton, dictated always by an impeccable ear. He observed Boileau's pedestrian prescription for the alexandrine.

—Que toujours, dans vos vers, le sens, coupant les mots,
Suspende l'hémistiche, en marque le repos—

sufficiently often for his verse to pass as 'regular' until it is carefully probed.

While the functional kind of verse just examined is poetic in its compression, its economy and rightness in the choice of words, and its inconspicuous rhythms which lead the speaking voice to follow the most effective sound-patterns relative to the sense, it would hardly be enough to mark Racine as a great poet. The verse of Britannicus and of Bajazet, which were written roughly midway through his career, is perfectly dramatic and basically Racinian. But, using always the same basis, he could build higher.

In the earlier Andromaque, purely human passion is fanned (as in the character of Hermione) to white heat and the tone rises in places almost to a scream. It still does not break the finite barrier, but goes as close as is possible without doing so.

In Bérénice, the music of the Racinian line comes into play and produces some of those tirades which have been aptly compared to arias in which the voice can take wing on the subtly varied rhythm of the alexandrines:

Le temps n'est plus, Phénice, où je pouvais trembler.
Titus m'aime; il peut tout: il n'a plus qu'à parler.
Il verra le sénat m'apporter ses hommages,

Et le peuple de fleurs couronner ses images.
De cette nuit, Phénice, as-tu vu la splendeur?
Tes yeux ne sont-ils pas tout pleins de sa grandeur?
Ce flambeau, ce bûcher, cette nuit enflammée,
Ces aigles, ces faisceaux, ce peuple, cette armée,
Cette foule de rois, ces consuls, ce sénat,
Qui tous de mon amant empruntaient leur éclat …

Or the still more famous:

Je n'écoute plus rien; et pour jamais, adieu.
Pour jamais! Ah! Seigneur, songez-vous en vousmême
Combien ce mot cruel est affreux quand on aime?
Dans un mois, dans un an, comment souffrironsnous,
Seigneur, que tant de mers me séparent de vous?
Que le jour recommence, et que le jour finisse,
Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice,
Sans que de tout le jour je puisse voir Titus?
Mais quelle est mon erreur, et que de soins perdus!
L'ingrat, de mon départ consolé par avance,
Daignera-t-il compter les jours de mon absence?
Ces jours si longs pour moi lui sembleront trop courts.

Both these passages are also 'functional', though in a less immediate way than the scene quoted from Britannicus. The first renders the elation of Berenice when she feels confident that her lover will marry her; the second, the pathos of her distress when she sees that they must separate. The tone, the musical quality, correspond to her feelings at those particular points in the drama. But they can be quoted apart from the drama and still retain a certain life. This becomes truer still of the last two plays which Racine wrote before his retirement: Iphigénie and—to a greater degree—Phèdre. Both were based on the Greek mythology which had persisted in Racine's mind since his schooldays and which seems to have fired his normally disciplined imagination as no other subject did. Phèdre in particular furnished the critic Henri Bremond, writing in the 1920s, with examples for his theory of 'pure poetry', according to which there is an autonomous language of poetry, valid in itself, as music and some painting can be argued to be valid in themselves, without reference to external associations. Just as you cannot adequately transcribe the theme of a piece of music in words, so 'pure poetry' exists independently of rational meaning and of emotions connected with the lived experience of the reader. Such a line as

La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé

becomes a self-contained creation, having its own beauty and originating its own overtones quite apart from its significance in the mouth of a stage-character or its evocation of Greek legend. Bremond even went further and likened the language of 'pure poetry' to the language of prayer.

This theory, with its streak of mysticism, was certainly too extreme. In view of the predominantly functional qualities of Racinian verse, it would seem astonishing that it should have been applied to this particular poet at all. But he does, as we have seen, comply with one half of the requirements. By his concentration on the matter in hand he eliminates the external associations which in 'pure' poetry are worse than irrelevant: they are a distraction. It only remains to persuade oneself that he fulfills the second condition—that his verse can be detached from its dramatic context without essential loss—and he becomes the supreme example of poetic purity.

This can be done in a limited number of instances, though it may safely be said that it was never Racine's conscious intention and that the impact of his lines is always stronger when they are left in their context. Outside it, however, there is still an incantatory quality in, for example, the opening scene of Iphigénie, which occurs just before dawn:

A peine un faible jour vous éclaire et me guide.
Vos yeux seuls et les miens sont ouverts dans l'Aulide.
Avez-vous dans les airs entendu quelque bruit?
Les vents nous auraient-ils exaucés cette nuit?
Mais tout dort, et l'armée, et les vents, et Neptune.

This is poetry at the opposite extreme to Hamlet's:

But look, the Morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.

So is:

Ariane, ma sœur, de quel amour blessée,
Vous mourûtes aux bords où vous fûtes laissée!

Or Phèdre's querulous:

Que ces vains ornements, que ces voiles me pèsent!
Quelle importune main, en formant tous ces nœuds,
A pris soin sur mon front d'assembler mes cheveux?
Tout m'afflige et me nuit et conspire à me nuire.

Yet all these lines, perfect though they are, betray a certain conscious virtuosity on the poet's part. Just as Shakespeare, one feels, may have paused with a certain satisfaction after composing the 'russet mantle' image, so Racine must have experienced a small moment of triumph when he had written the words 'et Neptune'. No doubt he had even planned for it. The beautiful modulation of the 'Ariane' quotation, with the management of the vowels in the second line (ou-ou-u-(e)-o-o / ou-ou-u-(e)-è-é) seems hardly fortuitous. Neither does the discreet alliteration in the last passage quoted and least of all the insistent i sound in:

Tout m'afflige et me nuit et conspire à me nuire.

These are nearer to what Valéry termed 'calculated lines' than to 'given lines'. It is the 'given lines', simpler and apparently spontaneous, that represent Racinian poetry in its purest state.

They are so simple that they easily pass unnoticed. What is noticeable is less their presence in Racine than their absence in other poets. They seem to have been produced without effort—to occur rather than to have been composed. Such are the lines which immediately follow [a] passage from Iphigénie… :

Heureux qui, satisfait de son humble fortune,
Libre du joug superbe où je suis attaché,
Vit dans l'état obscur où les dieux l'ont caché.

Or, from Athalie:

Promettez sur ce livre, et devant ces témoins,
Que Dieu fera toujours le premier de vos soins;
Que, sévère aux méchants, et des bons le refuge,
Entre le pauvre et vous, vous prendrez Dieu pour juge;
Vous souvenant, mon fils, que caché sous ce lin,
Comme eux vous fûtes pauvre et comme eux orphelin.

Or, from Phèdre:

Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.

And, perhaps the most perfect of all:

Le jour n'est pas plus pur que le fond de mon cœur.

In these lines there is no ostentation of any kind. Imagery, rhetoric, and the musical effects that can be drawn from alliteration and assonance are either excluded or reduced to a minimum. Denying himself even the barest 'ornaments', the artist has come face to face with his basic materials, with less than which he cannot work at all: words and syntax. To shape them, he has allowed himself only his auditory sense, a feeling for sounds and rhythm which enables him to produce the most delicately varied effects within an apparently rigid framework. In this sense one can say—without subscribing to the whole of Bremond's, or even Valéry's, theory of 'pure poetry'—that Racine's verse sometimes becomes 'the language of poetry itself.

Anything approaching a 'baroque' Racine is of course unthinkable. But it must be remembered that not all his verse is so perfectly distilled as that just described. His earliest known poems, odes describing the country round Port-Royal, were modelled on the 'libertine' poets Théophile de Viau and Saint-Amant, who did not conform to Malherbe's principles. They contain numerous fanciful metaphors…. Butterflies are 'ces vivantes fleurs'. Birds' nests are 'ces cabinets si bien bâtis'. Oaktrees are 'ces géants de cent bras armés'. There is the pompous image of the great trees which seem to prop up the skies and 'lend their powerful backs to the thrones of the sun':

But perhaps what Racine wrote at the age of about seventeen and never published is not evidence. Or evidence only of a strain capable of development but deliberately suppressed. Yet it crops out again in a more temperate form in Esther and Athalie the few sacred songs of his later years. The influence of the Bible, with the bold images and picturesque idioms of Hebrew poetry, is now perceptible. The English reader will feel more at home when he comes upon some violent nightmare like the dream of Athalie, or reads such lines as

La nation entière est promise aux vautours,


Et de Jérusalem l'herbe cache les murs;
Sion, repaire affreux de reptiles impurs …

which are evocative in the last degree, and the opposite of 'pure' poetry. Or he will hear Racine—echoing the Psalmist and the Book of Job—speak with the authentic voice of Jehovah out of the whirlwind:

This is also Racine, writing a stanza so perfectly constructed that it floats with its own lightness…. The technical reasons for Malherbe's greater heaviness would require a long analysis, but it is really unnecessary. It is enough to read the two poets aloud. Some of the difference is due to the greater variety of Racine's metrical scheme. In this one stanza he uses lines of 10, 10, 6, 12, 10 and 12 syllables.

Yet Racine had learnt something from Malherbe, just as he took something from Corneille (particularly in Britannicus). His verse as a whole, considered over the whole of his mature period, is a compound made from these two poets, from fashionable courtly speech with the slightest touch of the précieux, from colloquial speech and from the Greek and Latin poets whom he read and adapted so assiduously. These various elements are so perfectly synthesized that the amalgam (unlike Ronsard's) appears as one clear, consistent material and can be held up, deservedly if paradoxically, as the model of classical purity.

The factor so far omitted from the analysis—since analysis would not show it—is Racine's personal way of approaching and handling his material. This all-important personal quality cannot of course exist in a vacuum, i.e. without the material to work on. But neither can the material exist in any coherent form without it. It is the beginning and end of art: the beginning because it provides the artist with his original bias, the end because it conditions the impression which his work will make on the reader. In both aspects it can be called his idiom. Racine's idiom, with its peculiar intonations, its mannerisms, its vocabulary, and of course its defects, is less a variety of French poetry than a poetic branch of the French language, as—though with directly contrasting qualities—Abbey-Theatre Irish is a poetic branch of English. The comparison, overlooking all other differences, can be used to explain the fascination of Racinian verse for Frenchmen. It is a delightful and irresistibly flattering idealization of his ordinary speech. So he might talk in dreams, if he were perfectly eloquent and perfectly lucid. (The Englishman, on the contrary, dreams of perfect eloquence allied to perfect intoxication, that is, freedom from inhibitions.)

In this language of the lucid dream, characters endowed with a precision of feeling which assimilates them more to passionate machines than to the untidy attempts at gods of the Shakespearian tradition speak their minds with a frankness which embraces every subtlety of perception of which they and their author are capable. Hence both the clarity which immediately strikes an audience and their interest for the modern psychologist, who has to admit the deeper accuracy of their findings. Here the dramatist joins the poet and any further division along these lines becomes unprofitable.

For Racine's immediate successors, he was the poet who had demonstrated that verse could be dignified, elegant, harmonious, supple and clear, and at the same time wholly French. He had at last realized Du Bellay's old ambition of a French literary tongue as civilized and expressive as Greek and Latin. He could therefore be quoted as a proof of national excellence and a model for imitation.

It was perhaps unfortunate. Racine is no easier to imitate than to translate. In spite of his prestige in the eighteenth century, none of his disciples surpasses the second-rate. The great Racinian scholar Paul Mesnard once listed Jean-Baptiste Rousseau and Fontanes as the sole approximate successes. What a fall is here, and how dangerous it is to single out certain qualities which one finds congenial in a poet and then to believe that one holds the formula for composing similar poetry. Racine was richer than his age and, although it is unlikely that without him the poets of the next century would have followed a much different course, it is a pity that his example could be used at all to justify their mediocrity.

With time, the matter appears in better perspective. A 'classic' or not, Racine remains a great poet in his own right, to whom poets completely emancipated from the classical tradition as formulated by Boileau look back as a master. Even those Romantics who abominated it always respected him.

Sur le Racine mort, le Campistron pullule,

wrote Hugo, conceiving the great dramatist as a dead lion infested by lice. But it is obvious today that Racine, with his lucid, wiry talent, is by no means dead. In fact, he has survived in better shape than the more massive Hugo.

Gordon Pocock (essay date 1973)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7088

SOURCE: "The Dramatic Art of Racine," in Corneille and Racine: Problems of Tragic Form, Cambridge at the University Press, 1973, pp. 216-36.

[In the following excerpt, Pocock seeks to demonstrate that "the basis of Racine's art was his concern to express those irrational and even infantile passions that are fed from the unconscious, but that he masked them as far as possible behind a perfect neo-classical façade. "]

After 1670, Racine was the reigning monarch of the stage. Bajazet was acclaimed not just as a success but as an improvement on his earlier plays. Mithridate triumphed, and was Louis XIV's favourite tragedy. Then came Iphigénie—Racine's greatest success, with the Court, the Town, and the critics. Until the end of the eighteenth century and beyond, it was regarded as one of his greatest plays—perhaps his greatest. I will consider for a moment these three plays by Racine at the height of his success, and try to discover from them some of the characteristics of his mastery.

Traditionally, the great strength of Racine is his portrayal of women in love. Bajazet may stand as an example. We may instance Act II, Scene i, with its powerful and subtle drawing of Roxane's conflicting emotions. She swings from formal elegance to a direct proposal of marriage. When Bajazet prevaricates, she first reasons with him, and then becomes indignant, though for a moment her rage is so suppressed by her effort to remain calm that it comes through only as irony. Then her brutality and rage break through, and she threatens him with death. At this, she recoils, and pleads with him with tenderness and urgency—only to rebound into threatening violence at his coldness. The dramatic power is obvious. The verse expresses every nuance of feeling, every shift in the situation. The tension builds up, the twists and the resolution are unexpected yet logical. This is one example among many, and a relatively simple one, but it justifies Racine's reputation for psychological subtlety combined with dramatic urgency.

Mithridate has the same qualities. It also shows more clearly than Bajazet another quality for which Racine is famous: the sweetness and elegance of his verse, especially in scenes of pathos or sentiment (as in the rôle of Monime). More relevantly for our present purpose, it also shows qualities which are often undervalued in Racine, and which we more readily associate with Corneille: a poetry of energy, heroism and politics. If we admire the discussion of Auguste with Cinna and Maxime, it is hard to withhold our approval from Mithridate's discussion with his sons. The scene lacks nothing in firmness and energy of expression, and shows a grasp of political realities: if Mithridate overrates the Italians' respect for blue blood ('If they followed Spartacus, how they will fight for a king!') we can say that this shows Racine's awareness of the psychology of a half-oriental monarch. In Mithridate he skilfully brings together a romantic plot and an historical background and makes them set each other off: the pathetic dilemma of the old king gains in intensity when seen as part of the situation of a man who has long made headway against the power of Rome, and in defeat plans an audacious counterstroke.

At this stage Racine seems to have reached the point where he can do what he likes with his medium. In Iphigénie, more than in any of his other plays, an interesting plot leads smoothly from dramatic situation to dramatic situation. As in Bajazet, suspense is aroused to a high degree, but here we never feel that the machinery is arbitrary. There are four, even six, interesting and well-drawn characters, subtly contrasted, each drawing our sympathy or admiration in various degrees, but none of them appearing either too evil or too good to be interesting. Their reactions are subtly observed and expressed. Each character is satisfying as an individual creation, and together they form a beautifully balanced group. But the great glory of Iphigénie is its verse. For the rôle of Iphigénie herself, Racine has found a perfect harmony and simplicity, but the range of tone is wide. Against Iphigénie's tenderness we can set the deeper note of Clytemnestre's rage. Nor is there lacking that strange sexual undertone that creeps into Racine's verse and gives it just a hint of perversity….

Most beautiful of all—and it is on the significance I give to these that my estimate of the play must largely rest—are the lines that cluster round the rôle of Agamemnon, especially in the first scene of Act I:

Heureux qui, satisfait de son humble fortune,
Libre du joug superbe où je suis attaché,
Vit dans l'état obscur où les Dieux l'ont caché!
Nous partions; et déjà par mille cris de joie
Nous menacions de loin les rivages de Troie.

Un prodige étonnant fit taire ce transport:
Le vent qui nous flattait nous laissa dans le port.
Il fallut s'arrêter, et la rame inutile
Fatigua vainement une mer immobile.

In Bajazet, Mithridate and Iphigénie, we seem to have all the dramatic virtues. Yet have we? These three plays are such that it is difficult to trace any weakness in them, yet do we find them really compelling? This question is so important for an understanding of Racine that we must look at them again.

Bajazet is sometimes considered the weakest of the three. From its first appearance, critics have fastened on the grande tuerie at the end, which has been thought insufficiently prepared. In realistic terms, however, the deaths seem well prepared. It is likely enough that those who plot treason at the court of an Eastern despot will get killed, and virtually certain if they mix love and politics—much more probable and inevitable, for instance, than that those who drive chariots will be killed because sea-monsters frighten the horses. To try and get at the reasons for dissatisfaction with the dénouement, let us examine the verse.

The plainness of much of it is famous (Madame, j'ai reçu des lettres de l'armée'). Frequently it has also a prosaic, disenchanted realism:

Roxane en sa fureur peut raisonner ainsi.
Mais moi, qui vois plus loin, qui, par un long usage,
Des maximes du trône ai fait l'apprentissage,
Qui d'emplois en emplois vieilli sous trois sultans,
Ai vu de mes pareils les malheurs éclatants,
Je sais, sans me flatter, que de sa seule audace
Un homme tel que moi doit attendre sa grâce.

The style of Act V is especially revealing. In the earlier acts, there is time to drape the bare facts in poetic conventions; but by the last act the pace is too hot ('Les moments sont trop chers pour les perdre en paroles'). Racine can here draw great dramatic effect from the simplest phrases: 'Retirez-vous'; 'Que faut-il faire?'; 'Sortez'; 'Qu'estce?'; 'Quoi! lui?' But the force comes from the context of events, not from the verse: the banal phrases are energised by the happenings around them, not by any poetic current which they themselves generate. Where the verse is less abrupt, it often has difficulty in accommodating the events it has to present, and on occasion its awkwardness recalls that of some of the verse in Corneille's later plays:

Je puis le retenir. Mais s'il sort, il est mort.
—Oui, sur mes pas un esclave l'amène;
Et loin de soupçonner sa disgrâce prochaine,
Il m'a paru, Madame, avec empressement,
Sortir, pour vous chercher, de son appartement.

Even the emotional statements have a bluntness that pretends to no literary grace:

Bajazet's death can be announced with the most banal fierceness:

Bajazet est sans vie.

Clearly, Bajazet is not poetic in method. The separate virtues of plot, character, and even verse are great, but the play has no pretensions to tragedy. It is because the tragic spirit is lacking that the final deaths, however probable and necessary, appear arbitrary.

If the verse of Bajazet is coarse in texture, that of Mithridate has an elegance which doubtless helped to make it Louis XIV s favourite tragedy. But since the seventeenth century it has never been regarded as one of Racine's greatest plays, whereas Iphigénie has. Boileau's tribute in Epître VII is well-known, and critics have reasonably seen the ideal of tragedy set forth in Chant III of L 'Art Poétique as related to Iphigénie. Later neo-classic critics endorsed this estimate of the play. Voltaire's views are well known ('J'avoue que je regarde Iphigénie comme le chef-d'oeuvre de la scène') and in L'Ingénu he holds it up as a touchstone of true taste, apparently because of its power to play on the audience's emotions.

These judgments and the continued success of Iphigénie on the stage are certainly not without justification. Yet, despite all its virtues, would we really place Iphigénie on the same level as Phèdre and Athalie? Despite Voltaire, we clearly would not. To ask a more difficult question: do we prefer Iphigénie to Andromaque, whose standing is more equivocal? Again, the answer is clear: despite the slight awkwardness of Andromaque when compared with the ripeness and perfection of Iphigénie, in the last analysis the later play is less impressive than the earlier. Why, then, is Iphigénie inferior, when its evident merits are so great?

In an attempt to answer this, I look first at the one element in Iphigénie which has been adversely criticised: the handling of the mythological donnée. Obviously, this presented great difficulty to a seventeenth-century poet, committed at the same time to le vraisemblable and les bienséances. How could refined members of seventeenth-century French society be at ease with the concept of gods who would hold up the winds until a princess was sacrificed? Such ideas were unacceptable, not necessarily because the temper of the age was sceptical (though sceptical currents of thought were certainly influential in certain quarters), but because at the level of secular society they were uncouth, and at the level of orthodox religious thought they were either untrue or simply evil. Caught between these two conflicting but powerful devaluations of myth, poets were recommended to regard the individual myths as ornament—at best expressing allegorically some truth of conventional wisdom, at worst merely decorative. This is Boileau's position, and is implicit in neoclassical theory, with its pronounced tendency towards naturalism. Racine, with his earnest desire to recapture the seriousness of ancient tragedy, had little room for manoeuvre: it was unthinkable that he should treat the myth as a fairy-tale with a few allegorical trimmings—this was the operatic solution, which, in his preface he by implication repudiates. Alternatively, he could hardly adopt a whole-heartedly rationalistic interpretation, in which the whole affair was a fraud devised by wicked priests: the time was fortunately not ripe for such a solution to be popular, and Racine must surely have perceived that its crudity quite removed it from the sphere of tragedy. Faced with this dilemma, he equivocates.

The legend of Iphigenia inevitably raises one terrible question: why did the gods demand the sacrifice? Racine evades it: he accepts the demand, and the assumption that after the sacrifice the winds will blow again, as Aristotelian 'improbabilities before the drama'. The advantage of this is that he can avoid all the moral and theological difficulties the question raises. The disadvantage is that he had to direct the audience's attention away from a natural source of interest in his play, and must therefore provide sufficiently attractive alternatives. His solution, at the beginning of the play, is to focus the interest on Agamemnon. The evocative lines in the first scene mark a powerful attempt to direct us to this alternative theme: that of a proud king seeing himself as the victim of the gods because of his position, and following, though reluctantly, his destiny. Vinaver has persuasively maintained that the poetic centre of the play is to be found in this direction. Basing himself solidly on what are undoubtedly the most impressive clusters of verse in the text, he draws the conclusion that through the agency of these 'vers prestigieux' Racine assimilates his courtly drama to the more significant realm of myth:

A tout moment, dans chacune des scènes où figure Agamemnon, le mythe tragique côtoie et explique le drame humain, et dans la crainte même d'y faire apparaître les dieux, on sent un respect qui, peu à peu, grandit, se nuançant de terreur. Malgré son pretendu souci de l'Ordinaire', Racine n'avait jamais poussé aussi loin le culte du surnaturel, ni sa poésie accompli miracle plus rare.

Yet we may doubt whether this is so. The theme is certainly present in Act I, but the ruse of the letter, and then Iphigénie's arrival, point to other and more superficial sources of interest: the surprise and suspense engendered by the plot. In Act II, Racine's hesitations between the myth and the plot are resolved: he introduces 'l'heureux personnage d'Eriphile, sans laquelle je n'aurais jamais esé entreprendre cette tragédie'. The scene between Eriphile and Doris includes those subtly sensual lines we have quoted, and which point to a deeper source of Racine's strength. But there can be little doubt that the matters of interest he is more concerned to offer us here are psychology (the nuances of Eriphile's emotions) and suspense (the mystery of Eriphile's origins and fate). From now on, the play runs securely on the 'intrigue' level. We may have a scene of pathos when Iphigénie greets Agamemnon (II.ii), a scene of jealousy between Iphigénie and Eriphile, and so on. It is difficult to believe that Racine is focussing on any of them. He is certainly not focussing on the rôle of Agamemnon. Act IV magisterially plays all the variations on Agamemnon's situation, but the interest is in the feelings of the characters and the twists and turns of the plot.

Finally, Act V raises in the most acute form questions which Racine has tried to evade: the significance of the sacrifice itself, and hence the rôle of the gods in the action. Before looking at his treatment of the sacrifice and its attendant miracles, we may glance at his handling of the gods—bearing in mind that he had to keep in play, yet avoid committing himself too completely to, two different conceptions of them: the gods as real numinosa (which was incredible to his audience's Christian or sceptical beliefs—'quelle apparence de dénouer ma tragédie par le secours d'une déesse … qui pouvait bien trouver quelque créance du temps d'Euripide, mais qui serait trop absurde et trop incroyable parmi nous?') and the gods as dignified ornaments (which was acceptable to his audience, but denatured his subject).

If we look at the text, the extent of his equivocation is obvious. 'Dieu' or its plural occurs no less than eighteen times in the act, but the mixture of tones in which it is used betrays Racine's uncertainty. Some references appear to invoke real numinosa:

il faut des Dieux apaiser la colère …
Leurs ordres éternels se sont trop déclarés.

But others are merely sentimental:

Others again are no more than expletives:

Dieux! Achille?
Mais, Dieux! ne vois-je pas Ulysse?

When Iphigénie goes off to the sacrifice, there remains the prospect of tragedy: we believe she is to be killed, and there is perhaps still time for Racine to invest her death with significance. Clytemnestre denounces Agamemnon in impressive verse. Then thunder sounds, and she attributes it to the gods. Arcas also credits them with interrupting the sacrifice—'N'en doutez point, Madame, un Dieu combat pour vous'—but this interpretation is rather devalued by the line which follows: 'Achille en ce moment exauce vos prières.' The struggle is between Achille and a demagogic priest: 'Achille est à l'autel, Calchas est éperdu.' Then Ulysse comes to relate the dénouement. Iphigénie is safe, and it is the work of the gods: but 'the gods' are little more than a figure of speech. The narration is a careful balancing act. Achille's purely secular intervention 'partageait les Dieux'. Calchas then reveals the secret of Eriphile's parentage. Racine makes him attribute this to 'Le Dieu qui maintenant vous parle par ma voix', but is careful to add that Calchas had purely human means of knowing, and to hint that he may merely be expressing his malice towards Eriphile:

Je vis moi-même alors ce fruit de leurs amours.
D'un sinistre avenir je menaçai ses jours.

Eriphile kills herself, but not out of deference to the sacredness of Calchas's words:

Le sang de ces héros dont tu me fais descendre
Sans tes profanes mains saura bien se répandre.

So Iphigénie is not the Iphigénie; the subject of the play is not the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter; and the central character is Eriphile. Now we come to the miracles. Racine starts with the more credible parts (the weather could break and the winds blow), and boldly associates them with another miracle: 'La flamme du bûcher d'ellemême s'allume.' This detail is not in Euripides: Racine is surely trying to make his miracle more credible by appealing to his Christian audience's recollection of the pyre on Mount Carmel at which Elijah confounded the priests of Baal. But immediately he equivocates again:

Le soldat étonné dit que dans une nue
Jusque sur le bûcher Diane est descendue,
Et croit que s'élevant au travers de ses feux,
Elle portait au ciel notre encens et nos voeux.

The final couplet of the play keeps the balance: Clytemnestre attribute[s] the happy ending to the gods and to Achille.

It is clear enough, from this brief survey of the text, that Racine is careful not to commit himself on the central issue of his play. He is not using the elements of his play to express any coherent pattern of experience: he is exploiting them for what interest they will yield in their own right. Barthes puts his finger on the play's weakness:

Iphigénie est une 'grande comédie dramatique', où le Sang n'est plus un lien tribal, mais seulement familial, une simple continuité de bénéfices et d'affections. La conséquence critique est que l'on ne peut plus réduire les rôles entre eux, tenter d'atteindre le noyau singulier de la configuration; il faut les prendre les uns après les autres, définir ce que socialement, et non plus mythiquement, chacun d'eux réprésente.

The method, of course, has certain advantages. Hence the brilliance of the play, the perfectly articulated plot, the range and subtlety of the verse and characterisation: there is no central meaning to make things difficult, and Racine can display his virtuosity. Indeed, to make his play interesting at all, he must decorate it as brilliantly as he can.

If we now go back over the scenes in these middle plays which we singled out as showing Racine's mastery of his medium, we can see what they lack. In Act II, Scene i of Bajazet, the portrayal of Roxane's emotions and the control of dramatic tension are masterly, but they are the only two elements of interest in the scene. There is no larger significance to them, as there is in a scene like IV.v of Bérénice, where an equally acutely observed scene at the same time functions as part of the expression of a complex poetic theme. As with Bajazet, so with Mithridate. Its excellences are many, but what is the subject? We can only describe it in terms of the characters and plot: we cannot divine from the play any central theme, any reinterpretation of human experience. Why is the scene in which Mithridate explains his plans to his sons so inferior to Act II, Scene i of Cinna? Not because of any obvious weakness in Racine's verse, nor because Corneille shows a firmer grasp of political realities. It is certainly not because of any superiority in Corneille's character-drawing: in his scene he plays havoc with the characters of Cinna and Maxime. The reason for the difference in quality is that the scene in Cinna means something. It is part of a pattern which involves us in a particular interpretation of experience. In Mithridate, the political scene is just a political scene: another scene we can enjoy in a play which is full of them. Mithridate is close to some plays of Corneille's middle period, in method if not in content. Like so many of Corneille's plays after Cinna, it could very easily slide into domestic comedy: it is not for nothing that one of the most famous scenes recalls a situation in L'Avare. Again like Corneille's more naturalistic plays, Mithridate is full of that other symptom of naturalism, a complacent indulgence in contemporary jargon. Hardly anything in Corneille, even in Oedipe, can match the reaction of Xipharès when Monime says she has betrayed him:

Quoi! Madame, c'est vous, c'est l'amour qui m'expose?
Mon malheur est parti d'une si belle cause?
Trop d'amour a trahi nos secrets amoureux?
Et vous vous excusez de m'avoir fait heureux?

We may believe that Mithridate pleased contemporary taste.

This brings us back to the question of the reputation of these plays. It has often been remarked that all Racine's plays, except his first two, have retained their place on the stage. The situation with Corneille is very different: plays such as Pompée and Rodogune have steadily lost their reputations. But let us look more closely at the fortunes of Bajazet, Mithridate and Iphigénie. The reputations of masterpieces, or at least the reasons for which they are admired, often fluctuate: their power to arouse violent reactions and to provoke different interpretations is a sign of their greatness. The fate of Bajazet, Mithridate and Iphigénie is more depressing. Their evident merits have always been admired, but after their rapturous reception by contemporaries their reputations have suffered a slow but uninterrupted decline. The naturalist is committed to investing in the representation of contemporary behaviour: he may get quick returns, but the stock is ephemeral. Bajazet, Mithridate and Iphigénie suffer from just this weakness.

It follows from our argument that these three plays are not among Racine's best. Racine's mastery in them—of plot, character and verse—is of course as great as anyone has ever said it is. The difficulty is that this mastery is present to a higher degree in them than in his acknowledged masterpieces; and if we accept that excellence of plot, character and verse are the criteria of the value of a play we can hardly avoid calling Iphigénie Racine's masterpiece, as Voltaire was logical and honest enough to do. If we are not prepared to do this, it follows that the reason for the superiority of some of Racine's other plays is more basic. I have maintained, in my [here unexcerpted] studies of Andromaque, Britannicus and Bérénice, that the reason for this superiority is that in them Racine makes use, with increasing sureness, of the poetic as distinct from the naturalistic method. This brings us face to face with another question: what type of theme does Racine use this poetic method to express? Cinna is poetic, but none of Racine's plays resembles it in tone or content. I have argued, and will argue, that Racine's best plays are tragic. Our central problem is this: on what basis was Racine able to found his tragedy?

The best starting-point is perhaps to look again at the most obvious strength of Racine, which has figured in every critical evaluation of his work from the appearance of Andromaque onwards. It has always been said that his special strength is in the portrayal of love. Whatever reservations we may make on his method of expression, Turnell is undoubtedly right to stress the importance of the erotic instinct in Racine. But I think we should emphasise that in Racine this erotic element is more all-embracing than that of a romantic love-story. We certainly do not attribute his power to the elegance with which he portrays his young lovers. The insipidity of Britannicus, Bajazet or Xipharès makes this one of the weakest features of his plays. By 'love' we really mean the elemental passion which he portrays: passions which may be profoundly sensual, as in Phèdre, but which are also often touched with sadistic and masochistic impulses, as in Néron or Titus, and may be more a lust for power than any other lust, as in Agrippine. Racine's contemporaries were very understandably shocked by the subversiveness of his plays. The way in which he wrote about love leaves no doubt of the daemonic force behind it.

It is no part of my purpose to discuss the scientific status of any psychological theory. Nevertheless, when modern critics discuss Racine, they are often drawn to speak of him in terms of modern depth psychology. This tendency seems to me a sound one, if only because it highlights some aspects of Racine which are difficult to account for in any other terms….

My argument so far can be summarised as follows. The experiences to which the concept of the unconscious refers give poets a claim to seriousness in their work which enables them to evade the secondary rôles imposed on poetry by critical doctrines of the type of neo-classicism and naturalism; and these experiences are especially relevant to tragedy. My argument will now be that Racine based himself on a similar appeal to the unconscious to evade the naturalistic critical demands powerful in his environment, and that this opened his way to tragedy.

I believe that this assertion is supported by the evidence of his plays, but it may seem less odd if we link it with two other lines of thought. The first is the generally accepted view that he has affinities with the Greek tragic poets. I will come back to this in my next chapter. To anticipate, I think we must agree with Lapp that Racine's special affinity is with Euripides, and that it shows itself not by any means in sympathy with Euripidean technique ('The Greek writer's structure could only have seemed erratic to the Frenchman. And compared to the highly inventive Euripides, who added to or changed the established stories at will, Racine was extremely cautious, requiring a precedent for almost every innovation') but in a common attitude to the deep, irrational forces of the mind and their relation to the civilised, conscious order ('The lack of any specific divine cause for the tragedies of Racine's Jocaste, his Agamemnon, his Phèdre, is thus essentially Euripidean … for Racine as well as the Greek dramatist the natural life force is equated with the divine'). The affinity, in fact, is in a common attitude to 'the gods'. 'The gods', in Greek thought, are not theological abstractions: 'They are not merely dramatic fictions, but they personify the forces of necessity to which man must yield'. As such, they are often equivalent to powerful psychological impulses: 'A "god" is the personification of any more than human power in nature, or any force within the heart of man which is also greater than the individual because it is shared by all individuals'. As such, they come close to the modern concept of the unconscious, and to the seventeenth-century concept of le coeur.

This brings us to our second line of thought. There is one very significant tradition of thought in seventeenth-century France which was concerned to analyse as precisely as possible the irrational compulsions that determine human behaviour. La Rochefoucauld is sometimes presented as an author of cynical wisecracks. If we examine the Maximes at all carefully, we find they embody a more sombre attitude than this judgement implies:

La durée de nos passions ne dépend pas plus de nous
que la durée de notre vie.

Nous n'avons pas assez de force pour suivre toute
notre raison.

Qui vit sans folie n'est pas si sage qu'il croit.

Il y a plus de défauts dans l'humeur que dans l'esprit.
Il s'en faut bien que nous ne connaissions toutes nos volontés.

On ne souhaite jamais ardemment ce qu'on ne souhaite
que par raison.

La Rochefoucauld's theme is one from which Euripides and Freud would not have dissented: 'L'esprit est toujours la dupe du coeur'.

As Bénichou pointed out, La Rochefoucauld's work rests on the concept of unconscious mental processes. What is striking is that he sees them as truly unconscious, not merely at the margin of consciousness. The similarity of his attitude and subject-matter to those of more recent psychologists is notable, particularly in some of the material he cancelled. The original opening 'Maxime' reads like a passage from The Book of the It or a Freudian paper on the instincts. Maxime XXXIII of the original edition describes the mechanism of projection. Maxime XLIV in the definitive edition insists on the biological basis of psychology. The suppressed No XII of the Réflexions Diverses propounds a psychosomatic theory of disease. The Maximes show a concern with the most bizarre aspects of human behaviour: La Rochefoucauld seems to have been especially fascinated by the incident of the lackey who danced on the scaffold before being broken on the wheel.

Adam links the Maximes with the work of Saint-Réal, who for a while was the mentor of Racine. Saint-Réal was drawn to 'l'étude du coeur humain', which soon led him to see 'que la bizarrerie ou la folie sont le plus souvent les causes des actions les plus éclatantes, que la malignité est le plus fréquent motif de nos sentiments, que surtout chez les femmes et chez les enfants il y a plaisir à faire le mal et à voir souffrir'. Adam adds a note:

Saint-Réal n'est pas seul à s'intéresser à ces régions obscures de la vie des sentiments. Dans une de ses Lettres, Méré cite un mari qui 'plaisait plus à certains hommes qu'un homme ne doit souhaiter', et ce mari ne pouvait trouver son plaisir avec sa femme, qui était très belle, qu'en l'imaginant dans les bras d'un autre …. Il posait devant son sécrétaire, sur un ami inconnu, ces étranges questions: 'Pourquoi voit-il une putaine si laide, lui qui a une si belle femme? Comment peut-il aimer les garçons?'

We need not think that in emphasising Racine's irrationalism we are merely projecting back into the seventeenth century our twentieth-century views: the student of Euripides, the contemporary of La Rochefoucauld and the friend of Saint-Réal had ample opportunity to arrive at such views for himself.

There is a strong negative argument for the hypothesis: how else can we account for the strength of Racine? As I have tried to show, we can hardly explain his compelling force if we regard him only as continuing and perfecting Corneille. Precision of plotting, subtlety and force of characterisation, sweetness and strength of verse: all these are present to a high degree in Mithridate, and to the point of perfection in Iphigénie. But neither of these plays can take us by the throat as some others can. They are much superior to Le Comte d'Essex, but they are not obviously different in kind. We may feel that Thomas Corneille, if only he had possessed a little more skill and sensitivity, might have risen to Mithridate. Phèdre is of a different order entirely. It is this differentness of Racine that the critic has to explain.

We can approach the question from another angle. There is one special strength of Racine which marks him out from his minor contemporaries, of which he himself was conscious, and which is obviously a major source of his power: his poetry. Poetry, far more than prose, is equipped to embody intuitions from below the level of consciousness As Brereton has remarked, Racine's verse 'retains the slight haze always necessary to poetry'. Poetry is based directly on experience: it can afford to draw only a little material at second-hand, from the findings of external disciplines. It characteristically has a range of meanings that cannot be formulated in prose-simultaneous views, as it were, of many sides of an experience. It is this richness which produces the haze. This does not mean that poetry is less clear than prose; on the contrary, it can say with immediate clarity and force what prose cannot say at all. This is true to an especially high degree of poetic drama: the whole complex of means of expression—plot, character, situation and the rest, which are elements in the poetic substance—is removed further still from conceptual discourse than that of a non-dramatic poem, which consists of words alone. If the only elements called into play are the non-verbal ones, the work will lack the conceptual clarity which words, uniquely, combine with emotional resonance derived from the whole range of human experience. If this combination of verbal and non-verbal means is essential to the statement made by the work (and not merely sugaring of a prose pill) the meaning expressed must therefore be inexpressible by normal prose statements. Such inexpressibility is characteristic precisely of those experiences which are closest to the unconscious mental processes. It is possible for a very great artist to match the elements which express the meaning inexpressible by prose so exactly with a rational surface that the irrational part of the total statement can be missed by the insensitive. I have argued that this almost perfect matching occurs in Bérénice. More commonly, in responding to a work of art we feel the daemonic impulsion, and are aware that it could not be accommodated in prose terms. In all the most powerful of Racine's plays we feel this compelling presence of a meaning that is more than the plot or the characters and cannot be reduced to any prose message. We may also note in Racine's verse surface features that fit awkwardly into the conventions of rational discourse: ambiguities, unexpected collocations, recurring images and patterns, and, above all, paradox. Neoclassical poets are fond of antithesis, but in Racine the antitheses—especially in Phèdre and Athalie—are sharpened to the point of paradox.

This brings us to a further problem. We have argued that the basic tradition of neo-classicism was naturalistic, and that in the age of Louis XIV it was evolving ever towards greater reasonableness, greater formal elegance, and away from any inconvenient attempt to express a central substance. Set in this tradition we have Racine, a profound poet, struggling to express his sense of passion and violence in human experience. This poetic impulse put him in touch with those unconscious forces whose strength and immediacy gave him a firm base from which to resist the secondary rôle assigned to the arts by naturalism. At the same time, the critical code of elegant decencies forbade expression of these uncouth impulses; and Racine himself certainly subscribed to the code. What might we expect would be his technique in such a situation?

It may help us to look at two analogies: Freud's theory of dream-formation and Eliot's tactics in writing his plays. Freud came to the conclusion that the conflict between unconscious forces and the moral and other tendencies resisting their expression is temporarily resolved (still below the level of consciousness) in a compromise: the repugnant unconscious material is disguised behind a façade which is acceptable to the repressing tendencies, but which is found, on analysis, to express the unacceptable content behind it. This façade is as far as possible given a reasonable, coherent form by a process of 'secondary revision' which takes account of the standards of rationality of the conscious mind. In a perfect dream, the façade might appear perfectly rational. In practice, there are always some incongruities which betray the fact that the dream conceals something more elemental.

Eliot's tactics, though quite conscious, involve a somewhat similar process. They are set out most starkly in a letter to Pound:

If you can keep the bloody audience's attention engaged, then you can perform any monkey tricks you like when they ain't looking, and it's what you do behind the audience's back so to speak that makes your play IMMORTAL for a while.

If the audience gets its strip tease it will swallow the poetry.

We can see this technique in, for instance, The Cocktail Party. In this case, the 'monkey tricks' are the Christian meaning which Eliot wishes to convey, and which he thinks his audience will reject as alien; the 'strip tease' is the popular West End light comedy. The problem is then to convey the meaning in this form: the Christian idea of martyrdom must be expressed through drawing-room comedy. Here again, but this time by design, a few elements which cannot be assimilated to the humdrum surface direct our attention to the meaning underneath: the Guardians pour libations. This approach is not characteristic of all poetic drama, and is unlikely to succeed if applied in cold blood. In Eliot's case it fails. This is not necessarily because the method is at fault. It seems more likely that if it fails in this case, this is because the meaning to be expressed is not a poetic meaning inexpressible in other terms than those of the play itself, but a preconceived doctrine which he wishes to insinuate in a sugared form.

These two examples are offered as models of Racine's method, which may be stated as follows. He takes a story or situation, not simply because it offers striking characters or an exciting plot, but because he feels that it can help him to embody the meaning he is struggling to express. His task, as a poet, is to bring out and articulate with the greatest possible clarity this hidden meaning. But the literary conventions of his day forbid a crude expression of some elements of this hidden meaning: what these conventions (which he shared) do demand are a clear plot, interesting characters and elegant verse, all conforming to orthodox morality and common sense (except insofar as poetry may have licence to tell agreeable lies, providing they are not to be taken seriously). His problem is then to find a naturalistic surface which will satisfy his critics (and himself) and at the same time serve as a façade which will harmonise with his underlying meaning. In Racine, this façade (the 'strip tease') is always beautifully constructed. To the careless eye, the effect of the play seems to be due to the perfection of the façade. But this is not so, as two pieces of evidence show: first, the plays with the most perfect façades (Mithridate and Iphigénie) are not the most powerful; and second, in some of the most powerful of his plays (Andromaque, Britannicus, Phèdre and Athalie) there are evident discontinuities between the façade and the meaning behind it….

This view of Racine explains much in his prefaces. He defends laboriously the historical accuracy and 'vraisemblance' of every detail of his plays—that is, of their façades. But two things arouse him to fury: when the critics are not satisfied with his façade, in spite of all his trouble with it (see the first preface to Britannicus); and when they suggest that he has broken the 'rules' in general—that is, that although he may have meticulously observed the individual rules of the unities, the liaison des scènes, and so on, he has departed from the basis of neo-classical dramaturgy. The second accusation hurts because it is true. Racine's defence is the only possible one: he appeals to the powerful effect his plays make on the spectators who are not concerned with the rules. There is a fundamental discrepancy between the two imperatives of neo-classical art: 'to please' and 'to follow the rules'. In Racine the two imperatives correspond to the two levels of his plays: 'to please', he relied on the powerful appeal of the latent content to our passions; but 'to follow the rules' it is necessary to produce a façade pleasing to the rational mind. We find in his art, in fact, an ambivalence which we find also in his attitude to Jansenism and to his life at Court: an anxiety to please, shadowed by an inner defiance.

I have travelled around a good deal in an effort to illuminate Racine's tragic method. My purpose, however, has been to set off and make understandable the nature of his achievement, not to subordinate it to yet another schematic explanation. We are still left with the paradox of Racine, the perfect neo-classicist and poet of anarchic passion. In the last analysis, perhaps we can only say it was his temperament, or his genius—in either case, an insoluble mystery—which led him to intrude the archaic bull into the Dresden china shop. But even genius must have some path along which to travel, some associative link to connect his intuitions with an accepted form which can help him express them. This link lay to hand in another element in the neo-classical tradition: the use of antique subject-matter. Tradition approved the use of either ancient history or mythology. Racine, far more than Corneille or his own contemporaries (except when they were being operatic) chose myth. The great myths of Greece live because they are intimately connected with the most emotion-laden and frequent experiences of human beings. If we want to explain the differentness of Racine, we must reaffirm what has been said by many others: Racine alone, in the words of Vinaver, 'entrera dans le domaine du mythe avec la volonté d'en respecter les données éssentielles et d'émouvoir le spectateur par les choses mêmes "qui avaient mis autrefois en larmes le plus savant peuple de la Grèce".' We may doubt whether this is true of Iphigénie. There is no doubt that it is true of Phèdre.

My view, then, is that the basis of Racine's art was his concern to express those irrational and even infantile passions that are fed from the unconscious, but that he masked them as far as possible behind a perfect neoclassical façade.

David Maskell (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4536

SOURCE: "Racine and Shakespeare: A Common Language," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3, 1993, pp. 253-68.

[Maskell is the author of Racine: A Theatrical Reading (1991). In the following excerpt from a later work, he compares the theatricality—specifically, the "visual language"—of Shakespeare and Racine.]

When writers' names become symbols this can obscure what they actually wrote. Racine and Shakespeare stand in symbolic opposition. Shakespeare represents full-blooded theatricality; Racine stands for an abstract disembodied form of tragedy. This opposition deserves to be challenged. Of course there are substantial differences between Racine and Shakespeare. Racine has no witches, no gravediggers, no storms, no battles on stage. Racine's tragedies have no low-life subplots and no deliberate excursions into the comic register. Furthermore Shakespeare's exuberant poetry is far removed from Racine's laconic formality. But these differences should not overshadow the similarities. Their theatrical relationship can be better understood by considering what they have in common, in particular the visual dimension of their dramatic art. If one supposes a scale of physical action from the batting of an eyelid to the fighting of battles, one can say that Shakespeare used the whole scale whilst Racine avoided the latter extreme. However, there remains a substantial range of visual language which both dramatists shared and both exploited for significant effect….

Whilst for decades an abundance of works have explored Shakespeare's theatricality, Racine has lagged far behind. Yet the studies of Shakespeare's theatricality are by no means devoted entirely to battles, crowd scenes, or large groups of characters on stage. Only two out of eight chapters deal with these topics in Styan's Shakespeare's Stagecraft; the rest treat matters of relevance of Racine. The bulk of Slater's Shakespeare the Director is made up of chapters on action and expression, position on stage, kneeling, kissing and embracing, weeping, silence and pause, costume, properties—just those elements of visual language which Shakespeare shares with Racine, and which Racine exploited more fully than most of his contemporaries who wrote French tragedy in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The study of theatricality must begin with the stage directions, explicit and implicit, which the dramatist writes into his text. Paradoxically these are often neglected in actual performances, though they are essential to the study of the dramatist's stagecraft. [In his Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy (1985), Michael] Goldman insists on the stage direction "Thunder and lightning" at the start of Macbeth: "This effect, so clear and definite in the text, is strangely muted in most modern productions." A similar complaint has been voiced in connection with Racine, where excessive attention to speech leads to neglect of the theatrical situation. The final scene of Racine's Andromaque should be dominated by the tumult and violence resulting from the murder of King Pyrrhus. Pylade begs Oreste to flee with him: "Sortons de ce palais, … Nos Grecs pour un moment en défendent la porte. / Tout le peuple assemblé nous poursuit à main forte" (5.5.1583-86). In modern performances, even though the situation demands agitation and movement, Pylade usually steps dutifully aside to let the actor playing Oreste deliver his celebrated "Pour qui sont ces serpents qui sifflent sur vos têtes" speech. Pierre Henri Larthomas deplores this failure to portray the realities of the situation:

Mais quoi! dans ce palais cerné par le peuple pas un cri? Pas de coups frappés à la porte? … Mais Pylade attendant presque patiemment qu'Oreste se soit évanoui? C'est inadmissible. Car dans cette scène de la folie, unique par sa violence dans notre théâtre classique, véritablement shakespearienne, oserions-nous dire que la situation a autant d'importance et plus d'importance peut-être que les mots?

The only thing to query in Larthomas's comment is the suggestion that this scene in Andromaque is unique in French classical drama. Racine ends La Thébaïde with Créon's madness, and most of his plays have scenes where there is tumult: the cries of the dying and shouts of victory in Alexandre; commotion engendered by the poisoning of Britannicus; shouts and rebellion in Mithridate; noisy crowds and thunder in Iphigénie; Athalie falling into an ambush on stage.

Racine's system of stage directions is similar to that of Shakespeare. They are sometimes explicit but more often written into the text. The word "thus" signals gesture or expression to the actor:

MALVOLIO. I extend my hand to him thus, quenching my familiar smile with an austere regard of control.
(Twelfth Night, 2.5.65; emphasis added)

In Racine, Monime signals in similar fashion her sudden change from submission to defiance of Mithridate:

MONIME. Mais le dessein est pris. Rien ne peut m'ébranler.
Jugez-en, puisqu'ainsi je vous ose parler,
Et m'emporte au delà de cette modestie
Dont jusqu'à ce moment je n'étais point sortie.
(Mithridate, 4.4.1362-65)

More frequently "thus" (ainsi) in Racine refers to the gesture or expression of the interlocutor, as when Britannicus chides Junie: "Quel accueil! Quelle glace! / Est-ce ainsi que vos yeux consolent ma disgrace?" In like manner Lady Macbeth hisses at her husband mesmerized by the ghost: "Shame itself, / Why do you make such faces?"

Retrospective stage directions also play their part in both Racine and Shakespeare, when characters subsequently recall a preceding scene and give information relevant to its performance. [In her Shakespeare the Director (1982), Anne Pasternak] Slater shows how details of the assassination of Julius Caesar are leaked out later. Racine uses the same technique for the farewell of Axiane and Porus in Alexandre, for the interrogation of Monime in Mithridate, and for Phèdre's struggle with Hippolyte's sword in Phèdre. So in writing scripts which contained directions for performance on stage there is a close connection between Racine and Shakespeare—theatrical directors both.

In order to understand how the two dramatists used scenery and stage space, it is necessary to keep in mind the main features of the playhouses for which they composed their plays. Despite the many differences, there were points in common between the theatres, which permit comparisons to be made. Public playhouses in London were round or polygonal. The chief features of the acting area were a large platform stage up to 40 feet across, the façade of the player's changing room with two or more doors, a gallery above, and a trap-door. The audience surrounded the acting area on three sides. The public theatres in Paris were enclosed rectangular boxes with the stage at one end. The spectators looked down the box at the acting area which measured about 30 by 30 feet within the confines of the canvas scenery. Whilst one can demonstrate clear links between the scenic features of the plays and the staging conditions of the theatres in both Paris and London, none the less dramatists and actors had to be flexible, since plays were performed in other venues, such as at court or in private houses. The physical conditions of the theatres were not a rigid framework, but they need to be borne in mind as a guide to understanding the plays in performance.

One area where Racine and Shakespeare did differ was in the matter of scenery. In spite of the often repeated statements that Racine's tragedies unfold in a banal vestibule or antechamber, most of Racine's plays contain some element of scenery significant for the whole action. In Andromaque the backdrop of sea and ships represents Oreste's mission to the court of Pyrrhus. In Iphigénie the backdrop representing becalmed ships is a constant reminder of reasons for Agamemnon needing to sacrifice his daughter. Backdrops of this sort were possible because of the convention of unity of place in French drama. Racine differs from Shakespeare not in the use of a vague all-purpose antechamber, but because he used fully representational scenery, which was never a feature of the public theatres in London in Shakespeare's time. Yet in other respects they both exploited the staging conditions for which they composed their plays. The stage-trap was traditionally the entrance to hell. It may have been used for the ghost who "cries under the stage" in Hamlet (1.5.148) or for the graves in the same play. The gallery above the tiring room façade could represent an upstairs in Romeo and Juliet (2.5), or more often city ramparts. The English scale the ramparts and the French jump down from them, according to the stage direction: "The French leap o'er the walls in their shirts" (1 Henry VI, 2.1.38). There are no parallels in Racine's tragedies, but his one comedy Les Plaideurs uses levels above and below the stage: an upstairs window from which Dandin jumps (1.3), and a basement out of which he pokes his head, only to have it twisted back and forth by the two litigants until they both tumble down to join him: "Ils sont, sur ma parole, / L'un et l'autre encavés" (2.11.575-76). The use of curtains for concealment or discovery occurs in several Shakespearean plays and in two of Racine's: Néron eavesdrops on the lovers in Act II of Britannicus; in the last act of Athalie the boy-king is concealed behind a curtain and then revealed, after which the backdrop opens to show the interior of the temple and the armed Levites who surround Athalie. The large open stage of the Elizabethans allowed plays to be planned in three dimensions using upstage and downstage as well as significant groupings of characters. The proscenium stage in Paris allowed less scope for this, since actors usually came to the front of the stage to speak, but Racine does suggest the three-dimensional positioning of actors by stage directions placed before speeches such as "Antigone, en s'en allant," "Néron, sans voir Burrhus," "Titus, en entrant." Assuérus withdraws after a speech "Le roi s'éloigne." In spite of the major differences between the English and French stages, there are therefore some general points of similarity between Racine and Shakespeare with regard to their use of stage space. More important, however, are those cases where both use décor in conjunction with movement on stage to speak visually or "parler aux yeux," as Voltaire's phrase has it.

The doors of the Elizabethan stage could be used symbolically. On several occasions stage directions require characters to enter by separate doors emphasizing the division between opposing sides:

Enter at one door King Henry, Exeter … and the other Lords; at another Queen Isabel, the King of France … and other French.
(Henry V, 5.2)

Racine used doors in a similar fashion. In Act IV of Bérénice the spectator sees Antiochus enter from Bérénice's door urging Titus to prevent the queen from committing suicide. A few lines later a Roman messenger enters from the opposite door, announcing that the senators await the emperor in his apartment. Titus is caught between his love for Bérénice and the demands of state. His dilemma, the subject of the play, is represented in a theatrical tableau, as he listens to Paulin and Antiochus, representing Rome versus Love, standing by opposing doors and exhorting him to leave the stage in their respective directions.

Shakespeare highlighted differences between characters by divergent exits through separate doors. "Bertram sends his newly married Helena 'home, where I will never come' through one door, and promptly slips away through the other." Racine uses divergent exits in Iphigénie when Ériphile orders her confidant not to follow the royal family as they go to save Iphigénie from sacrifice: "Suis-moi. Ce n'est pas là, Doris, notre chemin" (4.9). They exit in a different direction to indicate that Ériphile intends to betray Iphigénie to the high priest.

Another element of décor which permits a precise comparison is the raised throne. In a banal sense it denoted the royal status of its occupant, but more interestingly its significance could be subverted by other occupants. Shakespeare tried it first in 3 Henry VI when York takes the throne so that King Henry has to stand beneath him: "My lords, look where the sturdy rebel sits, / Even in the chair of state" (1.1.50-51). Then again, more subtly, Richard II's throne is occupied by Bulingbrooke, while unthroned King Richard grows in kingly stature:

BULINGBROOKE. In God's name I'll ascend the regal throne….

K. RICHARD. Alack, why am I sent for to a king
Before I have shook off the regal thoughts
Wherewith I reign'd?

Only in Esther does Racine use a formal throne. It denotes the terrifying kingship of Assuérus, before which Esther collapses in a faint. Yet it has the potential to protect the Jews, a development in the plot symbolically foreshadowed by Esther's command to her girls at the end of Act II:

Et vous troupe jeune et timide,
Sans craindre ici les yeux d'une profane cour,
A l'abri de ce Trône attendez mon retour.
(Esther, 2.8.710-12)

Later in the play the spectators see Assuérus turn from persecutor into protector. The central theme of the play is expressed in these actions around the throne.

Entrances and exits are used by both Racine and Shakespeare for theatrical effect. In addition to obvious devices such as surprise entrances or ceremonial parades, there are more subtle ways in which the movement of characters on and off stage can have significance. Arrested movement and delayed exits abound in Hamlet. Characters say they are leaving but they linger. After the first ghost episode Hamlet urges his companions away with the words "Let's go together" but he pauses and hesitates before finally deciding to depart (1.5.190). After "To be, or not to be," Hamlet in conversation with Ophelia thrice utters "Farewell" and thrice stays on stage (3.1.132-40). "Thus the element of delay in Hamlet [wrote Robert Hapgood, in his Shakespeare the Theatre-Poet (1988)] is not just a debatable matter concerning the characterization of the Prince. The playwright has built delay into the plot and choreography." Choreography would be a suitable word for the movements of Hippolyte in Racine's Phèdre. He is constantly seeking to escape from Troezen and repeatedly sketches movements of flight during the scenes in which he appears. He is visibly impatient to leave Phèdre in Act II, Scene 5, and she remarks upon this in a retrospective stage direction: "Comme il ne respirait qu'une retraite prompte!" (Phèdre, 3.1.745). Yet when Hippolyte's father orders him to leave, driving him away with "Fuis, traître…. fuis: … fuis, disje," Hippolyte stays on stage (4.2). Indecision is also represented visually in other plays. Pyrrhus says he is leaving to deliver Andromaque's son to certain death but he fails to exit. Roxane swears vengeance against Bajazet, but prevents Acomat leaving the stage to carry out her order to have him killed. Arrested actions convey the dynamic quality of these tragedies of vacillation.

Shakespeare used seating arrangements to speak visually. In Macbeth the banquet opens in harmony: "You know your own degrees, sit down," but ends in disorder when Lady Macbeth dismisses the guests: "Stand not upon the order of your going, / But go at once." Racine breached etiquette in Alexandre to break up a formal embassy in muted disorder, when the ambassador Éphestion, who has been seated before the two Indian kings, rises without permission to signal Alexandre's arrogant declaration of war. Contemporary spectators would have been more sensitive to protocol than are modern audiences. The list of stage properties in the Mémoire de Mahelot makes it clear that Éphestion sat upon a stool ("tabouret") to signify his inferior status whilst the two Indian kings sat on chairs with arms ("fauteuils") as befitted their rank. Macbeth and Alexandre are both studies of how ambition disrupts an established order, and both contain scenes where the violation of social conventions represents disruption in visual terms which would have had an impact upon contemporaries.

Both dramatists use the signifying power of collapse on to a chair:

Shakespeare picks up Antony's loss of self-control ("he was not his own man"), extends it to his leadership of men, whom he can no longer command, but only entreat, and clinches it by the stage symbol, as Antony collapses in a state of total self-abandonment.

The stage direction here is most probably authorial:

ANTONY…. indeed I have lost command, Therefore I pray you. I'll see you by and by.
Sits down.
(Antony and Cleopatra, 3.11.23-24)

Racine brings Phèdre on stage only to have her collapse in the same posture:

PHEDRE…. mes genoux tremblants se dérobent sous moi.
Hélas! Elle s'assied.
(Phèdre, 1.3.156)

Shakespeare and Racine insist on the humiliation caused by this loss of control. Antony averts his face: "See / How I convey my shame" (3.11.51). The same gesture is implied for Phèdre as she addresses her confidant: "la rougeur me couvre le visage: / Je te laisse trop voir mes honteuses douleurs" (3.182). Later Phèdre, like Antony, confesses that she is no longer in command:

Moi régner! Moi ranger un état sous ma loi,
Quand ma faible raison ne règne plus sur moi.
(Phèdre, 3.1.759)

Shakespeare employed kneeling in many contexts, to signal order when men kneel in prayer, homage, or supplication, and to signal disorder or deceit when they refuse to kneel or they kneel insincerely. Kneeling can be the pivot of the tragic mechanism. Titus Andronicus's hamartia is given visual expression when he is seen rejecting the captive Tamora's pleas to spare her son. Although there is no explicit stage direction, her situation strongly implies that she kneels. The essence of Shakespeare's visual tableau here is paralleled in Racine's Andromaque where Hermione, like Titus Andronicus, commits the fatal error of rejecting a kneeling suppliant. Hermione dismisses Andromaque scornfully, sending her to plead with Pyrrhus (3.4). This starts a chain of supplications from which Andromaque eventually emerges victorious, whilst Hermione and Pyrrhus meet their death.

Unconventional kneeling is seen in Shakespeare when Volumnia kneels to her son Coriolanus, or Lear to his daughter Regan. Racine also knew the power of such incongruous actions. Queen Clytemnestre kneels to the subordinate Achille to ask him to protect Iphigénie, who is to be a human sacrifice. Achille is disconcerted; indeed he is struck rigid and says in astonishment: "Madame je me tais et demeure immobile…. / Une reine à mes pieds se vient humilier!" (Iphigénie, 3.5-6.949, 952). Racine uses Clytemnestre's posture to emphasize the extreme peril of her daughter. It carries the implication that Agamemnon, Iphigénie's father and natural protector, has forfeited his natural protective role because he is to sacrifice his daughter. The scene which Racine has contrived for the kneeling Clytemnestre could well be glossed by Shakespeare's lines in Coriolanus, which describe Volumnia's keeling to her son:

Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at.

Shakespeare's lines are especially apt because Racine's Iphigénie is a cruel joke. It turns out that the gods never meant Agamemnon's daughter to be the sacrificial victim, and she is saved at the end after much unnecessary suffering.

The verbal and the visual work in conjunction when characters try to persuade each other to perform actions which will be seen on stage. This is a specifically theatrical way of linking speech and action. In Shakespeare's King John a handshake signalling alliance provides the visual focus for a long debate in which the King of France hesitates between alliance with England or Rome. King Philip holds King John by the hand. The conflicting parties try to make them part:

PANDULPH. Philip of France, on peril a curse,
Let go the hand of that arch-heretic,
And raise the power of France upon his head,
Unless he do submit himself to Rome.

ELINOR. Looks't thou pale, France? Do not let go thy hand.
(King John, 3.1.191-95)

An analagous effect occurs in La Thébaïde when Racine makes a potential embrace the visual focus of the debate between the warring brothers, Polynice and Étéocle. Here Jocaste's arguments are aimed at making her sons embrace. She calls them by name to draw near to each other and then she pauses to focus on the action: "Hé quoi! loin d'approcher, vous reculez tous deux? … Commencez, Polynice, embrassez votre frère" (4.3.985, 999). Such examples illustrate the dynamics of persuasive speech combined with the focussing power of bodily movement. Not only does this generate dramatic tension but, as so often, Racine creates a visual image which encapsulates the theme of the tragedy, here the fruitless attempts by a mother to make peace between her two warring sons.

Another technique which combines the verbal and the visual is the use of a stage property as the focus of imaginative speech. One can compare the use of daggers in Macbeth and Bajazet. "For Shakespeare [wrote J. L. Styan, in his Shakespeare's Stagecraft (1967)] a property was a dramatic opportunity—think only of Macbeth's dagger, the real weapon slung at his waist, the 'air-drawn' fantasy a chance to plumb his mind" (Styan 32). The important point here is that although Macbeth is addressing an imaginary dagger, he is prompted by the real one which he wears and which he handles when he says: "I see thee yet, in form as palpable / As this which now I draw" (2.1.40-41). Bajazet's dagger is also the starting point for musings which reveal his state of mind. He has purchased his freedom by accepting marriage with Roxane. Atalide is jealous and Bajazet should be responding to her anxieties. Instead, the concrete reality of his dagger feeds his imagination with thoughts of noble exploits against his brother:

Mais enfin je me vois les armes à la main;
Je suis libre, et je puis contre un frère inhumain,
Non plus, par un silence aidé de votre adresse,
Disputer en ces lieux le cœur de ma maîtresse,
Mais par de vrais combats, par de nobles dangers,
Moi-même le cherchant aux climats étrangers,
Lui disputer les cœurs du peuple et de l'armée,
Et pour juge entre nous prendre la renommée.
(Bajazet, 3.4.947-54)

In his exultant mood, he fails to see that Atalide does not share his dreams. She weeps. Bajazet's insensitive response to her tears precipitates a crisis which will lead them all to their deaths. It could be called Bajazet's "dagger speech." Both Racine and Shakespeare weave together material reality, fantasy, and tragedy.

When a hat temporarily functions as a stage property and becomes the focus of attention, the connotations are more light-hearted. In Hamlet (5.2) Osric displays excessive deference to Hamlet by refusing to replace his hat after they have exchanged greetings. Hamlet urges him "Put your bonnet to his right use, 'tis for the head" (92-93), and a contest of courtesy ensues, emphasizing the incongruity of Osric's conduct "especially in a creature of the usurping King addressing that King's victim" [wrote Andrew Gurr, in The Shakespearean Stage, 2nd ed. (1980)] The porter in Les Plaideurs, acting the part of a barrister, does not know that barristers addressed the court wearing their hats. Hence his incongruous contest of courtesy with the judge:

DANDIN. Couvrez-vous.

PETIT JEAN.      O! Mes …

DANDIN. Couvrez-vous, vous dis-je.

PETIT JEAN. Oh! Monsieur, je sais bien à quoi l'honneur m'oblige.

DANDIN. Ne te couvre donc pas.

PETIT JEAN. se couvrant Messieurs….

In this manner Racine launches his sparkling parody of legal procedures and forensic oratory.

Romantic praise of Shakespeare and condescension towards Racine led to misconceptions with regard to the tears which are shed copiously in both Racine and Shakespeare. Failure to appreciate this has helped to perpetuate misconceptions concerning Racine's theatricality. Stendhal's spokesman for Romanticism blamed Racine for being the slave of the conventions of his day:

LE ROMANTIQUE. Racine ne croyait pas que l'on pût faire la tragédie autrement. S'il vivait de nos jours, et qu'il osât suivre les règles nouvelles, il ferait cent fois mieux qu'Iphigénie. Au lieu de n'inspirer que de l'admiration, sentiment un peu froid, il ferait couler des torrents de larmes.
(Racine et Shakespeare)

There is a double error here in Stendhal's comparison between Racine and Shakespeare. Racine's Iphigénie did excite torrents of tears and he did employ the same techniques as Shakespeare. Hermione in The Winter's Tale makes an exit under arrest while all her women weep: "My women may be with me, for you see / My plight requires it. Do not weep, good fools" (2.1.117-19). Agamemnon in Iphigénie looks around him as he comes to take his daughter to be sacrificed and says: "Ma fille, vous pleurez, … Mais tout pleure, et la fille, et la mère." Both plays show several characters on stage weeping together and this was a means of prompting the audience's tears. Racine in his preface to Iphigénie congratulated himself on achieving this response, and contemporary evidence confirms the tears that this play generated.

The visual language of Racine and Shakespeare overlaps to a much greater extent than the traditional opposition between them allows for. Although it is true that Racine confines himself to the more subdued visual effects deriving from décor, stage properties, bodily movements and gestures, he generally extracts maximum significance from them and his visual language is nearly always related to a central theme of the play. This same range of effects is found in Shakespeare, though not always with such key significance. But in both there is a weaving together of the material and the intellectual that can disconcert the literary minded critic. In the seventeenth century both were criticized for stage business which was felt to be inconsistent with the dignity of tragedy. Thomas Rymer, in his boisterous diatribe against Othello, inveighed against the physical object on which the plot hangs: "So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief! Why was this not called the Tragedy of the Handkerchief?" He objected to the actors's visual language: "the Mops and Mows, the Grimace, the Grins, and Gesticulation." Subligny, reporting on a performance of Racine's Phèdre during its first run, criticized it in similar vein. Racine had invested Phèdre with "trop de fureur, trop d'effronterie"; Oenone, who clasps her mistress's knees "arrache avec trop d'indiscrétion et d'emportement le secret de sa maîtresse." Subligny reserved his fiercest strictures for the snatching of Hippolyte's sword by Phèdre (Phèdre, 2.5), and in so doing bears witness to Racine's uncompromising theatricality:

Cette épée tirée est un incident qui fait pitié … si M. Racine a eu quelque sujet d'exposer à nos yeux cette violente action, c'est assurément pour donner un beau jeu à sa piéce … mais quand on cherche des jeux de théâtre, il ne faut pas être si critique.

The visual language of the theatre displeased critics like Rymer and Subligny, but it links great dramatists and crosses linguistic frontiers. The divisions symbolized by the doors in Henry V and Bérénice, the polyvalence of the throne in Richard II and Esther, the disrupted seating arrangements in Macbeth and Alexandre, the collapse into a chair in Antony and Cleopatra and Phèdre, the spurning of a suppliant in Titus Andronicus and Andromaque, the unconventional kneeling in Coriolanus and Iphigénie, the gestures of alliance in King John and La Thébaïde, the daggers in Macbeth and Bajazet—Racine and Shakespeare 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.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

Barnwell, H. T. The Tragic Drama of Corneille and Racine: An Old Parallel Revisited. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, 275 p.

Investigates various aspects of plot in the dramas of Racine and Corneille with the aim of seeing more clearly "both the parallels and the divergences between the two dramatists, not only in their technique itself (what they called their art) but also in its implication in the presentation of their tragic vision."

Barthes, Roland. On Racine. Translated by Richard Howard. 1960. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1977, 172 p.

In-depth examination of each of Racine's dramas, attempting to reconstruct "a kind of Racinian anthropology, both structural and psychoanalytic: structural in content, because tragedy is here treated as a system of units ('figures') and functions; psycholanylitic in form, because only an approach ready to acknowledge the fear of the world, as I believe psychoanalysis is, seems to me suitable for dealing with the image of man confined."

C. M. Bowra. "The Simplicity of Racine." In his In General and Particular, pp. 149-72. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964.

Addresses the manner in which Racine trimmed every aspect of his dramas to their essentials to set a new standard of dramatic effectiveness and power in the French theater.

Brereton, Geoffrey. Jean Racine: A Critical Biography. London: Cassell & Co., 1951, 362 p.

Well-received scholarly treatment of Racine's life and works.

Cloonan, William J. Racine's Theatre: The Politics of Love. University, Miss.: Romance Monographs, 1977, 149 p.

A Freudian critique of Racine's canon, which finds that love in Racine's dramas "is a political force because those who love are defying, whether they are completely cognizant of it or not, society's principal ideal and mainstay, namely gloire. In a large measure the frenzied, at times destructive expression taken by Racinian love stems not only from unrequited passion, but also from society's inability, because of its obsession with gloire, to provide the means for genuine individual fulfillment."

Goodkin, Richard E. The Tragic Middle: Racine, Aristotle, Euripides. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, 211 p.

Employs "the 'shared' works of Racine and Euripides—the four pairs of plays in which the two tragedians deal with the same myth—in the elaboration of a tragic discourse, a discourse centered on the problem of the middle," a "crisis which has been building since some undefined cause or 'beginning' and which will subsequently demand some sort of resolution or 'ending'."

Haley, Marie Philip. Racine and the "Art Poétique" of Boileau. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1938.

Treats the relationships between the two poets before and during the composition of Boileau's Art Poétique, and compares Racine's theoretical writings and the pronouncements of Boileau. Haley seeks to answer the question, "To what extent may Boileau's precepts be considered a summary of Racine's practice?"

Hawcroft, Michael. Word as Action: Racine, Rhetoric, and Theatrical Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 275 p.

Intensive study of Racine's employment of rhetoric, which aims "to make a contribution to an understanding of how the tragedies of Racine, so often described as predominantly verbal, none the less work well in the theatre."

Lapp, John C. Aspects of Racinian Tragedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1955, 195 p.

Offers "a contribution to the study of Racine's form" to enable the English-speaking reader to better appreciate Racine's accomplishment.

Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Racine: Mythos and Renewal in Modern Theater. University: University of Alabama Press, 1967, 278 p.

Psychoanalytical examination of each of Racine's dramas.

Orlando, Francesco. Toward a Freudian theory of Literature, with an Analysis of Racine's "Phèdre." Translated by Charmaine Lee. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Intensive Freudian analysis of Racine's most-discussed play.

Tilley, Arthur. "Racine." Three French Dramatists: Racine, Marivaux, Musset, pp. 1-77. 1933. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.

Detailed survey which focuses upon the poetic power of Racine's dramas.

Turnell, Martin. "Jean Racine." In his The Classical Moment: Studies of Corneille, Molière and Racine, pp. 133-41. 1948. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Provides a general account of Racine in relation to the social and literary background of his age, then illustrates what Turnell deems the essential qualities of his poetry by a closer, textual examination of his major works.

Weinbert, Bernard. The Art of Jean Racine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, 355 p.

Examines Racine's eleven tragedies sequentially, seeking to discern how Racine's dramatic art evolved and developed and noting both innovations and recurrent problems in the dramatist's tragic canon.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Jean Racine Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Racine, Jean (Vol. 113)