Other Literary Forms

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Jean Racine’s reputation rests on a relatively limited dramatic uvre. Nevertheless, Racine published a number of other works during his literary career. Among these are several odes celebrating Louis XIV in the early 1660’s; a polemical letter attacking his Jansenist mentors in 1666; a collection of religious poems, Cantiques spirituels ...

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Jean Racine’s reputation rests on a relatively limited dramatic uvre. Nevertheless, Racine published a number of other works during his literary career. Among these are several odes celebrating Louis XIV in the early 1660’s; a polemical letter attacking his Jansenist mentors in 1666; a collection of religious poems, Cantiques spirituels (1694); and an unfinished defense of the Jansenists, Abrégé de l’histoire de Port-Royal (1742, 1767). To accompany his plays, Racine also wrote critical prefaces in which he vigorously defended himself against his detractors.

Achievements

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Racinian tragedy is the supreme expression of French seventeenth century classical literature, a period called le grand siècle (the grand century), a golden age of French art, literature, and architecture. This cultural efflorescence centered on the Sun King, Louis XIV, whom the ambitious Jean Racine assiduously courted. For the playwright, the famous rules of French drama were not fetters that hampered the full realization of his genius but rather intrinsic elements of what only can be called the Racinian “tone.” Racine offers, as he states in the preface to Britannicus, “A simple action, charged with little subject matter, necessary in an action which must occur in a single day, and which, moving forward by degrees, is sustained only by the interests, the sentiments, and the passions of the characters.” The simplicity, violence, and elegance of Racine’s style create a tone of “majestic sadness” (an expression of Racine) concerning the human condition. His noble and grandiose protagonists confront their tragic destiny with lucidity and humanity. The result is a fusion of psychological realism and a restrained grandeur that is the soul of classical art.

Like all great artists, Racine has enjoyed periods of adulation alternating with periods of scorn and derision. In his own century, he rapidly eclipsed Pierre Corneille’s renown with apparently simple plays in which pathos and emotion replaced Corneillian intellectuality and complexity. It is significant that the great codifier of French classicism, Nicolas Boileau, defined tragedy according to the Racinian model in his L’Art poétique (1674). The struggle between disciples of Corneille and Racine continued in the eighteenth century, but most commentators looked on Racinian tragedy as a model of perfection. Its adherence to the rules of reason and nature, according to the Age of Voltaire, made it the quintessence of the French spirit. With the rise of Romanticism in the nineteenth century, a polemical criticism developed that declared that the slavish imitation of the Racinian model had impeded the evolution of French theater in the eighteenth century. This reaction saw Racine as too cramped by convention and courtly etiquette to permit a true depiction of human emotions. Later in the century, however, a new nationalistic fervor elevated Racine to the status of a national idol, the epitome of le grand siècle. In numerous and varied studies, the twentieth century, for the most part, rescued Racine from the purely historical approach of the preceding century. Most recent studies adopt a sociological, theological, or psychoanalytical premise that serves to elucidate Racine’s life and work. Thus, Racine’s plays emerge as an expression of Jansenist theology, a firm rejection of the baroque style, or as a genuine reflection of Racine’s psyche. Other studies have focused on the recurrent elements and structural patterns that are then used to define Racine’s work.

Discussion Topics

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Explain how Jean Racine, along with Molière and Pierre Corneille, made the later seventeenth century a great era in French drama.

What are the origins of the material from which Racine made Phaedra?

What were the principles of French classical tragedy?

Explain the differences between the two versions of act 5 of Andromache and how they alter our conception of the heroine.

What were Racine’s chief virtues as a poet?

What are the chief differences between the tragedies of Corneille and Racine?

Bibliography

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Barthes, Roland. On Racine. 1983. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. A French scholar discusses Racine’s tragedies. Includes bibliography and index.

Caldicott, Edric, and Derval Conroy, eds. Racine: The Power and the Pleasure. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2001. This study examines the concepts of power and pleasure in Racine’s dramas.

Goodkin, Richard E. Birth Marks: The Tragedy of Primogeniture in Pierre Corneille, Thomas Corneille, and Jean Racine. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Goodkin examines the works of Racine and the two Corneilles, placing special emphasis on their treatments of primogeniture.

Hawcroft, Michael. Word as Action: Racine, Rhetoric, and Theatrical Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Hawcroft examines Racine’s use of language in his dramatic works. Includes bibliography and indexes.

Parish, Richard. Racine: The Limits of Tragedy. Seattle: Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, 1993. An examination of the tragedies written by Racine. Includes bibliography.

Phillips, Henry. Racine: Language and Theatre. Durham, England: University of Durham, 1994. A look at the language of Racine and how he used it in his dramas. Includes bibliography.

Tobin, Ronald W. Jean Racine Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999. A basic biography of Racine that covers his life and works. Includes bibliography and index.

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Critical Essays