The issue of free will, predestination, and grace that interested Jean Racine in the seventeenth century was a restatement, in theological terms, of a problem of universal concern. To what extent is one free to create one’s own existence and to be responsible for one’s actions? Are the terms of human existence within the arena of human control, or are the terms established by some external force? Can human suffering be justified as the result of one’s actions, or is suffering the imposition of a capricious deity?
The specific manner in which these questions are answered depends upon one’s view of human nature and human potential. When one chooses between predestination and free will, one is either asserting or denying a belief in one’s ability to make wise and ethically sound decisions. Emphasis on the dignity of humanity and on the potential for choice often coincides with an optimism regarding human behavior. Conversely, a belief in humanity as depraved and irresponsible will be found in conjunction with a distrust of humanity’s ability to act in a positive and meaningful way. This view of the human condition is presented in Phaedra by Racine and presents humankind as predetermined or predestined.
Racine was reared by the Jansenists at Port-Royal in France and he returned to Port-Royal after completing Phaedra. The Jansenists held ideas on the problem of free will and predestination in opposition to the dominant position of the Catholic Church as set forth by the Jesuits. The Jesuits attempted to bring salvation within the grasp of all humanity, whereas the Jansenists emphasized a rigid determinism. They rejected the Jesuit doctrine that people could attain salvation through good works and insisted that humans were predestined to salvation or damnation. This denial of free will was based on the conviction that humankind was left completely corrupt and devoid of rational control after the fall from God’s grace suffered by Adam and Eve. Humanity was incapable of participating in the process of regeneration because Original Sin had deprived it of its will. The passions had gained control, and they could only lead to evil. Human passion was considered capable of leading to falsehood, crime, suicide, and general destruction. It is inevitable that the Jansenists would regard with alarm any doctrine that allowed for the activity of human free will. Only God’s gift of mercy could save humanity, and that mercy was reserved for those who had been elected to salvation.
The basic ideas in Phaedra present a similar distrust of the passions, a similar curtailment of free will, and a consequent emphasis upon humanity’s lack of control. Human passion is depicted as controlling reason. The area of human choice and responsibility is severely limited. Phèdre is pursued by an overwhelming sense of fatality.
In the preface to Phaedra, however, Racine suggests the possibility of free will. He states that Phèdre is neither completely guilty nor completely innocent. She is involved, by her destiny and by the anger of the gods, in an illicit passion of which she is the first to be horrified. She makes every effort to overcome it.
Does Phèdre actually make the effort Racine attributes to her? To what extent is she free to make a choice? To what extent is this merely the illusion of free will? Racine continues to state in the preface that “her crime is more a punishment of the gods than an act of her will.”
Phèdre’s genealogy would seem to support the argument of fatality. She is initially referred to not by name, but as the “daughter of Minos and Pasiphae.” Throughout the...
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play, she gives the appearance of being overwhelmed by a cruel destiny that is linked to her past. She exhibits perfect lucidity regarding the full implications of her situation, yet she seems incapable of resolving her dilemma. All of her actions are performed “in spite of myself.”
Phèdre’s fall precedes the opening of the play and is the result of passion overwhelming reason. One learns that Phèdre made numerous but ineffective attempts to overcome her love for Hippolyte. She built a temple to Venus, sacrificed innumerable victims, and attempted to surmount her passion through prayer. As the play opens, Phèdre resorts to her final effort—suicide. Ironically, her attempted suicide will only serve to add physical weakness to her already weakened emotional condition and prevent her from overcoming the temptations with which she will be confronted.
The first temptation is offered by Phèdre’s nurse, Oenone. By implying that her suicide would constitute betrayal of the gods, her husband, and her children, Oenone attempts to persuade Phèdre to turn back on death and reveal her love for Hippolyte. The news of Thésée’s apparent death further tempts Phèdre by removing the crime of potential adultery. In addition, Phèdre is tempted to offer the crown to Hippolyte to protect her children and to appeal to his political aspirations.
Phèdre’s interview with Hippolyte, however, turns into a confession of love that unfolds without a semblance of rational control. Although she expresses shame at her declaration, her passion is presented as part of the destiny of her entire race. At the moment following the confession to Hippolyte, Phèdre prays to Venus, not as in the past to free her from passion, but to inflame Hippolyte with a comparable passion. Whereas Phèdre had previously implored Oenone to aid her in overcoming her love, she now beseeches her assistance in furthering it.
Thésée’s return presents Phèdre with a choice of either revealing or denying her love for Hippolyte. She, however, allows Oenone to deceive Thésée by accusing Hippolyte of fostering the illicit passion. Yet is this actually a moment of choice, assuming that choice involves a rational action? On the contrary, Phèdre’s statement to her nurse at the end of act 3, scene 3, implies complete lack of control.
The final temptation to which Phèdre succumbs is her refusal to reverse the course of events by confessing her lies to Thésée. Once again, Phèdre is prevented from acting in a rational manner, for upon learning of Hippolyte’s love for Aricie, she is overwhelmed by a blinding jealousy and even goes so far as to wish for the destruction of Aricie.
Despite Racine’s enigmatic remarks in the preface, the pattern of temptation and defeat developed in the play eliminates entirely the possibility of free will. Although Phèdre wishes to overcome her passion, all of her efforts are in vain. The series of temptations presented to Phèdre serves to emphasize her lack of control and conspires to bring about her ruin. From the possibility of an early death with honor, Phèdre is led, through a series of defeats, to a guilty and dishonorable death. The play concludes on a note of pessimism. There is no possibility of salvation for those afflicted with passion. Racine presents humanity’s fate as predestined and not subject to human control.