Last Updated November 3, 2023.
Jean Racine was a French playwright writing during the Baroque period of the seventeenth century. Racine was primarily a tragedian focused on Classicism; his works often dealt with the immutability of fate and the fall from grace, reinterpreting classic texts and tales for contemporary audiences. Generally, Classicism evoked the themes and styles of classical literature, borrowing ideas of unity, order, and elevated perfection from Greek and Roman masterpieces.
In the theatrical realm, French Classicism necessitated certain standards: plays had to embody the classical or Aristotelian unities of place, time, and action. Moreover, playwrights were compelled to respect contemporary standards of morality and taste, a French concept called Les bienséance, and had to ensure that their plays contained a sense of viable believability, called La vraisemblance. Racine’s work reflected the standards of the time and indicated a shared desire for order and precision in literature. His plays used alexandrine verse, a form of rhymed syllabic meter characterized by twelve-syllable lines divided by a pause or break into two six-syllable half lines.
Racine’s 1677 play, Phaedra, emulates these standards perfectly, relying on the conventions and styles of French Classicism to detail the story of Phaedra. She is a tragic figure described by the Greek playwright Euripides in Hippolytus and the Roman playwright Seneca in Phaedra. It retells the tale of the titular character, Phaedra, the daughter of King Minos of Crete and Pasiphaë. Her heritage foreshadows her tragic fate. As the daughter of Pasiphaë, a woman cursed by Aphrodite to lust after a bull, Phaedra shares the burden of her mother’s immoral passion. By writ of inheritance, Phaedra seems predisposed to disturbing desires. However, her paternal affiliation with Minos, the presiding judge in Hades, leads her to fear judgment and feel immense guilt and shame for her immoral feelings and actions.
Phaedra’s family history leads her to an impasse. Motivated by both lust and shame, she becomes an instrument of destruction who orchestrates not only her demise but also that of many of those around her. Indeed, this nuance is a mark of Racine’s mastery. Despite her deranged monologues, blatant lies, and selfish actions, Phaedra is not an entirely unlikable character. Instead, she is someone to be terrified of and pitied, at once a victimizer and a victim. The tragedy of Phaedra’s story relies on her helplessness. Like many figures in classical mythology, she exists at the behest of forces far beyond herself, swept along by a divine current that leads to her ruination.
Although Phaedra’s story is well known, Racine’s retelling differs from both Euripides's and Seneca’s in a few significant ways. To ensure that the play accurately reflected the need for La vraisemblance, Racine chose to eschew the traditional soliloquy style. Instead, he relied on confidants, such as Oenone, to whom the protagonist monologues, allowing them to reveal their perspective in a conversational—and therefore more believable—manner. Originally, Phaedra dies before Hippolytus. Racine chose to reverse this order. In doing so, he provided further insight into Phaedra's psyche, detailing her guilt at the death of her love and her jealousy over his love for another woman. By granting her the knowledge of Hippolytus’s death, Racine further complicates Phaedra’s character and its reception by the audience. She is guilt-stricken, horrified by her actions, which have led to the death of her closest confidant and her one-sided love interest. The weight of her sins impresses upon her in a way that it cannot if she is the first to die.
Racine’s version of events is arguably more focused on the psychological aspects of the tale. He focuses on the effects...
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of jealousy, the immutability of fate, and the tragedy of inheritance, framing Phaedra’s actions as preordained. As such, her folly is harder to condemn, making her appear as yet another victim of uncaring divine circumstances. Racine’s tight storytelling style prioritizes characters and their emotional state; his focus on the unity of place and time creates a limited setting, which allows the interactions between characters to rise to the fore. Major events, such as Hippolytus’s gruesome death, occur away from the stage, so the action stems solely from each character's emotional response to these unseen revelations.Phaedra is a classic of French Classicism and beyond, masterfully retelling a familiar story in a novel way and providing empathetic and deeply psychological insights into a traditionally reviled classical figure.