Although Zaïre was one of the most popular plays of the eighteenth century, it lost a considerable amount of prestige as time continued. François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire, remains best known for his novels Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, histoire orientale (1748; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749) and Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759), which were created many years after his greatest theatrical successes. Of the fifty-two plays Voltaire wrote, twenty-seven were tragedies. He considered himself first a poet and dramatist and only second a fiction writer and historian. Of the incredible body of work he produced in his eighty-three years, it would probably surprise and perhaps even sadden him to know that his novels have outlasted his plays in literary esteem.
Zaïre was a daring and creative achievement in 1732. While adhering to the classical theatrical tradition, Voltaire still was the most accomplished innovator of his time. Before Zaïre, French characters had never appeared on the tragic stage. Written in twenty-two days, Zaïre was popular because it included a strong love interest, an element that had been absent from Voltaire’s earlier tragedies. His original hit, dipe (pr. 1718; Oedipus, 1761), had been fourteen years earlier, and Voltaire had been reproached because there was not enough “love” in that play and the succeeding ones. Of Zaïre he wrote: “They shall have it this time, I swear to you, and it will not be mere gallantry. I am resolved that there shall be nothing so Turkish, so Christian, so amorous, so tender, so furious, as what I am now putting into verse to please them.”
The controversy, and probably the popularity of this play, came essentially from its juxtaposition of romantic love and religion. In the play, Voltaire employs the tenet that religion comes to a person as a result of birth and education. Zaïre, who was born a Christian but was from infancy a slave to the sultan and exposed exclusively to the influence of the Muslim faith, faces the dilemma of either forsaking the religion of her father or continuing with the religion she has been taught. If she chooses to be a...
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