The French playwright Jean Racine is the most significant author of tragedies in the classical tradition. Orphaned as an infant, he was brought up by relatives under the influence of the austere Jansenist strand in contemporary Christianity. The bleakly pessimistic view of human nature portrayed in his plays has been associated with that upbringing, even though at a conscious level he was rejecting Jansenist influence by his involvement in court life and theatre. His education at the Jansenist convent of Port-Royal gave him a grounding in Greek as well as Latin literature, and the influence of Euripides, alongside that of Seneca which dominated previous French tragic drama, may help to explain the element of cruelty and cynicism about human nature in much of Racine’s output. The peculiar power of Racine’s presentation of human helplessness in the face of destructive instincts may derive from the combination in his mind of Euripidean fatalism and the Jansenist sense of original sin and human worthlessness. His mastery of classical form and his genius for exploiting the poetic and dramatic effectiveness of the alexandrine verse to its maximum, gave him an unrivalled reputation as a tragic poet in France, although these very qualities present a considerable challenge to anyone seeking to recreate the impact of his works in a different cultural or linguistic context.
His childhood and education were followed by a brief period in Uzès under the tutelage of an uncle who was a priest, but Racine rapidly deserted a theological career in favour of literature. His earliest literary output consisted of courtly poems, La Nymphe de la Seine à la Reine [The Nymph of the Seine addresses the Queen](1660), Ode sur la convalescence du Roi [Ode on the King’s Recovery] (1663) and La Renommée aux Muses [Fame addresses the Muses] (1663). His first surviving dramatic works, La Thébaïde [Thebes and her Sons] (1664) and Alexandre le Grand [Alexander the Great] (1665), were conventional tragedies, the first bleakly fatalistic, the latter more heroic. His dissatisfaction with the acting style of Molière (1622-1673) and his company, to whom he first entrusted these plays, led Racine, apparently in secret, to allow the company of the Comédiens du Roi [“The King’s Players”] at the Hôtel de Bourgogne to mount a rival production of Alexandre le Grand; this led to bitterness between the two authors, and heightened the hostility between the acting companies. It was at this stage that his dispute with his Jansenist teachers became public and bitter: Pierre Nicole (1625-1695) published eighteen Lettres sur l’Hérésie imaginaire ou Les Visionnaires [Letters on The Imaginary Heresy or The Visionaries – this title is a reference to a comedy by Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin (1595-1676)] (1664-66), a scathing attack on theatrical activity as “poisonous to public morality”, to which Racine responded with two vitriolic letters.
With Andromaque (1667), Racine reached a new level of poetic and dramatic originality, and a new depth in his analysis of the power of human passion. In this reworking of the aftermath of the Trojan War, the Greek prince Oreste is in love with Menelaus’s daughter Hermione, who is perversely fixated with desire for her former fiancé, the brutal and warlike Pyrrhus, who is in turn besotted with his captive Andromaque who remains completely faithful to the memory of her dead husband Hector, incarnate for her in the person of their son Astyanax. The interaction of these strands of desire and rejection gives rise to a sequence of powerful confrontations in which Racine explores a wide range of passionate emotions. Hermione is driven in despair to incite Oreste to kill the “faithless” Pyrrhus, but when the murder has been carried out, she spitefully rejects Oreste and commits suicide, leaving Oreste to foreshadow the madness with which his own story ends in several Greek versions of the myth of the Atrides. The title role was taken by Marquise Thérèse de Gorla (1633?-1668), known as Mademoiselle du Parc, who left Molière’s acting company at Racine’s instigation and became his mistress. The major actor Zacharie Jacob (1600?-1667), known as Montfleury, put so much passionate effort into his portrayal of Oreste that he reputedly ruptured his abdomen and died as a result.
In the following ten years Racine produced six further masterpieces, almost any of which would on its own have secured his reputation as a world-class tragedian. Although they all share a tight classical construction based on absolute fidelity to the doctrine of the three unities of time, place and action, and a depiction of humanity helpless in the grip of destructive passions and evil instincts, there is nevertheless more variation among these plays than is often alleged. Britannicus (1669) and Bérénice (1670) constituted a direct challenge to the ageing Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) in the field of Roman tragedy. The latter is sometimes referred to as the “most Racinian” of Racine’s plays, taking to an extreme its adherence to the unities and its rejection of all triviality or spectacular elements. It charts the process by which the Emperor Titus and his consort, the Palestinian Queen Bérénice, agree to separate despite their continuing love, because their relationship would contravene the Roman constitution with which Titus – to his own surprise, following the death of his father Vespasian – feels he must comply. What might have become a rather abstract analysis of the conflict between duty and desire is raised by Racine’s poetic skill and tight dramatic construction to a haunting evocation of desire, temptation, distress and loss. Bajazet (1672) explored the politics of the harem and the poetry of oriental exoticism. Mithridate (1673) returned to a Roman context in which the themes of love and politics are inextricably intertwined. Iphigénie (1674) found a startling new dénouement to the Greek story about Agamemnon and his daughter at Aulis, enabling the Greek fleet to set sail for Troy without reliance either on the sacrificial death of an innocent victim (which would be contrary to the seventeenth-century doctrine of bienséance or decorum), or on the intervention of a deus ex machina (which would be contrary to the equally binding seventeenth-century doctrine of verisimilitude). Racine’s solution was to invent an alternative victim, Ériphile, a daughter of Theseus and of Helen of Troy, and Iphigénie’s rival for the affection of Achilles. Ériphile’s real name turns out to be Iphigénie, and her suicide at the end of the play satisfies the oracular condition that “Iphigénie must be sacrificed before the wind allows the fleet to sail”. Although this contrivance does not remove the element of coincidence from the dénouement, it enabled Racine to produce a powerful portrayal of the conflict between public and private motives, and of the destructive bitterness generated by disputes within a family. Racine in his Préface wrote of Ériphile that she “mérite en quelque façon d’être punie, sans être tout à fait indigne de compassion” [“deserves punishment to some extent, without being altogether unworthy of compassion”], one of several explicit allusions in Racine’s defensive writings to the Aristotelian concept of hamartia, that single tragic flaw or miscalculation which brings about the downfall of a tragic character without depriving him or her of the audience’s underlying approval.
The climax of this sequence of plays was Phèdre (1677), now generally considered Racine’s masterpiece, although at the time its success was undermined by personal and political intriguing. In his version of the story of Hippolytos and Phædra, Racine focused less on the relationship between Hippolytos and Aphrodite – where Phædra is merely the instrument by which Aphrodite brings about the destruction of the prince – than on the feelings of Phèdre herself, gripped as she considers herself to be by a helpless infatuation with her stepson, inflicted on her spitefully by Venus, who has vowed to curse all the descendants of the sun god, Phèdre’s grandfather Apollon. In his defence of the play, Racine insisted on its moral message, since Phèdre is punished severely for mere desire, despite her courageous attempts to resist all active responses to her temptation. Nevertheless, he adapted the received story in ways which effectively attenuate the guilt of the heroine: in Racine’s version, she sincerely believes her husband Thésée to be dead, she relies on her nurse Œnone to deliver the false accusation against Hippolyte, and she does take steps to clear her stepson’s name, although tragically she is too late to save him, because of Thésée’s haste in cursing his son on the strength of Œnone’s calumny. The title role was created by Marie Desmares (1642-1698), known as La Champmeslé;, the most celebrated tragic actress of her generation. During this period, Racine had also written his one comedy, the legal satire Les Plaideurs [The Litigants] (1668), based on The Wasps by Aristophanes (448 BC?-388 BC?).
Following the relative failure of Phèdre, Racine retired from theatre for a mixture of professional and personal reasons. He was appointed royal historiographer alongside Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711), and in this capacity he recorded the King’s military and diplomatic activities for a salary amounting to 145,000 francs over a period of ten years. Although a loss to literature, this was seen as a significant promotion; Racine married, and was at least partially reconciled with his former teachers at Port-Royal. Racine and his wife Catherine had two sons and five daughters, most of whom entered the religious life. In 1687, Racine prepared an edition of his dramatic works, but he returned to creative activity for the theatre only at the request of the king’s mistress Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719), who had established an institution at Saint-Cyr for the education of poor girls of noble family, and asked him to compose biblical tragedies for the edification of her pupils. The resulting plays, Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691) stress the working out of divine providence, but like his earlier tragedies they are powerful poetic explorations of passion and violence. They use a chorus to comment on the action, whose text was set to music by Jean-Baptiste Moreau (1656-1733).
Cornelian tragedy had been largely influenced by Senecan Stoicism, and his protagonists achieve heroic status by subduing passion through will-power and self-control. Racine’s generation, influenced by such cynical moralists as La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), as well as by Augustinian theology, rejected this idealistic view of humanity: his characters feel helplessly driven by uncontrollable passion. As a result, Racine’s heroes – and above all his heroines – attain a greater degree of credibility and human sympathy on the modern stage.
Racine’s use of poetic language, too, is more approachable than Corneille’s. Where the latter is at times rhetorical, bombastic and contrived, Racine’s verse is more natural, less elaborate and achieves its most startling dramatic and tragic effects by understatement. Although many speeches and lines do contain striking poetic or rhetorical effects – “J’aime, que dis-je, aimer? J’idolâtre Junie” [“I love – no, love is not the word – I worship Junie”] (Britannicus, 2.1.384), for example, or “Tout m’afflige et me nuit et conspire à me nuir” [“All things afflict me, grieve me, conspire to grieve me”] (Phèdre, 1.3.161) – these are frequently adjacent to statements of almost prosaic simplicity that are nevertheless even more potent in their tragic or dramatic power – “Narcisse, c’en est fait, Néron est amoureux” [“Narcisse, all’s up: Néron’s in love”] (Britannicus, 2.1.382), or “Rien ne vous engageait à m’aimer, en effet” [“You weren’t obliged to love me, after all”] (Andromaque, 4.5.1355). Although not given to elaborate metaphor, Racine is nevertheless credited with breathing new life into the language of précieux poetry, using standard images for love as a flame or a poison, but imbuing them with intense physicality:
Mes yeux ne voyaient plus, je ne pouvais parler;
Je sentis tout mon corps et transir et brûler.
[I saw no more, I could not speak, I felt my whole body freeze and burn at once.]
Despite the avoidance of spectacular effects on stage, Racine is skilled at conveying visual imagery in the minds, dreams or memories of his characters, as in Andromaque’s evocation of the fall of Troy:
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 …
[Think, just think, Céphise, about that cruel night, an everlasting night for a whole people. Picture Pyrrhus, eyes flashing, using our burning palaces to light his way, forcing his passage across my slaughtered brothers, covered with blood, inciting further bloodshed; imagine the shouts of the victors, imagine the cries of the dying, choked by flames, hacked to death. Then conjure up Andromaque, desolate amidst these horrors…]
Despite the problems that surrounded the first performances of Phèdre, the play was quickly established in the repertoire of theatre companies active in Paris, and was chosen for the opening night of the Comédie-Française when that company was formed in August 1680; and Bajazet, Britannicus and Les Plaideurs were also performed within the first fortnight of the new company’s existence. Idolized in the eighteenth century, rejected by the Romantic movement and then re-established as a canonic dramatist by the Comédie-Française in the later nineteenth century, Racine became a more controversial figure in the 1950s when several critics in quick succession produced fresh interpretations of his output in response to modern critical theories: the Marxist sociologist Lucien Goldmann (Le Dieu caché [The Hidden God], 1955), structuralist Roland Barthes (Sur Racine [On Racine], 1956) and psychoanalytical critic Charles Mauron (L’Inconscient dans l’œuvre et la vie de Racine [The Subconscious Element in the Work and Life of Racine], 1957) all pointed in directions that produced outrage from more conventional scholars of Racine’s life and letters. At the same time, ground-breaking productions of his plays by such innovative directors as Gaston Baty (Phèdre, 1939 and Bérénice, 1946), Jean-Louis Barrault (Phèdre, 1946), Jean Vilar (Phèdre at the Théâtre national populaire, with Maria Casarès and Alain Cuny, 1957), Antoine Vitez (Phèdre, 1975), Gildas Bourdet (Britannicus, 1979), and Roger Planchon (Athalie at the Odéon with Gérard Desarthe, 1980), ensured that public interest in his works continued to be stimulated.
Jean Racine was elected to the Académie française in 1672. In addition to his plays and court poetry, he had written a number of religious poems, a dramatic pastoral, the Idylle sur la paix [An Idyll on Peace], performed at Sceaux in 1685 with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), several essays in defence of theatre, and a history of Port-Royal which was published posthumously.
Citation: Forman, Edward. "Jean Racine". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 18 December 2006 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=3689, accessed 02 December 2023.]