The French dramatist Jean Baptiste Racine (1639-1699), admired as a portrayer of man's subtle psychology and overwhelming passions, was the author of 11 tragedies and a comedy. His work is the greatest expression of French classicism.
Jean Racine was born in La Ferté-Milon and baptized there on Dec. 22, 1639. Both of his parents died within a few years, and the young Racine went to live with his paternal grandparents. There he was cared for by his grandmother and by his aunt, both of whom lived in close contact with the Jansenist convent of Port-Royal-des-Champs near Paris. Racine was educated in the schools of Port-Royal, receiving what was perhaps the best education available in his times. Sent on to the Jansenist-influenced school in Beauvais, Racine learned ancient Greek in addition to his other studies, before completing his education at Port-Royal and in Paris.
At some time before 1660 Racine entered the service of the Duke of Luynes in Paris, working as an assistant to a cousin who was the duke's steward. In his spare time Racine interested himself in poetry, made the acquaintance of Jean de La Fontaine, the poet and fabulist, and wrote an official poem, La Nymphe de la Seine (1660). He also wrote two tragedies, both refused by the theatrical troupes of the day and now lost. Apparently discouraged, Racine spent perhaps a year in Uzés preparing to enter the priesthood, but in 1663 he returned to Paris and to literature.
Racine was approached by the great comic writer and actor Molière, whose troupe wished to commission a tragedy, La Thébaide, to compete with one being put on by a rival troupe. Racine agreed to write such a tragedy according to Molière's instructions, and the play was first performed in 1664. Although it was indifferently received, Molière requested another play from Racine. Racine's Alexandre (1665) was his first success in the theater.
French Theatrical Situation
During this period the French theater was influenced profoundly by the famous neo-Aristotelian precepts for good literature. Playwrights observed with ever greater severity the famous "three unities" of time, place, and action, and the principles of verisimilitude and theatrical bienséance (seemliness). Without renouncing the influence of Pierre Corneille, they nevertheless tended more and more to set their plays within a single stage decor, using fewer and fewer personages, simplifying their plots, and concentrating them in shorter texts. Contemporary playwrights thus presented less and less dramatic action, interesting themselves rather in the passions of their personages—and transforming the regular or "ruleconscious" theater of the 1630s and 1640s into the disciplined and passion-oriented classicist theater of the following decades. While Racine's Thébaide and Alexandre show both Corneillian and later classical tendencies, Racine expressed more purely classicist literary ideals in his third tragedy, Andromaque.
Andromaque and La Du Parc
Between the first performances of Alexandre and the first performances of Andromaque in 1667, Racine's way of life changed considerably. Apparently dissatisfied with Molière's production of his Alexandre, he secretly rehearsed the play with the actors of another troupe, who played Alexandre in competition with Molière in December 1665. The resulting theatrical scandal gave Racine the reputation of a devious and unscrupulous young man. As if to confirm this evil reputation, an ungrateful Racine also published a pamphlet against Jansenism, attacking his former teachers of Port-Royal. One year later Racine took as his mistress a notorious actress, Thérèse du Parc. It was apparently for "La Du Parc" that Racine wrote Andromaque, in which she played the title role.
The action of Andromaque takes place some years after the conclusion of the Trojan War. The play begins with the arrival of Oreste, the son of the Greek king Agamemnon, at the court of Pyrrhus, son of the Greek hero Achilles. Ostensibly, Oreste has come as the ambassador of all the Greeks to ask for the execution of Astyanax, son of the Trojan hero Hector, whom Pyrrhus is holding prisoner. In reality, however, Oreste has come to see Hermione, daughter of Helen of Troy, with whom he is in love. Hermione, however, is in love with Pyrrhus and indeed is engaged to marry him. Pyrrhus, however, is in love not with Hermione but with Andromaque, the disconsolate widow of Hector and the mother of Astyanax.
The rest of the tragedy turns less upon the action than upon the psychological interaction of these four personages, each of whom passionately and jealously loves someone who passionately loves someone else. When Andromaque rebuffs Pyrrhus, he threatens to carry out the Greeks' request and kill Astyanax. When Pyrrhus breaks off his engagement to Hermione and prepares to marry Andromaque, Hermione persuades Oreste to kill him. But when the unfortunate Oreste and his followers succeed in doing so, she repudiates him. Oreste goes mad and Hermione commits suicide, leaving Andromaque and Astyanax to initiate another round, some day, in the Trojan War against the Greeks.
During the following years Racine retained his reputation for deviousness, ambition, and ingratitude. Through his mistress, La Du Parc, he came to know something of the shady side of court life. He may finally have secretly married La Du Parc, and after her death in mysterious circumstances in 1668 he was accused of poisoning her. Racine subsequently was compromised with the dead La Du Parc and others in the infamous "poison affair, " and he may narrowly have escaped arrest. In any case, he took as his next mistress another actress, La Champmeslé. But during this period he also consolidated his reputation as the greatest playwright of his times, writing one comedy, Les Plaideurs (1668), and numerous tragedies for the Parisian stage.
Britannicus and Bérénice
In his succeeding tragedies Racine continued to explore passionate love and passionate jealousy. In Britannicus (1669) Racine shows the young Roman emperor Néron (Nero) torn between the wise counsel of his teacher Burrhus and the influence of his domineering mother, Agrippine. Jealously in love with Junie, who loves the young prince Britannicus, Néron finally poisons the latter, revealing himself as the tyrant so well remembered in Roman history. In Bérénice (1670) the Roman Senate demands that the emperor Titus renounce his plans to marry Bérénice, a ruler of a foreign state and thus politically suspect. The play proceeds with no action other than successive confrontations between the various personages. With the action essentially reduced to nothing, the play relies exclusively on the beauty of Racine's verse and his analysis of the passions of his personages. Although Racine's numerous enemies attempted to conspire against the play and although the elderly Corneille wrote a Tite et Bérénice to compete with it, Racine's play was a remarkable success, followed by Bajazet (1672), Mithridate (1673), Iphigénie (1674), and Phèdre (1677).
Racine's Masterpiece, Phèdre
When it became known that Racine was preparing a play on the subject of Phèdre, the Duchess of Bouillon and other friends of the aging Corneille apparently attempted to hurt Racine's play by commissioning another playwright, Nicolas Pradon, to write one on the same subject. Apparently based on a stolen copy of Racine's text, Pradon's Phèdre et Hippolyte opened in Paris only 2 days after Racine's play. The two works were the occasion of a bitter literary quarrel in which insulting sonnets and other writings were exchanged, but Racine's play eventually triumphed over its rival.
In Racine's Phèdre, Hippolyte, son of the absent King Thésée, states his intention of leaving his palace of Trézène in order to search for his father. Although at first it appears he is ashamed of his love for Aricie, sister of some of his father's enemies, it soon becomes clear that he really wishes to avoid his stepmother, Phèdre. Phèdre is in love with Hippolyte and, in a memorable scene, declares her love for him. He at first pretends not to understand but finally can only flee her presence. When Thésée returns unexpectedly, Phèdre allows her nurse, Oenone, to accuse Hippolyte of making advances. In a rage Thésée asks the god Neptune to kill Hippolyte as he flees Trézène, hoping to marry Aricie and escape with her. Thésée learns his error too late to prevent the death of Hippolyte. Phèdre and Oenone commit suicide, leaving Thésée alone to pardon Aricie.
In Phèdre, as in Racine's other tragedies, critics have admired first the very refined, pure poetry of Racine's verse and second Racine's very incisive, though pessimistic, view of human psychology. A contemporary critic, Jean de La Bruyère, remarked that although tragedies on love and duty and heroic gloire had presented "man as he should be, " Racine presented man as he really was. Man, as Racine presents him, often displays a sense of personal insecurity and self-doubt not unlike modern psychological "complexes." The Racinian character's self-doubt leads him—like Racine himself, as described by his enemies—to fight desperately and destructively to gain his ends, with inevitably tragic results. Some modern critics have ascribed this view, rather than to any Racinian observation of human nature, to the influence of Jansenism and its somber view of human helplessness before God. In any case, Racine has long been admired as one of the most perfect of French writers—that is, in another modern view, as the French writer who most successfully matches his poetic images to his psychology, his psychology to his plot, and his plot to the structure and neo-Aristotelian view of the tragedy, giving his plays a kind of total inner coherence unequaled in France's grand siècle.
Yet in spite of Racine's genius—and almost as if he had written his sublime tragedies only to gain a place in society—he stopped writing tragedies after Phèdre. Six months after the premiere of Phèdre, Racine married. In October of the same year, 1677, he accepted a post as King Louis XIV's historiographer. At the same time, he announced his return to the Jansenist faith of his childhood. During the following years Racine lived comfortably and raised a family of seven children. As director of the French Academy, he eulogized his former bitter rival, Corneille, and published a new edition of his own works, from which he had removed remarks offensive to his enemies.
Although Racine apparently intended definitively to retire from the theater, he was persuaded by Louis XIV's morganatic wife Madame de Maintenon to write two more plays, of a slightly different character than his previous works. These were Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691)—tragedies written on specifically Christian themes and without any love interest, intended to be presented by the young ladies of Saint-Cyr, a girls' establishment protected by Madame de Maintenon. More and more a respectable citizen and favorite of the King in his later years, Racine died in Paris on April 21, 1699.
Further Reading on Jean Baptiste Racine
The best biography of Racine in English is Geoffrey Brereton, Jean Racine: A Critical Biography (1951). A penetrating analysis of Racine's dramaturgy, with an emphasis on structure and language, is Roland Barthes, On Racine (1963; trans. 1964). Other recent works in English on Racine are John C. Lapp, Aspects of Racinian Tragedy (1955), and Bernard Weinberg, The Art of Jean Racine (1963). A unique collection of critical essays is in Robert James Nelson, ed., Corneille and Racine: Parallels and Contrasts (1966), which includes essays from the 17th century to the present and constitutes a kind of history of literary criticism on the subject. More general studies are John Lough, An Introduction to Seventeenth Century France (1954), and Will G. Moore, French Classical Literature (1961).