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Jean Racine



Jean Racine

French dramatist
in full Jean-baptiste Racine

baptized December 22, 1639, La Ferté-Milon, France
died April 21, 1699, Paris

French dramatic poet and historiographer renowned for his mastery of French classical tragedy. His reputation rests on the plays he wrote between 1664 and 1677, notably Andromaque (1667), Britannicus (1669), Bérénice (1670), Bajazet (1672), and Phèdre (1677).

Racine was born into a provincial family of minor administrators. His mother died 13 months after he was born, and his father died two years later. His paternal grandparents took him in, and when his grandmother, Marie des Moulins, became a widow, she brought Racine, then age nine, with her to the convent of Port-Royal des Champs near Paris. Since a group of devout scholars and teachers had founded a school there, Racine had the opportunity—rare for an orphan of modest social origins—to study the classics of Latin and Greek literature with distinguished masters. The school was steeped in the austere Roman Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism, which had recently been condemned by the church as heretical. Since the French monarchy suspected the Jansenists of being theologically and politically subversive, Racine’s lifelong relationship with his former friends and teachers remained ambivalent, inasmuch as the ambitious artist sought admittance into the secular realm of court society.

Racine spent the years from 1649 to 1653 at Port-Royal, transferred to the College of Beauvais for almost two years, and then returned to Port-Royal in October 1655 to perfect his studies in rhetoric. The school at Port-Royal was closed by the authorities in 1656, but Racine was allowed to stay on there. When he was 18 the Jansenists sent him to study law at the College of Harcourt in Paris. Racine had both the disposition and the talent to thrive in the cultural climate of Paris, where to conform and to please—in Racine’s case, to please by his pen—were indispensable assets. One of the first manifestations of Racine’s intentions was his composition of a sonnet in praise of Cardinal Mazarin, the prime minister of France, for successfully concluding a peace treaty with Spain (1659). This tribute reveals Racine’s strategy of social conquest through literature.

There were three ways for a writer to survive in Racine’s day: to attract a royal audience, to obtain an ecclesiastical benefice, or to compose for the theatre. The first was out of the question for the neophyte Racine, though he would eventually receive many gratuities in the course of his career. In 1661 Racine tried, through his mother’s family, to acquire an ecclesiastical benefice from the diocese of Uzès in Languedoc, though without success after residing there for almost two years. He then returned to Paris to try his hand as a dramatist, even if it meant estrangement from his Jansenist mentors, who disapproved of his involvement with the theatre. A reaction from them was not long in coming. In the same month that Racine’s play Alexandre le grand (1665) received its premiere, his former teacher Pierre Nicole published a public letter accusing novelists or playwrights of having no more redeeming virtues than a “public poisoner.” Though Nicole avoided any direct reference to him, Racine believed that he was the object of Nicole’s wrath and responded with a stinging open letter entitled Lettre à l’auteur des ‘Hérésies imaginaires’.

Racine’s first play, Amasie, was never produced and has not survived. His career as a dramatist began with the production by Molière’s troupe of his play La Thébaïde ou les frères ennemis (“The Thebaide or the Enemy Brothers”) at the Palais-Royal Theatre on June 20, 1664. Molière’s troupe also produced Racine’s next play, Alexandre le grand (Alexander the Great), which premiered at the Palais Royal on Dec. 4, 1665. This play was so well received that Racine secretly negotiated with the Hôtel de Bourgogne—a rival troupe that was more skilled in performing tragedy—to present a “second premiere” of Alexandre on December 15. The break with Molière was irrevocable—Racine even seduced Molière’s leading actress, Thérèse du Parc, into joining him personally and professionally—and from this point onward all of Racine’s secular tragedies would be presented by the actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne.

Of the three audiences that a dramatist had to win over to succeed in the theatre—the court, the general public, and the scholar critics—Racine doggedly pursued all three, though he had sharp clashes with the third group, who were mostly friends of his great rival, the older dramatist Pierre Corneille. Racine followed up his first masterpiece, Andromaque (1667), with the comedy Les Plaideurs (1668; The Litigants) before returning to tragedy with two plays set in imperial Rome, Britannicus (1669) and Bérénice (1670). He situated Bajazet (1672) in nearly contemporary Turkish history and depicted a famous enemy of Rome in Mithridate (1673) before returning to Greek mythology in Iphigénie en Aulide (1674; Iphigenia in Aulis) and the play that was his crowning achievement, Phèdre (1677). By this time Racine had achieved remarkable success both in the theatre and through it; his plays were ideally suited for dramatic expression and were also a useful vehicle for the social aspirations of their insecure and quietly driven author. Racine was the first French author to live principally on the income provided by his writings.

Within several months of the appearance of Phèdre, Racine married the pious and unintellectual Catherine de Romanet, with whom he would have two sons and five daughters. At about the same time, he retired from the commercial theatre and accepted the coveted post of royal historiographer with his friend Nicolas Boileau. Racine’s withdrawal from the stage at the height of his prestige as a professional playwright probably sprang from a combination of factors. The preface he wrote for Phèdre leads one to believe that he was seeking a reconciliation with the Jansenists. He was, at the same time, leaving the socially disadvantageous situation of a playwright for the rarefied atmosphere of the court of King Louis XIV. Having to quit the theatre to assume his new duties near the king, Racine could now afford to effect a rapprochement with the Jansenists. He may also have found it difficult to continue to respect the cardinal principle of classical art—unity. In Phèdre there is fragmentation at significant levels: cosmic, social, psychological, and physical. Since fragmentation is a subversive notion in classical art, perhaps Racine abandoned a genre to whose classical tenets he no longer subscribed.

As one of the royal historiographers, Racine chronicled Louis XIV’s military campaigns in suitable prose. In 1679 he was accused by Catherine Monvoisin (called La Voisin) of having poisoned his mistress and star actress, the Marquise du Parc, but no formal charges were pressed and no consequences ensued. Racine’s official duties culminated in the Eloge historique du Roi sur ses conquêtes (1682; “The Historical Panegyric for the King on His Conquests”). He also wrote the Cantiques spirituels (1694) and worked hard to establish his status and his fortune. In 1672 he was elected to the French Academy, and he came to exert almost dictatorial powers over it. In 1674 he acquired the noble title of treasurer of France, and he eventually obtained the higher distinctions of ordinary gentleman of the king (1690) and secretary of the king (1696).

In response to requests from Louis XIV’s consort Madame de Maintenon, Racine returned to the theatre to write two religious plays for the convent girls at Saint-Cyr: Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691). His other undertakings during his last years were to reedit, in 1687 and finally in 1697, the edition of his complete works that he had first published in 1676, and to compose, probably as his last work, the Abrégé de l’histoire de Port-Royal (“Short History of Port-Royal”). Racine died in 1699 from cancer of the liver. In a codicil to his will, he expressed his wish to be buried at Port-Royal. When Louis XIV had Port-Royal razed in 1710, Racine’s remains were transferred to a tomb in the Parisian church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

French classical tragedy pivots around two basic subjects: passion and politics. Since Racine’s audience was naturally intrigued by plots that dealt with the succession to a throne, he doubled their pleasure in his first successful play, La Thébaïde, by creating two legitimate pretenders who are also identical twins. The play centres on the twin sons of Oedipus who slay one another in mortal combat, one defending, the other attacking, their native city of Thebes. The deep hatred between the two brothers sounds the notes of separation, disunion, and alienation that would characterize all Racinian tragedy. Though its structure is flawed and its characters lack inflection, La Thébaïde was already typically Racinian in several fundamental aspects. It focuses on a tight knot of characters caught in an episode near the end of a mythical or historical story. Much of the physical action is relegated to narrative reports so that the events on stage are condensed and all the more explosive by the time they reach their climax. The audience’s attention is fixed on the interior conflicts of the characters, rather than on exterior events, and language is used for the subtly nuanced and dramatically memorable expression of emotions, not the recital of a plot.

Racine evidently conceived his next play, Alexandre, as his ticket to royal favour, since the audience was sure to see in the portrait of the Macedonian conqueror a reflection of the young King Louis XIV of France who, as the play suggests, could surpass Alexander by restraining his aggressive tendencies and becoming a morally superior hero who champions Roman Catholic virtues. Posterity has decreed the play a misguided attempt by Racine to pour his tragic vision into Corneille’s heroic mold.

In Andromaque (1667) Racine replaced heroism with realism in a tragedy about the folly and blindness of unrequited love among a chain of four characters. The play is set in Epirus after the Trojan War. Pyrrhus vainly loves his captive, the Trojan widow Andromache, and is in turn loved by the Greek princess Hermione, who in her turn is loved by Orestes. Power, intimidation, and emotional blackmail become the recourses by which these characters try to transmit the depths of their feelings to their beloved. But this form of communication is ultimately frustrated because the characters’ deep-seated insecurity renders them self-absorbed and immune to empathy. Murder, suicide, and madness have destroyed all of them except Andromache by the play’s end. Andromaque’s audience was fully aware that they were witnessing a new and powerful conception of the human condition in which passionate relationships are seen as basically political in their means and expression. Andromaque is more skillfully crafted than Racine’s previous efforts: its exposition is a model of clarity and concision; the interplay of love, hate, and indifference are subtly yet compellingly arranged; and the rhetoric is forceful but close to normal speech. The play was the first of Racine’s major tragedies and enjoyed a public success comparable to Corneille’s Le Cid 30 years before.

The three-act comedy Les Plaideurs (The Litigants) of 1668 offered Racine the challenge of a new genre and the opportunity to demonstrate his skill in Molière’s privileged domain, as well as the occasion to display his expertise in Greek, of which he had better command than almost any nonprofessional classicist in France. The result, a brilliant satire of the French legal system, was an adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Wasps that found much more favour at court than on the Parisian stage.

With Britannicus (1669) Racine posed a direct challenge to Corneille’s specialty: tragedy with a Roman setting. Racine portrays the events leading up to the moment when the teenage emperor Nero cunningly and ruthlessly frees himself from the tutelage of his domineering mother, Agrippina, and has Britannicus, a legitimate pretender to the throne, poisoned in the course of a fatal banquet of fraternal reconciliation. Despite its failure when it premiered in 1669, Britannicus has remained one of Racine’s most frequently produced dramas, especially in the 20th century.

Bérénice (1670) marks the decisive point in Racine’s theatrical career, for with this play he found a felicitous combination of elements that he would use, without radical alteration, for the rest of his secular tragedies: a love interest, a relatively uncomplicated plot, striking rhetorical passages, and a highly poetic use of time. Bérénice is built around the unusual premise of three characters who are ultimately forced to live apart because of their virtuous sense of duty. In the play, Titus, who is to become the new Roman emperor, and his friend Antiochus are both in love with Berenice, the queen of Palestine. The play’s “majestic sadness,” as Racine put it in his preface to the play, flows from the tragic necessity of separation for individuals who yearn for union with their beloved and who express their sorrow in some of the most haunting passages of Racine’s entire oeuvre.

Racine followed the simplicity of Bérénice and its three main characters with a violent, relatively crowded production, Bajazet (1672). The play’s themes of unrequited love and the struggle for power under the unrelenting pressure of time are recognizably Racinian, but its locale, the court of the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople, is the only contemporary setting used by Racine in any of his plays, and was sufficiently far removed in distance and in mores from 17th-century France to create an alluring exoticism for contemporary audiences. In the play, the main characters—the young prince Bajazet, his beloved Atalide, and the jealous sultana Roxane—are the mortal victims of the despotic cruelty of the absent sultan Amurat, whose reign is maintained by violence and secrecy.

In 1673 Racine presented Mithridate, which featured a return to tragedy with a Roman background. Mithradates VI, the king of Pontus, is the aging, jealous rival of his sons for the Greek princess Monime. The rivalry between the two brothers themselves for the love of their father’s fiancée is another manifestation of the primordial tragic situation for Racine, that of warring brothers. Against the backdrop of this conflict, the play presents the demise of King Mithradates, who becomes conscious of his own eclipse as a heroic figure feared by Rome.

Despite a competing play mounted by his enemies on the same general subject, Racine’s Iphigénie en Aulide (1674) was a resounding success that confirmed him as the unrivaled master of French theatre. It is an adaptation of a play by Euripides about the prospective sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon, but contains a happy ending in which Iphigenia is spared. Racine’s deft insertion in Iphigénie of the future as an intrusive force determining the present creates a rehearsal of the Trojan War that culminates in a profound moral illumination revolving around the title character. The play’s denouement, typical of Racine’s practice, projects the imagination of the spectator beyond the present action to the future consequences of the acts portrayed on stage.

Phèdre (1677) is Racine’s supreme accomplishment because of the rigour and simplicity of its organization, the emotional power of its language, and the profusion of its images and meanings. Racine presents Phaedra as consumed by an incestuous passion for her stepson, Hippolytus. Receiving false information that her husband, King Theseus, is dead, Phaedra declares her love to Hippolytus, who is horrified. Theseus returns and is falsely informed that Hippolytus has been the aggressor toward Phaedra. Theseus invokes the aid of the god Neptune to destroy his son, after which Phaedra kills herself out of guilt and sorrow. A structural pattern of cycles and circles in Phèdre reflects a conception of human existence as essentially changeless, recurrent, and therefore asphyxiatingly tragic. Phaedra’s own desire to flee the snares of passion repeatedly prompts her to contemplate a voluntary exile. References to ancient Greek mythological figures and to a wide range of geographical places lend a vast, cosmic dimension to the moral itinerary of Phaedra as she suffers bitterly from her incestuous propensities and a sense of her own degradation. Phèdre constitutes a daring representation of the contagion of sin and its catastrophic results.

Esther (1689) is a biblical tragedy complete with musical choral interludes composed by Jean-Baptiste Moreau, who would serve in this same role for Racine’s last play, Athalie. The play shows how Esther, the wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus (Xerxes I), saves the Jews from a massacre plotted by the king’s chief minister, Haman. With its three acts, its chorus, and its transcendent message that God and truth can be made manifest on stage, Esther breaks sharply with Racine’s previous practice in tragedy. It is not one of his major works, despite the beauty of its choruses.

In Athalie (1691) Racine reverted to his customary approach. Within the one day that is always the temporal duration of his plays, a situation of human origin must be resolved by divine intervention so that the child Joas, the rightful king of Judah, will be saved from his murderous grandmother Athalie. Athalie is a typical Racinian drama except for the fact that fate is replaced in this instance by divine providence. The title character, Athalie, though evil, still remains admirable in her titanic struggle against this superior adversary. Of all the characters never seen on stage but who enrich Racine’s texts, from Hector and Astyanax in Andromaque through Venus, Minos, Neptune, and Ariane in Phèdre, the God of the Old Testament in Athalie exerts the greatest impact on the course of dramatic events.

Racine has been hailed by posterity as the foremost practitioner of tragedy in French history and the uncontested master of French classicism. He became the virtuoso of the poetic metre used in 17th-century French tragedy, the alexandrine line, and paid unwavering attention to the properly theatrical aspects of his plays, from actors’ diction and gestures to space and decor. Ultimately, Racine’s reputation derives from his unforgettable characters who, much like their creator, betray an inferiority complex in their noble yet frustrated attempts to transcend their limitations. The Racinian view, then, is of a humanity consumed by feelings of incompleteness and by a compensatory drive for acceptance in a world of passionate self-interest. Racine’s art has influenced French and foreign authors alike, among them Émile Zola, Marcel Proust, François Mauriac, Henrik Ibsen, Henry James, and Samuel Beckett.

Ronald W. Tobin




Òyðå of work: Drama
Author: Jean Racine (1639-1699)
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
Locale: Troezen, in ancient Greece
First presented: 1677


Racine based this tragedy on Euripides' Hippolytus but shifted his focus to the character of Phaedra, who appears only briefly in the Greek play. The playwright explores once again in Phaedra the problem of the extent to which human beings are capable of free will and therefore responsible for their actions.


Principal Characters

Phaedra, the second wife of Theseus and daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, the king and queen of Crete. Phaedra is descended from a line of women of unnatural passions. When she realizes that she has fallen in love with her stepson Hippolyte, she fights the double contagion of heredity and passion with courage and in silence until, unable to resist her love, she arranges to have Hippolyte banished from Athens. She bears Theseus's children, erects a temple to Venus, and makes sacrifices in order to appease the wrath of the goddess. When Theseus leaves her in Troezen with Hippolyte, Phaedra's passion feeds on her until, willing to die, she becomes exhausted and ill from her battle to suppress her illicit love. Word is brought of Theseus's death shortly after her nurse, Oenone, has forced Phaedra to confess her love aloud for the first time. In an unguarded moment, while asking Hippolyte to keep her own son safe now that Hippolyte may be heir to the Athenian throne, Phaedra rather hopefully reveals her passion to him and witnesses his contempt for her. Angry and ashamed, when Phaedra hears to her joy and to her dismay that Theseus has returned alive from his travels, she allows her nurse to accuse Hippolyte of attempted rape—mainly, Phaedra believes, to keep the stigma of her family history and its unnatural passions from falling even more heavily on her own children. Distraught by her guilt and her love, her fear and her fury, she confesses to Theseus that she has lied to him when it is too late to save Hippolyte, and after she herself has taken poison.
Theseus, the son of Aegeus, king of Athens, traditionally faithless to women but faithful to his wives. Theseus so loves his young wife and his own honor that he believes Phaedra's slender evidence instead of trusting what he knows to be the character of his son. Becoming one more figure in Racine's gallery of passion's fools, Theseus in a fury prays to Neptune to grant him the death of Hippolyte. Too autocratic to curb himself when rebuked for his cruel and misinformed curse on his son, he nevertheless begins to suspect that Hippolyte has not lied to him. As the evidence against Phaedra begins to accumulate—she is too distraught to prevent it from doing so—Theseus recovers from his jealous rage too late to save the life of his son.
Hippolyte, the son of Theseus and Antiope, queen of the Amazons. Like everyone about him, Hippolyte goes to extremes. Unpolished, chaste, pure, a hunter and a woodsman, he spurns women until he falls in love with Aricie, becoming willing to hand over Athens, which he is to inherit from his father, to Aricie, his father's enemy. Because Hippolyte is harsh in his judgment of Phaedra, she reacts violently against the proud boy. Theseus is also harsh in his judgment, no less an extremist than his son. Hippolyte's sense of honor prevents him from telling his father about Phaedra's indiscreet confession of her passion, and Theseus's own outraged sense of honor makes him violent in judging Hippolyte.
Aricie, a princess of an older royal dynasty of Athens, held captive by Theseus. Until Hippolyte confesses his love for her, Aricie is content with her lot. Theseus has forbidden her to marry for fear that she may give birth to sons able to contest Theseus's right to rule Athens. She graciously accepts sovereignty of Athens, if Hippolyte can obtain it for her, and his offer of marriage.
Oenone, Phaedra's nurse and friend since childhood. Loyal to her mistress and determined that Phaedra shall not die from stifled passion, she is even willing to further Phaedra's love for Hippolyte. Later, after Hippolyte has spurned Phaedra, Oenone becomes the agent of his destruction.
Theramene, the tutor of Hippolyte. Because of his somewhat lecherous approach to life and to history, Theramene highlights the purity and aloofness of Hippolyte's views. Hippolyte, who would like to strike the love element from historical narratives, is ironically unaware that love will be the chief element in his own history.


The Story

After the death of his Amazon queen, Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur, married Phaedra, the young daughter of the king of Crete. Phaedra, seeing in her stepson, Hip-polyte, all the bravery and virtue of his heroic father, but in a more youthful guise, fell in love with him. In an attempt to conceal her passion for the son of Theseus, she treated him in an aloof and spiteful manner until at last Hippolyte decided to leave Troezen and go in search of his father, absent from the kingdom. To his tutor, Theramene, he confided his desire to avoid both his stepmother and Aricie, an Athenian princess who was the daughter of a family which had opposed Theseus. Phaedra confessed to Oenone, her nurse, her guilty passion for Hippolyte, saying that she had merely pretended unkindness to him in order to hide her real feelings.
Word came to Troezen that Theseus was dead. Oenone talked to Phaedra in an attempt to convince the queen that her own son, not Hippolyte, should be chosen as the new king of Athens. Aricie hoped that she would be chosen to rule. Hippolyte, a fair-minded young man, told Aricie that he would support her for the rule of Athens. He felt that Phaedra's son should inherit Crete and that he himself should remain master of Troezen. He also admitted his love for Aricie, but said that he feared the gods would never allow it to be brought to completion. When he tried to explain his intentions to his stepmother, she in turn dropped her pretense of hatred and distrust and ended by betraying her love for Hippolyte. Shocked, he repulsed her, and she threatened to take her own life. The people of Athens, however, chose Phaedra's son to rule over them, to the disappointment of Aricie. There were also^rumors that Theseus still lived. Hippolyte gave orders that a search be made for his father.
Phaedra, embarrassed by all she had told Hippolyte, brooded over the injury she now felt and wished that she had never revealed her love. Phaedra was proud, and now her pride was hurt beyond recovery. Unable to overcome her passion, however, she decided to offer the kingdom to Hippolyte so that she might keep him near her. Then news came that Theseus was returning to his home. Oenone warned Phaedra that now she must hide her true feeling for Hippolyte. She even suggested to the queen that Theseus be made to believe that Hippolyte had tempted Phaedra to adultery. When Theseus returned, Phaedra greeted him with reluctance, saying that she was no longer fit to be his wife. Hippolyte made the situation no better by requesting permission to leave Troezen at once. Theseus was greatly chagrined at his homecoming.
When scheming Oenone told the king that Hippolyte had attempted to dishonor his stepmother, Theseus flew into a rage. Hippolyte, knowing nothing of the plot, was at first astonished by his father's anger and threats. When accused, he denied the charges, but Theseus refused to listen to him and banished his son from the kingdom forever. When Hippolyte claimed that he was really in love with Aricie, Theseus, more incensed than ever, invoked the vengeance of Neptune upon his son. Aricie tried to convince Hippolyte that he must prove his innocence, but Hippolyte refused because he knew that the revelation of Phaedra's passion would be too painful for his father to bear. The two agreed to escape together. Before Aricie could leave the palace, however, Theseus questioned her. Becoming suspicious, he sent for Oenone to demand the truth. Fearing that her plot had been uncovered, Oenone committed suicide.
Meanwhile, as Hippolyte drove his chariot near the seashore, Neptune sent a horrible monster, part bull and part dragon, which destroyed the prince. When news of his death reached the palace, Phaedra confessed her guilt and drank poison. Theseus, glad to see his guilty queen die, wished that memory of her life might perish with her. Sorrowfully, he sought the grief-stricken Aricie to comfort her.


Critical Evaluation

The issues of free will, predestination, and grace that interested Racine in the seventeenth century constituted a restatement, in theological terms, of a problem of universal concern. To what extent is man free to create his own existence and be responsible for his actions? Are the terms of human existence within the arena of human control, or are they preestablished by some external force? Can human suffering be justified as the result of one's actions, or is it 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 a person chooses between predestination and free will, he is either asserting or denying his belief in his ability to make wise and ethically sound decisions. Emphasis on the dignity of man and on his potential for choice often coincides with optimism regarding human behavior. Conversely, a belief in man as a depraved and irresponsible creature will be found in conjunction with a distrust of man's ability to act in a positive and meaningful way. This view of the human condition is presented by Racine in Phaedra, which shows man as predetermined or predestined.
Racine was reared by the Jansenists at Port-Royal, 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, a position that had been set forth by the Jesuits. The Jesuits attempted to bring salvation within the grasp of all men, whereas the Jansenists emphasized a rigid determinism. They rejected the Jesuit doctrine that man could attain his salvation through good works and insisted that man was predestined to salvation or damnation. This denial of free will was based on the conviction that after the Fall man was left completely corrupt and devoid of rational self-control. Man was incapable of participating in the process of regeneration because Original Sin had deprived him of his will. The passions had gained control of man, and they could only lead to evil. Human passion was seen as capable of leading to falsehood, crime, suicide, and general destruction. It was 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 man, and that mercy was reserved for those who had been elected to salvation.
Phaedra manifests a similar distrust of the passions, a similar curtailment of free will, and a consequent emphasis upon man's lack of control. Human passion is depicted as controlling reason. The arena of human choice and responsibility is severely limited. Phaedra is pursued by an inexorable fate. In the preface to Phaedra, however, Racine suggests the possibility of free will. He states that Phaedra 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 Phaedra 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? In his preface, Racine insists that "her crime is more a punishment of the gods than an act of her will."
Phaedra's genealogy would seem to support the argument of fatalism. She is initially referred to, not by name, but as the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae. Throughout the 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. She has 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, Phaedra resorts to her final effort— suicide. Ironically, her attempted suicide will serve only 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 Oenone. By implying that her suicide would constitute betrayal of the gods, her husband, and her children, Oenone attempts to persuade Phaedra to reveal her love for Hippolyte. The news of Theseus's apparent death further tempts Phaedra by removing the crime of potential adultery. In addition, Phaedra is tempted to offer the crown to Hippolyte in order to protect her children and appeal to his political aspirations.
Her interview with Hippolyte, however, turns into a confession of love which unfolds without any 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, Phaedra prays to Venus, not as in the past to free her from passion, but to inflame Hippolyte with a comparable passion. Theseus's return presents Phaedra with a choice of either revealing or denying her love for Hippolyte. She allows Oenone to deceive Theseus. Yet is this actually a moment of choice, assuming that choice involves a rational action? On the contrary, Phaedra's statement to her nurse at the end of Act 3, scene 3, implies complete lack of control. Phaedra's final temptation is to refuse to confess her lies to Theseus. Once again, she is prevented from acting in a rational manner, for upon learning of Hippolyte's love for Aricie, she is overwhelmed by a blinding jealousy.
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 Phaedra wishes to overcome her passion, all of her efforts are in vain. The series of temptations in Phaedra serves to emphasize her lack of control and conspires to bring about her ruin. From the possibility of an early death with honor, Phaedra is led, through a series of defeats, to a guilty and dishonorable death.
Some have seen in the character of Phaedra, however, a striving to surpass limits and an awareness of her own condition that elevate her to tragic greatness. Despite her helplessness, she feels responsibility for her actions. Denied choice, she does not revel in her lostness but instead is engulfed in shame, as if moral decisions were really possible. Racine's Phaedra, then, is doomed not only to do wrong but also to take responsibility for that wrongdoing, vainly but heroically pursuing a mirage of freedom.



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