Jean Racine

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Racine, Jean

(zhäN räsēn`), 1639–99, French dramatist. Racine is the prime exemplar of French classicismclassicism,
a term that, when applied generally, means clearness, elegance, symmetry, and repose produced by attention to traditional forms. It is sometimes synonymous with excellence or artistic quality of high distinction.
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. The nobility of his Alexandrine verse, the simplicity of his diction, the psychological realism of his characters, and the skill of his dramatic construction contribute to the continued popularity of his plays. Educated at Port-Royal, he broke with his Jansenist masters over his love for the theater. His first dramatic attempts, La Thébaïde (1664) and Alexandre le Grand (1665), were imitations of CorneilleCorneille, Pierre
, 1606–84, French dramatist, ranking with Racine as a master of French classical tragedy. Educated by Jesuits, he practiced law briefly in his native Rouen and moved to Paris after the favorable reception of his first play, Mélite
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. With Andromaque (1667), a tragedy after Euripides, Racine supplanted Corneille as France's leading tragic dramatist. Corneille's friends, including Racine's former friend MolièreMolière, Jean Baptiste Poquelin
, 1622–73, French playwright and actor, b. Paris; son of a merchant who was upholsterer to the king. His name was originally Jean Baptiste Poquelin.
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, tried to ruin the young playwright, but the backing of Louis XIV and later of Boileau saved him. Racine's next play, Les Plaideurs (1668), wittily satirizes the law courts. His subsequent plays are milestones in French literature—Britannicus (1669); Bérénice (1670); Bajazet (1672); Mithridate (1673); Iphigénie en Aulide (1674); Phèdre (1677). After a concerted attack on Phèdre, Racine, in a revulsion against his irregular life, gave up the theater. In the same year he married and was appointed official historiographer by Louis XIV. Mme de Maintenon persuaded him to write Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691) for performance at Saint-Cyr. These differ from the earlier plays in their biblical subjects and use of a chorus and in the length of Esther, which has three acts instead of five. There are many English translations of Racine, among them those of John Masefield, Lacy Lockert, Kenneth Muir, and Robert Lowell.

Bibliography

See biography by G. Brereton (rev. ed. 1974); studies by R. Barthes (tr. 1964), P. France (1966), M. Turnell (1972), P. J. Yarrow (1978), and L. Goldman (1981).

Racine, Jean

 

Born Dec. 21, 1639, in La Ferté-Milon, in the county of Valois, now the department of Aisne; died Apr. 21, 1699, in Paris. French dramatist. Member of the Académie Française (1673).

Racine was the son of a civil servant. After leaving the Jan-senist abbey where he had been educated, he wrote odes and subsequently entered court circles. His early tragedy La Thébaïde, ou les frères ennemis was performed and published in 1664. His only comedy, Les Plaideurs (performed 1668, published 1669), satirizes the French judiciary.

The tragedy Andromache (performed 1667, published 1668) inaugurated a new era in French dramaturgy. A successor to P. Corneille, Racine wrote classical tragedies about amorous passion; these works emphasized moral problems and provided insight into human suffering.

Racine reveals with subtlety and great psychological depth the drama of individuals in conflict with themselves—torn between duty and passion, love and hatred. He depicts the inner life of women, the leading characters in his works, with great insight and sensitivity of language.

Racine’s tragedies, constructed naturally and simply, obey the inner logic of the protagonists’ feelings. Therefore, dialogue and the protagonists’ nature assume great importance, while external action is minimal and conforms easily to the three unities. At the same time, this strictly organized form is intensely permeated with the raging passions that blind man and, in spite of his will and reason, make him a criminal and tyrant or a victim of his own unrestrained nature. Racine’s ideal heroines, on the other hand, firmly resist blind passion and strong forces; they are ready to sacrifice themselves to remain true to their moral duty and retain their inner purity.

In Racine’s works, the state usually appears as a despotic element close to oriental tyranny; under its yoke all that is pure and virtuous perishes. The poet’s vivid political tragedy Bri-tannicus (performed 1669, published 1670) depicts the emergence of a tyrant. The aristocratic nature of absolute monarchy is revealed with particular clarity.

Racine’s ideal of self-abnegation expresses the poet’s belief that for the sake of morality and society, man must curb his personal strivings. This ideal is embodied most clearly in the tragedy Bérénice (performed 1670, published 1671), all of whose protagonists renounce their passions. But even here, emphasis is on the sufferings entailed by fulfilling the state’s demands.

Racine’s later tragedies are again built on the conflict between monarchical despotism and its victims: Bajazet (staged and published 1672), Mithridate (staged and published 1673), and Iphigénie en A ulide (staged 1674, published 1675).

In Phèdre (staged and published 1677), Racine forcefully presents the tragedy of a highly moral woman struggling with an overwhelming illicit passion. Thus, the poet’s greatest tragedy reflected a crisis in Racine’s ideal of self-abnegation and presaged the crisis of the old world order.

The authentic, strong passions depicted by Racine had always shocked court circles. However, Phèdre provoked particular indignation. Racine was accused of immorality, and the play’s first performances were failures. He stopped writing for the theater, a move that was also related to his return to Jansenism.

Racine returned to dramaturgy after a 12-year absence with the tragedy Esther (staged and published 1689), which he wrote for the students at the Saint-Cyr convent school. In this work, the poet urged religious tolerance.

A new genre of religiopolitical drama found a clear embodiment in Athalie (staged 1690, published 1691). The tragedy, based on a biblical theme, culminates in an armed popular rebellion against a despotic ruler. The theme of love is completely supplanted by topical social content. While anticipating the Enlightenment tragedies of the 18th century, Racine, even in his biblical dramas, remained true to the principles of his poetics: verisimilitude and economy of artistic means. His language as well is marked by a noble simplicity.

Racine’s last works were his Cantiques spirituels (1694) and Abrégé de l’histoire de Port-Royal (published 1742). A major poet of classicism, he had an immense influence on classical writers both in France and abroad. His work remained important during the French Revolution.

Most of Racine’s tragedies were translated into Russian in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The role of Phèdre became one of the main roles of E. S. Semenova. Racine’s tragedies were praised by A. S. Pushkin and A. I. Herzen. In 1921, in a new translation by V. Ia. Briusov, Phèdre was presented by the Moscow Kamernyi Teatr, with A. G. Koonen in the leading role.

WORKS

Oeuvres, vols. 1–5. Paris, 1931.
Oeuvres complètes. Preface by P. Clarac. Paris [1969].
Théâtre complet. Paris, 1963. [Text established, prefaced, and annotated by M. Rat.]
In Russian translation:
Soch., vols.1–2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1937.
Fedra. Translated by V. Briusov; foreword by G. Boiadzhiev. Moscow-Leningrad, 1940.
Sutiagi. Leningrad-Moscow, 1959.

REFERENCES

Mokul’skii, S. Rasin. Leningrad, 1940.
Grib, V. R. “Rasin.” In his book Izbr. raboty. Moscow, 1956.
Shafarenko, I. “Zh. Rasin.” In Pisateli Frantsii. Moscow, 1964.
Lemaître, J. Jean Racine. Paris [1908].
Vossler, K. J. Racine. Munich, 1926.
Mornet, D. J. Racine. Paris, 1944.
Bonzon, A. La Nouvelle Critique et Racine. Paris, 1970.
Eigeldinger, M. La Mythologie solaire dans l’oeuvre de Racine. Geneva, 1970.
Roubine, J. J. Lectures de Racine. Paris, [1971].
Turnell, M. J. Racine: Dramatist. London [1972]. (Contains bibliography.)
Pocock, G. Corneille and Racine: Problems of Tragic Form. London-New York, 1973. (Contains bibliography.)

I. L. FINKEL’SHTEIN