Tuesday, 13 April 1999

Jean Racine: Phaedra (1677)

Translation:  John Cairncross, 1963
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 239

Phaedra was Racine's last play before his return to the Catholic church (he wrote another pair of plays, on Biblical stories, much later in his life despite his involvement with the Jansenists, who strongly condemned the stage). His story here is based on Greek myth, the source of several of his plays, and (like Iphigenia) covers the same ground as a play by Euripides, in this case Hippolytus. Theseus, King of Athens, has been married twice, first to the Amazon Hippolyta, mother by him of a son Hippolytus, and then to Phaedra, daughter of Minos King of Crete and Pasiphaë. Pasiphaë was a daughter of the sun god Helios and mother of the monstrous Minotaur through her unnatural passion for a bull.

Phaedra believes she has a hereditary tendency toward unnatural love, through the hatred of the goddess Venus for her mother (Racine uses Venus rather than the Greek Aphrodite). This is confirmed in her mind when she begins to experience an incestuous and adulterous passion for her stepson. When she approaches him and is rejected, her maid accuses him before his father of having a passion for her, and this brings about his death.

The character of Phaedra is Racine's main interest in the story. She feels unable to help herself, but is horrified by her desire for Hippolytus - in fact, she is almost driven mad by the guilt she feels. The speeches in which she expresses this are a major part of what made writers like Proust admire Racine; there are several points in Remembrance of Things Past in which Proust's narrator goes to the theatre to see famous actresses perform these scenes out of context.

While the psychological study of Phaedra is interesting and very poetically expressed, her character rather overbalances the play. Hippolytus in particular suffers, being given few lines that are more than conventional.

Phaedra epitomises a Jansenist believe that grace, the forgiveness of sins, could not be earned or bought, but was apportioned by God to some and not to others as he saw fit: this is a fairly severe form of predestination. Phaedra is a study of the sinful soul denied grace by God. Since the setting of the story forces God to be represented by the Greek pagan gods, rather than the God of the Roman Catholic Church, there is a slight problem in doing this. The Greeks never assigned absolute moral purity to any of their gods, and this makes Phaedra's situation less tragic than that of a similarly placed Catholic would be.

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