Thursday, 10 June 1999

Jean Racine: Berenice (1670)

Translation: John Cairncross (1967)
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 269

Like Britannicus, Berenice is based on actual events that took place in the first century Roman Empire. It is derived from the Roman historian Suetonius, and was rather neatly (and famously) summarised by Victor Hugo relating the five acts to clauses of a sentence from Suetonius: Titus | Reginam Berenicem | invitus | invitam | dimisit (Titus | Queen Berenice | he unwilling | she unwilling | he sent away).

Berenice is a fairly domestic play with three essential characters, all friends. It is their position as monarchs which brings the element of tragedy to their lives, but the tragedy is expressed through discussion and argument rather than violence and passion. Cairncross expresses in the introduction to his translation the view that the lack of violence is one reason why Berenice was less successful than most of Racine's other mature plays, both at the time and for a considerable period afterwards. It is a restrained play, which perhaps prefigures some of the naturalistic ideas of Ibsen and Chekhov.

The three main characters are the Judean Queen Berenice, the Roman Emperor Titus and Antiochus, king of the Black Sea state of Commagene. As a vassal of Rome, Antiochus fought under Titus and his father Vespasian in the war to put down the Jewish revolt; that is where the two men met Berenice and where they both fell in love with her.

The three are now in Rome, where Titus has just become Emperor on his father's death. He is about to marry Berenice, only to be brought up short by the Roman dislike of foreigners, the specific law against marrying a non-Roman, and the many historical precedents enshrined in the history of the Republic where people have sacrificed their personal happiness for the good of the state, a history that Titus has been brought up to revere. So Titus feels that if he is to continue as Emperor, he must reject his personal happiness with Berenice, and he feels that it is his sacred duty to rule the Empire.

Meanwhile, Antiochus is on the point of returning home, feeling that his unrequited love for Berenice has no hope while the whole city talks of her impending marriage to the favoured Titus. Honour is important to him too, and he has suffered through being unable to act on his love for Berenice when he is the trusted friend of both her and Titus. But this is nothing to his feelings when Titus, unable to bring himself to face Berenice with the news that he has decided not to marry her, asks him to tell he on his behalf as a friend.

The other characters in the play, all attendants on one or other of the principals, exist mainly to suggest alternatives to their actions and to encourage them. The major part of the virtually actionless play consists of discussion and heart-searching by the three of them; it is a play for those interested in personalities.

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