Tuesday, 8 June 1999

Jean Racine: Britannicus (1669)

Translation: John Cairncross (1967)
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 268

For the title character of a play, Britannicus has very little to do; his words and actions do not influence the development of the plot. It is his very existence, his relationships with the other characters (mostly familial determined at birth), which drive the play; he is a sort of passive centre.

The key to the real historical events retold (more or less) in Britannicus is the succession to the Roman Emperor Claudius on his death by poisoning. Britannicus is his young son, but under the influence of his third wife Agrippina Claudius had adopted her son Nero as his heir - a move that signed his death warrant. Now, Nero is on the throne, though his mother holds the real power. As Nero begins to try to take over power for himself, his true monstrous nature begins to come through. The birth of this monster is what principally interests Racine.

In order to emphasise this interest, to make it clear to the audience, Racine invents a character who acts as a catalyst to the events of the play. The young girl June is a minor member of the royal family; she and Britannicus fall in love. But then Nero abducts her, at first to prevent her marriage to Britannicus but then because of his own lust for her. This leads to several scenes in which he enjoys a sort of psychological sadism: he allows June and Britannicus to meet in the palace, he himself remaining a hidden witness known to June but not Britannicus. On pain of severe imperial displeasure with Britannicus, he forces June to pretend that her love has died and that she is now indifferent to him.

Two other characters deserve mention. Nero's mother worked hard to gain the throne for him, persuading Claudius to adopt him, and then becoming a murderer for his sake. She is now becoming appalled at what Nero is turning into, though it is not quite clear whether it is the dishonourable nature of Nero's actions or the fact that she is being pushed out of her position of power which makes her feel this way. There are also hints of an unnatural relationship between mother and son, at least an attraction even if this hasn't been consummated. She certainly dotes on him, and this has not only blinded her to his true nature until the abduction of June but has encouraged its development.

The other character is the imperial slave, Narcissus, who is engaged throughout the play in a covert power struggle to gain influence over Nero at Agrippina's expense. He also works to diminish the legacy left by those close to Nero in the past, such as his former tutor Seneca, now in exile. He constantly urges Nero to acts which will increase his control over the Emperor, countering those who want Nero to act with honour. He plays on Nero's burgeoning paranoia, to urge the murder of Britannicus which climaxes the play.

Britannicus is Racine's detailed examination of the sees of a character of insane depravity; not a common type and not one familiar to audiences used to the Baroque, aristocratic style of Corneille. (There are several dismissive references to the older playwright in Racine's preface to the play.) Nero was perhaps a slightly dangerous subject for a drama in the absolute monarchy that was Louis XIV's France, but the differences in the situations of the two monarchs probably helped the king to miss any references - intended or otherwise - to himself. (Racine was a supporter of the king against the privileges of the aristocracy in general, so no such reference is likely to have been intended.) Louis XIV would probably have felt that he was much more the sort of monarch that tutors like Seneca had tried and failed to produce in Nero.

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