I write as a novice, an initiate into Racine’s imaginative world, and I enter with just enough French to feel how ill-suited it is for the temperament of my Anglo-expectations. I have, for quite a long time, known the two obvious things to say about Racine, but only recently started to work out why they matter, and how they can explain the difference of Racine and Shakespeare, without awarding supreme laurels, and how they can make sense of what it means to say that English literature has no equivalent of Racine.
The obvious statements are:
- Racine writes in a highly decorous, elevated language; words deem common are debarred, and those words that are admitted perform in a register that soars above the quotidian whinge of discourse.
- Racine’s characters are addled by secrets, desires and schemes that cannot be spoken; the plot of the plays serves to bring these characters into such proximity with one another, in time as well as place, that their suppression must break down.
The first is the most difficult for English readers because when we think of decorum (in its normative, ideological sense) we immediately and solely consider its social function: guarding against riff-raff, against those who cannot play by the rules of the elite. It is possible, with English precedents in mind, to grant that the decorous magnifies characters and, by denying the currency of the commonplace, implies also that they act on a historical stage of their own, one that cannot be reduced to the small acts of everyday kindness and contempt.
Both aspects of decorum are present in Racine’s courtly language; he writes for the greatest of all French courts and aspires to a language as far removed from reality as that court; he writes for a Parnassus that transcends history; he writes characters who grandeur is real and essential to their identity, who really do stand and move and speak on a stage that Louis XIV may have wished to have been believed to be standing and moving and speaking upon.
But that would not be enough to explain Racine, to appreciate what the French must appreciate when they praise his literary power; the fact that he could do what he did for and in the reign of Louis is a fantastic achievement, but does not provide grounds for comparing Racine with other authors, from other cultures and eras, who had no equivalent political and historical burden. That comparison requires that Racine be appreciated for how his plays justify, on their own terms, the decorum that they achieve.
Hence what is perhaps as obvious a third proposition about Racine, showing the unity of the first two:
3. In Racine’s plays, decorum is psychology.
The decorous pressure on language, a pressure to exclude and permit, to measure and restrict, is concurrent with the pressure that character’s feel to repress and silence, to guard and hide. The plays are about what cannot, must not, be said, and the force of unsayable extends to the playwright as well as the characters; it conditions the entire world in which the characters operate.
By such an account, Racine can be thought a distinctly modern dramatist: the true life of the characters is behind or beyond the words, and it is for the actor to retrieve and communicate that life, those secrets and hopes and desires that cannot be spoken. Except that in Racine, the characters speak abundantly about their condition: the weight of secrecy and suppression makes up the majority of their conversation. Their speech is in the service of disburdening themselves not of what cannot be said but of the fact that something cannot be said, of the presence of limits that must not be transgressed.
In different plays, the limits differ. Whereas Phedre is a locus of illicit desires, in Athalie, the limits of speech revolve around the sacred: not only the secrecy of conspirators and guilt of Athalie’s past, but also the silence of God, which must be obliquely interpreted, and, related, the boundaries of the sacred, which cannot be violated without penalty. (Decorum there is theological as we as psychological).
The situation is totally otherwise in Shakespeare. In the comedies, identity is often suppressed, but the threat of revelation is made to feel a promise, and the proximity of characters with secrets is never intensified and isolated as in Racine (it maybe could not be, in comedy). In the tragedies, the two relevant points of comparison might be Hamlet and Othello. In the former, Hamlet imposes a rule of secrecy upon himself, and spends much of the play expressing, confusingly to those around him, that he is obeying that rule. But nobody else, not Gertrude or Claudius, does the same, however conflicted Gertrude’s mind might be. Think how much grander, and imposing, a figure Hamlet would have struck had Racine written his tragedy. In Othello, the final scenes, and the scene of the Willow Song especially, feel near to Racine in the weight of silence that is upon them–in the sense that, as in the denouements of Racine’s tragedies, even when everything is out in the open, no relief can come, no additional words or explanation can make a difference, fate having already been decided, and tragically decided, by the characters themselves (the critic Mary Reilly observes of Racine: “the cathartic effect afforded by revelation of oppressive secrets is painfully lacking…confession intensifies rather than attenuates antagonisms”; confession erects, she says, new barriers of silence). But in Shakespeare’s Othello, that fatalism towards words themselves, the suppression of language owing to the inability of language to redeem or change what has been revealed, is expressed through the sudden fall of quiet over the play, the silences between Desdemona and Emilia; in Racine we would find instead speeches of wonderful intensity attesting to the new unspeakable presences that confessions, discoveries, or realizations have birthed. In another Othello, Verdi’s Otello, however, something nearer Racinian tragedy is heard in the excruciatingly moving aria of the Willow Song, and in the singing that continues through those final scenes.
It would be absurd to think that Racine’s decorous avoidance of common words (like the “Knife” that Samuel Johnson thought spoiled Macbeth’s finest speech) could be a direct reflection of his characters’ inability to speak their desires or plans; it is not as if Phedre’s talking about the need to use the toilet would be a confession of illicit love. But so intense a decorum follows a logic of self-policing and strict measure that is entirely at one with, and symptomatic of, the plays’ characters’ psychology. As a consequence, the length of the speeches in the plays, which might, by modern standards, be thought to weaken the expression of repression and shame, has the opposite effect: the more characters speak, the more they reveal and press against the limits of shame and propriety, and the more they suffer under the burdens. Mary Reilly contrasts the confessional act of Racine with the confessional act of Freudian psychoanalysis: there is no cathartic or revelatory speech-therapy in Racine; there is only the continued instantiation of limits of speech, reinforced recognition that there is much that cannot be said, even after everything apparently has been said–at least if one is to preserve one’s identity, to remain in the world–which is why decorum is broken by the silence of death.
In English, Pope’s and Dryden’s decorum serves satire and philosophy; it isolates and diminishes its targets, or it enlarges and ridicules. In Racine, when most tragic, decorum isolates and diminishes the speaker, as well as enlarging the sense of shame and guilt that they feel (the extremes to which ridicule, no longer laughing, might go). When most triumphant and celebratory (Athalie providing a touchstone), decorum acknowledges the precariousness of what has been one, serves as a reminder of the cost of victory, and testifies to the continued presence of the unspoken and unspeakable, sacred and profane, psychological and theological.