382. (Jean Racine)

In approaching Racine’s Iphigénie and Phèdre , I’ll take seriously Aristotle, whose critical philosophy has special import for the French dramatist:

But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character…Again, if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents. Besides which, the most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy- Peripeteia or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes- are parts of the plot. A further proof is, that novices in the art attain to finish of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot. It is the same with almost all the early poets.

I quote this passage to, at least initially, steer a wide berth around the most noticeable aspect of Racine’s art: the stringent decorum of his language, a diction so “pure” as to outdo any corresponding efforts in English. Instead, I want to attend to what in Racine can and should survive translation: the incidents, and the plot, and the action. Racine, who is, because of his decorum, his strict couplets, his acidic concision, so difficult to translate, should survive translation, if Aristotle’s account of the Greek tragedies that Racine emulated and creatively adapted is in fact accurate.

Aristotle, however, not only gives license for reading Racine in translation, but also provides the grounds for considering two crucial questions about how to ‘place’ Racine: how he differs from Shakespeare and how he differs from Euripides? In the answer to the former, I’m shutting myself off from the possibility of replying “decorum,” and think the answer will largely depend on his similarity to Euripides—but that in turn pushes me to the second question, how he differs from the Ancient Tragedians whose plots he modifies. I want to answer these questions in terms of action, rather than language, though the distinction cannot be maintained, since the action is known in the language, and the language is a response to action. More specifically, I would like to suggest five areas of focus: the hypnotic presence of the future in the plays; the intimate, inner awareness (and presence) of gods; glory, the state, and the universe; and the meta-theatrical awareness of the past-in-the-present (the historical present); and finally, the ambivalence of silence. These five distinguish Racine from Euripides, but in a direction that pulls him away from Shakespeare, too, so that the three authors can be imagined as points on an obtuse triangle, with Shakespeare and Racine occupying the distant ends of the hypotenuse.

In the past I’ve stumbled through the French, never with sufficient fluency and always hindered from seeing the action; this time, I read John Cairncross’ translation of Iphigenie and Phedre, finding both “good enough,” taut and unstrained in diction, rapid in rhythm, elevated in speech without losing the cadence or breaking the sinews of English.

1) The ambivalence of silence.

This is probably the most obvious, but also the most fundamental facet of Racine’s design. Once again, it is helpful to invoke a triangular relationship, between the will that speaks, the will that conceals, and the will that is itself repressed in and by silence. The ambivalence of silence resides in the relationship of these last two, where silence in Racine might either be an act of will (deceit) or else a consequence of repression (involuntary, the will unable to make way); either silence threatens to undo the will that speaks, but it is also the case that they might themselves be at odds. The triangle is almost always at play, so that at a given moment, as the will affirms itself in speech, as it often does in Racine, even in apparent descriptions of circumstance, in which characters often seem to be in fact staking a claim to the nature of things, we are nonetheless asked to wonder what the spoken will conceals as well as what it reveals: the silence beneath speech is always an active presence. It is as if language in Racine always operates with two-sides of black and white, wherein the white of speech that reveals, affirms, binds, commits, and claims, necessarily has another side of dark silence, to which it might suddenly turn, and which is obscure even to the characters. Because of the triangular relationship, the question we must ask when we read Racine is not just, “what is not being said, what is being concealed through suppression,” but “what is not being said, and is it not being said because of suppression or repression, or both, in the sense that some of the silence is suppression but something else is silent owing to repression.” This is a source, I think of psychological depth in Racine; it is quite different from Euripides, for whom silence is not repression, though it extends the indeterminacy of Euripides, found in the binaries of man/god, nature/law, pity/terror, fate/luck, frequently blurred, to speech/silence and to within silence itself, so that speech is also always silence and silence is always potentially of two kinds. It is, most importantly, very different from Shakespeare, where there is something like speech all the way down, so that speech, and not silence, does the work of repression, suppression, misdirection, concealment, and revelation all at once. There are, I realize, exception; the silence of Desdemona in the scene before her death (her song is itself a refusal to speak) is probably the greatest one and comes near to what I am describing. But in general, this is a key difference between Racine and Shakespeare.

Il sort. Quelle nouvelle a frappé mon oreille ?

Quel feu mal étouffé dans mon coeur se réveille ?

Quel coup de foudre, ô ciel ! et quel funeste avis !

Je volais toute entière au secours de son fils.

Et m’arrachant des bras d’Oenone épouvantée,

Je cédais au remords dont j’étais tourmentée.

Qui sait même où m’allait porter ce repentir ?

Peut-être à m’accuser j’aurais pu consentir,

Peut-être si la voix ne m’eût été coupée,

L’affreuse vérité me serait échappée.

Hippolyte est sensible, et ne sent rien pour moi !

Aricie a son coeur ! Aricie a sa foi !

Ah dieux ! Lorsqu’à mes voeux l’ingrat inexorable

S’armait d’un oeil si fier, d’un front si redoutable,

Je pensais qu’à l’amour son coeur toujours fermé,

Fût contre tout mon sexe également armé.

Une autre cependant a fléchi son audace.

Devant ses yeux cruels une autre a trouvé grâce.

Peut-être a-t-il un coeur facile à s’attendrir.

Je suis le seul objet qu’il ne saurait souffrir.

Et je me chargerais du soin de le défendre !

The ambivalence of silence is at its most acute pitch in Phedre, and the great twist of the knife in Hippolytus’ back comes when Oenone makes Phaedra’s silence about her feelings seem deception of one sort, when they are in fact both willful deception and involuntary repression of another: she will not reveal the truth of what she feels, but she also cannot will herself to do so. But Theseus’ accusation and interpretation of Phaedra’s silence is itself ringed around by silence, which the translator brings (too neatly?) to the surface by turning the declarative statements that end the speech in Racine’s original into unanswerable rhetorical questions:

Ah ! Qu’est-ce que j’entends ? Un traître, un téméraire

Préparait cet outrage à l’honneur de son père ?

Avec quelle rigueur, Destin, tu me poursuis !

Je ne sais où je vais, je ne sais où je suis.

Ô tendresse ! Ô bonté trop mal récompensée !

Projet audacieux ! détestable pensée !

Pour parvenir au but de ses noires amours,

L’insolent de la force empruntait le secours.

J’ai reconnu le fer, instrument de sa rage,

Ce fer dont je l’armai pour un plus noble usage.

Tous les liens du sang n’ont pu le retenir !

Et Phèdre différait à le faire punir !

Le silence de Phèdre épargnait le coupable !


What do I hear? A reckless libertine

Conceived this outrage on his father’s name?

How harshly you pursue me, destiny.

I know not where I am, whither I go.

O son! O ill-rewarded tenderness!

Daring the scheme, detestable the thought.

To gain his lustful and nefarious ends,

The shameless villain had resort to force.

I recognized the sword he drew on her,

That sword I gave him for a nobler use.

Could all the ties of blood not hold him back?

Phaedra was slow in bringing him to book?

In keeping silent, Phaedra spared the knave?

The questions either cannot be answered (concealment by others) or they will not be answered, even though Theseus knows the answer himself. Her silence becomes his silence; and Theseus’ rage at the play, so momentously, suddenly, and entirely directed against his son, without any question of the veracity of the story, itself bespeaks an astonishing silence. We might ask “but surely he would want to know more,” unless we realize that he is not saying something of his doubts, or that he would rather trust in the speech because the ambivalence of what might not have been said would leave him too uncertain and isolated to act. After all, it is action that Theseus craves, in this instant, and as a hero, and action is thwarted not so much by silence but as silence that might either repress or conceal, silence that invites interpretation. Silence is aligned with the refusal to act or the inability to will. When Theseus exclaims “je ne sais ou je vais, je ne sais ou je suis,” he is registering a disorientation that renders action null, and the words themselves seem to orbit tightly on themselves, not moving beyond their own sounds. What makes the absence of question marks in the French so much more effective than their presence in the English is the movement from the initial questioning, followed by this supreme self-bafflement, to the grasping at facts, allowing him to move to a final affirmation that represents an interpretation of events that insists upon itself and, in so insisting, draws attention to its inadequacies in respect to silence; its silencing its own thoughts about what silence here might mean. The English translation lacks that final conspicuous insistence, and reaches out too helplessly and vocally into the silence, when the reach into the silence of Phaedra is itself repressed or suppressed by Theseus’ words. When Phaedra fumbles into the silence of others, it is quite different:

Ah, douleur non encore éprouvée !

À quel nouveau tourment je me suis réservée !

Tout ce que j’ai souffert, mes craintes, mes transports,

La fureur de mes feux, l’horreur de mes remords,

Et d’un refus cruel l’insupportable injure

N’était qu’un faible essai du tourment que j’endure.

Ils s’aiment ! par quel charme ont-ils trompé mes yeux ?

Comment se sont-ils vus ? Depuis quand ? Dans quels lieux ?

Tu le savais. Pourquoi me laissais-tu séduire ?

De leur furtive ardeur ne pouvais-tu m’instruire ?

Les a-t-on vus souvent se parler, se chercher ?

Dans le fond des forêts allaient-ils se cacher ?

Hélas ! ils se voyaient avec pleine licence.

Le ciel de leurs soupirs approuvait l’innocence.

Ils suivaient sans remords leur penchant amoureux.

Tous les jours se levaient clairs et sereins pour eux.

Et moi, triste rebut de la nature entière,

Je me cachais au jour, je fuyais la lumière.

La mort est le seul dieu que j’osais implorer.

J’attendais le moment où j’allais expirer,

Me nourrissant de fiel, de larmes abreuvée,

Encor dans mon malheur de trop près observée,

Je n’osais dans mes pleurs me noyer à loisir,

Je goûtais en tremblant ce funeste plaisir.

Et sous un front serein déguisant mes alarmes,

Il fallait bien souvent me priver de mes larmes.


Ah! unplumbed depths of woe

For what new torments have I spared myself?

All I have suffered, jealous torments, fears,

Raging desire, the horror of remorse,

A cruel, harsh, intolerable slight,

Were a mere foretaste of my torments now.

They love each other. By what spell did they

Deceive me? How, where did they meet, since when?

You [Oenone] knew. Why did you let me be misled?

Why did you keep from me their stealthy love?

Were they seen oft exchanging looks and words?

Deep in the forests were they wont to hide?

Alas! They had the utmost liberty.

Heaven smiled upon their innocent desires.

They followed where love led them, conscience free.

For them the dawn rose shining and serene.

And I, rejected by all living things,

I hid myself from day, I shunned the light;

Death was the only god I dared invoke.

I waited for the moment of my end,

Feeding on gall and drinking deep of tears.

Too closely watched, I did not even dare

Give myself up in freedom to my grief.

Trembling, this baleful pleasure I enjoyed

And, cloaking with a feigned calm my woes,

Was often driven to forego my tears.

There are four parts to this speech, all variously relating to silence. In the first part, until “They love each other,” Phaedra looks into the abyss: all that she has suffered, all that she could not speak until she faced the “refus cruel” that was the final blow, was nothing till now, “N’était qu’un faible essai du tourment que j’endure.” It is a witness account of what she did not say, and now must undergo in silence again, and we recognize that in such an intensity there was both conscious deliberation to say nothing and also an inability, helpless beneath her feelings, to say anything at all. What can she now except “ils s’aiment,” as if she cannot or will not look inward. In the second part of the speech, she moves from wondering at how she could not have seen to accusing Oenone of intentional silence: silence is the root of her woe, and so she displaces it onto her servant, who must have forgone speaking the truth:

….pouvais-tu m’instruire ?

Les a-t-on vus souvent se parler, se chercher ?

Dans le fond des forêts allaient-ils se cacher ?

Hélas ! ils se voyaient avec pleine licence.

Le ciel de leurs soupirs approuvait l’innocence.

Ils suivaient sans remords leur penchant amoureux.

Tous les jours se levaient clairs et sereins pour eux.


Why did you let me be misled?

Why did you keep from me their stealthy love?

Were they seen oft exchanging looks and words?

Deep in the forests were they wont to hide?

Alas! They had the utmost liberty.

Heaven smiled upon their innocent desires.

They followed where love led them, conscience free.

And here she moves from asking why Oenone did not speak (“instruire”) to imagining how Oenone’s silence concealed accounts of their words (“souvent se parler”), to imagining, more terrifying yet, in the third part of the speech, a scene of their joint bliss without words, dallying in the clear light, free to be together without speech at all (they only sigh “soupirs”); it is a (to her) horrifying idyllic reversal of her own experience of silence, which crashes down when she turns back to herself in the fourth and final part of the speech. In that part, their speechless open-air amours are contrasted with her silent cowering in a cave, her only speech to invoke (“implorer”) death. Her silence became an all-encompassing obscurity: a retreat from the world so total that even the visible signs of her grief would not be seen. She was forced even to forgo the tears that she drank (“de larmes abreuvee… me priver de mes larmes”). The speech is astonishing for how it simultaneously stands within and without silence, examining it with detachment, but also silent as to what presses most keenly on her: what she can do next. In reflecting on silence, it is silent as to what she can do or even wants to do now, and in the next moments, she confronts the future, recognizes that her words are a silence on the crucial question of action (“Even as I speak, ah cruel, deadly thought!”). But is that silence a matter of choice or is it because she cannot act, cannot bring herself to recognize her helplessness? The scene ends with her yielding herself to fate, with declaring an end to the possibility of action.

In Iphigenie there is a similar conflation of speech and sight, when Iphigenia accuses Eriphile of loving Achilles:

Yes, false-hearted one!

That very raging fury you describe,

Those arms you saw streaming with blood, the dead,

Lesbos, the torch, the ashes—by these things

Your love for him is graven on your soul,

And, far from hating this grim memory,

You still delight to talk to me of it.

Already, in your frequent forced laments,

I should have seen, I saw, your inmost thoughts,

But, always too indulgent, I replaced

The blindfold that I had at first removed.


Oui vous l’aimez, Perfide.

Et ces mêmes fureurs que vous me dépeignez,

Ses bras que dans le sang vous avez vus baignés,

Ces morts, cette Lesbos, ces cendres, cette flamme,

Sont les traits dont l’amour l’a gravé dans votre âme,

Et loin d’en détester le cruel souvenir,

Vous vous plaisez encore à m’en entretenir.

Déjà plus d’une fois dans vos plaintes forcées

J’ai dû voir, et j’ai vu le fond de vos pensées.

Mais toujours sur mes yeux ma facile bonté

A remis le bandeau que j’avais écarté.

Vous l’aimez. Que faisais-je ?

She should have seen, and she did see; she should have heard, and she did hear, the silence that was there; she should have heard her own voice saying what she heard in the silence of Eriphile; she did hear her own voice, but she stifled it, as Eriphile herself stifled her own, or did not stifle it sufficiently, either because the concealment was obvious, or should have been obvious, or because she did not know what she was stifling; but she will be blamed nonetheless. And Iphigenia’s final question leads to the next point:

2) The orientation towards the future.

Here I do not think Racine differs much from Euripides, but does differ from Shakespeare; both Iphigenie and Phedre are situated on a sort of littoral, a beachhead where the swell of the past crashes and where characters must look ahead. And the unity of each play depends on the shared awareness that something is about to happen, that their acting as they do in the subsequent hours or days, will itself be crucial elements in a larger action; that their next actions might allow for them to start a new action, broken free from the past, or transforming the past, but that they are on a point of novelty of some kind. This is the Aristotelian unity found in Euripides and Racine: a unity of action coming into itself, which reaches a conclusion unintended, and undesired, by any of the participants. The contrast with Shakespeare is clear, not because Shakespeare’s characters do not look to the future, but because Racine’s characters look ahead incessantly; and there is at least one difference from Euripides which is that, by abolishing the chorus (which he revived in Athalie) in these plays, Racine removes also the element of Euripides that interrupts the steadfast future gaze of characters acting. Shakespeare’s plan and plot and aspire, but they also reminisce, and the tension of the tragedies often comes from one character’s inability to look forward, or from one character looking forward while others refuse to do so; there is a greater conflict of temporalities. In Racine’s great tragedies, everyone, every character looks ahead, towards an end of action; the conflict emerges because those ends do not coincide.

But having said that this orientation is very much Euripidean, it gives rise to an introspective intensity that is modern as Shakespeare is, and on these occasions, as when Agamemnon resolves to not sacrifice his daughter, the effect is quite distinct from either Shakespeare or Euripides; as in Shakespeare, he assesses a current state of affairs, but as in Euripides, the deliberation is urgently forward-facing, the need to act, and resolve to act, even if action is impossible, overwhelming all else:

What shall I do? Can I

Pronounce the order for this bloody deed?

For what a battle must I gird myself?

Who is this foe delivered up to them?

A mother waits for me, undaunted, to

Defend her child against my murderous hand.

I’ll see my soldiers, less unkind than I,

Who will respect the daughter of their king.

Achilles threatens and despises us.

But does my daughter bow the less to me?

In seeking to escape the sacrifice,

Does she bemoan the blow I mean to strike?

Nay, what can this mad sacrilege achieve?

What vows can prosper, immolating her?

Whatever glorious prizes beckon me,

Can laurels please me sprinkled with her blood?

I seek to move the power of heaven supreme?

What gods can be more cruel than myself?

I cannot do it. Friendship, kinship win.

Let us not blush if pity’s justified.

She’ll live. But how! Must I, unmindful of

My rank, let proud Achilles triumph thus?

His headstrong pride will now be reinforced.

He’ll think my yielding is through fear of him.

But in what petty cares am I embroiled?

Can I not curb Achilles’ recklessness?

Then let my daughter irritate his pride.

He loves her. She will live for someone else.

Eurybates. Summon the princess. Call

The Queen. They’ve nought to fear.


Que vais-je faire ? Puis-je leur prononcer cet ordre sanguinaire ?

Cruel ! À quel combat faut-il te préparer !

Quel est cet ennemi que tu leur vas livrer !

Une mère m’attend, une mère intrépide,

Qui défendra son sang contre un père homicide.

Je verrai mes soldats, moins barbares que moi,

Respecter dans ses bras la fille de leur Roi.

Achille nous menace, Achille nous méprise.

Mais ma fille en est-elle à mes lois moins soumise ?

Ma fille, de l’autel cherchant à s’échapper,

Gémit-elle du coup dont je la veux frapper ?

Que dis-je ? Que prétend mon sacrilège zèle ?

Quels voeux en l’immolant formerai-je sur elle ?

Quelques prix glorieux qui me soient proposés,

Quels lauriers me plairont de son sang arrosés ?

Je veux fléchir des Dieux la puissance suprême ?

Ah ! Quels dieux me seraient plus cruels que moi-même !

Non, je ne puis. Cédons au sang, à l’amitié,

Et ne rougissons plus d’une juste pitié.

Qu’elle vive. Mais quoi ? Peu jaloux de ma gloire

Dois-je au superbe Achille accorder la victoire ?

Son téméraire orgueil, que je vais redoubler,

Croira que je lui cède, et qu’il m’a fait trembler.

De quel frivole soin mon esprit s’embarrasse ?

Ne puis-je pas d’Achille humilier l’audace ?

Que ma fille à ses yeux soit un sujet d’ennui.

Il l’aime. Elle vivra pour un autre que lui.

Eurybate, appelez la princesse, la Reine.

Qu’elles ne craignent point.

Where the English has “Nay!,” it misses out on the moment of wonderful sudden self-consciousness, where the speech seems most akin to Shakespeare: “Que dis-je?” What am I saying? He asks himself that because in his calculation he has pondered whether Iphigenia might not go to the altar and be sacrificed without much complaint. The force of that question comes from its being an interruption of the present in what is otherwise an incessantly helpless straining towards consequence—insisting on finding the point of resolve, which he does.

3) The State, Glory, The Universe

In neither Euripides nor Shakespeare do we find what I suspect to be a trinity of concepts in Racine. There is, first and foremost, the very French appeal to The State. In Phedre, it surges to significance during the stretch of the play when Theseus is assumed to be dead. Oenone advises the queen:

Ainsi dans vos malheurs ne songeant qu’à vous plaindre,

Vous nourrissez un feu, qu’il vous faudrait éteindre.

Ne vaudrait-il pas mieux, digne sang de Minos,

Dans de plus nobles soins chercher votre repos,

Contre un ingrat qui plaît recourir à la fuite,

Régner, et de l’État embrasser la conduite ?

“Should you not aspire to…reign, and embrace the guidance of the State?” The tragedy is never really about the State, but the State is all around the Tragedy; it is significant most of all because it is rejected by all of the characters, except Theseus, as being a secondary concern. It’s easy to lose sight of what an enormous rejection that might be. It is not just the family or the city-state of Athens that we are supposed to hear, but something that was, at the time of Racine’s writing, coming into being in France, and that required sovereign leadership. Underneath the plays, there is an awareness of sovereignty that cannot, for historical reasons, be found in Euripides or Shakespeare. It is more powerfully invoked as a force weighing on Agamemnon’s mind early in Iphigenie, and it is easier to feel its weight exerted there throughout the play. He recalls how, upon receiving Calchas’ prophecy that Iphigenia must be sacrificed, he staggered, only to have Ulysses pull him up with a reminder of his public duties:

Ulysse en apparence approuvant mes discours,

De ce premier torrent laissa passer le cours.

Mais bientôt rappelant sa cruelle industrie,

Il me représenta l’honneur et la Patrie,

Tout ce peuple, ces rois à mes ordres soumis,

Et l’Empire d’Asie à la Grèce promis.

De quel front immolant tout l’État à ma fille,

Roi sans gloire, j’irais vieillir dans ma famille !

In the French, Ulysses’ words, as Agamemnon recalls them, ring with cruel irony: “With what affrontery sacrifice all of the State to my daughter!” The State as person; the state as requiring the sacrifice of persons.

The other relevant word here is of course “gloire.” I don’t have much to say about it except that it exists alongside Euripides’ honor and fame in these plays, a third notion that partakes of both, that is instead something like an aura that glows around some. One should act honorably in all circumstances, but glory cannot be had except at certain times, with certain opportunities, and it is essential for sovereignty. It is most associated with martial triumphs, and victory, as honor is not. Hence in Phedre:

Ô toi ! qui vois la honte où je suis descendue,

Implacable Vénus, suis-je assez confondue ?

Tu ne saurais plus loin pousser ta cruauté.

Ton triomphe est parfait, tous tes traits ont porté.

Cruelle, si tu veux une gloire nouvelle,

Attaque un ennemi qui te soit plus rebelle.

I will come back to this speech, for its brazen and revealing “tu,” but also because it supposes that even the gods want glory. It figures, that is, in how we imagine the future; having a future, growing old as Ulysses figures forth Agamemnon potentially doing, is not enough; a future ringed with glory is to be sought.

The State and Glory amplify notions in Euripides and Shakespeare: they give special pointedness to sovereignty and honor, so that kingdoms, nations, sovereign power, rule, etc, and honor and fame, are now middle levels of a pyramid that is otherwise incomplete. Something similar happens with “universe” / “l’universe.” It appears only three times in Phedre and not at all in Iphigenie, but is, I think, nonetheless symptomatic, since we find the word “world” only once in the former and not at all in the latter. The scarcity of both is no doubt interesting but the sense of “l’univers” in Phedre especially so. Here is an instance:

Madame, avant que de partir,

J’ai cru de votre sort vous devoir avertir.

Mon père ne vit plus. Ma juste défiance

Présageait les raisons de sa trop longue absence.

La mort seule bornant ses travaux éclatants

Pouvait à l’univers le cacher si longtemps.

Where “world” appears, it is when Oenone complain that Phaedra asks her to “banish the world.” The word though is here social, not geographical. In Montaigne, for instance, the geographical instance is alive, and it is also alive this way in Pascal’s Pensees. The word “universe” is also present in the latter, revealingly: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” And more interesting still because it brings the two words together: “A thinking reed.—It is not from space that I must seek my dignity, but from the government of my thought. I shall have no more if I possess worlds. By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; by thought I comprehend the world.” Racine is not Pascal (though they are both associated with Port-Royal), but his refusal to use “world” (appearing only the once in Phedre and not at all in Iphigenie) in favor of “universe” is striking and perhaps can be illuminated by the French polymath. It has to do, I think, with not just the immensity but the oppositional otherness, the inhuman detachment, that the word suggests. “Monde,” as in the second quotation from Pascal, and as the social sense of the word (the “world of fashion” etc) makes clear, has been subsumed by, or reconciled to, human thought and existence as “universe” has not. And this leads to the fourth point:

4) The gods.

Here, I will return to Phaedra’s fantastic address to Venus:

Ô toi ! qui vois la honte où je suis descendue,

Implacable Vénus, suis-je assez confondue ?

Tu ne saurais plus loin pousser ta cruauté.

Ton triomphe est parfait, tous tes traits ont porté.

Cruelle, si tu veux une gloire nouvelle,

Attaque un ennemi qui te soit plus rebelle.

The “tu” is shocking because of its familiarity; it is supposed to convey contempt, not doubt, but also reflects what is found frequently in Racine, that the gods reside in the heart, even as they stand over humanity, distant and menacing like the Neptune to whom Theseus prays. In Euripides the gods are in modern parlance both “campy” and, in the usual sense of Tragedy, terrifying; this is their arbitrary nature. They also impose from without abruptly, as well as seizing from within, by desire, as Venus or the Cyprian seizes Phaedra. Racine does something interesting and strange with that indeterminacy in Euripides. He cannot or would not insist too much on the gods as entities of religious force and validity, but neither are we asked to think these characters are silly for worshipping them, benighted pagans etc. But that means that we are left wondering as to whether they have any efficacy at all—Neptune evidently answers Theseus’ prayers, and at that moment the god seems like another entity the hero encountered on his fantastical journey. But in that case, we are not invited to take Neptune any more seriously, or any less seriously, than the monsters in the world of the play; they are real in the plays terms. The reality of Venus here is less certain: she is within Phaedra, but also stands without her. Phaedra is both addressing herself with that “tu” and also appealing to something that cannot be herself; in one sense, she is dividing herself, but more accurately, she is refusing part of herself, refusing to see it as self, representing it as other. This is where the force of the gods needs to be taken seriously; the gods are an inhuman humanity, or humanity made inhuman, a recognition of the otherness in things. They are also, thinking in terms of my first point, crucially silent. They are spoken to but, unlike in Euripides, do not speak back. And that silence makes ambivalent not their intentions, but their status: are they presences whose silence is meaningful because it represents a determination not to speak in human languages, or are they silent because they could only speak if spoken for by humans, being nothing more than the otherness of humanity. It is not Euripides but Sophocles who comes closest to this conception of the gods, I think; the isolation of the individuals in Sophocles leaves them alone with their own divine otherness, terrifying and animalistic in its power. To clarify, I’ll return to another speech I’ve already quoted, by Agamemnon deliberating what to do next:

Je veux fléchir des Dieux la puissance suprême ?

Ah ! Quels dieux me seraient plus cruels que moi-même !

Non, je ne puis.


I seek to move the power of heaven supreme?

What gods can be more cruel than myself?

I cannot do it.

The English again misses something crucial: the repetition of “dieux” (I am not sure whether the Capitalized “D” and lowercase “d” were in an edition Racine oversaw). But it at least helps us understand what import that repetition has: the gods cannot be more cruel than he could be; he would wrest the power from the gods who move heaven; in both utterances, he is acknowledging his hubris in respect to the gods, measuring himself against them, but also substituting himself into their place, displacing himself from his humanity as it were. The gods are not mere rhetoric or historical trapping for Racine; instead, they are crucial in how he imagines humans setting themselves against, internalizing, and giving themselves over to something other than themselves. That otherness is, in Racine, at the wellspring of action, something that cannot be explained in human terms, that must be part of the explanation of humanity, and that is only knowable by humans. He makes good on Euripides’ gods; the comparison with Shakespeare would come in King Lear, but the gods there who toy with men and make them suffer as wanton boys with flies are not placed or given shape or force within humans as Racine’s gods are. Though in Phedre, the gods are less frequently invoked than in Iphigenie for obvious reasons, they are crucial to a central speech by the heroine, around line 675, during her revelatory exchange with Hippolytus:

Ah ! cruel, tu m’as trop entendue.

Je t’en ai dit assez pour te tirer d’erreur.

Hé bien, connais donc Phèdre et toute sa fureur.

J’aime. Ne pense pas qu’au moment que je t’aime,

Innocente à mes yeux je m’approuve moi-même,

Ni que du fol amour qui trouble ma raison

Ma lâche complaisance ait nourri le poison.

Objet infortuné des vengeances célestes,

Je m’abhorre encor plus que tu ne me détestes.

Les dieux m’en sont témoins, ces dieux qui dans mon flanc

Ont allumé le feu fatal à tout mon sang,

Ces dieux qui se sont fait une gloire cruelle

De séduire le coeur d’une faible mortelle.


Ah, cruel, you have understood

Only too well. I have revealed enough.

Know, Phaedra then, and all her wild desires.

I burn with love. Yet, even as I speak,

Do not imagine I feel innocent,

Nor think that my complacency has fed

The poison of the love that clouds my mind.

The hapless victim of heaven’s vengeances,

I loathe myself more than you ever will,

The gods are witness, they who in my breast

Have lit the fire fatal to all my line.

Those gods whose cruel glory it has been

To lead astray a feeble mortal’s heart.

The final four lines are self-evidently stunning, where the gods are invoked as witnesses to her feelings, residing within her, and also responsible for those feelings, able to mislead the heart where they reside. They are both psychological and cosmological; the human will is inexplicably divorced from the human, and the universe is bound more tightly within the human will.

5) The past-in-the-present, the present-in-the-past

Racine makes the gods modern without offending Christianity because they operate on an axis of concern that Christianity struggled to address: the nature of the will in relation to action. Racine’s pagans gods do not conflict with the freedom of the will any more than pagan fate conflicts with freedom of the will, they both instead interfere with, and occasionally re-direct, the ends of action; it’s only an omnipresent, omnipotent Christian God who presents a problem of whether any motion in the universe operates independently of His will (this was, as Dmitri Levitin makes clear in his latest study, a very real concern in the 17th century and Racine would have known about it). Racine uses the pagan gods to get within action and willing, to clarify how unknowable and fragmented any account of action must be, even as action knows itself to be happening; his gods are not an explanation of human action or of the human relation to the universe, but they allow for that explanation to know its limits and to communicate those limits without anxiety over other core beliefs.

The reality and force of the gods in Racine’s works is testament to his writing plays that were simultaneously ancient and modern; they are Euripides in creative translation, with improvements (I think both of these are probably improvements to the originals), but also with a recognition of a distance that dispenses with some of the Ancient apparatus, that acknowledges the modern stage and modern State. Shakespeare does not write with one foot in both times; maybe Ben Jonson sought to do so, but what makes Racine’s placement of his feet so apt is that Euripides is himself always doing the same, aware of the past he is re-writing, both validating it and renewing it, and looking at it from without, as Sophocles, say, in is Electra does not so clearly do. Racine has one foot within and one foot without texts that themselves have one foot within and one foot without. I’ll end by saying just this about Racine’s diction: that it refuses some of the grit of the contemporary, the nouns of the world, because he seeks a language that is both past and present, ancient and modern, that elevates itself above either, in order to live in both. This too is a fundamentally different sense of history from Shakespeare. It is not an attempt at timelessness, so much as an attempt at holding in mutually animating suspension two times.


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