By Jean Baptiste Racine
Translated by Robert Bruce Boswell
JEAN BAPTISTE RACINE, the younger contemporary of Corneille, and his rival for supremacy in French classical tragedy, was born at Ferte-Milon, December 21, 1639. He was educated at the College of Beauvais, at the great Jansenist school at Port Royal, and at the College d'Harcourt. He attracted notice by an ode written for the marriage of Louis XIV in 1660, and made his first really great dramatic success with his "Andromaque." His tragic masterpieces include "Britannicus," "Berenice," "Bajazet," "Mithridate," "Iphigenie," and "Phaedre," all written between 1669 and 1677. Then for some years he gave up dramatic composition, disgusted by the intrigues of enemies who sought to injure his career by exalting above him an unworthy rival. In 1689 he resumed his work under the persuasion of Mme. de Maintenon, and produced "Esther" and "Athalie," the latter ranking among his finest productions, although it did not receive public recognition until some time after his death in 1699. Besides his tragedies, Racine wrote one comedy, "Les Plaideurs," four hymns of great beauty, and a history of Port Royal.
The external conventions of classical tragedy which had been established by Corneille, Racine did not attempt to modify. His study of the Greek tragedians and his own taste led him to submit willingly to the rigor and simplicity of form which were the fundamental marks of the classical ideal. It was in his treatment of character that he differed most from his predecessor; for whereas, as we have seen, Corneille represented his leading figures as heroically subduing passion by force of will, Racine represents his as driven by almost uncontrollable passion. Thus his creations appeal to the modern reader as more warmly human; their speech, if less exalted, is simpler and more natural; and he succeeds more brilliantly with his portraits of women than with those of men.
All these characteristics are exemplified in "Phaedre," the tragedy of Racine which has made an appeal to the widest audience. To the legend as treated by Euripides, Racine added the love of Hippolytus for Aricia, and thus supplied a motive for Phaedra's jealousy, and at the same time he made the nurse instead of Phaedra the calumniator of his son to Theseus.
CHARACTERS THESEUS, son of Aegeus and King of Athens. PHAEDRA, wife of Theseus and Daughter of Minos and Pasiphae. HIPPOLYTUS, son of Theseus and Antiope, Queen of the Amazons. ARICIA, Princess of the Blood Royal of Athens. OENONE, nurse of Phaedra. THERAMENES, tutor of Hippolytus. ISMENE, bosom friend of Aricia. PANOPE, waiting-woman of Phaedra. GUARDS.
The scene is laid at Troezen, a town of the Peloponnesus.
SCENE I HIPPOLYTUS, THERAMENES
HIPPOLYTUS My mind is settled, dear Theramenes, And I can stay no more in lovely Troezen. In doubt that racks my soul with mortal anguish, I grow ashamed of such long idleness. Six months and more my father has been gone, And what may have befallen one so dear I know not, nor what corner of the earth Hides him. THERAMENES And where, prince, will you look for him? Already, to content your just alarm, Have I not cross'd the seas on either side Of Corinth, ask'd if aught were known of Theseus Where Acheron is lost among the Shades, Visited Elis, doubled Toenarus, And sail'd into the sea that saw the fall Of Icarus? Inspired with what new hope, Under what favour'd skies think you to trace His footsteps? Who knows if the King, your father, Wishes the secret of his absence known? Perchance, while we are trembling for his life, The hero calmly plots some fresh intrigue, And only waits till the deluded fair— HIPPOLYTUS Cease, dear Theramenes, respect the name Of Theseus. Youthful errors have been left Behind, and no unworthy obstacle Detains him. Phaedra long has fix'd a heart Inconstant once, nor need she fear a rival. In seeking him I shall but do my duty, And leave a place I dare no longer see. THERAMENES Indeed! When, prince, did you begin to dread These peaceful haunts, so dear to happy childhood, Where I have seen you oft prefer to stay, Rather than meet the tumult and the pomp Of Athens and the court? What danger shun you, Or shall I say what grief? HIPPOLYTUS That happy time Is gone, and all is changed, since to these shores The gods sent Phaedra. THERAMENES I perceive the cause Of your distress. It is the queen whose sight Offends you. With a step-dame's spite she