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Racine: From Ancient Myth to Tragic Modernity

Mitchell Greenberg
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    A study of all of the major tragedies of Jean Racine, France’s preeminent dramatist—and, according to many, its greatest and most representative author—Mitchell Greenberg’s work offers an exploration of Racinian tragedy to explain the enigma of the plays’ continued fascination. Greenberg shows how Racine uses myth, in particular the legend of Oedipus, to achieve his emotional power.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7055-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. A Note on Text and Translations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction. Spectacle, Myth, Sacrifice: Racinian Tragedy and the Origins of Modernity
    (pp. 1-25)

    Traditionally, the seventeenth century is seen as the apogee of both France’s political and aesthetic hegemony in Europe. With the exhaustion and collapse of Spain’s military and economic dominance and despite the unparalleled prosperity of the merchant republic of the Netherlands, France, under the leadership first of the Cardinal de Richelieu and then of Louis XIV, becomes the dominant power on the continent. The supremacy of France as a military power is buttressed, as we know, by the harnessing of the creative forces of the nation—the poets, painters, playwrights, architects—into the artistic celebration of the French monarchy. While...

  6. 1 La Thébaïde: Politics and Monstrous Origins
    (pp. 26-52)

    Although we know that Racine toyed with the idea of writing his own version of Sophocles’Oedipus Tyrannus, the closest he ever came to any direct refashioning of the myth of the Labdacids was his first, derivative, “unsuccessful” tragedy,La Thébaïde ou les frères ennemis.¹ Racine chooses to tackle “le sujet le plus tragique de l’Antiquité” (the most tragic theme of the Ancient)² obliquely rather than head-on. The subject ofLa Thébaïde, the impossibility of polity and the impossibility of family—the two are inextricably interwoven—represents an irresolvable crisis of culture left in Oedipus’s wake. The father has disappeared...

  7. 2 Andromaque: Myth and Melancholy
    (pp. 53-88)

    Although the success ofLa Thébaïdewas modest and the reception ofAlexandretepid at most, such was not the case forAndromaque.¹ With the possible exception of Corneille’sLe Cid, no other play of the seventeenth century was greeted with as much public enthusiasm asAndromaque. WhileLa Thébaïderemained heavily indebted to the prevailing dominion of Corneillean dramaturgy,Andromaquestrikes a decidedly innovative note in the orchestration of classical tragedy. Racine knew that his first theatrical triumph introduced onto the French stage a new type of hero (“gallant”) and a novel form of tragedy.² Despite the difference between...

  8. 3 Britannicus: Power, Perversion, and Paranoia
    (pp. 89-118)

    The whirlwind of madness that envelops Oreste in the final scene ofAndromaqueis the last depiction of insanity on the classical stage. Oreste’s hallucinations, his visions of Pyrrhus, Hermione, and the bloodthirsty Furies pursuing him, are met with his thrashing attempts to ward them off. Pylade and his companions rush him off the stage, ending the tragedy and leaving the audience with this final image of the defeat of reason: a hero undone by his passion. After this hallucinatory finale where delirium seems the only adequate response to so great a political and amorous loss, madness will no longer...

  9. 4 Bérénice, Bajazet, Mithridate: Oriental Oedipus
    (pp. 119-163)

    AfterBritannicusRacine writes three tragedies that, however different each is from the others, however dissimilar in time, cultural settings, and geographic locations, are all related, it seems to me, by what appears to be a common politico/ideological drive: each in its own (tragic) way traces through the sexualization of its political plot the tenuous but necessary triumph of an idealized Western (Christian) monarchy over an Oriental (barbarian/Muslim) despotism. It is perhaps in this new turn that Racinian tragedy, seemingly having strayed from its anchoring in Greek mythology, reconfigures the social prejudices of Hellenic patriarchy in new scenarios where Oedipus...

  10. 5 Iphigénie: Sacrifice and Sovereignty
    (pp. 164-196)

    The story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is, Racine tells us, the most renowned of all the ancient myths. Nothing is “plus célèbre dans les Poètes que le Sacrifice d’Iphigénie” (more famous in the Bards than the sacrifice of Iphigenia).¹ Rising thus to the challenge of competing not only with the great ancients but more specifically with the most tragic of Greek playwrights, Euripides, Racine’s version of the legend—adapted from Euripides’Iphigenia in Aulisand produced for the first time at Versailles during the festivities marking Louis XIV’s return from the triumphant Dutch campaign in 1674—can be said almost to...

  11. 6 Phèdre (et Hippolyte): Taboo, Transgression, and the Birth of Democracy?
    (pp. 197-225)

    Phèdreis generally considered Racine’s greatest, most searing tragedy. Despite their different critical, theoretical, or ideological approaches, most modern commentators agree thatPhèdrerepresents the apogee of French neoclassical tragedy; it stands as the culmination of Racine’s oeuvre.¹ At the same time the play stands out as quite possibly the single most symbolic achievement in the annals of French literature. Few works can rivalPhèdre’s place in the French canon, and few have the quasi mythical/mystical relation to French culture as this last profane tragedy of Racine. Racine himself, we are told in the biography penned by his son Louis,...

  12. 7 Esther, Athalie: Religion and Revolution in Racine’s Heavenly City
    (pp. 226-248)

    One of the great mysteries in Racine’s career is his apparent decision, afterPhèdre, to abandon the theater. Many explanations have been offered to justify this sudden silence. For some, his having finally attained a position at court for which he had employed his poetic genius and that now satisfied his careerist ambitions meant that he no longer had any reason to continue his theatrical vocation.¹ For others, a religious conversion or rather a reconversion to his Jansenist origins turned Racine definitively away from the theater, which was, as we know, fervently condemned by Port-Royal. Finally, for yet others, Racine...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 249-282)
  14. Index
    (pp. 283-288)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 289-289)