Born: La Ferte-Milon, France, 22 December 1639. Education: Educated by Jansenists at Convent of Port Royal, Paris; College d’Harcourt, Paris, 1658-59; studied theology with his uncle at Uzes, Languedoc, 1661-63. Family: Married Catherine de Romanet in 1677; five daughters and two sons. Career: Moliere’s troupe performed his first two plays at the Palais Royal, Paris, 1664; broke with Moliere q.v., 1665; plays produced at the Hotel de Bourgogne, Paris, 1667-77; wrote no plays 1677-89; wrote his last two plays for the girls’ school at Saint-Cyr, patronized by Madame de Maintenon; appointed historiographer (with Boileau) by Louis XIV, 1677. Member: Academie frangaise, 1673. Died: 21 April 1699.
Oeuvres completes, edited by Paul Mesnard. 8 vols., 1865-73,revised edition, 10 vols., 1885.
Oeuvres completes, edited by Raymond Picard. 2 vols., 1950-52.
Complete Plays, translated by Samuel Solomon. 2 vols., 1967.
Oeuvres completes, edited by Jacques Morel and Alain Viala. 1980.
La Thebaide; ou, Les Freres ennemis (produced 1664). 1664; edited by Michael Edwards, 1965; as The Fatal Legacy, translated 1723; as The Theban Brothers translated by Samuel Solomon, in Complete Plays, 1967.
Alexandre le grand (produced 1665). 1666; edited by M. Hawcroft and V. Worth, 1990; as Alexander the Great, translated by J. Ozell, 1714; also translated by Samuel Solomon, in Complete Plays, 1967.
Andromaque (produced 1667). 1668; edited by R.C. Knight and H.T. Barnwell, 1977; as Andromache, 1675, several subsequent translations, including by Kenneth Muir, 1960, Richard Wilbur, 1982, and Douglas Dunn, 1990; as The Distressed Mother, 1712; as "1953": A Version of Racine’s Andromaque, translated by Craig Raine, 1990.
Les Plaideurs (produced 1668). 1669; as The Litigants, translated by J. Ozell, 1715; also translated by W.R. Dunston, 1928; as The Suitors, translated anonymously, 1862; also translated by Irving Brown, 1871.
Britannicus (produced 1669). 1670; edited by Philip Butler, 1967; as Britannicus, 1714; several subsequent translations, including by Kenneth Muir, 1960, and C.H. Sisson, with Phaedra and Athaliah, 1987; translated by Robert David MacDonald, 1998.
Berenice (produced 1670). 1671; edited by W.S. Maguinness, 1929, C.L. Walton, 1965, and L. Lejalle, 1971; as Titus and Berenice, translated by Thomas Otway, 1677; also translated by John Masefield, 1922; several subsequent translations as Berenice, including by Kenneth Muir, 1960, and John Cairncross, 1967; translated by R.C. Knight, 1999.
Bajazet (produced 1672). 1672; as The Sultaness, translated anonymously, 1717; as Bajazet, translated by V.M. Martin, 1964; also translated by Alan Hollinghurst, 1991.
Mithridate (produced 1673). 1673; as Mithridates, translated by Howard Davis Spoerl, 1926.
Iphigenie (produced 1674). 1675; as Achilles; or, Iphigenia in Aulis, 1700; as The Victim, 1714; as Iphigenia, 1861; several subsequent translations including by R.C. Knight, 1982.
Phedre (produced 1677). As Phedre et Hippolyte, 1677; edited by J.L. Barrault, 1946; as Phaedre and Hippolytus, 1756; several subsequent translations as Phaedra, including by Bernard D.N. Grebanier, 1958, Richard Wilbur, 1986, and C.H. Sisson, with Britannicus and Athaliah, 1987; as Phedra, translated by Robert David MacDonald, 1985; as Racine’s Phaedra, translated by Derek Mahon, 1996; in a new version by Ted Hughes, 1998.
L’Idylle de lapaix, music by Lully (produced 1685). 1685.
Esther (produced 1689). 1689; as Esther, 1715.
Athalie (produced 1691). 1691; edited by Peter France, 1966; as Athaliah, 1722; as Athalia, translated by R.C. Knight, in Four Greek Plays, 1982; and C.H. Sisson, with Britannicus and Phaedra, 1987; as Athalie, translated by Kenneth Muir, 1960.
Five Plays (includes Andromaque; Britannicus; Berenice; Phedre; Athatie), translated by Kenneth Muir. 1960.
Three Plays (includes Andromache; Britannicus; Phaedra), translated by George Dillon. 1961.
Iphigenia; Phaedra; Athaliah, translated by John Cairncross. 1963.
Jean Racine: Andromache and Other Plays, translated by John Cairncross. 1967.
Four Greek Plays (includes Andromache; Iphigenia; Phaedra;Athaliah), translated by R.C. Knight. 1982.
Britannicus; Phaedra; Athaliah, translated by C.H. Sisson. 1987.
La Nymphe de la Seine. 1660.
Ode sur la convalescence du Roi. 1663.
Cantiques spirituels. 1694.
Campagne de Louis XIV, with Boileau. 1730; as Eloge historique du Roi, Louis XIV, 1784.
Poesies sacrees. 1914.
Poesies, edited by Gonzague Truc. 1936.
Poesies religieuses inconnues. 1954; as Confessions: Unpublished Sonnets, translated by Walter Roberts, 1956.
Abrege de l’histoire de Port-Royal. 1742.
The Classical Moment, 1947, and Jean Racine, Dramatist, 1972, both by Martin Turnell; Racine: Convention and Classicism by R.C. Knight, 1952, and Racine: Modern Judgements edited by Knight, 1969; Aspects of Racinian Tragedy by John C. Lapp, 1955, revised edition, 1964; The Art of Jean Racine by Bernard Weinberg, 1963; Racine’s Rhetoric, 1965, and Racine: Andromaque, 1977, both by Peter France; Racine; or, The Triumph of Relevance by Odette de Mourgues, 1967; Racine: Myths and Renewal in Modern Theatre by Bettina Knapp, 1971; Racine by Lucien Goldman, 1973; Corneille and Racine: Problems of Tragic Form by Gordon Pocock, 1973; Racine: A Study by Philip Butler, 1974; Racine, ”Britannicus” by Will Grayburn Moore, 1975; Jean Racine by C. Abraham, 1977; Racine’s Theatre by W.J. Cloonan, 1977; Toward a Freudian Theory of Literature, with an Analysis of Racine’s "Phedre" by Francesco Orlando, 1978; Racine by Philip John Yarrow, 1978; The Mannerist Aesthetic: A Study of Racine’s Mithridate by Michael O’egan, 1980; Racine’s La Thebaide: Political, Moral, and Aesthetic Dimensions by Robert L. Myers, 1981; The Tragic Drama of Corneille and Racine: An Old Parallel Revisited by H.T. Barnwell, 1982; Jean Racine: Meditations on his Poetic Art by Norah K. Drown, 1982; Racine, Phedre by J.P. Short, 1983; Dramatic Narrative: Racine’s Recits by Nina C. Ekstein, 1986; Racine’s Berenice by James J. Supple, 1986; Illusions and Erkenntnis in Racine’s Phedre by Astrid Bernhard, 1988; Britannicus by John Campbell, 1990; Racine, Mithridate, 1990, and Racine: Appraisal and Reappraisal, 1991, both by Henry Phillips; Racine: A Theatrical Reading by David Maskell, 1991; Word as Action: Racine, Rhetoric and Theatrical Language by Michael Hawcroft, 1992; Racine: The Limits of Tragedy by Richard Parish, 1993; Racine: Athalie by J. Dryhurst, 1994; In the Grip of Minos: Confessional Discourse in Dante, Corneille, and Racine by Matthew Senior, 1994; Racine: Phedre by E.D. James and G. Jondorf, 1994; La gloire: The Roman Empire of Corneille and Racine by Louis Auchincloss, 1996; Towards a Cultural Philology: Phedre and the Construction of ”Racine” by Amy Wygant, 1999; Jean Racine Revisited by Ronald W. Tobin, 1999; Racine: The Power and the Pleasure, edited by Edric Caldicott and Derval Conroy, 2001.
Probably France’s greatest tragic playwright, arguably its best dramatic poet, and certainly the writer who observed the rules of the neo-classical drama with the greatest ease and success, Jean Racine is rightly regarded as the perfect embodiment of the French genius for psychological analysis and the accurate use of language. He solved the problem of how to write a play which conformed to the three unities of time, place, and action by the simple device of taking an emotional situation at the very moment it is about to explode. In his first great success, Andromaque (Andromache), it is the arrival of Orestes to demand that Pyrrhus hand over Hector’s son Astyanax to the Greeks that sets the tragedy into motion, and it is wholly convincing that, within 24 hours, Orestes himself should then kill Pyrrhus at the instigation of Hermione and go mad, while Hermione herself commits suicide, and the widowed Andromache is left in sole command at Epirus. For beneath the perfect finish of his 12-syllable Alexandrines—Racine wrote out his plays in prose before putting the final version into verse—there is an immensely powerful world of violent, passionate emotions, and it is the contrast between this primitive world and the classical form of his plays that has made Racine one of the most admired and studied of all French 17th-century authors.
Like the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, Racine had strong links with the belief system known as Jansenism, and seems to have shared the neo-Augustinian view that man was an irredeemably fallen creature who was doomed to damnation unless saved by the gratuituous intervention of a Divine Grace which he could do nothing to deserve by his own efforts. The eponymous heroine of his most famous play, Phedre (Phaedra), seems in this respect almost the epitome of the sinner who wishes to be virtuous but is refused the Grace which alone makes this possible, and the fact that Racine gave up writing for the profane theatre after 1677 has been interpreted as a sign that it was his own spiritual anguish and feelings of guilt that inspired this play. The continuity and intensity of his appeal to a 20th-century audience nevertheless lies more in the wider metaphysical overtones of Jansenist theology, and the edifying Christian plays that he wrote on his return to the theatre, Esther and Athalie, strike a rather strange note on the modern stage. His vision of mankind as unable to control or escape its destiny, doomed to destruction in an absurd universe in which the only sign of the Gods is their remorseless cruelty, has obvious associations with Sartre or Beckett, though his plays are far superior theatrically to anything in French other than the very best of Corneille or Moliere, His female roles, especially, offer some of the best acting parts in the whole classical repertory, and Aldous Huxley’s remark about the ”somewhat featureless males who serve as a pretext to their anguish” does not really fit the demands and potentialities of roles such as Pyrrhus in Andromache, Acomat in Bajazet, or Thesee in Phaedra.
As a man, Racine seems to have had little of the humanity and generosity of spirit which made Moliere so attractive, and he was as ruthless in promoting his own career as he was scathing in his remarks about his rivals. There is also something odd about a man who created the most passionate tragic heroines in French literature but who married a woman who never went to the theatre and is said never to have read a single one of his plays. The apparently effortless perfection of Racine’s versification is partially explicable by the fact that he wrote the second line of each rhyming couplet first in order to avoid any impression of artificiality, but may also be linked to his excellence as a classical scholar. He was unusual among French 17th-century writers in reading the Greek dramatists in the original, and the atmosphere of ”Jansenist perdition” so frequently detected in his plays might equally well stem from the influence of Euripides, the classical playwright whom he most admired. His own aesthetic was very much based on classical models, and only one of his tragedies— Bajazet, which takes place in Turkey—has a contemporary setting. He himself justified this by arguing that distance in space could compensate for proximity in time. Among his other plays, only the comedy Les Plaideurs (The Litigants) takes place in the 17th century, and he fully accepted the classical notion that we ”see the heroes of tragedy with a different eye” because they are so far away from us in time.
The celebrated parallel with Corneille enshrined in La Bruyere’s comment that ”Corneille depicts men as they should be, Racine as they are” can also be explained by historical reasons. By the time Racine began his career, the self-confident and turbulent nobility depicted in Corneille’s earlier tragedies had been defeated in the civil war of the 1650s known as La Fronde and domesticated into the court life at Versailles. There, they tended to fill their enforced leisure by the analysis of their own amorous intrigues, and were thus ready to appreciate the detailed account that Racine provided of political impotence coupled with intense if frustrated passion. Much of the 19th century’s enthusiasm for Racine stemmed from this view of him as a superb analyst of the human heart, though he was naturally also used in the defence of Classicism against Romanticism as the embodiment of the classical writers of moderation, rationality, and verisimilitude as contrasted with ”vigorous barbarism” of Shakespeare. The vision of Racine as a periwig-pated practitioner of the duller literary virtues did much to hinder an appreciation of his work in England and America, though it should be said that no other great French writer loses more in translation. From a deliberately limited, conventional vocabulary, less than 2,000 words, he produces the most extraordinary poetic effects, and no playwright has depicted sexual aggression and sexual jealousy with greater accuracy and force. While the English reader will find him inferior to Shakespeare in the narrowness of his range, abstention from speculation, and reluctance to depict the complexity of human life, compensation can be found in the concentration of his vision, unity of aesthetic creation, and constant attention to the emotions immediately under analysis.