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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

It was known that Racine was engaged on Phedre


hostilities culminated two years later. It is commonly said that Racine wrote in the conventional and courtly taste of his own day. In reality his presentation of tragic passions in their terror and their truth shocked the aristocratic proprieties which were the mode. He was an innovator, and his audacity at once conquered and repelled. It was known that Racine was engaged on _Phedre_. The Duchesse de Bouillon and her brother the Duc de Nevers were arbiters of elegance in literature, and decreed that it should fail. A rival play on the same subject was ordered from Pradon; and to insure her victory the Duchess, at a cost of fifteen thousand livres, as Boileau declares, engaged the front seats of two theatres for six successive evenings--the one to be packed with applauding spectators, the other to exhibit empty benches, diversified with creatures who could hiss. Nothing could dignify Pradon's play, as nothing could really degrade that of Racine. But Racine was in the highest degree sensitive, and such a desperate plot against his fame might well make him pause and reflect.

_Phedre_, like _Iphigenie_, is a new creation from Euripides. Its singular beauty has been accurately defined as a mingling of horror and compassion, of terror and curiosity. It is less a drama than one great part, and that part consists of a diseased state of the soul, a morbid conflict of emotions, so that the play becomes overmuch a study in the pathology of passion. The

greatness of the role of the heroine constitutes the infirmity of the play as a whole; the other characters seem to exist only for the sake of deploying the inward struggle of which Phedre is the victim. Love and jealousy rage within her; remorse follows, for something of Christian sentiment is conveyed by Racine into his classical fable. Never had his power as a psychologist in art been so wonderfully exhibited; yet he had elsewhere attained more completely the ideal of the drama. In the succession of his profane masterpieces we may say of the last that it is lesser than the first and greater. _Phedre_ lacks the balance and proportion of _Andromaque_; but never had Racine exhibited the tempest and ravage of passion in a woman's soul on so great a scale or with force so terrible.

The cabal might make him pause; his own play, profoundly moralised as it was, might cause him to consider. Events of the day, crimes of passion, adulteries, poisonings, nameless horrors, might agitate his spirit. Had he not fed the full-blown passions of the time? What if Nicole's word that playwrights were public poisoners should be true? Probably various causes operated on the mobile spirit of Racine; certainly the Christian, of Jansenist education, who had slumbered within him, now awakened. He resolved to quit the world and adopt the Carthusian habit. The advice of his confessor was that he should regulate his life by marriage. Racine yielded, and found his contentment in a wife who was ignorant of his plays, and in children whose inclinations and training were religious. The penitent was happy in his household, happy also in his reconciliation with Nicole and Arnauld. To Boileau he remained attached. And he did not renounce the court. Was not the King the anointed vicegerent of God, who could not be too much honoured? He accepted, with Boileau as fellow-labourer, the position of the King's historiographer, and endeavoured to fulfil its duties.

Twelve years after his withdrawal from the theatre, Racine, at the request of Madame de Maintenon, composed his Biblical tragedy of _Esther_ (1688-89) for her cherished schoolgirls at Saint-Cyr. The subject was not unaptly chosen--a prudent and devout Esther now helped to guide the fortunes of France, and she was surrounded at Saint-Cyr by her chorus of young daughters of Sion. _Esther_ was rendered by the pupils, with graceful splendours, before the King, and the delight was great. The confidante of the Persian Queen indeed forgot her words; at Racine's hasty complaint the young actress wept, and the poet, weeping with her, wiped away her tears.

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