Jean Racine

Jean Racine

Jean Racine (IPA-fr|ʒɑ̃ ʁaˈsin) (December 22, 1639 – April 21, 1699) was a French dramatist, one of the "big three" of 17th century France (along with Molière and Corneille), and one of the most important literary figures in the Western tradition. Racine was primarily a tragedian, though he did write one comedy.


Born in La Ferté-Milon (Aisne) on December 22, 1639, Racine was orphaned at the age of three or four and received a classical education courtesy of his grandmother, Marie des Moulins. He was a graduate of Port-Royal, a religious institution which would greatly influence other contemporary figures including Blaise Pascal. Port-Royal was run by followers of the Jansenist religious reform movement, which was deemed subversive by the Catholic French government. Racine's interactions with the Jansenists in his years at this academy would have great influence over him for the rest of his life. At Port-Royal, he excelled in his studies of the Classics and the themes of Greek and Roman mythology would play large roles in his future works. He was expected to study law at the College of Harcourt, but instead found himself drawn to a more artistic lifestyle. Experimenting with poetry yielded high praise from France's greatest literary critic, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux with whom Racine would later become great friends (Boileau would often claim that he was behind the budding poet's work). He eventually took up residence in Paris where he became involved in theatrical circles.

His first play, "Amasie", never reached the stage. On June 20, 1664, Racine's tragedy "La Thébaïde ou les frères ennemis" ("The Thebaide or the Enemy Brothers") was produced by Molière's troupe at the Palais-Royal Theatre. The next year, Molière also put on Racine's second play, "Alexandre Le Grand". However, this play garnered such good feedback from the public that Racine secretly negotiated with a rival play company, the Hôtel de Bourgogne, to perform the play since they had a better reputation for performing tragedies. Thus, "Alexandre" premiered for the second time, by a different acting troupe, 11 days after its first showing. Molière could never forgive Racine for his betrayal, and Racine simply widened the rift between him and his former friend by seducing Molière's leading actress, Thérèse du Parc, into becoming his companion both professionally and personally. From this point on, all of Racine's secular plays were performed by the Hôtel de Bourgogne troupe.

Though both "La Thébaide" (1664) and its successor, "Alexandre" (1665), had classical themes, Racine was already entering into controversy and forced to field accusations that he was polluting the minds of his audiences. He broke all ties with Port-Royal, and proceeded with "Andromaque" (1667), which told the story of Andromache, widow of Hector, and her fate following the Trojan War. He was by now acquiring many rivals, including Pierre Corneille and his brother, Thomas Corneille. Tragedians often competed with alternative versions of the same plot: for example, Michel le Clerc produced an "Iphigénie" in the same year as Racine (1674), and Jacques Pradon also wrote a play about "Phèdre" (1677). The success of Pradon's work (the result of the activities of a claque) was one of the events which caused Racine to renounce his work as a dramatist at that time, even though his career up to this point was so successful that he was the first French author to live almost entirely on the money he earned from his writings. Others, including the historian W.H. Lewis, attribute his retirement from the theater to qualms of conscience.

However, one major incident which seems to have contributed to Racine's departure from public life was his implication in a court scandal of 1679. He got married at about this time to the pious Catherine de Romanet, and his religious beliefs and devotion to the Jansenist sect were revived. He and his wife eventually had two sons and five daughters. Around the time of his marriage and departure from the theater, Racine accepted a position as a royal historiographer in the court of King Louis XIV, alongside his friend Boileau. He kept this position in spite of the minor scandals he was involved in. In 1672 he was elected to the Académie française, eventually gaining much power over this organization. Two years later he was bestowed the title of "treasurer of France," and he was later distinguished as an "ordinary gentleman of the king" (1690) and then as a secretary of the king (1696). Because of his flourishing career in the court, Louis XIV provided for his widow and children after his death. When at last he returned to the theatre, it was at the request of Madame de Maintenon, morganatic second wife of King Louis XIV, with the moral fables, "Esther" (1689) and "Athalie" (1691), both of which were based on Old Testament stories and intended for performance by the pupils of the school of Saint-Cyr.

Jean Racine died in 1699 from cancer of the liver. He requested to be buried in Port-Royal, but after Louis XIV had this site razed in 1710, his remains were moved to the St. Etienne-du-Mont church in Paris.


The quality of Racine's poetry is perhaps his greatest contribution to French literature. His use of the alexandrine poetic line is considered exceptional in its harmony, simplicity and elegance.

Racine's work faced many criticisms from his contemporaries. One was the lack of historic veracity in plays such as "Britannicus" (1668) and "Mithridate" (1673). Racine was quick to point out that his greatest critics- his rival dramatists- were among the biggest offenders in this respect. Another major criticism levelled at him was the lack of incident in his tragedy, "Bérénice" (1670). Racine's response was that the greatest tragedy does not necessarily consist in bloodshed and death.


As with any contributor to the Western Canon, Racine has been subjected to many generations of literary criticism. His works have evoked in audiences and critics a wide range of responses, ranging from reverence to revulsion. In his book "Racine: A Study," Philip Butler of the University of Wisconsin broke the main criticisms of Racine down by century to best portray the almost constantly shifting perception of the playwright and his works.

17th century

In his own time, Racine found himself compared constantly with his contemporaries, especially the great Pierre Corneille. In his own plays, Racine sought to abandon the ornate and almost otherworldly intricacy that Corneille so favored. Audiences and critics were divided over the worth of Racine as an up and coming playwright. Audiences admired his return to simplicity and their ability to relate to his more human characters, while critics insisted on judging him according to the traditional standards of Aristotle and his Italian commentators from which he tended to stray. Attitudes shifted, however, as Racine began to eclipse Corneille. In 1674 the highly respected poet and critic Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (also known simply as "Boileau") published his "Art Poétique" which deemed Racine's model of tragedy superior to that of Corneille. This erased all doubts as to Racine's abilities as a dramatist and established him as one of the period's great literary minds.

Butler describes this period as Racine's "apotheosis," his highest point of admiration. Racine's ascent to literary fame coincided with other prodigious cultural and political events in French history. This period saw the rise of literary giants like Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, and François de La Rochefoucauld as well as Louis Le Vau's historic expansion of the Palace of Versailles, Jean-Baptiste Lully's revolution in Baroque music, and most importantly, the ascension of Louis XIV to the throne of France.

Under Louis XIV's revolutionary reign, France rose up from a long period of civil discord (see the Fronde, or 'Slingshot Rebellion') to new heights of international prominence. Political achievement coincided with cultural and gave birth to an evolution of France's national identity, known as "l'esprit français." This new self perception acknowledged the superiority of all things French; the French believed France was home to the greatest king, the greatest armies, the greatest people, and, subsequently, the greatest culture. In this new national mindset, Racine and his work were practically deified, established as the perfect model of dramatic tragedy by which all other plays would be judged. Butler blames the consequential "withering" of French drama on Racine's idolized image, saying that such rigid adherence to one model eventually made all new French drama a stale imitation.

19th century

The French installation of Racine into the dramatic and literary pantheon evoked harsh criticism from many sources who argued against his 'perfection.' Germans like Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dismissed Racine as "höfliches Drama," or "courtly drama" too restricted by the etiquette and conventions of a royal court for the true expression of human passion. French critics, too, revolted. Racine came to be dismissed as merely "an historical document" that painted a picture only of 17th century French society and nothing else; there could be nothing new to say about him. However, as writers like Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert came onto the scene to soundly shake the foundations of French literature, conservative readers retreated to Racine for the nostalgia of his simplicity.

As Racine returned to prominence at home, his critics abroad remained hostile due mainly, Butler argues, to Francophobia. The British were especially damning, preferring Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott to Racine, whom they dismissed as "didactic" and "commonplace." This did not trouble the French, however, as "Racine, La Fontaine, or generally speaking the "chefs-d'œuvre de l'esprit humain" could not be understood by foreigners."

20th century

The 20th century saw a renewed effort to rescue Racine and his works from the chiefly historical perspective to which he had been consigned. Critics called attention to the fact that plays such as "Phèdre" could be interpreted as realist drama, containing characters that were universal and that could appear in any time period. Other critics cast new light upon the underlying themes of violence and scandal that seem to pervade the plays, creating a new angle from which they could be examined. In general, people agreed that Racine would only be fully understood when removed from the context of the 18th century.

21st century

At present, Racine is still widely considered a literary genius of revolutionary proportions. His work is still widely read and frequently performed. Marcel Proust developed a fondness for Racine at an early age, "whom he considered a brother and someone very much like himself..." — "Marcel Proust: A Life", by Jean-Yves Tadié, 1996. Racine's influence can also be seen in A.S. Byatt's tetralogy ( "The Virgin in the Garden 1978, Still Life 1985, Babel Tower 1997 and A Whistling Woman 2002"). Byatt tells the story of Frederica Potter, an English young woman in the early 1950s (when she is first introduced), who is very appreciative of Racine, and specifically of "Phedre".

Dramatic works

*La Thébaïde (1664)
*Alexandre le Grand (1665)
*Andromaque (1667)
*Les Plaideurs (1668)
*Bérénice (1670)
*Bajazet (1672)
*Mithridate (1673)
*Iphigénie (1674)
*Phèdre (1677)
*Esther (drama) (1689)
*Athalie (1691)

External links

* [ Biography, Bibliography, Analysis, Plot overview] (in French)
* [] for a philological study of the evolution of Hippolytus as a chastity paradigm in Euripides, Seneca, Racine; extensive bibliography (in Dutch)
*Racine's Works on at
*Many Full Versions of Racine's Plays on Google Books at
* [ Complete Theater to download on line ( in French)]
* [ Complete Tragedies and the Comedy to edit with statistics and powerful research ( in French)]
* [ A page on an upcoming production of "Phèdre" by Charles Di Meglio]


*Roland Barthes - "Sur Racine"
*Georges Forestier - "Jean Racine" (Gallimard, 2006) (ISBN 2070755290)
*Lewis, W.H. "The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louix XIV'.' William Sloane Associates, 1953.
*Jean Rohou - "Jean Racine : entre sa carrière, son oeuvre et son dieu" (Fayard, 1992)
*Butler, John. "Racine: A Study." London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1974.
*"Racine, Jean." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 30 Nov. 2007 .

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title= Seat 13
Académie française | years=1672–1699
before= François de La Mothe-Le-Vayer
after= Jean-Baptiste-Henri de Valincour

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