Friday, 5 June 2015

Phèdre by Jean Racine.

Phèdre et Hippolyte by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1802).
This week for the Deal Me In Challenge I read Racine's Phèdre (originally titled Phèdre et Hippolyte; 1677), a play I have been meaning to read for a few years now since learning that it partly inspired Émile Zola's The Kill (1872). It is partly based on Hippolytus by Euripides (428 B.C.) and Seneca's Phaedra (54 A.D.), as well as having various references to Virgil and Plutarch. 

N.B. This post contains spoilers.

The play begins with a short speech from Hippolytus vowing to find his father Theseus:
It is decided. I will go from here,
Leave this agreeable shore, Theramenes,
And leave Troezene. With everything in doubt
I am ashamed to be doing nothing.
It is six months since I saw my father,
I do not know what has befallen him,
Nor even where his dear head may lie.
He reveals not that he wishes to leave to find his father, but also because of persecution from his stepmother Phaedra (referred to by Theramenes, the tutor of Hippolytus, as "A dangerous stepmother"), and a desire to escape from the charms of Aricia (who is featured in Virgil's Aeneid): "If I hated her I would not run away". 

Their conversation is then interrupted by Œnone, Phaedra's nurse, who tells Hippolytus,
Who has more reason than I to be disturbed?
Oh my lord, the queen is on her death-bed.
Night and day I spend myself watching her;
She is dying in my arms and will not say why.
Her mind is eternally in disorder.
Her bed cannot hold her in her restless grief.
She must be in the light; in her great pain
She will have me keep everyone away...
As Phaedra approaches, Hippolytus leaves: "I must be off / So that she does not see a face she hates." Phaedra and Œnone are left alone and Phaedra expresses her grief,
I am mad! Oh, where am I?
What have I said? My mind is wandering.
Gone then! the gods have left me desolate.
Œnone, my face is covered with blushes;
You can see what I suffer from too clearly;
Do what I will, my eyes fill with tears.
Œnone tries to reason with her, and tries to gain her confidence, and eventually Phaedra succumbs in an exchange almost identical to that in Euripides' play:
Pʜᴀᴇᴅʀᴀ: Now you will hear the full horror.
I love... I tremble and shiver at the name.
I love...
Œɴᴏɴᴇ: Who?
Pʜᴀᴇᴅʀᴀ: You know the Amazon's son,
This prince I have for so long oppressed.
Œɴᴏɴᴇ: Hippolytus! Great gods!
Pʜᴀᴇᴅʀᴀ: It was you who named him.
Œɴᴏɴᴇ: Just heavens! All my blood runs cold, it freezes.
Despair! Crime! A deplorable race!
Why did we come here? Shores of ill omen,
Were we obliged to make this fatal journey?
Phaedra then explains her love, full of conflict and confusion as though this love embodied within her is independent: what is revealed by the Chorus, Artemis, and Aphrodite in Euripides' play is more subtly revealed in Racine's, through the speech of his mortal characters, not gods, goddesses, or witnesses. She wishes to die, however stops her plans for suicide when she is told by her lady in waiting that Theseus is dead. Her "fortune changes",
For by his death Theseus has cut the bonds
Which made a crime, a horror, of your passion.
You have less to fear now from Hippolytus;
It is not culpable to see him now.
Convinced of your aversion, it is possible
He will consent to lead the sedition.
Put him right, and make his courage falter.
He is king here, Troezene falls to him,
But he knows that the law will give your son
The superb ramparts that Minerva built.
Both of you have a natural enemy:
You should combine against Aricia.
In Act II, Hippolytus goes to Aricia and frees her (she is a princess of the royal house of Athens and its sole survivor, kept prisoner by Theseus). In these first scenes of the Act, the two reveal their love for each other, however they are interrupted by Phaedra who arrives purportedly to defend her child's right to the throne, however she tells Hippolytus of her love for him, imagining him fighting the Minotaur instead of Thesus):
What would I not have done for that charming head?
A thread would not have been enough for me:
I should have wanted to go first;
If Phaedra had been with you in the labyrinth
She would either have stayed with you or perished.
Hippolytus is horrified and rejects her, later telling Theramenes "I have become a horror to myself". Theramenes then tells him of a rumour that Theseus is still alive so they leave to discover the truth. Meanwhile, Phaedra is left to contemplate. She tells Œnone that she hopes that Hippolytus will change his mind, "Perhaps it was the surprise that made him silent", and Œnone tries to deter her, reminding her "his mother was a savage" and "He has a savage hate for the whole sex". Left alone, Phaedra addresses Venus (Aphrodite in Euripides' play):
O you who see to what shame I have sunk,
Implacable Venus! am I low enough?
You cannot push your cruelty any further.
Your triumph is complete: every dart went home.
Cruel goddess, if you look for fresh glory,
Attack an enemy who will rebel against you.
Hippolytus is running away now;
Braving your anger, he has ignored your altars
And he has always treated your name with scorn.
Goddess, take your revenge: your cause is mine.
Make him be in love... 
Her thoughts are interrupted: Œnone returns with news that Theseus is in fact alive. He enters and greets his wife who rejects him, saying "I am not fit to please you or come near you". Feeling abashed, Hippolytus leaves too and Theseus is ultimately left with Œnone who tells him that Phaedra has been raped by Hippolytus, "her furious lover". He confronts Hippolytus who denies the claim, telling him he is in love with Aricia. Theseus does not believe him and he invokes Neptune (Poseidon in Euripides' play). When he tells Phaedra of Hippolytus' love for Aricia she does not deny that Hippolytus raped her.

In the fifth and final act Aricia tells Theseus he is wrong about Hippolytus. Later, Panope tells Theseus Œnone has drowned herself and Phaedra's behaviour is yet more erratic: 
I do not know what the queen is planning,
My lord, but fear the worst. She is agitated,
And I have never seen her so despairing;
There is a deathly pallor on her face.
Already Œnone, dismissed in disgrace,
Has thrown herself into the depths of the sea.
Nobody knows why she has so acted;
And now she has gone from us we shall never know.
Theseus then realises that Hippolytus is innocent, but it is too late - the die is cast. Neptune has had his revenge - as with Hippolytus a bull emerges from the sea and kills him. Phaedra poisons herself: 
I have taken, I have set in my burning veins
A poison which Medea brought to Athens.
Already it is working in my heart
And on my heart it casts an unknown chill;
Already I can see only mistily
The heavens and the husband I outraged;
And death, stealing the light from my eyes,
Restores the purity of the day they sullied.
Theseus, on witnessing her death, then vows to care for Aricia as though she was his daughter.

And so ends Phèdre.

The Death of Hippolytus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1860).
It's been very interesting to read this play after reading Hippolytus by Euripides. I do think I might not have enjoyed Phèdre quite so much had I not. Racine's interpretation of the myth is fascinating and enjoyable, but my heart very much belongs to Euripides on this one. Phaedra seemed less of a victim in Racine, which is partly down to the absence of Artemis and Aphrodite. Her fate is in the hands of these gods, however she is too quite conniving and manipulative in her desperation. Racine said himself in the preface,
Phaedra is, actually, neither altogether guilty nor altogether innocent. She is committed by her fate, and by the wrath of the gods, to an illicit love, the horror of which she is the first to feel. She makes every effort to overcome up. She would rather die than admit it to anyone. And when she is forced to reveal it, she speaks of it in a confusion which makes it clear that her crime is a punishment from the gods rather than a motion of her own will.
The difference is Racine's Phaedra did not herself accuse Hippolytus of rape as Euripides' Phaedra did in her suicide note. Yet, somehow, Euripides' Phaedra is a more compelling character. Her fear and desperation felt more real in Euripides than Racine, but, as I said, I did still enjoy Racine very much, and I'm glad I've finally read it, too, after all these years.

On an entirely different note, I must make this observation: I've been blogging here for about a year and a half and have in that time written about 170 reviews, and this is the very first piece I've written about by an author whose surname begins with an "R". Being as surnames beginning with "R" in general are hardly rare, I thought this quite strange and worthy of remark!


  1. This is a very nice posting. I recall from my college days -- when I read a lot of plays -- that I was fascinated by French neoclassicism and the ways in which the playwrights re-imagined and sometimes improved upon classic models. When I encountered Phaedre, I became a big fan of French neoclassicism. Your posting was a wonderful reminder that I ought to reread Racine one of these days.

    BTW, like the scorched phoenix, Beyond Eastrod remains alive!

    1. Thanks RT. This is my first French play, and I'm interested to see that it's not the only one based on the old classic plays of the Greeks and Romans. Definitely something I'd like to explore!

      And glad Beyond Eastrod is still going! :)


Popular Posts of the Year