Britannicus by Jean Racine.

Britannicus is a tragedy by Jean Racine, first performed in 1669. It's also the last Racine I have on my Classics Club list; the other two plays I read appeared later, Phèdre in 1677, and Athaliah in 1691.

The play is set during 1st Century Rome when Nero was emperor; he who was remembered as a tyrant, and was thought to have started the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D. ("Nero fiddled while Rome burned"). But this is set before all of this: in this we see his mother Agrippina (the Younger), who is the widow of the Emperor Claudius, and his half-brother Britannicus, the son of Claudius and Valeria Messalina (Nero was adopted by Claudius, his father by birth was Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus). The rightful heir was Britannicus, however Agrippa's scheming meant that Nero succeeded Claudius.

In Racine's play we see Nero's true nature in anticipation of what is to come. Britannicus is in love with Junia, who reciprocates, but Nero wants Junia for himself, partly because of his competitiveness, and partly because her high status may lead Britannicus to become a threat to him. So he tells Junia he will kill Britannicus if Junia does not reject him, and for the sake of his life she complies. As this unfolds, Nero is at the same time rejecting his mother's dominance over him.

Britannicus is so called because the plot centres around him, however the focus is on the effect of his presence, his existence on Nero and Agrippina. This is a very complex play and I admire it deeply, but I think I would benefit from a second read! Time is against me this week however, but I do hope to re-read it at some point if not before the year is out then next year. It was difficult for me because of the unfamiliarity of the subject matter, but I don't think Racine's audience would have had that problem. For that reason, this would have been a fascinating glimpse into the early years of Nero's reign, and Racine audience would have been well aware of Nero's reputation and later deeds. As my own knowledge is somewhat tenuous (to put it mildly!) it was a tricky one. Nevertheless it was worth it, and however difficult I've found Racine's plays I have enjoyed them.


  1. who does nero remind me of: someone... D.T., i think. i remember thoroughly enjoying robert graves "I, claudius"; another quality read. graves has kind of a sketchy rep, but i've always enjoyed his productions. were Racine's plays considered "classical" as in the
    french manner, that is, approved by the academy, with all the characteristics of works from ancient greece and rome?

    1. DT? I can't think who you mean... (it's probably obvious and I've got a mind-blank!). I've read I, Claudius but I didn't get on so well with it - I think I'll revisit it though when I'm more familiar with the Romans.

      I'm not too sure about the reception of Racine's plays, I'm afraid, so I can't answer that. When I get to read some more of his works I'll keep that in mind and hopefully I'll be able to answer it!

    2. unreal expectations on my part: donald is his first name...

    3. Oh. HIM. :) Yes, I know him. He's quite something, from what I've read!

  2. Lytton Strachey wrote interesting comments re french drama in "landmarks of french lit"

    1. Thanks, I've found that essay online and I've bookmarked to read later :)


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