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Political Crisis in Racine’s “Phèdre” by Ainan Liu
Gary: Today’s special episode is by Ainan Liu. Ainan is a PhD candidate from the French and Italian Department at Princeton University. His research interest lies in French theater in the early modern period. His current work focuses on 17th century playwright Jean Racine’s tragedies, in particular the reinvention of his classical sources. Today Ainan guides us through perhaps the greatest work of one of France’s greatest dramatists, in a culturally uplifting and inspiring narrative.
Political Crisis in Racine’s Phèdre
Ainan: Thank you Gary for the introduction and the opportunity to come on your show. In this episode I’d like to introduce an absolute towering work of French literature that for some reason is not as widely read, or staged, among English-speaking audiences. When we think of English theater, we immediately associate it with William Shakespeare who has left behind such an influential corpus that still remains the frame of reference for daily and academic discourse. If there has to be a French equivalent of the bard, Jean Racine, the composer of Phèdre, would definitely be one of the top contenders. The connection between Racine and Shakespeare was made most notably by the Romantic writer Stendhal in his book titled, well, Racine et Shakespeare. Racine, together with Pierre Corneille and Molière, made up the triumvirate of giants of 17th century French theater, a period considered by many as the great century in French history, not least because of the celebrated Louis XIV. This greatness of Louis XIV’s reign owed much to his patronage of the arts, to which Racine contributed significantly with his tragedies. The overwhelming majority of Racine’s oeuvre is inspired by classical sources, especially Greek mythology and Roman history. They are concerned with themes and subjects that evoke the twin Aristotelian sentiments of compassion and terror, a formulation captured on the frontispiece of Racine’s contemporaneous complete works. In these plays you find representations of human weakness, noble sacrifice, and all-consuming inner struggle. And perhaps there is no other work that expresses the plenitude of Racine’s genius and imagination better than Phèdre, the masterpiece that Racine himself considers to be the best among his tragedies.
Phèdre was first performed on New Year’s Day of 1677 at the Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris. The main story and characters were inspired by two main classical sources, which are Hippolytus by Euripides from the 5th century BCE and Phaedra by Seneca from the first century CE. This is the last of Racine’s “profane” plays, which means that after Phèdre Racine focused exclusively on biblical rather than secular material. There is an interesting biographical detail about Phèdre: a three-year gap separated Phèdre from Racine’s previous play, Iphigénie. During this time the first edition of his Complete Works was published in 1675, two years before Phèdre made it incomplete again. Racine biographer Raymond Picard suggests that Racine might have at one point intended his Complete Works to be definitive and retire after Iphigénie. But aren’t we fortunate that he didn’t?
Now that the context is out of the way we can get to the meat and potatoes. Since this is the French History Podcast I’d like to depart from the usual thematic approach to literary texts and instead tell the story of Phèdre, with an emphasis on the political-dynastic dimension of the play, and how this dimension is entwined with the deeply human drama of desire, pride and guilt. I hope that by the end of this episode I will have made what has to be an imperfect attempt at capturing the three Aristotelian objectives of poetry that Racine has so masterfully accomplished: to instruct, to please, and to move.
The story takes place in Troezen in the Greek Peloponnesus. Troezen is a kind of backwater that is part of the kingdom of Athens ruled by King Theseus. The reason why the characters find themselves in Troezen is because of its remoteness from the political center of Athens. It is almost a site of exile and imprisonment. We know that Hippolytus was banished to Troezen by his stepmother Phèdre because she wanted to avoid the object of her forbidden desire. She herself eventually ended up there as well because her husband Theseus, unaware of her secret love, brought her to Troezen under Hippolytus’ protection while Theseus himself is about to go on a long trip. Aricia, Theseus’s political prisoner, is also in Troezen when the drama unfolds. Since we have already mentioned a few of the characters, let us introduce them in greater detail. On top of presenting the characters’ familial relations with one another, I’d like to also give a little background on their political lineage and how they intersect with one another because this is absolutely crucial for understanding the stakes of each of the characters’ decisions.
Theseus: This is the same philandering playboy who slew the Minotaur with Ariadne’s navigation assistance before leaving her crying her eyes out on the island of Naxos. In this play Theseus plays the role of both the head of the household and the political structure. He is the husband of Phèdre and father of Hippolytus but by another woman. Theseus inherited the kingdom of Athens from his father Aegeus, the adoptive son of king Erectheus. The fact that Aegeus was adopted is important because there is a biological son of Erectheus, Pallas, whose branch of the family, the Pallantides, represents a challenge to Theseus’s claim to the throne of Athens. To secure his legitimacy Theseus has earlier on purged all the Pallantides except one.
Aricia: Aricia is the last surviving descendant of Pallas who happens to be in Troezen at the time. Theseus, being the vindictive patriarch that he is, spared her life but condemned her to a lifetime of celibacy, forbidding anyone from marrying her, to prevent the restoration of the Pallantide line. I’d like to add here that Aricia is Racine’s own addition to the story as she does not appear in Euripides’s or Seneca’s versions. Her presence dramatically increases the political complexity of the storyline.
Phèdre: The eponymous heroine of the play is a princess from the island of Crete, the daughter of King Minos and Pasiphae. Throughout the play Phèdre claims to have inherited the curse of Venus, the goddess of love, through her mother Pasiphae. The story goes that King Minos, Phèdre’s father, received a white bull from the sea god Neptune and was supposed to sacrifice it. But he loved it so much that he decided to keep it. As a punishment Venus made his wife Pasiphae fall in love and subsequently have sexual relations with the bull. Therefore, when Phèdre is dealing with her own unspeakable desires she keeps claiming that this problem runs in the family. In the play she has a young son with Theseus. In the event of Theseus’s death this boy would have a claim to the throne of Athens. But because he is still in his minority, Phèdre would have to stand in as regent and also seek the protection of another adult male in the anarchical political climate.
Hippolytus: He is the son of Theseus by Antiope, the queen of the Amazons, a tribe of women that is known for their chastity, a virtue that Hippolytus claims to have inherited. Between the pretenders to the Athenian throne, which are Phèdre’s son, Aricia, and Hippolytus, Hippolytus has the weakest claim to the throne of Athens because his mother is a foreigner and the Greeks would not accept a king with foreign blood. That being said, Hippolytus does have a strong claim to the territory of Troezen because Pittheus, the original king of Troezen, has recognized Hippolytus as his heir. Another indication of Hippolytus’ political importance is the fact that Theseus, before he skipped town, brought Phèdre and her son to the island of Troezen to seek Hippolytus’s protection, a sign that he might be tacitly conferring the duties of caretaker king to Hippolytus as well. And this ill-fated reunion is where our story begins.
At the play’s opening Theseus is missing. We are aware that Theseus has a long history of gallivanting around the world—and underworld—leaving behind him a trail of slain monsters and broken hearts. But this does not stop Hippolytus from feeling concerned and raring to go on a search for his father. The contrast between Hippolytus and Theseus is interesting. One is a chaste youth who has lived a sheltered life and never seen the world, the other a conquering hero whose martial and amorous feats are renowned among the Greeks. There is an evident sense of anxiety within Hippolytus that he is never going to match the reputation of his father, and he may be using the search for his father as an excuse to leave Troezen and go on his own adventure. Another motivation for his departure is to avoid Aricia whom he is now in love with but is banned from marrying because of his father’s efforts to terminate the Pallantide line. Hippolytus’s instinctive reaction to love is escape, something that he claims to be the inheritance of his Amazon mother.
At the same time Phèdre confides in Oenone her nurse about her secret passions for Hippolytus. She is racked by guilt because of it, tearing her hair out, contemplating suicide, and tortured by insomnia. She continuously evokes Venus’s curse and obsessively makes sacrifices to the goddess so that she would leave her alone. Christian Biet, a scholar of French theater, makes the connection between Phèdre’s symptoms and the medical theories regarding mental illness in circulation during the seventeenth century. Because of the conflict between Phèdre’s desires and her attempts to repress them, the heat of her outward gaze turns inwards and enters the blood, devouring the veins, the heart, and the mind. Phèdre is literally burning from the inside. This is when news of her husband’s death arrives.
Since Theseus is at the apex of both the family and political system, announcing his death is like taking the lid off a boiling kettle: the underlying turbulence that has up to this point been kept under control is about to spill over. Along with the news of Theseus’s death is the fragmentation of Greek political unity. There is now a three-way succession struggle between factions supporting their respective pretenders: first, Phèdre as regent to her young son by Theseus, second, Aricia as the Pallantide heiress, and third, Hippolytus who is technically ineligible because of his foreign mother has also gathered a following. Oenone, Phèdre’s nurse cum political advisor at this point, convinces her to confess to Hippolytus if for no other reason than to secure the succession of her son. But Hippolytus was one step ahead of her in the confession game, but it was to Aricia. With Theseus presumed dead and his prohibition of Aricia’s marriage unenforceable, Hippolytus finds the courage to make his confession. This union also effectively tips the balance of the succession crisis in Aricia’s favor. So by the time Phèdre approaches Hippolytus to make her confession, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. In some of the most beautiful lines by Racine, Phèdre makes a confession both of love and of guilt. Here Phèdre veers terribly off-script: instead of tricking Hippolytus into a political alliance as per Oenone’s advice, she is overtaken by her emotions and throws herself onto Hippolytus’s sword asking to be killed for her sins. Oenone rushes in and pulls her mistress away, before offering the consolation that Hippolytus’s reticence was due to his Amazonian revulsion toward all women. In other words, “it’s not you it’s him.”
At exactly the mid-point of the play down to the line number, Theseus returns to Troezen from the dead. This shouldn’t be that surprising because in Greek mythology the realms of the dead and living are separated by a permeable border between which one could often traverse. Theseus returns to his family and kingdom that have undergone tectonic shifts and are barely recognizable from the state where he left them. Understandably, he was welcomed by everyone except his own family. Having betrayed her husband openly Phèdre is absolutely crushed by this news, as if she isn’t tormented enough already by this point. Oenone comes to the rescue again, this time suggesting that Phèdre save her own skin by preemptively accusing Hippolytus of doing what she did—attempt to cuckold Theseus. To allay Phèdre’s concerns of accusing an innocent man, Oenone offers to do the dirty work of lying to Theseus for her. Phèdre, who has pretty much given up on the entire affair by now, eventually relents and tells Oenone to do whatever she wishes.
By this point Theseus has already sensed that something is fishy. Instead of indulging his desire for affirmation and adoration Phèdre is avoiding him and Hippolytus is asking to leave Troezen. The excuse Hippolytus gave for wanting to leave is that since his caretaker duties during Theseus’s absence are over he should fly the nest and be his own man. The real reason, however, was because he could no longer stand to be in the presence of Phèdre. It does seem that the Amazonian instinct to flee in the face of erotic sentiment is acting up again. He could have told his father the truth about Phèdre at this point but he is such a good son that he couldn’t bear to embarrass his father. In comes Oenone with the slander and Theseus believes every word of it. How else can he explain Phèdre’s avoidance of him as well as Hippolytus’s impatience to escape Troezen? Theseus confronts Hippolytus and tells him to his face that the whole chastity thing is a shabby act since he has been smitten by his stepmother since the day they met. Isn’t that why Hippolytus has no interest in any other women? Hippolytus, who is as incapable of telling lies as he is ashamed to tell the truth, admits to his father that he is in love with Aricia. Talk about timing! But now Theseus would have no more of it. He is utterly convinced that Hippolytus is lying about Aricia to hide the fact of his lust for Phèdre. In his fit of anger Theseus calls in a favor from Neptune, the sea-god, to punish Hippolytus for his transgressions. But even then it was not too late for the truth to come to light. Phèdre finally comes face-to-face with her husband and begs him to spare Hippolytus. When she was just about to tell him the truth Theseus starts to rant about Hippolytus’s duplicity in lying about his love for Aricia to cover up his original crime. What? He loves Aricia? Phèdre stands dumbstruck and lets the final chance of saving Hippolytus slip away. She might have felt the prick of conscience when she summoned up the last bit of energy in her to clear Hippolytus’s name but that prick of conscience did not go far enough to pierce her jealousy. So he does feel love, just not for me. And besides, the union between Hippolytus and Aricia would almost guarantee the return of the Athenian crown to the Pallantide branch, dispossessing her son. So all the more she should encourage Theseus’s rage against the couple. How shall we then we evaluate Phèdre’s actions, or rather her inaction in clearing Hippolytus’s name? On the one hand she is acutely aware of the monstrosity of her own desire and the audience is deeply moved by the unrelenting guilt that it inflicts upon her. When she learns that Hippolytus is being punished unjustly because of her she rushes in without regard for the consequences for herself to exonerate Hippolytus. But on the other hand she still human, unable to overcome the clutches of jealousy and pride. Racine does not present characters that are angels and demons, but complex individuals full of self-contradictions, torn between opposing impulses and imperatives. Racine brings added political and personal dimensions to Phèdre’s deception of Theseus through the creative decision of inserting into the storyline Aricia, Phèdre’s double as Hippolytus’s lover. It is Aricia who eventually causes Phèdre’s frustrating hesitation at the final moment when she can still spare an innocent man’s life.
The narrative goes into overdrive at this point. Hippolytus tells Aricia that they have to leave Troezen immediately before Theseus and Phèdre catch up on them. Hippolytus has supporters in the other kingdoms of the Peloponnesus such as Argos and Sparta that would protect them while they wait to fight another day. Hippolytus, always the honorable gentleman, is thoughtful of Aricia’s reputation and proposes to marry her before they run away into the sunset. There is a temple of Diana, the goddess of the hunt and chastity, outside the gates of Troezen where they will seal the deal. Aricia will stall Theseus while Hippolytus runs ahead to arrange their nuptials and subsequent departure. Aricia protests Hippolytus’s innocence to Theseus and makes a last-ditch attempt to convince him to reverse his curse. Expectedly, she leaves the scene unsuccessful. This exchange, however, has planted a nagging doubt in Theseus’s mind. His unsettling thoughts are then interrupted by one dark revelation after another. Theseus learns that Oenone has committed suicide, a clear indictment of her culpability in the defamation of Hippolytus. Aware of his monstrous mistake, Theseus finally utters the question: Where is my son Hippolytus? Dead! replies the messenger. We get a moving account of Hippolytus’s final moments. While he is barreling down toward the gates of Troezen in his chariot to leave the corrupt world of Troezen behind, a bull-like monster rises from the sea and lunges at him. He impales it with one stroke of the javelin and the monster collapses at the feet of Hippolytus’s horses in a cloud of fire, blood, and smoke. The startled horses crash into the rocks, shattering the chariot into many pieces. Hippolytus’ lifeless body continues to be dragged over the plains, the rabid horses stopping only at the site of his royal ancestors’ tombs. In his dying breath Hippolytus tells his companions to pass a message to Theseus, that he returns to Aricia…his voice trails off. At this time Aricia passes by the wreckage on her way to the marriage altar and initially refuses to believe that the disfigured body before her is her fiancé. Once the tragic reality sets in she curses the gods and drops to her knees, weakened by anguish. The messenger’s narrative ends here and Phèdre walks into the scene with poison already coursing through her veins. With her suicide Phèdre admits her guilt and absolves Hippolytus. Despite her fading strength she is nevertheless relieved to have restored the purity of the world tainted by her transgressions. The story ends with an enlightened Theseus resolved to redeem himself, conferring full honors to Hippolytus and embracing Aricia as his own daughter. Hippolytus, through his heroic death, has finally achieved what he has been seeking this whole time, the eternal fame of a hero that would echo through the ages. Furthermore, Aricia’s adoption by Theseus effectively makes her the heir to the Athenian kingdom, thus imparting upon Hippolytus the posthumous status of co-founder by marriage of the restored Pallantide dynasty.
We have come to the end of the story but I’d like to leave you with some food for thought if you are tempted to read or watch the entire play after this episode. One appeal of Racine’s tragedy lies the tension between human agency and destiny. This goes back to the question of lineage, both political and biological, that we started with. Are Phèdre’s accusations of Venus literal, figurative, or simply self-rationalizations of her own weakness? The same question can be asked of the influence of Hippolytus’s Amazonian parentage. Is he also hiding his own sexual insecurities behind this fact? If not how shall we understand the inconsistency of his love for Aricia? Another enduring enigma of the play is the intersection between political and amorous motivations. Georges Forestier, a scholar of 17th century theater, remarks that the two confessions of love are derailments from encounters that are meant to address the political fallout of Theseus’s death. But are the confessions of love a degeneration of the quest of power or are the proposals for political alliance a pretext for displays of passion? I’m afraid I’d have to leave you with more questions than answers. Thank you for listening, this has been fun.
Biet, Christian. “Le destin dans Phèdre, ou l’enchaînement des causes.” Théâtre et destin: Sophocle, Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen, Jean Bessière (ed.), Paris: Honoré Champion, 1997.
Forestier, Georges. Jean Racine. Paris: Gallimard, 2006.
Picard, Raymond. La carrière de Jean Racine. Paris: Gallimard, 1956.
Racine, Jean. Phèdre, Ted Hughes (trans.), London: Faber and Faber, 1998.
—. “Phèdre.” Théâtre complet, Jacques Morel et Alain Viala (ed.), Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2010.
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