Racine, Jean

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Racine, Jean

Jean Racine (zhäN räsēn´), 1639–99, French dramatist. Racine is the prime exemplar of French classicism. The nobility of his Alexandrine verse, the simplicity of his diction, the psychological realism of his characters, and the skill of his dramatic construction contribute to the continued popularity of his plays. Educated at Port-Royal, he broke with his Jansenist masters over his love for the theater. His first dramatic attempts, La Thébaïde (1664) and Alexandre le Grand (1665), were imitations of Corneille. With Andromaque (1667), a tragedy after Euripides, Racine supplanted Corneille as France's leading tragic dramatist. Corneille's friends, including Racine's former friend Molière, tried to ruin the young playwright, but the backing of Louis XIV and later of Boileau saved him. Racine's next play, Les Plaideurs (1668), wittily satirizes the law courts. His subsequent plays are milestones in French literature—Britannicus (1669); Bérénice (1670); Bajazet (1672); Mithridate (1673); Iphigénie en Aulide (1674); Phèdre (1677). After a concerted attack on Phèdre, Racine, in a revulsion against his irregular life, gave up the theater. In the same year he married and was appointed official historiographer by Louis XIV. Mme de Maintenon persuaded him to write Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691) for performance at Saint-Cyr. These differ from the earlier plays in their biblical subjects and use of a chorus and in the length of Esther, which has three acts instead of five. There are many English translations of Racine, among them those of John Masefield, Lacy Lockert, Kenneth Muir, and Robert Lowell.

See biography by G. Brereton (rev. ed. 1974); studies by R. Barthes (tr. 1964), P. France (1966), M. Turnell (1972), P. J. Yarrow (1978), and L. Goldman (1981).

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