Monday, February 13, 2012

Week 03, Racine's Phaedra


Racine stages a central theme in ancient Greek tragedy: knowing things doesn't afford one control over them.  That is the disturbing insight to reckon with in the current play.  As always, cosmic irony is at work: the cosmos are indeed orderly, but not in a way that brings comfort to humans who thrive on predictability and nourish dreams of their own dignity.

With regard to Theseus, his savvy as a womanizer and martial adventurer hardly translates into insight into his domestic affairs.  Racine's Theseus isn't the one in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the hero who manages to get on fine with his earlier wife, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.

Phaedra's ancestry matters – she is the daughter of Minos of Crete (son of Zeus by Europa) and Pasiphae (daughter of the sun) who fell in love with a bull: Pasiphae's destructive, unnatural passion seems to afflict her daughter, too.  Phaedra is fully aware of the quandary she is in, but can do nothing positive to escape from it: her gambit to drive away Hippolytus fails miserably.

In Euripides' version, Hippolytus is devoted to Artemis rather than Aphrodite, who is therefore angry with him.  Aphrodite represents passion denied in this case, the consequences of which are disastrous.  As in Euripides' Bacchantes, those who deny the erotic force in life are almost bound to meet with a bad end: in that play, Theban king Pentheus is torn to shreds by his mother Agave and the Bacchantes whom he scorns.
Racine's style is the epitome of early neoclassical excellence: as the Norton editors say, his ability manifests itself in a fine combination of genuine passion and stately form; the latter, rather like the masks that the ancients wore during a tragedy the better to bring out the character, helps intensify the passion.

Alexandrines – how they work, 12 syllables (13 if last one is unstressed), pause after the sixth (caesura), and four accent-points, major ones on the sixth and twelfth syllables.

A needless alexandrine ends the song
that like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along. 
(Pope's "Essay on Criticism")

Hippolyte (opening of first act)

Le dessein en est pris: je pars, cher Théramène,
Et quitte le séjour de l'aimable Trézène.
Dans le doute mortel dont je suis agité,
Je commence à rougir de mon oisiveté.

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