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Phedre by Jean Racine
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Phedre (1677)

by Jean Racine

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English (16)  French (3)  All languages (19)
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It is stated in the introduction to Phèdre that Racine did not intend to challenge any of the conventions to playwriting with this work, but merely write the strongest possible play while adhering to the established structure of five act dramatic tragedies. Because of this, the play Phèdre by Racine and Hippolytus by Euripides are similar, not only in subject matter, but in structure as well, despite being written over 2,000 years apart. Unfortunately for Racine, this allows a direct comparison between the plays, and for me Hippolytus easily comes out on top.

Racine makes Phèdre a longer play, focusing on the passions that are driving the characters, and adds a plotline where Hippolytus and Aricia fall in love and attempt to elope. The longer length means that things that happened in the heat of the moment in Euripides’ play (and made sense in that context) are stretched over a longer span of time (and therefore defy common-sense). Euripides’ Theseus believes the accusations against his son only when he finds a note alleging them clutched in the cold hand of his wife, who has just killed herself. In a rage, and with his wife’s suicide putting her accusations almost beyond reproach, he curses his son and seals his fate. Racine’s Theseus believes accusations brought against his son by his wife’s nurse, and holds onto them stubbornly while one character after another tells him the accusations are false. “Can nothing clear your mind of your mistake?” asks Hippolytus. Obviously not, for the sake of the story, but such a refusal does strain credulity. Racine also has characters take other actions that aren’t very believable, and his commitment to making his characters voice their motivations draws attention to just how unbelievable these actions are. Toward the end of the play Hippolytus states “[l]et us trust to Heav'n my vindication, for the gods are just.” No they aren’t, and Hippolytus should know this based on the earlier parts of the play (and nowhere is Hippolytus previously portrayed as stupid or naïve). Euripides would never have written such a nonsense and cliché line.

The Hippolytus-Aricia subplot must have been added as a crowd-pleaser, because it adds little to the story. There are thousands of plays about forbidden romance, death separating young lovers, and everything else this plotline does, and it distracts from the play’s portrayal of a woman’s love spurned and a father harboring such rage for his son that he calls on the gods to kill him. Alicia’s introduction changes Phaedra’s actions to ones of jealousy just as much as uncontrollable passion, and thus waters down an interesting character. In general Phèdre does a disservice to the character Phaedra, giving many of the key actions to her nurse instead of having Phaedra perform them herself. It is the nurse Oenone who makes the accusations against Hippolytus, which absolves Phaedra of blame in his death but also turns her character into one doomed always to react and never to act of her own volition.

Euripides’ take on this tale is the better one, and is one of his strongest plays. Comparatively, Phèdre is less impressive, and despite Racine’s attempt to imbue the characters with uncontrollable passion, in fact he turns them duller than they had been for the 2,000 years before him. It’s not bad, just not as good as the classic version. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
A Greek tragedy by Racine, a web of interlocking and tragic loves and misunderstandings propels this play from beginning to end. Although I enjoyed Andromache more, this was also a pleasure from beginning to end. And like Andromache, added greater psychological depth and complexity to characters caught in what would otherwise appear to be the inevitably unfolding clockwork gears of their fates. ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
Why do modern authors insist on retaining both the characters and the predictable outcomes of these ancient dramas? Racine's French prose is great but the story fails to excite.
  Audacity88 | Feb 7, 2014 |
I loved this. Racine makes one big change from Euripides: he blames Phedre's false accusation mostly (though not wholly) on her nurse, instead of on her. Coincidentally, that's the one thing that really stuck out for me in the original: I found Phedre's final accusation jarring, unearned and unexplained. So...nice job, Racine!

He also throws a love interest for Hippolytus in, though, in order to make him a little less...y'know, above it all. This was less successful. I think he'd have achieved the effect more cleanly simply by having Hippolytus acknowledge some attraction to Phedre.

And I have now managed to second guess Euripides and Racine in two paragraphs. You know who else wasn't that great? Shakespeare. Yeah!

*ahem* Translation review: not so great. Rawlings delivers with the original French on preceding pages, which is terrific but also serves to make obvious her own shortcomings. Her translation is loose, and it ignores the rhyme of the original. Richard Wilbur manages the same rhyme scheme with ease in his Moliere translation. I'd heard that he failed hard when he attempted Racine, so I didn't read it. With hindsight, I'd give him a shot - or recent dead Laureate Ted Hughes, who also attempted it. Without anything to compare it to, Rawlings' interpretation is functional but not great. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
Since Rawlings' translation was just okay for me, I'd like to get back and check this out at some point. Besides, the cover is way cooler.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (62 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Racine, Jeanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bakx, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fowlie, WallaceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Goddard, WesleyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grebanier, Bernard D. N.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hughes, TedTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kinding, ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lloyd, Harold AnthonyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lowell, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lowell, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pucciani, Oreste F.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rawlings, MargaretTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Salles, JeanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schiller, FriedrichTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Steinsieck, Wolf.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ungaretti, GiuseppeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilbur, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Le dessein en est pris, je pars, cher Théramène,

Et quitte le séjour de l'aimable Trézène.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 015675780X, Paperback)

Phaedra is consumed with passion for Hippolytus, her stepson. Believing her husband dead, she confesses her love to him and is rebuffed. When her husband returns alive, Phaedra convinces him that it was Hippolytus who attempted to seduce her. In his interpretation, Racine replaced the stylized tragedy with human-scale characters and actions. Introduction by Richard Wilbur.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:24 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Phaedra is consumed with passion for Hippolytus, her stepson. Believing her husband dead, she confesses her love to him and is rebuffed. When her husband returns alive, Phaedra convinces him that it was Hippolytus who attempted to seduce her. In his interpretation, Racine replaced the stylized tragedy with human-scale characters and actions. Introduction by Richard Wilbur.… (more)

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