|French literary history|
Jean Racine (French IPA: [ʀaˈsin]) (December 22, 1639 – April 21, 1699) was a French dramatist, one of the "big three" of 17th century France (along with Molière and Corneille). Racine was primarily a tragedian, though he did write one comedy.
Born in La Ferté-Milon (Aisne), Racine was orphaned in his youth and was given a classical education courtesy of his grandmother. He was a graduate of Port-Royal, a religious institution which would greatly influence other contemporary figures including Blaise Pascal. He was expected to study theology, but preferred to devote himself to the theatre, and moved to Paris. His first tragedy, La Thébaide (1664) and its successor, Alexandre (1665), both had classical themes, but he was already entering into controversy, taking offence at the accusation that he was polluting the minds of his audiences. He broke all ties with Port-Royal, and proceeded with Andromaque (1667), which told the story of Andromache, widow of Hector, and her fate following the Trojan War. He was by now acquiring many rivals, including Pierre Corneille and his brother, Thomas Corneille. Tragedians often competed with alternative versions of the same plot: for example, Michel le Clerc produced an Iphigénie in the same year as Racine (1674), and Jacques Pradon also wrote a play about Phèdre (1677). The success of Pradon's work (the result of the activities of a claque) was one of the events which caused Racine to renounce his work as a dramatist at that time. Others, including the historian W.H. Lewis, attribute his retirement from the theater to qualms of conscience.
However, the major incident which seems to have contributed to Racine's departure from public life was his implication in a court scandal of 1679. He got married at about this time, and his religious beliefs and devotion to the Jansenist sect were revived. When at last he returned to the theatre, it was at the request of Madame de Maintenon, mistress of King Louis XIV, with the moral fables, Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691), both of which were based on Old Testament stories and intended for performance by the pupils of the school of Saint-Cyr.
Racine was also a courtier, having first been presented at court in 1664, and in 1677 made (along with Boileau) Historian to the King; he kept this position in spite of the minor scandals he was involved in, and Louis XIV provided for his widow and children after his death.
Jean Racine died in 1699 and is buried in the St. Etienne-du-Mont church in Paris, France.
The quality of Racine's poetry is perhaps his greatest contribution to French literature. His use of the alexandrine is considered exceptional in its harmony, simplicity and elegance.
Racine's work faced many criticisms from his contemporaries. One was the lack of historic veracity in plays such as Britannicus (1668) and Mithridate (1673). Racine was quick to point out that his greatest critics — his rival dramatists — were among the biggest offenders in this respect. Another major criticism levelled at him was the lack of incident in his tragedy, Bérénice (1670). Racine's response was that the greatest tragedy does not necessarily consist in bloodshed and death.