Jean(-Baptiste) Racine



  • (1639 - 99) French playwright who is considered the greatestmaster of French classical tragedy. An orphan, he was educated byJansenists at Port Royal, where he read Sophocles and Euripides. Histutor twice surprised him secretly reading the Greek romance TheLoves of Theagenes and Chariclea, and both times threw the bookinto the fire. Racine found another copy, memorized it, and took itto the tutor, saying "You may now burn this as you burned theothers." This tutor subsequently described writers as "publicpoisoners." Racine's interest in drama and his irregular personallife subsequently led to his estrangement from the Jansenist movement.

    Racine wrote his first serious poems while studying at theUniversity of Paris. In 1664 he met Molière, who producedhis first play, La Thébaïde, at the Palais-Royal.Racine subsequently alienated him by taking his next offering, Alexandrele Grand (1665), to a rival theater, the Hôtel de Bourgogne,shortly after its opening. To add insult to injury, Racine then seducedMolière's actress mistress, Mlle Du Parc, and employed heras his leading lady. She appeared in his tragedy Andromaque(1667), which won the acclaim of Paris playgoers and the support ofLouis XIV.

    Racine's other works of this period include his only comedy,The Litigants (1668), and the tragedies Britannicus(1669), Bérénice (1672), Bajazet (1672),Mithridate (1673), and Iphigénie (1674). Hisliterary style is highly formal and employs an unusually restrictedvocabulary (some 2000 words). In 1677 he produced his masterpiecePhèdre, which emphasized the destructive power ofirrational passions. Within a year of this triumph, at the heightof his powers, he retired from the theater and became court historiographerto Louis XIV. His son later attributed this to Racine's return toJansenism and his wish to atone for a dissolute life. His last twoplays, Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691), were basedon biblical material and written for the girls' school run by theKing's morganatic wife, Madame de Maintenon. Neither was performedpublicly in Racine's lifetime.

    Racine fell out of favour at court by criticizing Louis'swarmongering. The king complained, "Because he is a great poet,does he fancy himself a minister?"

    After his death from cancer, Racine was buried in the monasteryat Port Royal. When Louis issued an anti-Jansenist decree and destroyedthe monastery and school, Racine's remains were moved to the churchof St étienne du Mont in Paris.