Jean Racine: Playwright and King’s Historiographer Research Paper

June 18, 2022 by Essay Writer

Racine’s Life

No matter how interesting the book may be, it can become more appealing and understandable after examination of an author’s life and exploration of motives that stand behind a book or a story. In this respect, the works by Jean Racine can be understood better if one uses a biographical approach to explanation of his works. Jean Racine is an outstanding French dramatist, poet, and playwright.

At the age of four, Racine became an orphan and had to live with his grandmother; together they resided in Port-Royal convent. During his stay in Port-Royal he received formal education in a religious school that was also known for its significant influence on other contemporary people such as Blaise Pascal. His constant interactions with Port –Royal administrator during his early years at school had a great impact over his entire life as a play writer including his transformation to historiographer.

Classical studies, Roman mythology, and ideas by Greek philosophers were acquired at the academy and played a vital role in shaping of Racine’s future works. Though he studied law at the college of Harcourt-Paris, he was mainly interested in arts. For example, trying out poetry resulted in overwhelming praises hailing from Nicolas Bureau one of the renowned literacy critic from France with whom Jean Racine established friendship. Also praises came from Boileau who in most cases asserted to have been assisting Racine. Eventually, Jean Racine settled in Paris where he worked on theatre performances.

Racine’s first tragedy was The Enemy Brothers which were produced in Paris by Moliere’s troupe (Greenberg 3). The subsequent year, Moliere staged Alexander le Grand, the second tragedy written by Racine. However, this second play was highly received by the public as Jean Racine stealthily entered into negotiations with the Hotel de Bourgogne (Racine 75), a rivalry play organization known for its tragedy performances. This led to the conflict between Racine and Moliere following the betrayal by Racine. The tension kept mounting, especially when Racine decided to seduce one of Moliere’s main actresses for becoming both personal and professional companion (Greenberg 5). The conflict made Racine work even harder on his plays as it urged on his ambitions and self-esteem.

Despite the classical themes in both the Alexandre and La Thebaide (Sayer 30), Jean Racine had already entered the realm of controversial issues and was compelled to evoke ideas in the minds of his audience. Andromache was the next play written by Racine that gained popularity and brought even greater fame to its author. By this time, he had many ill-wishers who were not happy for him and his success (Sayer 34).

Some plays written by Racine had duplicates as other playwrights produced works with similar themes, ideas, and characters. For instance, in 1674 Michel le Cleric and Racine produced similar plots of Iphigenie; in 1677 a play on Phedre was written by Jacques Pradon. The victory in the work by Pradon was so significant that Racine renounced his career in drama despite the success that led to his being first French writer to depend on the amount he earned from writing.

Nevertheless, the 1679 scandal led to the departure of Jean Racine from public to private life. After having married Racine’s Jansenism devotion and religious beliefs revived hence giving him some new ideas for new works. Racine’s transformation depended on his tragedies. For instance, Racine’s life was manipulated due to his Jansenism religious beliefs. His Christian life had a great influence on his tragedies and his life as a whole. Racine could no longer take his Christian life for granted as opposed to Sophocies and Eschylus because he thought that God was too merciful in letting individuals to destruct their lives.

Key issues of Racine’s tragedies

Tragedies mainly dealt with the issues leading to the fall of individuals from prosperity to tragedy. The setting of the stories was not related t the contemporary situation (Levine 52). For example, the extent to which a king falls is directly proportional to the disaster in question. Nevertheless, only the era of Henrik Ibsen shifted the topics in drama from illustrious protagonists and royal conventions to narcissism. Racine in his works explained the tragedies of queens and kings together with their families being set free from the restricting pressures and the day-to-day life; however, they were not still in a position to express themselves without any constraints.

Racine borrowed his ideas from Greek tragedies which were highly biased in assuming that humanity was controlled by gods which happens to be unmoved by its own aspirations and suffering (Racine 120). A case in point is the Tyrannus Sophocles which explains how kings gradually become enlightened of the adverse fact despite the hard work of the family to reverse the prophetic warning. The king, however, destroys his father so that he can take his mother as a wife hence has to pay for the crimes committed. Furthermore, knowledge on dramatic fate that compels innocent people to commit sinful acts and calls for innocent children’s retribution has been clearly spelt out in Oedipus.

The role of Jean Racine’s Tragedies

Racinian tragedies played a key role in transforming Racine from a playwright to a king’s historiographer. In his tragedy, Racine portrays the image of a king as a beholder of life as well as death as opposed to any other human being. Andromache, for example, was compelled by an ultimatum from Pyrrhus to have her son killed or marry Pyrrhus.

This can be seen when Pyrrhus promises to marry his fiancée but later on decides to shift goals and calls of the wedding. Hence, Andromache represents the queen’s character. The primary function of the confidant was to avert the key functions of monologues. However, this was never put into action (Forestier 393). The confidants indifferently reflected the behaviors of those supervising them. Hence, Burrhus and Narcissi in Racine tragedies indicated the good and the evil elements amongst the youths (Greenberg 6).

Jean Racine’s Legend

Theatre performances have always been public forms of entertainment. The nature of these productions constitutes promiscuity within its viewers, a central form which creates a principal part of theatre experience. This is what draws Racine into conflict with Port-Royal administrators as they alleged this to secular performance which polluted the minds of his audience. Nevertheless, this strengthened Racine lifting him higher and higher. Jean Racine reached the climax during the production of great tragedies (Racine 35).

These were the beautiful times of theater performances despite the limited time. Racinian tragedies questioned the reality; hence, tragedy seemed to be the most seductive demand representing both disorders and orders which defined why the reasons why critics selected orders as opposed to disorders when dealing with issues of classical French drama. Some of Racine’s enemies based their enmity on such issues. Mostly, the tragedy of Racine’s time was associated with absolutist ideology. For example, theatre, operas, and court ballet were used in courts due to their seductive characteristics.

King Louis XIV and Jean Racine

During the reign of King Louis XIV, the ceremonies conducted in the court had undergone gradual suppression. The ceremonies displayed royal images during coronation and state funerals which were conducted regularly during every king’s reign. The celebrations were appreciated since they represented the power of the state. Ceremonies were significant ideological items of the kingdom since they permitted visual promiscuity amidst the state and its subjects.

Racine brought out this function through his tragedies. The ceremonies displayed hieratic rituals during periods when the kingdom admired its subjects. King Louis XIV concealed all ancient cerebrations and during his entire reign none of the ceremonies were conducted. By reducing royal display of supremacy as well as power, King Louis XIV unsealed his power at each moment.

None of the classical era dramatist than Jean Racine rode on this fertile field where inner fantasy was mingled with outer reality. Nearly all of Racine’s tragedies’ protagonists vacillate amid state rules and personal desires which cannot be separated at all. The demands were spelt out clearly by Racine in classical period in portraying a family as being critical in its desires and politics. The dramatic release of dramas by Racine and Corneille reflected the manner in which a playwright constructed tragic scenes in complicated family’s political structure. King Louis XIV always wanted history of the realm to be recorded on regular basis. This led to recruitment of Racine as a palace historiographer following his success in playwright.


In conclusion, it was a challenge for Jean Racine to be a playwright, poet, and dramatist without any family support including finances and property. Furthermore, finding a career in writing was impossible. The position encountered a strong conflict from church leaders and royal patronages were the only savior that stood for theatre writers. Like Racine, playwrights faced rivalry among theaters and among themselves (Sayer 245; Greenberg 4). However, all these constraints could not stop Racine from working hard in his tragedies. His commitment to his work led to his success that elevated him to becoming the first playwright from France whose entire life was dependant on his salary as a playwright. This led to his appointment as a historiographer in the palace of the King Luis XIV.

Works Cited

Forestier, Georges. Jean Racine. [Paris]: Gallimard, 2006. Print.

Greenberg, Mitchell. Racine: From Ancient Myth to Tragic Modernity. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.

Levine, Stanley F. “Exoticism and the Jew: Racine’s Biblical Tragedies.” Ed. Francis Assaf. An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. III, 1989. 52-70. Web.

Racine, Jean. Three Plays: Andromache, Phaedra , Athalia. New York: Worldsworth Edition, 2000. Print.

Sayer, John. Jean Racine. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.

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