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Perhaps the play in which Racine's wonderful discrimination in the drawing of passionate character may be seen in its most striking light is Andromaque. Here there are four characters—two men and two women-all under the dominion of intense feeling, and each absolutely distinct. Andromaque, the still youthful widow of Hector, cares for only two things in the world with passionate devotion-her young son Astyanax, and the memory of her husband. Both are the captives of Pyrrhus, the conqueror of Troy, a straightforward, chivalrous, but somewhat barbarous prince, who, though he is affianced to Hermione, is desperately in love with Andromaque. Hermione is a splendid tigress consumed by her desire for Pyrrhus; and Oreste is a melancholy, almost morbid man, whose passion for Hermione is the dominating principle of his life. These are the ingredients of the tragedy, ready to explode like gunpowder with the slightest spark. The spark is lighted when Pyrrhus declares to Andromaque that if she will not marry him he will execute her son. Andromaque consents, but decides secretly to kill herself immediately after the marriage, and thus ensure both the safety of Astyanax and the honour of Hector's wife. Hermione, in a fury of jealousy, declares that she will fly with Oreste, on one condition
that he kill Pyrrhus. Oreste, putting aside all considerations of honour and friendship, consents; he kills Pyrrhus, and then returns to his mistress to claim his reward. There follows one of the most violent scenes that Racine ever wrote in whicho Hermione, in an agony of remorse and horror, turns upon her wretched lover and denounces his crime. Forgetful of her own instigation, she demands who it was that suggested to him the horrible deed—“Qui te l'a dit?” she shrieks: one of those astounding phrases which, once heard, can never be forgotten. She rushes out to commit suicide, and the play ends with Oreste mad upon the stage.
The appearance of this exciting and vital drama, written when Racine was twenty-eight years old, brought him immediate fame. During the next ten years (1667–77) he produced a series of masterpieces, of which perhaps the most interesting are Britannicus, where the youthful Nero, just plunging into crime, is delineated with supreme mastery; Bajazet, whose subject is a contemporary tragedy of the seraglio at Constantinople; and a witty comedy, Les Plaideurs, based on Aristophanes. Racine's character was a complex one; he was at once a brilliant and
caustic man of the world, a profound scholar, a sensitive and emotional poet. He was extremely combative, quarrelling both with the veteran Corneille and with the friend who had first helped him towards successMolière; and he gave vent to his antipathies in some very vigorous and cutting prose prefaces as well as in some verse epigrams which are among the most venomous in the language. Besides this, he was an assiduous courtier, and he also found the time, among these various avocations, for carrying on at least two passionate love-affairs. At the age of thirty-eight, after two years' labour, he completed the work in which his genius shows itself in its consummate form—the great tragedy of Phèdre. The play contains one of the most finished and beautiful, and at the same time one of the most overwhelming studies of passion in the literature of the world. The tremendous rôle of Phèdre which, as the final touchstone of great acting, holds the same place on the French stage as that of Hamlet on the English-dominates the piece, rising in intensity as act follows act, and “horror on horror's head accumulates." Here, too, Racine has poured out all the wealth of his poetic powers. He has performed the last miracle, and infused into the ordered ease of the Alexandrine a strange sense of brooding mystery and indefinable terror and the awful approaches of fate. The splendour of the verse reaches its height in the fourth act, when the ruined queen, at the culmination of her passion, her remorse, and her despair, sees in a vision Hell opening to receive her, and the appalling shade of her father Minos dispensing his unutterable doom. The creator of this magnificent passage, in which the imaginative grandeur of the loftiest poetry and the supreme force of dramatic emotion are mingled in a perfect whole, has a right to walk beside Sophocles in the high places of eternity.
Owing to the intrigues of a lady of fashion, Phèdre, when it first appeared, was a complete failure. An extraordinary change then took place in Racine's mind. A revulsion of feeling, the precise causes of which are to this day a mystery, led him suddenly to renounce the world, to retire into the solitude of religious meditation, and to abandon the art which he had practised with such success. He was not yet forty, his genius was apparently still developing, but his great career was at an end. Towards the close of his life he produced two more plays—Esther, a short idyllic piece of great beauty, and Athalie, a
tragedy which, so far from showing that his powers had declined during his long retreat, has been pronounced by some critics to be the finest of his works. He wrote no more for the stage, and he died eight years later, at the age of sixty. It is difficult to imagine the loss sustained by literature during those twenty years of silence. They might have given us a dozen tragedies, approaching, or even surpassing, the merit of Phèdre. And Racine must have known this. One is tempted to see in his mysterious mortification an instance of that strain of disillusionment which runs like a dark thread through the brilliant texture of the literature of the grand siècle. Racine had known to the full the uses of this world, and he had found them lat, she stale, and unprofitable;) he had found that even the triumphs of his art were all compact of worldliness; and he had turned away, in an agony of renunciation, to lose himself in the vision of the Saints. Come milyon
The influence and the character of that remarkable age appear nowhere more clearly than in the case of its other great poet-LA FONTAINE. In the Middle Ages La Fontaine would have been a mendicant friar, or a sainted hermit, or a monk, surreptitiously