Jean Racine

Jean RacineBorn on December 20, 1639, Jean Racine was orphaned at a young age and raised by his grandmother, Marie des Moulins, who took the boy with her to the convent of Port-Royal des Champs near Paris after she was widowed. Racine's teachers at the convent were members of a reform movement known as Jansenism. Although they were suspected by the French monarchy of being theologically and politically subversive, these monks provided the young Racine with a good education, allowing him the opportunity to study Latin and Greek classics under their tutelage, a privilege most young writers could only dream of.

From 1649 to 1653, Racine studied at Port-Royal. He then transferred to the College of Beauvais where he studied for two years before returning to Port-Royal to complete his studies in rhetoric. After turning 18, the Jansenists sent him to Paris to study law at the College of Harcourt. Here, Racine fell in with a crowd of "theatrical" types and decided to try his hand as a dramatist in spite of the fact that the Jansenists disapproved of the theatre. His first play, Amasie, was purchased by the Bourgogne company, but was never produced. However, as luck would have it, Racine was soon befriended by Molière who produced his second play, Thebaide, in 1664. Although Racine's next play, Andromache (1667), was also originally produced by Moliere's troupe, Racine was unhappy with the production and gave the text to the Bourgogne company--who was more skilled at tragedy--for a second production. The one element of Molière's production with which Racine was enamored was the leading actress, Thérèse du Parc. After seducing the young actress, Racine convinced her to leave Moliere's troupe and join him at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Molière, who had kept the doors open for Thebaide even when the production was running at a loss, was deeply hurt by this betrayal and never spoke to Racine again.

Racine went on to compose a string of successful tragedies, all of which would be presented by the Hôtel de Bourgogne. His next play, The Litigants (1668), a rare excursion into the world of comic satire, was adapted from Aristophanes' The Wasps. However, Racine quickly returned to the serious business of tragedy with Britannicus (1669) which chronicles the story of Agrippa, mother of the Roman emperor Nero, who begins to regret the decision to give her son power after he falls under the influence of an evil counselor named Narcissus. Iphigenia in Aulis (1674) is Racine's version of the events leading to the sacrifice of Iphigenia to appease the gods, and his masterpiece, Phèdre (1677), based on Euripides' Hippolytus, is a remarkable exploration of a woman's passion for her husband's son. Racine's other plays include Bérénice (1670), Bajazet (1672), and Mithridate (1673).

By 1677, Racine had achieved a remarkable amount of success for a playwright. In fact he was the first French playwright to live almost entirely off the earnings from his plays. And the role of Phedre was so popular that it quickly became the pièce de resistance of practically every French tragedienne. However, Racine had managed to acquire a large number of powerful enemies, many of whom supported the older playwright, Pierre Corneille. These enemies were determined to destroy Racine's career and even went so far as to buy tickets for the opening night of Phèdre, only to leave their seats unoccupied, thus casting a chill over the performance. Racine was so wounded by such antics that, in 1677, he decided to retire from the commercial theatre, and accept the post of royal historiographer. Along with his friend Nicolas Boileau, Racine set about chronicling the reign of Louis XIV.

After reconciling with the Jansenists, Racine--who had built quite a reputation for seducing young actesses--was provided with a pious wife who never read a single line of his plays and with whom he would have seven children. There is evidence, however, that Racine did not give up his philanderings altogether. In 1679, he was accused of having poisoned his mistress and star actress, the Marquise du Parc. Fortunately for Racine, no formal charges were ever filed.

In spite of Racine's retirement, his work for the stage was not quite done. Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV's consort, had been somewhat responsible for Racine's retirement in that she had helped to secure for him the position of royal historiographer. Ironically enough, she would also be responsible for his return to the stage when she requested that he write two biblical plays for her girls' school at St. Cyr. Esther (1689) tells the story of Haman and the Jewish queen who risks her own life to save her people from certain destruction. And Athalie (1690) tells the story of an idol-worshipping queen who has a prophetic dream of her own death after coming to power by murdering the royal family. Both of these plays were well received, but they would be Racine's last offerings for the stage. He spent the remainder of his life serving various posts for the King and editing his complete works. On April 21, 1699, Racine died from cancer of the liver.

Racine's Plays  |  Biographies/Studies


Racine's Plays


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Jean Racine

Jean Racine: His Childhood

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