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Jean Racine is one of the greatest play writers of a classical French tragedy who lived and worked in times of French Enlightenment. He based his plays on the classical Greek and Roman myths. Thus, a majority of his characters have typical character features of the classical époque. One of the masterpieces created by Racine is Phaedra which was partly adapted from the Euripides’ Hippolytys. The tragedy has all features of the literature style of Enlightenment. The core idea of it is the problem of choice based on reason, but influenced by emotions. Thus, the author of the tragedy depicts an ancient story with context and themes of the Enlightenment period.
The focus of the tragedy is on Phaedra as an example of Enlightenment values. The author’s intention is to ensure that emotions are dangerous and may influence the choice. At the same time, the core idea of the play is to promote the choice which should be based on reason. Only such choice can guarantee happiness. Another theme of the tragedy is to show that human emotions are signs of weakness and can cause terrible consequences. In this essay, we are going to debate some of these statements and define the cause of the tragedy.
Phaedra, Thésée’s wife falls in love and feels a forbidden passion for her stepson Hippolytus. This kind of love was forbidden in the society which lived according to the principle “one should do everything for the social benefit and sacrifice his/her own interests and feelings”. In other words, it was a society based on reason. Thus, Phaedra’s feelings were not only forbidden, but sinful and disgraceful. Consequently, they led to a number of tragic events. Phaedra understood what consequences of her passion could be and she blamed Venus who “cursed” the woman with this love:
“Venus I felt in all my fever’d frame,
Whose fury had so many of my race
Pursued. With fervent vows I sought to shun
Her torments, built and deck’d for her a shrine.” (Racine 19)
Thus, reading the tragedy, we understand that according to the author, love, passion and emotions are dangerous and one should not follow them when taking a decision. The main concern of Phaedra and people around is that woman should forget her feelings as they are selfish and can cause undesirable consequences. Oenone says: “[feeding] a flame which best were beaten out” (Racine 81). Even Phaedra feels guilty and ashamed for her love, “my frenzied love’s burst forth in act and word. I’ve spoken what should never have been heard” (Racine 81). The climax of the story is the moment when Phaedra confesses in her love to Hippolytus:
“Does Theseus’ widow dare to love his son?
The frightful monster! Let her not escape you!
Here is my heart. This is the place to strike.” (Racine 39)
In his own turn, a young man is also terrified by this confession as he understands the wrongness and danger of those feelings. Consequently, we can see that emotions when dominating our minds and influencing our decisions can sometimes be very dangerous. They may cause terrible situations, as in Phaedra, for example, when she (Phaedra), Hippolytus and Oenone die. Thus, one should learn to control his/her emotions and rely on reason.
However, reason is not enough to achieve happiness. When living for the sake of reason only, one should sacrifice many of his/her desires, feelings and interests. People are not machines and happiness consists of a great number of different factors and options that make our life full and unpredictable. Sometimes, one should go against the reason to become happy. That what Phaedra was intended to do, but the society she lived in, principles and beliefs of people who surrounded her and the situations itself could not allow her doing it.
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So, in the play, human emotions cause the lack of control, absence of reason, weakness and disease. As well as Phaedra, Hippolytus also “commits crime” against the society and his family when falling in love with Aricia, he says, “my reason can’t rein in my heart” (Racine 76). Hippolytus and Phaedra lose control over their actions and cannot see the results of these actions and their effect on people, “With dark forebodings in my mind alarm’d.” (Racine 54). If they could be stronger and could control their actions, they would avoid the tragedy. In other words, if they put the reason higher than emotions and feelings, they would save their lives and honor, they would preserve the order. However, hardly could they be happy enough.
The cause of the play is the choice between passion and reason that can control one’s mind. Passion causes distraction when it overcomes the reason.
Racine created tragic heroes with both noble and bad qualities, he describes the society that does not allow its members be completely happy when their desires and interests are different from the social ones. The author also promoted the idea that human fate cannot be subjected to one’s control and that emotions make us weak. According to the author, feelings, such as love, passion, etc. can be destructive. Consequently, one should follow the reason and preview the results of his/her actions.
Racine, Jean. Phaedra. Kessinger Publishing, 2004. Web.