book

Jean Racine: Phaedra (1677)

Phaedra is in love with her step-son, Hippolytus.

PHAEDRA

Since Venus has spoken, I must die.
The last of a doomed and wretched race.

OENONE

Are you in love, mistress?

PHAEDRA

Is madness love? If so, then say that Phaedra loves
For she is mad.

OENONE

And who is it you love?

PHAEDRA

What is one horror more? I love . .
Oh, I tremble and dare not say his name.
I love . . .

OENONE

Who is it?

PHAEDRA

You know the Amazon's son. The Prince
I have tried so many times to destroy . . .

OENONE

Hippolytus!

PHAEDRA

You said his name.

OENONE

Oh, my blood is cold and chills my veins.
Oh, this cursed land!
Oh, that we had never
Stepped upon this cursed shore!

PHAEDRA

My sickness, Oenone, is of no such recent date.
No sooner had Theseus taken me in marriage,
Bringing me peace of mind and happiness which seemed secure,
When there in Athens I met my superb enemy.
I turned pale when he looked at me.
My soul went mad with agony.
I could not see. I could not speak.
But my body flamed up and turned to ice!

This I knew was Venus' work, her Greek fire,
The Hell of love to which she sends her victims.
For a while I thought she would be pacified with piety.
I built a temple, called it by her name.
There day after day, amid the refuse of my sacrifices,
Elbow-deep in gutted bellies,
I sought some hopeful sign of freedom.
I burned incense with my own hands on every altar.
Don't speak to me of remedies for love!

While I stood and screamed the name of Venus,
Hippolytus, like a solemn god, went back and forth
Among my altars. My sacrifices were offered up to him,
To this God whose name I dared not speak,
This God from whom I ran and yet to whom I prayed.
But the crowning stroke of irony was still to come.
His father's face grew young until it seemed
That Hippolytus was my husband and Phaedra was his wife.

Then I did turn in revolt against myself!
I pretended that it was not love, but hatred
And a mother's fear for her beloved children
That called for recognition and revenge.
I told myself: Drive out this enemy!
I played the part of an outraged second wife,
Demanding exile for her step-son in order to protect her own child.

His father indulged me and at last, Oenone, I knew peace.
I knew what it was to breathe freedom again,
And spend my days in innocent emptiness.
I exulted in obedience to Theseus.

Hiding my sorrow, I became the utterly devoted wife.
But how vain, how cruel heedless destiny can be.
My husband brought me to Troezen himself,
And once more I faced my enemy.

This was too much for my half-healed wounds.
They burst again, this time into blood!
Oh, this is no gentle warmth that tingles in the veins.
This is Venus clawing at the belly of her prey!

Yes, I was appalled and called it crime.
I was revolted by life and love itself.
Death, I said, will cleanse me of this black desire.
Only death has mercy for my kind.

 

Question: What does this excerpt tell you about the 17th century concept of tragedy?