Jean Racine - Biography

Jean Racine - Biography

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Short biography - Jean Racine is part, with Pierre Corneille and Molière, of the most outstanding dramatists of the century of Louis XIV. After trying to reconcile his literary aspirations with an ecclesiastical career, he devoted himself entirely to the theater. Emblematic figure of the classic tragedy, Racine paints the fatal victory of the Passions over Reason and throws on the boards tormented heroes doomed to destroy themselves and unable to escape their fate imposed by divine forces.

The Jansenist education of Jean Racine

Born December 22, 1639 in La Ferte-Milon, Jean Racine was orphaned at the age of four and was brought up by the nuns of the Small Schools of the Abbey of Port-Royal-des-Champs. He was a student of the Jansenists until 1658 and will remain very marked by their rigorous and pessimistic vision of the Faith.

The Jansenists indeed consider that man is a sinner, attracted by evil and that he will only be able to experience redemption in another life and only if he is elected by God for that (good actions alone are not enough not). The schools of Port-Royal were then among the best schools in the Kingdom, Jean Racine therefore received high-quality instruction, it was there that he was made aware of literature and ancient culture.

A hyperbolic literary career

After leaving the Jansenist schools, Jean Racine leads a social life in Paris (1658 - 1661) and tries his hand at poetry. Worried, his family sent him to Uzès in the hope that he would obtain an ecclesiastical benefit. It was a failure and in 1663 he returned to Paris where he began his career as a playwright: he had his first two plays performed: The Thebaid and Alexander. Little by little, he fell out with his Jansenist friends while his dramaturgical career was confirmed: between 1667 and 1677 he had eight tragedies performed (Andromache, Britannicus, Berenice, Bajazet, Mithridates, Iphigenia in Aulide and Phaedra) !

Noticed by King Louis XIV for his odes (Ode to the nymph of the Seine, Ode on the King's convalescence), he obtains his protection and tends to wipe out his rival, Corneille at court. The climate is then very tense between the various playwrights, in particular between Racine and the troupe of Molière. Courtier living in the entourage of the sovereign, Jean Racine has a tumultuous private life, making himself the lover of his two favorite performers: La Du Parc then Mademoiselle de Champmeslé.

In 1677 he was the object of a cabal against his coin Phaedra, Racine then gave up the theater. This year marks a profound change in the life of the playwright: he is appointed historiographer by the King, he marries the granddaughter of a Parisian notary and leads a bourgeois life marked by a return to Jansenism which is characterized by austere piety. His last pieces (Esther and Athalie) are pieces of biblical tragedies commissioned by the King's devout companion: Mme de Maintenon. He also writes Spiritual hymns and one Summary of the history of Port-Royal before giving up his soul at the twilight of the century (April 21, 1699). He leaves a work dominated by the description of human passions gnawing at individuals to death and by the idea of ​​the tragic fate imposed by divine forces.

The Racinian tragedy

The Racinian tragedy is inspired by ancient authors (Euripides, Virgil, Tacitus, Suetonius ...) freely exploited to treat large frescoes from mythology, from ancient Greco-Roman, Biblical, even Eastern history. In classical tragedy, written in Alexandrines, we respect the three units (unity of time, place and action), the adventures are plausible, the heroes are nobles, driven by the gods to a destructive passion. To put an end to this destructive passion (often Love), the tragic hero seeks to destroy the object of his passion and he destroys himself at the same time. The outcome is therefore necessarily fatal and finished in the blood. However, it is advisable to qualify, because Racine does not systematically physically kill his heroes. Thus, he writes in the preface of Berenice : « it is not a necessity that there be blood and deaths in a tragedy: it is enough that the action be great, that the actors are heroic, that the passions are excited, and that everything is there. feels this majestic sadness which is the pleasure of tragedy ».

The works of Jean Racine highlight the tragedy of the human condition, the individual appearing as the plaything of a passionate, irresistible and destructive love which distances him from moral precepts. Whatever he does, the Racinian hero runs to his destruction, he has no control over his own life and follows his fatal destiny (a pessimistic vision marked by Jansenism).

From Act I, the violent passions lead to a chain reaction, a rise in tension, a march to the death which generally seems to be able to be avoided only in Act IV ... Mad hope which does not materialize in Act V. The tragic register is characteristic of certain lexical fields: that of the family, blood, fatality, love and death. Likewise, tragic speech includes many figures of speech: hyperbolas, antitheses, parallelisms, oxymorons ...

From a formal point of view, Jean Racine does not upset the rules of tragedy, he is distinguished by a perfect mastery of the language and his great ability to make the reader / spectator feel intense emotions while respecting the restrictive framework of classic tragedy.

Main works of Racine

- Andromache, 1667
- Britannicus, 1669
- Berenice, 1670
- Iphigenia, 1674
- Phaedrus, 1677


- Jean Racine, biography of Georges Forestier. Gallimard, 2006.

- ETERSTEIN Claude (sdd), French literature from A to Z, Hatier, 2011.

Video: Cantique de Jean Racine - Gabriel Fauré


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