Jean Racine

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Jean Racine
Racine signature 29933.jpg

Jean Baptiste Racine [ ʒɑ̃ ʁasin ] (born December 22, 1639 in La Ferté-Milon , † April 21, 1699 in Paris ) was one of the most important authors of French classical music . He is considered by the French as their greatest tragedy writer next to or even before Pierre Corneille .

Life and work

Childhood and youth

Racine was born the first child of a royal salt tax official belonging to the lower nobility . His mother also came from these circles, but she died giving birth to a sister when Jean Racine was only two years old. At the age of three he also lost his father, who had recently remarried, and was taken care of by his maternal grandparents, while his sister came to live with the other grandparents. When the grandfather died in 1649, the grandmother retired to the Port Royal des Champs monastery , about 10 km southwest of Versailles , which was oriented towards Jansenism , and gave her grandson to the small but excellent school run by well-known Jansenist theologians and scholars. who had settled around the monastery as ascetic hermits.

Certainly traumatized by the successive loss of almost all caregivers, Racine found a certain home in school and acquired solid Latin and - which was rather the exception at the time - Greek. In 1653/54 he completed the "rhetorique" school year as a boarding school student at the Jansenist-oriented Parisian Collège de Beauvais . In 1655, at the age of 15, he returned to Port-Royal, where he again studied with the Jansenists. Although he was deeply influenced by their fundamentalist piety, he also read classical Latin and Greek plays with interest, both in the original and in morally and religiously “cleansed” French translations written by one of his teachers, Louis-Isaac Lemaistre de Sacy . In addition, he began to write: odes to nature around Port-Royal, but also pious verses, e.g. T. in Latin.

From 1656 he witnessed the harassment of the Jansenists by the state authorities and their allies, the Jesuits , and was affected by the closure of the Port-Royal school in 1658. He moved to Paris to the Jansenist Collège d'Harcourt , where he completed his school days with the "philosophy" class (1659).

Afterwards, when he was almost 20 years old, he was accepted by a relative who lived in the city palace of a ducal family and managed their house, real estate and finances. From him Racine was introduced into some aesthetic circles, where he u. a. met the later fable poet Jean de La Fontaine , a distant relative. For the lecture in this environment and in the atmosphere of the high mood after the end of the long war with Spain (1659), Racine wrote all kinds of occasional poems , including various gallant ones . He also experienced the world of theater, which had a strong boom after the peace treaty, as a reality and tried his first play, the tragedy or tragicomedy Amasie (or Amasis ?), Which was not accepted and is lost. After this he seems to have started a play around the figure of the Roman poet Ovid , but did not finish it, perhaps because of a prolonged illness.

1660, he was the influential writers Jean Chapelain positively to the Ode La Nymphe de la Seine à la Reine , where he in the role of a fictional His - Nymph the arrival of the Spanish princess Maria Teresa and her marriage to Louis XIV. Sings. At the suggestion of Chapelain, he received the considerable gratuity of 100 écus (2400 francs) from the king's box .

All in all, he was taken with his glamorous existence in Paris and seemed to turn his back on the strict Jansenism. His relatives and teachers, however, were appalled by this impious development. In 1661 they urged him to go to Uzès in southern France to see a brother of his mother's, who was the deputy of the local bishop. Here he should prepare himself to receive at least the minor ordinations, so that one could then obtain a church benefice for him, as the destitute orphan he was, to provide for the rest of his life.

The beginning as a playwright

In Uzès, however, where he dutifully studied theology but felt as if he was in exile, Racine finally became aware of his dramaturgical ambitions. He was kept up to date by letters from Parisian friends and apparently began a piece based on the love and adventure novel Ethiopica by Heliodor (3rd century AD), d. H. the story of Theagenes and the beautiful Chariklea known in France in the widely read translation by Jacques Amyot . But he does not seem to have got beyond the initial stage.

In 1663 he broke off his stay in Uzès, returned to Paris and tried to revive his contacts and make new ones. Here he made friends with the little older writer Nicolas Boileau and learned a. a. know the comedy writer and theater director Molière . His panegyric ode sur la convalescence [= recovery] du Roi earned him renewed applause from Chapelain , who earned him a royal pension of 600 francs a year, about half what a thrifty person needed. Also through Chapelain, he obtained the protection of the noble Duc [= Duke] d'Aignan, who introduced him to the king. Above all, however, he wrote the tragedy La Thébaïde ou les frères ennemis (= The Thebais or the enemy brothers) for the La Troupe de Molière, a theater company under the name of Molière, perhaps even on his behalf and with his help the bloody quarrel between the twin sons of Oedipus over rule in the Greek city-state Thebes . The piece, which was performed in early 1664, had little success.

His next play, the tragicomedy Alexandre le Grand (1665), was more of a romance . Racine first practiced the nuanced portrayal of love and the conflicts it triggered, a topic that from now on played a key role for him. The play was again performed by La Troupe de Molière , but Racine did not like the production. He therefore passed it behind Molière's back to the theater company of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, which specializes in tragedies and tragicomedies . He had apparently inaugurated and won over the young king, who patronized both theaters, because he was allowed to dedicate the print version of Alexandre to him in 1666 , which was certainly also possible because Ludwig loved to be compared to Alexander. Racine's relationship with Molière, on the other hand, fell apart, especially as he took one of his most popular actresses with him, Mademoiselle Du Parc , who was his mistress until her untimely death in late 1668.

After Alexandre's not great, but honorable, success and his rise to the rank of favorite of the ruling regime, Racine evidently felt the need to demonstratively break away from the Jansenists and their anti-lustful religiosity and distance themselves from their latent political opposition: in 1666 he joined in the attack an ironic open letter to one of his ex-teachers, the moral theologian Pierre Nicole , who had branded novelists and playwrights as a “public soul poisoner”.

In 1667 Racine's contact with the court intensified because he made contact with Henriette d'Angleterre , King Ludwig's young sister-in-law, who valued him as an entertainer (after a miscarriage and the loss of a child through illness) and had him read from the new play on which he wrote the tragedy Andromaque . His pension was increased to 800 francs.

The time of success

At the end of 1667 Racine achieved his breakthrough with Andromaque . At the same time he had found his theme: the fateful, passionate, but unfulfilled love that drives lovers in their jealousy and / or disappointment to the extreme - including murder and suicide - and thus to their ruin. After the triumph of Andromaque , to which Du Parc in the title role had contributed a lot, Racine was put by his admirers on a par with the one generation older "great Corneille", who was so depressed that he stayed for two years withdrew from the theater.

Racine continued to frequent the court and from 1668 received a pension of 1200 francs. Also in 1668 he was assigned a priory in Anjou as a benefice, whereby he had to cede part of the income to the priest, who was the official owner and represented him on site, because he was not consecrated.

Inspired by the flattering comparison with Corneille, Racine also tried to catch up with Molière through the comedy Les plaideurs (1668). The somewhat constructed piece about a monomaniac judge, two trial hansel (plaideurs), a pair of lovers and two smart servants, however, only reached the Paris audience after King Ludwig had ostentatiously applauded it. It remained Racine's only comedy.

Afterwards he again competed with Corneille and with the tragedy Britannicus (1669) he went into his special field, the processing of materials from Roman history. The next, "Roman", play, the tragic comedy Bérénice (1670), was a challenge to Corneille, who at the same time had a thematically similar play, Tite (= Titus ) et Bérénice , brought out by Molière. After Racine had actually defeated Corneille in the public's favor (and in the meantime also went to and from the almighty minister Colbert ), he switched to recent Turkish history with the intrigue play Bajazet (1672), which is set at the court of Istanbul . France was in league with the Sultan against the German Emperor, and “turqueries” were in vogue.

After the success of Bajazet , Racine ruled the Parisian theater. In 1673 he was elected to the Académie française . With Mithridate (1673) he wrote another “Roman” piece that rivaled Corneille. He then returned to the world of ancient Greece with Iphigénie en Aulide (1674). The premiere took place at a festival with which the king celebrated the annexation of Franche-Comté , conquered in 1668, in the middle of the Dutch War (1672–78) .

In the same year 1674 Racine received the not insignificant, but hardly burdensome financial administration office Trésorier général de France for the district of Moulins .

In 1676 he published a collective edition of his pieces, which he had thoroughly revised for this purpose.

Phèdre was performed in early 1677 , based on the ancient Phaidra material . It is considered to be his best and almost tragic piece next to Andromaque . However, the success was only moderate. When, on the other hand, a mediocre play of the same name by Jacques Pradon was widely praised and applauded, Racine withdrew frustrated from the theater in favor of his other activities. He also married: the pious and rich, distantly related Catherine de Romanet, with whom he had one son, five daughters and another son, one after the other until 1692.

The later years

As early as 1676 he and his friend Boileau had been appointed royal chronicler (Historiographe du roi) and from then on had to take part in the now almost non-stop campaigns of Louis XIV in order to record them (including the 1678 siege of Ghent in the Dutch War, 1692 Siege of Namur in the Palatinate War of Succession ). However, his and Boileau's records were later destroyed in a fire.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Racine became more pious again, which matched the depressed mood that Ludwig's incessant, increasingly ruinous wars caused in France. In accordance with his own development and this mood, he wrote sacred poetry that was collected in 1694 as Chants spirituels .

From 1685 Racine was a reader of Ludwig and his "left hand" ( morganatically ) wedded pious wife Madame de Maintenon . From this he was persuaded to write plays again in 1688 and 1690 and wrote the religious subjects Esther and Athalie , which were intended for performance in the noble monastery and girls' boarding school Saint-Cyr and were performed there by pensioners. Theologians, however, denounced the pieces as secular profanation of spiritual objects.

In 1690 Racine reached the climax of his courtier career with the appointment as royal chamberlain ( gentilhomme ordinaire de la chambre du roi ), which was associated with the elevation to the nobility.

Gradually, but initially only in secret, he also returned to the strictly religious Jansenism of his youth and reconciled secretly with some of his old teachers. In 1694 he aroused the king's displeasure because he had tried to stand up for the Port-Royal monastery with the Archbishop of Paris, which still functioned as the spiritual center of the Jansenists. When he also showed his sympathy publicly in 1698 with an Abrégé de l'histoire de Port-Royal (= outline of the story of P.-R.), he fell out of favor with Ludwig.

Away from court, he spent his last months in bitterness, albeit as a rich man and as a patriarch with his large family.

As he wished, he was buried in Port-Royal near his favorite teacher, Jean Hamon.

His youngest son Louis (1692–1763), a literary lawyer, became his first biographer with the Mémoire sur la vie de Jean Racine (1747).


Racine had a strong influence on the French playwrights alongside and after him well into the 19th century. The elegance and musicality of his verses was and is considered exemplary, the intensity of his portrayal of feelings as hard to beat. His art of generating tension not from a moving plot but from the inner conflicts of the characters and their development also appears to be masterful. Gabriel Fauré set one of his sacred songs to music .

He does not seem to have become very well known in the German-speaking world, although most of his pieces were broadcast and performed here. Goethe knew Iphigénie and Schiller transferred the Phèdre shortly before his death .


Memorial plaque for Jean Baptiste Racine in the Église St-Étienne-du-Mont , Paris
  • Ode sur la convalescene du roi (1663)
  • The renowned aux muses (1663)
  • La Thébaïde, ou les frères ennemis (1664)
  • Alexandre le grand (1665)
  • Andromaque (1667)
  • Les Plaideurs (1668)
  • Britannicus (1669)
  • Bérénice (1670)
  • Bajazet (1672)
  • Mithridate (1673)
  • Iphigenie (1674)
  • Phèdre (1677)
  • Works (1679)
  • Esther (1689)
  • Athalie (1691)
  • Chants spirituels (1694)
  • Théâtre complet de J. Racine (ca.1844) digitized


Further literature
  • Roland Barthes : At the zero point of literature (Sur Racine, essais critiques 1). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 2006, ISBN 3-518-12471-4
  • Pia Claudia Doering: Jean Racine between art and politics. Readings of the Alexander tragedy. Winter, Heidelberg 2010, ISBN 978-3-8253-5728-3
  • Jean Firges : Jean Racine, " Phèdre ". The demony of love . Exemplary series literature and philosophy, 23. Sonnenberg, Annweiler 2008, ISBN 978-3-933264-50-3
  • Lucien Goldmann : The hidden God. Study of the tragic worldview in the “Pensées” Pascals and in the Racines theater ; German first Luchterhand, Neuwied 1971 a. ö. ISBN 3472725877 ; Suhrkamp stw 491, Frankfurt 1985 ISBN 3518280910 (first Paris 1955)
  • Heinrich Hubert Houben : The choir in the tragedies of Racine . Düsseldorf 1894 online  - Internet Archive
  • Henning Krauss, Till R. Kuhnle, Hanspeter Plocher (eds.): 17th century. Theater . Stauffenburg, Tübingen 2003, ISBN 3-86057-902-9 (individual contributions to Andromaque , Bérénice and Phèdre )
  • Hans Schmitz (* 1871): The processing of the Phaedra-Hippolytus saga by the French poets before Racine, their relationships to one another, to their sources and Racine himself. Diss. Breslau. Leipzig 1915 online  - Internet Archive
  • Alfred Schreiter: The treatment of antiquity in Racine. Diss. Leipzig 1899 online  - Internet Archive
  • Wolfgang Theile (Ed.): Racine . WBG , Darmstadt 1976, ISBN 3-534-06237-X (Paths of Research; 402)
  • Anke Wortmann: The self and the object relationships of the people in the secular tragedies of Jean Racines , Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 1992, ISBN 978-3884796948

Web links

Commons : Jean Racine  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Jean Racine  - Sources and full texts (French)


  1. On the German-language reception, performance history in D (200 times until 1841) and the German translations, the so-called "translation waves" from 1666 to 1846, see the translation philology of Nebrig. The scientific review is linked under web links.