Racine, Jean°

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RACINE, JEAN ° (1639–1699), French tragic dramatist. Racine's reputation rests on nine tragedies in Alexandrine verse written between 1667 and 1691. There is no record of his having any personal knowledge of Jews, but the heroine's speech in Esther (1689) makes his sympathy for them clear enough. A reference in the preface to Esther to the modern celebration of Purim also shows an awareness of Jewish customs. Racine's profound knowledge of the Scriptures and its application to his work can be traced to his Jansenist education at Port-Royal (1655–58), where he first met Blaise *Pascal and enjoyed semi-private tutoring by such scholars as Louis-Isaac Le Maître de Saci (1615–84), the translator and Bible commentator, and Jean Hamon (1618–87), author of a four-volume commentary on the Song of Songs (1708). Racine obtained the most thorough grounding in the Scriptures then available in France, but did not learn Hebrew. His knowledge of Midrash and Targum and Jewish traditions were derived from the works of the contemporary Christian Hebraists Matthew Poole, John *Lightfoot, and Richard *Simon. Racine's Phèdre (1677), though based on classical myth, involves Judeo-Greek syncretism. Phaedra's pangs of conscience can only be understood within the framework of biblical law and a biblical conception of man's relationship to the Deity. The biblical tragedies (Esther, 1689; Athalie, 1691) are less religious in implication than Phèdre, and partake of the rationalist spirit that pervaded French intellectual society at the end of the 17th century. Like most of Racine's plays, Esther depicts only the last part of the story, stressing midrashic, apocryphal, and original elements–Ahasuerus' dream, Esther's prayer, and an intimate conversation between Haman and his wife. Haman's pathetic supplication to the queen, Esther's refusal of pardon, and her silence when the king falsely accuses Haman of attempting to rape her are given far more emphasis in Racine's play than in the biblical narrative. David *Franco-Mendes, who pointed out that Racine's last great tragedy supports Queen Athaliah in her struggle against God, intended his Hebrew melodrama Gemul Atalyah (Amsterdam, 1770) as a reply to the French author. Racine makes the high priest Joad (the biblical Jehoiadah) a prophet of heroic faith, who foresees on stage the criminal career of his Davidic protégé, yet unflinchingly sacrifices his own son to his messianic hopes.

A Hebrew verse translation of Esther by Solomon Judah *Rapoport, entitled She'erit Yehudah, was published in Vienna in 1827 in Bikkurei ha-Ittim, 7, 171–254. Athalie was twice translated into Hebrew, first by Meir ha-Levi *Letteris (1835), and a century later by Elijah Meitus (1950). A two-volume English translation by Samuel Solomon of Racine's complete plays appeared in New York in 1968.


L.-C. Delfour, La Bible dans Racine (1891); J. Lichtenstein, Racine, poète biblique (1934); G. Spillebout, Le vocabulaire biblique de Racine (1968); Salomon, in: Cahiers raciniens, 15 (1964); 23 (1968); idem, in: Etudes françaises, 1 (June 1965), 131–5; C. Lehrmann, L'Elément juif dans la littérature française, 1 (19602), 97–113; J.M. Cohen, History of Western Literature (1956), 190–5; L. Goldmann, Le Dieu Caché (1955); idem, Jean Racine dramaturge (1956).

[Herman Prins Salomon]