is Racine's masterpiece and contains some of the most
celebrated lines in French poetry. It was performed
in 1677, when Jean Racine had nine plays to his credit,
but was poorly received, causing the writer to retire
to marriage and a court position.
With a character described as voluptuous,
uneasy and jealous, Jean Racine was an ambitious courtier,
an astute businessman, and a frequenter of actresses,
but he was also a childhood believer in the Jansenist
doctrine that man is a miserable creature saved only
by God's grace, and playwriting seems no longer to have
interested him in later life.
Theseus has been gone six months from
Troezen. In his absence, Queen Phaedra fights a guilty
passion for her stepson, Hippolytus, and he nurses a
secret love for Aricia, a princess of Athenian (enemy)
blood, to whom Theseus has forbidden marriage. When
news comes of the death of Theseus, Phaedra, urged on
by her nurse Oenone, declares her love for Hippolytus,
but is rebuffed. As acting ruler, Hippolytus then releases
Aricia from her marriage restraints, declares his love,
and the two reach an understanding that Aricia will
return to claim the throne of Athens. Phaedra, endangered
and humiliated by her rejection, resolves to become
ruler in Troezen to protect the child born to her and
Theseus. The wandering Theseus unexpectedly returns.
Oenone accuses Hippolytus of an attempted rape, and
the enraged Theseus calls on Neptune for vengeance.
Aricia and Hippolytus agree to marriage and exile together.
Alerted by the suicide of Oenone, and Phaedra's behaviour,
Theseus now reconsiders, but the curse cannot be undone.
A monster rises from the sea to terrify the horses of
Hippolytus's chariot and drive its rider to his death.
Theramenes, Hippolytus's tutor and friend, returns to
describe the frightful scene. Phaedra confesses her
sins, dying by poison. Remorseful and of sounder mind,
Theseus makes Aricia heir to the throne of Troezen.
A free e-book
in pdf format includes the French text, glossary
and notes on the translation. The text may be used free
of performance royalties if the translator is acknowledged.
I leave, Theramenes: my course is set.
No more in pleasant Troezen will I let
myself be agitated by unease.
I start to blush at idleness that sees
my father's six month's leaving us has led
to unknown destinies for that dear head
in places distances yet serve to hide.
Then, Prince, where look for him? I've scoured each
the oceans bounding Corinth for some word
10. of Theseus, what was rumoured, who had heard.
My search to calm your natural fears has led
to shores where Acheron fades into the dead.
I've called at Elis and from Taenarus
surveyed the waters swallowing Icarus.
What makes you think that through some happy place
the steps of our dear hero left their trace?
Perhaps the king, your father, is not prone
to have the secrets of his absence known
and while we tremble for his life he stays
20. in blessed tranquillity, in hiding plays
with some new love who cannot yet suspect. . .
Now, good Theramenes, show more respect.
Our king renounced such errors with his youth,
and that once dangerous obstacle to truth,
his fateful, wandering heart, is as the throne,
bestowed on Phaedra, and on her alone.
As I too, leaving what I cannot face,
return my duty to its rightful place.
Since when, my lord, would you avert your gaze
30. from childhood's peaceful haunts of happy days?
Which you prefer, I've seen, indeed have sought
above the stir and pomp of Athens' court.
What peril - worse, affliction - could you fear?
Those happy days are gone. All changes here
since gods have sent to us across the sea
the child of Minos and of PasiphaŽ.