The Complete Plays of Jean Racine
Volume 5: Britannicus
Jean Racine, Translated into English rhymed couplets with critical notes and commentary by Geoffrey Alan Argent
The Complete Plays of Jean Racine
Volume 5: Britannicus
Jean Racine, Translated into English rhymed couplets with critical notes and commentary by Geoffrey Alan ArgentThis is the fifth volume of a projected translation into English of all twelve of Jean Racine’s plays. Geoffrey Alan Argent’s translations faithfully convey all the urgency and keen psychological insight of Racine’s dramas, and the coiled strength of his verse, while breathing new vigor into the time-honored form of the “heroic” couplet.
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Complementing this translation are the Discussion and the Notes and Commentary—particularly detailed and extensive for this volume, Britannicus being by far Racine’s most historically informed play. Also noteworthy is Argent’s reinstatement of an eighty-two-line scene, originally intended to open Act III, that has never before appeared in an English translation of this play.
Britannicus, one of Racine’s greatest plays, dramatizes the crucial day when Nero—son of Agrippina and stepson of the late emperor Claudius—overcomes his mother, his wife Octavia, his tutors, and his vaunted “three virtuous years” in order to announce his omnipotence. He callously murders his innocent stepbrother, Britannicus, and effectively destroys Britannicus’s beloved, the virtuous Junia, as well. Racine may claim, in his first preface, that this tragedy “does not concern itself at all with affairs of the world at large,” but nothing could be further from the truth. The tragedy represented in Britannicus is precisely that of the Roman Empire, for in Nero Racine has created a character who embodies the most infamous qualities of that empire — its cruelty, its depravity, and its refined barbarity.
Geoffrey Alan Argent is an independent scholar residing in Pennsylvania. He was the recipient of a 2011 American Book Award for The Fratricides, volume 1 of The Complete Plays of Jean Racine (Penn State, 2010).
Racine’s First Preface
Racine’s Second Preface
Britannicus: Notes and Commentary
Among those plays of Racine that are based on real-life events and people, Britannicus is by far the most deeply anchored in historical data, that data being chiefly furnished by Tacitus’s The Annals of Imperial Rome. Indeed, Racine professes that when he wrote the play he had been “so steeped in reading that excellent historian, that there is hardly a striking effect in my tragedy for which he did not provide me with the idea.” But just as he had reworked the raw material of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis to his own purposes, adding characters (principally Eriphyle), refashioning events, and creating virtually new portraits of several of the Greek playwright’s characters, so, too, in Britannicus, Racine has ingeniously transformed Tacitus’s raw reportage into a complexly plotted drama with, once again, one key character (Junia) created virtually out of whole cloth, alliances among the historical characters realigned, and, most important, Tacitus’s turbulent, eloquent, but hardly edifying account provided with a subtle but powerful tendentious underpinning. John Campbell (130) cites the view of Jean Rohou, who, “in what he calls ‘the Machiavellian conflict recounted by Tacitus,’ finds that Racine substitutes ‘a moral antinomy absent from his sources’ (‘L’anthropologie pessimiste’ 1529).” But how could it be otherwise? Racine had a context within which to place the events Tacitus describes: for him they do not compose a story, but a history. The “decline and fall of the Roman Empire” was a concept unknown to Tacitus and Suetonius, but was a received moral artifact for Racine’s age, just as it still is for anyone reading or seeing Britannicus today.
For The Annals of Imperial Rome paints an unrelievedly grim picture of the movers and shakers of the ancient Roman Empire. (Suetonius’s account, in The Twelve Caesars—consulted more sparingly by Racine—with its almost Grand Guignol approach, occasionally bordering on the surreal or the absurd, may strike the reader, depending on his or her point of view, as rendering the horrors described either more horrific or more hilarious.) Such shafts of light as illumine the pervasive gloom are purely editorial, spontaneous expressions of sympathy, or considered moral sententiae provided by Tacitus himself. The sense one has in Tacitus of stifling, noxious, irredeemable amorality, of benighted souls wandering through a benighted landscape, is something Racine would capture to perfection in Bajazet, his seventh play. There, all is darkness and aimless wandering. Although none of the principals survives at the end of that play (Roxane and Bajazet are brutally killed, Atalide commits suicide onstage, and the doubtful fate of Akhmet, the grand vizier, is rather a matter of indifference to us), Bajazet, as I wrote in my Discussion for that play, “leaves us with a sense of ignoble waste,” rather than stirring our souls by the evocation of any tragic downfall. In order for there to be a downfall, there must be some height from which to fall, and the protagonists of Bajazet can scarcely be considered upright, let alone of noble stature. The death sentence that impends over Bajazet and Roxane is a correlative rather than a cause of the inevitability of their ignominious fate. But The Fratricides, Racine’s first play, had already demonstrated that a high body count (Racine ruefully admits in his preface that “there is hardly a character in it who does not die at the end”) is no guarantor of profound tragedy. In Britannicus, by contrast, although only Britannicus and Narcissus are dead by the end of the play, one is left with a crushing sense of tragic downfall, of the extinguishing of light and the obliteration of virtue. (Indeed, as I shall demonstrate later, while most would consider the world well rid of Narcissus, even his death is darkly disquieting in a way that resonates with the tragic tone of the play; one might even make the case that the tragic implications of his murder are as far-reaching as those of Britannicus’s.) One of the aims of this Discussion will be to discover whence derives the sense of tragic loss that pervades the whole play, not just its doom-laden ending.
As mentioned, only two characters die in the course of the play: Britannicus and Narcissus. (Since both of them die violent, horrific deaths, it follows, given the rigid rule of bienséance [decency or decorum] governing French theater of the time, that the deaths of both are narrated, after the fact, by eyewitnesses—Burrhus and Albina, respectively.) But to suggest that Nero is, in some sense, the only character left standing at the fall of the curtain would be to offer a more accurate description of the outcome. Since, as Bernard Weinberg (126) correctly observes, “Néron is distinguished from the others as the center of an action which he very largely accomplishes through his own volition,” a reasonable inference would be to conclude that it must have been as a result of Nero’s confrontations, conflicts, and interactions with Agrippina, Junia, Britannicus, Burrhus, and even Narcissus that they have been destroyed.
Certainly, although Agrippina, Burrhus, and Junia are still alive at the end of the play, they have all been rendered irrelevant, their lives effectively over, and each wishing for the oblivion of death in her or his own way. Agrippina, having foreseen the loss of what gives her life meaning—her power—resignedly faces her own death:
My place usurped, I’m nothing and no one.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Forsaken, and avoided everywhere . . .
Albina, such a thought I cannot bear!
Your hand has shed the lifeblood of your brother,
And I foresee your blows won’t spare your mother.
It’s done; now naught can curb his cruelty.
The blow that was foretold will fall on me.
Burrhus, too, loses what gives his life meaning—his hopes for Rome and his stubborn but misplaced trust in Nero:
Ah! I’ve no wish to live another day.
If only heav’n, with blessed cruelty,
Had let his newfound fury fall on me;
Or if this horrid deed didn’t adumbrate
A future of misfortune for the State!
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Let him complete his work, madame, and kill
A captious counselor who opposed his will;
For, far from fearing what his wrath may do,
I’d find the swiftest death the sweetest too.
As for Junia, having lost, in one day, both her love and her freedom—in short, having been virtually destroyed by her contact with Nero and with Rome—she goes off, ostensibly to “seek out on Octavia’s breast / Some comfort for my sorrow and dismay” (see note 31 for Act V), but proceeds instead to enroll herself among the vestal virgins (“Myself I offer to the Immortals’ care, / Whose altars, by your virtue, you now share” [V.fin.sc.22–23), eschewing human consolation and effectively entombing herself in the temple of Vesta.
In Burrhus’s case, his relationship with Nero is fairly straightforward and does not lend itself to any arcane or controversial interpretations; the above-cited quotations eloquently suggest how Burrhus, “by this assassination left prostrate” (V.v.30), is “dispatched” by Nero. The empire having “placed its rise—or ruin—in my hand” (I.ii.57), Burrhus, realizing his life’s work has been rendered null and void by the unmistakable evidence of his charge’s having irrevocably abandoned every moral precept he had attempted to inculcate, now harbors a death wish, a sincere desire to be put out of his misery.
Narcissus’s relationship with Nero, unlike Burrhus’s, is rather complex, a consequence in no small part of his having the unique distinction among Racine’s characters of serving as a full-fledged confidant to two characters, namely, Britannicus and Nero. And of course his dual function, interesting in itself, is made more so, first, by his being by no means a passive confidant and, second, by his consistently offering one of his masters (Britannicus) the very worst possible advice in every situation and the other (Nero) the very worst possible advice in every situation. Before examining Nero’s relationship with Narcissus during the course of the play, I think it worth taking note of how, historically, it ended. Narcissus, who had actually been a staunch partisan of Britannicus (see note 2 for Act II)—presumably unbeknownst to Nero—was already dead at the time of Britannicus’s murder. He had earlier, for health reasons, “retired to Sinuessa, to recover his strength in its mild climate and health-giving waters” (Tacitus, XII, 66). Shortly after Claudius’s death, however, Agrippina, now wielding absolute power, took steps to have this long-standing thorn in her side removed: “Imprisoned and harshly treated, the threat of imminent execution drove him to suicide” (Tacitus, XIII, 1). As Racine, citing Tacitus, notes in his first preface, “Nero bore very ill the death of Narcissus, because this freed slave had a marvelous compatibility with the vices of the prince which still remained hidden.” In Racine’s play, while we cannot know whether Nero feels any regret at the demise of such a resourceful partner in crime, he shows no inclination to intercede on his behalf with the angry mob who take up Junia’s cause, and his chagrin at losing her leaves no room to indulge any grief, let alone guilt, on Narcissus’s behalf.
To describe Nero’s relationship to Narcissus briefly, they “play” each other. For his part, Narcissus, while he may not act the role of agent provocateur with Nero (as he does with Britannicus: see note 57 for Act I), likes to feel that he is in control, subtly goading Nero, relishing every opportunity of reporting back to Nero the slightest inculpatory remark or action of Britannicus’s, and even, in his Act IV scene with Nero, “express[ing] with impunity the contempt in which his all too authentically snide and circumstantial account of Nero’s detractors’ animadversions suggests he himself holds his master,” as I remark in note 53 for that act. But, in reality, for the most part, Nero could as well address to Narcissus the same remark he offers Burrhus (in an entirely different connection): “You tell me nothing my heart doesn’t know” (III.ii.17), for Nero needs no urging or advice to carry out his long-planned schemes (as I shall discuss at length) and only pretends, when it suits his purpose, to be ambivalent or irresolute. Odette de Mourgues (110) declares that, during the Act V banquet, after Britannicus has been poisoned, at the moment when “Narcisse’s personality disintegrates in a sneer of triumphant glee” (“His perfidious joy he couldn’t contain,” as Burrhus later reports [V.v.27]), “the opacity of the monster is now the privilege of Néron.” By “opacity” she means the inscrutability of a character’s motives, hence, an inability on the audience’s to understand what is going on in the character’s mind at any point; this is in contrast to the “transparency” with which she believes Racine endows his leading characters (but not, generally speaking, their confidants), a transparency that, contrariwise, by allowing the audience to see into those characters’ minds, renders them sympathetic to the audience, whatever their character flaws. But opacity, I would argue, has always been a characteristic of Nero’s, indeed, perhaps his defining characteristic. And, following de Mourgues’s own line of thought, it is this attribute that offers the most convincing explanation for the utter absence of sympathy we feel for Nero, from his first appearance to his very last (where his above-mentioned chagrin is a product, not of any pitifully thwarted love, but of his thwarted will, and less a product of his loss of Junia’s face, however lovely, than of his loss of face, tout court). There is no other Racinian character, however cruel, depraved, manipulative, misguided, or brutal (Roxane, Hermione, Pyrrhus, Phaedra, Agamemnon, Eriphyle, and Athaliah come immediately to mind) from whom we so thoroughly, so unthinkingly, so involuntarily, withhold our sympathy. (Of course, Nero’s cause is not helped by his manifesting no compensatory, let alone redeeming, traces of goodness, or even kindness. In fact, other than in Burrhus’s no doubt expediently exaggerated reminiscences of Nero’s erstwhile clemency in IV.iii, the play shows no good side of him at all, the only other reference to Nero’s benignity being an instance of dramatic irony: Junia declares with relief, toward the end of their first meeting, just before he reveals the full extent of his monstrous design, that “on your goodness, Sire, I’ve ever relied” [II.iii.139].) By contrast, even in Tacitus’s account, where his extravagant debauchery and heinous acts of cruelty are laid out far more expansively than in this play, there are moments when the pathetic side of Nero’s nature does manage to elicit some sympathy.
In Narcissus’s case, while it is true that we are never given any real explanation for his actions (his four-line soliloquy that closes Act II [II.viii.11–14] offers no more than the briefest glimpse into his motives), any more than we are for those of Shakespeare’s Iago, with both villains, we are privy to their machinations, if not to their motivations. Except for the last scene of Act I, which Racine deliberately couches in such a way as to manipulate the audience into misreading the relationship between Narcissus and Britannicus as that of, on the one hand, the sympathetic, wise, and concerned mentor, and, on the other, his justifiably trusting charge, so that Narcissus’s apparent volte-face shortly after the beginning of Act II will induce the greatest shock and revulsion in the audience (who can, however, mere minutes later, “reread” Narcissus’s duplicitous advice and Britannicus’s gullibility correctly)—except for that scene, there is not a single moment during the play when we are unaware of Narcissus’s intentions and strategies: he has no hidden agenda. In Nero’s case, his entire agenda is hidden: we can only guess at his motives and his plans. He jealously keeps his own counsel until such time as, his plans having fully ripened, he is ready to spring some new outrage upon an unsuspecting victim, or upon the world at large. That is why Agrippina and Albina spend the entire first scene puzzling over, and exchanging views about, Nero’s character and his intentions.
Usually, the first scene of a Racine play is devoted to exposition, filling in the audience on “the plot thus far”; here, what is most conspicuously exposed—or, rather, posed—is the huge riddle that is Nero. Even Agrippina, his own mother, has no idea what game he is playing, and sums up her hopeless “cluelessness” when she poses those highly significant questions: “What does he want? What moves him: love or hate?” (I.i.55). Compare, for example, the opening scene of Andromache, where Pylades attempts to apprise Orestes about the current disposition, both mental and relational, of the other three protagonists, Hermione, Pyrrhus, and Andromache: ambivalent though their feelings may be, fluid and fluctuating though their interrelationships may be, we (and Orestes) are left with a satisfyingly coherent sense of the status quo as the play opens. By contrast, in Britannicus, the “opacity” of Nero’s character, as presented in the opening scene, is never further illumined as the play proceeds, which is why there is such disagreement among critics about such crucial questions as the following: Is Nero already Racine’s “monstre” at the beginning of the play, or does he grow into the role? Is Nero still under the influence of Agrippina, his mother, and is the play, then, about his freeing himself from that influence (which no one disputes that he has done by the end of the play)? Is Nero truly in love with Junia, or does he merely wish to believe he is? And if neither, what is his interest in her? Do Nero’s intentions and feelings toward his stepbrother, Britannicus, actually waver during the course of the play, as they certainly ostensibly do, or has it been his intention all along to eliminate him, and if so, why? As one can see, all these vexed questions center on Nero, the enigma; but enigmas can be solved, and if Nero never shows his hand, that is not to say that the play itself does not provide us with a sufficient number of clues to enable us to find convincing answers to the questions just posed. By contrast, all the other principal characters are perfectly “legible”: we are never in any doubt as to what they are thinking and feeling. Any misconceptions about Nero’s relationships with Agrippina, Britannicus, and Junia—and they are widespread—must stem from Nero’s inscrutability.
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