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Review of Greenberg, Mitchell. Racine: From Ancient Myth to Tragic Modernity

Article Citation: 
XIV (2012): 147–149
Author: 
(Roland Racevskis)
Article Text: 

Greenberg, Mitchell. Racine: From Ancient Myth to Tragic Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. ISBN 9780816660841. Pp. xvi + 287. $25.00.

In Racine: From Ancient Myth to Tragic Modernity, Mitchell Greenberg connects the mythic dimension of Racine's tragedies to their political implications, tracing the significance of the Œdipus myth through most of Racine's theater—Les Plaideurs and Alexandre le Grand are not discussed. The first chapter, on La Thébaïde, shows how Racine's first play stages the triumph of chaos over culture. For Greenberg, La Thébaïde is not just a young playwright's initial foray; the tragedy and the myths behind it are foundational for Racine's theater.

In the second chapter, on Andromaque, Greenberg argues for the central importance of visual metaphors in the 1667 tragedy. Through distorted and non-reciprocal gazes, Racine's characters struggle with their desire for identitary unity, a desire constantly frustrated by their fractured subjectivities. The third chapter focuses on Britannicus and on what the author considers the most perverse couple in Racinian tragedy, Néron and his mother Agrippine. An interesting feature of this section is Greenberg's focus on the interrogative mode as expressive of the connections between desire and power: "Quoi? Tandis que Néron s'abandonne au sommeil / Faut-il que vous veniez attendre son réveil?" (1.1.1–2).

The fourth chapter includes readings of Bérénice, Bajazet, and Mithridate: "each in its own (tragic) way traces through the sexualization of its political plot the tenuous but necessary triumph of an idealized Western (Christian) monarchy over an Oriental (barbarian/Muslim) despotism" (119).  Greenberg reads the protagonist Bérénice as a simultaneously passive and phallic woman—it is this duality that makes her an irreducible and persistently appealing character. With Bajazet, "more self-consciously than in his other plays, Racine makes voyeurs of his audience" as they contemplate "the other" in the form of the phallic Oriental woman, Roxane (136). Greenberg incisively revisits the openness of the ending of Mithridate, where the rebel king reappears only in order to disappear, thus suggesting, exceptionally for the Racinian tragic universe, the promise of a future. Chapter five gives a psychoanalytical reading of sacrifice in Iphigénie. The altar, absent from the stage but ever-present in the spectator's imagination, marks the ambivalent point where an emerging nation contemplates both its troubled origins and its proleptic fate.

The sixth chapter, on Phèdre, examines how law and politics attempt and fail to contain a sexuality that is figured as monstrous and gendered female. In a useful heuristic pairing, Greenberg proposes to see "Phèdre and Hippolyte as but two differently gendered variations of the same, that is, a bisexual figuration, a two-headed monster of recalcitrant sexuality" (208). The characters dramatize the internal, and thus modern, struggles of the subject under seventeenth-century absolutism, a system based on the desire for unity but fractured from within by subjective multiplicity. A new reading of Thésée's role maintains that, by embracing Aricie's family, the king undergoes the transformation from archaic ruler to modern subject, "from a figure of mythology to the architect of democracy" (225). In the wake of the sacrifice of the dyad Phèdre/Hippolyte, Athens, and by extension France, moves from mythology into history. In the final chapter on the sacred tragedies, Greenberg contends that the elements of psycho-sexual disorder that seem to come under the tighter control of Biblical cosmology still threaten to re-emerge to disrupt absolutist order. The fundamental tensions of Racine's tragic world, expressed most clearly for Greenberg in the Œdipus myth, remain unresolved.

This thought-provoking study builds on arguments previously elaborated in Greenberg's Subjectivity and Subjugation in Seventeenth-Century Drama and Prose, Canonical States, Canonical Stages, and Baroque Bodies. While the theoretical developments and textual analyses are presented in a convincing and engaging way, multiple errors in transcription of passages from Racine's plays produce at times a jarring effect for the reader. More than a fourth of offset quotations from primary sources contain errors, some of them affecting versification. For example, line 1.1.82 from Phèdre reads: "Et la Crète fumant du sang du Minotauro..." More careful copyediting would have improved the book's readability. Nonetheless, the reconsideration of Racine's tragedies in the light of Freudian analysis that this study proposes makes a strong and provocative contribution to the field of early modern theater studies. The book will appeal to students and scholars interested not only in early modern theater but also in the political culture of absolutism.   

Roland Racevskis, University of Iowa

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