One of Racine’s contemporaries, Guez de Balzac, in a well-known statement, noted that Corneille portrayed characters as they should be and Racine as they were. It is true that compared with Corneille’s heroic figures, Racine’s characters seem to be made of much more mortal clay. But Racine is anything but a realist in the modern sense. The seventeenth century did not strive for cinematic effects. It focused only on those aspects of man which transcend time and place. In other words, it sought universality. Racine’s characters do not have the uniqueness, the collection of idiosyncratic traits, which distinguishes one individual from another. They are sketched through a few fundamental characteristics such as pride, ambition, and, above all, love.
Within this simplification Racine enforces a further reduction. Phaedra does not experience every possible aspect of her violent passion. Racine has omitted, for instance, the ambiguity of love’s beginnings and presented only its paroxysm.
In a strict sense, Racine’s characters are not even real. Their emotional life has an intensity not given to the average person. Orestes is impervious to contempt, separation, and the healing power of time. His all-consuming love has a grandeur that soars above the banality of existence.
And yet, Racine has been acclaimed for his profound knowledge of the human heart. No one will find in his characters a mirror image of himself. But Racine has retained the essential human reality. “Venus entirely fastened to her prey” is not a mythological conceit. Aricia’s virginal love, Phaedra’s helpless passion, Hermione’s mad infatuation are all authentic. Thus Racine’s classicism, which on the one hand sacrifices the feeling of immediate realism, achieves on the other a crystalline truth recognizable by every audience.