The Greek concept of tragedy on which Racine’s works are based has a religious origin. It was meant to reflect man’s position in the universe and his relationship to the divine. In its definitive form, Greek tragedy presented a conflict between a protagonist of heroic proportions (though sometimes haunted by a tragic flaw) and a hostile fate. In accordance with the cycle of death and resurrection, the tragic play generally ended with the defeat of the hero and the affirmation of a new order.
These features are readily apparent in Racine. Both Andromache and Phaedra have a cosmic framework: Orestes explicitly accuses fate of his misfortune, and Phaedra attributes her weakness to Venus’ persecution. Indeed, the catastrophes that crush the protagonists have a brutality, an inexorability that suggests a plot rather than an unfortunate accident.
The characters, however, do not grovel. Orestes does not go gently into the night but shakes his fist at destiny; Hermione commits suicide, thus assuming the responsibility for her own death.
While the play ends on a stormy note, it seems to imply that violence and chaos are an aberration in the orderly scheme of things. Both Andromache and Phaedra intimate that the future will be serene. Andromache becomes the legitimate ruler, and her reign, from all appearances, will be undisturbed. In Phaedra, the queen who is the source of all the troubles has been removed. The king becomes posthumously reconciled to his son and finds a measure of solace in Aricia.
The vision of order, however, is more a promise than an actuality. Racine does not dwell on it. What his theater forcefully conveys is the overwhelming suffering which results from an excessive and unreasonable importance attached to the self and to its passions. His characters are either endowed with highly emotional and self-centered natures, or inflexible principles which make them reject any form of escape from torment. Significantly, the confidants, who often speak with the voice of common sense and worldly wisdom, are invariably ignored except when, like Oenone, they can serve their masters’ destructive passions.
Racine emphasizes the somber mood of tragedy by eliminating all distracting situations. Characters whose interaction brings no conflict (such as Orestes and Andromache, for instance) never meet. Comic relief is completely excluded. In spite of the celebrated lucidity of classical characters, their soliloquies are never cool, intellectual self-analysis. They are the anxious expression of inner turmoil and do not relieve the tension.
Finally, Racine’s tragedies are devoid of hope. They begin in an atmosphere of impending doom which steadily intensifies up to the final scene of madness or death.
On the technical side, Racine’s observance of the three unities is absolute. His plays always take place within a twenty-four-hour period in a single locale. The action is continuous without digression. He readily adapts to these limitations by presenting the conflict in psychological terms and beginning the story at the final crisis. Racine confirms that the universe is a mystery, and great writers who dramatize it faithfully produce works which can always be interpreted in more than one way.