Racine’s stylistic distinction is, perhaps, his outstanding achievement. In seventeenth-century France, it took a genius to avoid the monotony of the metronome and the dullness of a child’s primer. Classicism, in reaction to the verbal exuberance of the Renaissance, severely restricted the playwright’s vocabulary. Racine had at his disposal a limited number of colorless words, chosen for their aura of elegance and nobility. He could not use the arsenal of sounds, scents, tastes, and colors of the daily vocabulary, because they were not sufficiently “noble.” He was also forbidden the introduction of images, except those consecrated by usage, for the seventeenth century did not prize originality. Unlike Shakespeare, Racine could not possibly compare life to “a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more.” The “player” would have been considered vulgar, the language “common” and the whole image outre.
Furthermore, all plays had to be written in verse and the rules of versification were extremely rigid. Plays were written in a twelve-syllable line called the alexandrine, with a pause after the sixth syllable called the caesura. This unimaginative rhyme consisted of alternating pairs of feminine lines (ending in -e and masculine lines (any other ending). The enjambement (run-on line) which carries the meaning over into a second line was forbidden.
But Racine triumphed over his limitations. He subtly relieved the regularity of the versification by occasionally dividing his lines into three parts, or giving one half of a line to one character and the rest to his interlocutor. With similar dramatic effect, he often evokes a startling contrast within the two halves of a single line, for example: “Ah! je l’ai trop aime pour ne le point hair” (“I loved her too much not to hate her”). Racine also uses repeated or subtly shifting vowel and consonant sounds to establish a mood and exploits the melody of the language to such an extent that his dialogue is sometimes pure music.
Above all, the secret of Racine’s effectiveness lies in his profundity. Where the thought is deep enough, the observation sufficiently original, the simplest language is far more effective than adornment. The thought becomes invested with an importance transcending by far its surface banality. For some writers, economy can be a spur to greater creativity. Just as some poets find a challenge in the discipline of the sonnet, Racine discovered unexpected resources within the limits of the classical vocabulary. He made of it an instrument of vast possibilities, faithfully expressing the complexities of the human heart.