Jean Racine was born in 1639 at La Ferte-Milon, the son of a government official. He was orphaned by the age of three and spent his childhood with his grandparents; his formative educational years were spent at the college of Port-Royal.
Port-Royal numbered among its teachers some of the best Latin and Greek scholars of France, but it was also dominated by the Jansenists, Catholics who believed in Bible reading, a personal relationship with God, and the experience of conversion, but above all they believed that man is helpless to combat passion through reason and can be saved only by the grace of God. The young Racine at first resented this religious training, but it left an indelible mark upon his plays.
Leaving school, Racine went to Paris and began to write for the theater, becoming intimate with La Fontaine, Boileau, and Moliere. His family, alarmed at his dissipations, sent him to live with his uncle, a vicar-general at Uzes, and tried to persuade him to enter the church, but Racine returned to Paris in 1663 and made his debut with his first play the following year.
Thirteen years of uninterrupted success followed: Racine was soon recognized as one of the finest playwrights of the age and enjoyed not only fame and the favors of beautiful women, but the patronage of the king himself. In 1666, one of his former professors at Port-Royal wrote a letter bitterly attacking the drama, calling playwrights “public poisoners”; Racine replied harshly in another public letter and went on the following year to write one of his best tragedies, Andromaque. This was followed by his only comedy, a satire of the legal profession entitled Les Plaideurs (1668), then by Britannicus (1669), Berenice (1670), Bajazet (1672), Mithridate (1673), Iphigenie (1674), and Phedre (1677).
Abruptly in 1677, Racine abandoned the stage, left Paris, became reconciled with the Jansenists of Port-Royal, and married. The reason for this sudden change of life is not clear, but the failure of Phedre due to the conspiracy of a court clique certainly had something to do with it. It also seems certain that despite fame and favor Racine had never achieved peace of spirit in his dramatic career.
For the next eleven years, Racine lived quietly at Moulins, earning a living at two patronage posts granted him by the king, and fathering seven children. In 1688, Mme. de Maintenon, the staid companion of Louis XIV’s old age, asked Racine to write a religious play suitable for staging by the young girls of good but impoverished families whom she was educating at St. Cyr. Racine complied with the biblical play Esther, and two years later, in 1690, with Athalie.
During his last years, Racine was largely forgotten by the literary world, and his death in 1699 caused no public mourning. He was buried at Port-Royal, which was itself to disappear six years later when it was forcibly closed on charges of heresy.