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Phèdre (French: [fɛdʁ]; originally Phèdre et Hippolyte) is a French dramatic tragedy in five acts written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine, first performed in 1677 at the theatre of the Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris.


Jean Racine

Translated by
Robert Bruce Boswell


Introductory Note

Jean Baptiste Racine, the younger contemporary of Corneille, and his rival for supremacy in French classical tragedy, was born at Ferte-Milon, December 21, 1639. He was educated at the College of Beauvais, at the great Jansenist school at Port Royal, and at the College d’Harcourt. He attracted notice by an ode written for the marriage of Louis XIV in 1660, and made his first really great dramatic success with his “Andromaque.” His tragic masterpieces include “Britannicus,” “Berenice,” “Bajazet,” “Mithridate,” “Iphigenie,” and “Phaedre,” all written between 1669 and 1677.

Then for some years he gave up dramatic composition, disgusted by the intrigues of enemies who sought to injure his career by exalting above him an unworthy rival. In 1689 he resumed his work under the persuasion of Mme. de Maintenon, and produced “Esther” and “Athalie,” the latter ranking among his finest productions, although it did not receive public recognition until some time after his death in 1699. Besides his tragedies, Racine wrote one comedy, “Les Plaideurs,” four hymns of great beauty, and a history of Port Royal.

The external conventions of classical tragedy which had been established by Corneille, Racine did not attempt to modify. His study of the Greek tragedians and his own taste led him to submit willingly to the rigor and simplicity of form which were the fundamental marks of the classical ideal. It was in his treatment of character that he differed most from his predecessor; for whereas, as we have seen, Corneille represented his leading figures as heroically subduing passion by force of will, Racine represents his as driven by almost uncontrollable passion. Thus his creations appeal to the modern reader as more warmly human; their speech, if less exalted, is simpler and more natural; and he succeeds more brilliantly with his portraits of women than with those of men.

All these characteristics are exemplified in “Phaedre,” the tragedy of Racine which has made an appeal to the widest audience. To the legend as treated by Euripides, Racine added the love of Hippolytus for Aricia, and thus supplied a motive for Phaedra’s jealousy, and at the same time he made the nurse instead of Phaedra the calumniator of his son to Theseus.


THESEUS, son of Aegeus and King of Athens.
PHAEDRA, wife of Theseus and Daughter of Minos and Pasiphae.
HIPPOLYTUS, son of Theseus and Antiope, Queen of the Amazons.
ARICIA, Princess of the Blood Royal of Athens.

OENONE, nurse of Phaedra.
THERAMENES, tutor of Hippolytus.
ISMENE, bosom friend of Aricia.
PANOPE, waiting-woman of Phaedra.

The scene is laid at Troezen, a town of the Peloponnesus.

Act I

Scene I
Hippolytus, Theramenes

My mind is settled, dear Theramenes,
And I can stay no more in lovely Troezen.
In doubt that racks my soul with mortal anguish,
I grow ashamed of such long idleness.
Six months and more my father has been gone,
And what may have befallen one so dear
I know not, nor what corner of the earth
Hides him.

And where, prince, will you look for him?
Already, to content your just alarm,
Have I not cross’d the seas on either side
Of Corinth, ask’d if aught were known of Theseus
Where Acheron is lost among the Shades,
Visited Elis, doubled Toenarus,
And sail’d into the sea that saw the fall
Of Icarus? Inspired with what new hope,
Under what favour’d skies think you to trace
His footsteps? Who knows if the King, your father,
Wishes the secret of his absence known?
Perchance, while we are trembling for his life,
The hero calmly plots some fresh intrigue,
And only waits till the deluded fair —

Cease, dear Theramenes, respect the name
Of Theseus. Youthful errors have been left
Behind, and no unworthy obstacle
Detains him. Phaedra long has fix’d a heart
Inconstant once, nor need she fear a rival.
In seeking him I shall but do my duty,
And leave a place I dare no longer see.

Indeed! When, prince, did you begin to dread
These peaceful haunts, so dear to happy childhood,
Where I have seen you oft prefer to stay,
Rather than meet the tumult and the pomp
Of Athens and the court? What danger shun you,
Or shall I say what grief?

That happy time
Is gone, and all is changed, since to these shores
The gods sent Phaedra.

I perceive the cause
Of your distress. It is the queen whose sight
Offends you. With a step-dame’s spite she schemed
Your exile soon as she set eyes on you.
But if her hatred is not wholly vanish’d,
It has at least taken a milder aspect.
Besides, what danger can a dying woman,
One too who longs for death, bring on your head?
Can Phaedra, sick’ning of a dire disease
Of which she will not speak, weary of life
And of herself, form any plots against you?

It is not her vain enmity I fear,
Another foe alarms Hippolytus.
I fly, it must be own’d, from young Aricia,
The sole survivor of an impious race.

What! You become her persecutor too!
The gentle sister of the cruel sons
Of Pallas shared not in their perfidy;
Why should you hate such charming innocence?

I should not need to fly, if it were hatred.

May I, then, learn the meaning of your flight?
Is this the proud Hippolytus I see,
Than whom there breathed no fiercer foe to love
And to that yoke which Theseus has so oft
Endured? And can it be that Venus, scorn’d
So long, will justify your sire at last?
Has she, then, setting you with other mortals,
Forced e’en Hippolytus to offer incense
Before her? Can you love?

Friend, ask me not.
You, who have known my heart from infancy
And all its feelings of disdainful pride,
Spare me the shame of disavowing all
That I profess’d. Born of an Amazon,
The wildness that you wonder at I suck’d
With mother’s milk. When come to riper age,
Reason approved what Nature had implanted.

Sincerely bound to me by zealous service,
You told me then the story of my sire,
And know how oft, attentive to your voice,
I kindled when I heard his noble acts,
As you described him bringing consolation
To mortals for the absence of Alcides,
The highways clear’d of monsters and of robbers,
Procrustes, Cercyon, Sciro, Sinnis slain,
The Epidaurian giant’s bones dispersed,
Crete reeking with the blood of Minotaur.

But when you told me of less glorious deeds,
Troth plighted here and there and everywhere,
Young Helen stolen from her home at Sparta,
And Periboea’s tears in Salamis,
With many another trusting heart deceived
Whose very names have ‘scaped his memory,
Forsaken Ariadne to the rocks
Complaining, last this Phaedra, bound to him
By better ties, — you know with what regret
I heard and urged you to cut short the tale,
Happy had I been able to erase
From my remembrance that unworthy part
Of such a splendid record. I, in turn,
Am I too made the slave of love, and brought
To stoop so low? The more contemptible
That no renown is mine such as exalts
The name of Theseus, that no monsters quell’d
Have given me a right to share his weakness.

And if my pride of heart must needs be humbled,
Aricia should have been the last to tame it.
Was I beside myself to have forgotten
Eternal barriers of separation
Between us? By my father’s stern command
Her brethren’s blood must ne’er be reinforced
By sons of hers; he dreads a single shoot
From stock so guilty, and would fain with her
Bury their name, that, even to the tomb
Content to be his ward, for her no torch
Of Hymen may be lit. Shall I espouse
Her rights against my sire, rashly provoke
His wrath, and launch upon a mad career —

The gods, dear prince, if once your hour is come,
Care little for the reasons that should guide us.
Wishing to shut your eyes, Theseus unseals them;
His hatred, stirring a rebellious flame
Within you, lends his enemy new charms.

And, after all, why should a guiltless passion
Alarm you? Dare you not essay its sweetness,
But follow rather a fastidious scruple?
Fear you to stray where Hercules has wander’d?
What heart so stout that Venus has not vanquish’d?
Where would you be yourself, so long her foe,
Had your own mother, constant in her scorn
Of love, ne’er glowed with tenderness for Theseus?
What boots it to affect a pride you feel not?

Confess it, all is changed; for some time past
You have been seldom seen with wild delight
Urging the rapid car along the strand,
Or, skilful in the art that Neptune taught,
Making th’ unbroken steed obey the bit;
Less often have the woods return’d our shouts;
A secret burden on your spirits cast
Has dimm’d your eye. How can I doubt you love?
Vainly would you conceal the fatal wound.
Has not the fair Aricia touch’d your heart?

Theramenes, I go to find my father.

Will you not see the queen before you start,
My prince?

That is my purpose: you can tell her.
Yes, I will see her; duty bids me do it.
But what new ill vexes her dear Oenone?

Scene II
Hippolytus, Oenone, Theramenes

Alas, my lord, what grief was e’er like mine?
The queen has almost touch’d the gates of death.
Vainly close watch I keep by day and night,
E’en in my arms a secret malady
Slays her, and all her senses are disorder’d.
Weary yet restless from her couch she rises,
Pants for the outer air, but bids me see
That no one on her misery intrudes.
She comes.

Enough. She shall not be disturb’d,
Nor be confronted with a face she hates.

Scene III
Phaedra, Oenone

We have gone far enough. Stay, dear Oenone;
Strength fails me, and I needs must rest awhile.
My eyes are dazzled with this glaring light
So long unseen, my trembling knees refuse
Support. Ah me!

Would Heaven that our tears
Might bring relief!

Ah, how these cumbrous gauds,
These veils oppress me! What officious hand
Has tied these knots, and gather’d o’er my brow
These clustering coils? How all conspires to add
To my distress!

What is one moment wish’d,
The next, is irksome. Did you not just now,
Sick of inaction, bid us deck you out,
And, with your former energy recall’d,
Desire to go abroad, and see the light
Of day once more? You see it, and would fain
Be hidden from the sunshine that you sought.

Thou glorious author of a hapless race,
Whose daughter ‘twas my mother’s boast to be,
Who well may’st blush to see me in such plight,
For the last time I come to look on thee,
O Sun!

What! Still are you in love with death?
Shall I ne’er see you, reconciled to life,
Forego these cruel accents of despair?

Would I were seated in the forest’s shade!
When may I follow with delighted eye,
Thro’ glorious dust flying in full career,
A chariot —


Have I lost my senses?
What said I? and where am I? Whither stray
Vain wishes? Ah! The gods have made me mad.
I blush, Oenone, and confusion covers
My face, for I have let you see too clearly
The shame of grief that, in my own despite,
O’erflows these eyes of mine.

If you must blush,
Blush at a silence that inflames your woes.
Resisting all my care, deaf to my voice,
Will you have no compassion on yourself,
But let your life be ended in mid course?
What evil spell has drain’d its fountain dry?
Thrice have the shades of night obscured the heav’ns
Since sleep has enter’d thro’ your eyes, and thrice
The dawn has chased the darkness thence, since food
Pass’d your wan lips, and you are faint and languid.

To what dread purpose is your heart inclined?
How dare you make attempts upon your life,
And so offend the gods who gave it you,
Prove false to Theseus and your marriage vows,
Ay, and betray your most unhappy children,
Bending their necks yourself beneath the yoke?
That day, be sure, which robs them of their mother,
Will give high hopes back to the stranger’s son,
To that proud enemy of you and yours,
To whom an Amazon gave birth, I mean
Hippolytus —

Ye gods!

Ah, this reproach
Moves you!

Unhappy woman, to what name
Gave your mouth utterance?

Your wrath is just.
‘Tis well that that ill-omen’d name can rouse
Such rage. Then live. Let love and duty urge
Their claims. Live, suffer not this son of Scythia,
Crushing your children ‘neath his odious sway,
To rule the noble offspring of the gods,
The purest blood of Greece. Make no delay;
Each moment threatens death; quickly restore
Your shatter’d strength, while yet the torch of life
Holds out, and can be fann’d into a flame.

Too long have I endured its guilt and shame!

Why? What remorse gnaws at your heart? What crime
Can have disturb’d you thus? Your hands are not
Polluted with the blood of innocence?

Thanks be to Heav’n, my hands are free from stain.
Would that my soul were innocent as they!

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