Theme Of Virtue In Racine's 'Phaedra'

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Jean Racine uses his play, Phaedra, as an exploration of pure virtue and finds that all people are morally grey, meaning that no one is altogether virtuous or sinful. Through the absence of purely right and purely wrong characters, Racine is able to create a play about virtue rather than a play concerned with people, and whether or not they, on individual levels, are virtuous. This is not to say that he is arguing either way about the morality of the specific deeds committed in the play, but the opposite. Phaedra is concerned with the idea of virtue itself rather than with the characters and the specific virtuous or sinful deeds they perform.
Racine makes a few key changes to the story of Phaedra found in classical tragedy. These changes are
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In his preface, Racine states that the idea was “too base and too dark to put in the mouth of a princess” (Racine 75), but it also serves to remove some of the fault from Phaedra and place it on Oenone, who was previously blameless. Distributing guilt among the characters alleviates, strictly speaking, the presence of a traditional antagonist or protagonist allowing for the focus to be on the misdeeds rather than the perpetrator. Through this, the audience is forced to consider the vices and virtues of the play outside of traditional tropes of heroes and villains. Had Phaedra decided on her own to accuse Hippolytus, Phaedra would likely be seen as a story about an evil crazy lady rather than as a play about virtue. Contrarily, Phaedra cannot be completely innocent and must be…show more content…
The only sin the audience bears witness to is that of planning and harbouring malicious ideas. Depending on the staging, a production of Phaedra is feasible in which Phaedra is still only dying during Theseus’ last speech, and thus ‘survives’ the play, as there is no explicit stage direction indicating her death. Even the process of dying for Phaedra is not a particularly graphic one, as she seems merely to have her life essence float away as the poison kills her. Panope notices her death by saying, “she is going” (135) as if she were simply leaving the room. The other deaths, those of Hippolytus and Oenone, both explicitly happen outside of the scripted action and are only recounted to the audience by characters after the fact. However, the characters feel that their misdemeanours, the acts of willing malicious deeds and intending to commit crimes, are just as real and as horrible as the acts themselves. As Racine writes in his introduction, “the mere thought of crime is regarded with as much horror as the crime itself” (76). This is further proof that Racine is exploring virtue in a pure form, his characters only need to succumb to a vice mentally for it to be considered a bad deed. Racine cannot be arguing in favour or against rape because the even the actual allegation of the invented intention to rape does not happen on stage. In the same way, this part of Phaedra cannot be read as a statement on defamation or the
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