|Title page of Phedre et Hippolyte
Jean Racine (1639–1699). Phædra.
Vol. 26, pp. 133-148 of The Harvard Classics
Phædre first persecuted Hippolytus, her handsome stepson, then loved him. Suddenly he and her own son became rivals for the throne. Should she push her son's claims or let Hippolytus take the crown?
(Racine elected to French Academy, July 17, 1673.)
MY mind is settled, dear Theramenes,
And I can stay no more in lovely Trœzen.
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
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 Tœnarus,
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. Phædra 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 Phædra.
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 dead?
Can Phædra, 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 Peribœa’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 Phædra, 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,
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 Œnone?
HIPPOLYTUS, ŒNONE, 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.
Enough. She shall not be disturb’d,
Nor be confronted with a face she hates.
We have gone far enough. Stay, dear Œnone;
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,
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,
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, Œnone, 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
Ah, this reproach
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!
What awful project have you then conceived,
Whereat your conscience should be still alarm’d?
Have I not said enough? Spare me the rest.
I die to save myself a full confession.
Die then, and keep a silence so inhuman;
But seek some other hand to close your eyes.
Tho’ but a spark of life remains within you,
My soul shall go before you to the Shades.
A thousand roads are always open thither;
Pain’d at your want of confidence, I’ll choose
The shortest. Cruel one, when has my faith
Deceived you! Think how in my arms you lay
New born. For you, my country and my children
I have forsaken. Do you thus repay
My faithful service?
What do you expect
From words so bitter? Were I to break silence
Horror would freeze your blood.
What can you say
To horrify me more than to behold
You die before my eyes?
When you shall know
My crime, my death will follow none the less,
But with the added stain of guilt.
By all the tears that I have shed for you,
By these weak knees I clasp, relieve my mind
From torturing doubt.
It is your wish. Then rise.
I hear you. Speak.
Heav’ns! How shall I begin?
Dismiss vain fears, you wound me with distrust.
O fatal animosity of Venus!
Into what wild distractions did she cast
Be they blotted from remembrance,
And for all time to come buried in silence.
My sister Ariadne, by what love
Were you betray’d to death, on lonely shores
Madam, what deep-seated pain
Prompts these reproaches against all your kin?
It is the will of Venus, and I perish,
Last, most unhappy of a family
Where all were wretched.
Do you love?
All its mad fever.
Ah! For whom?
The crowning horror. Yes, I love—my lips
Tremble to say his name.
Know you him,
Son of the Amazon, whom I’ve oppress’d
Hippolytus? Great gods!
Have named him.
All my blood within my veins
Seems frozen. O despair! O cursèd race!
Ill-omen’d journey! Land of misery!
Why did we ever reach thy dangerous shores?
My wound is not so recent. Scarcely had I
Been bound to Theseus by the marriage yoke,
And happiness and peace seem’d well secured,
When Athens show’d me my proud enemy.
I look’d, alternately turn’d pale and blush’d
To see him, and my soul grew all distraught;
A mist obscured my vision, and my voice
Falter’d, my blood ran cold, then burn’d like fire;
Venus I felt in all my fever’d frame,
Whose fury had so many of my race
Pursued. With fervent vows I sought to shun
Her torments, built and deck’d for her a shrine,
And there, ’mid countless victims did I seek
The reason I had lost; but all for naught,
No remedy could cure the wounds of love!
In vain I offer’d incense on her altars;
When I invoked her name my heart adored
Hippolytus, before me constantly;
And when I made her altars smoke with victims,
’Twas for a god whose name I dared not utter.
I fled his presence everywhere, but found him—
O crowning horror!—in his father’s features.
Against myself, at last, I raised revolt,
And stirr’d my courage up to persecute
The enemy I loved. To banish him
I wore a step-dame’s harsh and jealous carriage,
With ceaseless cries I clamour’d for his exile,
Till I had torn him from his father’s arms.
I breathed once more, Œnone; in his absence
My days flow’d on less troubled than before,
And innocent. Submissive to my husband,
I hid my grief, and of our fatal marriage
Cherish’d the fruits. Vain caution! Cruel Fate!
Brought hither by my spouse himself, I saw
Again the enemy whom I had banish’d,
And the old wound too quickly bled afresh.
No longer is it love hid in my heart,
But Venus in her might seizing her prey.
I have conceived just terror for my crime;
I hate my life, and hold my love in horror.
Dying I wish’d to keep my fame unsullied,
And bury in the grave a guilty passion;
But I have been unable to withstand
Tears and entreaties, I have told you all;
Content, if only, as my end draws near,
You do not vex me with unjust reproaches,
Nor with vain efforts seek to snatch from death
The last faint lingering sparks of vital breath.
PHÆDRA, ŒNONE, PANOPE
Fain would I hide from you tidings so sad,
But ’tis my duty, Madam, to reveal them.
The hand of death has seized your peerless husband,
And you are last to hear of this disaster.
What say you, Panope?
The queen, deceived
By a vain trust in Heav’n, begs safe return
For Theseus, while Hippolytus his son
Learns of his death from vessels that are now
Divided counsels sway
The choice of Athens; some would have the prince,
Your child, for master; others, disregarding
The laws, dare to support the stranger’s son.
’Tis even said that a presumptuous faction
Would crown Aricia and the house of Pallas.
I deem’d it right to warn you of this danger.
Hippolytus already is prepared
To start, and should he show himself at Athens,
’Tis to be fear’d the fickle crowd will all
Follow his lead.
Enough. The queen, who hears you,
By no means will neglect this timely warning.
Dear lady, I had almost ceased to urge
The wish that you should live, thinking to follow
My mistress to the tomb, from which my voice
Had fail’d to turn you; but this new misfortune
Alters the aspect of affairs, and prompts
Fresh measures. Madam, Theseus is no more,
You must supply his place. He leaves a son,
A slave, if you should die, but, if you live,
A King. On whom has he to lean but you?
No hand but yours will dry his tears. Then live
For him, or else the tears of innocence
Will move the gods, his ancestors, to wrath
Against his mother. Live, your guilt is gone,
No blame attaches to your passion now.
The King’s decease has freed you from the bonds
That made the crime and horror of your love.
Hippolytus no longer need be dreaded,
Him you may see henceforth without reproach.
It may be, that, convinced of your aversion,
He means to head the rebels. Undeceive him,
Soften his callous heart, and bend his pride.
King of this fertile land, in Trœzen here
His portion lies; but as he knows, the laws
Give to your son the ramparts that Minerva
Built and protects. A common enemy
Threatens you both, unite them to oppose
To your counsel I consent.
Yes, I will live, if life can be restored,
If my affection for a son has pow’r
To rouse my sinking heart at such a dangerous hour.