Racine's Phaedra -- Compared to Blake's "Lamb" and Melville's Billy Budd
As Bernard Grebanier states, Racine's Phaedra speaks "with the violence of life itself" (xiv). If one were to compare the French playwright's most famous female lead to the English-speaking world's most famous male lead (as Grebanier does), it would have to be to Hamlet, whose passionate assessment of life is likewise problematic. Indeed, Phaedra raises many themes, including the importance of origin, innocence, and sin -- themes that may be found in as seemingly disparate works as William Blake's "The Lamb" and Herman Melville's Billy Budd. While Racine's Phaedra is the tale of a woman, torn by a passion that possesses her so cruelly that it destroys not only her life but the lives of others around her -- including the innocent man who is her obsession, Hyppolytus; Blake's poem deals with the triple theme of origin, innocence, and sin from the perspective of the Christian God; and Melville deals with the same triple theme from the heavy perspective of the law, followed to the letter (rather than to the spirit). This paper will analyze Phaedra and the triple theme of origin, innocence, and sin, and show how it compares to Blake's poem and Melville's novella.
The difficulty of dissecting Phaedra in any language other than the original French is something that has plagued translators of Racine, as Robert Lowell demonstrated in 1961 (Ricks 44). Patrick Swinden also insists that Racine's "hexameterswon't go into English" (209). In a sense, it is absurd to contemplate such a theme as origin when one cannot even analyze the play in its original language. Yet, origin is essential to understanding Phaedra. As C.H. Sisson explains, "The subject of Phaedra is mythological," (xi) and thus deeply concerned with beginnings (and, conversely, with ends). Phaedra's origin is important because it underscores the tension in her character -- a character which is wracked by passion and experience. Perhaps the best way to analyze her origin, therefore, is by way of comparison.
If Blake's "The Lamb" brings together the balladic repetitions of song with childlike precision and simplicity to effect a touching theological lesson, what makes "The Lamb" so effective is that it conveys a message of spiritual origin in a manner that the mind and heart of a child could grasp. His poem is addressed to a child (a point which makes its simplicity all the more endearing) and begins with the basic question of identity: Blake calls the child a lamb (a possible reference to Christ's admonition to Peter to "Feed my lambs") (John 21:15) and asks, "Little Lamb, who made thee?"
It is not a just a question of parentage. It is a question of supernatural origin. The same question of supernatural origin is made explicit in the very beginning of Racine's Phaedra -- "la fille de Minos et de Pasiphae" -- the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, who was herself the daughter of Helios, god of the Sun. The difference, of course, between Blake's child and Racine's Phaedra is that the former is innocence itself (the poem was, in fact, written for Blake's "Songs of Innocence") and the latter is, on the contrary, guilty of destroying innocence -- specifically, her son-in-law Hippolytus'. Hippolytus may be compared to Melville's Billy Budd: a strong, passionate, youth whose heart is good and pure. Hippolytus, like Billy, finds himself at the center of an evil plot born of jealousy. Hippolytus is unjustly accused of a crime he did not commit -- and Billy Budd is unjustly punished for manslaughter. In both instances, authority is to blame: in Phaedra, it is Theseus who allows himself to be deceived into thinking that Hyppolytus is guilty; in Billy Budd, it is Captain Vere who sends Billy to the scaffold against the better wisdom of his heart.
The letter of the law upon which Billy Budd is hung is read by Vere: "In wartime at sea a man-of-war's man strikes his superior in grade, and the blow kills. Apart from its effect the blow itself is, according to the Articles of War, a capital crime" (Melville 363). And yet Vere and the rest of the crew know Billy to be innocent, in that he had no intention of striking Claggart or inciting a riot or causing harm. But that Claggart slandered Billy Budd, the good nature of Billy could not but react to the lie that Claggart issued: therefore, though Vere understood this completely…