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...
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…
Sleep is often a poetic euphemism for death; Utanapishtim even says as much when Gilgamesh finally catches up with him... "How alike are the sleeping and the dead..." In any event, Gilgamesh's foreboding deepens as they face the entrance to the forest. Gilgamesh and Enkidu find and confront Humbaba, and Humbaba tries to pursuade Gilgamesh to make friends with it, but Enkidu advises him to kill it, for fearing the
The characters in all of the literary works discussed here experience the elation of rising above whatever ails them on earth, but then being forced to fall back down to the harsh reality that they can never seem to fully escape. Additionally, in each of the works discussed here, ignorant bliss is portrayed is preferable to stark clarity. The primary difference between the poems and Keyes' novel, however, is
Civilization and the Wilderness -- Early American Literature The collision of society against the wilderness in the early stages of the development of America was used often as a theme in early American literature. As "civilization" arrived in the New World and immediately encroached upon the natural world and the Native Americans who thrived in that New World there were stories to be told to reflect the conflicts and relationships that
Thus, by contrast with Bradstreet's self-imposed humility, Fuller displays a very high-regard for herself, obviously influenced by the Transcendentalist movement which was centered on the self. In her writings and meditations, Fuller makes use of the Transcendentalist philosophy to extol the self and at the same time to promote the equality between men and women, which is a logical consequence of the privileged position of the human being and
Henry David Thoreau also senses this loss of distinction. His book, Walden, published in 1854 at the height of American Romanticism, celebrates his return to Nature -- a sanctum of non-artificiality -- where Romantic writers sought knowledge and spiritual fulfillment. Walden is a key work of American Romanticism because of its embedded ideas of solitude, individualism, pantheism and intuition. Thematically rich, Walden tackles the importance of self-reliance, solitude, contemplation and
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