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Phaedra, Essay Example

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Essay

In the play, Phaedra, French dramatist Jean Racine uses a classical story from the time of the Ancient Greeks to examine the conflict between romance and reason (Racine). The period of the Enlightenment during which time Racine produced the play was preoccupied with the concept of reason and man’s ability to utilize reason to overcome their inherent weaknesses (Lewis).

The main character, Phaedra, is fatally passionate in her love for her stepson, Hippolytus. In his play, Racine portrays the struggle that Phaedra endures in attempting to control her love for her stepson. Throughout the entire five acts of the play, Phaedra attempts to rationalize her way out of the relationship but her passions cannot be overcome through rational thought. No matter how hard she tries Phaedra’s struggle seems hopeless and she seems pre-ordained to a life of self-destruction. Nothing that she does can relieve her from the passion that she feels for her stepson. In the end, her passion leads to her death as she takes her own life.

For writers and intellectuals of the Enlightenment the pursuit of happiness was the primary goal in life but they believed that this pursuit was driven by reason. They believed that man could discover through their power to reason the cause of their misery and discomfort and choose the proper course of action that would relieve these conditions (Berlin). Racine’s Phaedra, unfortunately, represented what can occur when an individual fails to properly utilize rational thinking, but instead, surrenders herself to love and passion.

Racine’s reliance upon the Greek classics to demonstrate his point is typical of the Enlightenment period. Like the Ancient Greek philosophers, the leading intellectuals of the enlightenment believed that there was a strong connection between human rationality and the attainment of happiness but the Ancient Greeks believed that rationality and passion were both important but had to be maintained in proper balance (Annas). The Enlightenment thinkers, however, largely viewed passions and emotions as being irrational. Whimsical behavior such as that demonstrated by Phaedra was actually an obstacle to happiness according to Enlightenment theory because happiness cannot be attained by accumulating moments of pleasure but only through living life in accordance with achieving good character and developing rational values. The thinkers of the Enlightenment looked upon emotions with suspicion. They attempted to understand the world and man’s place in it solely on the basis of reason and by examining nature. Emotions, such as love and passion, were not easily examined through evidence and proof and, as a result, the Enlightenment period was uncomfortable with them. Instead, artists, writers, philosophers, and scientists of the Enlightenment period attempted as much as possible to divorce themselves from emotions and to explain life through rational means.

From the point of view of the Enlightenment, Phaedra represents what occurs when rationality is not properly utilized and emotion begins to control an individual’s thinking. Phaedra’s reliance upon her passions and desires would be viewed during the Enlightenment as weaknesses and as self-destructive. The fact that she chose to take her own life would be seen as evidence of Phaedra’s inherently weak character. A character formed by her failure to be rational.

The Enlightenment witnessed a return to reliance upon rationality to explain the human condition and many used the lessons first used by the Ancient Greeks to demonstrate how rationality was the key to happiness. In retelling the story of Phaedra, Racine used this tragic figure as a means of demonstrating how a heavy reliance upon emotion can lead to unhappiness and destruction. From Racine’s point of view, Phaedra’s tragedy could have been avoided through the exercise of rationality.

Works Cited

Annas, Julia. “Prudence and Morality in Ancient and Modern Ethics.” Ethics (1995): 241-257.

Berlin, Isaiah. The Age of Enlightenment. New York: Plume, 1984.

Lewis, Hackett. “The Age of Enlightenment.” 1992. International World History Project. 8 September 2011 <http://history-world.org/age_of_enlightenment.htm>.

Racine, Jean. “Phaedra.”, Sarah Lawall (Editor) . The Norton Anthology of World Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 365-402.

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