Places: Britannicus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1670 (English translation, 1714)

First produced: 1669

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: 55 c.e.

Places DiscussedNéron’s palace

Néron’s Britannicuspalace (nay-ROH[N]). Imperial palace in Rome within whose public area the tragedy takes place. In his preface to the play–which bears the name of Néron’s half-brother–Jean Racine wrote that Néron was never a virtuous man and that his play would portray him as a “monster.” The crimes of Néron (more commonly known as Nero) are so well known, even to those with only a superficial knowledge of Roman history, that Racine’s audiences not only expected unspeakable crimes to be committed within the palace, they sensed Néron’s evil presence even when he was physically absent from the stage. Néron is both voyeuristic and sadistic. His pure evil is everywhere in his palace. In the play’s second act, he attempts to seduce the young Junie, whom he tries to force to renounce her love for Britannicus. Later, as Junie and Britannicus talk together, audiences are aware that Néron is offstage listening. Almost any course of action they take will get Britannicus killed. Both lovers are in grave danger.

Because of a convention associated with seventeenth century French theater, physical violence could not be depicted onstage. However, this restriction actually serves to make the public area of the palace seem even more threatening, as audiences cannot know what horrendous crimes Néron and his henchman, Narcisse, are committing offstage.

When Néron, Britannicus, and Junie finally meet together onstage for the first time, near the end of the third act, it is clear that Néron intends to kill Britannicus and rape Junie, but the audience does not know the order in which these crimes will be committed. Eventually, Néron calls in guards to arrest Britannicus, who is marched offstage to await his death. The only uncertainty is the form that Britannicus’s execution will take. Later, Néron gives a glass of poisoned wine to Britannicus, who dies instantly in front of numerous witnesses, who immediately look at Néron. The virtuous Burrhus, who has tried in vain to teach moral values to Néron, returns to the stage and describes the murder in a short funeral oration. When Junie hears his speech, she flees. In the play’s final scene, Albina, who is the confidant of Néron’s mother, Agrippina, returns to the same public room and announces that when Narcisse chased after Junie on a public street, he was killed by a mob protecting the innocent Junie, who is to remain in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, where she will finally be safe from the emperor. Although no physical violence is depicted in the public room, this scene is filled with violence in the minds of both the spectators and the moral characters.

BibliographyAbraham, Claude. Jean Racine. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Intended for the general reader; all quotations are in English. Gives a brief biographical sketch and discusses Racine’s major works.Butler, Philip. Racine: A Study. London: Heinemann, 1974. Introduction to Racine, with a section on how to read his works. Indicates the traditional approach to literary criticism as well as nontraditional approaches.Lapp, John C. Aspects of Racinian Tragedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1955. Contains excellent thematic analyses. An informative account of Racine’s dramatic art.Turnell, Martin. Jean Racine, Dramatist. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972. Shows how Racine may be considered the greatest French tragic dramatist. Gives an interesting analysis of Racine’s imagery and illuminating study on each of his plays.Weinberg, Bernard. The Art of Jean Racine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Presents Racine’s tragedies arranged chronologically in order to show how his dramatic art evolved. Refers to neoclassicism to explain Racine’s plays.
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