Jean Racine (December 22, 1639 – April 21, 1699) was a French dramatist, one of the "Big Three" of 17th century France (along with Molière and Corneille), and one of the most important literary figures in the Western tradition. Racine was primarily a tragedian, though he did write one comedy.
In his own time, Racine found himself compared constantly with his contemporaries, especially the great Pierre Corneille. In his own plays, Racine sought to abandon the ornate and almost otherworldly intricacy that Corneille so favored. Audiences and critics were divided over the worth of Racine as an up and coming playwright. Audiences admired his return to simplicity and their ability to relate to his more human characters, while critics insisted on judging him according to the traditional standards of Aristotle and his Italian commentators from which he tended to stray. Attitudes shifted, however, as Racine began to eclipse Corneille. In 1674 the highly respected poet and critic Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (also known simply as "Boileau") published his Art Poétique which deemed Racine's model of tragedy superior to that of Corneille. This erased all doubts as to Racine's abilities as a dramatist and established him as one of the period's great literary minds.
Butler describes this period as Racine's "apotheosis," his highest point of admiration. Racine's ascent to literary fame coincided with other prodigious cultural and political events in French history. This period saw the rise of literary giants like Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, and François de La Rochefoucauld as well as Louis Le Vau's historic expansion of the Palace of Versailles, Jean-Baptiste Lully's revolution in Baroque music, and most importantly, the ascension of Louis XIV to the throne of France.
Under Louis XIV's revolutionary reign, France rose up from a long period of civil discord to new heights of international prominence. Political achievement coincided with cultural and gave birth to an evolution of France's national identity, known as l'esprit français. This new self perception acknowledged the superiority of all things French; the French believed France was home to the greatest king, the greatest armies, the greatest people, and, subsequently, the greatest culture. In this new national mindset, Racine and his work were practically deified, established as the perfect model of dramatic tragedy by which all other plays would be judged. Butler blames the consequential "withering" of French drama on Racine's idolized image, saying that such rigid adherence to one model eventually made all new French drama a stale imitation.
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