Practise Commentary: Phèdre III.i.737-763
Word count: 1070
Phèdre is a dramatic tragedy that tells the story of Phèdre, a supposed ‘widower’, who has become smitten with her stepson, Hippolyte, after the prolonged absence of her husband, Thésée, the king of Athens whom is thought to be dead. The excerpt from the play to be analysed, a dialogue between Phèdre and Oenone, presents the issuesof Phèdre’s forbidden love as well as the jurisdiction of Trézène. Preceding this discourse, Hippolyte rejected Phèdre’s confession of love with much shame and revulsion. It is Phèdre’s recount and response to this rejection that holds focus as the scene begins. Subsequently Oenone shifts attention to the possibility of Phèdre filling the, now, empty throne of Trézène, eliciting a doubtfulresponse. The excerpt culminates in a quick exchange of words between the two. Through the analysis of literary techniques, rhetoric devices and grammar, as they occur in the text, we hope to attain a better understanding of the ideas conveyed within this passage of Racine’s Phèdre.
The scene opens on a harsh note; an irate Phèdre questions her servant: ‘ Importune, peux-tu souhaiter qu’on me voie? Dequoi viens-tu flatter mon esprit désolé ?‘ The manner in which these questions are asked not only set the hasty, angered tone of the speech but also enlightens the audience about the inner-workings of Phèdre’s mind and her relationship with Oenone. The frustrated nature of the text is emphasised through Racine’s usage of periphrasis: in dubbing Oenone “importune” he highlights the annoyance andblame Phèdre feels towards her. This is further stressed through the use of the comma, which distorts the regularity of the rhythm, following ‘importune’. Racine employs the technique of periphrasis to avoid directly naming Hippolyte; throughout the excerpt he is only ever designated as “ingrat”, “l’insensible” or a nondescript personal pronoun. This practice is seen throughout the play and is aform of denying the truth, concealing identities, and highlighting certain qualities of a character.
Looking at Phèdre’s opening ‘rant’, one may notice that she shifts grammatical tenses from present to imperative as she gives Oenone the order “Chache-moi bien plutôt” in the first hemistich of line 740. The second hemistich however “je n’ai que trop parlé” contrasts the former in its use of thepassé compose. These different tenses give insight into Phèdre’s psyche; although she admits her own actions with the use of the passé compose, she states that it is Oenone who must hide her and take responsibilities for her actions. This is a reflection of Phèdre’s own poor self-reliance. This idea is omnipresent in the text: by stating that “[S]es fureurs au dehors ont osé se repandre” Phèdrepersonifies her passion giving the illusion that she had no control thereof; in desperation Phèdre apostrophises the gods “Ciel! Comme il m’ecoutait!” (line 743) in hope of support from her ancestors; and within the question “Pourquoi détournais-tu mon funeste dessein?” (line 747) Phèdre shifts blame onto Oenone, for it was Oenone who coerced her into acting upon her passions.
Moreover “monfuneste dessein” coupled with the following line, “son épée allait chercher mon sein”, alludes to the preconceived notion of her inevitable fate; death. This defeatist attitude is further accentuated with the interjection “Helas!” a term that signifies regret. This creates a coup and produces the effect of imbalance not only in the alexandrine but also in Phèdre’s own mind; suggestive that she, herself,is giving into sorrow.
Despite her mistress being terribly upset, Oenone swiftly dismisses Phèdre’s emotional outburst and reminds her with a word of advice (“vous-nourrissez un feu qu’il vous faudrait éteindre.”) that she must forget about Hippolyte and rule over Trézène, herself. The idea of this possibility is seen in the transition of tenses from present to conditional (“qu’il vous...
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