The Nurse in Racine’s Phèdre. Between Imitation and Innovation
When attempting any mythological interpretation of Racine’s tragedies, consultation of their sources is a necessity: in the case of Phèdre the first works to be examined must clearly be those of Euripides and Seneca. However, even a meticulously close comparative reading of the play with its Greek and Latin predecessors does not end with the identification and analysis of the variants introduced by Racine in this epitome of seventeenth-century French tragedy in relation to the works of the Anciens. The intention here is that of examining the underlying motifs and the play of signification which these variants instigate. One of the most significant elements in such an analysis here is undeniably the role of the Nurse, where Racine operates unexpected differences when compared to his models. Although he keeps the indispensable dramaturgical features already present in his sources, here the Nurse does not simply embody the function of confidante and then bad counsellor, but becomes a character in the round, with her own name, OEnone, and with her own destiny. Above all it is the boundaries of her dialogue with Phèdre that change. Even allowing for the fact that in the first scene of Act I, during a sudden hesitation, the dialogue becomes a monologue, and that in the end Phèdre spurns OEnone, accusing her of being a bribed courtesan and a flatterer, during most of the action their voices blend to the point of almost seeming an interior monologue. What is even more fascinating is the space dedicated to OEnone’s suicide and its proximity to that of Phèdre when these events are recounted by the other characters. In this way it is the figure of the Nurse which becomes the moving force of innovation when compared to the ancient versions while the inevitable fascination of these sources never slackens its hold on Racine’s original project.
Keywords: Phèdre; Racine; nurse; French drama; classical reception; tragedy
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