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Britannicus


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A: Jean Racine Pf: 1669, Paris Pb: 1670 Tr: 1714 G: Trag. in 5 acts; French alexandrines S: Rome, c.ad 56 C: 4m, 3f, extrasNero, Emperor of Rome, having been a model ruler for three years, is weary both of being virtuous and of being dominated by his mother, Agrippina. By abducting a young noblewoman Junia, he strikes two blows: against his mother who protects the young woman, and against his half-brother Britannicus, who loves Junia. Britannicus is, like Nero, the son of Claudius, and being older, has prior claim to the throne but has been dispossessed by the machinations of Agrippina. Nero too falls in love with Junia, and forces her to reject Britannicus, secretly observing her as she does so. However, he later overhears her reassuring Britannicus that she does truly love him. Consumed with jealousy, Nero has Britannicus arrested. Nero is encouraged by his freed slave Narcissus, but opposed by his tutor and his mother, who reminds him of the sacrifices she made to put him on the throne: marrying her own uncle Claudius, then arranging his murder. Nero appears to relent and invites Britannicus to a banquet of reconciliation, but gives him poisoned wine to drink and watches impassively as he dies. Agrippina foretells Nero's future crimes, including matricide.

A: Jean Racine Pf: 1669, Paris Pb: 1670 Tr: 1714 G: Trag. in 5 acts; French alexandrines S: Rome, c.ad 56 C: 4m, 3f, extras

The title figure of Britannicus is merely a passive victim, and the focus is on ‘the birth of a monster’. In order to sharpen Nero's moral conflict, he is shown to have reigned well for three years, whereas in history he murdered Britannicus within months of his accession. He is also motivated by genuine love for Junia, preventing his becoming a crude stage villain. As ever in Racine, powerful emotion is seen in productive tension with neo-classical decorum and the formality of the verse.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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Jean Racine (1639—1699) French dramatist


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