Feminist Critique of Jean Racine’s “Phedre” Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jun 27th, 2020

Introduction

Jean Racine was a noble French dramatist and a poet in the 17 century and has written a number of plays in which one of them is Phedre. Racine plays are very appealing to watch although they have aspects of pessimism and immorality. The Phedre has received many feminists’ criticisms stating that the play is depicting women as mere sexual bodies, emotionally weak and dangerous in their lust for love. Phedre is the main actor depicting the themes of passion and jealousy for love in the play. The drama revolves around the lust for love by the characters leading to the main conflicts in the drama. Phedre find herself in the crossroads: she is married to her sister’s ex-husband, Theseus, and she has a great passion for her stepson, Hippolytus.

The lustful feelings of love overwhelm Phedre to the point where she become very jealous of her stepson, and falsely accused him of raping her because he rejected her demands. When Theseus heard about the bad news, he petition god of Neptune to punish Hippolytus. Hippolytus eventually died when he fell out of frightened chariots by the monster in the sea.

Phedre also frustrated her nurse, Oenone, causing her to commit suicide by drowning into the ocean. The deaths of Hippolytus and Oenone caused Phedre to confess her guilty and commit suicide (Racine 2-3). Although the Phedre is depicting reality, feminists have heaped lots of criticism on the way women are portrayed as immoral, jealous, emotionally weak and quite dangerous in their passion for love.

Sex and Gender

Feminists’ theorists distinguish sex from gender and refute claims that sexes denote social perceptions to women. Phenomenological theories try to distinguish physiological and biological perception of sex and relating sex with the experience because they argue that body is an historical idea but not a natural species (Butler 520). Phedre portrays women as sexual bodies that are full of passion and jealousy for the love, the contrast depicts different believes and perception of what constitutes gender. Phenomenological theories further argue that the body is not only an historical idea but also has set of achievable possibilities.

The historical concept provides the basis of experiences because no one is born a woman but become one through experiences, while the body having set of possibilities means that the destiny of the body has many open possibilities that are not predetermined by anyone. Historically, the world shapes and replaces the open possibilities with predetermined and specific possibilities that have changed our perception on what constitutes gender (Butler 519-521).

In the Phedre, perception of women as sexual bodies depicts the limits of possibilities that predetermine the historical context of women. In the present day, it requires critical assessment of the factors that determines a certain culture for one to take note of the limiting perceptions on gender. Butler concludes, “Gender is not passively scripted on the body, and neither is it determined by nature, language, the symbolic, or the overwhelming history of patriarchy” (531). Hence, gender is the sum of all cultural aspects and daily activities that shape the perceptions in terms of anxiety and pleasure thus transforming culture.

Fuller has experiences of seeing how men describes beauty of women in terms of sex and strength of woman in terms of man (Para. 9). This culture has build over a long period and requires radical changes within the society that are theoretically possible. In Phedre play, women are depicted as objects of sex, love, immorality that led to tragic consequences in the society. Men have stereotypes on the roles and abilities of the women because instead of encouraging them to maximize their abilities, they delimit and discourage their efforts of doing their best.

Divine Perspective

Racine view Phedre as in a trap by the anger of gods and her destiny due to the unlawful and jealous passion that resulted into the deaths of Hippolytus and Oenone (8). Although Phedre is trying to overcome the haunting guilt of her crime, she is so disgraced, making her attributes her crime as a punishment from gods. Fuller is portraying the divine perspective of caring gods contrary to the depiction of Racine in Phedre afflictions.

Fuller says that the great promise of all ages is that gods incarnated and came down to guard the destinies of this world (Para. 11). This displays the great love of the Creator of universe incarnating and coming down to guard against enemies and not a god who punishes souls in anguish. Fuller notes that no one is ungrateful, everyone needs faith and love but they all cry with scepticism in search of answers (Para 12). When Men encounter dilemma, they experience the desire to seek help from the unknown and whatever that can answer their expectations receives perception of reverence.

Feminist Theory

Butler argues that, “gender constitution has political assumptions and implications and it is impossible to separate a theory of gender from a political philosophy of feminism” (529). Politicians create the social perception and phenomena of gender in that without their support on feminists’ theory there will be no radical changes. In the case of the Phedre the play, the use of top political figures, prince and queen as characters denotes political aspect of the gender perception. Gender perceptions from political point of view have serious implications on the adoption of feminist’s theory and eventually the net significance changes in the historical perceptions that are anchored on the traditions of the society.

Feminists use phenomenology to explain aspects of character such as gender, sex and sexuality in the description of the body. From cultural perspective of gender, phenomenologist tries to understand factors underlying gender connotation and possible reasons for the oppression and marginalization of one gender over the other (Butler 525). There is a tendency of men to attain and maintain oppression of women, partly due to the cultural and historical experiences coupled with selfish interests and innate characteristics that make men appear as though aggressive. The oppression of the woman is what has led to the emergence of feminists in order to advocates for their denied rights or wrong perceptions of their abilities.

Deadly Love

In the play, Phedre, the main character portrays passionate love. Phedre finds herself in dilemma as she is married to the former husband to her sister, Theseus, and again she is falling in love with his stepson, Hippolytus. This clearly depicts Phedre as immoral in character. The mysterious disappearing of Theseus gave her an opportunity of expressing her love to Hippolytus but he rejected her intentions and when Theseus reappears, she decides to accuse Hippolytus falsely of raping her, hence created a great enmity between Theseus and Hippolytus that ended in the death of Hippolytus due to punishment from the god of Neptune. Phedre also mistreated her nurse into committing suicide by drowning (Symons Para. 8). When she realised the extent of crimes she has caused, she committed suicide (Racine 2-3). The overall theme of love resulted into a tragic end that has received lots of feminists’ criticism on the depiction and intention of the author.

Fuller argue that men cannot be advocates for their rights because all men are under the influence of women. Man has a wife, a sister and other female friends that surrounds him and they all exerts some influence on a man perception on gender (Para. 7). If women should propose and enforce their wishes as they are pleased, and as was seen in the Phedre, then a conflicts ensues as “the beauty of home would be destroyed, the delicacy of the sex be violated, the dignity of halls of legislation degraded” (Fuller Para. 9). The introduction and integration of new behaviours into the family will have some serious consequences, as they are inconsistent with those of a typical family that is under the influence of traditions.

Conclusion

The Racine’s Phedre play is an appealing play that depicts the theme of love, immorality and tragic consequences associated with the jealous love. The theme of death portrays the gravity and the moving nature of the play, showing the reality of immorality and its possible consequences. Feminists are very sensitive in way women are portrayed in the Phedre, the play and they advocates for the positive depiction and perception of the woman in all the aspects of the society.

They criticize Racine’s Phedre that, women are portrayed as the objects of sex and love, having potential to cause death in their pursuit of love regardless of the means of attaining their ends. Feminists argue that sex and gender are distinct aspects of the body terming gender as an historical perception of the body but not a natural depiction. Hence, gender is not determined by the physical attributes such as biology, language or symbols but it is based on historical perception.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist.” The Johns Hopkins University Press Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-531 Web.

Fuller, Margaret. “Woman in the Nineteenth Century.” America Transcendentalism. 1844. Web.

Racine, Jaen. “Racine’s Phaedra. Trans. Colin John Holcombe”. 2008. Web.

Symons, Arthur. “Jean Racine”. Theatre Database. 2010. Web.




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