Phèdre, Act II, Scene V

Phaedra declares her love

by Racine

In this extract from Racine’s Phèdre, the heroine, carried away by anxiety for her own child and believing that her husband has died, confesses her love to her stepson, Hippolytus. The immediate source of classical inspiration is Greek more than Latin – the Hippolytus of the Athenian dramatist Euripides – but Racine also mentions in his introduction the Latin drama, Phaedra, written by the first-century Roman writer Seneca, as well as referring to what Virgil had to say about the myth.

The scene is one of the most famous in French theatre and gave the actress Sarah Bernhardt some of her greatest triumphs. It was also an important influence on later writers, including, in the 20th century, Marcel Proust. It appears several times in his great novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu: first as an example of how hard it can be for experience to live up to high expectations, and later to illustrate the power of a great artist to transcend. Later on, the novel’s narrator ponders it as an example of unattainable love: ironically, he learns shortly afterwards that the mistress he hoped was returning to him has died.

See a portrait of Racine in the poet page here. The reader is Olivia Chapman.

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Ah, cruel ! tu m’as trop entendue!
Je t’en ai dit assez pour te tirer d’erreur.
Eh bien ! connais donc Phèdre et toute sa fureur:
J’aime ! Ne pense pas qu’au moment que je t’aime,
Innocente à mes yeux, je m’approuve moi-même;
Ni que du fol amour qui trouble ma raison
Ma lâche complaisance ait nourri le poison;
Objet infortuné des vengeances célestes,
Je m’abhorre encor plus que tu ne me détestes.
Les dieux m’en sont témoins, ces dieux qui dans mon flanc
Ont allumé le feu fatal à tout mon sang;
Ces dieux qui se sont fait une gloire cruelle
De séduire le cœur d’une faible mortelle.
Toi-même en ton esprit rappelle le passé:
C’est peu de t’avoir fui, cruel, je t’ai chassé;
J’ai voulu te paraître odieuse, inhumaine;
Pour mieux te résister, j’ai recherché ta haine.
De quoi m’ont profité mes inutiles soins?
Tu me haïssais plus, je ne t’aimais pas moins;
Tes malheurs te prêtaient encor de nouveaux charmes.
J’ai langui, j’ai séché dans les feux, dans les larmes:
Il suffit de tes yeux pour t’en persuader,
Si tes yeux un moment pouvaient me regarder.
Venge-toi, punis-moi d’un odieux amour:
Digne fils du héros qui t’a donné le jour,
Délivre l’univers d’un monstre qui t’irrite.
La veuve de Thésée ose aimer Hippolyte !
Crois-moi, ce monstre affreux ne doit point t’échapper;
Voilà mon cœur: c’est là que ta main doit frapper.
Impatient déjà d’expier son offense,
Au-devant de ton bras je le sens qui s’avance.
Frappe: ou si tu le crois indigne de tes coups,
Si ta haine m’envie un supplice si doux,
Ou si d’un sang trop vil ta main serait trempée,
Au défaut de ton bras prête-moi ton épée;

Cruel one, you have understood me too well!
I have said enough for you to make no mistake.
So! Know Phèdre and the whole of her madness:
I am in love! Don’t think that when I love you
I approve myself, innocent in my own eyes;
nor that a weak desire to please has fed the poison
of the insane love that disturbs my reason;
the unlucky object of celestial revenge,
I abhor myself even more than you detest me.
Gods be my witness, who in my side
have lit the fire, baneful to all my blood;
Gods who have cruelly gloried in
seducing the heart of a weak, mortal woman.
Think, remember the past for yourself:
I did not just avoid you, cruel one, I drove you away:
I wanted to appear to you hateful, inhuman;
to resist you the better, I sought your hate.
What good did these useless precautions do me?
You hated me more, I loved you no less;
your sorrows lent you new, still further charms.
I languished, wasted by fires and tears:
your own eyes would be enough to persuade you,
if for a moment your eyes could look at me.
Take vengeance, punish me for a hateful love:
Worthy son of the hero through whom you saw the day;
deliver the world of a monster who torments you.
The widow of Theseus dares to love Hippolytus!
Believe me, this frightful monster will not escape you;
here is my heart: that is where your hand should strike.
Impatient already to expiate its crime,
I feel it advance to meet your arm.
Strike: or if you think it unworthy of your blows,
if your hate begrudges me so gentle a death,
or the blood is too vile in which your hand would soak,
instead of your arm, lend me your sword;
give it me!


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