Friday, October 31, 2014

Racine's Phedre, the Law, and Liberty

This week we have been discussing Racine's Phedre, comparing it, of course, to Seneca's and Euripides' plays on the same myth.

In Euripides' play, Phaedra feels guilt, then shame at confessing her guilt, leading her to commit suicide and write a letter accusing Hippolytus of raping her in order to ensure her children won't be shamed by her actions. Shame is social, and it affects one's family.

In Seneca's play, Phaedra feels guilt, then takes responsibility for her feelings, leading her to telling Hippolytus how she feels. His answer to her angers her, she falsely accuses him of rape, and Hippolytus dies. She feels such guilt that she commits suicide.

In each of these cases, there is a retreat to an earlier social regulator, which results in Phaedra's suicide. Euripides' Phaedra is in a shame culture, but feels guilt; when she retreats to shame, she commits suicide and makes her false accusation. Seneca's Phaedra is in a guilt culture; her attempt to avoid responsibility results in her false accusation, and her overwhelming guilt causes her to commit suicide.

In Racine's play, Phedre feels guilt under the the law of Theseus. Indeed, the law of Theseus also prevents Hippolytus from acting on his own feelings toward Aricia (a love interest introduced by Racine). The law makes each feel guilty about who they love. When it is reported that Theseus is dead, the law is lifted, and Phedre and Hippolytus each pursue their interests. While Racine claimed that he gave Hippolytus a love interest to make him more flawed in relation to the law, I think most people would have been happy for Hippolytus to be free to pursue his love, especially given that she is clearly in love with him as well. Phedre is still in a problematic position in going after Hippolytus, but she is freer to do so given she is no longer his step-mother, given Theseus' death. Regardless, the removal of the law frees people, and they are willing to become the causes of their actions, following on their desires, making them responsible agents. However, Theseus is not dead, and his return brings back the law. Because of the return of the law (and the guilt that comes with it), Hippolyus is killed and Phedre commits suicide.

Here we have a situation in which the social regulator -- the law -- is removed in a quite literal way. With its removal, guilt disappears. With its return, guilt returns as well. The retreat to the older social regulator -- from responsibility for one's own actions to guilt in the face of the law -- triggers the tragic outcomes.

The variations on the Phaedra/Hippoytus myth are very revealing in regards to the nature of our social regulators. But while Senea's and Racine's version deal with the transition from guilt to responsibility culture, it is Racine's version that best demonstrates how this occurs.
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