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Heath's Modern Language Series.















The tragedy of _Esther_ commends itself to moderately advanced students
of the French language by the fact that it is both the easiest and the
shortest masterpiece of French tragic literature. For such students
the present edition has been prepared. The text has been modified in
all minor points of spelling and grammar so as to conform with present
usage. The notes are intended either to make clear such matters of
history or grammar as offer any difficulty, or to emphasize that which
may be especially instructive from a literary, historical, or
grammatical point of view.

The appendix contains, in addition to a brief statement of the rules of
French verse, a systematic presentation of quotations from the play
illustrating a few of the grammatical points on which experience
teaches that the student's knowledge, in spite of grammars, is likely
to be vague.

The editor desires to acknowledge gratefully his indebtedness to M.
Paul Mesnard's exhaustive work in the _Collection des Grands Écrivains
de la France_, published under the direction of M. Ad. Régnier (Paris,
1865), and also to the excellent editions of Mr. G. Saintsbury (Oxford,
1886), and of Prof. E. S. Joynes (New York, 1882).




Jean Racine, unquestionably the most perfect of the French tragic
poets, was born in 1639, at La Ferté-Milon, near Paris. He received a
sound classical education at Port-Royal des Champs, then a famous
centre of religious thought and scholastic learning. At the early age
of twenty he was so fortunate as to attract, by an ode in honor of the
marriage of King Louis XIV., the favor of that exacting monarch,--a
favor which he was to enjoy during forty years. Yet more fortunate in
the friendship of Molière, of La Fontaine, and especially of his trusty
counsellor, Boileau, he doubtless owed to them his determination to
devote himself to dramatic literature.

His first tragedies to be put upon the stage were _La Thébaïde_ (1664)
and _Alexandre_ (1665), which gave brilliant promise. In 1667 appeared
_Andromaque_, his first chef-d'oeuvre, which placed him at once in the
very front rank by the side of Corneille. From that time forth, until
1677, almost each year was marked by a new triumph. In 1668, he
produced his one comedy, _Les Plaideurs_, a highly successful satire on
the Law Courts, in the vein of the "Wasps" of Aristophanes. In 1669,
he resumed his tragedies on historical subjects with _Britannicus_,
largely drawn from Tacitus, followed by _Bérénice_ (1670), _Bajazet_
(1672), _Mithridate_ (1673), _Iphigénie_ (1674), and _Phèdre_ (1677),
the last two being inspired by Euripides.

Incensed at a literary and artistic cabal, by which a rival play of
_Phèdre_, by Pradon, was momentarily preferred to his own, Racine now
withdrew from the stage. Appointed soon after to the not very onerous
post of historiographer to the King, he lived for a period of twelve
years a retired life in the bosom of his family.

In 1689, at the request of Mme. de Maintenon, the secret wife of Louis
XIV., he produced _Esther_, and in 1691, _Athalie_, both drawn from the
Scriptures and intended for private performance only. Embittered by
the indifference with which the latter tragedy was received,--although
posterity has pronounced it his masterpiece,--Racine definitely gave up
the drama. He died in 1699, after a few years devoted to his _Histoire
du Règne de Louis XIV._, his death being hastened by grief at having
incurred the King's displeasure on account of a memoir on the misery of
the people, which he wrote at the request of Mme. de Maintenon.

A devoted husband and father, an adroit but sincere courtier, Racine
has won the regard of posterity by his life as well as its admiration
by his literary genius. As a poet, he was endowed with the purest gift
of expression ever granted to a mind imbued with the works of the
classical writers of Greece and Rome.


French tragedy is purely a work of art. It does not claim to mirror
Nature in her infinite complexity; it is the professedly artificial
presentment, in the noblest form, of _character_ unfolding itself by
means of one action, as far as possible in one place, and within the
limits of one day. It is bound by other formal and conventional
rules: of versification--such as the alternation of masculine and
feminine pairs of rhymes, and of taste--such as the avoidance of all
"doing of deeds" on the stage (e.g., all fighting and dying take place
behind the scenes) and the grouping of the fewest possible secondary
parts around the one central situation.

There are but three names in the front rank of writers of French
tragedy: Corneille (1606-1684), Racine (1639-1699), and Voltaire
(1694-1778). Their tragic masterpieces cover but one century of time,
from Corneille's _Le Cid_ (1636) to Voltaire's _Mérope_ (1743). Before
these poets, French tragedy had not reached such a degree of perfection
as to be entitled to an identity of its own; after them and their few
feeble imitators, it was merged into a new form, and, as classical
French tragedy, ceased altogether to be.

Corneille purified both thought and language of the bad taste due to
the prevailing Spanish influence. He subordinated the actor to the
play, instead of composing, as his predecessors had done, lengthy
monologues for mere histrionic display. He did away with absurdly
tangled plots, and focussed the interest of tragedy on character.
Tragedy thus purified, he made immortal by the strength and elevation
of his moral teaching. His principal plays are _Le Cid_ (1636),
_Cinna_ (1639), _Polyeucte_ (1640).

The new tragedy shaped by Corneille, Racine carried to its highest
perfection of form. Nothing in his plays betokens struggle,
innovation, or effort. His is the polished finish of ease and
ripeness. Subtle delineation of the passions, profound tenderness,
faultlessness of style and expression, distinguish him above all
others. Yet this very perfection of form robs him of some of the
rough, wholesome vigor, which makes Corneille's plays the most healthy
reading in the French language. Corneille speaks by the mouths of
heroes, Racine speaks by the mouths of men.

Voltaire is only to be placed by their side for the extraordinary
skill, amounting to genius, with which he followed in their footsteps.
We must not look to him for new departures, nor indeed for the lofty
authority of the one, or the harmonious richness of the other. Yet in
each particular he succeeds, by the force of art, in getting within
measurable distance of his models: his _Zaïre_ (1733) and _Mérope_
(1743) would hardly have been disowned by either.

After Voltaire, new times demanded new methods. The nineteenth century
reacted against the portraiture of character alone, and required more
complete representation of the action; it called for deeds enacted on
the stage, and not in the slips. Hence, a new form, with a new name,
_le drame_, has taken exclusive possession of the French tragic stage.


In the year 1687, Mme. de Maintenon had founded at St. Cyr, in the
vicinity of the royal residence of Versailles, an establishment for the
education of two hundred and fifty girls, belonging to noble families
in reduced circumstances. To this institution she devoted much of her
time and care.

It was usual, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, to
consider the acting of plays a valuable aid to liberal education,
suitable pieces being often written by the heads of the institutions in
which they were to be performed. Dissatisfied with the compositions of
Mme. de Brinon, the first superior of St. Cyr, and objecting to the
love-making that held such a large place in the works written for the
public stage, Mme. de Maintenon applied to Racine, requesting him to
write a play that should be entirely suitable for performance by very
young ladies. The courtier poet could not refuse, and the result was
the play of _Esther_, performed in January, 1689, by pupils of St. Cyr,
not one of whom was over seventeen years of age.

The success of the play was startling. The king witnessed it
repeatedly, and insisted that all his court and guests should do
likewise. The performances of _Esther_, at St. Cyr, became great
events for the fashionable society of the day. This unlooked-for
result was not slow to alarm Mme. de Maintenon: their very success
became a danger for the youthful actresses. Accordingly, Mme. de
Maintenon discountenanced the resumption of _Esther_ after the first
series of performances was concluded, and she entirely withheld from
public representation the second play, _Athalie_, written by Racine in
the following year for the same purpose. Subsequently Mme. de
Maintenon banished dramatic performances altogether from St. Cyr; she
concluded it was better to train the _reason_[1] by the _solid_[1]
truths of philosophy than the imagination by the unrealities of
dramatic literature.


The subject of _Esther_ is admirably chosen for the purpose Racine had
in view. The story of Esther, owing mainly to the noble character of
the queen, is as touching as it is lofty. The poet found it entirely
in the Bible, which should be read side by side with the play from
beginning to end. Several inspirations, notably that of the beautiful
prayer in the first act, are drawn from the "Rest of the Book of
Esther," i.e., those chapters which being found only in the Greek, and
neither in the Hebrew nor in the Chaldee MSS., are relegated to the

Racine follows the theory of the Abbé de Saci, and takes the Ahasuerus
of Scripture to be the Darius of secular history.

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