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A Return to Ancient Poetics: Racine's Andromaque and Seneca’s Troades

Mary Gilbert

University of Virginia

That Jean Racine was an avid reader of ancient literature is well known (Forestier, Knight, Phillippo), but underappreciated is the way he adapts the allusive techniques employed by Roman poets. Just as Ovid’s Ariadne self-consciously alludes to Catullus’ Ariadne, Racine's characters become 'readers' of ancient works and act and speak with reference to their predecessor-selves. In Andromaque (1667), the French poet employs this technique to great effect during the climactic confrontation between Andromaque and Pyrrhus. The Trojan captive supplicates the Greek king for the last time on behalf of her son, reminding him that she has never grasped another man’s knee: “Vous ne l'ignorez pas: Andromaque, sans vous, / N'aurait jamais d'un maître embrassé les genoux,” (Andromaque 3.6.915-16). This statement alludes to her namesake’s agon with Ulysses in Seneca’s Troades during which she also boasts that she has never grasped the knees of another man (Troades 691-93). Racine’s allusion is particularly ironic, because in claiming that she never grasped another man’s knees, Andromaque alludes to another play in which, faced with a similar situation, she does exactly that. The language of recollection used by Andromaque (Vous ne l'ignorez pas) and Orestes (vous savez trop, below) when reminding another character of a scene from Seneca’s play is Racine’s adaption of the poetic technique that modern scholars have termed the Alexandrian footnote, used first by the Hellenistic Greek poets and then by their Roman successors.

Another way that Racine engages with ancient texts involves reinterpreting a scene from an ancient work so that it fits with his own version of events. In Seneca’s Troades, Astyanax is forced by the victorious Greeks to leap from the ramparts of Troy to his death, but in Racine’s play the boy is still alive years after the Trojan war has concluded. Racine claims the right to revive Astyanax since the French kings of old trace their lineage back to the boy. As a result, he goes out of his way in Andromaque to fit the possibility of Astyanax’ survival back into Seneca’s play. When Pyrrhus boasts that both Andromaque and her son were awarded to him by le sort as a prize for his valor during the fall of Troy, Orestes reminds him that the boy was saved from imminent death by a trick that Pyrrhus himself played on the unsuspecting Greeks (“vous savez trop avec quel artifice / Un faux Astyanax fut offert au supplice,” Andromaque 1.2.221-22). Here we have two Racinian characters offering different versions of the events that took place in Seneca’s play.

It is only by examining Seneca’s treatment of Pyrrhus and Andromache that we can unpack what lies behind Orestes’ cryptic accusation. In the final confrontation between Andromaque and Pyrrhus (discussed above), Andromaque insists that Pyrrhus is aware of her plea to Ulysses in Troades. In Seneca’s scene, although the only speaking characters are Andromache and Ulysses, Andromache hints at the possibility of Pyrrhus’ presence when she calls on him for help in the middle of the agon (Troades 666-67). This is usually understood as an apostrophe, but a few hundred lines later, Pyrrhus materializes in the women’s quarters (Troades 999-1000), suggesting to Racine that Seneca’s Pyrrhus heard Andromache’s plea. Pyrrhus’ unnecessary appearance among the women is markedly odd and sometimes chalked up to Seneca’s poor understanding of dramatic staging (Fantham). But for Racine, it is here in the women’s quarters, far from the eyes of his fellow Greeks, that Pyrrhus silently returns Andromache’s child to her, having exchanged the boy with a surrogate. In these examples, Racine creatively interprets difficult details of Seneca’s play and masterfully carves out a space for his own story within the parameters delineated by Troades. In so doing, he follows in the footsteps of the Roman poets, who both grafted their stories onto frameworks established by their predecessors and adapted them to fit their own poetic program and cultural context.

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