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23 april 2019

Bérénice begins with a classic (neoclassical) cast list. It's basically a three-character play: the emperor Titus, his main squeeze Bérénice, and their third wheel, Antiochus. (Antiochus, naturally, is Titus' devoted friend and ally, completing the eternal triangle.) Since much of the drama is psychological, and it would be odd in Racine's theatrical conventions – and only slightly less odd in ours – to have the three wander around talking to themselves about their thoughts and feelings, each of the principals is supplied with a confidant or -dante. They might as well be talking to Siri or Alexa half the time, but the device of the confidant(e) does get us into their heads.

Titus is a brand-new Roman emperor, just ascended after the death of his father Vespasian. Ruling Rome is nice and all that, but the real perk is that Titus finally gets to propose to Bérénice. There's the small problem that Bérénice is a foreign queen, and the larger problem that Antiochus (a foreign king) has had a crush on her since they were teenagers.

Right from the start, things seem headed for renunciation, exile, bloodshed, or all of the above. Our characters are variously drawn toward and away from one another, like those little scottie-dog magnets that repel or attract depending on which way they're turned. Antiochus is such a good friend to Titus that, midway through the play, when Titus can't bring himself to tell Bérénice that it's all over between them, he delegates the task to Antiochus. Naturally she doesn't believe Antiochus. What kind of guy is he, making up a self-serving story like that?

So it's up to Titus to break the bad news in person. The unity of place demands that the whole play occur in a single room: an corridor that somehow connects Titus' apartment to Bérénice's. This has obvious dramatic convenience but is somewhat vexing in terms of realism: what amounts to a secret passage seems to get a heck of a lot of traffic from main characters and confidants alike.

Still, the conversations between Bérénice and Titus in this handy anteroom are remarkable for their dramatic and verbal balance. For a play with basically zero plot, Bérénice is engaging and affecting for the reader, and in a good production for the audience, I have to think. All that's going to happen is that nothing's going to happen (spoiler: nobody dies at the end), but for that very reason, the unconsummated attraction between Bérénice and Titus is poignant.

Romans are pretty strict about this no-queen thing. (Bérénice is also Jewish, though that barely registers in the play's rhetoric.) Titus still really wants to marry her, but if he does he's starting out his reign by violating the prime directive. "Maintiendrai-je des lois que je ne puis garder?" he asks (Act 4, Scene 5). "Can I enforce laws that I cannot abide by?" It's a good question.

For his part, Antiochus isn't even fixing to get Bérénice on the rebound. For her, there are no men after Titus, and Antiochus gets the message early:

Pour fruit de tant d'amour, j'aurai le triste emploi
De recueillir des pleurs qui ne sont pas pour moi. (Act 3, Scene 2)

My reward for all my love? I have the miserable job
Of collecting tears that are not shed for me.

Bérénice is a play that believes in true love as something separate from societal roles or considerations of self-interest. One is permitted to doubt whether the real-life Titus and Bérénice would have felt this way, or any particular personal way at all. That doubt does not even entail a belief that "love" did not exist for pre-modern people: plenty of modern monarchs have gone into marriages with very little romantic courtship. But we know very little about Titus and Bérénice: merely a stray suggestion by the historian Suetonius that they once dated and he then dumped her. Racine reads a whole lot into that snippet, and invites us to join his thought experiment.

In a weird sense, the ancient Romans do not persist outside of thought experiments. Even Suetonius was not a contemporary of Titus; he wrote many decades after the emperor's death. Like nearly all our sources for the history of ancient Rome – for that matter, like ourselves – Suetonius was interested in early emperors for the lessons they provided for his own time. Titus himself, talking to Bérénice in Act 4, Scene 5, goes over a list of noble-Roman renunciations of the past, as if to suggest that history is just a hall of mirrors where we keep seeing ourselves as others saw others.

Bérénice sums up her situation and her entire play near the end (Act 5, Scene 7). "Je l'aime, je le fuis; Titus m'aime, il me quitte." I love him, I'm leaving him; Titus loves me, he's leaving me." It's uncomplicated and it doesn't make strict sense. But it's a great example of Racine's poetics and of his dramatic powers.

Racine, Jean. Bérénice. 1670. iBooks.