The classicism of Molière and of Racine
Document TypeMasters Research thesis
CitationLuke, A. K. (1940). The classicism of Molière and of Racine. Masters Research thesis, Arts, The University of Melbourne.
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© 1940 A. K. Luke
This thesis seeks to give an appreciation of the works of two great writers – Molière and Racine. Much space would be necessary in order to give a complete appreciation, and that is why a special aspect has been chosen – that of classicism. There are many different ideas as to what constitutes a classic, but one may say that the classical element of a work is that part which causes the work to escape death – that is, the part which causes the work to become immortal. There has been much of this undying spirit throughout literature, even in the earlier times: after all, it is nothing else than a harmony between matter, and the way of expressing it; for all poetry, all literature indeed, consists of these two things. This thesis seeks to show that this harmony is achieved in two different types of literature (but the difference between them is seen to be more apparent than real, when we examine the fundamental methods of the writers). If Molière had adopted the style of Racine, would he have succeeded in producing master-pieces? Molière’s genius understood the French spirit, and his comedy has much more of the eternal spirit than a comedy would have had if he had written in a more rigid style. That does not mean that Molière has never failed. He is human, and his work bears traces of that fact. This thesis does not propose to compare the good with the bad, but it seeks to give an appreciation of those classical elements which were so remarkable…. And after all, who will be judge of a work? One may give one’s ideas, and one’s reasons and proofs – that is all. If a work has survived, it is possible that it contains something immortal, and that it has been accepted by its judges. One may say, then, that the whole world is the judge of a work, and that if successive generations have accepted it, it is immortal. That does not mean simply that a work is immortal if it is immortal; but rather that a work is immortal if it contains something more than what is confined within the narrow limits of a single place or time…. some of those things which appeal to the whole world. There is no doubt that Molière and Racine have been accepted. The former appeals to almost everybody, but the latter is understood by Englishmen, for instance, only after much greater effort. Does that mean that Racine is less classical than Molière? Not necessarily. Classicism is a harmony between matter and the way of expressing it. If Molière’s way is easier to understand; is it not also true that Racine’s way is one of the glories of literature, and that much satisfying pleasure is found in his work? It is impossible to estimate with any sense of finality the quantity of classicism which each writer achieves. This thesis begins by giving an idea of the evolution of this type of literature. An Englishman considers a classic to b ‘something connected with antiquity’. This idea has been formed by the tradition of a classical education which has long been considered the summum bonum by schoolmen of our country. I have used this idea of what is classical as a starting point, following the psychological principle of proceeding from the known to the unknown. Thereafter follows a short study of the roots of that classicism which is the product both of the French spirit and of the time. The pages devoted to the development of classicism – to the history, so to speak – and the pages of the classical doctrine are necessarily full of information found I authorities, but it is necessary to seek for facts before having ideas about them. These are the facts. There is a list of the chief books I have read in preparing this thesis, but I stress the fact that the ideas of the third part have developed with me as I read Molière and Racine. And after all, it is not a strange thing that these two men of genius have been able to enthuse – even today. Is it not a further proof that they are true classicists?
KeywordsEnglish language text with French quotations; Molière (1622-1673); Jean Racine (1639-1699); French drama; comedy; tragedy; drama technique; classicism; French literature; 17th century; history and criticism
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