Jean Racine (1639–1699). Phædra.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
Act IScene I
And I can stay no more in lovely Trœzen.
In doubt that racks my soul with mortal anguish,
I grow ashamed of such long idleness.
Six months and more my father has been gone,
And what may have befallen one so dear
I know not, nor what corner of the earth
And where, prince, will you look for him?
Already, to content your just alarm,
Have I not cross’d the seas on either side
Of Corinth, ask’d if aught were known of Theseus
Where Acheron is lost among the Shades,
Visited Elis, doubled Tœnarus,
And sail’d into the sea that saw the fall
Of Icarus? Inspired with what new hope,
Under what favour’d skies think you to trace
His footsteps? Who knows if the King, your father,
Wishes the secret of his absence known?
Perchance, while we are trembling for his life,
The hero calmly plots some fresh intrigue,
And only waits till the deluded fair—
Cease, dear Theramenes, respect the name
Of Theseus. Youthful errors have been left
Behind, and no unworthy obstacle
Detains him. Phædra long has fix’d a heart
Inconstant once, nor need she fear a rival.
In seeking him I shall but do my duty,
And leave a place I dare no longer see.
Indeed! When, prince, did you begin to dread
These peaceful haunts, so dear to happy childhood,
Where I have seen you oft prefer to stay,
Rather than meet the tumult and the pomp
Of Athens and the court? What danger shun you,
Or shall I say what grief?
That happy time
Is gone, and all is changed, since to these shores
The gods sent Phædra.
I perceive the cause
Of your distress. It is the queen whose sight
Offends you. With a step dame’s spite she schemed
Your exile soon as she set eyes on you.
But if her hatred is not wholly vanish’d,
It has at least taken a milder aspect.
Besides, what danger can a dying woman,
One too who longs for death, bring on your dead?
Can Phædra, sick’ning of a dire disease
Of which she will not speak, weary of life
And of herself, form any plots against you?
It is not her vain enmity I fear,
Another foe alarms Hippolytus.
I fly, it must be own’d, from young Aricia,
The sole survivor of an impious race.
What! You become her persecutor too!
The gentle sister of the cruel sons
Of Pallas shared not in their perfidy;
Why should you hate such charming innocence?
I should not need to fly, if it were hatred.
May I, then, learn the meaning of your flight?
Is this the proud Hippolytus I see,
Than whom there breathed no fiercer foe to love
And to that yoke which Theseus has so oft
Endured? And can it be that Venus, scorn’d
So long, will justify your sire at last?
Has she, then, setting you with other mortals,
Forced e’en Hippolytus to offer incense
Before her? Can you love?
Friend, ask me not.
You, who have known my heart from infancy
And all its feelings of disdainful pride,
Spare me the shame of disavowing all
That I profess’d. Born of an Amazon,
The wildness that you wonder at I suck’d
With mother’s milk. When come to riper age,
Reason approved what Nature had implanted.
Sincerely bound to me by zealous service,
You told me then the story of my sire,
And know how oft, attentive to your voice,
I kindled when I heard his noble acts,
As you described him bringing consolation
To mortals for the absence of Alcides,
The highways clear’d of monsters and of robbers,
Procrustes, Cercyon, Sciro, Sinnis slain,
The Epidaurian giant’s bones dispersed,
Crete reeking with the blood of Minotaur.
But when you told me of less glorious deeds,
Troth plighted here and there and everywhere,
Young Helen stolen from her home at Sparta,
And Peribœa’s tears in Salamis,
With many another trusting heart deceived
Whose very names have ’scaped his memory,
Forsaken Ariadne to the rocks
Complaining, last this Phædra, bound to him
By better ties,—you know with what regret
I heard and urged you to cut short the tale,
Happy had I been able to erase
From my remembrance that unworthy part
Of such a splendid record. I, in turn,
Am I too made the slave of love, and brought
To stoop so low? The more contemptible
That no renown is mine such as exalts
The name of Theseus, that no monsters quell’d
Have given me a right to share his weakness.
And if my pride of heart must needs be humbled,
Aricia should have been the last to tame it.
Was I beside myself to have forgotten
Eternal barriers of separation
Between us? By my father’s stern command
Her brethren’s blood must ne’er be reinforced
By sons of hers; he dreads a single shoot
From stock so guilty, and would fain with her
Bury their name, that, even to the tomb
Content to be his ward, for her no torch
Of Hymen may be lit. Shall I espouse
Her rights against my sire, rashly provoke
His wrath, and launch upon a mad career—
The gods, dear prince, if once your hour is come,
Care little for the reasons that should guide us.
Wishing to shut your eyes, Theseus unseals them;
His hatred, stirring a rebellious flame
Within you, lends his enemy new charms.
And, after all, why should a guiltless passion
Alarm you? Dare you not essay its sweetness,
But follow rather a fastidious scruple?
Fear you to stray where Hercules has wander’d?
What heart so stout that Venus has not vanquish’d?
Where would you be yourself, so long her foe,
Had your own mother, constant in her scorn
Of love, ne’er glowed with tenderness for Theseus?
What boots it to affect a pride you feel not?
Confess it, all is changed; for some time past
You have been seldom seen with wild delight
Urging the rapid car along the strand,
Or, skilful in the art that Neptune taught,
Making th’ unbroken steed obey the bit;
Less often have the woods return’d our shouts;
A secret burden on your spirits cast
Has dimm’d your eye. How can I doubt you love?
Vainly would you conceal the fatal wound.
Has not the fair Aricia touch’d your heart?
Theramenes, I go to find my father.
Will you not see the queen before you start,
That is my purpose: you can tell her.
Yes, I will see her; duty bids me do it.
But what new ill vexes her dear Œnone?