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JANln WHATLeY L'Orient desert: Berenice and Antony and Cleopatra In the conventionalized Mediterranean world in which Racine sets Berenice, Rome is the very embodiment of order, energy, and virtue, while the Orient stands for formlessness, passivity, and emptiness. The Orient, like Africa or the newly-discovered Americas, is merely a particular case of what we call the 'exotic: or that which is not us. The structures of the exotic world being incomprehensible to us, it is for our purposes structureless. The absence of apparent form can be exhilarating or terrifying; it is sometimes our daydreams and sometimes our anxieties that we project onto the exotic, for our own relief or illumination. For the exotic is a sort of blank cheque, to be filled out as the vision and temperament of the individual dictate. The barrenness of Racine's Orient in Berenice is, as I will show, of a subtle and pervasive kind, intricately bound up with the possibilities and choices in the destiny of his characters. As a contrast, I should like to consider some aspects ofShakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, to show how a similar set of exotic conventions can be given totally different meanings. Comparisons between Shakespeare and Racine, continually tempting to the critic, are notoriously difficult. To the Elizabethan and to the French neo-classic dramatists the sense of what constitutes dramatic unity, decorum, and the level of poetic diction appropriate to tragedy is vastly different; the very ranges of expression possible in the two languages at these stages of their respective developments are so disparate as to discourage the comparatist. We are trying to compare playwrights who are on different sides not only of a national and linguistic barrier, but also of the crucial temporal barrier between the early and the late seventeenth century. Nevertheless, Shakespeare and Racine belong to sister cultures, and have access to the same fund of ancient history and legend: particularly, that of ancient Rome and its relationship to the conquered lands to the east. Out of that relationship, each has written a play dealing with the public life and the private life, with structure and disintegration themes growing out of a forbidden liaison between a Roman emperor and an Oriental queen . For the purposes of these two plays, the Mediterranean world is the UTQ, Volume XLIV, Number 2, Winter 1975 L'ORIENT DESERT 97 whole world, and Rome the essence of civilization itself. At the eastern end of the Mediterranean begins the territory of the defeated: the kings of obscure realms of the Middle East. And east of them the land stretches on interminably, hopelessly, formlessly. Both Antony and Beninice, dealing as they do with structured and unstructured space, require the imagery of boundaries, frontiers, circumferences.' The geographical names themselves form catalogues that are part of the poetic systems of the two plays (and amidst the spareness of Racine's imagery, proper names tend to spring out in relief): in Beninice, Judee, l'Euphrate, Arabie, Syrie, ComagEme; inAntony, not only Egypt and old Nile, but all the domains of all those kings who will flee at Actium: Bocchus the King of Libya, Archelaus Of Cappadocia, Philadelphos, King Of Paphlagonia; the Thracian King AdaUas; King Mauchus of Arabia, King of Pont, Herod ofJewry; Mithridates, King Of Comagene... [m.vi.69'"741' The exotic names blend into an incantation summarizing everything that Rome must vanquish. And yet the Rome of both Racine and Shakespeare needs and seeks something from the Orient; but what is sought is different in the two plays, and in fact takes the whole of each play to find expression. For both, Rome is activity, efficiency, organization, the rigorous ordering of time, space, and energy. It risks all that control when it seeks real acquaintance with the Orient; what it may find is some kind of release, a new kind of energy or a new kind of calm. It is never quite clear whether Rome goes to the Orient to conquer or to be seduced. The Orient is even a sort of logical necessity: it is the 'other: that against which Rome can define itself, the female to Rome's male. But its 'otherness' can be realized in more...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 96-114
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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