write a focused analysis on a particular aspect of Racine’s Phaedra.

Drawing on the online discussion, my lecture notes, and your own reading, write a focused analysis on a particular aspect of Racine’s Phaedra. You may choose to select one passage (either a scene, a few lines, or maybe even just one word that you would like to trace throughout the work) and explain how it contributes to an insightful understanding of the play. Alternatively, you may choose to be more thematic in your approach and explain what the role of a specific motif is in the play, citing specific lines from the dialogue.

Here are some possible prompts to choose from (but feel free to come up with prompts of your own):

  • What is the role of monsters/monstrosity in the play? Without relying on a dictionary, can you come up with a definition of “monster” ONLY in the context of this play? (Don’t get side-tracked by other works of drama or fiction that deal with monsters – make sure to be focused and only stick to this play). What is Racine’s portrayal of monstrosity? Are there are any monsters here? If so, who are they? What makes them monsters? How do they drive the plot? What is the relationship between the monstrous and the beautiful? The monstrous and the human? Is there a difference between the monstrous and the criminal?
  • What is the role of silence in the play? Can silence be criminal? How? What is the relationship between silence and language? What is the relationship between language and action that Racine establishes? Are these characters ever able to take back what they say? Are the punishments meted out by the end justified? Why or why not?
  • To what extent is _____________________ (choose any character here: Phaedra, Oenone, Hippolytus, Theseus, etc.) responsible for the tragic outcome(s) of the play? N.B. Any time you answer a question that begins with “To what extent…” it is not sufficient to give a black-and-white answer (either “yes” or “no”). You must explore the terrain of ethical ambiguity in a more sophisticated manner. So, for example, if you choose to write about Oenone’s role, you will NOT get high marks if you simply say that she is responsible. Try to think like a lawyer providing both the prosecution and the defense of the character. Don’t be too eager to lay all the blame on one person, and please avoid any totalizing language like “absolutely” or “totally”. I’m less interested in you finding a final verdict than an assessment of what contributing (albeit limited) role the character of your choice plays in the tragic outcome, being well aware that a variety of other circumstances beyond that character’s control are also at work. What are these circumstances? Does this character intend to inflict harm? If so, how much? Does the harm that eventually occurs exceed the character’s intention? Are there situations here in which an intention to help paradoxically ends up creating harm? How much agency does this character actually have? If Oenone is Phaedra’s servant, how much room does she have to act on her own? If Phaedra is being punished by Venus, a deity she cannot outpower, does that mitigate her responsibility?
  • How does Racine portray shame and guilt in this play? Is there a difference between the two? What crime was ever committed? Without even acting on the initial forbidden desires (Phaedra for Hippolytus, Hippolytus for Aricia), these characters still face severe punishment. Why? Does thinking/articulating desires take the same weight as acting on these desires? How can there ever be any restriction on thought or language? How does Racine balance (or throw out of balance) the scales of justice in this play? Is there any justice here? (Hint: pay careful attention to the final passage. Is that sufficient? Why or why not?)
  • Who is/are the antagonist(s) in this play? What is the relationship between love and hatred? Enemies and lovers? How does that sharp dichotomy dissolve? Can the self be an antagonist? Which character(s) exemplify this dynamic?
  • Is every interpretation a misinterpretation in this play? Find specific examples. Are there any exceptions?
  • What is the role of sight/glances/gazes and visual imagery in this play?
  • Does the sea/water/tears/fluidity take on any symbolic significance? What could it/they represent?
  • What is the relationship between the human and the divine in this play?

Reminder: Challenge yourself to refrain from using the pronouns “I”, “you”, or “we” (unless, of course, these pronouns appear in quotes from the play). Instead of drawing attention to yourself and your personal beliefs, keep the text alone as the focus. Maybe take this challenge further and try articulating an argument that you may not personally agree with. For instance, if you find someone like Oenone alarmingly reprehensible, try articulating an argument that justifies her actions. If you personally find her completely blameless, try articulating a position that would find this stance problematic. I’m less interested in what your personal beliefs are than in how well you can construct a clear, logical argument that is effectively supported by evidence and quotes from the text (and remember that every argument must address its counter-argument). You don’t even have to strictly choose between the argument and the counter-argument, but I’d like to see you pit them together and see what kind of insights emerge from their tension.

Feel free to use the online discussion as an impetus for your analysis, but be sure to give proper credit to anyone whose ideas you are drawing from.


  • Try stating both the argument and the counter-argument in a sentence or two each before elaborating on them. The initial statement of the argument is your thesis statement and should appear quite early in the introduction (you can make it your first sentence, but it’s not necessary).
  • By the time you get to your last paragraph, there’s no reason to write, “In conclusion…”. I know it’s your conclusion because there’s no more text following it. Find a smoother transition from the previous paragraph to connect it more tightly.
  • Make sure that your quotes are properly (and grammatically) incorporated into your own prose. I’ve posted a handout addressing this issue on Blackboard, so make sure to consult it. These are examples of acceptable formats of citation:

Example 1 (Act/Scene/Line #): Racine exemplifies the correlation between sight and destruction when Phaedra tells Oenone, “In his bold gaze my ruin is writ large” (3.3.910).

Example 2 (Page #): Racine exemplifies the correlation between sight and destruction when Phaedra tells Oenone, “In his bold gaze my ruin is writ large” (186)