Aspect of Racinian tragedy

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Discuss the representation of God in Athalie

In the western world, most Christians, reflecting their own time and place, generally regard God as a friend, as a father, who is always ready to show his mercy and forgiveness. However in Jean Racine's time, things would not be totally the same. People must have seen God as a supreme King so high above more than a friend or a father. That is due to the time, in which the majority of them were still living under the hierarchical society, an age of absolute rulers. It is known to all that, Jean Racine's tragedy - Athalie is the adaptation of the story in II Kings, chapter 11 and 12 (a parallel account is in II Chronicles 22 - 24), originally from the Holy Bible. Since it is a sort of interpretation of the story from the Holy Bible, then this tragedy - Athalie itself is bound to have some connections with the God, who is the dominant figure throughout the whole book. Even though this is a tragedy about humanity, where human beings are dominating the roles, the influence from God above on each character in this tragedy is still worth noticing. Therefore it would be very fascinating to examine how God is represented in Racine's tragedy, and what kind of role God plays in there, i.e. is God equally significant as the other characters such as Athalie and Joad or is God merely an embellishment, which is of little importance.

Reading through the whole play, it is almost noticeable that God presented in this play is often ambiguous, only when the choruses appear the audience or reader would notice the loving father our God. Thus it is reasonable to argue, if Racine deliberately weakens the importance of the role of God in order to maintain humanity, which is the core theme he sets for his play. Yet on second thoughts, one should be aware that maybe Racine is thinking about presenting God in a less-perceptible and less-visible way. And in fact, his idea of demonstrating God is truly remarkable in Athalie, as he makes the role of God fulfilled by other characters rather than directly by God himself. The following characters are those who I believe take the responsibility to represent God in Athalie: Joad, Athalie and Josabet.

The length of Joad's time on stage can surely indicate how important this role is. As the high priest, he surely has the closest relation with God in this play. Actually in many occasions, Joad does not speak merely on his account, but shows himself, that as a prophet, he is the principal spokesman in the play for God himself, the invisible character whose presence dominates the whole action, and he is also the main representative of the values of his religion, many of which values the play was no doubt commissioned to expound. Even though in this play, Joad may appear to be a harsh and uncompromising figure by any standards, his virtue such as intelligence, courage and integrity must not be ignored. Then by highlighting Joad's exceptional virtues, Racine at the meantime is able to represent God. Because God himself stands for justice, order and power, and Joad exactly adapts himself to God's role on earth: he is the high priest, then in the kingdom of Judah, he has power not less than the queen - Athalie; his calm judgement and tireless effort to restore the line of David proves he wants to bring the traditional order and justice back to his country (it may as well be argued that he would be benefit when Joas takes the power, however I will tend to believe that he seeks power not for his own sake but in order to serve God, in whom his trust in unwavering). But what have any of these to do with God? First of all, God's promise of a Messiah might be frustrated if the descendants of David be wiped off by Athalie, in order to prevent that from happening, Joas, the last descendant of David must be saved and crowned king. It is Joad who takes the responsibility and fulfils the mission. His austereness, hardness and determination, shown as he is for the survival and future prosperity of his people and the authentic religion, are what God requires and hopes people to act. Thus this is how Joad substitutes God's role on earth in this play, or in other words, how God is represented through Joad.

Athalie is portrayed by Racine as a wicked, evil character, though sometimes the audience and reader may have some sympathy for her. Yet above all she is still the 'arch-enemy' to Joas and Joad, who represent the orthodoxy and traditional order, while Athalie sides in overturned order and tyranny. Accordingly Athalie would have been an epic story rather than a tragedy, but why then? Perhaps Racine is trying to tell us that the duel between human being (in this play is Athalie) and God can have a unique outcome, and Athalie is unfortunately as an example shown here. Because it is God who leads Athalie into evil by exploiting her passions and this seems to be inconsistent. The nature of God is again reinforced here, that God's authority must not be offended, and his promises will not be broken. It could have been evidenced by Joad's courage or his virtuous deeds but Racine chooses Athalie this tragic character to highlight the effect from a contradictive way.

Josabet, as wife of the high priest Joad and the one saves Joas, is strangely quieter than other characters and consequently her importance and value are easily ignored, whereas she is one of the characters that Racine uses to replace God in Athalie. Unlike Joad represents the justice, power from God or Athalie indicates the miserable outcome if human duel with God, Josabet is shown more by the warmth of her personality and by her unselfish love for Joas, that the cause of God has a human and positive face, in contrast with the harsh and denunciatory image usually (though not always) projected by her husband. Moreover, Josabet is representing God in a more complicated way. On one hand she has more human traits, like her loving and touching relationship with her husband, despite her frequent failure to trust to God makes her husband upset. On the other hand, her occasional unfaithful attitude towards God and her constant love on Joas even when his husband foretells their son Zacharie will be killed by him represents another nature of God: universal love. God loves the virtuous but also the sinners. This is perhaps how Racine characterizes God through Josabet in her limited appearance in this play.

In conclusion, it is not like in the Holy Bible the existence of God is quite perceptible through his direct speech or something, in this play although the choruses, which sing of a bounteous and loving God whose constant care is for the human race sometimes remind the audiences and readers of the God. Moreover occasionally the Temple, which is generally acknowledged to be the dwelling place of God himself and its role as the centre of Jewish religion, can also be seen as another type of symbol of God, but the representation of God is still mainly carried out by Joad's, Athalie's and Josabet's fulfilment of the characters. This religious element may not be so clearly central to this play, but certainly functions very well to offer clues towards his understanding of God. One ought to admit that Racine's mastery of dramatic suspense and of character is highly extraordinary. As the tension increases and reduces, the audiences and readers are able to sense not only the humanity inside this play but also the representation of God, though the latter often appears as glimpses and requires more attention to be sensed. Moreover it must be emphasized that the representation of God lies in the minds and hearts of the characters.