This dissertation examines Jean Racine’s conception of tragic theater and its relationship to the theory of the sublime developed by his contemporary and friend, Nicolas Boileau. Boileau’s translation of Pseudo-Longinus radically upset the traditional definition the sublime as the highest level of classical rhetoric, redefining it instead as an aesthetic notion which communicated transcendent emotion through discourse. While the critical dialogue between the two authors is seminal, and Racine did employ Boileau’s notion of the merveilleux dans le discours in his plays, he did not simply mimic Boileau’s understanding of a discursive sublime. Rather, Racine also boldly experimented with his own distinctively theatrical version of the sublime. Although some of his theatrical choices went against accepted norms, they served to intensify the emotion of a scene through non-verbal means. For instance, he occasionally portrayed purely silent characters onstage or allowed royal characters to sit as they delivered their monologues. Furthermore, Racine’s exploitation of the neoclassical sublime engaged with the related ideals of polite sociability known as honnêteté and the je ne sais quoi, socially captivating concepts that Racine employed in some of his characters in order to astound his audience. Racine’s last two plays, Esther and Athalie experimented with basing his theatrical productions on a religious sublime, and in doing so daringly equated a religious text with a secular aesthetic notion. Racine’s unusual aesthetic success not only informed neoclassical literary theory, but also forged a path for Enlightenment, Romantic, and even Modernist elaborations of this pivotal concept. Thus, by examining Racine’s contribution to the neoclassical sublime, my dissertation uncovers a key critical foundation for the sublime as an aesthetic concept which would later be deployed by Burke, Kant, and others in their development of theories that continue to shape our perceptions of aesthetics today.




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