Nicolas Shump's Reviews > Phèdre

Phèdre by Jean Racine
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's review
Jun 01, 2012

liked it

This post is a combo of my reading of three versions of this Racine play. Blame my comparative literature background on this one.
The eminent American poet Robert Lowell translates the classic play Phaedra by Racine in rhyming couplets. This form can work for some genres, but even if Racine had couplets in the original, in English, it does not work. It is overly mannered and I found myself going "da,da, da, da" as I read this version. I would have loved to see Lowell do a version in blank verse to see what he could have produced.
Ted Hughes' version is pretty good. It is concise and direct. I wonder if this type of writing is what made Samuel Beckett such a fan of Racine? Of course, Hughes despite being the British Poet Laureate and good poet is best known as the husband of Sylvia Plath at the time of her suicide. He guarded over her literary estate as well, so he controlled what we know of her poetry and other posthumous writings.
Richard Wilbur's was the final of three translations I read and I liked this one the best. It was the most poetic and to me best displayed the classicism Racine is associated with in terms of literary style. Wilbur is a good poet, so I'm not surprised he produced a good translation, although I must admit I have no background in French to judge the true quality of the translation.
It is interesting that both Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell translate this play and Aeschylus' Oresteia. The themes of infidelity, possibly incest, and betrayal are an intriguing subtext.

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