Short summary - Berenice - Jean Racine

French literature summaries - 2021

Short summary - Berenice
Jean Racine

The source of the tragedy was the biography of the Emperor Titus in the book of the Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquill "The Life of the Twelve Caesars." Emperor Titus wants to marry the Palestinian queen Berenice, but Roman laws prohibit marriage with a non-Roman woman, and the people may not approve of Caesar's decision. The action takes place in the palace of Titus.
Antiochus, king of Comagena, a region in Syria annexed to the Roman Empire, who faithfully serves Titus and retains his royal title, is in love with Berenice. He has long been waiting for an opportunity to talk with Berenice and find out what her decision is: if she is ready to become the wife of Titus, then Antiochus will leave Rome. Antiochus, upon meeting her, confesses that all five years since he met her, he loves her, but Berenice answers him that she has always loved only Titus and love is dearer to her than the power and crown of the emperor.
Berenice talks to her confidante Foinica, who suggests that Titus will find it difficult to get around the law. But Berenice believes in Titus and his love and waits for the “haughty senate” to come to greet her.
Meanwhile, Titus asks his confidant Paulin about what they think in Rome about him and Berenice. The emperor is not interested in the opinion of the servile court and nobles - they are always ready to endure any whim of Caesar, as they endured and approved of "all the baseness of Nero." Titus is interested in the opinion of the people, and Paulin answers him that although the beauty of Berenice is worthy of a crown, but no one in the capital "would not want to call her an empress." None of Titus's predecessors violated the marriage law. And even Julius Caesar, who loved Cleopatra, "could not call an Egyptian wife his wife." Both the cruel Caligula and the "abominable" Nero, "who have trampled everything that people have honored from time immemorial," respected the law and "did not see the light of an abominable marriage with them." And the former slave Felix, who became the procurator of Judea, was married to one of Berenice's sisters, and no one in Rome would like that the one whose sister took yesterday's slave to the throne would ascend. Titus confesses that he fought for a long time with love for Berenice, and now, when his father died, and a heavy burden of power lay on his shoulders, Titus must abandon himself. The people are watching him, and the emperor cannot begin his reign by breaking the law, Titus decides to tell Berenice about everything, he is afraid of this conversation.
Berenice worries about her fate - Titus's mourning for his father is over, but the emperor is silent. She believes that Titus loves her. Titus suffers and does not dare to tell Berenice that he must abandon her. Berenice cannot understand what she was guilty of. Maybe he is afraid to break the law? But he himself told her that no law could separate them. Perhaps Titus found out about her meeting with Antiochus, and jealousy began to speak in him?
Titus learns that Antiochus is going to leave Rome, and is very surprised and annoyed - he needs his old friend, with whom they fought together. Titus informs Antiochus that he must part with Berenice: he is Caesar, who decides the fate of the world, but has no power to give his heart to the one he loves. Rome will agree to recognize his wife only a Roman woman - "any, pitiful - but only of his blood", and if the emperor does not say goodbye to the "daughter of the East", then "in front of her, the angry people will demand her exile." Titus asks Antiochus to inform her of his decision. He wants his friend, together with Berenice, to leave for the East and remain good neighbors in their kingdoms.
Continuation after ad:
Antiochus doesn't know what to do - cry or laugh. He hopes that on the way to Judea he will be able to persuade Berenice to marry him after she was rejected by Caesar. Arshak, his friend, supports Antiochus - after all, he will be next to Berenice, and Titus is far away.
Antiochus tries to talk to Berenice, but does not dare to say directly what awaits her. Sensing that something was wrong, Berenice demands frankness, and Antiochus informs her of Titus's decision. She does not want to believe and wants to learn everything herself from the emperor. Antiochus from now on forbids approaching her.
Before meeting with Berenice, Titus thinks about what to do. He is only seven days on the throne after the death of his father, and all his thoughts are not about state affairs, but about love. However, the emperor understands that he does not belong to himself, he is responsible to the people.
Berenice appears and asks him if she was told the truth. Caesar replies that, no matter how difficult this decision is for him, they will have to part. Berenice rebukes him - he should have said about Roman laws when they first met. It would be easier for her to endure the refusal. Titus replies to Berenice that he did not know how his fate would turn out, and did not think that he would become emperor. Now he does not live - life is over, now he reigns. Berenice asks, what is Caesar afraid of - an uprising in the city, in the country? Titus replies that if “the customs of his father’s insult” arouses excitement, then he will have to force his choice, “and pay for the silence of the people,” and it is not known at what cost. Berenice proposes to change the "unrighteous law." But Titus swore an oath to Rome "to observe his law", this is his duty, "there is no other way, and one must follow it unwaveringly." We must keep our word, as did his predecessors. Berenice, in despair, reproaches Caesar for what he considers the highest duty to "dig her grave." She does not want to remain in Rome "the amusement of the hostile and malevolent Romans." She decides to commit suicide. Titus orders his servants to watch over Berenice and prevent her from doing her plan.
The news of Caesar's break with the queen spreads throughout the city - "Rome rejoices, every temple is open to the people." Antiochus is agitated - he sees that Berenice is rushing about "in immeasurable sorrow" and demands a dagger and poison.
Titus meets with Berenice again, and she announces to him that she is leaving. She does not want to listen to how the people gloat. Titus answers her that he cannot part with her, but that he cannot give up the throne, abandon the Roman people. If he had done this and left with Berenice, then she herself would have become ashamed of "a warrior without regiments and a Caesar without a crown." Power and marriage with the queen are incompatible, but the emperor's soul can no longer endure such torment - he is ready for death if Berenice does not give him an oath that he will not lay hands on himself.
Antiochus appears - he hid his love for the queen from Caesar for a long time, but he can no longer hide it. Seeing how they suffer, he is ready for the sake of Caesar and Berenice to sacrifice his life to the gods, so that they have mercy, Berenice, "cast into shame" by the greatness of the souls of both, seeing such a readiness for self-sacrifice of Titus and Antiochus, begs them not to suffer so much from- for her, she is unworthy of it. The queen agrees to live in separation and asks Titus to forget about her. She calls Antiochus to forget about love. The memory of all three will remain in the annals as an example of the most tender, fiery and hopeless love.