Short summary - Britannicus - Jean Racine

French literature summaries - 2021

Short summary - Britannicus
Jean Racine

The action takes place in ancient Rome in the palace of the emperor Nero. He ascended the throne illegally, thanks to his mother Agrippina. Britannicus, son of Claudius's second husband, Agrippina, was supposed to become emperor, but she managed to bribe the army and the Senate and elevated her son to the throne. Nero, despite the influence of his highly moral mentors, the warrior Burr and the playwright Seneca, who is sent into exile, is already beginning to show his vile character and shows disrespect for his mother, to whom he owes everything. He does not hide his enmity towards Britannica, seeing him as a rival.

Agrippina has a premonition that Nero will be a cruel tyrant, that he is deceitful and two-faced. He kidnaps Britannica's beloved Junia, from the family of the emperor Augustus, and keeps it in his palace. Nero avoids his mother and does not listen to her advice on how to rule Rome. She would like to return the time when young Nero was not yet intoxicated with his power, did not know how to please Rome and shifted all the burden of power onto the shoulders of his mother. Then the "invisible" Agrippina, hidden behind the curtain, could hear everything that the senators invited to the palace said to Caesar, and she knew how to govern the state and told her son what to do. Now Agrippina accuses Burr of erecting barriers between her and Caesar in order to rule with him. Burr objects to her: he raised the emperor, and not a humble servant who would obey his mother in everything. Agrippina is wounded by the fact that her son rules independently, and believes that Nero is hindering the marriage of Junia and Britannica, which she is seeking, and thereby makes her mother understand that her opinion no longer means anything.

Britannica tells Agrippina that Junia was forcibly brought to the palace at night by the legionnaires. Agrippina is ready to help Britannica. He doubts her sincerity, but his mentor Narcissus assures him that Nero offended his mother and she will act with Britannica at the same time. The main thing, he advises, is to be firm and not complain about fate, for in the palace they honor strength, and are indifferent to complaints. The Briton complains in response that his father's friends have turned their backs on him and Nero knows his every step.

In his chambers, Nero, Burr and Narcissus discuss Agrippina's behavior. The Emperor forgives a lot of his mother, who turns Britannica against him. Nero confesses to Narcissus that he is in love with Junia, and he informs that Caesar has a lucky rival - Britannica. Nero wants to divorce his wife Octavia under the pretext that he has no heir to the throne from her. But he is afraid of the mother, who will raise a fuss if her son rebel against the "sanctity of Hymen" and wants to break the bonds blessed by her. Narcissus promises to tell Caesar everything he learns from Britannica.

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Nero is about to upset the marriage of Junia and Britannica. Having met Junia in the palace, he admires her beauty. Junia says that it is the will of Britannica's father, the late Emperor Claudius, and Agrippina to marry her with Britannica. Nero counters her that Agrippina's desire means nothing. He himself will choose Junia's husband. She reminds Caesar that she cannot marry someone who is unequal in blood, because she is from an imperial family. Nero announces to her that he himself will be her husband, for in the whole empire he alone is worthy of such a treasure. Heaven rejected his alliance with Octavia, and Junia will rightfully take her place. Junia is amazed. Nero demands that Junia show coldness to Britannica, otherwise punishment awaits. Nero will oversee their meeting.

When meeting with Britannica, Junia begs him to be careful, for the walls have ears. The Briton does not understand why she is so shy, it seems to him that Junia forgot him and was captivated by Nero.

Overhearing their conversation, Nero is convinced that Britannica and Junia love each other. He decides to torture his rival and orders Narcissus to stir up doubts and jealousy in Britannica. The narcissist is ready to do anything for the emperor.

Burr advises Nero not to quarrel with his mother, who has influence in Rome, and in order not to annoy Agrippina, he must stop dating Junia and leave thoughts of divorce from Octavia. Nero does not want to listen to his mentor and declares that it is not a warrior's business to judge love - let Burr advise him how to act in battle. Left alone, Burr reflects on how wayward Nero is, does not listen to any advice, wants everything to be done according to his will. This is dangerous. Burr decides to consult Agrippina.

Agrippina accuses Burr that he could not keep in check the young emperor, who removed his mother from the throne, and now also wants to divorce Octavia. Agrippina plots with the help of troops and Britannica to restore her power. Burr does not advise her to do this, for no one will listen to Agrippina, and Nero will only become enraged. The emperor can only be persuaded by the "meekness of speech."

The Britannica informs Agrippina that he has accomplices in the Senate who are ready to oppose the emperor. But Agrippina does not want the help of the Senate and is going by threats to force Nero to abandon Junia, and if this does not help, then to notify Rome of Caesar's plans.

Britannica accuses Junia of forgetting him for the sake of Nero. Junia begs to believe her and wait for "better days", she warns Britannica that he is in danger, because Nero overheard their conversation and demanded that Junia reject Britannica, threatening him with reprisals. Nero appears and demands that Britannica obey him. He indignantly replies that Caesar has no right to mockery, violence and divorce from his wife, that the Roman people will not approve of the emperor's actions. Nero believes that the people are silent, and this is the main thing. Junia begs Nero to spare Britannica, because this is his brother (Britannica's father adopted Nero), and for the sake of their reconciliation she is ready to become a vestal. The Emperor is furious and orders Britannica to be taken into custody. He blames Agrippina for everything and orders to put a guard on her.

Agrippina and Nero meet, and Agrippina delivers her famous monologue about how many atrocities she committed in order for Nero to become emperor. She bribed the Senate, which allowed her to marry her uncle, Emperor Claudius. Then she begged Claudius to adopt Nero, then, according to her slander, Claudius alienated from himself all those who could help his son Britannica inherit the throne. When Claudius died, she hid it from Rome, and Burr persuaded the troops to swear allegiance to Nero, not Britannicus. Then the double message was immediately announced to the people: Claudius was dead, and Nero became Caesar. Instead of gratitude, the son moved away from his mother and surrounded himself with dissolute youths.

Nero, in response, declares to his mother that she brought him to the throne probably not in order to rule him and the state. After all, Rome needs a ruler, not a mistress, Nero accuses his mother of conspiring against him. Agrippina replies that he lost his mind, that she devoted her whole life only to him. She is ready to die, but warns Caesar that the Roman people will not forgive Nero for this. Agrippina demands that Nero release Britannica and not quarrel with him. He verbally promises to fulfill everything.

Upon meeting with Burr, Nero tells him that it is time to put an end to Britannica, and then it will be easy to tame his mother too. Burr is horrified, and Nero declares that he is not going to reckon with the opinion of the people and blood is nothing to him. Burr calls on Caesar not to take the path of evil, for this is a bloody path - Britannica's friends will raise their heads and begin to take revenge, a terrible enmity will flare up, and an enemy will appear in every subject of Caesar. It is much more noble to do good. Burr kneels and pleads with Nero to make peace with Britannica. He gives in. Narcissus comes to Nero and says that he got a fast-acting poison from the famous poisoner Locusta in Rome to poison Britannica. Nero hesitates, but Narcissus scares him that the Britannica might learn about the poison and begin to take revenge. Nero replies that he does not want to be branded as a fratricide. Narcissus calls on Caesar to be above good and evil and not to depend on anyone - to do only what he sees fit. Kindness only testifies to the weakness of the ruler, while everyone bows to evil. If Nero poisoned his brother and divorced his wife, then no one in Rome would say a word to him. Nero must shut the mouths of his mentors Burr and Seneca and rule himself.

Meanwhile, Britannica informs Junia that Nero has made peace with him and is convening a feast in honor of this. Britannica is glad that now there are no barriers between him and Junia. But Junia is alarmed, she foresees trouble. Nero cannot be trusted, he is a terrible hypocrite, like his entourage. She believes that this feast is just a trap.

Agrippina appears and says that Britannica is already waiting for everyone, and Caesar wants to raise the cup for their friendship. Agrippina assures Junia that she got everything she wanted from Nero, that he no longer has secrets from his mother and that he is not capable of an evil deed.

Burr runs in and reports that Britannica is dying, that Nero skillfully hid his plan from everyone and at the feast gave Britannica a cup of wine, in which Narcissus put poison. The Briton drank to his friendship with Nero and fell breathless. Nero's entourage calmly looked at the emperor, but his gaze was not darkened. Narcissus could not hide his joy. Burr left the room.

Agrippina tells Nero that he knows who poisoned Britannica. He asks with ostentatious surprise who she is talking about. Agrippina replies - it was he, Nero, who committed the murder. Narcissus appears and betrays Caesar and declares that there is no need for him to hide his affairs. Agrippina bitterly reproaches Nero that Caesar chose worthy accomplices for himself and just as worthily began with the poisoning of his brother. Now it’s the turn, apparently, for her. But the death of his mother will not be in vain for him - his conscience will not give rest, new murders will go and in the end Nero will fall victim to his own atrocities.

Left alone, Agrippina and Burr say that death awaits them and they are ready for it - Caesar is capable of anything. Agrippina's friend Albina appears and reports that Junia, having learned about the death of Britannica, rushed to the square to the statue of Augustus and, in front of the people, begged him to let her become a vestal and not be disgraced by Nero. The people took her to the temple. Nero did not dare to intervene, but the obsequious Narcissus tried to prevent Junia and was killed by the crowd. Seeing this, Nero, in impotent rage, returned to the palace and wanders there. He's up to something. Agrippina and Burr decide to once again appeal to the emperor's conscience and prudence in order to prevent evil.