In Ancien Régime France, the king's body was both a physical entity and a symbolic political body, the State incarnate. My dissertation addresses the relationship between representations of the king's body in tragedies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and official monarchical discourse on the king's body. Moving beyond the conventional opposition of a political Corneille and a psychological Racine to include the lesser-studied tragedies of Rotrou and Voltaire, my work reveals that all four playwrights stage crises of dynastic succession which engage but also challenge the very fictions upon which the monarchy relied: an immortal royal body and dynastic perpetuity expressed in popular formulas such as "Le Roi est mort, Vive le Roi" and "Le mort saisit le vif." I show how for Racine, Corneille, and Rotrou the cultural significance of the king's body is at the heart of the various scenarios of succession they devise.
My analysis of seventeenth-century tragedy begins with Rotrou's representation of the defeated Corinthian king, Antioche, in Crisante. Instead of a dynastic succession, as we will see in Corneille and Racine, Rotrou represents the imperfect passage from a monarchical body to an imperial one: Crisante portrays a monarchical regime at its end when there will be no continuation for the king. Yet, in this interstitial moment, the instance of extreme instability before the kingdom's final collapse, the play explores how Roman power can transform itself from an invading force into a legitimate authority. In Crisante, a play staged in historical proximity to the Regency of Marie of Medici, the fate of the kingdom is not played out over the king's physical body; here, Antioche is relegated to the private sphere of the defeated. Instead, in Rotrou's play, the queen's body becomes a symbol for the Corinthian kingdom. In the character of Crisante, the playwright gives life to the State, and in her resistance to Roman brutality and lawlessness, presents a demand for legal authority. Ultimately, the play engages in a debate over the difficulty, violence, and uncertainty inherent to implementing a new political system.
In the second chapter of this study, I argue that while in the classical tradition Oedipus's error is excessive pride or a futile effort to dodge fate, on the seventeenth-century French stage, Oedipus's mistake is distinctly political. In Pierre Corneille's 1659 Oedipe, the Theban king's downfall stems from his attempts to prove his legitimacy through physical action—i.e., earning the throne—rather than asserting a sacred royal essence. Oedipe's mistake sharply contrasts with the iconography produced a few years earlier for Louis XIV's 1654 coronation. In this light, I argue, Corneille modifies the Ancient plot to include Dircé as Oedipe's younger sister precisely to foreground contemporary debates on monarchical succession. The rival siblings embody dueling conceptions of royal legitimacy: Dircé stands for the supremacy of blood, Oedipe for proven heroic feats. Though the model Cornelian hero distinguishes himself by his "bras," here, the playwright's unusual blending of hero and king suggests that a reliance on human accomplishment, over a sublimation of the physical for the symbolic, endangers the throne and constitutes a royal mistake. This analysis of Oedipe thus nuances "Cornelian heroism," and underscores the seventeenth-century tragic genre's engagement with dominant monarchical fictions of the king's immortal body. In the third chapter, I offer a reassessment of Racine by focusing on the political stakes of succession from the father to the son. I read Phèdre alongside Racine's structurally similar Mithridate in which the supposedly-dead father also returns just after the son ascends to the throne, thus doubling the royal body and thwarting the ideal of a seamless succession. This juxtaposition reveals that the plays' tragic outcome lies in the necessary elimination of one of the rivaling physical bodies to ensure the unity of the royal symbolic body: in Mithridate, the elderly king dies; in Phêdre, the son's body is brutally destroyed.
Finally, in chapter 4, I show how in the eighteenth century the king's body is reduced to its mere physicality. Voltaire turns to royal ghosts, imposters, and tombs, transforming the king's body into a prop or special effect, or else he resorts to melodrama in an effort to breathe new life into a royal body that has lost its symbolic power, and therefore, its hold on the imagination. Defined by his aging body, the king is stripped of his tragic dignity and comes to resemble a character closer to the comedic genre. Hence, the lessons of the king's body are of great literary as well as political significance. As long as the king's body is fertile political ground, the tragic genre flourishes; tragedy falters when the political symbolism that had given meaning to the royal body in the seventeenth century can no longer inspire vibrant tragic scenarios.