Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Rarely Acquired Taste

When a translator’s preface starts off by saying that most people don’t like the work at hand, I tend to want to find the best in the book just to prove everyone else wrong. After all, I even liked Ishtar. But Racine’s Britannicus was rough going for me indeed. The translator noted the rigid form of rhyming pairs of Alexandrine lines and the extreme economy of vocabulary: just 600 different words. He said nobly that while some translators mentioned these characteristics as problems to be worked around, he didn’t see why any translator would want to spend so much time with something he didn’t like. Well, I’m glad Neil Bartlett likes it, but this severe classic French drama didn’t tickle my fancy.

It occurs to me, though, that there is a potential audience I might recommend it to. Home-schooled boys might find this just the thing. The limited vocabulary puts Britannicus well within reach of the typical 12-year-old reader. And many adolescent boys find the subject matter fascinating. Aggripina has placed her son Nero on the throne in the place of Claudius's son, Britannicus. But then she senses that, having outlived her usefulness to her tyrannical offspring, she may need to watch her back. I’ve included some Roman history in the Latin classes I’ve taught to home-schoolers from time to time, and in my experience, the more the heads got chopped off, the better the boys liked it.

Corneille’s The Cid went much better for me than Britannicus, but it’s still hard to take seriously. Count de Gormas insults the aged Don Diego. To defend the old man’s honor, his son, Don Rodrigo (whose name means “son of Diego” and who becomes the Cid during the course of the play by defeating two Moorish kings) duels with and kills Count de Gormas. But the Count was father to Chimène, who is in love with Don Rodrigo, so now she has to defend her father's honor by killing Rodrigo. "Even in offending me,” she says to her love, “thou hast proved thyself worthy of me; I must, by thy death, prove myself worthy of thee." But she can't bear to do it by her own hand, although Rodrigo offers to let her. So Chimène announces that she will marry the winner of a duel, should anyone be willing to take up her cause against the redoubtable warrior. Enter Don Sancho. Rodrigo says at first he has no will to defend his life and will let Don Sancho kill him. But when Chimène tells Rodrigo she hopes he will win, he suddenly finds determination. Rodrigo defeats Sancho but spares him. And everyone is happy. Unbelievable? Yes, but then so are the plots of Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. Amo quia incredibile.

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