Complementing this translation are the Discussion and the Notes and Commentary—particularly detailed and extensive for this volume, Britannicus being by far Racine’s most historically informed play. Also noteworthy is Argent’s reinstatement of an eighty-two-line scene, originally intended to open Act III, that has never before appeared in an English translation of this play.
Britannicus, one of Racine’s greatest plays, dramatizes the crucial day when Nero—son of Agrippina and stepson of the late emperor Claudius—overcomes his mother, his wife Octavia, his tutors, and his vaunted “three virtuous years” in order to announce his omnipotence. He callously murders his innocent stepbrother, Britannicus, and effectively destroys Britannicus’s beloved, the virtuous Junia, as well. Racine may claim, in his first preface, that this tragedy “does not concern itself at all with affairs of the world at large,” but nothing could be further from the truth. The tragedy represented in Britannicus is precisely that of the Roman Empire, for in Nero Racine has created a character who embodies the most infamous qualities of that empire — its cruelty, its depravity, and its refined barbarity.