Mithridate and the temporal contradictions of heroism

Wilton-Godberfforde, Emilia (2024). Mithridate and the temporal contradictions of heroism. In: Hammond, Paul and Hammond, Nicholas eds. Racine's Tragedies of Tyranny: Essays on ‘Bajazet’ and ‘Mithridate’. Faux Titre. Leiden: Brill (In Press).



In Racine’s play, we are presented with the king Mithridate who attempts to challenge his increasing obsolescence and diminishing dominion and fight against his own paralysis and inevitable defeat. This chapter examines the way in which the character reacts to these dire circumstances, explores the ways in which he can be seen as deluded or even branded a ‘fantasist’, and analyses the degree to which this might compromise our view of him as a heroic figure. In exploring the problematic issue of how exactly we interpret him, I examine the layered presentation of the eponymous character and show how the character evoked in the past, the character in the present (in the action of the play) and the imagined character in a conceived future time are differentiated. In this way, Mithridate can be read as both victor and strategist (from the past) but also a more desperate, boastful and somewhat delusional figure (in the present). What emerges is a blurring of time frames and an exploration of the fine line between visionary leader who defies the limits of what seems possible and a ‘visionnaire’ who has ultimately lost sight of any reality and transforms the world to fit his own beliefs. Mithridate’s perspective both stalls his progress but also allows him to continue in his fight for survival. In this respect, I also show how convincing and deceiving others intersects with instances of Mithridate’s self-deception. In the final part of the chapter, I examine the extent to which Mithridate, by taking death into his own hands, changes our view of his position of power but, crucially, I also underscore how the king’s perspective of these events cannot simply be taken at face value. Ultimately, however, even if Mithridate is shown to have a distorted view of his enduring victory, his dogged belief in his capabilities, regardless of the situation, is shown to have an important bearing on how we view him.

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