Athaliah: The Homicidal Queen

(reaction to the play "Athaliah" by Racine)

This play of Racine written in the 18th century was very reflective of the radical views of religion especially during the times of the Old Testament. As it seems to me, “spiritual” people back then see things as black and white, or good and evil – if you break a law of “God” then you would be turned into an outcast and people would lose respect for you. Although this is clearly very wrong, especially in the eyes of us 21st century readers, the people at that time could have been radical in their spiritual beliefs because it threatens their survival socially, and their fate in the afterlife. The belief about heaven and hell was so popular that the concept of hell terrified the hell out of people and the concept of heaven inspired them to be “good” in the Biblical standards so they may attain that heavenly dimension wherein they are exempted from the complicated ups and downs of life.

As I have mentioned earlier, spiritual people back then only saw other people as either completely good or completely evil – and in the case of Athaliah, she was seen as the “black” one in the scale like her murdered mother, Jezebel. I rather thought of the following lines about Athaliah to be very unfair, since we all have reasons for doing something. No one is suicidal enough to do bad things for the sake of being hated and killed.

“I watched her yesterday, and watched her eye
Flash on this holy place a furious glance,
As if the depths of this vast edifice
Concealed God’s ‘venger, armed to punish her.
Believe me, more I think of it and less
I doubt that ‘tis on you her wrath’s to burst;
And that the cruel Athaliah will
Assail our God, e’en in His sanctuary. (Abner)

“In one of the church courts, reserved for men,
This haughty woman enters, with profound mien,
And even prepares to overpass the bounds
Of the enclosure sacred, which alone
Is open to the Levites. Terrified
The people fled in every way. My father –
Ah! What resentment kindled in his eye!” (Zachariah)

“Wherefore comes, this enemy of God, to taint the air we inhale?” (Joad to Mathan)

Yet, we can see her reasons for killing those babies and for attempting to kill again the baby who escaped because it was perhaps her last resort for easing her seething anger against the race of David who brutally killed her mother and because the saved baby (Joas) appeared in her dream and stabbed her.

“Her shadow seemed to bend itself, and I
Held out my arms in order to embrace it;
But only found confusion horrible
Of mangled bones and flesh dragged in the mud,
And tatters soaked in gore, of hideous limbs,
That dogs, devouring, fought for with each other.”

“His sweetness, noble air, and modesty
I was admiring, all at once I felt
A homicidal steel, plunged by the traitor
Deep through my breast.” (Athaliah)

Probably, the reason why this play was entitled “Athaliah” and has Athaliah as the protagonist despite her “evil” ways was because we could actually feel sympathy for Athaliah not only because religious people think that she’s going down the “wrong” path but because she was ostracized in the place she lives in even though her crime was understandable but then she gets killed too in the end, following the footsteps of her poor mother. And contrary to what the other characters in the play think, I actually think that Athaliah was a spiritual person since she gets prophetic dreams (prophetic in a sense that it foretells the future, not necessarily religious). Most people who are not interested in things that cannot be seen do not even pay attention to their dreams, so Athaliah could have been, in fact, more in touch with the spiritual life than other people.

On the other hand, Joas, was very much glorified and his good qualities were exaggerated and romanticized – which was the opposite of what they did to Athaliah. Because of the environment that that child grew up in, and the beliefs that were ingrained in him, he has become the stereotypically “good” person in the Biblical standards. But, if I’m going to be really judgmental, I rather think that he had a “messiah complex.” But it’s not entirely his fault, of course, since the people around him also think of him as a savior.

“All that revere
The race of David, Athaliah hate!
Joas will affect them with his modesty,
Through which appears to glow his royal blood.” (Joad)

“So, in a secret vale upon the banks
Of a pellucid stream,
Beneath the shadow of an oak,
A tender lily bloometh, nature’s love.
Far from the world arising, ‘tis adorned
With all heaven’s blessings from its birth;
And the contagious company of the bad
Doth alter not its innocence.” (Choir)

And lastly, I would like to point out that sometimes people can project themselves unto God’s personality, or who they think he is:

“That love is what the Lord desires; that He
Sooner or later will avenge His name,
His holy name blasphemed; that He protects
The timid orphan, that He breaks the proud,
And punishes the murderer.”

“Mine must be feared, for he alone is God,
And yours is nothing, Madam.” (Joas)

“O let them weep, my God, and groan for fear,
The miserable, who will not see
The eternal splendor of Thy Holy City.
But we must chant, to whom Thou dost reveal
Thy everlasting light;
Of all Thy gifts and grandeur we must sing.”

People have contradictory views of who God is. Some people say that He is loving, while some people say that He is vengeful and full of hatred, like what Joas above seem to portray him. This is very, very contradictory. I rather think that religion was mostly used for political purposes, like what they did in this play, because it easily inspires fear in people. It’s funny how “spiritual” people see themselves as good when they hate the people who do not share their beliefs. And that fact is clearly reflected in “Athaliah”. 


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