“Pour qui sont ces serpents qui sifflent sur vos têtes?”
poor kee saw say sair-pah kee see-fluh sewr voh TETT? Click below to hear this.*
For whom are all these serpents whistling round your heads?
That was question 1 of our pop quiz! And here’s the answer:
This startling, evocative line was written by Jean Racine, one of the trio of famous playwrights of the 17th century. (The other two were Corneille and Molière.) It occurs in the final scene of the tragedy Andromaque.
Wikipedia’s article summarizes the characters as follows: “Racine’s play is a story of human passion, with the structure of an unrequited love chain: Oreste is in love with Hermione, who only wishes to please Pyrrhus, who is in love with Andromaque, who is determined to honour the memory of her murdered husband Hector and to protect the future of their son Astyanax.”
Whew! This is no mere love triangle! Because of who they are, and the history that both binds them together and splits them apart, the stakes are about as high as they can be. People die here–most of the cast, in fact. The play closes with Orestes in the throes of madness, seeing visions of the Furies with their heads wreathed in Medusa-like snakes: “Pour qui sont ces serpents qui sifflent sur vos têtes?”
The line has become famous not only because it encapsulates the outcome of the entire tragedy in 12 perfect alexandrine syllables, but also because it makes a superb example of alliteration. And not just for idle wordplay–not at all. Orestes not only sees those snakes, he hears them, and so do we, the audience. It’s a horrifying, shocking moment, and a fitting close to the play. It takes only six more lines to bring the curtain down.
The Wikipedia link above offers a good deal more information about the play and the history (well, myth) behind it. After clicking on the link, click on “Characters” and “Plot Summary”. It’s in English. And for those who want to read the final scene of the play in French, along with a detailed commentary on the passage in French, go to this link. It’s nicely done.
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: