"Eight years ago, an impious foreign Queen (Athaliah was half Phoenician through her mother Jezebel), usurped King David's scepter and his rights, wallowed unpunished in our princes' blood - foul murderer of the offspring of her son - and now 'gainst God raises her wicked arm."
As the play begins, the high priest Jehoiada and one of the officers of the king, Abner, discuss the strange foreboding they feel. For eight years Jehoiada has been hiding the last remnant of the line of David, a small boy named Joash who has been raised along with Jehoiada's son Zachariah, from their vicious and calculating Queen Athaliah.
Athaliah, through Machiavellian cunning has issued in an unprecedented reign of peace in Jerusalem. "No longer does the Jordan see its banks by nomad Arabs or proud Philistines laid waste..." She is the unchallenged sovereign of Judea, an expert stateswoman, choosing to remove any contesting for her throne by murdering her grandchildren in an attempt to wipe out the royal race of David.
Despite her uncontested authority, as the play begins, Athaliah, a follower of Baal and previously unmoved by remorse for her actions, is ruminating on a strange and ominous dream in which her mother Jezebel cautions her that the Jewish god is not to be taken lightly.
"Tremble,' she said, 'who followed in my steps. The cruel Jewish God over you too prevails. You'll fall into his dreaded arms, my daughter."
As Athaliah, in her dream, reaches out to embrace her mother, she is left clutching the mangled flesh and bones that have been torn apart by ravenous dogs. As she hurries to make her offerings to Baal she sees a child clad in the clothes of a Hebrew priest. Caught in his deadly stare she abruptly wakes, only to relive the dream again and again. This does not bode well.
Athaliah decides she might try to appease this Hebrew God, and as she makes her way into the temple, she sees none other than the child from her nightmare, depicted just as she dreamed in a white robe and standing beside the high priests. After she recovers from her shock, and the boy has been spirited away, she calls her advisers together to see what this waking nightmare portends.
Abner and Mattan, an apostate high priest of Baal, have differing opinions regarding how to proceed. Abner, assures Athaliah that she has no reason to be alarmed, would she really demand another death based purely on a foreboding? Mattan, suspicious of where Abner's loyalties lie, waits for Abner to leave and then offers his opinion:
"Now I can speak out at last. And now I can reveal the full, unvarnished truth. Some budding monster in this temple lurks. Ah! Queen, wait not until this storm cloud bursts..."
Athaliah decides to have the child brought to her and see if he can shed any light on her suspicions himself. But as she prods Joash with questions about his paternity an enemy unanticipated storms the buttresses of her heart: pity. She asks what he's been doing living in the temple all these years, and in answer Joash begins to recite the law:
"God wishes to be loved. Blasphemy of His name He will avenge. He is father to the fatherless, withstands the proud, and smites the murderer."
Athaliah is not deterred by their verbal sparring, and defends herself and her infamous deeds:
"Yes, my just fury - I am proud of it - Avenged my parents on my progeny.
I saw my father and brother slain, down from the palace heights my mother hurled, and in one day slaughtered at one fell blow (A sight of horror) four score sons of kings.
And why? Some obscure prophets to avenge, whose wild and lawless ravings she had curbed.
And I, unfeeling daughter, craven queen, slave of a coward's fitful pity, I, should I not have returned to this blind rage, at least murder for murder, crime for crime, and treat all your David's issue, even as you did Ahab's poor, ill-starred remains?
Where would I be, had I not steeled myself and stifled my maternal tenderness; and if my hand shedding my own son's blood, had not put down your plots by one bold stroke?
And thus, in short, your God, implacable, between our houses broke all amity.
Yes, I loathe David's line; and that king's sons, though of my blood, are yet no kin of mine."
Athaliah, up until this point has cast aside the roles and expectations of her gender, marching arrogantly, "with head erect" into the porch in the temple reserved only for men/priests. No rules apply to her and she has disdained this God of the Hebrews and his endless laws and restrictions. But as she takes leave of this strange, well read little boy, her reckless pride has been shattered.
Athaliah's adviser, Mattan, a weaselly, conniving serpent of a man, is shocked by the slow change that has begun to creep over his Queen. She has quite obviously not been herself for the last couple days; "She is no more that bold, clear-sighted Queen, towering above her timorous woman's sex, who fell upon her startled enemies and never let a crucial moment pass..." While she hems and haws about what the best approach is, the Levites have begun to assemble an army in the temple, preparing and awaiting an attack.
Jehoiada decides that now is the time for Joash's identity to be revealed and for him to be crowned King. Joash seems to take the revelation of his paternity in stride and quickly assures Jehoiada that he will do his best to fear the Lord, keep Him ever before his eyes, His precepts, judgments and laws and refrain from making his brothers sweat beneath a heavy burden.
Athaliah is persuaded to come into the temple alone to see the treasure that Jehoiada has kept hidden all these years, when she realizes that the treasure is the boy, Joash, that her dreams foretold, she recognizes her defeat and raises her eyes to see herself surrounded by the Levites.
A Levite: "The sword has purged the horror of her life. Jerusalem, that long had borne her rage, at last delivered from her odious yoke, rejoices as she lies steeped in her blood.
Jehoiada: "From the grim end, the sanction of her crimes, learn and do not forget, King of the Jews, Kings have a judge in heaven, virtue a shield, and there's a father to the fatherless.
Racine ends the play with an admonition for those in power to follow God's ways, though they are unlikely to do so. As we know, despite Joash's ambitions to live uprightly, thirty years later after abandoning himself to flatterers will defile himself by the murder of Zachariah, the son and successor of the high priest. In Racine's view there are no just men, only those whom God chooses to justify. All heroes are sinners, deeply involved in the lusts of the flesh and destined to struggle against corruption. Ultimately the protagonist of this play is God. His name has been blasphemed and his people have been destroyed by Athaliah and he will exact his vengeance. And while the throne and power can be poison, a just character will struggle against their demons, like Phaedra, yet will never give in to their temptations.
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