I Will Hear Those Glances That You Think Are Silent

Jean Racine? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The 17th-century French dramatist Jean Racine once presented a scenario in which a powerful emperor wished to split apart two lovers. The emperor ordered one lover to banish the other without revealing that the rejection was occurring under coercion. The emperor further stated that he would hide and carefully monitor the meeting of the couple. He employed the following ominous and memorable line:

I will hear those glances that you think are silent.

Would you please help me to find the play containing this scene?

Quote Investigator: This scene occurs in the tragedy “Britannicus” by Jean Racine which was first performed in 1669. The leader Neron desired to sever the relationship between Junie and Britannicus. He ordered Junie to break with her beloved. Here are the key lines spoken by Neron to Junie from a 1713 edition of the play. Boldface added to excerpts from QI: 1

Caché prés de ces lieux, je vous verrai, Madame;
Renfermez vôtre amour dans le fond de vôtre ame,
Vous n’aurez point pour moi de langages secrets.
J’entendrai des regards que vous croirez muets;
Et sa perte sera l’infaillible salaire
D’un geste, ou d’un soûpir échappé pour lui plaire.

A translation of Racine’s play into English by Robert Henderson and Paul Landis appeared under the publishing banner of The Modern Library in 1931. These were the key lines: 2

I shall be near, behind a curtain, lady.
Shut up your love within your inmost heart,
For I shall miss no secret words you say.
Looks that you think are silent, I will hear,
And he shall have his death for a reward
If any little move or sigh betray you.

Below is one additional selected citation together with a conclusion.

In 1970 the journal “Yale French Studies” published an article by Louis van Delft with translator Paul Schwartz that discussed Jean Racine’s works. The article included the following rendering of Neron’s lines: 3

Hidden near that place, Madame, I will see you.
Conceal your love in the depths of your soul.
You shall have no secret language;
I will hear those glances that you think are silent;
And his loss will be the infallible wage
Of a gesture or a sigh that escapes to please him.

In conclusion, Jean Racine deserves credit for the lines he wrote in “Britannicus”. The original French can be translated into English in a variety of ways. This article presents two possible renderings.

(Great thanks to Tracy Turley whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Turley contacted the “Ask A Librarian” service which recommended sending a query to QI. Happily QI was able to provide help in this case.)

Notes:

  1. 1713, Œuvres de Racine, Tome Premier, Play: Britannicus, Act 2, Scene 3, Start Page 223, Quote Page 259, Compagnie des Libraires, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1931, Six Plays By Corneille And Racine, Edited and with an introduction by Professor Paul Landis, Britannicus by Jean Racine, Translated by Robert Henderson and Paul Landis, (Act 2), Start Page 185, Quote Page 209, The Modern Library: Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1970, Periodical: Yale French Studies, Number 45: Language as Action, Article: Language and Power: Eyes and Words in Britannicus, Author: Louis van Delft, Translator: Paul Schwartz, Start Page 102, Quote Page 107, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. (JSTOR) link