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Pierre Corneille



Pierre Corneille

French poet and dramatist

born June 6, 1606, Rouen, France
died Oct. 1, 1684, Paris

French poet and dramatist, considered the creator of French classical tragedy. His chief works include Le Cid (1637), Horace (1640), Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1643).

Early life and career.
Pierre Corneille was born into a well-to-do, middle-class Norman family. His grandfather, father, and an uncle were all lawyers; another uncle and a brother entered the church; his younger brother, Thomas, became a well-known poet and popular playwright. Pierre was educated at the Jesuit school in his hometown, won two prizes for Latin verse composition, and became a licentiate in law. From 1628 to 1650 he held the position of king’s counselor in the local office of the department of waterways and forests.

Corneille’s first play, written before he was 20 and apparently drawing upon a personal love experience, was an elegant and witty comedy, Mélite, first performed in Rouen in 1629. When it was repeated in Paris the following year, it built into a steady (and, according to Corneille, surprising) success. His next plays were the tragicomedy Clitandre (performed 1631) and a series of comedies including La Veuve (performed 1632; The Widow), La Galerie du palais (performed 1633; The Palace Corridor), La Suivante (performed 1634; The Maidservant), La Place royale (performed 1634), and L’Illusion comique (performed 1636). His talent, meanwhile, had come to the attention of the Cardinal de Richelieu, France’s great statesman, who included the playwright among a group known as les cinq auteurs (“society of the five authors”), which the Cardinal had formed to have plays written, the inspiration and outline of which were provided by himself. Corneille was temperamentally unsuited to this collective endeavour and irritated Richelieu by departing from his part (Act III) of the outline for La Comédie des Tuileries (1635). In the event, Corneille’s contribution was artistically outstanding.

During these years, support had been growing for a new approach to tragedy that aimed at “regularity” through observance of what were called the “classical” unities. Deriving from Italy, this doctrine of the unities demanded that there be unity of time (strictly, the play’s events were to be limited to “the period between sunrise and sunset”), of place (the entire action was to take place in the one locus), and of action (subplots and the dramatic treatment of more than one situation were to be avoided). All this was based on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Poetics, in which the philosopher attempted to give a critical definition of the nature of tragedy. The new theory was first put into dramatic practice in Jean Mairet’s Sophonisbe (1634), a tragedy that enjoyed considerable success. Corneille, not directly involved in the call for regular tragedy of this kind, nevertheless responded to Sophonisbe by experimenting in the tragic form with Médée (1635). He then wrote Le Cid (performed early 1637), first issued as a tragicomedy, later as a tragedy.

Le Cid, now commonly regarded as the most significant play in the history of French drama, proved an immense popular success. It sparked off a literary controversy, however, which was chiefly conducted by Corneille’s rival dramatists, Mairet and Georges de Scudéry, and which resulted in a bitter pamphlet war. Richelieu, whose motives are not entirely clear, instructed the then recently instituted Académie Française to make a judgment on the play: the resulting document (Les Sentiments de l’Académie française sur la tragi-comédie du Cid, 1637), drafted in the main by Jean Chapelain, a critic who advocated “regular” tragedy, was worded tactfully and admitted the play’s beauties but criticized Le Cid as dramatically implausible and morally defective. Richelieu used the judgment of the Académie as an excuse for suppressing public performances of the play.

Corneille, indeed, had not observed the dramatic unities in Le Cid. The play has nevertheless been generally regarded as the first flowering of French “classical” tragedy. For the best French drama of the “classical” period in the 17th century is properly characterized, not so much by rules—which are no more than a structural convention—as by emotional concentration on a moral dilemma and on a supreme moment of truth, when leading characters recognize the depth of their involvement in this dilemma. In Le Cid, Corneille rejected the discursive treatment of the subject given in his Spanish source (a long, florid, and violent play by Guillén de Castro y Bellvis, a 17th-century dramatist), concentrating instead on a conflict between passionate love and family loyalty, or honour. Thus Le Cid anticipated the “pure” tragedy of Racine, in whose work the “classical” concept of tragic intensity at the moment of self-realization found its most mature and perfect expression.

Major tragedies.
Corneille seems to have taken to heart the criticisms levelled at Le Cid, and he wrote nothing for three years (though this time was also taken up with a lawsuit to prevent the creation of a legal office in Rouen on a par with his own). In 1640, however, appeared the Roman tragedy Horace; another, Cinna, appeared in 1641. In 1641 also Corneille married Marie de Lampérière, the daughter of a local magistrate, who was to bear him seven children to whom he was a devoted father. Corneille’s brother Thomas married Marie’s sister, and the two couples lived in extraordinary harmony, their households hardly separated; the brothers enjoyed literary amity and mutual assistance.

Le Cid, Horace, Cinna, and Polyeucte, which appeared in 1643, are together known as Corneille’s “classical tetralogy” and together represent perhaps his finest body of work for the theatre. Horace was based on an account by the Roman historian Livy of a legendary combat between members of the Horatii and Curiatii families, representing Rome and Alba; Corneille, however, concentrated on the murder by one of the patriots of his pacifist sister, the whole case afterward being argued before the king (a “duplicity” of action admitted by Corneille himself, who otherwise seems by now to have decided to follow the classical rules). Cinna was about a conspiracy against the first Roman emperor, Augustus, who checkmates his adversaries by granting them a political pardon instead of dealing them the expected violent fate, boasting that he has strength enough to be merciful. The hero of Polyeucte (which many critics have considered to be Corneille’s finest work), on adopting Christianity seeks a martyr’s death with almost militaristic fervour, choosing this as the path to la gloire (“glory”) in another world, whereas his wife insists that the claims of marriage are as important as those of religion.

These four plays are charged with an energy peculiar to Corneille. Their arguments, presented elegantly, rhetorically, in the grand style, remain firm and sonorous. The alexandrine verse that he employed (though not exclusively) was used with astonishing flexibility as an instrument to convey all shades of meaning and expression: irony, anger, soliloquy, repartee, epigram. Corneille used language not so much to illumine character as to heighten the clash between concepts, hence the “sentences” in his poetry which are memorable even outside their dramatic context. Action here is reaction. These plays concern not so much what is done as what is resolved, felt, suffered. Their formal principle is symmetry: presentation, by a poet who was also a lawyer, of one side of the case, then of the other, of one position followed by its opposite.

Contribution to comedy.
The fame of his “classical tetralogy” has tended to obscure the enormous variety of Corneille’s other drama, and his contribution to the development of French comedy has not always received its proper due. The Roman plays were followed by more tragedies: La Mort de Pompée (performed 1644; The Death of Pompey), Rodogune (performed 1645), which was one of his greatest successes, Théodore (performed 1646), which was his first taste of failure, and Héraclius (performed 1647). But in 1643 Corneille had successfully turned to comedy with Le Menteur (The Liar), following it with the less successful La Suite du Menteur (performed 1645; Sequel to the Liar). Both were lively comedies of intrigue, adapted from Spanish models; and Le Menteur is the one outstanding French comedy before the plays of Molière, Corneille’s young contemporary, who acknowledged its influence on his own work. Le Menteur, indeed, stands in relation to French classical comedy much as Le Cid does to tragedy.

In 1647 Corneille moved with his family to Paris and was at last admitted to the Académie Française, having twice previously been rejected on the grounds of nonresidence in the capital. Don Sanche d’Aragon (performed 1650), Andromède (performed 1650), a spectacular play in which stage machinery was very important, and Nicomède (performed 1651) were all written during the political upheaval and civil war of the period known as the Fronde (1648–53), with Don Sanche in particular carrying contemporary political overtones. In 1651 or 1652 his play Pertharite seems to have been brutally received, and for the next eight years Corneille wrote nothing for the theatre, concentrating instead on a verse translation of St. Thomas à Kempis’ Imitatio Christi (Imitation of Christ), which he completed in 1656, and also working at critical discourses on his plays that were to be included in a 1660 edition of his collected works.

Years of declining power.
Corneille did not turn again to the theatre until 1659, when, with the encouragement of the statesman and patron of the arts Nicolas Fouquet, he presented Oedipe. For the next 14 years he wrote almost one play a year, including Sertorius (performed 1662) and Attila (performed 1667), both of which contain an amount of violent and surprising incident.

Corneille’s last plays, indeed, were closer in spirit to his works of the 1640s than to his classical tragedies. Their plots were endlessly complicated, their emotional climate close to that of tragicomedy. Other late plays include La Toison d’or (performed 1660; The Golden Fleece), his own Sophonisbe (performed 1663), Othon (performed 1664), Agésilas (performed 1666), and Pulchérie (performed 1672). In collaboration with Molière and Philippe Quinault he wrote Psyché (1671), a play employing music, incorporating ballet sequences, and striking a note of lyrical tenderness. A year earlier, however, he had presented Tite et Bérénice, in deliberate contest with a play on the same subject by Racine. Its failure indicated the public’s growing preference for the younger playwright.

Corneille’s final play was Suréna (performed 1674), which showed an uncharacteristic delicacy and sentimental appeal. After this he was silent except for some beautiful verses, which appeared in 1676, thanking King Louis XIV for ordering the revival of his plays. Although not in desperate poverty, Corneille was by no means wealthy; and his situation was further embarrassed by the intermittent stoppage of a state pension that had been granted by Richelieu soon after the appearance of Horace in 1640. Corneille died in his house on the rue d’Argenteuil, Paris, and was buried in the church of Saint-Roch. No monument marked his tomb until 1821.

Corneille did not have to wait for “the next age” to do him justice. The cabal that had led the attack on Le Cid had no effect on the judgment of the public, and the great men of his time were his fervent admirers. Balzac praised him; Molière acknowledged him as his master and as the foremost of dramatists; Racine is said to have assured his son that Corneille made verses “a hundred times more beautiful” than his own. It was left to the 18th century, largely because of the criticisms of Voltaire, to exalt Racine at Corneille’s expense; but the Romantic critics of the late 18th century began to restore Corneille to his true rank.

It cannot be denied, however, that Corneille signed much verse that is dull to mediocre. Molière acknowledged this fact by saying: “My friend Corneille has a familiar who inspires him with the finest verses in the world. But sometimes the familiar leaves him to shift for himself, and then he fares very badly.” But the importance of his pioneer work in the development of French classical theatre cannot be denied; and, if a poet is to be judged by his best things, Corneille’s place among the great dramatic poets is beyond question.

Not only did Pierre Corneille produce, for nearly 40 years in all, an astonishing variety of plays to entertain the French court and the Parisian middle class: he also prepared the way for a dramatic theatre that was the envy of Europe throughout the 17th century. His own contribution to this theatre, moreover, was that of master as much as of pioneer. Corneille’s excellence as a playwright has long been held to lie in his ability to depict personal and moral forces in conflict. In play after play, dramatic situations lead to a finely balanced discussion of controversial issues. Willpower and self-mastery are glorified in many of his heroes, who display a heroic energy in meeting or mastering the dilemma that they face; but Corneille was less interested in exciting his audiences to pity and fear through visions of the limits of man’s agony and endurance than he was in stirring them to admiration of his heroes. Thus, only a few of his plays deal in tragic emotion. Nevertheless, because his most famous work, Le Cid, anticipated the tragic intensity of plays by Jean Racine, his younger contemporary, Corneille has often been referred to as the “father” of French classical tragedy; and his contribution to the rise of comedy has, in comparison, often been overlooked. From a 20th-century vantage point, however, it is as a master of drama that he appears, rather than of tragedy in particular.

Robert J. Nelson

Major Works
Plays. Le Cid (published 1637); Horace (1641); Cinna, ou La Clemence d’Auguste (1643); Polyeucte martyr (1643); La Mort de Pompée (1644)—all in English in The Chief Plays of Corneille, trans. by Lacy Lockert, 2nd ed. (1957). Rodogune, princesse des Parthes (1647; Rodogune; or, The Rival Brothers, trans. by S. Aspinwall, 1765); Nicomède (1651; Nicomede, trans. by J. Dancer, 1671).




Tyðå of work: Drama
Author: Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)
Type of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: Eleventh century
Locale: Seville
First presented: 1636

Generally ranked as the best of Corneille's works, this tragedy is considered by many scholars to be the beginning of modern French drama. The playwright reputedly used as his source Guillen de Castro ó Bellvis' treatment of the Cid legends, which form the basis of Spain's great medieval epic poem.


Principal Characters

Don Rodrigue (ro-dreg'), the Cid, son of aged Don Diegue. As his father's champion, he kills Don Gomes, mightiest swordsman of Castile. It appears he may eventually marry Chimene.
Don Diegue (dyeg'), once Spain's greatest warrior.
Chimene (she-men'), the daughter of the slain Don Gomes, who demands Rodrigue's death in punishment. Later, when he determines to let Sanche kill him, she begs Rodrigue to defend himself.
Don Gomes (go-meY), the father of Chimene, who quarrels with Diegue over tutoring the king's son and is slain by Rodrigue.
Don Fernand (fer-nari'), king of Castile, who names Rodrigue "The Cid" (Lord) after his victory over the Moors in Seville.
Don Sanche (sarish), a suitor of Chimene who challenges Rodrigue to avenge Gomes' death. The Cid magnanimously spares his life.
Dona Urraque (ii-rak'), the daughter of Fernand, who loves Rodrigue but yields to Chimene's prior claims.


The Story

Because she was the princess royal, the Infanta felt she could not openly love Rodrigue, a nobleman of lower rank. She encouraged, therefore, the growing attachment between Chimene and Rodrigue. Chimene asked her father, Don Gomes, to choose for his son-in-law either Rodrigue or Sanche. She awaited the choice anxiously; her father was on his way to court, and she would soon hear his decision. Don Gomes chose Rodrigue without hesitation, chiefly because of the fame of Don Diegue, Rodrigue's father.
A complication soon arose at court. The king had chosen Don Diegue as preceptor for his son, the heir apparent. Don Gomes felt that the choice was unjust. Don Diegue had been the greatest warrior in Castile, but he was now old. Don Gomes considered himself the doughtiest knight in the kingdom. In a bitter quarrel Don Gomes unjustly accused Don Diegue of gaining the king's favor through flattery and deceit. He felt the prince needed a preceptor who would be a living example, not a teacher who would dwell in the past. In the quarrel, Don Gomes slapped his older rival. Don Diegue, too feeble to draw his sword against Don Gomes, upbraided himself bitterly for having to accept the insult. His only recourse was to call on his young son to uphold the family honor.
Torn between love and duty, Rodrigue challenged Don Gomes to a duel. After some hesitation because of Rodrigue's youth and unproved valor. Don Gomes accepted the challenge of his daughter's suitor. To the surprise of the court, Rodrigue, the untried novice, killed the mightiest man in Castile, piercing with his sword the man whom he respected as his future father-in-law.
Chimene now felt herself in a desperate plight because her love for Rodrigue was mixed with hatred for the murderer of her father. She finally decided to avenge her father by seeking justice from the king. Since she had the right to petition the king, Don Fernand was forced to hear her pleas. In the scene at court. Don Diegue made a strong counter-plea for his son. reminding the king that Rodrigue had done only what honor forced him to do— uphold the family name.
The king was saved from the vexing decision when fierce Moors assaulted the walls of Seville. Chimene awaited the outcome of the battle with mixed emotions. The army of Castile returned in triumph, bringing as captives two Moorish kings. And the man who had inspired and led the Castilians by his audacity was Rodrigue. The grateful king gave the hero a new title, The Cid, a Moorish name meaning "lord." The Infanta was wretched. Although her high position would not allow her to love Rodrigue, she could love The Cid, a high noble and the hero of Castile. She showed her nobility by yielding to Chimene's prior right.
Chimene was still bound to seek redress. The king resolved to test her true feelings. When she entered the throne room, he told her gravely that Rodrigue had died from battle wounds. Chimene fainted. The king advised her to follow the promptings of her heart and cease her quest for vengeance.
Still holding duty above love, however, Chimene insisted on her feudal right of a champion. Sanche, hoping to win the favor of Chimene, offered to meet Rodrigue in mortal combat and avenge the death of Don Gomes. Chimene accepted him as her champion. The king decreed that Chimene must marry the victor.
In private, Rodrigue came to Chimene. Indignant at first, Chimene soon softened when she learned that Rodrigue had resolved to let himself be killed because she wished it. Again wavering between love and duty, Chimene begged him to defend himself as best he could. Sanche went bravely to meet Rodrigue who easily disarmed his opponent and showed his magnanimity by refusing to kill Chimene's champion. He sent his sword to Chimene in token of defeat. As soon as Chimene saw her champion approach with Rodrigue's sword in his hand, she immediately thought that Rodrigue was dead. She ran in haste to the king and begged him to change his edict because she could not bear to wed the slayer of her lover. When the king told her the truth, that Rodrigue had won, Don Diegue praised her for at last avowing openly her love. Still Chimene hesitated to take Rodrigue as her husband. The king understood her plight. He ordered The Cid to lead an expedition against the Moors. He knew that time would heal the breach between the lovers. The king was wise.


Critical Evaluation

The neoclassical tragedies of seventeenth century France are especially in need of introductions for a modern audience; Corneille's The Cid only a little less than most. The Renaissance had seen, among other things, an intensification of interest in the individual and in the self. This focusing of interest (amounting almost to a vision of the nature of man) was in conflict with the medieval view which perceived of man more as a race than as an individual. The individual was perceived, to be sure, but perceived as something like a component of society, reproducing it and assuring its integrity by maintaining binding interrelationships with other individual members of society both alive and dead. In Corneille's time, the more romantic tenets of the Renaissance had been displaced by the neoclassical adoption of the life of reason and order within a cohesive community; and with this life there came, understandably, a high regard for honor.
The twentieth century does not easily understand the classical and neoclassical concern for "honor" because our age is essentially a romantic one; our concerns are primarily for the immediate future and the physically alive, concerns of the individual. Romantic love, concerning itself as it does with physically alive individuals and their immediate futures, is of extreme importance to us. But honor is based not upon immediacy or subjectivity but upon loyalty to others (particularly those to whom one is related by blood ties, marriage, or a shared set of cultural assumptions) and concern for the opinions of others. It is not merely a matter of respectfully but radically differing with one's fellows on moral questions; one's fellows are a part of oneself; to differ radically with them is to be schizophrenic. The task then, in living a life of honor, is to live it so that others approve. For if others do not approve, no man (or woman) in such an age can approve of himself.
This is the situation of The Cid. The Infanta's dilemma is the keynote of the play; she must choose between her romantic love for Rodrigue (to whom she is impelled by her feelings as an individual) and her honor (as demanded by her ties to her father and her attendant position in society). Love urges that she make herself available for marriage to him, but honor insists that she not marry beneath her station. She chooses honor almost instinctively, even going so far as to take direct action to decrease her own romantic love; she brings Rodrigue and Chimene together so as to make him completely unavailable to herself as a lover. In act 5 she almost succumbs to love, thinking Rodrigue's newly won glories and title bring him nearly to her social station, but her lady in waiting (acting as her visible conscience on the stage) dissuades her. She goes on to aid in the final reconciliation of the principal pair.
Rodrigue and Chimene each must make the same choice, though their positions differ from the Infanta's in that theirs are seemingly impossible. While the Infanta's problem admits of the simplest (though not the easiest) of solutions, that of not declaring her love, Rodrigue cannot expect a loving response from the daughter of the man he has killed, and Chimene cannot give such a response. Both are acting in a typically honorable fashion, maintaining their fathers' reputations and foregoing their personal desires. To do less would be to make themselves less than human. Honor threatens the love affair of Chimene and Rodrigue, while love threatens the honor of the Infanta.
It will seem to some readers that love wins out in the end over honor, the honorable scruples of the principal pair having been overcome by reason and circumstances. But in fact love and honor are synthesized, neither force canceling out the other. The Infanta's moral position, being above reproach, is perfect for her role as a proponent of marriage for the pair. Had she surrendered to her own emotion, she could not have been nearly so effective a spokesperson on the part of love for others. Add to this Elvira's chiding and, indeed, the king himself in the role of matchmaker, and it will be seen that Cor-neille is at some pains to overcome excessive preoccupation with honor, but only in such a way as to leave real honor intact and alive.
Until we reach the denouement—Chimene's admission of her love—the heroine sees herself primarily as the daughter of Don Gomes; her admission of her feelings to the king and the resolution of the play are made possible by her being persuaded to see herself primarily as a member of the Castilian community. As a result of this shift in her perception of her role, she no longer sees Rodrigue as enemy and begins to see the Moors in that capacity. As principal bulwark against the common enemy, Rodrigue both lays the groundwork for this change in Chimene and is in a unique position to enjoy the benefits of it. Thus, while upholding the concept of honor in a humanly achievable form, the play uses a typically romantic process as the underpinnings of its plot: thesis and antithesis (honor and love) are synthesized.
Critics have seen in this play certain basic similarities to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, foremost among which is the feud between the lovers' families. But a more essential similarity lies in the use of death by both dramatists as a threat to young love. Both Romeo and Rodrigue think of death (for themselves) as a solution to their problems, and both offer the solution with such alacrity as to give rise to speculations of a death wish on both their parts. Such speculations, however, have the distinct disadvantage of focusing our attention entirely upon the character, causing us to ignore the play's overall design.
Death is not initially the preoccupation of either hero. Both want simply to marry the ladies they love. Death presents itself to them as a solution only when this desire becomes both undeniable and impossible to satisfy. This renders life impossible, and when life begins to seem impossible the natural impulse is to consign it to a state of nonexistence (the natural state for any impossibility). Death is the inevitable threat. But death becomes truly inevitable only when the character is convinced that his life is indeed impossible, t there is no way out. Romeo is convinced of this on two occasions; Rodrigue repeatedly offers himself to Chimene for execution, believing there is no other solution.
Death, then, is not intrinsic to Rodrigue's character; it is a force from without, threatening the healthy love relationship with the ferocity of a tangible monster. There is a level at which most love comedies are fertility rites, celebrating and promoting the optimism and fecundity of a society. In such comedies the lovers' eventual wedding (or promise of one) affirms this social optimism. But when optimism and fertility are seriously threatened by death, as they are in this play, we revise our classification of the play and call it a "tragicomedy." The play ends happily with the promise of a marriage, the protagonists having avoided death's many invasions into their happiness. But death's attempts were persistent, and were overcome by the slimmest of margins.
The Cid is Corneille's first major play and is today often considered his finest. His plays are often compared with those of his younger contemporary, Racine. Both authors adhered strictly to the neoclassical unities (action, time, and place), though Racine evidently worked more comfortably within those restrictions; Corneille reminds us throughout The Cid that the action occurs within one day, but the day is an unnaturally full one.



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