Le Cid, published in 1636, is considered Pierre Corneille’s first masterpiece, a tragic play that was subsequently used by later playwrights as a model and a standard to follow. With Le Cid, Corneille changed the form of the dramatic play, a transformation that was met with great applause not only from the audience but from the ruling monarch at the time, King Louis XIII of France.
Le Cid is based on the deeds and subsequent legend of a twelfth-century Spanish soldier called El Cid (arabic for the lord), a man who fought against (and, as some believe, also fought with) the Moors who were in the process of taking over much of the land that Spain occupies today. El Cid was a mighty warrior and the first notorious hero of Spain. Much had been written about him in poetry and ballad, as well as in a play by the Spanish author Guillen de Castro (1569–1631). Corneille was inspired by the story of El Cid and, taking liberty from the standard dramatic form of his day, imbued his play with great passion and complex psychological insight. The result was a production the likes of which the Parisian people had never seen before.
The play relates the events of Le Cid coming of age. Le Cid’s father asks his son to restore the elder man’s honor by challenging Le Cid’s future fatherin- law to a duel. Le Cid immediately understands that no matter what he does, he is doomed. If he does not make the challenge, both he and his father will be dishonored. If he does make the challenge, he will lose the love of his future bride. The manner in which he solves this dilemma, and the events that unfold as he does so, takes the young man from untried warrior to triumphant hero.