Pierre Corneille Essay - Critical Essays

Pierre Corneille Drama Analysis

The concept of the Corneillian hero, although it is somewhat misleading because it tends to oversimplify a vast and varied body of plays, has fired the imagination of generations. Seen in purest form in the earlier plays, this hero, torn between the dictates of duty, honor, and patriotism and the demands of love, achieves, through the strength of reason and will, an absolute realization of self. Often surrounded by mediocrity or by relative values, the hero is concerned solely for his gloire, which might be defined as an extreme form of aristocratic honor and self-respect, providing self-definition. Love in the hero is not an irrational, all-consuming emotion but rather is based on reason and respect for the beloved’s merit, or gloire. It is not surprising that Pierre Corneille has historically enjoyed periods of popularity before and during wars: His work has been the source of heroic inspiration and energy in France’s spiritual heritage.

L’Illusion comique

Corneille’s first eight plays, all but one of them comedies, combine obvious influences from contemporary drama with the playwright’s search for greater independence. The most remarkable of his early plays is L’Illusion comique, which Corneille in 1660 called a “strange monster.” It is clear that he wrote the play without the slightest regard for the dramatic unities then being promulgated by literary theorists. Called a Baroque drama because of its emphasis on illusion, instability, and metamorphosis, the play is the culmination of Corneille’s early period and contains an effective apology of the theater, and, perhaps, of the career that Corneille had chosen for himself.

Act 1 is a kind of prologue: Pridamant has spent years searching for his son Clindor, who was alienated from his father ten years earlier. Having found no trace of his son, Pridamant is brought by his friend Dorante to the grotto of the magician Alcandre. With a sweep of his magic wand, Alcandre shows to Pridamant some of his son’s varied adventures during the last ten years. Thus, in act 2 a play-within-a-play begins in which Clindor is valet to the cowardly military captain Matamore, a farcical character who boasts of fantastic military and amorous exploits. Both men love Isabelle, who in turn loves Clindor. Adraste, another rival for the love of Isabelle, fights Clindor, who, though wounded, kills Adraste. Clindor is condemned to execution for murder. Isabelle’s servant, Lyse, who is loved by Clindor’s jailor, succeeds in freeing Clindor. He, Lyse, and the beloved Isabelle flee. At the end of each act, there is a brief return to the grotto, where Pridamant records his reactions to his son’s adventures. At the end of act 4, Pridamant breathes easily after his son’s escape, but Alcandre promises him more tense moments. Suddenly, in act 5, a transformation in Alcandre’s show occurs: Clindor, richly dressed, courts another woman. He has forsaken Isabelle, who, dressed as a princess, complains of Clindor’s infidelities to Lyse. The jealous husband of the woman whom Clindor is courting, Prince Florilame, has Clindor killed and kidnaps Isabelle. Pridamant, who believes that he has witnessed the murder of his son, is inconsolable until Alcandre reveals yet another scene: Clindor, Isabelle, and the others are counting and dividing money. It turns out that they are actors, and the last scene was a fragment of a tragedy that they had just performed. Pridamant, relieved but scandalized by the idea that his son has chosen such a “degrading” profession, is finally convinced by Alcandre’s eloquent defense of the theater and of Clindor’s honorable profession.

Built on levels of illusion, L’Illusion comique contains a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. The notion of theatricality is central to the play. The magician Alcandre takes on the role of director and author while Pridamant represents the dazzled and deceived audience. Within the levels of illusion, there is a hierarchy. On the lowest and least effective level, Matamore and his swashbuckling boasts create “illusions” that fool no one. On the highest level, Alcandre creates superbly effective, magical, supernatural illusions that occur in a secret place (the grotto) and are inaccessible to the vast majority of people. Between these two extremes lies the theater, a remarkable source of illusion accessible to all, a “magical” place presided over by “magicians”—actors, directors, and, above all, playwrights. L’Illusion comique reflects the generally high esteem in which the theater was held in the period. In 1641, a royal decree affirmed the dignity of the actor’s profession; only toward the end of the century did the prestige of the stage begin to decline. The extraordinary renown of Corneille’s next play attests the popularity of drama in the 1630’s.

The Cid

For The Cid, by far his most successful and well-known play, Corneille drew his inspiration from a contemporary Spanish work, Guillèn de Castro y Bellvís’s Las mocedades del Cid (1621). It was necessary to adapt this long and diffuse foreign play to the tastes of the French audience. Corneille simplified and condensed, keeping the essential Romanesque theme of an aristocratic hero who accepts the tragic burden of opposing moral obligations and thus transcends the contingencies of the human condition. The two major characters are Rodrigue and Chimène, who are betrothed at the beginning of the play. The rivalry between Rodrigue’s aging father, Don Diègue, and Don Gomès, father of Chimène, initiates the conflict. Furious after the king’s appointment of Don Diègue as tutor to the prince, the younger Don Gomès slaps and thus mortally insults Rodrigue’s father. Too old to avenge this affront, Don Diègue asks his son to preserve the family honor. Rodrigue must choose between his family and his love, and in a famous soliloquy (the “Stances du Cid,” act 1 scene 6), decides to challenge the more experienced Don Gomès. In arriving at this decision, Rodrigue realizes that failure to uphold the family honor would inevitably result in the loss of Chimène because inaction would make him unworthy of her. Though steeped in emotion, the decision is thus both logical and necessary. In act 2, Rodrigue kills Don Gomès in a duel. The act’s last scene stages a confrontation before the king between Chimène, who demands that her father’s murderer be punished, and Don Diègue, who justifies his son’s honorable action. Chimène thus undergoes a conflict similar to that of Rodrigue: She is torn between two passions, family honor and love, and she chooses honor.

Act 3 contains the poignant scene in which Rodrigue confronts Chimène, asking that she personally end his life and thereby avenge her father. This she cannot do: She demands that he leave her house yet gives him to understand that she loves him still. Her true feelings are expressed with marvelous economy in a famous line often cited as an example of Corneille’s use of litotes (a figure of speech in which an affirmative is expressed by the negation of its contrary): “Va, je ne te hais point” (“Go, I do not hate you”). This emotional duel is said to have provoked great admiration and emotion in contemporary audiences. This scene of interior conflict accompanies an exterior threat: The infidel Moors are massing to attack the city of Seville. Exhorted again by his father, Rodrigue leads a force that, in the course of a nocturnal battle, defeats the Moors and saves the realm. Now a great hero, the right arm of the king, Rodrigue receives the title of le Cid, or Lord, from his vanquished foes. This turn of events obliges Chimène to assert an even greater force of will: For honor’s sake, she must persist in seeking vengeance on the new and acclaimed hero of Spain. Although knowing that Chimène still loves Rodrigue, the king allows her to choose a champion. Don Sanche, rejected lover of Chimène, will uphold her cause in single combat with Rodrigue, after which Chimène will marry the victor.

In the last act, Rodrigue bids farewell to Chimène: He is resigned to his death. After the duel, Don Sanche enters the scene, and Chimène believes that he has triumphed. Cursing Don Sanche, she admits publicly her undying love for Rodrigue. The king reveals the truth: that Rodrigue had won, spared his adversary, and sent him to Chimène as messenger. Asking that she forgive Rodrigue, the king declares that a year’s delay will temper Chimène’s desire for revenge, after which she and Rodrigue will marry. During this time, Rodrigue will be able to accomplish greater exploits, thus increasing his gloire and making him even worthier of Chimène’s noble hand.

The concept of rivalry informs the action of The Cid. The king’s decision at the outset exacerbates the rivalry between the proud fathers. The inevitable conflict then falls on the children: Both Rodrigue and Chimène must equal the aristocratic resolve of the other. Products of a feudal ethic that places honor above all else, the young couple are heroic yet sensitive. Each suffers, yet neither’s strength of will weakens. The seemingly irresolvable conflict is reconciled by the couple’s submission to higher authority. The king, who has the last words in the play, imposes his will on a younger generation, which accepts the idea of monarchical order. Represented by the fathers, the less-sympathetic older generation exhibits the intransigent feudal mentality of kill or die. Corneille’s emphasis on youth, on young lovers who provoke the pity but above all the admiration of the audience, is a keystone in his drama. It is important to note that the play traces the development of Corneillian heroism in Rodrigue. An inexperienced young man at the opening of the play, albeit with much potential because of his illustrious blood, Rodrigue becomes the “Cid.” There is an upward movement in which Rodrigue and Chimène are apotheosized. The Cid remains perhaps the best example of the ethical values of Corneillian drama: a noble idealism oriented toward the glorification of the passions and the self.

The huge popularity of The Cid touched off a debate famous in French literary history—“la querelle du Cid.” This quarrel is significant, reflecting a period in which the “baroque” and the “classical” styles were at odds. One of Corneille’s major rivals, Georges de Scudéry, wrote in 1637 Observations sur le Cid, in which he condemned the choice of subject as being inappropriate in a genre whose subjects should have ancient sources; he also attacked Corneille’s “plagiarism,” the play’s stylistic defects, and its inattention to the rules of drama. The last criticism is perhaps the most interesting. Scudéry declared that The Cid’s many plot elements could never occur within the prescribed twenty-four-hour time limit; the play’s action is therefore not verisimilar. The concept of vraisemblance—verisimilitude—was a fundamental tenet of the classical theoreticians. Scudéry also complained of the play’s apparently unnecessary characters, in particular the Infante, the princess who also loves Rodrigue. Much emphasis was placed on act 1 scene 3, in which the overweening Don Gomès insults and slaps the older Don Diègue onstage. Critics condemned the incident as shocking: It violated the dictum of bienséance—decorum—a moral and social principle that required propriety of representation and satisfaction of the tastes and mores of the public. The debate became so bitter that the powerful minister Cardinal Richelieu, wishing to establish the authority of the newly formed French Academy, ordered it to arbitrate the dispute. The Sentiments de l’Académie sur Le Cid, issued in October, 1637, praised the playwright yet confirmed Scudéry’s criticisms concerning Corneille’s neglect of the rules. Disturbed by the Academy’s judgment, Corneille corrected certain verses condemned by his critics; not until the author’s preface in the 1648 edition and in the play’s Examen, published in 1660, did Corneille attempt detailed self-justification. At any rate, the public acclaim accorded the play must have mitigated Corneille’s chagrin.


That Corneille was affected by academic criticism seems to be confirmed in his next play, Horace, first performed in 1640. After the depiction of Castilian honor, Corneille chose a subject taken from Roman history,...

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