Pierre Corneille Essay - Corneille, Pierre (Drama Criticism)

Corneille, Pierre (Drama Criticism)


Pierre Corneille 1606-1684

French playwright.

The following entry presents criticism on Corneille's life and career from 1981 through 1998.

Corneille was the first great tragic dramatist of France. Although many of his thirty-four plays are comedies or works of mixed type, he is particularly known for creating the genre of French classical tragedy with his innovative and controversial masterpiece, Le Cid (1637; The Cid). Though all of Corneille's plays are written in the verse format of his day, that of vers alexadrin (twelve-syllables per line), the playwright is well-known for deviating from the traditional format of neoclassical drama. Corneille's intense focus on human will, the will striving for freedom, and the fashioning of one's own destiny distinguishes his tragedies from classical Greek dramas, in which humans are depicted as helpless victims of fate. Although his theatrical career was marked by both triumphs and defeats, he was recognized in his lifetime as among his country's foremost dramatists and was commonly designated by the appellation “le grand Corneille.”

Biographical Information

Corneille was born into a middle-class family in Rouen and seems to have lived a quiet, retired, bourgeois life. He studied law but showed little aptitude for the profession. As a student he wrote poetry and won prizes for his Latin versification. In 1629 he offered his first play, the comedy Mélite, ou Les fausses letters (1630; Mélite; or, The False Letters), to a theatrical troupe led by the acclaimed actor Montdory during the group's stop in Rouen. The play was a great success when staged in Paris, and Corneille's theatrical career was effectively launched. Over the next several years, he wrote a number of successful comedies and tragedies. In 1636 Corneille first staged his innovative play, The Cid, which was a popular success but gave rise to a heated controversy known as “La Querelle du Cid” or “Quarrel of Le Cid.” The play's numerous violations of the common neoclassical design for tragic drama prompted published attacks by Corneille's rivals as well as defenses by Corneille and his supporters. The Cid was submitted to the newly formed Académie Française, then under the authority of Cardinal Richelieu, which issued a judgment siding with Corneille's opponents. Wounded and discouraged, he ceased writing plays for three years.

After his return to the theater in 1640, Corneille entered a very fertile period, producing at least three comedies and nine tragedies. The failure of his tragedy Pertharite, roi des Lombards (1652; Pertharites, King of the Lombards) led Corneille once again to leave the theater, this time for seven years. Although he attempted to regain his stature in 1659 with Œdipe (Oedipus), neither this tragedy nor the works that followed were nearly so successful as his former triumphs. Furthermore, the heroic mode of characterization that Corneille employed was giving way in public favor to the more firmly classical and Jansenist work of his younger rival, Jean Racine. Corneille retired from the theater in 1674 and died in obscurity ten years later.

Major Works

The Cid is considered one of the masterpieces of French drama. The play concerns the growing French middle class and shrinking nobility, centralized government, and economic growth. It offers token regard to the neoclassical guidelines for the presentation and structure of tragedies, but the plot foreshadows the more elaborate plotting of the Elizabethan stage: within twenty-four hours the protagonist falls in love, fights a duel, kills his beloved's father, leads his outnumbered military force to a smashing victory over the Moors, and is vindicated in trial by combat, all the while alternately losing and then regaining favor with both his beloved and his nation's king. In his later plays, Corneille focused less on celebrating individual heroism and more on classical themes like conflicts between patriotic duty and love or the call for mercy contrasted with the need for disinterested justice. Among Corneille's later works, Horace (1640), Polyeucte (1643), and Suréna (1674) are often named as masterworks of French drama. In addition, Corneille's comedies, from his early Mélite through Le Menteur (1643; The Liar) are regarded as clever, well-crafted works.

Critical Reception

Critics have praised Corneille's plays for their great diversity, brilliant versification, and complexity of plot and situation. Scholars have also applauded his liberation of tragedy from the confinement and artificiality of neoclassical strictures. Much critical discussion of Corneille's work focuses on his relationship with his contemporary and rival, the playwright Jean Racine. Many scholars compare the objectives and accomplishments of Corneille with those of Racine, often to Racine's advantage. Although the decline of Corneille's reputation, begun in his own lifetime, continued throughout the eighteenth century, the next century saw a reappraisal of his place in literary history, and today he is situated in the front rank of French dramatists.

Principal Works

Mélite, ou Les fausses lettres [Mélite; or, The False Letters] 1630

Clitandre 1631

La Veuve, ou Le Traître trahi [The Widow; or, The Betrayer Betrayed] 1632

La Suivante [The Maidservant] 1633

La Galerie du Palais, ou L'Amie rivalle [The Palace Corridor; or, The Rival Friend] 1633

La Place Royale, ou L'Amoureux extravagant [Place Royale; or, The Extravagant Lover] 1633

Médée 1635

L'Illusion comique [The Comic Illusion] 1635

Le Cid [The Cid] 1637

Horace 1640

Cinna, ou La Clémence d'Auguste [Cinna; or, The Clemency of Augustus] 1642

Polyeucte 1643

La Mort de Pompée [The Death of Pompey] 1643

Le Menteur [The Liar] 1643

La Suite du Menteur [Sequel to The Liar] 1644

Rodogune, Princesse des Parthes [Rodogune, Princess of Parthia] 1644

Théodore, vièrge et martyre [Theodora, Virgin and Martyr] 1645

Héraclius 1647

Andromède [Andromeda] 1650

Don Sanche d'Aragon [Don Sancho of Aragon] 1650

Nicomède 1651

Pertharite, roi des Lombards [Pertharites, King of the Lombards] 1652

Œdipe [Oedipus] 1659

La Toison d'Or [The Golden Fleece] 1660

Sertorius 1662

Sophonisbe [Sophonisba] 1663

Othon [Otho] 1664

Agésilas [Agesilaus] 1666

Attila 1667

Tite et Bérénice [Titus and Bernice] 1670

Pulchérie [Pulcheria] 1672

Suréna 1674

Œuvres complètes 3 vols. (dramas, poetry, prose) 1980-87

Criticism: General Commentary

G. J. Mallinson (essay date July 1982)

SOURCE: Mallinson, G. J. “The Variants of Corneille's Early Plays.” Modern Language Review 77, no. 3 (July 1982): 547-57.

[In the following essay, Mallinson examines Corneille's attitude toward his early comedies.]

The first edition of Corneille's complete works, whatever its merits as financial speculation on the part of the publisher, was for the dramatist himself, seemingly, a cause of great concern. Comedies written a decade earlier were to be brought again to the public eye, plays which, according to the avis of 1644, would be better forgotten:

C'est contre mon inclination que mes libraires vous font ce présent, et...

(The entire section is 5694 words.)

Harriet Stone (essay date October 1982)

SOURCE: Stone, Harriet. “Transformal Closures in Le Cid, Horace, Cinna, and Polyeucte.Theatre Journal 34, no. 3 (October 1982): 302-21.

[In the following essay, Stone scrutinizes the stylistic and thematic similarities of The Cid, Horace, Cinna, and Polyeucte.]

Tragedy is the experience of loss—loss of or separation from an envisaged whole or state of fulfillment. That is, loss implies its logical corollary (totality); the one concept is defined through the other. So the enactment of tragedy involves the separation of the individual from his coveted possession, the transformation of an inclusive desire into an exclusive...

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Harold C. Knutsen (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Knutsen, Harold C. “Corneille's Early Comedies: Variations in Comic Form.” In Corneille Comique: Nine Studies of Pierre Corneille's Comedy with an Introduction and a Bibliography, edited by Milorad R. Margitic, pp. 35-54. Paris: Papers on French Literature, 1982.

[In the following essay, Knutsen views Corneille's early plays as “a series of variations in comic form.”]

It is difficult to avoid seeing Corneille's early comedies in a teleological perspective, as early stages in the inevitable progress of the dramatist and his heroes towards greatness.1 But a few critics, beginning with Rivaille,2 have sought to examine these plays on...

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H. T. Barnwell (essay date January 1986)

SOURCE: Barnwell, H. T. “‘They Have Their Exits and Their Entrances’: Stage and Speech in Corneille's Drama.” The Modern Language Review 81, no. 1 (January 1986): 51-63.

[In the following essay, Barnwell considers “some of the ways in which Corneille orders and constructs the successive episodes of his plays and some of the connexions between that arrangement and speech.”]

1984 saw the commemoration of the tercentenary of the death of Pierre Corneille.1 Since a glance through the titles of papers presented at the international colloquium held at Rouen in October would hardly suggest to the uninitiated that we were remembering a great playwright,...

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Claire Carlin (essay date February 1986)

SOURCE: Carlin, Claire. “The Woman as Heavy: Female Villains in the Theater of Pierre Corneille.” French Review 59, no. 3 (February 1986): 389-98.

[In the following essay, Carlin discusses the innovative role of women in Corneille's comedies.]

In the archetypal comic schema proposed by Northrop Frye,1 a blocking character, usually a “heavy father” figure, tries to prevent the union of a pair of young lovers. The inappropriate desire of the older and often powerful man to possess the young woman for his own poses a potential threat to society as a whole, because societal renewal depends on the triumph of health and youth as represented by the young...

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Judd D. Hubert (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Hubert, Judd D. “Two Crowned Feminist.” In Corneille's Performative Metaphors, pp. 154-64. Charlottesville, VA: Rookwood Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Hubert discusses the defining characteristics of Titus and Bernice and Pulcheria.]


Admiration and sublimity, as Marie-Odile Sweetser has shown, reach a climax at the dénouement of Tite et Bérénice even though the name characters, with the possible exception of Bérénice, remain at a further remove from plenitude than Othon and Plautine.1 Like Don Sanche d'Aragon, this play richly deserves its classification as a...

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Russell J. Goulbourne (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Goulbourne, Russell J. “Visual Effects and the Theatrical Illusion in Pierre Corneille's Early Plays.” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 25, no. 49 (1998): 531-44.

[In the following essay, Goulbourne explores the visual aspects of Corneille's early plays.]

“Il faut voir représenter Corneille pour en sentir tout l'effet.” With these words, Louis-Sébastien Mercier alerts the reader of his Nouvel essai sur l'art dramatique (1773) to Corneille's theatricality and particularly to his exploitation of the visual resources of the stage.1 For a long time, however, Mercier's was a lone voice. Seventeenth-century French drama,...

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Criticism: Clitandre

SOURCE: Hawcroft, Michael. “Corneille's Clitandre and the Theatrical Illusion.” French Studies 47, no. 2 (April 1993): 142-55.

[In the following essay, Hawcroft asserts that it is possible to view Clitandre as “an attempt to engage metaphorically with the theoretical debates around 1630, dominated as they were by the twenty-four hour rule and the concept of theatrical illusion.”]

The tragicomedy Clitandre is Corneille's second play, first performed in the theatrical season 1630-31, and first published in 1632.1 It is far from being one of Corneille's best-remembered plays. Modern critics can be scathing about it. Lancaster...

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Criticism: La Veuve (The Widow)

SOURCE: McFarlane, Ian. “A Reading of La Veuve.” In The Equilibrium of Wit: Essays for Odette de Mourgues, edited by Peter Bayley and Dorothy Gabe Coleman, pp. 135-49. Lexington, KY: French Forum, 1982.

[In the following essay, McFarlane explores stylistic aspects of The Widow, particularly Corneille's use of language, action, and characterization.]

In the Letter-preface to La Suivante, Corneille quotes from Montaigne (I, 37): “Qu'on me donne l'action la plus excellente et pure, je m'en vais y fournir vraisemblablement cinquante vicieuses intentions.” This points to a persistent fascination with the relations between state of mind and outer...

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Criticism: La Suivante (The Maidservant)

SOURCE: Gaines, James F. “Usurpation and Heroic Lies: A Baroque Dilemma in La Suivante.Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 15, no. 29 (1988): 451-62.

[In the following essay, Gaines contends that the usurpation of social rank plays a prominent role in The Maidservant.]

It is not astonishing that usurpation of social rank, the manipulation of appearances in order to lay claim to an unauthorized essential identity, should play a prominent role in the evolution of baroque social comedy, especially in France, where mobility was slower and more strictly regulated than in most other European lands. But one is perhaps surprised to find the topic...

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Criticism: MéDéE

SOURCE: Greenberg, Mitchell. “Mythifying Matrix: Corneille's Médée and the Birth of Tragedy.” In Corneille, Classicism and the Ruses of Symmetry, pp. 16-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Greenberg offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Médée.]

‘… que peut faire une femme?’

Corneille enters the tragic universe through the door of myth. By choosing to stage, as his first tragedy, Medea's infanticide, Corneille both affirms a belief in (literary) genealogy, of his own place in progression (Euripides, Seneca, Corneille), and plunges back into a universe...

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Criticism: Le Cid (The Cid)

SOURCE: Harrison, Helen L. “Payer or Récompenser: Royal Gratitude in Le Cid.French Review 72, no. 2 (December 1998): 238-49.

[In the following essay, Harrison addresses the issue of royal gratitude as portrayed in The Cid.]

When the Académie Française delivered its judgment on Le Cid, Don Fernand's support for the marriage of Rodrigue and Chimène met with condemnation. The Academicians ruled that a marriage between a woman and her father's killer would have been immoral. At the same time, the Académie criticized the Castillean king as an abusive tyrant who lightly gave away property—namely Chimène herself—which did not belong...

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Criticism: Horace

SOURCE: Tiefenbrun, Susan. “Blood and Water in Horace: A Feminist Reading.” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 10, no. 19 (1983): 617-34.

[In the following essay, Tiefenbrun investigates the function of the blood and water motif in Horace.]

Woman is the lesser man, and all thy
                    passions matched with mine,
Are as moonlight unto sunlight, and
                    as water unto wine.

—(Alfred Lord Tennyson)

She was as false as water.

(Othello, V, 2, 132)

The analysis of two scenes from Horace, Act iii, 1 and Act iv, 5, which were carefully selected...

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Criticism: Cinna

SOURCE: Hubert, Judd D. “A Theatrical Reading of Cinna.” In Convergences: Rhetoric and Poetic in Seventeenth-Century France, Essays for High M. Davidson, edited by David Lee Rubin and Mary B. McKinley, pp. 101-09. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Hubert provides a metadramatic interpretation of Cinna.]

In interpreting Cinna, not only do I favor a metadramatic approach, but I go so far as to postulate that a given character's so-called tragic flaw coincides with performative failure, or sometimes self-defeating success, as dramatist, director, actor, spectator.

Auguste, in substituting Cinna and...

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Criticism: Polyeucte

SOURCE: Cairncross, John. “Polyeucte: A Flawed Masterpiece.” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 9, no. 17 (1982): 571-90.

[In the following essay, Cairncross underscores the flaws in Polyeucte and traces the critical reaction to the play throughout the years.]

For the last forty years, critics have placed Polyeucte (? 1642) on a pinnacle. The wave of enthusiasm can be traced back to Péguy's famous essay, Victor-Marie, comte Hugo (1910). But the groundswell of enthusiasm starts, significantly, just before the Second World War with Brasillach's Corneille (1938), where he defines the work as the greatest sacred drama of...

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Criticism: Le Menteur (The Liar)

SOURCE: Hopkins, Elaine R. “Comedy and Parody in Le Menteur.Romance Notes 22, no. 2 (winter 1981): 192-96.

[In the following essay, Hopkins elucidates the elements of classical tragedy which are parodied in The Liar.]

Histories of the theatre show that tragedy came first, and that comedy developed later as a new reflection upon well-known themes. In Tragedy and Comedy, Walter Kerr states that the Greek tragic trilogies almost always were followed by a fourth play, a comic treatment of the same material covered in the tragedies. This was the “satyr play,” from which our word satire got its original meaning of a comic imitation. Kerr states...

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Criticism: Rodogune, Princess Of Parthes

SOURCE: Reed, Gervais E. “Visual Imagery and Christian Humanism in Rodogune.French Review 63, no. 3 (February 1990): 464-74.

[In the following essay, Reed considers Corneille's emphasis on visual imagery and Christian theology in Rodogune.]

Nearly 350 years after its first run in Paris, Pierre Corneille's Rodogune still stimulates critical discussion.1 For example, Jacques Scherer (xx) has argued that Rodogune represents Corneille's desire to return to the excitement of depicting horrible crimes like those of Médée, his first tragedy. Couton (II, 1283) echoes this judgment in his new edition of the playwright's complete...

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Criticism: Odipe (Oedipus)

SOURCE: Allentuch, Harriet Ray. “Is Corneille's Œdipe Œdipal?” French Review 67, no. 4 (March 1994): 571-79.

[In the following essay, Allentuch regards Oedipus as representative of Corneille's subconscious dramatic concerns.]

Corneille's now forgotten Œdipe (1659) was one of the triumphs of his long dramatic career. It pleased his new patron, Fouquet, and enthralled audiences at court and at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. With Œdipe Corneille reemerged as the premier French tragic dramatist of his day: the play ended his seven-year retirement from the stage and its success removed the sting of failure associated with Pertharite...

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Criticism: Sophonsibe (Sophinisba)

SOURCE: Barnwell, H. T. “Corneille in 1663: The Tragedy of Sophonisbe.” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 11, no. 21 (1984): 575-92.

[In the following essay, Barnwell provides an interpretation of Sophonisba in light of Saint-Evremond's critical comments on Corneille and his play.]

Of Corneille's tragedies, Sophonisbe is one of the least esteemed both by his contemporaries and by the critics who have followed them over the past three hundred years. Yet the dramatist himself thought it one of his best plays. Was he mistaken? Or, at least, does this tragedy deserve its poor reputation? With few exceptions (e.g. Serge Doubrovsky:...

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Criticism: Othon (Otho)

SOURCE: Gunter, Elizabeth Ellington. “The Function of Vinius in Othon.French Review 55, no. 2 (December 1981): 188-92.

[In the following essay, Gunter investigates the character of Vinius in Otho, maintaining that he can be viewed “as a mock hero whose main function is to serve as a dramatic and psychological foil for Othon.”]

Critics have claimed that the imperial advisors in Corneille's Othon come close to dominating the action of the play. Among these advisors, Lacus and the ex-slave Martian are obviously self-interested, ambitious villains who possess no redeeming qualities. Vinius, on the other hand, appears more complex and so has...

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Further Reading


Baker, Susan Read. “An ‘I’ for an Eye: Corneille's Clitandre.Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 13, no. 24 (1986): 87-101.

Considers Clitandre's place within Corneille's oeuvre.

———. “Strategies of Seduction in Cinna.” In Homage to Paul Bénichou, edited by Sylvie Romanowski and Monique Bilezikian, pp. 75-91. Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications, 1994.

Contends that “seduction as a sexual, political, and textual practice dominates the economy of Cinna.

Bornedal, Peter. “The Law of the Name: The Imaginary Recipient in...

(The entire section is 482 words.)