What is the role of honor in the play Cinna? What does it mean to each of the characters?
Romanesque plays written in the time of Pierre Corneille have as their guiding principles heroic virtue and nobility of soul. Honor and a romantic devotion to one's beloved led to satisfying endings for audiences. In his play Cinna, Corneille addresses "spiraling vengeance" and urges an end to the treachery of the court by means of honorable actions.
Drawing parallels to the court of Louis XIV, Corneille's plot begins with Emilie's demand of Cinna to avenge her honor against Augustus Caesar, who has killed her father. Desirous of her, Cinna plots with his friend Maxime to assassinate Augustus. But, Augustus is weary of ruling and asks Cinna and Maxime when they appear before him if he should abdicate the throne. Desirous of Emilie, Cinna urges him to retain his throne so that he can kill him and win Emilie. Nevertheless, the kindness and honor of the emperor cause Cinna to rethink his plans. Maxime, who also loves Emilie, repudiates the plan suggested by his servant that he reveal Cinna's assassination plot, even though he could gain Emilie. In the meantime, Cinna is faced with an internal struggle as he is touched by the integrity of Augustus. But, he decides to go through with his assassination plan in order to please Emilie, his lover.
In Act IV, the servant of Maxime, Euphorbe, goes before Augustus in order to reveal the truth about everyone. The wife of Augustus, hearing this, advises him to have mercy on Cinna; however, he orders her away. When Maxime runs to Emilie to declare his love, she repels him and runs to find Cinna, only to discover him before Augustus. There, she confesses her guilt, hoping to clear Cinna of suspicion. But, when Maxime and Euphorbe enter, declaring their guilt, too, Augustus decides that because of their show of honor the chain of corruption must end, and he pardons them all.
One French critic has observed,
In the heat of passion, men are insensible, but when they open their eyes to reality and their hearts to human sentiment because of something stronger, they can then become reflective and wise.
When he pardons the conspirators, Augustus Caesar possesses heroic virtue and generosity; furthermore, he ends the spiral of corruption with his nobility of soul. Thus, the role of honor is heroic; for, it is what ends the corruption.