Although it was Corneille’s eighth play, The Cid was his first great popular and critical success. He transformed the medieval epic legend of the Cid into a very intimate play in which Rodrigue and Chimène suffer unnecessarily because of the selfishness of their fathers. Rodrigue and Chimène love each other very much and want to get married. Instead of considering the happiness of their adult children, Don Gomès (Chimène’s father) and Don Diègue (Rodrigue’s father) become involved in a petty argument that turns violent. Each claims to merit the honor of serving as the governor to King Fernand’s eldest son, a purely honorary position. The king’s decision is totally arbitrary and does not imply any criticism of the man not chosen. When Don Gomès realizes that his rival will receive this appointment, he loses his temper and slaps Don Diègue, who interprets this not as the crime of battery but rather as an offense against his family’s honor. He demands that his son avenge this insult by killing Don Gomès in a duel—a request that places Rodrigue in a terrible situation and does not give him enough time to consider an alternative. As a lawyer, Corneille knew that there were obvious legal remedies available for Don Diègue. Charges should have been brought against Don Gomès, and a court should have tried him for his physical attack against Don Diègue, who could also have begun a civil suit against his attacker. Death was an excessive penalty for the crime of battery. In act 1, both Don Diègue and Rodrigue deliver monologues that create very negative impressions on listeners, who conclude that both characters are irrational and violent men who do not respect the absolute value of human life.
After the death of Don Gomès, the king finds himself in a very delicate situation. As an absolute monarch, he has the authority to judge criminal cases. Although Rodrigue is a military hero, the king cannot excuse Rodrigue’s crime because it is very dangerous for individuals to place themselves above the law. Society cannot permit young soldiers to kill elderly gentlemen in duels. Although Chimène demands justice, she does not want to have Rodrigue executed for the murder of her father. King Fernand is a patient and objective judge. He comes to understand that it was the fanaticism of Don Diègue that caused Rodrigue to commit his heinous crime. There were extenuating circumstances. Although Rodrigue is guilty, the king pardons him and allows him to resume his military career. King Fernand suggests that after an appropriate period of mourning Chimène may want to marry Rodrigue. He strongly recommends that Chimène take at least one year before deciding whether she can forgive Rodrigue for his crime.
The Cid shows that chaos may result if individuals place their own desires above the needs of society as a whole. Whatever his motivation may have been, Don Diègue did not consider the effect of his fanaticism on others. Only the wisdom and compassion of King Fernand resulted in a solution that both preserved the rule of law and spared the life of Rodrigue. King Fernand accorded equal importance to both justice and mercy.
When he first published The Cid, Corneille referred to it as a tragicomedy, although he later decided to call it a tragedy. There is, however, no tragic vision of the world in The Cid. Although this play explores serious themes, such as death and justice, it does have a relatively optimistic ending. King Fernand may well succeed in restoring order to his kingdom while at the same time allowing Rodrigue and Chimène to live emotionally satisfying lives.
Because she is the princess royal, the infanta feels she cannot openly love Rodrigue, a nobleman of lower rank. She encourages, therefore, the growing attachment between Chimène and Rodrigue. Chimène asks her father, Don Gomès, to choose either Rodrigue or Sanche to be his son-in-law. She awaits the choice anxiously; her father is on his way to court and she will...
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