The neoclassical tragedies of seventeenth century France are especially in need of introductions for a modern audience, Pierre Corneille’s The Cid only a little less than most. The Renaissance had seen, among other things, a growth of interest in the individual and in the self. This focusing of interest was in conflict with the medieval view, which perceived humanity more as members of a race than as individuals. The individual was perceived, to be sure, but perceived as a component of society, reproducing it and assuring its integrity by maintaining binding interrelationships with other members of society both alive and dead. In Corneille’s time, the more romantic tenets of the Renaissance had been displaced by the neoclassical adoption of the life of reason and order within a cohesive community; and with this life there came, understandably, a high regard for honor.
Many readers do not easily understand the classical and neoclassical concern for “honor” because the twenty-first century is essentially a romantic one; its concerns are primarily for the immediate future and for those who are physically alive. These are the concerns of the individual. Romantic love, concerning itself as it does with the immediate future, is of extreme importance in the twenty-first century. Honor, however, is based not upon immediacy or subjectivity but upon loyalty to others (particularly those to whom one is related by blood ties, marriage, or a shared set of cultural traditions) and concern for the opinions of others. It is not merely a matter of respectfully but radically differing from one’s peers on moral questions; one’s peers are a part of oneself; to differ radically from them is to be out of order with oneself. The task then, in living a life of honor, is to live it so that others approve. For if others do not approve, no man or woman in such an age can approve of himself or herself.
This is the situation of The Cid. The infanta’s dilemma is one of the keynotes of the play; she must choose between her romantic love for Rodrigue (to whom she is impelled by her feelings as an individual) and her honor (as demanded by her ties to her father and her attendant position in society). Love urges that she marry him, but honor insists that she not marry beneath her station. She chooses honor almost instinctively, even going so far as to take direct action to decrease her own romantic love; she brings Rodrigue and Chimène together so as to make him completely unavailable to herself as a lover. In act 5 she almost succumbs to love, thinking Rodrigue’s newly won glories and title bring him nearly to her social station, but her lady-in-waiting (acting as her visible conscience on the stage) dissuades her. She goes on to aid in the final reconciliation of the principal pair.
Rodrigue and Chimène each face a similar choice. While the infanta’s problem has a simpler (though not easier) solution, that of not declaring her love, Rodrigue cannot expect a loving response from the daughter of the man he has killed, and Chimène cannot give such a response. Both are acting in a typically honorable fashion, maintaining their fathers’ reputations and forgoing their personal desires. To do less would be to make themselves less than human. Honor threatens the love affair of Chimène and Rodrigue, while love threatens the honor of the infanta.
It will seem to some readers that love wins out over honor in the end, the honorable scruples of the principal pair having been overcome by reason and circumstances. However, love and honor are actually synthesized, neither force canceling the other. The infanta’s moral position, being above reproach, is perfect for her role as a proponent of marriage for the pair. Had she surrendered to her own emotion, she could not have been nearly so effective a spokesperson on the part of love for others. Add to this...
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