Credited by many critics to have written the first play exemplifying the neoclassical style introduced into France in 1630, Pierre Corneille was received into the French Academy in 1647. His career was highly prolific, including thirty-two plays. Although he became a lawyer, the playwright won accolades at an early age for his versification in Latin and published poems entitled Mélanges poétiques in 1632. Corneille studied Aristotle, the Greek and Roman classics, and Spanish history, producing the neoclassical play Le Cid(1637), which defined the rules of seventeenth century French drama. Influenced by the precepts of both Aristotle and Horace concerning decorum, verisimilitude, and the unities of time, place, and action, Corneille brought reason, order, and clarity to French plays, combining realism with the marvelous by means of the elegant Alexandrine twelve-syllable line. After defining the neoclassical style with Le Cid, Corneille began his series of plays taken from Roman history; his first Roman tragedy was Horace (1640).
In the Roman tragedy Cinna, Corneille distinguishes himself by showing that a tragedy consisting of mental conflicts can be as theatrical as a drama involving exterior actions. Cinna illustrates one of the greatest contributions that Corneille gave to the development of neoclassical French tragedy: the establishment of abrupt changes of situation during the drama, changes designated as coups de théâtre. In act 1 of Cinna, Corneille establishes the conflict of the play as duty versus love. To be worthy of Amelia’s love, Cinna has to fulfill her duty to avenge the death of her father through killing Emperor Augustus. Amelia ponders the threat to her lover’s life upon achieving this duty, while Cinna plots enthusiastically with other conspirators to overthrow the tyrannical Augustus. The coups de théâtre occur when Cinna and Maximus are called to present themselves to the king. This concluding action cements the lovers’ commitment to their duty and love, thus creating the suspense that Augustus might have already gained knowledge of the conspiracy. Corneille’s implementation of abrupt changes of situation give interest to Cinna and provide the background for the irony of the play, in which the monstrous tyrant of act 1 is portrayed as a...
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