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 compassionate human being in the final act.
This humanization is foreshadowed by the play’s subtitle, the mercy of Augustus, since it underscores the significance of the emperor’s response to the assassination plot. Cinna’s regeneration exemplifies the rule that a neoclassical play should take its background from a credible source. In fact, Corneille consulted several Roman sources, including Seneca’s De Clementia (c. 55-56) and the works of Cassius Dio. Seneca’s essay on mercy in De Clementia related the story of Augustus’s discovery of the plot of Pompey’s grandson Cinna upon whom Augustus had bestowed various favors; his wife Livia suggested that he use clemency to quell the conspiracy. This suggested the political theme of Corneille’s Cinna, which involved the decision of the Romans to choose between anarchy or absolute monarchy. Augustus’s first monologue to Cinna and Maximus reflects this indecisiveness: “Augustus, Rome, the State are in your hands. . . . You’ll place all Europe, Asia, Africa under a monarch’s or republic’s rule.” Corneille’s use of dramatic irony is seen in Augustus’s statement in that the emperor does not know that Cinna, Maximus, and Amelia have already devised a plot to kill him.
Corneille’s condensation of the historical events in Roman history concerning the emperor’s rise to power and the establishment of his absolute monarchy allowed the French author to emphasize Octavian’s change of name to Augustus. This change of name, taken from the works of Cassius Dio, not only...
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suggests that the sacred king merits respect but also links the political theme to the moral one. The moral theme refers to the evolution of Augustus’s character, since the king could, in the end, reconcile himself with the conspirators because he ascertains that they are motivated by either love or jealousy. In fact, the plot could be reduced to the following formula: Maximus loves Amelia, who loves Cinna. The king’s realization of this love triangle coupled with his wife’s proposal to act out of clemency allows the monarch to develop morally in a way that is reminiscent of Seneca’s three levels of moral ascendancy: pity, pardon, and clemency. At the beginning of the play, Augustus expresses pity for the fate of the people if he were to yield the throne to another monarch; Cinna hypocritically encourages the king to continue his reign. Then, after learning about the murder plot, Augustus offers Maximus an unmerited pardon out of sorrow over the whole situation, for Maximus has been tempted to arrange the death of his friend Cinna to marry Amelia. Finally, because of Livia’s suggestion of clemency to resolve Cinna’s participation in the treasonous situation, the play ends with the monarch’s authority augmented. The positive result of Augustus’s clemency is summarized by Cinna, who declares that the monarch’s unparalleled action makes his own crime greater and Augustus’s power more just. Hence, the emperor sees himself as the master of himself and of the world.
Augustus’s act of clemency completes the theme of moral development as well as the political theme, since it allows the acceptance of the absolute monarchy. Corneille thus establishes in his plays a respect for the royal standard of conduct, a standard that the playwright termed “generosity.”
Corneille’s fast-moving, compact style and his observance of the unities of a single time, place, and action in Cinna prefigured Jean Racine’s tragedies, which were written during the epoch of Louis XIV’s absolute monarchy. Similar to Racine, Corneille based his action on psychological decisions, thus enabling Cinna to present a dramatic concentration that he rarely achieved in his other works.