George de Scudéry Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Georges de Scudéry 1601-1667

French playwright, novelist, poet, and critic.

Scudéry was a popular playwright, a successful poet and novelist, and a member of the Académie Française. He was also well known for several influential works of literary criticism, particularly Observations sur Le Cid (1637). This critique of Pierre Corneille's play Le Cid started a heated literary debate on the proper definition of tragedy, known as the “Querelle du Cid.” Scudéry's career as a novelist has been more difficult to assess. His younger sister, Madeleine de Scudéry, was also a novelist, and it is believed that she either shared authorship or wholly wrote many of the novels published under Scudéry's name. Despite such unresolved questions, Scudéry has been regarded as a vital force in seventeenth-century French literature.

Biographical Information

Scudéry was born in 1601, the son of Georges de Scudéry and Madeleine de Martel de Goustimesnil. Of the couple's five children, only Scudéry and his sister Madeleine survived past infancy. Scudéry's father was of noble extraction, served in the army as an officer and administrator, and was the captain of the port of Le Havre. Scudéry and his sister were orphaned when their parents died within months of each other in 1613. The children were reared by an uncle who, well schooled himself, gave them an excellent education. In the early 1620s Scudéry joined the military, serving in several campaigns and in a regiment of the Guards. Scudéry often bragged of his military exploits to the point of exaggeration, but most scholars believe his service was generally honorable. His time in the military coincided with the start of his literary career. In 1623 he published his first work, Elégie sur l'arrest de Théophile, in defense of Théophile de Viau, who had been forced into exile from Paris because his writings were declared obscene. Around 1630, about the time he left the army, Scudéry's first play, Lygdamon et Lidias; ou, La Ressemblance, was staged. Between that time and 1643 he wrote sixteen plays. After the failure of Arminius (1643), Scudéry ceased writing plays and began producing novels. Although these multi-volume works were published under Scudéry’s name, critics note that many volumes were written in collaboration with his sister—some insist that most if not all were composed by Madeleine. In 1644 Scudéry left Paris, having been named the governor and capitaine des gallères of Notre Dame de la Garde at Marseilles. He returned to Paris three years later, possibly having been dismissed from his post. In 1649 Scudéry published one of his several volumes of poetry, Poésies diverses, and was elected to the Académie Française the following year. He was forced to leave Paris in the early 1650s as a result of his support of the rebels in the Fronde, an abortive revolution. He went first to Granville, then to Normandy, where he married Marie Madeleine de Martin-Vast in 1654. About this time he became estranged from his sister. In 1661 Scudéry returned to Paris and received a pension from the king. In his last years he did some translating work and wrote Les Femmes illustres; ou, Les Harangues héroïques. He died on May 14, 1667.

Major Works

Scudéry's first literary success came in the theater. Twelve of his sixteen plays were tragicomedies, including his first, Lygdamon et Lidias, and the one often considered his best, L'Amour tyrannique (1638). Scudéry was also well known for several influential works of literary criticism. Observations sur Le Cid was one of his most important critical works. In this essay, published in 1637, he censured Corneille's drama Le Cid on several fronts, including the morality of the play, the liberties Corneille took with established dramatic rules, the quality of the dialogue, and the questionable merit of the subject matter itself. Corneille's vicious response to Observations sur Le Cid and his other critiques of Scudéry's work began the so-called “Querelle du Cid,” a heated literary debate on the proper definition of tragedy. Scudéry further elaborated his views on drama in L'Apoligie du théâtre (1639). Scudéry's reputation as a novelist is clouded by questions of the degree to which he or his sister should be considered the author of the works published under his name. While scholars concede that Scudéry's share in Ibrahim, Artamène, ou Le Grand Cyrus (1649-53), Clélie (1654-60), and Almahide; ou, L'Esclave reine (1660-63) can never be definitively established, most acknowledge that he contributed in some manner to these works—possibly creating plot outlines and constructing battle scenes. Throughout his career, Scudéry also wrote verse of varied subject matter and form. Notable among his poetic works are Le Cabinet de M. de Scudéry (1646), a collection of poems based on paintings, both contemporary and ancient, and Alaric, ou Rome vaincue (1654), a twelve-volume epic poem on the king of the Visigoths that went through seven editions in Scudéry's lifetime.

Critical Reception

A highly regarded playwright and novelist, Scudéry was a prominent figure in his day. His theatrical pieces were admired by his contemporaries as well as by later critics; Scudéry's most famous play, L'Amour tyrannique, won him the respect of Honore de Balzac, who contended that Scudéry was a great poet. Scudéry's plays have continued to be studied by modern critics, such as Henry Carrington Lancaster, who has examined his last tragicomedy, Le Prince déguisé, and praised its unity, intrigue, and “spectacular setting.” Barbara Matulka has also studied Le Prince déguisé, focusing on the possible sources of the play and listing the Spanish novel Primaleón (1512) and Juan de Flores's Historia de Aurelio e Isabella as primary sources for Scudéry's play. The critic noted that although Scudéry relied heavily on his sources for his plot and themes, he was able to position his play “in a new and clever disguise,” thus introducing a sense of novelty to the well-worn themes of his sources. Scudéry's novels have also been the subject of many critical studies. Jerome W. Schweitzer has investigated the influence of Scudéry's works on Samuel Richardson, who is considered by many to be the father of the modern English novel, and on playwright John Dryden, who used Almahide as source material for his plays. The authorship question has inevitably played a role in the criticism of Scudéry's novels. Both William Roberts and Schweitzer have contended that Scudéry, not his sister, wrote Almahide. Schweitzer also noted the novel’s value as “a document of seventeenth-century life” and contended that it is worthy of more praise than it has received. Scudéry's poetry has not been as highly esteemed as his novels and plays. Schweitzer has maintained that much of his poetry is “worthless,” contending that “as a poet he was admittedly mediocre except on those rare occasions when inspired by nature or by a sense of history.” Scudéry's literary criticism and theoretical works, particularly Observations sur Le Cid and his preface to Ibrahim, have also been studied by critics for their influence on his contemporaries and later writers.