Horace is typical of Pierre Corneille’s tragedies for presenting a tragic hero caught in a dilemma, in this case having to choose between the exigencies of patriotism and those of familial affection. In this respect, the play belongs to a long classical tradition, and in its construction Horace adheres to the dramatic principles generally followed by Corneille and his great younger contemporary, Jean Racine. The plot develops rapidly, with considerable suspense. After a brief expository opening, setting the stage for the war between Rome and Alba, there is the first surprise, or coup de théâtre: War as such will be averted and the outcome will be decided by three warriors on each side. That leads to the crisis: The three Horace and the three Curiace brothers have been chosen to represent their respective states. The first news of the struggle indicates that the Curiace brothers have triumphed. Then the truth, the second coup de théâtre, is revealed: Horace ran away merely as a ruse to enable him to eliminate the Curiace brothers one at a time. The struggle has been resolved in favor of Rome. A second crisis now arises, for which Corneille was much criticized by his contemporaries because with it he appeared to violate the law of the unity of action. Horace’s sister Camille bitterly condemns the harsh Roman ethic that causes her the loss of Curiace. The third surprise is Horace’s unexpected murder of Camille.
Horace is a singularly unattractive hero. One can hardly sympathize with his single-minded approach to glory, which ignores all human sentiment. A hero who murders his own sister inevitably strikes the spectator as an impossible extremist who cannot inspire any feelings other than disgust. The circumstances of his struggle with the Curiaces hardly give him pause, and he never expresses any sense of revulsion at what lies ahead, as does Curiace. Horace seems to suppress whatever normal human feelings he has in favor of his patriotism. One may point out that although the conflict in Horace’s soul is not apparent in the words, it can be revealed by the actor who plays the role. This is undoubtedly the locus of difficulty in accepting Horace as tragedy, for the tragic hero should evince a capacity for suffering. Most critics who have written on the nature of tragedy would agree with the famous critic Cleanth Brooks’s assertion that tragedy deals “with the meaning of suffering” and that in no tragedy “does the hero merely passively endure.”
The only defense of Horace seems to lie in the fact that, after his orgy of bloodletting, he seems momentarily pervaded by a feeling of despair. To the accusations of Valère, a disappointed suitor of Camille, he responds by agreeing that he deserves death. It soon becomes clear, however, that the real reason behind Horace’s desire for death is his conviction that anything he does henceforth is bound to be anticlimactic. He has attained the apogee of glory, from which the only path open to him leads downhill, to mediocrity.
Frustration with Horace can lead the reader to seek the real tragic hero elsewhere. Curiace, for instance, suffers deeply because of the dilemma in which he is caught. Of the range of attitudes toward duty that are explored in the play, his is the most human. He is not, however, the kind of active character...
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