Pierre Corneille composed works for the aristocratic ladies and gentlemen of the seventeenth century. He was acclaimed by many critics to have brought new levels of psychological realism and elegance of language into French comedy; he rejected, for example, the pastoral tradition of disguising noble or gentle characters in shepherds’ clothing in Mélite: Ou, Les Fausses Lettres (pr. 1630; English translation, 1776), which portrays gentlepersons of the gallant world of the 1620’s and 1630’s. The lively dialogue that characterizes Corneille’s comedies is especially dazzling in The Liar. Corneille’s penchant for creating verse was manifested before he began composing the French neoclassical twelve-syllable Alexandrine lines that are so sparkling in The Liar; Corneille won prizes in Latin versification in both 1618 and 1620.
The Liar played a significant role in the development of French comedy because it moved away from the farcical techniques and the obscenities of earlier comedies. In accordance with the French classical style, emphasizing reason, order, and clarity, The Liar portrays life and manners in Paris. In the first scene of act 1, Dorante’s valet, Cliton, gives a realistic account of the Parisian manner of living. By pointing out that all types of people inhabit Paris, Cliton presents the central theme of reality versus appearances; the valet’s idea that appearances are often deceptive because people enjoy pretending to be what they are not shows his keen perception about people.
The Liar, which is based on Juan Ruiz de Alarcón’s La verdad sospechosa (pb. 1630; The Truth Suspected, 1927), contains elements that show the influence of Spanish drama, with its emphasis on the themes of instability, confusion, and misunderstandings and the comic relationship of valet and master. Corneille presents the theme of instability through his depiction of the falseness of appearances. For example, Clarice wants to discern between appearance and reality in act 2, scene 2, when she speaks to Isabelle about Dorante, whose father has just proposed her marriage to his son. While wondering if Dorante’s gracious appearance could possibly mask vices, she realizes that the eyes can deceive the lover, given that many handsome lovers possess vile hearts.
Another variation on the theme of instability is found in deception. Dorante practices deception when he invents stories about his being a soldier and about his marriage to a well-bred lady carrying an unborn child. The protagonist tells the first story in order to gain favor with the beautiful Clarice, who he thinks is Lucrece. He relates the second story because his father proposes Dorante’s marriage to Clarice to Clarice’s father, who reacts favorably to the proposal. This pattern of deception becomes so familiar to Dorante that distinction between truth and deception seems impossible.
The theme of instability is also manifested in the conflict of illusion and reality. This conflict is especially significant to The Liar because the play features considerable confusion of identity. Dorante’s confusion as to the identities of Clarice and Lucrece is a source of jealousy between Dorante and Alcippe, who are both attracted to Clarice; this rivalry is accentuated because Dorante believes that his beloved is named Lucrece.
Although Dorante is unaffected by Alcippe’s declaration of love for Clarice, Dorante’s creation of a fictitious background to impress his beloved causes Alcippe to become jealous. Since Alcippe acts on the assumption that the reputation Dorante has created for himself is accurate, Alcippe is a comic character; his jealousy gives rise to various ridiculous rages directed toward Philiste and Clarice. The fact that Clarice, who does not give credence to Alcippe’s rages, remains calm underlines his comic role. By underscoring Alcippe’s ridiculousness, Corneille...
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makes the audience more aware of the comic nature of the irony of the situation: Alcippe and Dorante really do love the same woman. The rivals’ jealousy is dramatically effective. Although Alcippe’s jealousy is based on illusion, this emotion illustrates the playwright’s use of dramatic irony, in which the truth is hidden from the character but clear to the audience. The presentation of the rivals’ jealousy in the form of comic irony is characteristic of Corneille’s work, which often combines truth and deception, reality and illusion, in a refined manner.
The irony produced by the confusion of identity is further developed when Dorante’s father, Geronte, suggests to his son that Dorante become engaged to Clarice, a suggestion that causes the protagonist, unaware that Clarice is his beloved, to invent the lie that he is already married. Alcippe then challenges his rival to a duel. Dorante, still unaware of his rivalry with Alcippe, relates to Cliton that he has killed a man in a duel. This confession leads to comic tension when Dorante learns of Alcippe’s previous betrothal to Clarice. Pointing out that he has already successfully courted Clarice, Alcippe unknowingly promotes the rivalry between himself and Dorante; the presentation of Dorante’s imagined victory in a duel over his real rival gains comic authenticity. Dorante’s illusionary role of rival thus becomes his comic misunderstanding of the truth.
Corneille’s play reflects the influence of its Spanish origins, but the French version places the accent on the comic elements rather than on the moral aspects of the story. This is reflected in the relationship between the master and his valet. Corneille converts the valet from Ruiz de Alarcón’s play, whose role was to judge his master’s behavior, into a witty person capable of astute observation and helpful advice. For example, Cliton’s reaction to his master’s untruthfulness is considerably less emphatic than that of his Spanish counterpart. Corneille gives Cliton his own identity, as distinct as his master’s.
Corneille’s adaptation of the baroque theme of instability to the orderly French classical style is especially evident in the play’s conclusion. Instead of being a victim forced into marrying someone he does not love, Dorante logically fulfills his “false” reputation, triumphantly transforming himself into the role of lover.