Article abstract: Corneille wrote or collaborated on more than thirty plays during a career spanning forty-five years. His masterpiece, The Cid, is the first classical tragedy in French. His work dominated the French stage during the first half of the seventeenth century and helped to define the character of classical theater.
Although Pierre Corneille wrote the first French classical tragedy and established the classical theater in France, relatively few details of his personal life are known. Born in Rouen, France, to provincial bourgeois parents, Corneille enjoyed the pleasures afforded by a stable family life. His Jesuit education, with its emphasis on the Latin classics and on the importance of the role of free will in man’s search for a moral life, profoundly affected the dramatist’s later works. In 1622, following his father’s example, he chose to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1624. Timid by temperament, Corneille lacked the verbal eloquence and aggressiveness required for success in the legal profession. In 1641, he married Marie Lampérière; they had six children. Throughout his life, Corneille preferred the pleasures of an uncomplicated, provincial family life to the preciosity of Paris literary salons. As portraits of him in later life reveal, he was attractive and physically robust.
Corneille’s early literary career began with the production of Mélite: Ou, Les Fausses Lettres (1630; English translation, 1776) when he was in his early twenties. After this early success, Corneille produced four comedies in quick succession: La Veuve: Ou, Le Traître trahi (1631; the widow), La Suivante (1633; the waiting-maid), La Place royale: Ou, L’Amoreux extravagant (1634; the royal square), and L’Illusion comique (1636; the comic illusion). At about this time Cardinal de Richelieu, the great minister of Louis XIII, engaged Corneille and four other dramatists, known collectively as “the five authors,” to write plays for the royal court. Corneille found the restrictions of the collaboration oppressive and soon abandoned the group.
In 1636-1637, Corneille produced his masterpiece, Le Cid (The Cid, 1637). The play is based in part on a historical Spanish character, Rodrigo de Bivar (1040?-1099). As the play opens, Chimène, daughter of Don Gomez, learns of her father’s approval of her marriage to Rodrigue, the Cid. Simultaneously, Rodrigue’s father, Don Diègue, engages in an argument with Don Gomez and in the course of the argument Don Gomez strikes Don Diègue. Following the code of the times, Don Diègue demands that his son avenge his disgrace. Rodrigue is thus caught in a conflict between his love for Chimène and his duty to defend the honor of his family. By resolving to fulfill his family duty by killing Don Gomez, Rodrigue announces the fundamental tension which will resonate throughout all Corneille’s great tragedies: the eternal human struggle to balance personal sentiment with duty to family and society.
Chimène’s dilemma is equal to that of Rodrigue: How can she accept marriage to the man who has slain her father? Like Rodrigue, she chooses to uphold her family’s honor and implores the king Don Fernando for vengeance. Ultimately, she confesses her love, and the king decrees that Rodrigue shall lead his armies in battle for a year while Chimène mourns her father’s death; then the two shall be married. The dramatic power of the play resides in Corneille’s skillful manipulation of the conflict of honor and love.
Despite its popular success, the play angered many of the conservative critics of the day. The ensuing stormy Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns lasted for nearly a year, and it was officially resolved at the request of Richelieu by the forty doctes (learned men) of the newly formed French Academy. The largely negative judgment of the Academy dealt Corneille a severe blow. Although the Academy quibbled with some of Corneille’s versification and with his laxity in strictly maintaining the classical Unities of time, place, and action, the central issue involved a rather academic determination of what was tragic, thus establishing those elements which could be properly included in a tragedy and those which could not.
The classicists, or ancients, of the Academy supported the Aristotelian distinction between le vrai (the real) and le vraisemblance (having the simple appearance of the real, or the verisimilar). History, the doctes maintained, is full of true events which conflict with common moral decency and thus are not the proper basis of art. Thus from the doctes’ perspective, Chimène’s marriage to her...
(The entire section is 1965 words.)