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
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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 fortydoctes (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 father’s killer, though based in fact, was morally reprehensible and consequently an improper use of the real.
After receiving the Academy’s judgment, Corneille did not produce another play for three years. Despite the distress which the debate caused Corneille, it resulted in the establishment of a clearer sense of the definition of tragedy and comedy, thus setting the stage for the creation of the mature masterworks of Corneille himself as well as those of Jean Racine and Molière later in the century.
Corneille’s three-year silence ended in May, 1640, with the presentation of his second tragedy, Horace (English translation, 1656), quickly followed by two more tragedies, Cinna: Ou, La Clémence d’Auguste (1641; Cinna, 1713) and Polyeucte (1642; English translation, 1655). Corneille’s reputation largely rests on these three great works and on The Cid.
Horace continues the theme first broached in The Cid. Horace must ultimately choose between his duty to Rome and his love for his wife and family. Despite the grandeur of the subject, Corneille’s strict adherence to the unities, partly in response to the Academy’s earlier critiques, attenuates the potential power of the work. Cinna, a political tragedy, and Polyeucte, a religious tragedy, both based on Roman sources, definitively established Corneille’s literary reputation. Cinna has often been argued to be Corneille’s finest play after The Cid, principally because of its strict faithfulness to classical form and the depiction of the slow evolution of Augustus’ character from apparent tyrant to magnanimous hero. The language of the play, however, does not equal that of The Cid, often bordering on the grandiloquent. The weakness of plot and absence of fully developed characters have also evoked criticism.
In contrast with Cinna, Polyeucte incorporates a relatively complex plot with equally complex relationships between pagan and Christian characters of third century Rome. Polyeucte, recently converted to Christianity, is imprisoned and then killed for having destroyed pagan idols at a public sacrifice. As a result of Polyeucte’s martyrdom, his wife, Pauline, and her weak father, Felix, who had ordered Polyeucte’s death, convert to Christianity. The beauty of the play lies largely in the touching relationship of Polyeucte and Pauline, as the latter comes to realize her true love for her husband. The noted French poet/critic Charles-Pierre Péguy discovered in Polyeucte Corneille’s most eloquent poetic voice, a triumphant evocation of the heroic and mystical registers of the human spirit.
Between 1643 and 1650, Corneille produced seven tragedies and three comedies with varying degrees of success. The works of this period, while always reflecting Corneille’s genius for invention and versification, suffer from an absence of human interest, overuse of mechanical coups de théâtre, complicated intrigues, and mistaken identities—all techniques more typical of the later melodrama than of classical theater. The singular success of these years was his election to the French Academy in 1647.
Corneille’s last triumph, Nicomède (1651; English translation, 1671), was followed by the complete disaster of Pertharite, roi des Lombards (1651). The public’s absolute rejection of this last work sent Corneille into a seven-year retirement from the theater. From 1652 until 1659, he published a thirteen-thousand-line verse translation of the Imitation de Jésus-Christ (1652-1656) and completed Discours de l’utilité et des parties du poème dramatique (1660; On the Uses and Elements of Dramatic Poetry, 1947) and a series of critical evaluations of his plays. Between 1659 and 1674, when he produced his final tragedy, Suréna (1675), Corneille wrote six more tragedies and four comedies, works which he viewed as “the last spark of a fire about to die out.” Having moved his family from Rouen to Paris in 1662, in order to secure his seat in the Academy, he died there in 1684.
Although Pierre Corneille’s reputation among the larger public continues to rest on the four great tragedies written between 1636 and 1642, modern scholarship suggests that both his early comedies and late tragedies, taken in context and viewed as a whole, reveal a continuous movement toward experimentation, on both poetic and thematic levels. Such works as the early L’Illusion comique and the late Suréna testify to the dramatist’s persistent attempts to dazzle his public with innovative responses to old dilemmas. Often going against the grain of established literary conventions of the times, Corneille’s genius for invention led him both to great success and to total failure.
Corneille’s great tragic personages, the grandeur of his style, and his relentless focus on the conflict between passion and moral obligations to society have established his place in world literature. What defines man’s dignity in the Corneillian universe is the human freedom to choose. Corneille succeeded in presenting this conflict in a style marked by forcefulness, clarity, lyricism, and dignity. Thus Racine’s words, pronounced before the Academy shortly after Corneille’s death, are as accurate in their assessment of Corneille’s work today as they were in 1684: “You know in what condition was the French stage when he began his work. Such disorder! such irregularity! No taste, no knowledge of the real beauties of the theater. . . . In this chaos . . . [Corneille] against the bad taste of the century, . . . inspired by an extraordinary genius, . . . put reason on stage. . . .”
Abraham, Claude. Pierre Corneille. Boston: Twayne, 1972. Written for the general reader, Abraham’s book is the most accessible introduction to Corneille’s principal works and to the times in which he created them. All French text has been translated into English.
Corneille, Pierre. Le Cid. Translated by Vincent J. Chang. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987. In addition to the most faithful English translation of The Cid, the text includes five elegantly written chapters on Corneille’s life and times and an analysis of the play. Chang directs his work toward the non-French-speaking reader, distilling the best of French and English scholarship into seventy-five tightly argued pages.
Corneille, Pierre. Le Cid. Edited with an introduction, notes, and variants by Peter H. Nurse. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988. Edited by one of the foremost Corneillian scholars, this edition provides one of the most complete introductions to Corneille’s masterpiece. Designed for the serious student, the text contains all the variants of the 1682 edition of The Cid.
Mallison, G. J. The Comedies of Corneille: Experiments in the Comic. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1984. Copiously documented with extracts from the French texts, this volume seeks first to define comedy in its seventeenth century context and then to evaluate Corneille’s concept of the genre in this light.
Nelson, Robert J. Corneille, His Heroes and Their Worlds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963. The standard critical text dealing with the complex composition of Corneille’s heroes, written by one of the most eminent Corneillian scholars. For the young scholar there is no better introduction to Corneille’s plays. Detailed and reasoned analysis of all works is complemented by a vivid picture of the seventeenth century literary world.
Pocock, Gordon. Corneille and Racine: Problems of Tragic Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Pocock’s work is among the most readable scholarly studies centering on the contrasts between Racine and Corneille. The first ten chapters are devoted exclusively to an analysis of Corneille’s principal works and his inventive versification. Although citations are in the original French, the author’s lucid argument is accessible to the serious reader.