Pierre Corneille Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
ph_0111201537-Corneille.jpg Pierre Corneille Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.)

Pierre Corneille Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Pierre Corneille was born to a prosperous bourgeois family. His father and grandfather were lawyers in the parliament of Rouen, and, after studying Latin at the local Jesuit school (where he won prizes for Latin verse composition), Corneille took a law degree in 1624. In 1628, his parents bought for him a position as king’s counselor in the Rouen office of the departments of waterways and forests and of the admiralty, posts that he conscientiously filled until 1650. Corneille lived for many years in Rouen, moving to Paris only in 1662 in order, perhaps, to satisfy a promise made to the French Academy on his election in 1647, which required that its members reside in Paris. His younger brother Thomas, also a popular dramatist, with whom Corneille had a long and close relationship, may also have influenced the decision to move to the capital. Corneille had six children with Marie de Lampérière, whom he married in 1641 and whose family background was similar to his own.

Corneille met with immediate success as a dramatist. His first play, the comedy Mélite, submitted to the famous actor Montdory while his theatrical troupe was performing in Rouen in 1629, was a triumph when Montdory performed it in Paris in the following year. Seven more plays (of which six were comedies) made Corneille a well-known young author when, in early 1637, probably the most significant play in the history of French drama, The Cid, scored an unheard of popular...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Pierre Corneille Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Pierre Corneille (kawr-NAY) was born in the Norman city of Rouen, France, on June 6, 1606. He was the eldest of the six children born to Pierre and Marthe Corneille. His younger brother Thomas also became a very successful playwright. Between 1615 and 1622, Corneille studied at the Jesuit high school in Rouen. He was a learned Latinist and remained a fervent Catholic for his entire life. In 1624, he received his law degree and was admitted to the bar in Rouen. It is not known if he ever practiced law. He lived in his native city until 1662, when he moved to Paris with his family.

Beginning in 1629, Corneille began writing plays for Parisian theater companies. His early plays revealed both his skill as a dramatist and the diversity of his interests. He wrote witty comedies, a powerful tragedy titled Médée (pr. 1635, pb. 1639), and L’Illusion comique (pr. 1636, pb. 1636; The Illusion, 1989), which contains a series of plays-within-a-play. His 1637 tragicomedy Le Cid (pr., pb. 1637; The Cid, 1637) provoked an extremely positive reaction from Parisian theatergoers and much criticism from writers who were clearly jealous of Corneille’s success. The decade that followed the first performances of The Cid was a very productive period for him. He wrote a series of excellent plays inspired largely by Roman and Spanish sources; these works established his reputation as the most creative and influential French playwright of his generation. Plays such as The Cid, Horace (pr. 1640, pb. 1641; English translation, 1656), Cinna: Ou, La Clémence d’Auguste (pr. 1640, pb. 1643;...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Pierre Corneille Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Pierre Corneille was a gifted playwright who has remained justly famous for his treatment of moral problems. Audiences can identify with the universal moral dilemmas he described so well. In depicting the feudalism in The Cid or the Roman imperial power in Horace and Polyeucte, Corneille described problems that exist even today. Like Pauline, Polyeucte, Rodrigue, and Chimène, one recognizes that there are still conflicts between one’s personal ethical beliefs and the demands that society imposes on the individual.

(The entire section is 81 words.)

Pierre Corneille Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Pierre Corneille (kawr-nay), born in 1606, was the son of a barrister and king’s advocate of great prominence in the thriving city of Rouen. His mother was Marthe le Pesant. He was educated in the Jesuit school in his hometown and took his oath as a lawyer four years ahead of the usual time by special dispensation. The brilliant young man followed in his father’s footsteps, almost literally, by becoming for a time the king’s advocate “over waters and forests,” as the title read.

His love of the theater and of literature were early manifest, and he wrote a play for a traveling troupe in 1629; later, Mélite was popular in Paris. While this comedy would seem crude by modern standards, it broke away...

(The entire section is 834 words.)

Pierre Corneille Biography

(Drama for Students)

Corneille is one of France’s most outstanding playwrights of the seventeenth century. Although he was considered a prolific writer for his...

(The entire section is 602 words.)