Pierre Corneille World Literature Analysis - Essay

Pierre Corneille World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Corneille is famous for his skill in creating dramatic tension by placing sympathetic characters in situations that require them to make difficult moral choices. As a lawyer, Corneille understood that the motivation for human behavior is rarely simple. Individuals wish to believe that their personal search for happiness should not conflict with the allegiance owed to state and family, but this is not always the case. In both The Cid and Horace, Corneille shows that characters can react very differently during the same moral crisis. In several plays, he made effective use of blocking characters who created problems that would not have existed if all the characters had been tolerant and understanding. The Roman tragedy Horace illustrates nicely how Corneille integrated moral conflicts into his plays.

From the opening scenes in Horace, audiences realize that several generations of Albans and Romans have lived together in peace and that numerous marriages between Albans and Romans seem to have cemented the links between their two countries. At the beginning of Horace, one cannot imagine what could possibly destroy the stability and peace between Rome and Alba. Sabine (an Alban noblewoman) has married the Roman nobleman Horace, and his sister Camille is in love with Sabine’s brother Curiace and hopes to marry him. The Roman king decides, however, to invade Alba in order to expand his political power. Corneille’s audiences understand that this is a totally unjustified and unnecessary invasion, because the Albans have not the slightest desire to threaten the security of Rome. They simply want to live in peace with their more powerful neighbors in Rome. The Roman invasion provokes extreme reactions from both Sabine’s husband and her father-in-law, the older Horace. Both affirm that Romans must prove their loyalty by hating the Albans. Neither the younger nor the elder Horace believes that one can separate political service to one’s country from commitment to one’s beloved. Both the younger and older Horaces are fanatics who refuse to accept the fact that Camille can love Curiace and still be a loyal Roman. In combat, Camille’s two other brothers and Curiace are all killed. The grieving Camille tells Horace that Rome has dishonored itself by killing peaceful Albans. The enraged Horace takes out his sword and kills his sister offstage. In a very real sense, the war between Alba and Rome was the equivalent of a civil war, the two countries having lived together in peace for generations. In Horace, Corneille shows that the combination of civil war and blind patriotism can transform otherwise decent people into violent characters. Patriotism is an admirable virtue, but one should never allow patriotism to corrupt moral judgment. Blinded by his hatred for Alba, Horace concludes that killing Camille was “an act of justice.” It is obvious that this murder of his sister had absolutely nothing to do with “justice” and represented, on the contrary, the moral degeneracy of Horace.

Corneille lived during a very turbulent period of French history. During his childhood in Normandy, peasant revolts against the royal forces were suppressed with incredible cruelty. During the 1630’s, the intolerance of Cardinal Richelieu (the French prime minister under King Louis XIII) caused much suffering among French Protestants. The abuse of power by Cardinal Mazarin (the French prime minister during the early years of the reign of King Louis XIV) created great resentment and provoked a civil war that lasted from 1648 until 1653.

Several of Corneille’s most effective plays, such as Horace, Polyeucte, and Suréna, illustrate the extraordinarily destructive effect on society when political power is used abusively or arbitrarily. The action in his major plays takes place in different countries, but the game of political power unfolds in very similar ways. Corneille’s political plays warn that the misuse of political power can have a long-term negative effect on society as a whole. Corneille created much sympathy for characters who adhered to high ethical standards and refused to commit amoral actions in order to advance their careers, but these same morally admirable characters are frequently destroyed by those who played the political “power game” more ruthlessly and effectively.

Corneille is justly famous for the finely crafted speeches that his characters use in order to defend their political decisions. The formal eloquence of these speeches is not misleading once it is realized that selfish and intolerant characters such as Horace use specious reasoning in order to justify their refusal to respect the basic freedom and dignity of other characters. When Horace tries to justify his murder of his sister Camille, the audience is not persuaded by his arguments.

It would be hasty to conclude that Corneille did not believe in the basic goodness of people. He spent years translating into French Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Jesus Christ, a famous work...

(The entire section is 2079 words.)