Pierre Corneille 1606-1684
The following entry presents criticism on Corneille's life and career from 1981 through 1998.
Corneille was the first great tragic dramatist of France. Although many of his thirty-four plays are comedies or works of mixed type, he is particularly known for creating the genre of French classical tragedy with his innovative and controversial masterpiece, Le Cid (1637; The Cid). Though all of Corneille's plays are written in the verse format of his day, that of vers alexadrin (twelve-syllables per line), the playwright is well-known for deviating from the traditional format of neoclassical drama. Corneille's intense focus on human will, the will striving for freedom, and the fashioning of one's own destiny distinguishes his tragedies from classical Greek dramas, in which humans are depicted as helpless victims of fate. Although his theatrical career was marked by both triumphs and defeats, he was recognized in his lifetime as among his country's foremost dramatists and was commonly designated by the appellation “le grand Corneille.”
Corneille was born into a middle-class family in Rouen and seems to have lived a quiet, retired, bourgeois life. He studied law but showed little aptitude for the profession. As a student he wrote poetry and won prizes for his Latin versification. In 1629 he offered his first play, the comedy Mélite, ou Les fausses letters (1630; Mélite; or, The False Letters), to a theatrical troupe led by the acclaimed actor Montdory during the group's stop in Rouen. The play was a great success when staged in Paris, and Corneille's theatrical career was effectively launched. Over the next several years, he wrote a number of successful comedies and tragedies. In 1636 Corneille first staged his innovative play, The Cid, which was a popular success but gave rise to a heated controversy known as “La Querelle du Cid” or “Quarrel of Le Cid.” The play's numerous violations of the common neoclassical design for tragic drama prompted published attacks by Corneille's rivals as well as defenses by Corneille and his supporters. The Cid was submitted to the newly formed Académie Française, then under the authority of Cardinal Richelieu, which issued a judgment siding with Corneille's opponents. Wounded and discouraged, he ceased writing plays for three years.
After his return to the theater in 1640, Corneille entered a very fertile period, producing at least three comedies and nine tragedies. The failure of his tragedy Pertharite, roi des Lombards (1652; Pertharites, King of the Lombards) led Corneille once again to leave the theater, this time for seven years. Although he attempted to regain his stature in 1659 with Œdipe (Oedipus), neither this tragedy nor the works that followed were nearly so successful as his former triumphs. Furthermore, the heroic mode of characterization that Corneille employed was giving way in public favor to the more firmly classical and Jansenist work of his younger rival, Jean Racine. Corneille retired from the theater in 1674 and died in obscurity ten years later.
The Cid is considered one of the masterpieces of French drama. The play concerns the growing French middle class and shrinking nobility, centralized government, and economic growth. It offers token regard to the neoclassical guidelines for the presentation and structure of tragedies, but the plot foreshadows the more elaborate plotting of the Elizabethan stage: within twenty-four hours the protagonist falls in love, fights a duel, kills his beloved's father, leads his outnumbered military force to a smashing victory over the Moors, and is vindicated in trial by combat, all the while alternately losing and then regaining favor with both his beloved and his nation's king. In his later plays, Corneille focused less on celebrating individual heroism and more on classical themes like conflicts between patriotic duty and love or the call for mercy contrasted with the need for disinterested justice. Among Corneille's later works, Horace (1640), Polyeucte (1643), and Suréna (1674) are often named as masterworks of French drama. In addition, Corneille's comedies, from his early Mélite through Le Menteur (1643; The Liar) are regarded as clever, well-crafted works.
Critics have praised Corneille's plays for their great diversity, brilliant versification, and complexity of plot and situation. Scholars have also applauded his liberation of tragedy from the confinement and artificiality of neoclassical strictures. Much critical discussion of Corneille's work focuses on his relationship with his contemporary and rival, the playwright Jean Racine. Many scholars compare the objectives and accomplishments of Corneille with those of Racine, often to Racine's advantage. Although the decline of Corneille's reputation, begun in his own lifetime, continued throughout the eighteenth century, the next century saw a reappraisal of his place in literary history, and today he is situated in the front rank of French dramatists.