Pierre Corneille Corneille, Pierre (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Pierre Corneille 1606–1684

French dramatist, poet, and essayist.

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 (1636-37; The Cid). This play and those that followed feature central characters of heroic stature who are torn by conflicting definitions of honor. Corneille's intense focus on human will, its 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. While 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."

Biographical Information

Little is known of Corneille's life. He was born into a middle-class family in Rouen and seems to have lived a quiet, retired, bourgeois existence all his life. His brother Thomas was also a playwright; his works, though very popular in their day, are now largely forgotten. Pierre studied law and joined the bar, but showed little aptitude for the profession. As a student he had written poetry and won prizes for his Latin versification. In 1629 he offered his first play, the comedy Mélite, ou Les fausses lettres (Melite; 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, Corneille wrote five comedies—including Clitandre, La galerie du palais, ou L'amie rivale (1631; The Palace Corridor; or, The Rival Friend), and La place royale, ou I'amoureux extravagant (1633-34; Place Royale; or, The Extravagant Lover)—and the tragedy Medée (1634-35; Medea). During this period he attracted the attention of the powerful and influential Cardinal Richelieu, who enlisted him as a member of the "Society of Five Authors," a group of acclaimed writers who composed plays under Richelieu's direction, and whose number included (besides Corneille) François de Boisrobert, Guillaume Colletet, Claude de L'Estoile, and Jean de Rotrou. Although he contributed the third act to a joint effort, La comédie des tuileries (1635; The Comedy of the Tuileries), Corneille reportedly became involved in disputes with the Cardinal and soon resigned from the group.

Composed and first staged around 1636-37, The Cid was

a great popular success but gave rise to a heated controversy known as "la Querelle du Cid." The play's numerous violations of the neoclassical "rules" of tragic design prompted published attacks by Corneille's rivals as well as defenses by Corneille and his supporters. The rules demanded that the action of the play must transpire within a twenty-four-hour timeframe and must be noble in style. The matter of The Cid was eventually submitted by Richelieu to the newly formed Académie Française, which issued a judgment siding with Corneille's opponents. Wounded and discouraged, Corneille ceased writing plays for three years. After his return to the theater in 1640, he entered a very fertile period, producing at least three comedies and nine tragedies, including Horace (1640; Horatius), Cinna, ou La clémence d'Auguste (1640-41; Cinna; or, The Clemency of Augustus), and Polyeucte (1641-42; Polyeuctes), which are considered among his greatest.

In 1652 the signal failure of the tragedy Pertharite, roi des Lombards (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 with Oedipe (Oedipus) in 1659, 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 contemporary and rival, Jean Racine. With a style that has been described as simple yet polished, smooth yet natural, Racine created dramatic characters, who—like their forerunners in classical Greek drama—are undone by their passions, driven to ruin by ungovernable impulses. Corneille, his own works paling beside Racine's, retired from the theater in 1674 and died in obscurity ten years later.

Major Works

The Cid is considered one of the masterpieces of French drama, one which reflected the spirit of the age. Corneille's was an age of a growing French middle class and shrinking nobility, centralized government, and economic growth. As John Gassner has written, "Although he respected the new autocratic France, he was an independent spirit and not yet the complete courtier who became the ideal of the age. His Cid paid tribute to the ideals of 'honor' or duty, and to this extent it reflected the new age which set social responsibility above personal impulses…. Nevertheless, the play also celebrated the claims of individuality by the intensely heroic quality of its leading characters and the strength of their emotions." In The Cid, Corneille offered token regard to the neoclassical "rules," but his 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 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: conflicts between patriotic duty and love, the call for mercy contrasted with the need for disinterested justice. Among Corneille's later works, Horatius, Polyeuctes, and Suréna (1674; Surenas) are often named as masterworks of French drama. In addition, Corneille's comedies, from his early Mélite through Le menteur (1643; The Liar) and regarded as clever, well-crafted works.

Critical Reception

Comparing Corneille and Racine, Jean de La Bruyère wrote that "the former paints men as they should be, the latter paints men as they are." Like La Bruyère, many critics compare the intents and accomplishments of Corneille with those of Racine, often to Racine's advantage. "Unlike Corneille," wrote Irving Babbitt, "Racine moved with perfect ease among all the rules that the neo-classic disciplinarians had imposed upon the stage," here speaking of the unities of time, space, and action prescribed by neoclassical theorists—those rules by which Corneille was judged in "la Querelle du Cid." The judgment of the Académie aside, Corneille's work is noted for its great diversity, brilliant versification, and complexity of plot and situation. Critics and students of drama have extolled his depiction of humans as exalted beings, capable of greatness; they have also praised the playwright's freeing of tragedy from the confinement and artificiality of neoclassical strictures. Although his reputation's decline, begun in his own lifetime, continued throughout the eighteenth century, the nineteenth saw a reappraisal of Corneille's place in literary history, and today he is situated in the front rank of French dramatists.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Mélite, ou les fausses lettres [Mélite; or, The False Letters] (drama) 1630

Clitandre (drama) 1631

La veuve, ou Le traître trahi [The Widow; or, The Betrayer Betrayed] (drama) 1631?

La galerie du palais, ou L'amie rivale [The Palace Corridor; or, The Rival Friend] (drama) 1632

La Suivante [The Maidservant] (drama) 1633

Médée [Medea] (drama) 1634-35

La place royale, ou I'amoureux extravagant [Place royale; or, The Extravagant Lover] (drama) 1633-34

L'illusion comique [The Comic Illusion] (drama) 1635

Le Cid [The Cid] (drama) 1636-37

Horace [Horatius] (drama) 1640

Cinna, ou La clémence d'Auguste [Cinna; or, The Clemency of Augustus] (drama) 1640-41

Polyeucte [Polyeuctes] (drama) 1641-42

La mort de Pompée [The Death of Pompey] (drama) 1642

Le menteur [The Liar] (drama) 1643

Rodogune, Princesse des Parthes [Rodogune, Princess of Parthia] (drama) 1644

La suite du menteur [Sequel to The Liar] (drama) 1644

Théodore, vierge et martyre [Theodora, Virgin and Martyr] (drama) 1645

Héraclius [Heraclius] (drama) 1646

Dom Sanche d'Aragon [Don Sancho of Aragon] (drama) 1649

Andromède [Andromeda] (drama) 1650

Nicomède [Nicomedes] (drama) 1650

Pertharite, roi des Lombards [Pertharites, King of the Lombards] (drama) 1651

Oedipe [Oedipus] (drama) 1659

La toison d'or [The Golden Fleece] (drama) 1660

Sertorius (drama) 1662

Sophonisbe [Sophonisba] (drama) 1663

Othon [Otho] (drama) 1664

Agésilas [Agesilaus] (drama) 1666

Aitila (drama) 1667

Tite et Bérénice [Titus and Berenice](drama) 1670

Pulchérie [Pulcheria] (drama) 1672

Suréna [Surenas] (drama) 1674

Œuvres de P. Corneille, avec leas commentaires de Voltaire. 12 vols. (dramas, poetry, prose) 1817

Charles de Saint-Evremond (essay date 1672?)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "To an Author Who Asked My Opinion of a Play Where the Heroine Does Nothing But Lament Herself, " in The Continental Model: Selected French Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, in English Translation, edited by Scott Elledge and Donald Schier, Carleton College and the University of Minnesota Press, 1960, pp. 153-55.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally written in approximately 1672, Saint-Evremond decries Corneille's descent from the effective illumination of character to lachrymose sentimentality.]

Corneille has had the misfortune to disgust the generality of his spectators in his latter days, because he must needs discover that which is...

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C. A. Sainte-Beuve (essay date 1855)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Corneille," in Portraits of the Seventeenth Century: Historic and Literary, translated by Katharine P. Wormeley, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904, pp. 29-54.

[Sainte-Beuve is considered the foremost French literary critic of the nineteenth century. Of his extensive body of critical writings, the best known are his "lundis"weekly newspaper articles which appeared over a period of several decades, in which he displayed his knowledge of literature and history. While Sainte-Beuve began his career as a champion of Romanticism, he eventually formulated a psychological method of criticism. Asserting that the critic cannot separate a work of literature from the artist and from the...

(The entire section is 3291 words.)

Lee Davis Lodge (essay date 1891)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Final Estimate of Corneille: Fall of Classicism and Rise of Romanticism, Latest Developments," in A Study in Corneille, 1891. Reprint by Burt Franklin, 1970, pp. 281-313.

[In the following excerpt from the major nineteenth-century treatment of Corneille in English, Lodge determines and assesses Corneille's contribution to French drama.]

If it be asked what was the historic function that Corneille performed, we may answer that he banished bad taste from the theatre, that he quickened with the touch of life the chaotic theatrical materials which he found at his coming, that he divined, developed and determined the classical drama, and that he peopled the French...

(The entire section is 1357 words.)

Martin Turnell (essay date 1938)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Great and Good Corneille," in The Classical Moment: Studies of Corneille, Molière and Racine, 1948. Reprint by Greenwood Press, 1971, pp. 18-43.

[Turnell has written widely on French literature and has made significant translations of the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Guy de Maupassant, Blaise Pascal, and Paul Valèry. In the following essay, originally published in 1938 in Scrutiny, he presents a broad overview of the principal themes, characters, and verse style of Corneille's dramas, comparing them to their counterparts in the works of Racine.]


It is Corneille's misfortune that no English writer has done for him what...

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Wallace Fowlie (essay date 1948)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Second Cycle: Corneille, the Sexuality of Le Cid," in Love in Literature: Studies in Symbolic Expression, Indiana University Press, 1965, pp. 37-44.

[Fowlie is among the most respected and comprehensive scholars of French literature. His work includes translations of major poets and dramatists of France (Molière, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Claudel, Saint-John Perse) and critical studies of the major figures and movements of modern French letters (Stephane Mallarmé, Marcel Proust, Andre Gidé, the Surrealists, among many others). Broad intellectual and artistic sympathies, along with an acute sensitivity for French writing and a firsthand understanding of...

(The entire section is 2980 words.)

Allardyce Nicoli (essay date 1949)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Racine and the Tragedy of Sentiment," in World Drama: From Aeschylus to Anouilh, George G. Harrap & Company Ltd., 1949, pp. 299-315.

[Called "one of the masters of dramatic research," Nicoli is best known as a theater historian whose works have proven invaluable to students and educators. Nicoli's World Drama: From Aeschylus to Anouilh (1949) is considered one of his most important works; theater critic John Gassner has stated that it was "unquestionably the most thorough [study] of its kind in the English language [and] our best reference book on the world's dramatic literature." Another of his ambitious theater studies is the six-volume A History of English Drama,...

(The entire section is 2238 words.)

P. J. Yarrow (essay date 1963)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Realism of Corneille (1) Characters," in Corneille, St Martin's Press, 1963, pp. 178-229.

[In the following excerpt, Yarrow provides a close study of Corneille's characterization.]

Epithets derived from names of writers sometimes suffer a strange fate. Some are merely used with the sense of 'like or pertaining to the writer in question', as 'Shakespearean'. Others, however, take on a different shade of meaning and imply, not 'like the writer', but 'like some popular misconception of the writer'. The word 'Machiavellian', for instance, has acquired undertones and overtones of meaning which make the reading of The Prince something of a surprise to the...

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Claude Abraham (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Comic Illusion," in Pierre Corneille, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972, pp. 32-47.

[In the excerpt below from his book-length study of Corneille and his plays, Abraham surveys the dramatist's early comedies, from Mélite to L'Illusion comique.]

"Such disorder, such irregularity!" Racine may or may not have thought of the very first plays of Corneille but there is no doubt that comedy in the late 1620's was of the lowest order, and Corneille was quite right in boasting, as he did in the Examen of Mélite which he penned decades later, that this play was really the first to be written for honnestes gens (gentlemen and ladies) and...

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Gordon Pocock (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "'Suréna'," in Corneille and Racine: Problems of Tragic Form, Cambridge at the University Press, 1973, pp. 141-54.

[In the following essay, Pocock examines Corneille 's Suréna, a drama "loved by those who value formal perfection."]


Steiner has been tempted to call Suréna Corneille's masterpiece. Whatever value we assign it, it stands apart from the other plays. Its characters are few, its plot simple, love predominates over politics, it exhales a languorous pessimism. There are not qualities we call Cornelian, and we might suspect the influence of Racine: Suréna was, after all, written later than most of...

(The entire section is 5503 words.)

John Cairncross (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: An introduction to The Cid, Cinna, The Theatrical Illusion by Pierre Corneille, translated by John Cairncross, Penguin Books, 1975, pp. 11-19.

[A longtime correspondent for the Observer, the Economist, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Cairncross has translated several plays by Racine, Molière, and Corneille into English. In the following essay, he surveys the principal attributes of Cornelian drama, particularly its themes, characterization, and preoccupations.]

Fate has dealt unkindly with the great seventeenth-century French dramatist, Pierre Corneille, even in his native land. 'As a result of an over-simple and restrictive...

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Sharon Harwood-Gordon (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: An introduction to The Poetic Style of Corneille's Tragedies: An Aesthetic Interpretation, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989, pp. vii-xi.

[In the essay below, Harwood-Gordon examines Corneille's poetic style.]

Perhaps no other writer of the classical age of French literature has undergone such dramatic swings in public acceptance and appreciation as Pierre Corneille. Enthusiastically received by his contemporaries at the time of the première of Le Cid and acclaimed as a genius of theatrical invention for several seasons to follow, Corneille felt for the first time in 1645, with the production of Théodore, the sting of rejection. A series of plays...

(The entire section is 1276 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Ault, Harold C. "The Tragic Genius of Corneille." The Modern Language Review XLV, No. 2 (April 1950): 164-76.

Examination of The Cid, Horatius, Cinna, and Polyeuctes in order to "consider in what way they are still tragedies to an audience very different from that for which Corneille wrote. It is an audience more interested in humanity than in heroism, an audience ignorant of what he was attempting to do and careless as to why he did it in such a particular way, an audience with a cultural background completely changed from that of his."

Barnwell, H. T. The Tragic Drama of Corneille and Racine: An Old Parallel...

(The entire section is 837 words.)