Pierre Corneille

Start Free Trial

Charles de Saint-Evremond (essay date 1672?)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 most hidden in our hearts, that which is most exquisite in the passions and most delicate in the thoughts. After he had, as it were, worn out the ordinary passions with which we are agitated, he was in hopes of gaining a new reputation if he touched our most concealed tendernesses, our nicest jealousies, and our most secret griefs. But this studied penetration being too delicate for great assemblies, so precious and painful a discovery has made him lose some esteem in the world, whereas it ought to have procured him new applauses.

It is certain that no man understood nature better than Corneille, but he has described it differently according to the different periods of his life. When he was young, he contented himself with describing its motions; when he was old, he was for discovering its most secret springs. Formerly he ascribed everything to the sentiment; at present, penetration does everything with him; now he opens the heart and its most concealed recesses, whereas he formerly represented it with all its anxieties and agitations. Other authors have succeeded better in complying with the present humor of the age, which loves nothing but grief and tenderness upon the theatre.

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 1160 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 artist's historical milieu, Sainte-Beuve considered an author's life and character integral to the comprehension of his work. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1855, he provides a capsule overview of Corneille's career and discusses his dramatic style, influences, and characterizations, among other concerns.]

From 1629, the period when Corneille first came to Paris, to 1636, when The Cid was first acted, he completed his literary education, which was merely sketched-out in the provinces. He put himself into connection with the wits and poets of his time, especially with those of his own age, Mairet, Scudéry, Rotrou: he learned then what he had not known hitherto, that Ronsard was a little out of fashion, that Malherbe, dead within a year, had dethroned him in public opinion; that Théophile, also dead, had disappointed all hopes and left but a questionable memory behind him; that the stage was growing nobler and purer under the care of Cardinal de Richelieu; that Hardy was no longer by any means its sole supporter, for a troop of young rivals were judging him, to his great displeasure, rather freely, and disputing his heritage. Above all, Corneille learned that there were rules of which he had never dreamed in Rouen, but about which the brains of Paris were keenly excited: such as keeping five acts in one place or getting out of it; to be, or not to be within the space of twenty-four hours, etc. The learned men and the rule-lovers made war on these points against the lawless and the ignorant. Mairet held with the former; Claveret declared against them; Rotrou cared little; Scudéry discussed emphatically.

In the various plays that Comeille composed during this space of five years, he applied himself to understand thoroughly the habits of the stage and the taste of the public; I shall not try to follow him in this tentative course….

During this time, Corneille made frequent excursions to Rouen. In one of these journeys he visited the house of a M. de Châlons, former secretary of the queen-mother, now retired from old age:

"Monsieur," the old man said to him, "the style of comedy which you have taken up can give you only ephemeral fame. You can find among the Spaniards subjects which, if treated according to our taste by hands like yours, would produce great effects. Learn their language, it is easy; I offer to teach you all I know of it, and, until you are able to read for yourself, I will translate to you parts of Guillen de Castro."

This meeting was great good luck for Corneille; no sooner had he set foot into the noble poesy of Spain than he felt at ease, as if in a country of his own. Loyal spirit, full of honour and morality, walking with uplifted head, he could not fail to feel a sudden and deep affection for the chivalrous heroes of that brave nation. His impetuous warmth of heart, his childlike sincerity, his inviolable devotion in friendship, his melancholy resignation in love, his religion of duty, his nature wholly unveiled, naively grave and sententious, noble with pride and prud' homie—all inclined him strongly to the Spanish style. He embraced it with fervour, adapted it, without much considering how, to the taste of his nation and his age, and created for himself a unique originality in the midst of the commonplace imitations that were being made around him. No more tentatives, no slow progressive advance, as in his preceding comedies. Blind and rapid in his instinct, he went at one stroke to the sublime, the glorious, the pathetic, as if to things familiar; producing them in splendid, simple language that all the world can understand, and which belongs to him alone. From the night of the first representation of The Cid our theatre was truly founded; France possessed the great Corneille; and the triumphant poet, who, like his own heroes, spoke openly of himself as he thought, had the right to exclaim, without fear of denial:

"I know what I am; I believe what is said of me."

The dazzling success of The Cid and the very legitimate pride felt and shown by Corneille raised all his past rivals and all the authors of tragedy, from Claveret to Richelieu, against him. I shall not dwell here on the details of this quarrel, which is one of the best-illuminated spots in our literary history. The effect produced on the poet by this outbreak of criticism was such as might be expected from the character of his talent and his mind. Corneille, as I have said, was a pure, instinctive, blind genius, of free, spontaneous impulse, and well-nigh devoid of those medium qualities which accompany, and second efficaciously, the gift divine in a poet. He was neither adroit nor skilful in details, his taste was little delicate, his judgment not sure, his tact obtuse, and he gave himself small account of his methods as an artist; he piqued himself, however, on his shrewdness and reserve. Between his genius and his good sense there was nothing, or nearly nothing; and that good sense, which did not lack subtlety or logic, had to make strong efforts, especially if provoked, to goad itself up to the level of the genius, to grasp it in hand, comprehend it, and train it. If Corneille had come earlier, before the Academy and Richelieu, in place of Alexandre Hardy, for example, he would doubtless not have been exempt from falls, errors, and mistakes; perhaps, indeed, other enormities might be found in him than those against which our present taste revolts in certain of his worst passages; but at least his failures would have been solely according to the nature and trend of his genius; and when he rose out of them, when he obtained sight of the beautiful, the grand, the sublime, he would have rushed to it as into his own region, without dragging after him the baggage of rules, cumbersome and puerile scruples, and a thousand petty hindrances to a vast and soaring flight. The quarrel of The Cid, arresting him at his first step, forcing him to return upon himself and confront his work with rules, disturbed for the future that prolonged growth, full of chances, that sort of potent, unconscious vegetation, so to speak, for which nature seemed to have destined him. He took umbrage, he was indignant at first at the cavillings of criticism; but he inwardly reflected on the rules and precepts imposed upon him, and ended, finally, by adapting himself to them, and believing them.

The mortifications that followed closely on the triumph of The Cid carried him back to his family in Rouen, which place he did not leave again until 1639, when he returned to Paris with Horace and Cinna in hand. To quit Spain the instant he had set foot in it, to push no farther that glorious victory of The Cid, to renounce, in gaiety of heart, all those magnanimous heroes who stretched their arms to him, and turn aside to fasten upon a Castilian Rome on the faith of Lucan and Seneca, Spanish burghers under Nero, was, for Corneille, not to profit by his advantages and to misinterpret the voice of his genius at the very moment when it spoke so clearly. But at that time fashion, vogue, carried minds more toward ancient Rome than toward Spain. Besides the amorous gallantries and noble, conventional sentiments attributed to those old republicans, special occasion was given, by producing them on the stage, to apply the maxims of State, and all the political and diplomatic jargon that we find in Balzac and in Gabriel Naudé, and to which Richelieu himself gave currency. Probably Corneille allowed himself to be seduced by these reasons of the moment; nevertheless, out of his very error came masterpieces.

I will not follow him through the various successes that marked his career during its fifteen finest years. Polyeucte, Pompée, Le Menteur, Rodogune, Héraclius, Don Sanche, and Nicomède are its enduring landmarks. He returned to imitation of the Spanish in Le Menteur, a comedy in which the comic (which Corneille did not understand) is much less to be admired than the imbroglio, the movement, and the fancy. Again he returned to the Castilian genius in Héraclius, but above all in Nicomède and Don Sanche, those two wonderful creations, unique upon our stage, which, coming in the midst of the Fronde, with their singular mixture of romantic heroism and familiar irony, stirred up innumerable malignant or generous allusions, and won universal applause. Yet it was shortly after these triumphs, in 1653, that Corneille, wounded by the non-success of Pertharite, and touched perhaps by Christian sentiments and remorse, resolved to renounce the theatre. He was then forty-seven years of age; he had just translated in verse the first chapters of the Imitation of Jesus Christ, and he desired henceforth to devote the remainder of his vigour to pious subjects….

Corneille imagined, in 1653, that he renounced the stage. Pure illusion! That withdrawal, could it have been possible, would no doubt have been better for his peace of mind, and perhaps for his fame. But he had not the kind of poetic temperament that could impose upon itself at will a continence of fifteen years—as Racine did later. Encouragement and a gratuity from Fouquet sufficed to bring him back to the stage, where he remained a score of years longer, till 1674, waning, day by day, under numberless mistakes and cruel griefs….

Corneille's dramatic form has not the freedom of fancy that Lope de Vega and Shakespeare gave themselves; neither has it the exactly regular severity to which Racine subjected himself. If he had dared, if he had come before d'Aubignac, Mairet, or Chapelain, he would, I think, have cared very little for graduating and marshalling his acts, connecting his scenes, concentrating his effects on a single point of space and duration; he would have written haphazard, tangling and untangling the threads of his plot, changing the locality as it suited him, delaying on the way, and pushing his personages pell-mell before him to marriage or death. In the midst of this confusion beautiful scenes, admirable groups would have detached themselves here and there; for Corneille understands grouping very well, and, at essential moments, he poses his personages most dramatically. He balances one against the other, defines them vigorously with a brief and manly saying, contrasts them by cutting repartees, and presents to the spectator's eye the masses of a skilful structure. But he had not a genius sufficiently artistic to extend over an entire drama that concentric configuration which he has realized in places; at the same time, his fancy was not free or alert enough to create for itself a form, moving, undulating, diffuse, multiplied, but not less real, less beautiful than the other, such as we admire in certain plays of Shakespeare, such as the Schlegels admire so much in Calderon. Add to these natural imperfections the influence of a superficial and finical poetic art, about which Corneille overconcerned himself, and you will have the secret of what is ambiguous, undecided, and incompletely reckoned in the making of his tragedies.

His Discours and his Examens give us numerous details on this point, in which we find revealed the most hidden recesses of his great mind. We see how the pitless unity of place frets him, and how heartily he would say to it: "Oh! you hamper me!" and with what pains he tries to combine it with "decorum." He does not always succeed. "Pauline," he writes, "comes to an antechamber to meet Severus whose visit she ought to await in her private apartment." Pompey seems to disregard the prudence of the general of an army, when, trusting to Sertorius, he goes to confer with him in a town where the latter is master; "but it was impossible," says Corneille, "to keep the unity of place without making him commit this blunder." But when there was absolute necessity for the action to be carried on in two different places, the following is the expedient that Corneille invents to evade the rule:

These two places have no need of different scenery, and neither of the two should ever be named, but only the general region in which both are situated, such as Paris, Rome, Lyons, Constantinople, etc. This will help to deceive the audience, who, seeing nothing to mark the diversity of place, will not perceive it—unless by malicious and critical reflection, of which few are capable; most of them attending eagerly to the action they see represented before them.

He congratulates himself like a child on the complexity of Héraclius because "that poem is so involved it re quires marvellous attention"; and requests us to notice in Othon that "never was a play seen in which so many marriages were proposed and none concluded."

Corneille's personages are grand, generous, valiant, frank, lofty of head, and noble of heart. Brought up for the most part under austere discipline, the maxims by which they rule their lives are for ever on their lips; and as they never depart from those maxims we have no difficulty in recognising them; a glance suffices: which is almost the contrary of Shakespeare's personages and of human beings in life. The morality of his heroes is spotless: as fathers, lovers, friends, or enemies, we admire and honour them; in pathetic parts their tone is sublime, it lifts the soul and makes us weep. But his rivals and his husbands have sometimes a tinge of the ridiculous: so has Don Sancho in The Cid, also Prusias and Pertharite. His tyrants and his step-mothers are all of a piece like his heroes, wicked from one end to the other; nevertheless, at sight of a fine action it sometimes happens that they face about suddenly to virtue, like Grimoald and Arsinoé.

Corneille's men have formal and punctilious minds: they quarrel about etiquette; they argue at length and wrangle loudly with themselves, even in their passions. There is something of the Norman in them. Auguste, Pompée and others seem to have studied logic at Salamanca, and to have read Aristotle with the Arabs. His heroines, his "adorable furies," nearly all resemble one another; their love is subtle, over-refined, with a purpose; coming more from the head than the heart. We feel that Corneille knew little of women. Nevertheless, he succeeded in expressing in Chimène and Pauline that virtuous power of self-sacrifice that he himself had practised in his youth. Strange as it may seem, after his return to the theatre in 1659, and in all the numerous plays of his decadence—Aitila, Bérénice, Pulchérie, Suréna,—Corneille had a mania for mingling love in everything, just as La Fontaine had for introducing Plato. It seems as though the successes of Quinault and Racine enticed him to that ground, and that he wanted to read a lesson to "those tender ones" as he called them. He imagined that in his day he had been still more gallant and amorous than those "young flaxen wings," and he never spoke of other times without shaking his head like an elderly swain.

Corneille's style is, to my thinking, the merit by which he excels. Voltaire, in his commentary, exhibits on this point, as on others, a sovereign injustice, and also what may be called great ignorance of the origins of our language. He blames his author at every turn for having neither grace nor elegance nor clearness; he measures, pen in hand, the height of the metaphors, and when they exceed somewhat he calls them gigantic. He translates and disguises in prose Corneille's lofty and sonorous phrases, which suit so finely the bearing of his heroes, and asks if that is speaking and writing French. He churlishly calls "solecism" what he ought to describe as "idiom"—namely the construction, or form of speech peculiar to a special language; a thing that is completely lacking to the narrow, symmetrical, abbreviated French language of the eighteenth century. Corneille's style, with all its negligences, seems to me one of the greatest manners of the century that had Molière and Bossuet. The touch of the poet is rough, severe, vigorous. I compare him to a sculptor, who, working the clay to express heroic portraiture, employs no instrument but his thumb, and, kneading thus his work, gives it a supreme character of life itself with all the jostling incidents that accompany and complete it; but all such proceeding is incorrect, it is not polished, not "proper," as they say. There is little painting or colour in Corneille's style; it is warm rather than brilliant; it turns willingly to the abstract; imagination and fancy give way to thought and to reasoning. It ought to please statesmen, geometricians, soldiers, and others who enjoy the styles of Demosthenes, Pascal, and Caesar.

In short, Corneille, pure genius but incomplete, with his lofty aspects and his defects, gives me the impression of those great trees that are bare, rugged, sad, monotonous as to their trunk, with brunches and sombre foliage at their summit only. They are strong, powerful, gigantic, with little verdure; sap in abundance rises; but expect neither shelter, shade, nor bloom. They leaf out late, their leaves fall early, yet they live on, half-despoiled; but when their hoary brow has cast its last leaves to the autumn wind their perennial nature puts out, here and there, belated branches and green twigs. And when at last they die, their groans, the cracking of their fissures, remind one of that armoured trunk to which Lucan compared the great Pompey.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Lee Davis Lodge (essay date 1891)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 stage with heroic characters whom he idealized from real life, bestowing true passions upon them and causing them to give to the age object lessons in ethical science. He exerted a powerful influence upon both departments of dramatic art.

By writing Le Cid, he created the true classical tragedy; by writing "Le Menteur" he created the comedy of manners and gave the cue which brought upon the stage an author worthy to stand with covered head as an equal in the presence of such masters of the comedian's art as Aristophanes and Shakspeare.

Molière himself freely acknowledged his great debt to Corneille. Speaking, in a letter to Boileau, of Le Menteur, the great comedian said: "When it was first performed, I had already a wish to write, but was in doubt as to what it should be. My ideas were still confused, but this piece determined them. In short, but for the appearance of Le Menteur, though I should no doubt have written comedies of intrigue, like l'Étourdi or le Dépit amoureux, I should perhaps never have written le Misanthrope."

This frank acknowledgment does as much honor to Molière as to Corneille. Only a truly great heart would be so generous.

The style of Corneille is remarkable for its inequality. This peculiarity has never been more happily indicated than by Molière. "My friend Corneille," said he, "has a familiar who inspires him with the finest verses in the world. But sometimes the familiar leaves him to shift for himself and then he fares very badly." Nothing could be more delicate or more apt.

Corneille was a great admirer of Lucan, whose Pharsalia he had, when a young man, translated in whole or in part. His careful study of that poem has left an indelible impress upon his own works. He was undoubtedly attracted to the Roman bard by the subtle affinity of similar genius. So marked are the resemblances between the styles of the two authors that many of the adjectives employed in a brief enumeration of the qualities of one must be used in epitomizing the qualities of the other.

Does Quintilian speak of Lucan as "ardens et concitatus et sententiis clarissimus?" We can say the same of Corneille. Is Lucan unequal, declamatory, sometimes bombastic? So is Corneille. Is the critical reader of Pharsalia offended at the Roman poet's evident straining after effect? Examples of the same overwrought rhetoric may be found in La Mort de Pompée….

Corneille's genius was a limited genius—limited in its innate powers, limited by the clanking chains of the unities, and limited by the poet's own action in choosing all his subjects from one small segment in the great circle of human passions. He loved to represent upon the stage not the weak and yielding elements of our nature, but the strong, the firm, the resisting elements. Hence he is always appealing to the sentiment of admiration. Is this a proper principle on which to base a tragedy? Boileau says not. Critics, in plenty, after Boileau say not. But it is, perhaps, quite sufficient in reply to them all to say that admiration in the form of hero-worship has time and time again proved itself a powerful factor in the history of the world; that the roots of this hero-worship are entwined with our strongest passions; and that the sentiment of admiration aroused by the perusal of biographies of the world's great has kindled in the hearts of the young in every land and every age an intense desire to imitate the high exploits of which they have read. It would seem that the excitation of such an emotion was well adapted to produce the noblest effects of tragedy. At any rate these heroic themes were exactly suited to the genius of Corneille. He belongs by nature to the ideal school of dramatists. He has abstracted from human nature, as concreted in the actual, all those noble qualities that glorify our race, and has, by the exercise of his creative imagination, recombined them into sublime characters whose colossal figures tower above all the weakness and wickedness and weariness of real life. His writings are thus in the highest degree wholesome. We can not conceive how an intelligent person can attentively peruse one of our poet's masterpieces without experiencing emotions which themselves exert an influence at once purifying and fructifying upon the moral nature.

The majestic personality of Corneille pervades his works. In them we find a sublime man uttering his sublime thoughts in sublime words. The nervous vigor of his descriptions is worthy of the highest praise. He intuitively selects the essential elements of a scene, transfers them to his canvas with a few rapid strokes of his brush, and in a moment the whole is pictured before us with a fidelity to nature, a clearness of outline, and a vividness of color that bespeak the master.

Yet Corneille had his defects. There is sometimes too much of the hyper-heroic, too much of the super-human in his characters. They would be a good deal greater, if they were not quite so great. They are like Dante's tower which

firmly set,
Shakes not its top for any blast that blows.

Perhaps we should like them better, if they resembled more the giant oak which bends and groans, but breaks not beneath the wild power of the tempest.

Often, also, these characters are too self-conscious. They have a full appreciation of their own bravery, magnanimity and virtue. Their frequent assertion of their various excellencies jars upon the reader like a sharp discord in a soul-stirring symphony. Excessive self-consciousness is manifested in another way by Corneille's characters. In moments when we should expect to see them convulsed and contorted with passion, we find them in comparative calmness dissecting and defining their emotions according to the introspective method of the rational psychologists and with the precision of trained logicians. Thus long sections of conscious declamation frequently usurp the place that should be occupied by the "disjecta membra" of passionate speech. The declamatory passages, it is true, are of the finest quality, "Sed nunc non erat his locus." Instead of these critical analyses of emotion, the poet should have given us the concussion and conflagration of emotion in synthesis.

We shall mention only one other fault of our author. He never succeeded in completely purging his writings of the affected gallantry, the fantastic euphuism, the "faux brillant" of his times. As we behold him struggling to burst the earthy bondage of bad taste, it makes us think of Milton's lion, "pawing to get free." The spectacle is one to excite admiring sympathy rather than contemptuous criticism.

Often the question is asked, which was the greater dramatist, Corneille or Racine? One may answer in metaphor. As we cast our eyes over the famous fields of French literature, we see yonder a silvery winding river, reflecting in its crystal flood the fleecy clouds, and singing a love song to the flowers on its banks, as it glides onward. And over there we see a majestic mountain towering up above all things near, rugged; sublime; with deep precipices and jagged peaks; girt round anon with storm-clouds in which the lightnings flash and the thunders crash and roll; but bearing aloft, above the storm, his kingly head with its jewelled diadem which glitters and glows in heaven's own light. The winding river is Jean Racine; the majestic mountain is Le Grand Corneille. And so we take our leave of him.

Martin Turnell (essay date 1938)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.]

1

It is Corneille's misfortune that no English writer has done for him what Lytton Strachey did for Racine. Whatever the short-comings of Strachey's criticism, it did much to dispose of academic prejudice and to present Racine as a poet. It is true that Corneille has never aroused the same antipathy as Racine once did and that he has his place among the immortals on the Albert Memorial; but it is also true that he has never enjoyed the relative popularity which came to Racine with the publication of Strachey's essays. The insistence of living critics that Racine is not merely a great poet, but a great contemporary poet, has brought him closer to us, while the figure of Corneille has receded farther and farther into the past. For many of us he has become a sort of historical monument, the lonely representative of a vanished civilization. His poetry suggests Versailles with its vast porticoes and the rigid stone figures hiding coyly among the bosquets of its trim gardens or, more formidable still, a scratch troupe from the Comédie Française dressed in those strange, those impossible accoutrements which seem inseparable from the performance of high tragedy, declaiming the Cid to an audience of schoolgirls armed with the Hachette plain text. It is ironical to think that the veteran Rodrigue, a little hoarse of voice, a little "gone in the knees," who rants and stamps through five acts for the edification of the School Certificate class, should have become the symbol of the great writer who was all his life the champion of youth in revolt against the corruption and pretence of an older generation.

It is perhaps reassuring to find that this impression is not due entirely to insular prejudice and that Corneille's own countrymen have experienced similar difficulties. The most striking thing about the distinguished French critics of the last century is their profound dislike for the great masters of their own literature. Of Racine they could scarcely bring themselves to speak with patience. "Bérénice," wrote Sainte-Beuve in a characteristic sally, "peut être dite une charmante et mélodieuse faiblesse dans I'œuvre de Racine, comme la Champmeslé le fut dans sa vie." In spite of Stendhal's timely championship of "the great and good Corneille," Corneille himself fared no better. "I admire his characters," said Taine, "but from a distance: I should not care to live with any of them." "C'est beau, admirable, sublime, ce n'est ni humain, ni vivant, ni réel," said Brunetière.

That was the verdict of the nineteenth century. Corneille was widely recognized as "the Father of French Tragedy," but he had become the professor's poet, a "classic" whose proper place was not the playbill, but the examination syllabus. Racine has long since come into his own in France, but it has been left to the younger French critics of our own day to discover in this staid classic, whose Horace delights or was supposed to delight the populace at the free matinée on Armistice Day, a much more exciting figure. According to one of the latest of his critics, Corneille's world is not a world of flourishes and lofty feelings. It is a world of corruption and intrigue inhabited by doddering, time-serving fathers and criminal stepmothers plotting the ruin of their children who are drawn with a ferocity that is worthy of Racine [Robert Brasillach, Pierre Corneille, 1938].

There is, perhaps, a danger of exaggerating the sensational element in Corneille and the reason is not hard to discover. Contemporary admirers are a little too anxious to profit by the popularity of Racine and to discover similarities between the two writers, though it is clearly the differences which ought to detain us. One of the most important of these differences is brought out in the first chapter of M. Jean Schlumberger's valuable study when he speaks of the contrast between

an heroic art and an art which aims at entertainment or pure knowledge, an art which builds up an exemplary picture of man and an art which destroys this picture by analysis and excessive refinement. [Plaisir à Corneille: Promenade anthologique, 1936]

It is a curious fact that few French critics manage to be fair to both poets and that their "rivalry," which is merely of historical interest, still influences critical opinion. Stendhal spoilt his defence of Corneille by declaring roundly that he was "immensely above Racine"; and it is one of the drawbacks of M. Schlumberger's study that he is inclined to diminish Racine's greatness in order to make his defence of Corneille more convincing. This is surely a mistake. No one seriously believes that he is as great a poet as Racine, but they are not "rivals" and they are not interchangeable. Without Corneille there would be a gap in French literature which Racine could never have filled.

Racine belongs to an age of transition from the old order to the new, from the old social solidarity to the new individualism. His impact on French poetry produced what was virtually a change of direction—a movement away from all that Corneille had stood for—and for this reason he seems to me to be much more the predecessor of Baudelaire than the successor of Corneille. Corneille is not in himself a difficult poet, but an appreciation of his poetry has been made difficult by changing circumstances. He is more than most other great poets the test of catholic taste in poetry, because to enjoy him it is necessary to realize that poetry may be "sublime" and "human, living and real." He wrote heroic plays and it is as an heroic poet that he stands or falls. A criticism of his work is primarily an elucidation of this uncomfortable term. M. Schlumberger's suggestion that an appreciation of Corneille involves an appreciation of Hugo and Claudel seems to me a strategic error, and Croce's invitation to us to discard Corneille's four most famous tragedies and to discover the true Corneille—Corneille the Poet—in the final plays simply shirks all the difficulties.

2

Corneille's achievement becomes more comprehensible when we consider it in relation to his own age. The reign of Louis XIII opened appropriately with an assassination. France was governed by a despotism, but an uneasy despotism. The first part of the century is dominated by Richelieu. The spectacle of Richelieu entering La Rochelle at the head of the King's troops to celebrate the Mass of thanksgiving for the fall of the town is a symbol of the contradictions of the age and of its strange mixture of piety and opportunism. It was an age of rival factions and incredible intrigues, an age that delighted in great exploits and violent actions. France had been shaken to the core by the religious wars of the previous century; and though the worst of them were over, the country was still split in two by the conflict between Catholic and Protestant. It was also a period of intense religious revival in which the chief figures were St. François de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul. Although it has seemed to later generations that theology and philosophy parted company in the seventheenth century, Corneille's contemporaries saw no conflict between the old religion and the "new philosophy." Descartes and the theologians were at one in their interest psychology and their preoccupation with moral problems; and Pascal and Bossuet were both admirers of the Cartesian philosophy.

In Corneille's poetry all these different and sometimes contradictory elements found a place. The interest that he shows in family feuds in the Cid, in political intrigue in Cinna and religious dissensions in Polyeucte, is clearly a reflection of events that were going on around him. The relation of a great poet to his time, however, is primarily a matter of temper, and it was left to Sainte-Beuve to define it in a sympathetic moment in his description of the famous journée du guichet in Port-Royal:

It is the same struggle, the same triumph; if Polyeucte moves us and carries us away it is because something of the kind is and remains possible to human nature when assisted by grace. I will go further than this. If the genius of Corneille was capable of producing Polyeucte at this time, it was because there was still something in his surroundings (whether Corneille himself was aware of it or not) which matched its spirit and achieved the same miracles.

The fact that internally France was in a state of turmoil undoubtedly produced a considerable effort towards consolidation. In spite of its contradictions, Corneille's age was in many ways an age of reconstruction. A sense of effort, a striving towards a moral end, seems to me to be the deepest thing in his poetry. It is well expressed in a characteristic couplet from one Auguste's last speeches in Cinna:

Je suis maître de moi corame de l'univers;
Je le suis, je veux Tètre.

In the first line we notice that the personal problem is related to the social one, and in the second that the statement is significantly followed by the aspiration.

A direct preoccupation with morality and the constant recurrence of words denoting moral qualities like honneur, gloire, grand coeur and mâle assurance are usually a sign of literary decadence—a sign that society is becoming self-conscious about qualities that it is in the process of losing. With Corneille this is not so. Much of his work—particularly the heroic element—is sixteenth-century in feeling, but it also marks the transition from the wild and extravagant sixteenth century to the reasonable seventeenth century. In his poetry, as surely as in Pope's the words represent "robust moral certitudes" which were the product of centuries of civilization and the common heritage of the people. France was engaged in setting her house in order, in trying to work out a fresh code after the upheavals of the previous century, and this produces a literature of great vitality. Corneille's heroes are not, as they are sometimes said to be, mere abstractions or metaphysical entities, but the embodiment of all that was best in the middle class from which the poet came. They are human beings realizing their aspirations in action. It is the integrity of this middle class—la solide vertu, as Horace calls it—which gives his poetry its personal idiom and its peculiar strength. For this reason Corneille's poetry, in spite of a certain narrowness, possesses a maturity of outlook which makes the lesser Elizabethans in England seem crude and immature by comparison.

The political triumphs of the latter part of Louis XIII's reign made possible the external stability of the reign of Louis XIV. They also account for some of the main differences in the poetry of the two periods. M. Schlumberger suggests that Corneille's work is the product of an age in which civilization was threatened and Racine's the product of an age of security, an age which encouraged disinterested speculation without the necessity of translating thought into action. Racine's elegance … belonged to a civilization which had reached its zenith, but a civilization which had within it the seeds of its own dissolution. Corneille's verse sometimes appears clumsy in comparison; but it is a clumsiness which comes from living in a difficult age and not the clumsiness of a man who is not the master of his medium. Racine's age did not possess the same internal stability and its moral fibre was less fine. I think that one might defend the view that Racine made greater poetry out of a poorer philosophy.

When we compare

II est doux de revoir les murs de la patrie
(Sertorius)

with

Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit
(Phèdre)

or

Tous les monstres d'Égypte ont leurs temples dans Rome
(Polyeucte)

with

Dans l'Orient désert quel devint mon ennui!
(Bérénice)

or

… sur mes passions ma raison souveraine
Eût blâmé mes soupirs et dissipé ma haine
(Polyeucte)

with

Il n'est plus temps. Il sait mes ardeurs insensées.
De l'austère pudeaur les bornes sont passées
(Phèdre),

we may think that though Racine's lines are finer, they are not obviously more "poetical." It is clear, however, that the lines are the product of two very different sensibilities. Corneille limits and defines and finally sets a particular feeling against its background. Racine's method is a process of infinite suggestion; the lines seem to expand in the mind, to set up waves of feeling which become more and more subtle and elusive. In the first line patrie has a precise geographical connotation and limits the emotion to a definite area. In the second there is no barrier; fond suggests an infinite extension which has no limit and no term. In the third line—a description of the perverse Eastern cults which are tolerated in Rome while Christianity is persecuted—Corneille deliberately strips the East of the glamour with which Racine's Orient désert invests it. The squalor and degeneracy of the East are set against the moral integrity which Rome so often suggests in Corneille's poetry. In the last example, the "barrier" is purely a moral one; but the raison souveraine (which is deliberately placed after passions) is so vividly apprehended by the poet that it gives us a sense of physical repression. In Racine's couplet, on the contrary, the "limit" is only mentioned in order to tell us that it has long since been exceeded.

The differences become still more pronounced when we compare longer passages:

Quoique pour ce vainqueur mon amour s'intéresse,
Quoiqu'un peuple l'adore et qu'un roi le caresse,
Qu'il soit environné des plus vaillants guerriers,
J'irai sous mes cyprès accabler ses lauriers.
(Le Cid.)

Je le vis, je rougis, je pâlis à sa vue;
Un trouble s'éleva dans mon âme éperdue;
Mes yeux ne voyaient plus, je ne pouvais parler,
Je sentis tout mon corps et transir et brûler.
(Phèdre.)

The speakers in these passages are both victims of a conflict between what might provisionally be called "duty" and "inclination." In Racine, Phèdre's personality crumbles and disintegrates at once; the emotion of the passage is split up into its component parts, but though there is analysis there is no synthesis. Chimène's character is different. She is not passive, but active. The two conflicting impulses are balanced against one another and the conflict is resolved by the will acting in obedience to a principle. There is nothing specious about it; the solution springs necessarily from the données….

[The] four lines from the Cid seem to me to be one of the glories of Corneille's poetry. The first three lines have an extraordinary lyrical élan which is intensified by the obvious sexual connotation of intéresse, adore, caresse, and the suggestion of "action" and "vitality" contained in vainqueur and guerriers. This feeling of expansion, this sense of personal liberation which comes from the momentary identification of Chimène with Rodrigue and his exploits, is suddenly checked by something altogether impersonal in the last line. The spreading foliage of the cypresses, with their sinister hint of darkness and death, comes down like a pall and stifles the "life" which is now concentrated in lauriers. The final effect of the passage, however, is not negative. The emotion of the first three lines is skilfully transformed so that the last line has behind it the force of the whole passage. It will be seen that there is no casuistry and no argument here: Corneille's method is a purely poetic one and depends on the opposition of cyprès and lauriers the triumphant use of the word accabler. The image in the last line is fully adequate to the emotion; it stands out against the sober background of Corneille's verse and glows with a sombre splendour.

I hope that these comparisons have given some indication of the structure of Corneille's world. It is a finite world whose geographical boundaries are marked with such clarity that we sometimes have a feeling of almost physical oppression in reading him. His conception of the nature of man is defined with the mathematical precision of Descartes' Traité des passions de l'âme which gives his poetry its certainty and forthrightness. He is only interested in a few aspects of human nature and therefore only master of a limited range of emotion. Within these limits he is a great writer, but when he ventures outside them the results are disastrous. He is, it need hardly be said, a more pedestrain writer than Racine, and the hard, metallic clang of his verse is in strong contrast to Racine's sensuous, flexible rhythms. There are no surprises in his poetry, none of those sudden glimpses into a subconscious world of primitive instinct that we get in Racine. For Corneille's aim was to bring that world of primitive instinct under the dominion of reason before reason was overthrown by it and society reduced to a state of chaos. Corneille's vocabulary was no smaller than Racine's, but it is probable that his language has less power of suggestion than that of any other great French poet. Words are scientific terms which mean exactly what they say. He did not possess Racine's gift of revealing mysterious depths with the most commonplace words as, for example, when Hippolyte says:

Je me suis engagé trop avant.

Je vois que la raison cède à la violence.

Corneille's four most famous plays are really variations on the same theme. They show the Cornelian hero in relation to the code of chivalry, to patriotism, to politics and finally to religion. In the later plays there is no doubt that Corneille was sometimes inclined to play the showman and to write without any inner compulsion and it is this, perhaps, which has led critics to say that his characters are artful mechanical contrivances without contact with living experience. The simplicity of his psychology and the ease with which he could define his position have undoubtedly lent currency to this view. In a remarkable passage in the Epistle Dedicatory to La Place Royale he wrote:

It is from you that I learnt that the love of an honnête homme must always be voluntary; that we must never allow our love to reach the point at which we cannot stop loving; that if we do, love becomes a tyranny whose yoke must be shaken off; and, finally, that the person whom we love is under a much greater obligation to us when our love is the result of our own choice and of her merit than when it is the result of a blind impulse and is forced on us by some influence of birth which we are unable to resist.

This is a statement of principle which underlies the whole of Corneille's work, and our opinion of him as a poet depends on whether it is a living principle which produced vital poetry or an assumed position which led to a frigid formalism. It is plain that we have here a conception of love which is completely opposed to the one that dominates the poetry of Racine and of almost every great French poet who has since written. Hostile critics have always maintained that Corneille's was an artificial system deliberately imposed on living experience. Its authenticity can only be fully tested by an examination of Corneille's verse, but there are two reservations, both more or less theoretical, which should be made. The first is that the view of passion contained in Racine's poetry has become so much a part of our consciousness that we are no longer capable of approaching Corneille with an open mind. And the second is that although the code of honour on which the Cid is based may no longer seem valid, the quality of the poetry it once inspired is not affected by changed moral standards.

3

Corneille's poetry has been variously described as a conflict between "love and honour," as a "drama of the will" or as mere stoicism. All these views have been challenged at one time or another; but though it is true that a great poet's work can never be summed up in a single formula, these views may serve as pointers in examining his work so long as they are not too rigidly interpreted. "Love and honour" was a favourite theme in the literature of chivalry and it is interesting to see how Corneille extends its significance. The central fact in the Cid is a duel—the single combat between two "men of honour." It has not been sufficiently remarked that far from being a picturesque incident, the duel is a symbol of the whole play and indeed of all Corneille's poetry:

In this admirable scene we hear the thrust and parry of the rapiers—the hiss of steel in

Sais-tu que c'est son sang? le sais-tu?

and we hear it all through the play. It is the duel that is evoked at the height of the drama in Chimène's

Dedans mon ennemi je trouve mon amant;
Et je sens qu'en dépit de toute ma colère,
Rodrigue dans mon cœur combat encor mon pére:
Il l'attaque, il le presse, il cède, il se défend,
Tantôt fort, tantôt faible, et tantôt triomphant;
Mais, en ce dur combat de colère et de fiamme,
Il déchire mon cœur sans partager mon âme….

The thrust and parry of the duel merges into the movement of consciousness, into the conflict between amour and devoir and this gives the play its unity. These passages reflect the movement of all Corneille's verse—a simple movement befitting a simple psychology. We feel it again, for example, in these lines from Polyeucte where the "duel" is purely an interior one:

It is possible now to see how Corneille extends the significance of love and honour. The movement of his verse is not a destructive movement and the conflict does not end, as it usually does in tragedy, in the destruction of the characters. Nor is it true to say, as Lemaître and other French critics have said, that Corneille's poetry is simply a glorification of will and power for their own sake. There is always a definite aim in view, a process in which new values are forged, the human material reshaped and given a fresh direction. Honour is not merely a symbol of reason, it stands for the principle of order which has to be imposed on the chaos of unruly desires, on the whole of the instinctive life which Corneille constantly refers to as les sens. The real theme of his poetry, therefore, is not a simple clash between duty and inclination, but the subordination of one set of values to another which leads to the creation of a fresh order.

The background of Corneille's drama is aristocratic, the life of the court. In each of his major works the even flow of this life is disturbed by a shock—by a duel in the Cid, a conspiracy in Cinna, a conversion in Polyeucte. The effect of the shock and the conflict thus set up is to reveal the Cornelian hero to himself in a new way. The court life is seen to be conventional and unreal; and it is only when the convention is disturbed that the characters come into contact with the vital experience which is hidden beneath the outer husk, and that the mechanical code of honour is transformed into something living.

Corneille's drama, particularly the Cid, is always a drama of initiation. Fresh claims are made on human nature and it undergoes a change. In the opening scene of the Cid Chimène says to her confidente:

Dis-moi donc, je te prie, une seconde fois
Ce qui te fait juger qu'il approuve mon choix.

It is the voice of a child asking to be told over again that her father approves of her young man. In the second act she says to the Infanta:

Maudite ambition, détestable manie,
Dont les plus généreux souffrent la tyrannie!

This time it is the voice of the mature woman criticizing the values she is called upon to accept; and the alexandrine registers the change with remarkable delicacy.

The sudden contact with life produces in the Cornelian heroes a peculiar self-knowledge:

Je sais ce que je suis, et que mon père est mort,

cries Chimène.

Mon pére, je suis femme, et je sais ma faiblesse,

says Pauline. This clairvoyance—this insight into their own feelings—gives Corneille's characters a poise, a centrality which are perhaps unique in European drama. The hero is always in imminent danger of being betrayed by the uprush of les sens which threaten to overturn reason and plunge him into chaos and disaster.

La surprise des sens n'abat point mon courage,

says one of them, and it is precisely these surprises which are the condition of heroic virtue, of the grand cœur:

Une femme d'honneur peut avouer sans honte
Ces surprises des sens que la raison surmonte;
Ce n'est qu'en ces assauts qu'éclate la vertu,
Et l'on doute d'un cœur qui n'a point combattu.

The theme of the Cid is the clash between two generations, the dilemma of youth thrown into a world made by its parents and called upon to accept its standards. It is one of the signs of Corneille's maturity that these standards are never accepted passively; his attitude towards them is always critical. Honour is in constant danger of becoming inhuman and mechanical unless it is accompanied by a profound humanity which is always referred to by the word généreux. When Don Diègue says:

Nous n'avons qu'un honneur, il est tant de maîtresses!
L'amour n'est qu'un plaisir, l'honneur est un devoir.

the cynical slickness of the lines and the facile epigram are certainly ironic. Honneur and devoir are turned into counters which no longer correspond to any moral experience. For Don Diègue expresses something which is incompatible with the Cornelian view of life. The combat does not destroy les sens, it dominates them in order to incorporate them into a definite hierarchy—a hierarchy which would be ruined if they were predominant, but which would be hollow and incomplete without them, as the world of Don Diègue and the Horaces is hollow and incomplete.

The criticism in Horace is of a far more drastic order. The play becomes in the person of Camille—one of Corneille's most extraordinary creations—a harsh and angry indictment of the whole system:

Rome, l'unique objet de mon ressentiment!
Rome, à qui vient ton bras d'immoler mon amant!
Rome qui t'a vu naître, et que ton cœur adore!
Rome enfin que je hais parce qu'elle t'honore!
Puissent tous ses voisins ensemble conjurés
Saper ses fondements encor mal assurés!

The heavy, monotonous verse suggests the terrible machine remorselessly sacrificing humanity to an empty phantom. It is not easy to decide how far Corneille ever accepted his own sanctions, but it seems clear that they were only acceptable as a means to a richer and fuller life, not as an end in themselves.

The struggle towards a new synthesis produces some of Corneille's finest and subtlest verse:

Ma raison, il est vrai, dompte mes sentiments;
Mais quelque autorité que sur eux elle ait prise,
Elle n'y règne pas, elle les tyrannise;
Et quoique le dehors soit sans émotion,
Le dedans n'est que trouble et que sédition.
Un je ne sais quel charme encor vers vous m'emporte;
Votre mérite est grand, si ma raison est forte:
Je le vois encor tel qu'il alluma mes feux,
D'autant plus puissamment solliciter mes vœux,
Qu'il est environné de puissance et de gioire …
Mais ce même devoir qui le vainquit dans Rome,
Et qui me range ici dessous les lois d'un homme.
Repousse encor si bien l'effort de tant d'appas,
Qu'il déchire mon âme et ne l'ébranle pas.

This passage with its inversions, its verbs deliberately piled at the end of the lines, is a remarkable example of the pitiless self-inquisition to which the Cornelian heroes are subjected. There is a deliberate and calculated clumsiness about the verse which admirably expresses the immense effort that the speaker is making to dominate her feelings. The passage gets its life from the constant alteration of tone, the change from a note of defiance and determination to the half-whispered reflection of lines 6-8. The merits of Sévère are carefully catalogued and balanced against the claims of reason until one has the feeling that Pauline is being gradually engulfed in a vast stream which threatens to dislodge her at any moment. In the line

D'autant plus puissamment solliciter mes feux

the hiss of the s's suggests the voluptuous element, the tug of les sens. Then, at the moment when she seems lost, there is a sudden shifting of the tension in the victorious

Repousse encor si bien l'effort de tant d'appas,
Qu'il déchire mon âme et ne l'ébranle pas.

The Cornelian "will" is not an abstract principle. The déchire and the ne l'ébranle pas are both deeply felt express a genuine tension between two conflicting tendencies. The antithesis, so far from being an artificial literary device, is dynamic and corresponds to a deep division in Pauline's mind. When we compare Corneille's lines with Racine's

… la raison cède à la violence

we see that while in Racine the accent falls on the destructive word cède, in Corneille it falls unmistakably on the words expressing opposition and resistance—repousse and ne l'ébranle pas. The will to resist temptation and the "inclination" for one's lover are sources of energy and vitality. Man cannot live without the energy derived from amour, but neither can he resist dissolution and collapse if it is allowed to become predominant. The conflict thus becomes a method of psychological revelation.

The dramatic assertion of the will is, as I have already suggested, one of the most striking characteristics of Corneille's poetry; and it seems to me that it is here rather than in the famous Qu'il mourût! that we detect the authentic heroic note. It is a note that we hear not once, but many times in every play. It does not lower the tension or resolve the conflict, but produces a marked increase of life and vitality that enables the Cornelian hero to "carry on."

From this we may turn to Pauline's speech at the beginning of Act III:

Que de soucis flottants, que de confus nuages
Présentent à mes yeux d'inconstantes images!
Douce tranquillité, que je n'ose espérer,
Que ton divin rayon tarde à les éclairer!
Mille agitations, que mes troubles produisent,
Dans mon cœur ébranlé tour à tour se détruisent:
Aucun espoir n'y coule où j'ose persister;
Aucun effroi n'y règne où j'ose m'arrêter.
Mon esprit, embrassant tout ce qu'il s'imagine,
Voit tantôt mon bonheur, et tantôt ma ruine,
Et suit leur vaine idée avec si peu d'effet,
Qu'il ne peut espérer ni craindre tout à fait.
Sévère incessamment brouille ma fantaisie:
J'espère en sa vertu, je crains sa jalousie;
Et je n'ose penser que d'un œil bien égal
Polyeucte en ces lieux puisse voir son rival.

"This is half-way to poetry," remarks a university lecturer patronizingly [Poetry in England and France, Jean Stewart, 1931]. It seems to me to be a good deal more than that. It seems to me to be not dramatically effective, but something to which we can hardly refuse the title of great poetry. The same writer complains that "the metaphors and images are confused," but the confusion does not seem to me to lie in Corneille's imagery. For the success of the passage depends very largely on the skill with which the poet presents "a whole of tangled feelings." The focal point of the passage is the image of the conflicting feelings dissolving into and destroying one another. The words soucis flottants, confus nuages, inconstantes images suggest a state of complete instability which is accompanied by a desperate longing for the elusive stability promised by douce tranquillté, persister, arrêter; but there is no security anywhere. Whatever Pauline tries to cling on to dissolves into mere fantaisie. For here the words "seem to do what they say" as surely as in the finest English poetry of the same period. Pauline's mind is battered into a state of immobility. She is acutely aware of what she feels, but in the midst of the tumult of warring impulses she is passive and unable to act. Only a dumb determination to "hang on" persists and gives the poetry its vitality. The tension does not depend, as it does in Racine, on the sickening sense of complete collapse, but on a contrast between the rigid immobility—the numbness between the metal walls of the alexandrine—which prevents action, and the swirl of the rapidly changing feelings.

Although the passages I have discussed come from different plays, they illustrate the stages in the evolution of Corneille's characters which scarcely varies from one play to another. It is evident that this evolution is as different from the one we find in Racine as it could well be. In Racine there is a violent conflict, but it does not end in the creation of fresh moral values or the renewal of life; it ends in the reversal of all moral values. Corneille is inferior to Racine as a psychologist, but he seems to me to reveal a greater range of what is commonly described as "character." Racine concentrates the whole of his attention on the moral crisis and there is nothing in his work which is comparable to the moral growth that takes place in Corneille's characters. We can, I think, sum up the differences between the two by saying that Corneille's characters are people qui se construisent and Racine's people qui se défont. The "shock," of which I have already spoken, shatters the complacency of Corneille's characters and reveals their own perplexity and confusion to them. But it also reveals the goal towards which they must strive, and by their immense determination they overcome this perplexity and confusion and achieve a new unity. Racine's characters, on the other hand, start their career as unified or apparently unified beings, and the drama lies in the dissolution of that inner unity.

The final change in Corneille's characters, when it does come, appears as a flash of illumination which transcends all the separate acts of the individual and the different phases of the drama which lead up to it. One is Auguste's sudden realization of his place in the existing order:

Je suis maître de moi comme de l'univers;
Je le suis, je veux l'ètre.

Another is the description of a conversion in Polyeucte:

Je m'y trouve forcé par un secret appas;
Je cède à des transports que je ne connais pas….

I should be shirking a difficulty if I failed to mention the celebrated encounter between Rodrigue and Chimène in Act III. Sc. iv. This scene—too long to set out here—seemed to Corneille's age to be a masterpiece of pathos. M. Schlumberger cannot resist the temptation to quote it and Brasillach subjects it to an enthusiastic analysis. My own opinion is that Corneille was not a master of pathos and that though the scene contains good passages, the most admired parts are tiresome and embarrassing. They are an example of what happens when Corneille ventures outside his limited field. It must, of course, be remembered that his verse was written to be declaimed and that lines which are embarrassing in the study may sound well enough on the stage, and I have myself seen a good company "carry" what appear to be the weaker parts of this scene. It is one of the shortcomings of the grand manner that it does allow the poet to "fake" emotion, to rely on the sweep of the alexandrine when there is no correspondence between his personal sensibility and the emotion that he is staging.

4

The Cid has always been Corneille's most popular play and it possesses the peculiar beauty which belongs to the first work of a great writer's maturity; but the plays which followed also possess a vision, a complexity, that we do not find in the Cid. It has been pointed out that the discovery of Rome was an event of the first importance in Corneille's development, but its importance is not always understood. Corneille wrote of Rome at several different periods of her history and his attitude towards her varied, but the most impressive of the Roman plays is perhaps Cinna. The Cid is the most individualistic, the most "romantic," of his works. It does not posses, that is to say, any coherent view of society. There is simply the life of the Court with its etiquette and conventions. Cinna is far from being a faultless play, but there does emerge from it a definite conception of society, something which can, I think, not unreasonably be called a social order. We must not expect to find in French drama the sort of picture of contemporary life that we get in the English drama of the same period. French tragedy was essentially the product of an intellectual aristocracy. There was no place for le peuple whom Corneille regarded as creatures of instinct in whose life reason played little part. The social order which emerges from Cinna is therefore concerned with the problems of the ruling class, for it is assumed—not unnaturally—that reconstruction starts from above. The advance in Corneille's art is apparent from the great speech of Auguste who in the second act significantly displaces Cinna as the hero:

Cet empire absolue sur la terre et sur l'onde,
Ce pouvoir souverain que j'ai sur tout le monde,
Cette grandeur sans borne et cet illustre rang,
Qui m'a jadis coûté tant de peine et de sang,
Enfin tout ce qu'adore en ma haute fortune
D'un courtisan flatteur la présence importune,
N'est que de ces beautés dont l'éclat éblouit,
Et qu'on cesse d'aimer sitôt qu'on en jouit.
L'ambition déplaôt quand elle est assouvie,

D'une contraire ardeur son ardeur est suivie;
Et comme notre esprit, jusqu'au dernier soupir,
Toujours vers quelque objet pousse quelque désir,
Il se ramène en soi, n'ayant plus où se prendre,
Et monté sur le faîte, il aspire à descendre.
J'ai souhaité l'empire, et j'y suis parvenu;
Mais en le souhaitant, je ne l'ai pas connu:
Dans sa possession j'ai trouvé pour tous charmes
D'effroyables soucis, d'étemelles alarmes,
Mille ennemis secrets, la mort à tout propos,
Point de plaisir sans trouble, et jamais de repos.

It is one of the finest examples of Corneille's handling of the grand style. Without any rhetoric, the ampleur of the style and the regular thud of the end-rhymes contrive to suggest a stable order. For there are two voices speaking here—the voice of the lonely, harassed individual debating whether or not to give up his throne, and what one may call the public voice. It is no longer simply a matter of coming to terms with oneself or of satisfying accepted standards of honour, but of playing a part in society. Cinna is a drama of adjustment. The individual experience has to fit in with the experience of the community and the drama is only complete when this is accomplished. In Cinna, therefore, there is a blending of the political and the moral problems. It is not simply that all political problems are seen to involve a moral problem, but that in transforming moral problems into political problems Corneille gives them a wider context and immensely increases the import of his poetry. It is this which makes his approach extremely actual today. In the great political discussion at the beginning of Act II one is aware of a straightening out of the emotions, and order, which is so often discussed and so rarely defined, becomes something almost tangible.

Although Corneille's contemporaries thought of him as the author of Cinna, many modern critics consider that Nicomède—a much later work—is the finest of the political plays. It is not, perhaps, surprising that the Latin mind with its passion for the "well made play" should be more aware of Cinna's faults than its virtues, and no doubt some writers have suspected that the defence of absolute monarchy implied a defence of the monstrous injustices associated with it. Cinna, however, is not important as a defence of a particular system of government, but for the passion for order which inspires it. The very violence with which the individual conspirators are swept into that order shows that Corneille was fully conscious of these difficulties—conscious of them as a poet. For his poetry marks the end of an epoch and he may have felt that the order for which he had fought was doomed to destruction by its inherent rigidity and its inability to provide a bulwark against chaos.

Nicomède is an extraordinary ironic tour de force which deserves to be better known in England. "Tenderness and passion have no part in it," said Corneille in his Dedication. "My chief aim has been to paint Rome's politics in her relations with other states." He sets his "cool and efficient hero"—the language of the best-seller is somehow appropriate—against the background of political intrigue and proceeds, very skilfully, to "debunk" the large pretensions of Rome and her predatory designs on smaller countries. Nicomède's ruthless sardonic humour gives the play its peculiar flavour. Ostensibly he is trying to bolster up his father and make him resist the demands of Rome; but there is an undercurrent of resentment which spares neither Prusias' inefficiency nor his senile passion for his second wife.

He carefully points the contrast between the office of king and its present occupant. Expire, with its suggestions of the funeral cortège, the vast mausoleum with the appropriate inscriptions, reveals the fatuity of the person who will be buried there. The wit reaches its peak in the last act after Prusias' attempted flight:

PRUSIAS:
Non, non; nous revenons l'un et l'autre en ces lieux
Défendre votre gioire, ou mourir à vos yeux.

Prusias is a richly comic creation and has a definite place in Corneille's survey of seventeenth-century society. In the Cid and in Horace he exposed an "honour" which had become mechanical and inhuman. Through Félix in Polyeucte and Prusias in Nicomède he makes the essential criticisms of middle-class complacency, of the moral corruption which prevents the attainment of Cornelian honour.

A word must be said about a more debatable side of Corneille's work—the religious side. Some critics have denied that he is properly speaking a religious poet at all, while others have described Polyeucte, which is certainly his greatest play, as a masterpiece of religious poetry. It must be recorded with gratitude that it is refreshingly free from the incorrigibly romantic attitude towards sin that we find in certain living Catholic writers; but in spite of its subject it is neither more nor less religious than any of Corneille's other works. What is religious in all Corneille's best work is not the subject or the setting, but his sense of society as an ordered whole and of man as a member of this hierarchy. If he tried to round off the picture in Polyeucte by presenting the natural order in the light of the supernatural, it seems to me that he failed. It is significant that in this play the fable was modified to fit the usual Cornelian formula and we are left with the feeling that the religion was not inevitable, but that any other motif might have produced an equally great play. Corneille's world remains a circumscribed world and his religion does not extend the field of his experience as it clearly ought to have done.

It should be apparent by now in what sense Corneille is an heroic poet. It has nothing to do with declamation and bombast (though there is plenty of both in his work), or with the misleading theory that his characters are "supermen." It simply means that by a combination of insight and will power the moral values which Corneille derived from close contact with his class are raised in his plays to a high level of poetic intensity. He was a great poet because he expressed something that is permanent in human nature and because he had behind him the whole weight of what was best in contemporary society. One has only to compare him for a moment with Dryden to see the difference. For Dryden's age was not an heroic age and in trying to write heroic plays he was simply going against the spirit of his time. His drama is an example of the false sublime, of the stucco façade which ill conceals the viciousness and corruption beneath.

5

Corneille's later plays have been the subject of considerable controversy. Contemporary apologists like M. Schlumberger take up their stand against the traditional view which regards the later plays, in Lytton Strachey's words, as "miserable failures." Pierre Lièvre's introduction to his admirable edition of the plays [Théâtre complet, 2 vols., 1934] is an eloquent plea that Corneille's work should be treated as a whole, as a steady development from the early comedies to the final tragedies. I confess that I find it difficult to accept this view. Plays like Rodogune and Pompée, which belong to the third period that lasts from 1644 to 1669, contain fine things, but compared with Corneille's best work they seem to me to show a pronounced falling off. There is, perhaps, a greater breadth of characterization, but the poetry is less impressive. The fact that Corneille never stood still and never repeated himself may be the reason for the difficulty. With Polyeucte the Cornelian hero is complete and there is no room for further development along those lines. The poet loses interest in his hero who degenerates into a mechanical warrior—Aitila provides the worst example—and concentrates on the people who surround him. The main interest of the plays of this period lies in the amazons like Rodogune, Cornélie and the two Cléopâtres. This produces an alteration in the quality of the verse. Corneille develops the vein of rhetoric which is already visible in the Cid:

Paraissez, Navarrois, Mores et Castillans,
Et tout ce que l'Espagne a nourri de vaillants;
Unissez-vous ensemble, et faites une armée,
Pour combattre une main de la sorte animée…

In Rodogune this becomes the staple of the whole play:

Serments fallacieux, salutaire contrainte,
Que m'imposa la force et qu'accepta ma crainte,
Heureux déguisements d'un immortel courroux,
Vains fantômes d'État, évanouissez-vous.

There is a natural tendency to rhetoric in French poetry, to use words as mere labels and to rely for the "poetry" on the drive of the alexandrine. Certainly there is no lack of drive in Rodogune, but there is a loss of subtlety and a marked coarseness of texture in the verse.

Although M. Schlumberger has apparently abandoned the view that the last plays of all are the crown of Corneille's work, he still gives Pulchérie and Suréna a high place in it. In these plays there is a return to the old Cornelian formula which was to some extent abandoned in the plays of the middle period. He sees in them a tenderness and serenity which he does not find in any of Corneille's other work. This may be so, but one cannot help wondering whether they deserve all the praise they get. Consider, for example, the opening speech of Pulchérie:

Je vous aime, Léon, et n'en fais point mystère:
Des feux tels que les miens n'ont rien qu'il faille taire.
Je vous aime, et non point de cette folle ardeur
Que les yeux éblouis font maîtresse du cœur,
Non d'un amour conçu par les sens en tumulte,
A qui l'âme applaudit sans qu'elle se consulte,
Et qui ne concevant que d'aveugles désirs,
Languit dans les faveurs, et meurt dans les plaisirs:
Ma passion pour vous, généreuse et solide,
A la vertu pour âme, et la raison pour guide,
La gioire pour objet, et veut sous votre loi
Mettre en ce jour illustre et l'univers et moi.

According to Croce this passage marks the summit of Corneille's poetry and, with a lofty assumption of philosophical detachment, he proceeds to commend Pulchérie's attitude to physical love. It is not difficult to see why these lines appeal to one whose criterion is evidently "simple, sensuous and passionate." It is by no means a negligible piece of verse, but it owes its charm to a subtle flavour of dissolution. The difficulty that one feels might be expressed by saying that honour wins altogether too easily. It is clear from the looseness of texture, the slackness of the versification, that we are a long way from the poet of Polyeucte. It is the work of an old man, of a great poet in decline. Nor can one share Croce's enthusiasm for the content. For who but a survival of nineteenth-century romanticism can feel any sympathy for the bloodless spinster high-mindedly giving up her love to contract a "chaste" alliance with her father's aged counsellor?

What is to be the final estimate? "Corneille," answers M. Schlumberger, "does not ask the supreme questions, neither does he answer them. If I give him a high place in my æsthetic, there remains a vast region of myself in which I feel the need of other poets besides him." It is clear that he lacks many of the qualities that we have come to expect of poetry. Certain fundamental truths were grasped with the clarity and the tenacity of genius; he was a penetrating critic of the evils of the existing order; but his own vision was partial and incomplete and the order towards which he was striving seems somehow indistinct. Yet his central experience—his sense of society as an ordered whole and of man as a part of that hierarchy—has an important place in European literature and without him it would be incomplete. Of all the great masters Corneille is the most limited, but that he is a master we cannot doubt.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Revisited. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, 275 p.

Investigates various aspects of plot in the dramas of Corneille and Racine with the aim of seeing more clearly "both the parallels and the divergences between the two dramatists, not only in their technique itself (what they called their art) but also in its implication in the presentation of their tragic vision."

Borgerhoff, E. B. O. "The Liberalism of Pierre Corneille." In his The Freedom of French Classicism, pp. 46-81. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950.

Discusses Corneille as being among those artists who are "full of contradictions: they are split against themselves. They are very good artists, but perhaps not of the greatest."

Brereton, Geoffrey. "The Comedies of Pierre Corneille." In his French Comic Drama, from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, pp. 12-43. London: Methuen & Co., 1977.

Surveys and expounds upon the comedies, from Mélite to Le Menteur, from a technical, historical, biographical, and literary viewpoint.

Croce, Benedetto. "The Poetry of Corneille." In his Ariosto, Shakespeare and Corneille, translated by Douglas Ainslie, pp. 408-30. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1920.

Discusses Corneille's dramatic poetry as the key to the playwright's success in "generating those beings, so warm with passion, who insinuate themselves into us and take possession of our imagination, who grow in it and eventually become so familiar to us that we seem to have really met them. … "

Gassner, John. "The Heroic Drama of Corneille." In his Masters of the Drama, 3d ed., pp. 267-73. New York: Dover Publications, 1954.

Broad survey of Corneille's career, with significant discussion of the dramatic unities as they relate to The Cid.

Greenberg, Mitchell. Corneille, Classicism and the Ruses of Symmetry. Cambridge: Cambridge Universitiy Press, 1986, 189 p.

Series of discourses on the tragedies through which the critic is enabled "to dialogue with Corneille where he is most compelling and most problematical. In a study that wishes to trace those shifting borders of power and pleasure that allow Corneille's tragedies to continue to speak to us, to involve us in their world, to make, in other words, their past present, these discourses seem the most apt at engaging Corneille's texts where they engage us, in the unstable margins defining and undermining our articulaton of ourselves in the world."

Hawcroft, Michael. "Corneille's Clitandre and the Theatrical Illusion." French Studies 47, No. 2 (2 April 1993): 142-55.

Examines Clitandre as a play "in which the dramatist self-consciously plays with the notion of illusionist theatre."

Koch, Philip. "Cornelian Illusion." Symposium XIV, No. 2 (Summer 1960): 85-99.

Studies Corneille's conception of "illusion," holding that the dramatist "relied heavily on the techniques of illusion in plot development often to embody the major conflicts of the characters and always to sustain the public's interest."

Knight, R. C. Corneille's Tragedies: The Role of the Unexpected. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1991, 144 p.

Discusses the playwright's conception of tragedy, stressing the importance of the novel and striking in Corneille's works.

Matthews, Brander. "The Development of the French Drama." International Quarterly VII, No. 3 (March 1903): 14-31.

Contains an overview of Corneille's significance and the nature of his accomplishment, comparing Corneille to Racine in many areas.

Mueller, Martin. "Oedipus Res as Tragedy of Fate: Corneille's Oedipe and Schiller's Di Braut von Messina." In his Children of Oedipus, and Other Essays on the Imitation of Greek Tragedy, 1500-1800, pp. 105-52. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980

Traces patterns of response by Corneille to Sophocles' tragedy and identifies his strategies of transformation used in adapting elements of the older material to the neoclassical French stage.

Nelson, Robert J. Corneille: His Heroes and Their Worlds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963, 322 p.

Critical study of Corneille's complete dramatic canon. Nelson provides a résumé of each play discussed, and concludes with a summary chapter, "The Cornelian Universe."

Picard, Raymond. "Corneille's Tragedies." In his Two Centuries of French Literature, edited by John Cairncross, pp. 66-82. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1970.

Discursive survey of the tragedies.

Sellstrom, A. Donald. Corneille, Tasso and Modern Poetics. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986, 166 p.

Close study of Torquato Tasso's influence upon Corneille.

Spitzer, Leo. "Corneille's Polyeucte and the Vie de Saint Alexis." In Essays on Seventeenth-Century French Literature, pp. 145-67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Spirited defense of Polyeucte by means of the medieval legend of Saint Alexis.

Vincent, Leon H. Corneille. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901, 197 p.

Biographical and critical introduction to Corneille, written in a familiar style and covering both the plays and their critical reception over the centuries.

Wallace Fowlie (essay date 1948)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 literary creativity (he is the author of a novel and poetry collections in both French and English), are among the qualities that make Fowlie an indispensable guide for the student of French literature. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1948, he examines Le Cid as a drama emblematic of Corneille's conception of tragedy as the domain of spirituality, reflecting the triumph of divine grace.]

Like the philosophers of the Middle Ages, the great writers of the seventeenth century in France studied man, but from a different viewpoint. The medieval study was based on man as the son of Adam, as the victim of the fall, as the creature eminently free but who is caught in the eternal debate between good and evil, and who, through his own will power, determines his salvation or his damnation. The study of the Middle Ages was theological man whose characteristics were first traced by Plato and Aristotle. But the classical study, although not forgetful of the Christian conception of man, was based on the mystery of the human spirit, on the meaning of his spiritual and corporeal destiny, on the celestial and infernal struggle for the possession of a soul. The study of the seventeenth century was tragic man, whose characteristics were first traced by Sophocles and Euripides.

The Middle Ages explain and illustrate man's anthropology, and the classical period explains the meaning of human tragedy. This tragedy which so purely concerns the spirit of man and his total destiny is enacted in a domain untouched by the explanations of psychology, of biology, and of sociology. To know oneself, for the writer of the seventeenth century, implies much more than knowing oneself psychologically, biologically, sociologically. For them, man is not a fragment of the whole, but rather it is he who contains the universe. All spheres meet in him. In his enigmatical, contradictory, and weak nature, he is able to surpass himself. This is Corneille's vision: of man in the cosmos and of the cosmos in man. His art is a new cosmic life. The common tendency of man is to humanize the concept of God, but the hero of Corneille tends to divinize the concept of man. Thus, in a certain sense, these two periods of French history are distinct and even contradictory: the Middle Ages consider theological man: namely, man according to his origin and his destiny; the seventeenth century considers tragic man: namely, man in conflict with the world and in conflict with himself.

What is the domain of tragedy? We can see first that it is the domain felt and explained above all by the artists, in comparison with the domain of theological man measured above all by the theologians and the mystics. (But it must be remembered that tragic man has been understood by some theologians, such as Saint Augustine, and by some thinkers, such as Kierkegaard and Freud.) The two essential acts of God for a Christian are (1) the creation of man; and (2) the gift of His grace. Between these two divine and gratuitous acts extends the domain of tragedy, more profoundly tragic as it is more equally separated from the two acts of God. Christian philosophy lovingly safeguards not only the dogma of man created by the Divine Creator, but cherishes the belief that man, thus created, becomes, in his turn, creator of his vast and measureless liberty. We like to say today, with our impoverished and insufficient vocabulary, that the entire history of the human race is the history of democracy. This is true enough in a limited sense. But it would perhaps be more exact to say that our history is our effort to understand our freedom hidden in the mystery of those abysses which existed before historical time.

Corneille is the initiator of a movement of ideas and of a chapter in art which begin roughly with the birth of the seventeenth century and which are perhaps destined to terminate in the cataclysms and the global revolutions of our own age. But since he was initiator, Corneille didn't progress very far in the domain of tragedy. He makes us feel it, however, in all his plays, and especially in Le Cid which we are going to use as example, by his persistent use of the triumph of grace. Corneille violates tragedy by insisting on the large amount of spirituality which inhabits each one of his great heroes. Rodrigue and Chimène are two children who announce all the forms of modern tragedy without succeeding in incarnating them explicitly. Markedly absent in them is any expression of terror, the sentiment which Kierkegaard defines in the nineteenth century as the eminent sign of spirituality in man. Even the women in Le Cid do not feel terror. Chimène isn't terrorized by the murder of her father and the appearance of Rodrigue in her own house. She feigns terror, as an actress would, but the primitive vigour of her joy and her love wins out over all the inferior sentiments. The Infanta, more purely tragic than Chimène, doesn't discover terror in herself, but rather that form of despair which henceforth will be the vice of modern spirituality.

No terror, then, in the virginal world of Corneille because purity abounds there. It is almost as if the Creation had just taken place, and that at the end of the twenty-four hours with all their fatiguing peripetiæ, joy would be reborn, greater still because it would be the joy of grace after having been the joy of creation. In the middle of the Corneilian play there occurs the tragic moment which is rapid and immediately over. It is the moment of the fall, the return to the void which existed before the creation. The moment of vengence felt by Rodrigue and Chimène, even if it is at once annihilated and surpassed by them, is sufficient to make out of this poem of love, a tragedy. Vengence is called by anthropologists the oldest of moral emotions, and can be traced back to the most primitive periods of history. Vengence exists because man is not only a being created by God, he is also a personality. Our personality is our oneness, that part of ourselves opposed to what is mortal in us. Christianity teaches us that personality exists because of the sentiment of love. The sentiment of vengence breaks out in man, only to hurl him toward the void of the fall, because of the collective personality of the clan which is innate in primitive man. This sentiment, which is very concealed but real in Hamlet, is born instinctively in Rodrigue and threatens his happiness in accordance with the formal law of tragedy. For a moment in the life of Rodrigue and Chimène, they forget themselves in order to sacrifice to the cult of the family and the clan, because of some primitive blood mysticism, their personal happiness and their love. This ancient instinct of collective responsibility toward the social group or the race has been converted by Christianity into the dogma of personal responsibility for the sins of all men and into the universal love of Christ in his mystical body.

Therefore, the principle of paternity, oldest of all principles, against which Oedipus had fought, is the first principle in Le Cid. The primitive character of this tragedy is clearly drawn in the effortlessness with which Rodrigue abandons and surpasses the principle of paternity which had engaged him during the first two acts. In the third act, he becomes a man in love, tormented by the drama of passion and sexuality, incapable of finding peace because the principle of sex divides man against himself and fills him with horror. In the fourth act, Rodrigue becomes a creator and enters upon his destiny. He channels all his sexual force and surpasses it in one great act of heroism. The triumph of the battle with the Moors is the triumph of sexual sublimation in Rodrigue, as a great creative work in someone else, in a Leonardo for example, is the same kind of triumph. The principle of man is always an effort to deceive his sexuality, to do without woman, to remain faithful to his 'solar' principle, which is his principle of creation and fecundation. But Chimène doesn't renounce as willingly as Rodrigue the principle of paternity. She is clearly the woman who safeguards the communal idea and the perpetuity of the race. What is for Rodrigue a question of honour, is, for Chimène, the instinct of a woman, the instinct of maternity and procreation. The sun, a phallic symbol in its evolution and its force, is opposed to the earth, symbol of woman: of her maternal flesh and of her cosmic meaning. Whereas Rodrigue traverses the work of Corneille with the sword of his spirit and the solar force of his youth, Chimène remains stable during the entire play as the antithetic principle of man, as the symbol of matter and the collective unity of the earth.

Man doesn't succeed in destroying the sexual urge of his nature. If he doesn't give himself over to a free expression of his libido, he can hide it and suppress it in the obscure and sometimes dangerous recesses of his subconscious, or he can surpass it, sublimate it in a great spiritual act of creation or heroism. Thus, the hero, like the creative artist, transforms his sexual libido into an expression of power which the theologians call libido excellendi. Rodrigue in the second act, in his victory over the Count, and in the fourth act, in his victory over the Moors, struggles not only against his love for Chimène but against the very principle of woman. He affirms himself in the play as a single personality who opposes the maternal element, the earth, the community, and the primordial instinct of sexuality in his being. Rodrigue goes against everything once he discovers the fathomless liberty of human nature, once he discovers in his own subconscious that the principle of man is that of the logos and the creation and is eternally opposed to the principle of woman which is that of the earth, of procreation, and reproduction. Rodrigue, like all heroes and all great artists, has to struggle against the sexuality of his nature, not because of some point of honour, which critics explain so often and so insufficiently in the tragedies of Corneille, but because of a much more profound reason. He knows, at least in his subconscious, that sexual satisfaction is the source of life and death, and that there is in man a more imperious desire than that of life and death: it is the desire to triumph over life and death (desire which women do not know), to preserve and keep intact all of his sexual vigour.

If Rodrigue struggles for the freedom of his male spirit, in order to free himself by surpassing woman, and if he fights the Moors not through patriotism but in order to escape the monotony of domestic quarrels and forget himself in an adventure of danger and chance, Chimène renounces every struggle once she has chosen her rôle of matriarch representative of the clan, in order to throw into relief Rodrigue's struggle. She stabilizes the earth and the cosmos, and then she patiently waits for the prodigal to return to her arms, as to the source of life and to the maternal centre from which he tried to escape in the rantings of his youth as well as in the very passion of his love. Rodrigue is the eternal man pointing out the possible ways of the future and all the circular movements of the sun and of the spirit, who affirms his personality in the very presence of Chimène. She is the eternal woman revealing the vast and solid shelter of matter and community, the tranquil site of our genesis, the earth and the womb, the final repose of man devoured by restlessness.

'Je ne t'accuse point, je pleure nos malheurs', Chimène says to Rodrigue in their great scene of the third act, and her conscience is almost at ease. But in her subconscious she favours a sadism, which is another feminine principle. (If Descartes, at the time of Corneille and Le Cid, taught the psychology of consciousness and reason, Freud has shown since then the far greater importance of the conflict between the conscious and the subconscious faculties in man). Chimène torments others and rejoices in tormenting them, not through some point of honour, but because of a very ancient origin of primitive suffering. Rodrigue, more masochistic than Chimène, as most men are, knows that happiness is not the conscious goal of men. In loving Chimène, Rodrigue loves sorrow; he loves a good and not a happiness. Woman holds unto the past and prays for the present to stop. She opposes time and change because she is eternity, whereas man represents the triumph of time over eternity through his autonomous acts of heroism and violence which, once they are committed, die and disappear in that past he wants to create- and from which he hopes to liberate himself.

Each human being has an androgynous nature and develops through the union of the masculine and feminine principles, through the simultaneous existence of personal passion and communal sentiment. In that nature where equilibrium between man and woman is quite sustained, the effort to realize oneself and surpass oneself is sharper, more uninterrupted, more necessary. Tragic sentiment is easily created in it because this nature, conscious both of its personality and of the cosmos, favours so equal a struggle between the two principles that no triumph is assured. This kind of human nature lives under the threat of itself, anxious over the responsibilities it feels toward the entire world and toward its own heart. Le Cid offers to us in Rodrigue and Chimène two beings fashioned very lucidly in accordance to the two principles of man and woman, but in the character of the Infanta, Corneille depicts a more purely tragic nature in which the two worlds of man and woman face one another and devastate one another. Chimène and Rodrigue speak only of blood, of swords, and of immolation: blood to avenge and blood to shed are the two constant themes of their speeches which make of Le Cid a kind of mediaeval tournament. But the voice of the Infanta heard as early as the second scene of the first act and not silenced until the second scene of the fifth act, that is, the voice heard just after the beginning of the play and silenced just before the end, is the voice of modern times and of our heroines today. Her voice gives the work its true tragic colour because she is alone in the labyrinthic complexity of her heart. She is indifferent to vengences and thrones, to the sportive and youthful struggle between Chimène and Rodrigue. They don't cease for a moment loving one another: they remain therefore very near to the creation of their love and they await impatiently the moment of grace destined to consecrate their love. They traverse so rapidly the domain of tragedy and with so much exuberance so weakly controlled, that they hardly perceive the domain itself. For them, the story is a bad day in their lives which will be quickly forgotten. But the Infanta, each time she appears on the stage, performs the eternal gesture of tragedy: she opens on herself the gates of death. Because she is not loved, she possesses all the cruel leisure necessary to understand the double principle of love: its expression of life and death, of life which, for her, is death, and of death, which is life. The Infanta, in the eternity of her waiting, of her despair, of her courage, and of her goodness, is a counterpart of the Blessed Virgin who is the eternity of grace, the awareness and the fecundity of grace. There are traits of Héloise in the Infanta in the image of her long fidelity, and traits of Hamlet in the restlessness of his nature, and traits also of Phèdre in the potency of an impossible love.

In a sense then, the Infanta came into being in spite of chronology, because Corneilian tragedy is the triumph of grace. Even Le Cid, because, of course, Polyeucte is a more obvious example. Le Cid is the story of Chimène who symbolizes the plenitude of the cosmos and the female element of the earth; and then, Le Cid is the story of Rodrigue who returns to Chimène after leaving her. He symbolizes the return of the sun to the maternal principle of the cosmos, to the principle which sustains and renews the earth. Thus, the Corneilian solution resembles a philosophic love which rediscovers the equilibrium between man and woman, and which, after arousing sentiments of theatric fright, arouses in their place sentiments of veneration and calms the impermanent virtues. The earth absorbs the heat of the sun in much the same way that Chimène envelops the intrepid passions of Rodrigue. The plenitude of the cosmos ends by covering the principle which pierces it and fecundates it.

Allardyce Nicoli (essay date 1949)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, 1660-1900 (1952-59), which has been highly praised for its perceptive commentaries on drama from the Restoration to the close of the nineteenth century. In the following excerpt from his World Drama, Nicoll places Corneille's work in thecontext of French literary history.]

The drama that first gave distinction to the French tragic stage was Le Cid (1636), the work of Pierre Corneille. Its author, a lawyer of Rouen, had been impelled towards the theatre by the visit to his native city of the Marais troupe, and when, in 1629, Mondory returned to Paris he carried with him the manuscript of a comedy, Mélite, by the young author. During the succeeding years Corneille trained himself in the penning of comedy, and then set all literary Paris in an uproar with his heroic drama on a Spanish theme.

At the time that this drama appeared classic theory and practice had not as yet fully established itself. Tragi-comedies were still being produced by men such as Rotrou and Benserade, and for some years these dramatists were to remain moderately popular. Along with their vogue was a vogue for dramas on English history—a kind of gesture on the part of romantic playwrights to the claims of tragedy. Here came La Calprenède's Jeanne, Royne d'Angleterre (printed 1638) and Regnault's Marie Stuard, Royne d'Ecosse (printed 1639). Already, however, the classical style was making headway. In 1634 Jean Mairet came forward with his Sophonisbe, the first tragedy in France truly based on the rules, and it was followed by a series of dramas which treated ancient themes in accordance with the critical precepts supposed to be found in Aristotle's Poetics. Mairet himself followed his Sophonisbe with Marc Antoine, ou la Cléopâtre (c. 1635), Scudéry produced his La mort de César (The Death of Cœsar, 1635) and Pierre Corneille his Médée (Medea, 1634-35).

At the same time the critics were eagerly discussing the precepts that should be followed. Some men of independent judgment followed François Ogier in objecting to the stricter application of the rules, but the majority welcomed Mairet as the leader of the classical legion. As yet, however, the debate was rather abstract, since no really important tragic drama, whether classically inclined or the reverse, had appeared to provide a concrete issue. It was precisely such a concrete issue that Le Cid gave to Parisian society. No one could deny its power; the question was whether that power was secured by legitimate means.

The plot of Corneille's drama was derived from a Spanish source. Chimène is the daughter of Don Gomès, and is the love of the gallant Rodrigue. Unfortunately Don Gomès insults and strikes Rodrigue's father, and the young man, at the very moment of his wedding, is forced to challenge the former; in the ensuing duel Don Gomès is slain. Chimène now is in turn forced to wish Rodrigue's death, and he, rather than commit suicide, takes command of a small troop of soldiers prepared to attempt the apparently forlorn hope of preventing the advance of a great Moorish army. Instead of perishing on the field, however, Rodrigue is triumphant, and returns home in glory. Still impelled by her sense of loyalty to her dead father, Chimène causes Don Sanche, who seeks her hand in marriage, to challenge Rodrigue, but, on hearing that he proposes to let himself be killed, she herself bids him to use his strength in order to obtain victory—even although (or because) she is aware that by the King's order she must marry the survivor. Rodrigue wins the duel, and the lovers are united.

The storm that broke around this drama may at first seem inexplicable; but consideration of Le Cid in its setting dissipates all difficulty. Its brilliant, forceful verse and its bold, arresting presentation of character marked it out as a tremendous achievement. Here was a literary effort that could not be ignored, and in this period when men were so eagerly searching for the true road the question as to whether Corneille, by his very genius, might not be leading the world astray became a theme of profound significance.

Externally the author keeps the rules. All the action is supposed to take place within a period of twenty-four hours, and the entire action is pursued near the royal palace. Yet the five acts of the drama are crowded with incident, straining dangerously our sense of probability, and the end, instead of being tragic, bears a happy conclusion. Several questions were paramount for the dramatic authors of that time: Was probability or retention of the rules the more important? Could these two be reconciled, and, if so, in what way? What was the true end of the tragic drama? Le Cid provided a practical test for the establishing of opinion.

Anyone who wades through the spate of controversy which flooded upon Le Cid at that time may well deem that the critical comments are frequently weak, absurd, and beside the point; yet a general understanding of the situation shows that, although the authors were frequently arguing about problems of lesser import, their passionate advocating of even trivial views sprang from a consciousness of the ultimate importance of the quarrel.

Almost immediately following its presentation on the stage, Mairet (perhaps stung by jealousy) and others started debating its merits, and so bitter did the debate prove that within a few months the Academy was formally asked to judge the issue, with the result that Jean Chapelain, assisted by the learned institution to which he belonged, soon published the famous Sentimens de l'Académie Françoise sur la tragi-comédie du Cid.

Much space is taken up in the Sentimens with criticism of minor points, and even more with what seems utterly futile—the moral questions involved. In particular, the authors of that essay fix their attention on the impropriety of causing Chimène to marry the man who has slain her father, of allowing her to permit love to sway her heart above the dictates of duty. Unquestionably this appears to be but foolish criticism, yet, perhaps unconsciously, the Sentimens here have, although rather crudely, concentrated their attention upon what is ultimately the core of the entire controversy. Corneille, while he bows formally to the unities, has in reality a romantic soul. There is a strength about him that rebels against restraint: into the age of classicism he carries a bold, truculent individualism. But individualism of this sort is exactly that which the age was seeking to restrain, and in the criticisms directed at Chimène's conduct the Academy was, in effect, testifying to its desire for order, restraint, and social unity. Marlowes and their like could find place in the Renaissance; in this later age no room might be allowed to them.

The emphasis laid upon the improbabilities of the action of Le Cid also has deeper implications. The old tragicomedies had extended actions, but their structure was formless. Form was needed, hence the inculcation of the unities. At the same time form must harmonize with content, and the truth is that Corneille, despite the vigour and beauty of his work, failed to secure such harmony. In plays of romantic structure it may be proper to have variety of incident; in plays of classical restraint the subjectmatter, and the passions, must be so conceived as to accord with the conventions employed. The Academy, rightly, recognized that what Corneille aimed at was a type of drama which could not provide the age with what it needed. Some of its members may have been animated by personal jealousies, some may have been too academic to recognize true genius when it appeared; but basically the general criticism of the Sentimens, in the light of what was then demanded of the theatre, must be deemed fully justified. The path indicated by Corneille could have led to nothing but chaos; the way of the Sentimens leads towards the work of Racine.

That Corneille himself took the lesson to heart is indicated in his later dramas. In Horace (1640) he selects a classical subject and attempts to deal with it more simply than he had treated the content of Le Cid. Basically this tragedy deals with conflicting loyalties. Rome is at war, and against the background of the conflict the dramatist sets Horace, the patriot of untroubled mind; Sabine, his wife, and a native of the enemy country; Camille, his sister, in love with a soldier, Curiace, also of that country. Each character, clearly etched, is presented without any inner conflict. Horace is so assured of the Tightness of his views that he slays his sister when he finds her cursing her own country; for Camille nothing matters save love of Curiace. There is a noble grandeur about the entire conception; and with subtle sensitivity Corneille has been able to hammer out lines of almost Roman brevity, pith, and grandeur: "Qui veut mourir ou vaincre est vaincu rarement"; "Et qui veut bien mourir peut braver les malheurs"; "Mais Rome ignore encor comme on perd des batailles"—these and other epigrammatic lines linger in the memory.

Yet Horace, even although its author has taken the Sentimens to heart, still fails to point in the true direction. Its very boldness is too strong for the temper of the age, and its lack of inner conflict causes it to miss an opportunity such as Racine knew later how to embrace.

In Cinna, ou la clémence d'Auguste (Cinna; or, The Clemency of Augustus,c. 1641) Corneille turned once more to a tragedy with a happy ending, but, as in Horace, simplified the contents of the work. Auguste is the all-powerful Emperor, and among his closest protégés are Emilie, burning with a desire to avenge her father's death; Cinna, induced to join in a conspiracy against Auguste because of his love for Emilie; and Maxime, another member of the conspiracy and also secretly in love with the heroine. With admirable conciseness and economy of means Corneille reveals these characters in their relations with the Emperor, and rises to a magnificent conclusion in Auguste's decision to pardon the offenders. Peculiarly effective is the monarch's soliloquy in the fourth act, which might be regarded as the classical equivalent of the romantic soliloquy put into the mouth of Henry V by Shakespeare:

O Heaven, to whom is it your will that I
Entrust my life, the secrets of my soul?
Take back the power with which you have endowed me,
If it but steals my friends to give me subjects,
If regal splendours must be fated ever,
Even by the greatest favours they can grant,
To foster only hate, if your stern law
Condemns a king to cherish only those
Who burn to have his blood. Nothing is certain.
Omnipotence is bought with ceaseless fear….

Polyeucte (c. 1642) carries us into a different world, for here Corneille moved from pagan character to Christian. Polyeucte is a descendant of Armenian princes who has accepted the material power of Rome and is married to the daughter of the Governor, Pauline. A quality of mystical faith enters in here, for the author is intent upon showing how this man, becoming dedicate to a higher law, is forced to a way of life different from that of his companions. The contrast is well revealed in his relations with Pauline. This Roman lady has married him only at her father's command; in reality her heart has been given to a fellow-Roman, Sévère. Faithful to her husband, the other love cannot be stilled, but when, towards the close of the tragedy, she finds Polyeucte, recognizing her passion, offering her happiness with Sévère when he himself is dead, while Sévère tacitly accepts the proposal, a sudden new light floods in upon her. She becomes a Christian in order that, even in death, she may be with the heroic soul whose virtues have thus been revealed to her.

The qualities displayed in these dramas are reproduced in the succeeding tragedies of Corneille—Pompée (1642), Rodogune, Princesse des Parthes (printed 1646), Héraclius (1646), and Nicomède (1650-51), as well as the later works, Œdipe (1659), Sertorius (1662), and Sophonisbe (1663)—but the times were rapidly leaving him as a monument of the past. His Stalwart figure, strayed out of the Renaissance, stood somewhat awkwardly among the polite and delicate gallantries of the age. His characters were rough-hewn, bold in their proportions, massive; what the ladies and gentlemen of the Paris Court desired was something subtler and more polished. These audiences had the power to be aroused by "greatness of soul," as Charles Saint-Évremond expressed it, but even more they sought "tender admiration." There is a rugged masculinity about Corneille; more appropriate to the age were Racine's sensitive heroines.

P. J. Yarrow (essay date 1963)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 reader who expects it to be 'Machiavellian'. 'Cartesianism' is only a part of Descartes, as 'marivaudage' is only a part of Marivaux. In the same way, the adjective 'Cornelian' has acquired implications, based on an over-simple, if not erroneous, interpretation of Corneille, which make it difficult to approach his plays with an open mind.

Corneille is often regarded as lacking in humanity, as the creator of a false psychology. Corneille, said La Bruyère in a famous phrase, 'peint les hommes comme ils devraient ètre.' 'Corneille est presque toujours hors de la nature,' wrote Voltaire. 'L' observation de la nature ne l'occupait point,' asserted Guizot. In more recent times, we find Faguet saying that 'rien ne ressemble moins à la vie que le théâtre de Corneille,' and Barrère that 'il a aimé l'humanité inhumaine'. His characters, it is said, are over-simplified, and get less and less convincing as time goes on:

Drama of this kind must, it is clear, lack many of the qualities which are usually associated with the dramatic art; there is no room in it for variety of characterdrawing, for delicacy of feeling, or for the realistic presentation of the experiences of life. Corneille hardly attempted to produce such effects as these; and during his early years his great gifts of passion and rhetoric easily made up for the deficiency. As he grew older, however, his inspiration weakened; his command of his material left him; and he was no longer able to fill the figures of his creation with the old intellectual sublimity. His heroes and his heroines became mere mouthing puppets, pouring out an endless stream of elaborate, high-flown sentiments, wrapped up in a complicated jargon of argumentative verse. His later plays are miserable failures. (Lytton Strachey)

Corneille, indeed, has even come to be regarded as a moralist, a creator of supermen. The Cornelian hero is often described as a being whose will is capable of executing whatever course he has selected by the exercise of his reason and whose passions are rational; a magnanimous being, following the path of duty whatever temptations beset him, and fond of abnegation for its own sake. His essential nature, it is said, is expressed in lines such as:

Je le ferais encor, si j'avais à le faire.
(Le Cid, III, 4; Polyeucte, V, 3)

Je suis maître de moi comme de l'univers….
(Cinna, V, 3)

Voilà quelle je suis, et quelle je veux être.

The Cornelian hero has been seen as the dramatic equivalent of the généreux of Descartes, and Corneille has been described as 'le poète de la volonté,' 'professeur d'énergie nationale'. These views have been challenged by some recent writers, such as Bénichou and Nadal, for whom the Cornelian hero is motivated, not by virtue and reason, but by the passion for gioire, which makes him ambitious of heroism, magnanimity, or rank. Even this, however, does not clear Corneille of the imputation of lacking humanity; and, in any case, the older view is still current—even such a great Cornelian scholar as M. Couton talks of 'l'idèe cornélienne de l'homme, éclairé par la raison, doué d'une volonté capable de dompter les passions.'

Now, Corneille began by writing comedies which, besides their comic elements, were distinguished by their use of baroque themes and characteristics and by realism of various kinds. Neither the baroque characteristics nor the comic elements disappeared from Corneille's work when he turned from tragedy to comedy, so that it would seem unlikely, on the face of it, that he abandoned his psychological realism and became a creator of supermen. Indeed, the presence of a comic element in his tragedies seems almost to be a guarantee of their realism. Certainly, in his theoretical writings, Corneille shows that he was no less concerned with realism in tragedy than in comedy:

Le poème dramatique est une imitation, ou pour en mieux parler, un portrait des actions des hommes; et il est hors de doute que les portraits sont d'autant plus excellents, qu'ils ressemblent mieux à l'originai. (Troisième Discours)

The same preoccupation with realism is evident in his views about the characters of tragedy:

Le poète doit considérer l'àge, la dignité, la naissance, l'emploi et le pays de ceux qu'il introduit: il faut qu'il sache ce qu'on doit à sa patrie, à ses parents, à ses amis, à son roi; quel est l'office d'un magistrat, ou d'un generai d'armée, afin qu'il puisse y conformer ceux qu'il veut faire aimer aux spectateurs, et en éloigner ceux qu'il leur veut faire haïr; car c'est une maxime infaillible que, pour bien réussir, il faut intéresser l'auditoire pour les premiers acteurs. (Premier Discours)

He is no less concerned with the vraisemblance of the action: even in his first tragedy, Médée, he attempts to make the events more probable than they are in his original. As for style, he insists that it should be as natural as is compatible with writing in verse:

Il y a cette différence pour ce regard entre le poète dramatique et l'orateur, que celui-ci peut étaler son art, et le rendre remarquable avec pleine liberté, et que l'autre doit le cacher avec soin, parce que ce n'est jamais lui qui parle, et que ceux qu'il fait parler ne sont pas des orateurs [ … ] le langage doit ètre net, les figures placées à propos et diversifiées, et la versification aisée et élevée au-dessus de la prose, mais non pas jusqu'à l'enflure du poème épique, puisque ceux que le poète fait parler ne sont pas des poètes. (Premier Discours)

His dislike of asides, his reluctance to let a monologue be overheard by another character, his aversion from moral discourses and maxims of a general nature, his insistence that narrations must be introduced realistically or not at all, his blend of comedy and tragedy, and his invention of the comédie héroîque are all evidence of the same tendency. It is clear that Corneille's conception of tragedy by no means excludes realism.

The Cornelian superman is certainly not to be found in the four most commonly read plays, Le Cid,Horace, Cinna and Polyeucte.

In Le Cid, what is exceptional is the situation, not the characters. Rodrigue obeys the claims of family honour and kills the Count, who has insulted his father; but he makes the point clearly that this is the only course open to him, since, whatever he does, he is bound to lose Chimène:

Allons, mon bras, sauvons du moins l'honneur,
Puisqu'après tout il faut perdre Chimène.
(I,6)

Once he has fought and killed the Count, there is no going back. The initiative passes to Chimène—and, in fact, in Chimène, as Corneille's critics pointed out in the Querelle du Cid, love is stronger than duty.

She easily strays from the course of action she thinks she ought to follow; her protestations of firmness cover up a fundamental indecision and weakness. After every effort

to do what she thinks she ought, she makes, in reaction, increasingly greater concessions to her love, until the final concession of all, the acceptance of the marriage, is only the logical conclusion of the series.

She demands vengeance (II, 8). Subsequently, however, she refuses Don Sanche's offer of summary justice (III, 2), admits that she loves Rodrigue and is pursuing him unwillingly (III, 3), and, in an interview with her lover, not merely refuses to kill him, but confesses that she still loves him—

Va, je ne te hais point.—Tu le dois.—Je ne puis.

—and that she does not want vengeance:

Je ferai mon possible à bien venger mon père;
Mais malgré la rigueur d'un si cruel devoir,
Mon unique souhait est de ne rien pouvoir.
(III, 4)

When she hears of his exploits against the Moors, she immediately asks:

Mais n'est-il point blessé?
(IV, 1)

She then screws her courage up to the sticking-point once more and goes to the King to demand vengeance again; but, believing Rodrigue to be dead, she reveals her true feelings by fainting in the King's presence (IV, 5). The duel between Rodrigue and Don Sanche, Chimène's champion, is arranged, and the King tells her that she must marry the victor; all she can say in protest is:

Quoi! Sire, m'imposer une si dure loi!
(IV, 5)

Indeed, as Léonor points out, Chimène has chosen a weak champion:

Chimène aisément montre par sa conduite
Que la haine aujourd'hui ne fait pas sa poursuite.
Elle obtient un combat, et pour son combattant
C'est le premier offert qu'elle accepte à l'instant:
Elle n'a point recours à ces mains généreuses
Que tant d'exploits fameux rendent si glorieuses;
Don Sanche lui suffit….
(V, 3)

From this moment on, her resistance grows weaker. In Act V, scene I, she urges Rodrigue to fight and win her:

Sors vainqueur d'un combat dont Chimène est le prix.
Adieu: ce mot lâché me fait rougir de honte.

Later, she does, it is true, say to Elvire:

Quand il sera vainqueur, crois-tu que je me rende?
…..
Mon honneur lui fera mille autre ennemis.
(V, 4)

But this is merely a momentary reaction: the King has already forbidden her to 'faire mille autre ennemis;' so that we cannot take the remark very seriously. Moreover, a few lines later, Elvire having suggested that perhaps Don Sanche might win and become her husband, she bursts out:

Elvire, c'est assez des peines que j'endure,
Ne les redouble point de ce funeste augure.
Je veux, si je le puis, les éviter tous deux;
Sinon, en ce combat Rodrigue a tous mes vœux.
(V, 4)

Mistakenly believing Don Sanche to be the victor, she publicly admits her love for Rodrigue (V, 6), and in the final scene she agrees to marry him:

Rodrigue a des vertus que je ne puis haïr;
Et quand un roi commande, on lui doit obéir.
(V, 7)

The Infante resembles Chimène: indeed, one of the functions of her rôle may well be to set another example of feminine sub-servience to passion by the side of Chimène and so lend credibility to the portrayal. Like Chimène, she is unable to master her love for Rodrigue:

A combien de soupirs
Faut-il que mon cœur se prépare,
Si jamais il n'obtient sur un si long tourment
Ni d'éteindre l'amour, ni d'accepter l'amanti
(V, 2)

She hopes until the last that the marriage of Rodrigue and Chimène will not take place: there is even a suggestion that she would not hesitate to use foul means to prevent it:

Si Rodrigue combat sous ces conditions,
Pour en rompre l'effet, j'ai trop d'inventions.
L'amour, ce doux auteur de mes cruels supplices,
Aux esprits des amants apprend trop d'artifices.
(V, 3)

In Horace, there is only one possible 'Cornelian hero', Horace. Curiace does his duty with reluctance; Sabine and Camille try to deter their menfolk from fighting; and Camille is all love:

Je le vois bien, ma sœur, vous n'aimâtes jamais;
Vous ne connaissez point ni l'amour ni ses traits:
On peut lui résister quand il commence à naître,
Mais non pas le bannir quand il s'est rendu maître….
…..
Et quand I'âme une fois a goùté son amorce,
Vouloir ne plus aimer, c'est ce qu'elle ne peut,
Puisqu'elle ne peut plus vouloir que ce qu'il veut….
(III, 4)

She is, as Sarcey says, neither reasonable nor strong-willed, but 'une personne toute de premier mouvement, incapable de se maîtriser elle-même, l'esclave de ses nerfs toujours agités'. Horace alone masters his feelings and puts his duty to his country before his personal affections. But is he a 'Cornelian hero'?

There is certainly no question of reason and will getting the better of passion: the most that one can say is that one passion gets the better of another—for Horace, in contrast to Curiace, cares very much more about his gioire than his duty. Moreover, it is very doubtful whether Horace is an ideal character. The play is clearly a study of a Roman patriot, but it is by no means certain that Corneille shares his point of view. A man who, after seeing both his brothers killed, can remark:

Quand la perte est vengée, on n'a plus rien perdu.
(IV, 5)

—who, having killed his wife's brothers, can greet her with the words:

Sèche tes pleure, Sabine, ou les cache à ma vue….
…..

Participe à ma gioire au lieu de la souiller.
(IV, 7)

—who, having just killed his sister's lover, can adjure her:

Songe à mes trophées:
Qu'ils soient dorénavant ton unique entretien.
(IV, 5)

and who kills her because she cannot control her anguish, seems, on the face of it, to be too lacking in humanity, too self-centred, to be an ideal character. Of course, we may like to think that Comeille admired him, even if we do not; but it is striking that, in taking the law into his own hands in this way, in avenging a personal insult by violence, he places himself on a level with the Count in Le Cid, and that no one in the play condones his action: Tulle in his closing speech condemns it explicitly. Curiace calls Horace 'barbare',—

Mais votre fermeté tient un peu du barbare….
(II, 3)

—and reproaches him with his inhumanity:

J'ai le cœur aussi bon, mais enfin je suis homme.
(II, 3)

Camille also calls him 'barbare' (IV, 5), and Corneille seems to share her attitude, for, in the Examen, he refers to the 'vertu farouche' of his hero and calls him 'criminel'. Moreover, the tragedy opens with a statement that human weakness and emotion are right and proper, which seems to strike the keynote of the play:

Approuvez ma faiblesse, et souffrez ma douleur;
Elle n'est que trop juste en un si grand malheur:
Si près de voir sur soi fondre de tels orages,
L'ébranlement sied bien aux plus fermes courages;
Et l'esprit le plus male et le moins abattu
Ne saurait sans désordre exercer sa vertu.
(I, 1)

The exponents of this point of view dominate the middle of the play. It is not easy to see Horace as the expression of Corneille's ideal.

It is no easier to find a 'Cornelian hero' in Cinna. In Emilie, as in the women of the two previous plays, love is the strongest passion:

J'aime encor plus Cinna que je ne hais Auguste,
Et je sens refroidir ce bouillant mouvement
Quand il faut, pour le suivre, exposer mon amant.
(I, 1)

In the following scene, she says:

Mon esprit en désordre à soi-même s'oppose:
Je veux et ne veux pas, je m'emporte et je n'ose;
Et mon devoir confus, languissant, étonné,
Cède aux rébellions de mon cœur mutiné….
(I, 2)

The truth of her words is borne out subsequently. In Act I, scene 4, when Auguste sends for Cinna, she is filled with unreasoning apprehension: there is no real likelihood that the plot has been discovered, and even Cinna calls her alarm a 'terreur panique'. She urges him to flee, and only changes her mind when she reflects that flight would be useless.

Cinna is a most interesting character study, but a most unheroic hero. He is a hypocrite and a liar, who makes eloquent speeches to his fellow-conspirators, urging them to kill Auguste and restore the glories of Republican Rome—

Avec la liberté Rome s'en va renaître….
(I, 3)

—and who says precisely the opposite to dissuade Auguste from abdicating—

la liberté ne peut plus èrre utile
Qu'à former les fureurs d'une guerre civile….
(II, 1)

In neither case is he concerned in the least about the interests of Rome. He is full of illusions, about himself and his allies. The enthusiastic account he gives of his fellow-conspirators in Act I, scene 3—the falsity of which is surely revealed by the absurd

par un effet contraire,
Leur front pâlir d'horreur et rougir de colère

—is in marked contrast to that of Auguste in Act V, scene 1:

Le reste ne vaut pas l'honneur d'être nommé:
Un tas d'hommes perdus de dettes et de crimes,
Que pressent de mes lois les ordres légitimes,
Et qui désespérant de les plus éviter,
Si tout est renversé, ne sauraient subsister.

As for himself, he tells Emilie that, if he is betrayed:

Ma vertu pour le moins ne me trahira pas:
Vous la verrez, brillante au bord des précipices,
Se couronner de gioire en bravant les supplices,
Rendre Auguste jaloux du sang qu'il répandra,
Et le faire trembler alors qu'il me perdra.
(I, 4)

—a prophecy which his later conduct does not justify. When Auguste, having learned of the plot against his life, accuses Cinna of being involved in it, Cinna immediately denies it:

Moi, Seigneur! moi, que j'eusse une âme si traîtresse;
Qu'un si lâche dessein….
(V, 1)

Above all, Cinna is exclusively motivated by self-interest, and 'ne forme qu'en lâche un dessein généreux'. To kill Auguste is the only way to marry Emilie, and so Auguste must be killed—must not even be allowed to abdicate, because, if Auguste abdicates, though the freedom of Rome would be achieved, his marriage with Emilie would be impossible. But when Auguste promises him Emilie, he sees the possibility of getting Emilie without murdering Auguste and feels remorse as the result of Auguste's trust in him and generosity towards him. As the moment for action approaches, his purpose weakens and his hostility to Auguste diminishes. By Act III, scene 2, he has forgotten Auguste's crimes; by scene 3, Auguste has become a 'prince magnanime'; and by scene 4, he considers that it is honourable to be enslaved by Auguste. He is assailed by doubts and misgivings—

On ne les sent aussi que quand le coup approche.
(III, 2)

He is irresolute. When Emilie justly denounces him for succumbing to Auguste's promises—

Je vois ton repentir et tes vœux inconstants:
Les faveurs du tyran emportent tes promesses;
Tes vœux et tes serments cèdent à ses caresses;
Et ton esprit crédule ose s'imaginer
Qu'Auguste, pouvant tout, peut aussi me donner.
Tu me veux de sa main plutôt que de la mienne….
(III, 4)

—he replies:

J'obéis sans réserve à tous vos sentiments.

But by the end of the scene, finding that Emilie is intransigent and still expects him to fulfil his promises, he rails at her resentfully:

Eh bien! vous le voulez, il faut vous satisfaire
…..
Mais apprenez qu'Auguste est moins tyran que vous,
S'il nous ôte à son gré nos biens, nos jours, nos femmes,
Il n'a point jusqu'ici tyrannisé nos âmes …

Fortinbras says of Hamlet that

he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally.

Cinna, being put on, proves rather shabbily, and justifies Auguste's low opinion of him:

Ta fortune est bien haut, tu peux ce que tu veux;
Mais tu ferais pitié même à ceux qu'elle irrite,
Si je t'abandonnais à ton peu de mérite.
Ose me démentir, dis-moi ce que tu vaux,
Conte-moi tes vertus, tes glorieux travaux,
Les rares qualités par où tu m'as dû plaire,
Et tout ce qui t'élève au-dessus du vulgaire.
Ma faveur fait ta gloire, et ton pouvoir en vient….
(V, 1)

Auguste, like Cinna, is a most interesting study, but scarcely heroic. He has fulfilled his ambition by becoming Emperor, but found no satisfaction; he is tired of conspiracies and rebellions, of oppression and bloodshed, and thinks seriously of abdicating. The discovery of Cinna's plot brings his dissatisfaction to a head. He is inclined to punish Cinna and kill himself. His wife suggests that he might try a new policy, that of clemency; but he rejects her advice. The successive revelations of the complicity of Emilie and the treachery of Maxime strip him of his last illusions. In his complete disillusionment, his course at last becomes clear, and he forgives them all:

Je suis maître de moi comme de l'univers.
(V, 3)

But if that is true, it is true for the first time in the play.

Why does Auguste choose to be merciful? The failure of his policy and the need to try another course is the obvious reason; but Corneille seems to mean us to believe that inspiration from above was the deciding factor. After rejecting his wife's advice, he says:

Le ciel m'inspirera ce qu'ici je dois faire.
(IV, 3)

Moreover, Emilie, learning that Cinna has been sent for, feels none of the alarm she had felt earlier (I, 3): something assures her that all will be well:

Mon cœur est sans soupirs, mes yeux n'ont point de larmes,
Comme si j'apprenais d'un secret mouvement
Que tout doit succéder à mon contentement!
(IV, 4)

It is to the gods that she attributes the cessation of her hatred for Auguste (V, 3). Disillusionment and divine inspiration: we are far from reason and will.

Pauline, in Polyeucte, is of the same lineage as Chimène, the Infante, Camille and Emilie. In her, too, emotion is stronger than reason. We first see her unreasonably worried by a dream, not only one with apparently no possibility of fulfilment, but one which is itself unreasonable, since Sévère is the last man in the world to appear,

La vengeance à la main, l'œil ardent de colère….
(I, 3)

Polyeucte talks of 'Pauline, sans raison dans la douleur plongée,' and adds that, to keep him at home,

Elle oppose ses pleurs au dessein que je fais,
(I, 1)

a feminine, rather than a rational, line of argument. So far from being a purely rational being, she has a certain amount of amour-propre and possessiveness. Though she does not love Polyeucte—at the beginning of the play, at least—his love for her flatters her amour-propre, and her amour-propre is wounded if she thinks he no longer loves her. She is unhappy because Polyeucte leaves her and will not tell her his secret, and attributes the change in him to the effects of marriage (I, 2-3); and later she complains:

Je te suis odieuse après m'être donnée!
…..
Tu préfères la mort à l'amour de Pauline!
Va, cruel, va mourir: tu ne m'aimas jamais.
(IV, 3)

When she prevails on Sévère to do his best to save Polyeucte, even that 'parfait amant' remarks:

vos douleurs avec trop de rigueur
D'un amant tout à vous tyrannisent le cœur.
(IV, 6)

Her feminine, emotional nature betrays itself particularly in Act IV, scene 3, and in Act V, scene 3. Pauline feels a real affection for her husband; she has been filled with forebodings and fears on his account all day; she already thinks that marriage may have put an end to his love. In short, she is in a more or less hysterical state. And now, to crown everything, her husband not merely persists in his mistaken beliefs, but refuses to do anything to save himself. She at last control of herself and gives vent to her feelings:

Cruel, car il est temps que ma douleur éclate….
(IV, 3)

In Act V, scene 3, she is stung—irrationally—by Polyeucte's bringing up her own words against her. Earlier, Pauline had told him, referring to her love for Sévère:

Depuis qu'un vrai mérite a pu nous enflammer,
Sa présence toujours a droit de nous charmer.
(II, 4)

Now, trying to persuade her to marry Sévère after his death, Polyeucte reminds her:

Puisqu'un si grand mérite a pu vous enflammer,
Sa présence toujours a droit de vous charmer.

And this taunt causes her to burst out:

Que t'ai-je fait, cruel, pour être ainsi traitée….

She reminds him that she did violence to her feelings and over-came her love for Sévère in order to marry him, and suggests that it is time he made a sacrifice in his turn for her sake. To be wounded by being reminded of one's own words is intensely human, but not rational. The conversion of Pauline is entirely in keeping with her emotional nature.

One or two passages are sometimes quoted in support of the view that Pauline is rational:

Ces surprises des sens que la raison surmonte….
(I, 3)
jamais ma raison
N'avoua de mes yeux l'aimable trahison.
(I, 3)
Et sur mes passions ma raison souveraine
Eût blâmé mes soupirs et dissipé ma haine.
(II, 2)

The first two of these passages occur in Act I, scene 3, in which Pauline talks all the more complacently about her reason because she thinks that her love of Sévère, which is dormant, is dead; and she changes her tune considerably in the very next scene. The third quotation is particularly interesting. Pauline, at the beginning of her interview with Sévère—that interview which she has dreaded so much—tries to make it clear that she no longer loves him, that she loves her husband:

Oui, je l'aime, Seigneur, et n'en fais point d'excuse.

She adds that, whatever husband her father had chosen, and even if Sévère had been never so suitable a match,

J'en aurais soupiré, mais j'aurais obéi,
Et sur mes passions ma raison souveraine
Eût blâmé mes soupirs et dissipé ma haine.

This, she says, is what would have happened; she is not necessarily to be believed—any more than Cinna's opinion of what would happen if the conspiracy were betrayed is confirmed by the event. In fact, a touch of ironical reproach from Sévère melts her; she discards this attitude of cold disdain, and tells Sévère just how little power reason had over her, how much she has suffered and still suffers:

si mon âme
Pouvait bien étouffer les restes de sa fiamme,
Dieux, que j'éviterais de rigoureux tourments!
Ma raison, il est vrai, dompte mes sentiments;
Mais quelque autorité que sur eux elle ait prise,
Elle n'y règne pas, elle les tyrannise;
Et quoique le dehors soit sans émotion,
Le dedans n'est que trouble et que sédition.

Of Sévère, it is perhaps enough to quote a recent critic's opinion of him as 'weak and ineffectual'. As for Polyeucte, he is more like the conventional conception of a Cornelian hero, in so far as he loses his life rather than betray his faith, despite the entreaties of his wife. But there are some reservations to be made. Polyeucte is a saint and a martyr, i.e. one in whom, by definition, worldly affections and considerations of personal safety come second to his religion. Any martyr would resemble Polyeucte; there is nothing peculiar to Corneille in such a portrait. Moreover, his actions are the result of grace rather than of his own free will. Indeed, he wants to postpone his baptism, and it is only after he has been baptized that he is filled with fervour and zeal, with the desire to testify publicly to his new religion. Further, Polyeucte is certainly not rational, any more than Horace. The most one can say is that he is torn between two passions, love for his wife and religious zeal, and that the latter triumphs over the former.

The first play in which characters who might be called 'Cornelian' appear is Pompée, where the magnanimity of Cléopâtre, Cornélie and César leads them to behave in unexpected ways. Cléopâtre, who loves César, urges her brother Ptolomée to fight for Pompée; César allows Cornélie, Pompée's widow to go free, even though she is resolved to overthrow him; and Cornélie, whose chief desire is to avenge her husband's death, nevertheless gives César warning of a plot against his life.

'Cornelian' characters do in fact occur in Corneille, but chiefly in the plays from Pompée to Pertharite or Oedipe. In Héraclius, Martian and Héraclius vie in magnanimity, and the strong-minded Pulchérie, on learning that her lover is really her brother, is undismayed:

Ce grand coup m'a surprise et ne m'a point troublée;
Mon âme l'a reçu sans en être accablée;
Et comme tous mes feux n'avaient rien que de saint,
L'honneur les alluma, le devoir les éteint.
(III, 1)

Pulchérie certainly verges on the inhuman: she is less concerned with her brother's fate than that he should not demean himself:

Moi, pleurer! moi, gémir, tyran! J'aurais pleuré
Si quelques lâchetés l'avaient déshonoré,
S'il n'eût pas emporté sa gloire toute entière,
Si quelque infâme espoir qu'on lui dût pardonner
Eût mérité la mort que tu lui vas donner.
(III, 2)

She refuses to marry the son of the tyrant Phocas, because, if she did, filial duty would prevent her from hating him:

Mais durant ces moments unie à sa famille,
Il deviendra mon père, et je serai sa fille:
Je lui devrai respect, amour, fidélité;
Ma haine n'aura plus d'impétuosité;
Et tous mes vœux pour vous seront mols et timides,
Quand mes vœux contre lui seront des parricides.
(III, 1)

In subsequent plays, Don Sanche, Nicomède and Laodice, Grimoald and Rodelinde, Dircé, Thésée and Oedipe show no sign of weakness. Rodelinde (in Pertharite) carries self-abnegation to the point of agreeing to marry Grimoald only if he puts her son to death. Dircé is prepared to die to save Thebes:

Je meurs l'esprit content, l'honneur m'en fait la loi….
(III, 1)

Her father's blood, she says,

ne peut trouver qu'on soit digne du jour,
Quand aux soins de sa gloire on préfère l'amour.
(III, 2)

As for Oedipe, after the discovery that he has killed his father and married his mother, he says:

Ce revers serait dur pour quelque âme commune;
Mais je me fis toujours maître de ma fortune.
(V, 2)

And we are told:

Parmi de tels malheurs que sa Constance est rare!
Il ne s'emporte point contre un sort si barbare;
La surprenante horreur de cet accablement
Ne coûte à sa grande âme aucun égarement;
Et sa haute vertu, toujours inébranlable,
Le soutient au-dessus de tout ce qui l'accable.
(V, 7)

Even in this middle period, however, Rodogune, Théodore, and Andromède are exceptions. In Rodogune, the ambitious, crafty, and unscrupulous Cléopâtre, comparable with Lady Macbeth, might as well be called 'Shakespearean' as 'Cornelian'; and her two sons—a delicate portrayal of brotherly affection—alike, yet admirably differentiated, are certainly not 'Cornelian'. They are unanimous in putting love before ambition, in preferring Rodogune to the throne and their own unity to either. In Théodore, apart from the generosity with which Placide decides to succour his rival, Didyme, who has rescued Théodore from ignominy, and the contest between Didyme and Théodore in Act V, each demanding to be martyred in place of the other, there is little that is 'Cornelian'. The same is true of Andromède, in which the heroine fears death:

que la grandeur de courage
Devient d'un difficile usage
Lorsqu'on touche au dernier moment!
…..
Je pâme au moindre vent, je meurs au moindre

bruit….
(III, 1)

Moreover, there are reservations to be made even about the other plays. Laodice and Nicomède show no sign of weakness; but equally there is no sign either of any conflict between love and duty; at no time have they to choose between each other and their gloire. Grimoald, similarly, is virtuous and generous, but again there is no question of any conflict.

Despite a common misconception, the plays of the last period contain few 'Cornelian' heroes and heroines, though there are one or two, or at least one or two who show some 'Cornelian' traits—such as Pompée, who, in Sertorius, destroys the letter containing the names of the Romans in correspondence with his enemy (a historical detail), or Viriate in the same play:

Je sais ce que je suis, et le serai toujours,
N'eussé-je que le ciel et moi pour mon secours.
(V, 3)

In fact, in this last period, the internal conflict, which had been relatively rare in the middle period, becomes common again and is resolved with more and more difficulty, and more and more frequently by the triumph of passion over duty.

All, then, is not false in the conventional conception of the Cornelian hero. Such characters are found in Corneille—magnanimous, strong-minded creatures, who put their duty or their gloire before their personal inclinations. But such characters are not found by any means in all the plays: they are found chiefly, almost exclusively, in the plays of the middle period. Moreover, even they do not entirely coincide with the conventional image of Corneille's heroes. There is in them all a strong element of emotion or passion—they are usually motivated, not by reason or duty, but by the passion for gloire, the desire for vengeance (Pulchérie in Héraclius), ambition, amour-propre, or the dislike of being subservient to another, of being second (Nicomède and Attale, Dircé who resents Oedipe's having usurped her throne and wants another, Sertorius, Pompée, Viriate, etc.). Nor is it true to describe these characters as 'les hommes comme ils devraient être'. Not only are they often far from ideal, but they are either men and women like the contemporaries of Corneille, or—if they outdo the men and women of Corneille's day—they show the influence of Corneille's conception of the character of Romans and Kings. For Corneille, like his contemporaries, regarded magnanimity as a Roman trait, and considered that Kings and Queens, more than their subjects, are obliged to master their inclinations.

Corneille's views on the obligations of persons of royal blood are constantly expressed from Pompée onwards:

Plus la haute naissance approche des couronnes,
Plus cette grandeur même asservit nos personnes;
Nous n'avons point de cœur pouraimer ni haï:
Toutes nos passions ne savent qu'obéir.
(Rodogune, III, 3)

Je sais ce que je suis, et ce que je me dois.
(Doña Elvire in Don Sanche, I, 1)

Madame, je suis reine, et dois régner sur moi.
(Doña Isabelle in Don Sanche, I, 2)

Comptable de moi-mâme au nom de souveraine,
Et sujette à jamais du trône où je me voi,
Je puis tout pour tout autre et ne puis rien pour moi.

…..
… Tu verras avec combien d'adresse
Ma gloire de mon âme est toujours maîtresse.
(Doña Isabelle in Don Sanche, II, 1)

Et si je n'étais pas, Seigneur, ce que je suis,
J'en prendrais quelque droit de finir mes ennuis;
Mais l'esclavage fier d'une haute naissance,
Où toute autre peut tout, me tient dans l'impuissance;
Et victime d'Etat, je dois sans reculer
Attendre aveuglément qu'on me daigne immoler.
(Ildione in Aitila, II, 6)

This is not to say that all these characters fulfil their obligations easily. Many, in fact, do not act in accordance with their principles, and there are plenty of undutiful princesses and weak or unvirtuous Kings in Corneille—Ptolomée, Prusias, and Eurydice and Orode (in Suréna), in whom mistrust and raison d'état overcome gratitude.

The identification of Corneille's heroes with the généreux of Descartes is not easy. The généreux controls his passions by means of the will using reason as its instrument; he is detached, aiming only at what it is in his power to achieve without the aid of external circumstances—such things as virtue, freedom, detachment. He is humble and esteems himself for nothing but self-mastery and will-power; he is not interested in gloire or ambition….

The characters of Corneille are not usually subject to fear, but that is about the only respect in which they resemble the généreux. They are passionate, ambitious, egoistical, proud, amorous, subject to hatred, anger and jealousy; they are irrational, though they are good reasoners; above all, they are far from the philosophical detachment of the généreux.

They differ from the Cartesian character in another way: they are not usually rational in their love affairs. The conception of love as rational, as based on some positive quality (though it may only be good looks) in the loved one, is found in Descartes.

Lorsqu'on remarque quelque chose en une [person of the opposite sex] qui agrée davantage que ce qu'on remarque au mâme temps dans les autres, cela détermine l'âme à sentir pour celle-là seule toute l'inclination que la nature lui donne à rechercher le bien qu'elle lui représente comme le plus grand qu'on puisse posséder …

The idea that love is based on 'mérite' does occur in Corneille, too—though it is important to realize that 'mérite' often means personal attractions, not moral worth:

Voyez-la done, Seigneur, voyez tout son mérite….
(Sophonisbe, IV, 5)

This conception of love is first expressed in La Galerie du Palais:

Nous sommes hors du temps de cette vieille erreur
Qui faisait de l'amour une aveugle fureur,
Et l'ayant aveuglé, lui donnait pour conduite
Le mouvement d'une âme et surprise et séduite.
Ceux qui l'ont peint sans yeux ne le connaissaient pas;
C'est par les yeux qu'il entre et nous dit vos appas:
Lors notre esprit en juge; et suivant le mérite,
Il fait croître une ardeur que cette vue excite.
(III, 6)

But the speaker here is not sincere: he is paying court to a lady whom he does not love in order to arouse his mistress's jealousy. There are, however, examples in the tragedies of love based on rational grounds. Chimène and the Infante in Le Cid love Rodrigue because he is worthy of their love, and Pauline in Polyeucte fell in love with Sévère for his good qualities:

Je l'aimai, Stratonice: il le méritait bien….
(I, 3)

Carlos loves Doña Isabelle for her beauty:

Lorsque je vois en vous les célestes accords
Des graces de l'esprit et des beautés du corps,
Je puis, de tant d'attraits l'âme toute ravie,
Sur l'heur de votre époux jeter un œil d'envie….
(Don Sanche, II, 2)

Laodice loves Nicomède because he is worthy of her:

Vous devez le connaître; et puisqu'il a ma foi,
Vous devez présumer qu'il est digne de moi.
Je le désavouerais s'il n'était magnanime,
S'il manquait à remplir l'effort de mon estime,
S'il ne faisait paraître un cœur toujours égal.
(Nicomède, V, 9)

Viriate's love for Sertorius (if it can be called love) is rational:

Ce ne sont pas les sens que mon amour consulte:
Il hait des passions l'impétueux tumulte;
Et son feu, que j'attache aux soins de ma grandeur,
Dédaigne tout mélange avec leur folle ardeur.
J'aime en Sertorius ce grand art de la guerre
Qui soutient un banni contre toute la terre;
J'aime en lui ces cheveux tous couverts de lauriers,
Ce front qui fait trembler les plus braves guerriers,
Ce bras qui semble avoir la victoire en partage.
L'amour de la vertu n'a jamais d'yeux pour l'âge:
Le mérite a toujours des charmes éclatants;
Et quiconque peut tout est aimable en tout temps.
(Sertorius, II, 1)

But a different conception of love is much more common in Corneille—that of love as something quite irrational and instinctive. Isabelle, in L'Illusion comique, rejects the suitor favoured by her father on these grounds:

Je sais qu'il est parfait,
Et que je réponds mal à l'honneur qu'il me fait;
Mais si votre bonté me permet en ma cause,
Pour me justifier, de dire quelque chose,
Par un secret instinct, que je ne puis nommer,
J'en fais beaucoup d'état, et ne le puis aimer.
Souvent je ne sais quoi que le ciel nous inspire
Soulève tout le cœur contre ce qu'on désire,
Et ne nous laisse pas en état d'obéir,
Quand on choisit pour nous ce qu'il nous fait haïr.
Il attache ici-bas avec des sympathies
Les âmes que son ordre a là-haut assorties:
On n'en saurait unir sans ses avis secrets;
Et cette chaîne manque où manquent ses décrets.
Aller contre les lois de cette providence,
C'est le prendre à partie, et blâmer sa prudence,
L'attaquer en rebelle, et s'exposer aux coups
Des plus âpres malheurs qui suivent son courroux.
(III, 3)

Créuse, in Médée, rejects Ægée for similar reasons:

Souvent je ne sais quoi qu'on ne peut exprimer
Nous surprend, nous emporte, et nous force d'aimer;
Et souvent, sans raison, les objects de nos flammes
Frappent nos yeux ensemble et saisissent nos âmes.

…..

Je vous estimai plus, et l'aimai davantage.
(II, 5)

In this last line, Créuse makes a sharp distinction between love and esteem: one may love without esteem and esteem without love. Mélisse, in La Suite du Menteur, sees love as the result of a heaven-created sympathy; for her, love precedes esteem:

Quand les ordres du ciel nous ont faits lun pour l'autre,
Lyse, c'est un accord bientôt fait que le nòtre:
Sa main entre les cœaeurs, par un secret pouvoir,
Sème l'intelligence avant que de se voir;
Il prépare si bien l'amant et la maîtresse,
Que leur âme au seul nom s'émeut et s'intéresse.
On s'estime, on se cherche, on s'aime en un moment:
Tout ce qu'on s'entre-dit persuade aisément;
Et sans s'inquiéter d'aucunes peurs frivoles,
La foi semble courir au-devant des paroles:
La langue en peu de mots en explique beaucoup;
Les yeux, plus éloquents, font tout voir tout d'un coup;
Et de quoi qu'à l'envi tous les deux nous instruisent,
Le cœur en entend plus que tous les deux n'en disent.

Rodogune, like Créuse, separates love and esteem: of two young princes, twin brothers, she loves one and not the other:

Comme ils ont même sang avec pareil mérite,
Un avantage égal pour eux me sollicite;
Mais il est malaisé, dans cette égalité,
Qu'un esprit combattu ne penche d'un côté.
Il est des nœuds secrets, il est des sympathies
Dont par le doux rapport les àmâs assorties
S'attachent l'une à l'autre et se laissent piquer
Par ces je ne sais quoi qu'on ne peut expliquer.
C'est par là que l'un d'eux obtient la préférence:
Je crois voir l'autre encore avec indiffàrence;
Mais cette indifférence est une aversion
Lorsque je la compare avec ma passion.
Etrange effet d'amour! Incroyable chimère!
Je voudrais être à lui si je n'aimais son frère;
Et le plus grand des maux toutefois que je crains,
C'est que mon triste sort me livre entre ses mains.
(1, 5)

Placide complains of

la tyrannie ensemble et le caprice
Du démon aveuglé qui sans discrétion
Verse l'antipathie et l'inclination.
(Théodore, I, l)

Andromede, wondering why she should so suddenly transfer her affections from Phinée to her rescuer, Persée, is told that the gods are responsible: it is they who control our sympathies and antipathies (IV, 2). Lysander in Agésilas is another who sees love as irrational, an 'aveugle sympathie' independent of beauty and 'vrai mérite' (II, 2). So are Spitridate in the same play (V, 3) and Domitian in Tite et Bérénice (II, 2).

Persée in Andromède sees love as irrational in another way: though he has no hope of marrying Andromède, he cannot stop loving her; a lover cannot think of the future:

Vouloir que la raison règne sur un amant,
C'est être plus que lui dedans l'aveuglement.
Un cœur digne d'aimer court à l'objet aimable,
Sans penser au succès dont sa fiamme est capable;
Il s'abandonne entier, et n'examine rien;
Aimer est tout son but, aimer est tout son bien;
Il n'est ni difficulté ni péril qui l'étonne.
(1, 4)

Camille, in Othon, complains that love makes one believe what one wants to believe:

Hélas! que cet amour croit tòt ce qu'il souhaite!
En vain la raison parle, en vain elle inquiète,
En vain la défiance ose ce qu'elle peut,
Il veut croire, et ne croit que parce qu'il le veut.
Pour Plautine ou pour moi je vois du stratagème,
Et m'obstine avec joie à m'aveugler moi-même.
(III, 1)

Albin, in Tite et Bérénice, expatiates on the essential selfishness of love:

L'amour-propre est la source en nous de tous les autres:
C'en est le sentiment qui forme tous les nôtres;
Lui seul allume, éteint, ou change nos désirs:
Les objets de nos vœux le sont de nos plaisirs.
Vous-même, qui brûlez d'une ardeur si fidèle,
Aimez-vous Domitie, ou vos plaisirs en elle?
Et quand vous aspirez à des liens si doux,
Est-ce pour l'amour d'elle, ou pour l'amour de vous?
(I, 3)

This passage no doubt owes something to the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld, but the essential idea is contained already in L'lllusion comique:

Ne me reproche plus ta fuite ni ta fiamme:
Que ne fait point l'amour quand il possède une àme?
Son pouvoir à ma vue attachait tes plaisirs,
Et tu me suivais moins que tes propres désirs.
(V, 3)

Finally, in La Toison d'Or, written several years before Racine's Andromaque, there is a conception of love very close to that usually associated with Racine. Love in this play is an irrational, overriding passion, stronger than will or reason:

Je veux ne t'aimer plus, et n'en ai pas la force,
(II, 2)

says Médée. As in Racine, love changes easily into its opposite, hatred:

Tout violent qu'il est, l'amour l'a fait naître;
Il va jusqu'à la haine, et toutefois, hélas!
Je te haïrais peu, si je ne t'aimais pas.
(II, 2)

The action of the play is admirably summarized in a speech of Aæte, Médée's father, to her brother, Absyrte:

Ah! que tu connais mal jusqu'à quelle manie
D'un amour déréglé passe la tyrannie!
Il n'est rang, ni pays, ni père, ni pudeur,
Qu'épargne de ses feux l'impérieuse ardeur.
Jason plut à Médée, et peut encore lui plaire;
Peut-être es-tu toi-même ennemi de ton père
Et consens que ta sœur, par ce présent fatal,
S'assure d'un amant qui serait ton rival.
Tout mon sang révolté trahit mon espérance:
Je trouve ma ruine où fut mon assurance;
Le destin ne me perd que par l'ordre des miens,
Et mon trône est brisé par ses propres soutiens.
(V, 2)

If it seems rash to assert—as Lanson does, for example—that Corneille conceives of love as a rational preference based on merit, it is no less rash to say—as Lemaitre does—that Le Cid is the only play in which love gets the better of duty. In fact, it is remarkable how often in Corneille love triumphs over honour, ambition, duty, prudence, desire for revenge, and reason. This is already true of Alidor in La Place Royale. It is true, not only of Chimène and the Infante, of Camille and Emilie, of Médée in La Toison, but of most of the characters in the later plays.

Gioire is no more the mainspring of Corneille's characters than reason and will. In this respect, Corneille reflects the contradictory tendencies of his age—his characters often talk of gloire, but they mean very different things by it, they do not always live up to their ideal, and many are not animated by a desire for gloire at all.

There are characters who are concerned above all with gloire. Cléopâtre, in Pompée, says of princes:

Leur générosité soumet tout à leur gloire,
(II, 1)

—a remark which is certainly true of herself. For her, gloire consists of marrying César and becoming mistress of the world, but it must be achieved by honourable means; and, though she loves César, she wants her brother to treat Pompée magnanimously. César is a kindred spirit, though it is interesting to see that the point is twice made that for him gloire and self-interest point the same way. On having Pompée's head presented to him, we are told:

par un mouvement commun à la nature,
Quelque maligne joie en son cœur s'élevait,
Dont sa gloire indignée à peine le sauvait.
(III, 1)

And Cornélie points out that, in avenging Pompée, he is also serving his own interests—ensuring his own safety ('le Roi le veut perdre, et son rival est mort'), and defending Cléopâtre too. Laodice in Nicomède, similarly, knows no conflict between love and another passion. Gloire and love alike keep her faithful to Nicomède: Attale, his rival, is a subject, has not distinguished himself, and has been educated in Rome, so that to prefer him to Nicomède would be a 'frénésie'. The best example of a character for whom gloire is all-important is Horace, who puts before devoir, in contrast to Curiace, who is primarily concerned with devoir.

contre qui que ce soit que mon pays m'emploie,
J'accepte aveuglément cette gioire avec joie,

says Horace; whereas Curiace's attitude is different:

Encor qu'à mon devoir je coure sans terreur,
Mon cœur s'effarouche, et j'en frémis d'horreur….
(II, 3)

But Horace, as we have tried to show above, is in no sense an ideal character, and Sabine finds fault with him precisely because he is over-preoccupied with gloire to the exclusion of more human feelings:

Prenons part en public aux victoires publiques;
Pleurons dans la maison nos malheurs domestiques,
Et ne regardons point des biens communs à tous,
Quand nous voyons des maux qui ne sont que pour nous.
Pourquoi veux-tu, cruel, agir d'une autre sorte?
Laisse en entrant ici tes lauriers à la porte;
Mêle tes pleurs aux miens.
(IV, 7)

To these characters, there are few others to add—Don Alvar and Don Sanche in Don Sanche, and Rodelinde in Pertharite, are the chief.

It is easier to find examples of characters who act in the interests of their gloire, but only after a struggle—though often gloire is not the only motive. Rodrigue, in Le Cid, fights and kills the father of Chimène, but there is a struggle within him, and the conflict is resolved only by the realization that, whether he avenges his father or not, he is bound to lose Chimène. Emilie is similarly torn between duty and gloire, on the one hand, and love for Cinna on the other. With her, one might associate Sévère, in Polyeucte, in whom there is no particular struggle, but whose motives are mixed. In deciding to try to save Polyeucte, he says:

Et contentons ainsi, d'une seule action,
Et Pauline, et ma gloire, et ma compassion.

For him, gloire is being worthy of Pauline:

La gloire de montrer à cette âme si belle

Que Sévère l'égale, et qu'il est digne d'elle….
(IV, 6)

He is also motivated by honour—'l'honneur m'oblige'.

Doña Isabelle in Don Sanche belongs to this group. Though gloire forbids her to marry except for raison d'état, she is deeply in love with Carlos, and her love influences her behaviour. She is so much preoccupied with Carlos that she gives him the responsibility of choosing a husband for her, and that her other suitors, not unreasonably, complain at one point: 'Toujours Carlos.' Gloire does not win easily in Doña Isabelle. Dircé, in Oedipe, despite the entreaties of her lover, Thésée, and her own regrets, is determined to die in obedience to the oracle, both to save her people and to achieve gloire. One is unworthy to live, she says,

Quand aux soins de sa gloire on préfère l'amour.
(III, 2)

Nevertheless, she is regretful:

Mais j'aurais vécu plus contente,
Si j'avais pu vivre pour toi.
(III, 1)

Mandane, in Agésilas, though she loves someone else, is prepared reluctantly to marry Agésilas, partly because this is the means of saving her brother and herself, but partly out of gloire. Domitie, in Tite et Bérénice, is similarly torn between love for Domitian and the gloire of being Empress, as Pulchérie is between love for Léon and the gloire of making a responsible choice of a husband.

Other characters, after a struggle, do not follow their gloire. Chimène, for example, admits:

Mon unique souhait est de ne rien pouvoir.
(III, 4)

For Othon, gloire means that he must remain faithful to Plautine and Plautine to him; but circumstances are too strong, and he agrees to pay court to Camille, as Plautine consents to marry Martian. In Attila, Honorie says firmly that she will not marry Valamir, who is merely a puppet-king:

…rien ne m'est sensible à l'égal de ma gloire.
(II. 2)

But—like Doña Isabelle—she is jealous of the happiness of Ildione and Ardaric, and, what is more, she later offers the hand of Flavie to Octar if he will bring about her marriage with Valamir—a change of heart which Flavie points out. Tite is prepared to abdicate in order to marry Bérénice:

Ma gloire la plus haute est celle d'être à vous.
(III, 5)

In other words, love matters more to him than gloire. Cinna talks much gloire, but his conception of it changes in the course of the play. In Act I, scene 3, he identifies gloire with the success of his conspiracy; two acts later, he tells Emilie that, after killing Auguste, he means to kill himself:

Et par cette action dans l'autre confondue,
Recouvrera ma gloire aussitòt que perdue.
(III, 4)

The murder of Auguste, from being gloire, has come to be its antithesis. One might class Félix with Cinna. For him, in Act III, scene 5, gloire means not sacrificing Polyeucte, whom he is tempted to put to death out of self-interest. In Act V, scene 4, gloire means shedding Polyeucte's blood and emulating the ancient Roman heroes, Brutus or Manlius. In fact, however, gloire is not his main motive. His decision to execute Polyeucte is due to self-interest, fear of Sevère, determination to carry out his devoir (his orders, the obligations of his official position), and revulsion from Polyeucte's new religion:

sans l'horreur de ses derniers blasphèmes,
Qui m'ont rempli soudain de colère et d'effroi,
J'aurais eu de la peine à triompher de moi.(V, 4)

His self-domination results from wrath and fear: there is almost a burlesque contrast here between his words and their meaning.

Then there are characters for whom gloire is entirely divorced from honour or morals. The Infante, in Le Cid, begins by combating her love for Rodrigue in the interests of her gloire (i.e. because he is her inferior in station); but when later she decides that his gloire is the equivalent of her rank, she says that she will stop at nothing to prevent the marriage of Rodrigue with Chimène:

Pour en rompre l'effet, j'ai trop d'inventions.
L'amour, ce doux auteur de mes cruels supplices,
Aux esprits des amants apprend trop d'artifices.
(V, 3)

For Cléopâtre in Rodogune and Aspar in Pulchérie,gloire is merely the throne. When Jason, in La Toison, says 'Il y va de ma gloire' (III, 3), he means that for him gloire is the achievement of the golden fleece, and that he can only win it by paying his addresses to Médée, whom he does not love. For Vinius in Othon,gloire means power; and when he says that he is prepared to die for his gloire, he means that he will commit suicide in order to avoid serving an emperor who is hostile to him.

Finally, there is a very large group of characters who do not seem to be motivated by the desire for gloire—i.e. there is nothing in the play to suggest that this is the motive for their actions. In Horace, Sabine and Curiace talk of devoir, not gloire, and Camille cares for nothing but love. There is nothing in Cinna to suggest a desire for gloire as the motive for Auguste's clemency. Polyeucte is animated by religious fervour, by grace, by the desire for permanent happiness; and, when he uses the word gloire, he uses it—the context makes it clear—in the sense of 'heaven', a perfectly normal sense of the word in the seventeenth century. Pauline uses the word devoir at least as much as the word gloire, and a convincing case has been made out for regarding her as a heroine of duty, the embodiment of the doctrines of the neostoical philosophers rather than of the éthique de la gloire. What matters for her, whether she calls it gloire or devoir, is obedience to her father, and obedience and fidelity to her husband:

Je l'aimai par devoir: ce devoir dure encore.
(III, 2)

For Séleucus and Antiochus in Rodogune—one of the plays in which the word gloire occurs least—love and their own unity are more important than anything else. It is true that Antiochus does once use the word, equating it with renunciation of the throne. Ptolomée and his advisers in Pompée care nothing for gloire: Ptolomée does say (III, 2) that he has 'immolé sa gloire' to César, but he seems at no time to have been deterred by the prospect of losing his gloire.

Gloire has little place in Théodore. Marcelle is animated by maternal love and the desire for vengeance. Valens's facile optimism leads him to a policy of masterly inactivity. At one point he does, it is true, claim that this will increase his gloire

cette illusion de ma sévérité
Augmentera ma gloire et mon autorité,
(V, 7)

—but it is difficult to take this very seriously. Didyme rescues Théodore out of Christian zeal. Théodore herself says that martyrdom will ensure her gloire, and protests that the particular martyrdom chosen will endanger her gloire, and Placide is eager to save Théodore's gloire, which—since he loves her—is also his own; but it is hard to see gloire as the fundamental principle of either—Théodore is primarily a Christian, and Placide a lover.

The word gloire is not much used in Héraclius. Phocas, the tyrant, is not interested in gloire, and Héraclius wants the throne only in order to give it to Eudoxe. Pulchérie says that marriage with Phocas would be fatal to her gloire; but, whenever she shows fortitude or does anything more positive, she talks more of her devoir. She is chiefly actuated by hatred of the tyrant, which she carries to extremes: she is prepared to acknowledge a false claimant, and, though she will not marry Martian to save her brother, she professes her willingness to marry anyone who will kill Phocas. Léontine, though she is gratified by the gloire of having sacrificed her own son to save her Emperor's, is chiefly animated by the desire for vengeance. It is, perhaps, significant that the only character in the play who cares about gloire is Martian: he is eager to have the gloire of dying as Héraclius (who, of course, he is not).

Gloire is unimportant in subsequent plays. In Nicomède, uprightness, independence, magnanimity, générosité and vertu are contrasted with Machiavellian principles. We cannot take Arsinoé very seriously when she claims that her gloire is 'souillée' by the false accusations of two informers, since they are in her pay, and the whole thing is a ruse. In Pertharite, Grimoald only once uses gloire so as to suggest that he cares for it: love and virtue are his pre-eminent characteristics. Pertharite returns from his place of concealment, not to win gloire, but to have the pleasure of seeing his wife. Eduige, after wanting the gloire of marrying a king, decides that in the last resort she prefers virtue to rank, and gloire has no significance for the scheming, selfish Garibalde. It is true that the play ends with the line:

… des hautes vertus la gloire est le seul prix,

but (except in Rodelinde), it is virtue that is stressed in the play. In Attila, when Ardaric talks of dying to preserve his gloire, Ildione is unimpressed:

Cette immortalilé qui triomphe en idée
Veut étre, pour charmer, de plus loin regardée;
Et quand à notre amour ce triomphe est fatal,
La gloire qui le suit nous en console mal.
(IV, 6)

Léon in Pulchérie is moved only by love of the Empress, not by ambition or gloire, and Martian by love, duty and virtue. In Suréna, Eurydice, Orode and Suréna care little for gloire. Eurydice tries to conceal her feelings—

Mon intrépidité n'est qu'un effort de gloire,
Que, tout fier qu'il paraî, mon cœur n'en veut pas croire,
(IV, 2)

—but her behaviour is that of one for whom love is everything. Gloire has little part in Andromède, Oedipe, Sophonisbe, Sertorius, Othon and Tite et Bérénice.

The word gloire occurs frequently in Corneille's plays—some thirty times in each play (much less in Rodogune and Héraclius)—but too much must not be made of this. For one thing, not all the uses of the word are significant—it occurs quite often in the phrase 'faire gloire de', for example, which is an ordinary expression of the period for 'to be proud of, and sometimes, like the word 'honneur', it merely means 'glory' in the sense in which the word might be used to-day. Moreover, it is used in a variety of contexts and with a variety of meanings. It may mean military glory. Sometimes it is equated with honour and duty and virtue. For Pulchérie in Héraclius it means fortitude. For Emilie in Cinna it includes avenging her father and freeing Rome from a tyrant, but does not exclude crime:

Pour qui venge son pére il n'est point de forfaits….
(I, 2)

When Sophonisbe says that she 'prend pour seul objet ma gloire à satisfaire,' she means that gloire requires her to separate her fortunes from those of her vanquished husband. Polyeucte uses the word in the sense of Heaven. For Antiochus in Rodogune it means giving up the throne. Théodore uses the word to mean martyrdom and chastity. Elsewhere it means fidelity in love. It may be used without any idea of duty or honour. For many, such as Aspar, it means gaining a throne, or marrying a king. For Palmis in Suréna it means keeping one's lovers. Camille uses it in protest:

C'est gloire de passer pour un cœur abattu,
Quand la brutalité fait la haute vertu.
(Horace, IV, 4)

The variety of senses is admirably illustrated by a passage in Agésilas. Aglatide says that she wants the gloire of marrying a king, but Elpinice, with sisterly candour, points out that that is the only kind of gloire she wants, that the gloire of marrying a suitor of lesser rank in obedience to her father's wishes does not appeal to her:

La gloire d'obéir à votre grand regret
Vous faisait pester en secret….
(II, 6)

One wonders whether a word which can be used in so many senses can be a useful guide to the motivation of Corneille's characters. It can describe any aim or ambition, and is often very hard to distinguish from self-interest.

Even when characters are actuated by a desire for gloire without self-interest, they often have other motives as well. When they make sacrifices or renunciations, gloire is seldom, if ever, the motive. It is not for gloire that the Infante decides to let Chimène marry Rodrigue:

Je me vaincrai pourtant, non de peur d'aucun blâme,
Mais pour ne troubler pas une si belle fiamme….
(V, 3)

The supreme example of a sacrifice in Corneille is that of Rodelinde in Pertharite, and Rodelinde is one of the characters who talks most of her gloire; but when she proposes that Grimoald should kill her child, the word disappears from her vocabulary, and she justifies her proposition on severely practical grounds. Since the usurper is certain to put her son to death sooner or later, it is better that he should do it now, when he will show himself in his true colours at the outset, and when his action may well be the signal for rebellion. Her attitude is not very human, but at least gloire has nothing to do with it. Agésilas, after a struggle, decides to marry Aglatide, though he prefers Mandane. The desire for gloire is not absent from his decision, but it is due mainly to more concrete motives. He has just learnt that Mandane loves another; he knows, and has just been reminded, that Mandane is not acceptable to Sparta; and he is aware that to marry Aglatide and contract an alliance with Lysander is the best means of consolidating his authority. Mandane, though she loves someone else, is prepared, reluctantly, to marry Agésilas, partly out of a desire for gloire, but also because this is the only means of saving her brother and herself. Bérénice leaves Tite because she has solid grounds for fearing that his safety would be endangered by marriage with her. Pulchérie renounces Léon, because marriage with him would endanger the Empire. If she marries Léon, Martian, the mainstay of her Empire, will go into retirement, and she is afraid both of weakening her Empire and of giving cause for revolts. Hence her determination to marry Léon only at the command of the Senate.

In short, although the word gloire is often on the lips of Corneille's characters, it covers a multitude of senses; and Corneille, in depicting the variety of motives which influence men and women, in depicting all kinds of men and women, from the noblest to the basest, reflects the complex reality both of his own age and of all others. His psychology is profoundly human.

There are, then, in Corneille, particularly in the plays of the middle period, magnanimous and intrepid characters, practically all of royal rank, who have a strong sense of their duty or the exigencies of their gloire. But they are much rarer than is generally supposed, much rarer than a cursory reading of the tragedies might lead one to suppose; for the characters of Corneille must not always be taken at their face value, and their words are not always plain statements of fact. Not only are they fond of using irony and double-entendre but they are often insincere. 'II n‧y a pas de théâtre, says Rousset, 'dont les héros se mentent davantage les uns aux autres.'

Sometimes they delude themselves. Horace, on the point of murdering his sister, says:

C'est trop, ma patience à la raison fait place….
(IV, 5)

'Raison' of course may not mean 'reason' in the modern sense; it can also mean 'tout ce qui est de devoir, de droit, d'équité, de justice' (Dictionnaire de l' Académie). But there is nothing rational or just in Horace's murder of his sister: he is deluding himself in his passion. Very frequently the actions of Comeille's characters belie their words and make their self-deception clear. Doña Isabelle in Don Sanche, for all her talk of her duties as a princess, cannot help betraying to Don Sanche her love for him. Médée, in La Toison, says:

Je suis prète à l'aimer, si le Roi le commande;
Mais jusque-là, ma sœur, je ne fais que souffrir
Les soupirs et les voeux qu'il prend soin de m'offrir.
(II, 2)
Je ferai mon devoir, comme tu fais le tien.
L'honneur doit m'être cher, si la gioire t'est chère:
Je ne trahirai point mon pays et mon pére….
(II, 2)

In fact, love is too strong for her:

Silence, raison importune;
Est-il temps de parler quand mon cœur s'est donné?
(IV, 2)

She betrays her father, and helps Jason to win the fleece:

Du pays et du sang l'amour rompt les liens,
Et les dieux de Jason sont plus forts que les miens.
(V, 5)

Nothing could be more apparently 'Cornelian' than some of Sophonisbe's lines:

Je sais ce que je suis et ce que je dois faire,
Et prends pour seul objet ma gioire à satisfaire.
(III, 5)

De tout votre destin vous êtes la maîtresse:
Je la serai du mien….
(V, 4)

She tells Massinisse that she is only marrying him to avoid being taken in triumph to Rome (II, 4); she explains, too, that she is marrying him in order to gain an ally for her country:

II est à mon pays, puisqu'il est tout à moi.
A ce nouvel hymen, c'est ce qui me convie,
Non l'amour, non la peur de me voir asservie.
(II, 5)

But she is motivated neither by the desire for gioire nor by patriotism, but by love and jealousy:

c'est pour peu qu'on aime, une extrême douceur
De pouvoir accorder sa gioire avec son cœur;
Mais c'en est une ici bien autre, et sans égale,
D'enlever, et sitòt, ce prince à ma rivale,
De lui faire tomber le triomphe des mains,
Et prendre sa conquète aux yeux de ses Romains.
(II, 5)

Ce n'était point l'amour …
C'était la folle ardeur de braver ma rivale;
J'en faisais mon suprême et mon unique bien.
Tous les cœurs ont leur faible, et c'était là le mien.
La présence d'Eryxe aujourd'hui m'a perdue;
Je me serais sans elle un peu mieux défendue;
J'aurais su mieux choisir et les temps et les lieux.
Mais ce vainqueur vers elle eùt pu tourner les yeux….
(V, 1)

Perpenna tells Sertorius:

Oui, sur tous mes désirs je me rends absolu …
J'en veux, à votre exemple, être aujourd'hui le maître.
(IV, 3)

He is probably speaking ironically; if not, he is deluding himself, as the course of the rest of the play shows. Honorie, in Attila, says:

… rien ne m'est sensible à l'égal de ma gioire,
(II, 2)

but never lives up to her principles. Tite, in Tite et Bérénice, says, speaking of Domitie, 'Je veux l' aimer, je l'aime…. ' But he has no such power over his emotions:

Je souffrais Domitie, et d'assidus efforts
M'avaient malgré l'amour, fait maìtre du dehors.
La contrainte semblait tourner en habitude;
Le joug que je prenais m'en paraissait moins rude….
(III, 5)

He also says (II, 1) that, if Bérénice were to come to Rome, he would still marry Domitie; but he is deceiving himself, as subsequent events show. Indeed, Tite admits that what he says and what he feels are two different things.

Je sais qu'un empereur doit parler ce langage;
Et quand il l'a fallu, j'en ai dit davantage;
Mais de ces duretés que j'étale à regret,
Chaque mot à mon cœur coûte un soupir secret;
Et quand à la raison j'accorde un tel empire,
Je le dis seulement parce qu'il le faut dire,
Et qu'étant au-dessus de tous les potentats,
Il me serait honteux de ne le dire pas.
(V, 1)

We have seen already how Corneille's characters often feign a calmness or indifference which they are far from feeling, like Eryxe. Similarly, they sometimes say one thing in public, for the sake of appearances, and another in private. Eryxe, for example, recognizes in public that 'l'hymen des rois doit être au-dessus de l'amour,' but in private she confesses that she does not share this view:

Mais je suis au-dessus de cette erreur commune:
J'aime en lui sa personne autant que sa fortune….
(II, 1)

Pulchérie tells Léon that she loves him with a calm, rational love:

Je vous aime, et non pas de cette folle ardeur
Que les yeux éblouis font maîtresse du cœur,
Non d'un amour conçu par les sens en tumulte,
A qui l'âme applaudit, sans qu'elle se consulte,
Et qui ne concevant que d'aveugles désirs,
Languit dans les faveurs, et meurt dans les plaisirs.
Ma passion pour vous généreuse et solide
A la vertu pour âme, et la raison pour guide,
La gloire pour objet …
(I, 1)

But her real passion comes out in her confession to Irène:

Léon seul est ma joie, il est mon seul désir….
(III, 2)

Sometimes, too, Corneille's characters are simply untruthful or hypocritical. Chimène, when she faints on hearing that Rodrigue has been wounded, gives a false explanation of her emotion. Cinna denies his complicity in the plot against Auguste's life. Jason tells Aæte that his love for Médée is genuine:

Et mon amour n'est pas un amour politique.
(III, 1)

But a few minutes later, he says precisely the opposite to Hypsipyle:

entendez-le, Madame,
Ce soupir qui vers vous pousse toute mon âme;
Et concevez par là jusqu'où vont mes malheurs,
De soupirer pour vous, et de prétendre ailleurs.
(III, 3)

Othon tells Camille:

C'est votre intérêt seul qui fait parler ma flamme.
(III, 5)

In fact, he is only interested in obtaining the Empire. Suréna, when Orode asks him if he knows whom the princess Eurydice loves, does not answer truthfully.

In other words, to understand a character of Corneille—as of any other dramatist—it is not enough to consider isolated passages. What he says on one occasion, must be related with what he says elsewhere; what he says in public, must be taken in conjunction with what he says in private. Due allowance must always be made for irony, double-entendre and hypocrisy. Actions are a safer guide to character than words. Nor must the opinion of other characters in the play be overlooked—it is from Léonor that we learn that Chimène has chosen the weakest champion possible. We must beware, above all, of taking lines out of their context. One or two examples of the way in which this can distort the meaning have been encountered already. Here is one more. Sophonisbe's line,

Sur moi, quoi qu'il en soit, je me rends absolue,
(V, 1)

is often quoted as an instance of the strength of will of Corneille's characters. Looked at in its context it is less convincing. In fact, it merely means that Sophonisbe is determined to commit suicide; and the rest of the speech shows that she is less resolute than that single line suggests. She continues:

Contre sa dureté j'ai du secours tout prêt,
Et ferai malgré lui moi seule mon arrêt.
Cependant de mon feu l'importune tendresse
Aussi bien que ma gloire en mon sort s'intéresse,
Veut régner en mon cœur comme ma liberté;
Et n'ose l'avouer de toute sa fierté.
Quelle bassesse d'âme! ô ma gloire! ô Carthage!
Faut-il qu'avec vous deux un homme la partage?
Et l'amour de la vie en faveur d'un époux
Doit-il être en ce cœur aussi puissant que vous?
(V, 1)

Although Corneille is almost always his best critic, what he says about his plays in his Discours and Examens is not always a safe guide to their interpretation. Of Sophonisbe, for example, he says this:

Je lui prête un peu d'amour, mais elle règne sur lui, et ne daigne l'écouter qu'autant qu'il peut servir à ces passions dominantes qui règnent sur elle, et à qui elle sacrifie toutes les tendresses de son cœur, Massinisse, Syphax, sa propre vie. (Avis au lecteur)

As has been shown above, the text of the play contradicts him. Sophonisbe is less single-minded than this passage suggests; she herself admits that her downfall is the result of her jealousy and her desire to spite her rival.

Corneille's characters are not, then, remarkable for will-power or self-mastery. Moreover, if they often lack the will to carry out what they conceive to be their duties, will-power sometimes occurs divorced from any moral sense at all. Cléopâtre, in Rodogune, is the supreme example of a strong, immoral or amoral, character; but Médée (in Médée) and Arsinoé are her sisters, and Dircé in Oedipe is not strikingly dutiful.

Not only are Corneille's characters unable to master their passions, but they are far from ideal in other respects. Weak or vacillating or mediocre characters are not rare in Corneille. The King in Le Cid; Cinna, Auguste and Maxime in Cinna; Félix in Polyeucte, irresolute, pusillanimous, worldly and selfish; the vacillating Ptolomée of Pompée and his Machiavellian advisers; Antiochus and Séleucus in Rodogune; the indulgent but weak Valens in Théodore, who is dominated by his wife, allows her to act for him, and will not intervene even between her and his son; Prusias in Nicomède, timid, dominated by his wife, devoid of gratitude to his son, whom he mistrusts and who, he fears, is scheming to supplant him; Attale in the same play; the selfish Garibalde of Pertharite, who says:

Je t'aime, mais enfin je m'aime plus que toi,
(II, 2)

and who is Grimoald's evil counsellor, who is responsible for Grimoald's love for Rodelinde, and who persuades Grimoald to threaten the life of Rodelinde's son because he wants Grimoald to be hated: none of these is ideal; some are ordinarily human, others more than ordinarily weak and selfish.

Of the characters in the later plays, the same is true. In La Toison d'Or, there is Jason, the fickle opportunist, untruthful but possessed of a quick, subtle brain, for whom love is a means to an end, and who is prepared to make love to any woman if it suits his interests. There is Médée, who betrays her father for love, and who is jealous, violent, and cruel:

Je ne croirai jamais qu'il soit douceur égale
A celle de se voir immoler sa rivale….
(IV, 3)

There is her brother, Absyrte, for whom love takes precedence over every other consideration, who does not hesitate, with Médée's help to play a trick on Hypsipyle to make her love him, and who roundly declares:

Et je ne suis pas homme à servir mon rival….
(V, 1)

There is Hypsipyle, too, who, devoid of any amour-pro-pre, pursues her faithless lover, Jason, cannot resolve to give him up—

Prince, vous savez mal combien charme un courage
Le plus frivole espoir de reprendre un volage,
De le voir malgré lui dans nos fers retombé,
Echapper à l'objet qui nous l'a dérobé,
Et sur une rivale et confuse et trompée
Ressaisir avec gloire une place usurpée,
(II, 5)

—implores him to return to her, and finally marries someone else.

Sertorius opens with the words of Perpenna:

D'où me vient ce désordre, Aufide, et que veut dire
Que mon cœur sur mes vœux garde si peu d'empire?

—words which characterize not only Perpenna, but almost everyone else in the play. Aristie asks:

Qu'importe de mon cœur, si je sais mon devoir?
(I, 3)

but her state of mind is not so simple as that. Although her husband, Pompée, has divorced her and remarried, she cannot overcome her love for him:

je hais quelquefois,
Et moins que je ne veux et moins que je ne dois.
(III, 2)

She offers her hand to Sertorius from resentment, jealousy and wounded amour-propre. Love, in Sertorius himself, is stronger than political prudence. He decides to marry Viriate, whom he loves himself, to Perpenna, his lieutenant, in order to avoid dissensions in his army, but he lacks strength to carry out his resolution:

Je m'étais figuré que de tels déplaisirs
Pourraient ne me coûter que deux ou trois soupirs;
Et pour m'en consoler, j'envisageais l'estime
Et d'ami généreux et de chef magnanime;
Mais près d'un coup fatal, je sens par mes ennuis
Que je me promettais bien plus que je ne puis.
(IV, 1)

He tries to evade discussing the matter with Perpenna, in order to avoid committing himself. It is by no means certain that he is telling the truth when he says to Perpenna:

Non, je vous l'ai cédée, et vous tiendrai parole.
Je l'aime, et vous la donne encor malgré mon feu….
(IV, 3)

Certainly, the arguments he uses to dissuade Perpenna from marrying Viriate do not all appear to be sincere: it seems unlikely, for example, that Viriate would treat with her enemies if Sertorius were to keep his promise to Perpenna. It is because Sertorius cannot convince Perpenna of his sincerity that he is assassinated. Perpenna plots against Sertorius from envy and jealousy; yet in so doing he is conscious that he is doing wrong. He murders Sertorius, but his deed fills him with remorse.

Othon is by no means an ideal character. His love for Plautine originated in self-interest (like the love of Rastignac for Delphine de Nucingen in Le Père Goriot). Though it has become genuine, he agrees to relinquish her, albeit reluctantly. Having paid court to Camille, Galba's niece, in order to gain the Empire, he finds himself engaged to the princess but excluded from the succession, and has to try to dissuade her from marrying him, but without daring to confess the truth. He is hypocritical, virtuous under a good emperor, depraved under a bad one. Plautine, who urges Othon to make love to Camille, cannot help being jealous when he does so (like Atalide in Bajazet, later). Her father, Vinius, is another Félix, eager above all to maintain his power. Galba describes him thus:

Voyez ce qu'en un jour il m'a sacrifié:
Il m'offre Othon pour vous, qu'il souhaitait pour gendre;
Je le rends à sa fille, il aime à le reprendre;
Je la veux pour Pison, mon vouloir est suivi;
Je vous mets en sa place, et l'en trouve ravi;
Son ami se révolte, il presse ma colère;
Il donne à Martian Plautine à ma prière….
(V, 1)

Galba is weak. Camille, his niece, is intelligent and shrewd, but jealous and vindictive. She is determined to marry Plautine, her rival in Othon's affections, to Martian, whom Plautine loathes, in order to be revenged upon her; and, when Othon places himself at the head of a revolt, she says:

Allons presser Galba pour son juste supplice
…..
Du courroux à l'amour si le retour est doux,
On repasse aisément de l'amour au courroux.
(IV, 7)

In Agésilas, Cotys, who is betrothed to Elpinice but does not love her, refuses to give her up to Spitridate:

Je serai malheureux, vous le serez aussi.
(I, 4)

Spitridate is equally selfish in proposing to his sister that she should overcome her love for Cotys and marry Agésilas in order that he should be happy with Elpinice. Agésilas himself says:

… Je ne suis pas assez fort
Pour triompher de ma faiblesse.
(III, 4)

Attila is a most interesting study. He is an able politician, excelling rather at sowing dissension amongst his enemies than at military conquest, shrewd and suspicious, wily and cruel. He devises one scheme after another to torment the wretched kings and princesses in his power, playing with them like a cat with mice. But he is at the same time irresolute, and allows love to get the better of political prudence. Though Honorie is the more suitable match, he cannot overcome his preference for Ildione:

Moi qui veux pouvoir tout, sitôt que je vous voi,
Malgré tout cet orgueil, je ne puis rien pour moi.
(III, 2)

Ildione and Honorie do not love Attila, but they are jealous of his favour and speak spitefully to each other. Honorie is particularly interesting. In situation, and to some extent in character, she resembles Racine's Hermione. She is unbalanced, and lacks self-control; jealousy makes her mean and spiteful. In a fit of pique, she refuses Attila, and, against her principle that a puppet-king is unworthy of her, agrees to marry Valamir. Wounded by Ildione's taunts, she seeks an unworthy revenge by betraying to Attila Ildione's love for Ardaric and suggesting that she should be made to marry a subject. She imprudently betrays the secret of her own love for Valamir:

Que n'ai-je donc mieux tu que j'aimais Valamir!
Mais quand on est bravée et qu'on perd ce qu'on aime,
Flavie, est-on si peu maîtresse de soi-même?
(IV, 2)

She sinks her pride and asks Attila to marry her.

Domitie, in The et Bérénice, finds that her ambition to be Empress is not strong enough to overcome her love for Domitian:

Si l'amour quelquefois souffre qu'on le contraigne,
Il souffre rarement qu'une autre ardeur l'éteigne;
Et quand l'ambition en met l'empire à bas,
Elle en fait son esclave, et ne l'étouffe pas.
Mais un si fier esclave ennemi de sa chaîne,
La secoue à toute heure, et la porte avec gêne,
Et maître de nos sens, qu'il appelle au secours,
Il échappe souvent, et murmure toujours.
Veux-tu que je te fasse un aveu tout sincère?
Je ne puis aimer Tite, ou n'aimer pas son frère;
Et malgré cet amour, je ne puis m'arrêter
Qu'au degré le plus haut où je puisse monter.
…..
Hélas! plus je le vois, moins je sais que lui dire.
Je l'aime, et le dédaigne, et n'osant m'attendrir,
Je me veux mal des maux que je lui fais souffrir.
(I, 1)

She cannot prevent herself from feeling jealous when she sees Domitian paying court to Bérénice; though, on the other hand, when she thinks that Tite prefers Bérénice, her pride is hurt and she wants to be revenged on him. Corneille's Tite, unlike Racine's Titus, is weak and vacillating—

Maître de l'univers sans l'être de moi-même…
(II, 1)

—and is prepared to abdicate to win Bérénice. His brother, Domitian, is not magnanimous. Finding Domitie determined to marry Tite, he expresses the wish that Bérénice would return and prevent the marriage and exults in her discomfiture:

Que je verrais, Albin, ma volage punie,
Si de ces grands apprêts pour la cérémonie,
Que depuis si longtemps on dresse à si grand bruit,
Elle n'avait que l'ombre, et qu'une autre eût le fruit!
Qu'elle serait confuse! et que j'aurais de joie!
(I, 3)

For Eurydice and Suréna, love is the only thing that matters.

Je veux, sans que la mort ose me secourir,
Toujours aimer, toujours souffrir, toujours mourir,

says Eurydice, and Suréna echoes her words:

où dois-je recourir,
O ciel! s'il faut toujours aimer, souffrir, mourir.
(I, 3)

For Suréna,

le moindre moment d'un bonheur souhaité,
Vaut mieux qu'une si froide et vaine éternité.
(I, 3)

There is nothing rational about Eurydice, who is all fears and jealousy, and who touchingly strikes up a friendship with Suréna's sister, as a way of being near him vicariously. Though her duty requires her to marry Pacorus, not only does she not love him, but she makes no pretence of doing so, reminds him that he has loved another, postpones her marriage with him, and does not conceal that she loves someone else. Nor can she bring herself to allow Suréna to obey the king and marry Mandane, so that she is directly responsible for his death. Pacorus, too, is another character who cannot master his love: Suréna tells him:

l'amour jaloux de son autorité,
Ne reconnaît ni rois ni souveraineté.
Il hait tous les emplois où la force l'appelle:
Dès qu'on le violente, on en fait un rebelle;
Et je suis criminel de n'en pas triompher,
Quand vous-même, Seigneur, ne pouvez l'étouffer!
(IV, 4)

Palmis is yet another:

The women of Corneille are often spiteful, jealous and possessive. Doña Isabelle, who suspects that Don Sanche loves Doña Elvire, is determined that if she cannot marry him herself, her rival shall not be happier than she. If she should have to marry Doña Elvire's brother, she says:

devenant par là reine de ma rivale,
J'aurai droit d'empêcher qu'elle ne se ravale,
Et ne souffrirai pas qu'elle ait plus de bonheur
Que ne m'en ont permis ces tristes lois d'honneur.
(Don Sanche, III, 6)

If Don Sanche must marry someone else, it must be a woman she has chosen for him, not one he has chosen himself:

Qu'il souffre autant pour moi que je souffre pour lui….
(III, 6)

Mandane, in Agésilas, expresses similar views; so do Bérénice and Eurydice. Sophonisbe is more openly possessive:

Un esclave échappé nous fait toujours rougir.
(I, 2)

Albin, in Tite et Bérénice, discourses in general terms on this feminine characteristic:

Seigneur, telle est l'humeur de la plupart des femmes.
L'amour sous leur empire eût-il rangé mille âmes,
Elles regardent tout comme leur propre bien,
Et ne peuvent souffrir qu'il leur échappe rien.
Un captif mal gardé leur semble une infamie:
Qui l'ose recevoir devient leur ennemie;
Et sans leur faire un vol on ne peut disposer
D'un cœur qu'un autre choix les force à refuser:
Elles veulent qu'ailleurs par leur ordre il soupire,
Et qu'un don de leur part marque un reste d'empire.
(IV, 4)

Several of Corneille's heroines, besides Domitie, illustrate his remarks.

Corneille's portrayal of human nature, then, is much more varied and subtle than is often supposed. His characters are for the most part unable to subdue their passions by their reason or their will; relatively few place honour or duty before inclination. They are not supermen or ideal creatures, but real men and women. Nearly all have their moments of weakness and indecision; nearly all have human faults and weaknesses. Above all, they are more complex in their motivation than they are often considered to be.

They are very varied. There are some strong characters, with some of the traits we think of as 'Cornelian', though they are far less numerous than is often imagined, and are by no means always virtuous. But such characters are relatively few and untypical, and confined to a certain number of plays. By their side are to be found a host of ordinary or weak or erring characters. Corneille's plays, indeed, constitute a wonderful and varied gallery of portraits. In Polyeucte, for example, we have Polyeucte, Sévère, Pauline, and Félix, all different types of humanity, admirably differentiated one from the other. To take another example, in Nicomède Corneille gives us—by the side of the self-confident, honourable, plain-speaking, tactless, ironical Nicomède and his feminine counterpart, Laodice—the wily Arsinoé, ambitious for her son, Attale, rather than for herself, adept at winding round her little finger her husband, the timid, mistrustful, uxorious Prusias. There are, too, the admirably portrayed diplomat, Flaminius, shrewd and subtle, skilfully concealing the iron hand beneath the velvet glove, making his will known by reasoned advice and hints, an excellent ambassador, and Attale, the brother of Nicomède, young and inexperienced, somewhat précieux, but intelligent and endowed with sound instincts, so that he gradually learns to distinguish between the world as he has been brought up to believe that it is and the world as it really is. Or, ranging over the whole work of Corneille, Rodrigue, Horace, Curiace, Auguste, Cinna, Polyeucte, César, Don Sanche, Nicomède, Othon, Martian and Suréna are not the same type of hero, any more than Chimène, Camille, Sabine, Pauline, Cléopâtre, Rodogune, Laodice, Dircé, Sophonisbe, Camille (in Othon), Ildione, Honorie, Pulchérie or Eurydice are one type of heroine. Maxime, Garibalde and Perpenna are three quite different types of weak character or villain. Again, Corneille shows many different types of older men—the count and Don Diègue, old Horace, Félix, Valens, Prusias, Vinius, Attila, Martian, and Suréna have little in common.

Corneille is excellent, too, at depicting family life. There is great variety in his fathers, for example: Don Diègue and old Horace, both affectionate and proud of their sons, but the former a little out of sympathy with his son's inner conflict, Félix, Valens, Prusias, Aæte…. Two deserve a particular mention: Phocas, in Héraclius, suffering because neither of the two young men will acknowledge him as father; and Martian, in Pulchérie, guessing the secrets of his daughter's heart and betraying his own in a touching scene. Then the mothers: Marcelle, in Théodore, full of fierce, maternal affection; Arsinoé, in Nicomède, like her a good mother but a bad stepmother; Jocaste, in Oedipe, who, though she has remarried, is thoughtful for her daughter's welfare; Cléopâtre, in Rodogune, devoid of any affection for her sons; Cassiope, in Andromède, whose excessive maternal pride has brought misfortune to her country and her daughter. Perhaps Corneille is at his best in portraying the relationships between brothers and sisters. Leaving aside the comedies, we think of the sisterly bickering of Chalciope and Médée; of the delicate affection between Antiochus and Séleucus in Rodogune; of the dawning affection between the two half-brothers, Nicomède and Attale; of Mandane, in Agésilas, resisting the entreaties of her brother, Spitridate, who wants her to marry Agésilas, whom she does not love, so that Agésilas may let him be happy with Elpinice; of the eagerness of Irène in Pulchérie to help Léon; of the loyalty and affection of Palmis in Suréna. It is clear that no attempt to reduce Corneille's characters to a single formula can do justice to the range and variety of his characterization.

Nor is there any evidence that Corneille wrote with the object of inculcating a moral lesson of any kind. He himself, in the Discours, expressly denies that drama should have a moral aim; and it is difficult to feel that in any play we are being shown ideal characters on whom Corneille wishes us to model ourselves. Let us rather say, with Vedel: 'Il reste aussi invisible derrière son œuvre que Shakespeare.' The truth is surely that Corneille was concerned with studying human nature, with portraying different types of men and women, of fathers and sons and mothers and daughters, of lovers and their mistresses, of kings and tyrants and diplomats and politicians, of soldiers and adventurers, with studying their behaviour in different situations, their problems, their sufferings. Indeed, a contemporary anecdote, recently unearthed by Professor Lough, shows us a Corneille who—like Balzac—closely identified himself with his characters:

M'a dit qu'étant à table avec M. l'Abbé de Cerisy, M. de Corneille, et avec d'autres honnêtes gens à Rouen, M. Corneille qu'était assis auprès de lui à mi-repos, lui donna un coup de poing sur l'épaule avec un cri, qui fut suivi de paroles, qui témoignèrent assez qu'il songeait ailleurs: Ah! que j'ai de la peine à faire mourir cette fille! Comme il avait surpris la compagnie, il fut obligé à dire la vérité, et en les demandant pardon, il les assurait, qu'il n'était propre pour la conversation, et qu'il ne saurait s'empêcher rêver sur quelqu'une de ses comédies qu'il avait sur les mains, et qui fut l'occasion de ses paroles.

Claude Abraham (essay date 1972)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 that, if it at times seemed to violate rules and unities, that was because they had not yet been established.

These early plays are a strange mixture of influences and independence. The influence of Hardy, one of Corneille's most prolific contemporaries, is readily seen in the violent melodrama of Clitandre, or in the numerous amorous deceptions scattered throughout all the early comedies. The effects of Italian comedy and of the pastoral vogue on Corneille cannot be denied either; witness the very names of the protagonists—Tirsis, Cloris, Lisis, Mélite, and so on. These influences, however, tend to be rather superficial, and even though Corneille did little to revolutionize the world of drama in the early 1630's, he did much to further the most salutary trends. To be sure, Corneille is a child of his times, and the ostentation, the illusion, the metamorphoses, the instability, all the commonplaces of Baroque literature are omnipresent in these early works. This is not only true of the content of the plays but of their form as well. It can truly be said that from Mélite to Le Cid, a period of some seven years during which he produced ten plays, Corneille was in constant search of a form. The fact that Le Cid was first called "tragicomedy" (an error that Corneille quickly corrected) is further indication of that. Call it Baroque or Romanesque, until Le Cid there is a certain exaltation, a youthful brio in these early plays which Corneille will never again be able to capture, not even in the verbal exuberance of later comedies such as Le Menteur. Thus, Corneille in search of Corneille is many things, unafraid as he is to borrow from everyone and everything that surrounds him. But he is above all, even in these early days, a man of taste. The psychological realism of Clitandre more than overshadows the borrowings from Hardy's shallow melodramas. Whereas Hardy had relied heavily on visual effects, Corneille used them but sparingly. The names of the first protagonists may recall those of the pastoral, but Mélite, as well as the later plays, is populated by gentle people who do not feel the need to disguise themselves in the ubiquitous shepherd's clothes, and for that alone Corneille deserves our gratitude. By the same token all the banal and gratuitous tricks of the theatrical trade are present in the plays—false letters; scenes of madness, real or feigned; commonplaces of words, plot, and character—but they are invariably enhanced by a grace and elegance of language and a psychological insight previously unknown in France.

I Mélite

Racine, when it came to plots, prided himself on "making something of nothing"; the same cannot be said of Corneille, as can be seen by the synopsis of Mélite, his first play. Eraste introduces Mélite, whom he loves, to his friend Tirsis, only to become jealous. To remedy the situation he sends some love letters (supposedly from Mélite) to Philandre, who is betrothed to Cloris, the sister of Tirsis. Philandre, thanks to the artifice and the persuasive powers of Eraste, decides to leave Cloris for Mélite and shows the letters of Tirsis. In despair the latter withdraws to the home of a friend, Lisis, who spreads false rumors of Tirsis' death. Mélite faints at the news. Thus assured of Mélite's true feelings, Lisis reunites the two lovers. However Cliton, having seen Mélite in a faint, believes her dead too, and spreads the news of this "double death" to Eraste, who goes mad with remorse. Brought back to his senses by the Nourrice, he asks forgiveness and obtains from the two lovers not only his pardon but the hand of Cloris, who has rejected Philandre because of his fickleness.

The complexities of the plot are at times aggravated by a language that has often been characterized as overly distilled and ostentatious. While there is much truth in that, it must be kept in mind that the language is not Corneille's but that of the fashionable dandy of the era and thus contributes no little to the verisimilitude of the characters. In this respect, it is rather unfortunate that in later years Corneille, responding to criticism prompted either by jealousy or by changing taste, toned down the language of his earlier days, and in so doing eradicated the very essence of the gallant world of the 1620's and 1630's that he had so beautifully depicted. While the secondary characters are seldom imbued with any relief and seem rather flat, the four main ones sparkle. Of particular interest is Tirsis. The world of Mélite is a highly mercurial one in which few things are certain and in which a protagonist might be readily forgiven for not wanting to involve himself with his fellow creatures. But while a Philandre wallows in a cowardly and self-indulging narcissim, Tirsis is saved by his love. Upon the backdrop of constant interplay between truth and sham, between appearance and reality—in words and deeds—Tirsis moves not toward deception and eventually self-deception, but away from it. In the first scene Tirsis appears as a man who seeks only tangible gains, who deceives so as not to be deceived, and who is sure that all a woman's beauty will not turn him against the notion that constancy is a folly (135-36). But this gay young blade's notions are soon reduced to nothing when he is dazzled by Mélite. What exactly has he seen? "I saw I know not what." Mélite has but to appear for Tirsis to realize that it is the tangible gain that is an illusion. The new evidence, the new truth is in her beauty. This is not a metamorphosis of sham into verity or being opposed to appearance; rather, it is being expressed in appearance. Tirsis, at the beginning, opposed beauty to his "truth." He now sees that truth and beauty are but one and the same thing, that "to see Mélite is to love her" [Robert J. Nelson, Corneille: His Heroes and Their Worlds, 1963]. Henceforth for Tirsis, as for Mélite, there can be no deception. The dazzlement is not the result of trickery nor does it lead to it;—it leads to a new, deeper vision of reality which brings about the inevitable defeat of trickery and deception.

II Clitandre

Corneille had no sooner found success with the formula of Mélite than he sought to shine in an entirely different vein. Clitandre is a tragicomedy, the most popular dramatic genre at the time. Why did Corneille, so successful with a true comedy, write something so foreign to that initial accomplishment? Most likely it was, as Antoine Adam suggests [in Histoire de la littérature française au XVIIe siecle, 1962], not because he courted facile success but because he wanted to leave no challenge unanswered, because he wanted to be the successful rival of the stars of the day. In short, the same notion that made him write a "Racinian" play later on in his life now made him try a tragicomedy replete with all the Romanesque traits then in fashion.

Insofar as plot is concerned, Mélite is rather complex. Yet Corneille had synopsized it in less than twenty lines. For Clitandre, he wrote an "argument" of over three hundred lines, poking gentle fun at the critics of Mélite's plot by exaggerating the complexities of this one. Reduced to its minimum, the story of Clitandre is as follows: Caliste and Dorise both love Rosidor who disdains the latter and loves the former. Dorise tries to kill her rival, fails, and is in turn attacked by a jilted lover, Pymante, who had also ambushed Rosidor. A rejected lover of Caliste, Clitandre, is blamed for the ambush, but he is finally recognized as innocent. He winds up in a joyless union with Dorise while Rosidor and Caliste live happily ever after. In the play the plot is anything but simple, and Corneille readily admitted in the preface that the least lapse in attention would result in the viewer, or reader, losing complete track of things.

Such a plot, of course, is typical of most of the tragicomedies of the era. Equally typical is the explicit brutality both in speech and deed: mad transports of anger, attempted murder and rape, an eye put out, and, to cap it off, nature as a whole matching the human violence with a storm of its own. In short, Clitandre is full of the type of physical and dithyrambic outbursts that the public was about to reject. For some time yet, this public was to keep its love of declamation, and many plays owed their success as much to great lyrical passages as to dramatic qualities—Tristan L'Hermite's Mariane is an excellent example of that—but the monologues of Clitandre are extremely passionate, verging on the brutal, and the play was far from successful. Its premiere passed unrecorded, and it had only three separate editions, the first in 1632, the last in 1689. As of 1644 it was included by Corneille in his collected works, but much reworked. In its revised version the play is somewhat toned down, but it remains a strange mixture of unexpected bedfellows, the most incongruous juxtaposition deriving from two tendencies that Corneille was to maintain in his work for a long time and which are, to some extent, hallmarks. On the one hand, as will be seen in plays such as Médée, Horace, and Théodore, Corneille kept a certain taste for brutality. On the other hand, Clitandre is already replete with those cameos of Cornelian expression, the brief passages that strike or spellbind, whose echoes remain long after the initial perception, and which every Frenchman knows by heart and loves to quote.

III La Veuve

With La Veuve Corneille returned to true comedy, though it must be clearly understood that in all of these plays laughter is evoked far less frequently than sophisticated smiles. La Veuve's resemblance to Mélite, however, goes well beyond that broad trait. As Corneille himself acknowledged, both in inspiration and in plot, this, his third play, owed much to the first. Sensing that the public was growing tired of the type of play exemplified by Clitandre, Corneille returned to comedy which to him had less to do with laughter than with "a portrayal of our actions and of our speeches." The plot, as can be seen from Corneille's own argument, is not unlike that of Mélite: "Alcidon, in love with Clarice, widow of Alcandre and mistress of Philiste, his good friend, fearing that the latter notice this love, feigns to love Philiste's sister Doris who, however, is not taken in by the stratagem and consents to marry Florange, as proposed by her mother. The false friend, under the pretext of avenging the insult that this newly proposed union is to him, gets Celidan to agree to kidnap Clarice and to bring her to his castle. Philiste, taken in by the false resentment of his friend, breaks up the proposed union with Florange, upon which Celidan tries to convince Alcidon to go back to Doris and to give Clarice back to her lover. Unsuccessful in his persuasion, he suspects an act of treachery and, deceptive in turn, gets the truth out of Clarice's nurse (who had been a willing accomplice of Alcidon) and, turning against the traitor, he brings Clarice back to Philiste and obtains Doris in return."

The parallel of structure is obvious, as are the literary commonplaces already found in the previous places (character of the Nurse, the betrayed betrayer, truth not being truth, and so on). There are, however, some major steps forward insofar as the dramatic canon of Corneille is concerned. Whereas the first two plays were very loosely knit and had little unity of action (to all intents and purposes, the first love problem is settled at the end of Act I of each of the first two plays), La Veuve shows a determined effort on Corneille's part to cope with the problem. It is true that there are two actions, but they are properly connected. The first three acts are fairly well linked with only a slight difficulty in the last two. Still, we are a long way from Racine's concept, as enunciated in the preface to Bérénice, of a plot involving a minimal action taking place in a single locale in a few hours. For the unity of time Corneille chose to compromise, allowing one act a day. As for the locale, there is no indication whatsoever in the original edition, and, ten years later (1644), Corneille clarified the situation but slightly by adding that the action took place "in Paris."

Another aspect of the unity of action deserves comment. Not only is the plot more unified but the style of the entire play is closely linked with the dramatic development. Long speeches that have little to recommend them outside of their undeniable lyrical qualities and that advance neither action nor character of development are far less frequent than in the two previous plays, resulting in a greater sense of continuity in La Veuve. As Robert Nelson has suggested, "Mélite was a body of lyrics and Clitandre a tone poem. La Veuve is much more of an action." This new awareness undoubtedly had much to do with the fact that La Veuve underwent relatively few changes in later editions, most of them involving the quality of the vocabulary, the propriety of certain expressions or manners—in other words, changes made naturally necessary by evolutionary processes in the realm of language and behavior.

This new awareness is also visible in Corneille's handling of the characters. Perhaps the most important scene of the play, as far as the study of the development of Corneille's psychological insight is concerned, is the one in which Clarice declares her feelings for Philiste (II, 4). In order to get the bashful swain to declare his own feelings, she goes as far as she can without violating the laws of propriety in a sense that is a masterpiece of delicacy and of psychological realism, a perfect wedding of preciosity and profundity. The author's insight is further demonstrated in the way he has the two lovers address each other. The first time they meet (I, 5) she uses the familiar tu while he uses the more polite vous. The next meeting occurs while the Nurse is present (II, 4), and so both use vous until Philiste dares declare his love openly, at which point Clarice, sure of herself, switches triumphantly to tu in a speech that also includes the then bold epithet "my Philiste." They do not see each other again on stage until V, 7, and by then Philiste is so torn between sorrow and joy, so insecure—can he believe his fortune? Does she really love him?—that he still insists on the more formal address while Clarice, sure of his love—"Do you see any signs of doubt in me concerning your love?" (1814)—never stops using tu. Of course, there are many reasons for this difference in expression. Clarice is a widow, that is to say a woman of a certain experience and knowledge, and so it is proper and natural that she display greater maturity, certainty, and even boldness. Her advantage in this respect is made greater by the fact that in social standing she is slightly above her suitor, if not enough to cause a scandal and make a union unbelievable, at least enough to make him doubt his good fortune. In Mélite, there had also been a tutoiement, a use of the familiar tu, a momentary lapse by Mélite immediately taken up by Tircis made sufficiently bold by it to ask for more tangible rewards. By 1648, however, Corneille considered this move too improper, and Tirsis, like his creator, learned how to keep his passion in check and to use the polite form of address under all circumstances. Clarice did not have to suffer from this unjust fettering, undoubtedly because Corneille felt that the ground had been well laid for her tutoiement. There is little doubt that much of La Veuve's success was due to these flashes of psychological brilliance which are demonstrated not only in the above display of finesse but also in the creation of the many cameos that dot the play. Unfortunately, these are but oases, for Corneille had not yet learned to maintain the quality of his insight or his expression. Nevertheless, they give a very good indication of things to come.

IV La Galerie du Palais

The sub-titles of Corneille's early plays—The False Letters for Mélite,Innocence Delivered for Clitandre,The Traitor Betrayed for La Veuve, and now The Rival Friend for La Galerie du Palais—are always more indicative of the content of the plays than the titles themselves, and so it is indeed ironic that any mention of amie rivale is dropped from all the editions of the play as of 1644. As a matter of fact, the subtitle of this play, as of all the previous ones, should have been The Dissimilations, with an emphasis on the plural.

The plot, for once, is relatively simple: Célidée and Lysandre are about to be engaged while Dorimant loves Hippolyte who, in turn, secretly loves Lysandre. Célidée suddenly begins to yearn for Dorimant, making it a nearly perfect quadrangle. Taking advantage of this new infatuation Hippolyte suggests that her friend Célidée put Lysandre to the test by feigning indifference. Paid by Hippolyte, Lysandre's servant advises Lysandre to pretend to court Hippolyte to make Célidée jealous, but he is too righteous to keep up such a sham. In fact, both male leads are so steadfast in their virtue and love that the inevitable is brought about, the union of Célidée with Lysandre and of Hippolyte with Dorimant.

After the success of La Veuve it was to be expected that Corneille would keep many of the features of that play for his next venture, and indeed he did, improving on several of them. He continued, for instance, in the portrayal of life as the mainstay of comedy. As the title of the play indicates, the locale of the play is real, and realistically described. Other authors had previously described shops, or merchants, or the language of the lower classes, but never had the French stage seen all of these elements combined, and so well. The descriptions and illustrations of the speech, the mentality, and the general behavior of the shopkeepers; the incisive portrayal of types such as the cowardly swashbucklers—changed in later editions to rogues, attacking a passerby; the delightful commentaries on tastes ranging from clothes to literature; the description of a rowdy theater crowd (at the rival Hôtel de Bourgogne, of course)—all these now, for the first time, were introduced not as colorless background but as a vivid part of the play itself.

Like La Veuve, La Galerie is a step away from tragicomedy and its ploys. While there is little frank laughter, and while there are many changes of fortune, there is never any danger of seeing the plays lapse into the maudlin melodrama of tragicomedy. Over-excitement and excessive adventures are carefully avoided, there being but one duel, a common event in those days. The language is quite simple, even in scenes of precious debate, and the unforeseen turns of event allow for a multiplicity of tone quite becoming a comedy. The only strong derogations to this otherwise favorable picture of the physical makeup of the play are the facts that the characters have little relief and the unity of time is still not too well applied, Corneille again allowing five days for the action to take place.

Of primary interest in La Galerie du Palais are some major innovations. There are four principals, paired off, with no "outside agitator." Whatever changes of fortune occur do so, not because of external forces, but because of the stengths and weaknesses of the characters themselves. As Philip Koch points out, if there is to be any treachery, it "must come from one of the four principal lovers" [PMLA 78 (June 1963)]. By the same token, there is no outside reconciler either, and so if the problem is from within, so is the solution, the former coming from the fickleness (Célidée) or the treachery (Hippolyte) of the women, the latter from the righteousness and willingness to act of the men. This "interiorization" of the action is of paramount importance to the comprehension of the evolutionary pattern of Corneille's dramatic technique. While secondary characters will continue to abound in his plays, their effect on the central action of the play will never again be of any consequence.

Perhaps of greatest interest is a concept of love destined to play a major role in later works and first introduced in La Galerie—though in the mouth of an insincere lover—namely, the concept of the importance of merit and esteem in the birth of love. When Lysandre, at the end of III, 6, claims that love as a blind passion is a thing of the past and that merit perceived intellectually gives rise to passion (916-18), he is not mocking a concept that later tragic heroes will exemplify. He, like so many comic antiheroes, believes that in matters of love, fraud is legitimate, whereas a Rodrigue will tell his father that there is but one honor, be it in love or in battle. But, and this is of paramount importance, Lysandre is a hypocrite, not an autohypocrite, and his statement is for public consumption, not to fool himself. He is, at the time of the utterance, not parodying but stating a valid concept, though he has not the slightest intention of fulfilling its promise.

V La Suivante

Late in life, Corneille stated that basically all his comedies had been predicated on a single theme: two young people in love, separated for a while, then reunited. Of all the plays examined so far, La Suivante is probably the one that would suffer least from such an oversimplification. To be sure, a plot synopsis could easily be made as long as the play, because this is basically a comedy of errors, and if each one of these errors were to be related it would be a long synopsis indeed. Nevertheless, the story can be told quite simply. Fundamentally, there are two

sets of characters: on the one hand Géraste, his daughter Daphnis, and her lover Florame; on the other, Théante, also in love with Daphnis, and the latter's suivante, Amarante. The first trio is fundamentally in agreement since Géraste wants the union of the other two, who love each other. The difficulties are introduced by the scheming pair, Théante and Amarante. After numerous misunderstandings, the true lovers are united while the schemers are not, the play ending with a bitter tirade by Amarante whose ambition has been thwarted. This last tirade, in alexandrine quatrains, shows her to be completely bewildered by all the misunderstandings, quid pro quos, and lies.

Outwardly, this is the most regular of the plays studied so far, with few innovations or surprises. The leading role is given for the first time to an attendant, but the Nurse as an old standby has already been replaced by a suivante in La Galerie. There is only one other innovation, one that will be of utmost importance in subsequent plays, and Robert Nelson has capsulized it to perfection: "The soliloquies do not merely recapitulate events or remind us of a character's role in a rapidly developing action, but serve rather to develop the character himself." That is indeed a step forward, as are a rigorously maintained balance between the acts (each one of which has 340 lines) and the strictly enforced unities, though the unity of action is forced by the presence of some lengthy episodes that keep the interest from being properly sustained.

In our days, it is fashionable to speak of "antiheroes," comic or other. The term could very properly be applied to the protagonists of this play in which supposedly "honest" people act out of the worst of intentions. Whereas in previous comedies men's enterprises were either prompted by good intentions or were doomed to failure, here they are prompted by bad intentions and succeed. In an effort to simplify the plot, I have categorized the protagonists in such a way as to possibly suggest that only two of them were treacherous, but that is not quite so. Deception is not entirely limited to Amarante and Théante since both young men enter the house of Géraste under the pretext of courting Amarante. This simultaneous seduction of the mistress and the servant is a commonplace that can be traced as far back as Ovid's Art of Love, and as Clindor of L'Illusion comique will say, "Love and marriage use different methods" (789). Théante, confessing his feelings to a friend who will only too readily betray him to his rival, puts it equally well: "However attractive she may be, she is only a servant, and my ambition is stronger than my love" (9-12). It is this calculating cold realism that bewilders Amarante more than anything else, and it is particularly the misfortune of pretty but poor women betrayed by greedy men desiring wealthy wives that she bemoans. In short, we are right back to the basic question of honor in love. In that sense, Florame is no better than Théante, and keeping this in mind one reaches the inevitable conclusion that, while Amarante is a schemer, to be sure, she is a defensive one, as she is more victim—or even tool—than sinister plotter. Once more, a comedy ends, leaving the reader with the mixed feelings that perforce result from the perversion of the old axiom into "all is fair in the war of love."

VI La Place Royalle

The mood at the end of La Suivante is, if anything, amplified in the following play, La Place Royalle. Except for a few lighthearted moments, the humor of this play is grating. Even the plot gives an indication of the indistinct nature of the play: Angélique and Alidor are in love, but he wants to break with her in order to assert his freedom, and tries to "give" her to his friend Cléandre. Angélique receives a letter supposedly from Alidor to a rival, confronts him with it, and receives mocking insults in answer to her queries. Doraste, taking advantage of the rift, asks for the hand of Angélique. Considering his glory at stake Alidor asks for forgiveness so that Angélique might run

away with him, planning to allow Cléandre to take his place at the last moment. This elopement, occurring at night, in the darkness Cléandre takes Phylis, sister of Doraste, by mistake. Horrified by all this, Angélique escapes to a cloister, a solution that satisfies Alidor who now feels free again.

Throughout the play Angélique is very close to being a tragic figure, mocked, tortured, finally seeking refuge in God, but not really sure or satisfied as a result of that decision. The reader may well ask himself whether Corneille, tired of the genre, had worked himself into a rut, or whether, perhaps, the play is nothing less than the logical outcome of the evolution we have witnessed so far, namely, if the comic protagonist insists on an immoral or amoral pursuit and succeeds, what is one to expect? Just as Alidor's ancestors are to be found in the previous plays, so are hints of the black comedy that develops here. In this respect, then, La Place Royalle offers nothing new to the reader. By the same token, while Alidor and Philis are marvelously drawn characters, beautifully delineated, Corneille had succeeded in doing that before, though the exact degree of such a success is debatable. The exterior realism—the Place Royalle is today's Place des Vosges—is not new either to the author, and the unities are observed no better or worse than before. In what sense then does the play deserve attention? Its importance resides, in part at least, in the fact that the action is more than ever the result of inner forces, in this case the struggle between two feelings within the breast of the protagonist.

From the first line of the play, a rapid tempo is established, though this rapidity is often verbal, not involving the advancement of the plot or character development. Soon the attentive reader perceives that this breathless rush is indeed deceptive, and the play grinds to a teethgnashing end. But does all that matter? The plot is, as a matter of fact, well conceived, and the unity of action fairly well kept, but all that is nothing more than a framework for the real play, the inner struggle within Alidor, one whose ups and downs no doubt have much to do with the varying tempos of the "outer" play. In that respect there is a certain harmony between décor, subject, and characters which overrides all other considerations. Alidor is forever torn between a genuine love and an equally genuine, and eventually much stronger, desire for freedom which might easily be construed as a misguided sense of self-respect. He wants to love because he chooses to, not because of an obligation due to the lady's own attentions. He demands to be master of his love, not its slave (209-32). As Koch puts it, Alidor is thus simultaneously the hero and the "fourbe," the protagonist and the antagonist. He strives to be extraordinary, to rise above social norms (209-10). Here, as in previous plays, the subtitle, "L'Amoureux extravagant" or the "Extragavant Lover," helps immensely in the understanding of what the play is all about. The word extravagant, in the Cotgrave dictionary (1611), is defined as "astray, out of the way." Alidor, whatsoever his concept of self may be, is a comic antihero. Although he does not lack in will to act, he is quite incapable of doing anything about it, thus forever allowing the situation to backfire and turning any potential sympathy one might have for him into derision. He seeks freedom above all else, yet constantly depends on others, mostly on Angélique. Concerning his relationship with the latter, he does not even have the strength of character to abandon her, and must therefore behave so that she will reject him. It is precisely this divorce between the concept he has of himself and his actual being that makes Alidor comic and, in an anachronistic way, a parody of the real Cornelian hero. Alidor's "extravagance" is further demonstrated by his lack of a true sense of values, and therefore of a goal. The few values that he manages to enunciate are negative, as if the author had wished to warn us against these before proposing more valid ones. Wandering aimlessly Alidor thus stumbles into victory, unaware not only of the misery he has created for others, but also of the emptiness of what seems a triumph to him, but is nothing more than utter failure. It is precisely what he states that "henceforth I live, since I live for myself (1579), that one feels like asking him "why?" What is this "moy" for which he so wants to live? The best that can be said for it, the most that he can guarantee for himself at the time of that last tirade is that he will never again be caught or hurt by love. Poor victory indeed, and not much of a career. It may well be, as Octave Nadal has suggested, that Alidor "announces Rodrigue," but hardly in any positive manner [Le sentiment de l'amour dans l'œvre de Pierre Corneille, 1948].

VII L'Illusion comique

With La Place Royalle, Corneille must have felt that he had exhausted the vein that had brought him great fame and some fortune and he turned to tragedy, a form that was enjoying a tremendous revival at the time. Still, he did not abandon comedy entirely, and within months of the creation of Médée, in the summer of 1635, L'Illusion comique was performed for the first time. Insofar as the plot and the characters are concerned, L'Illusion is a radical departure from the previous plays.

Pridamant, a good burgher, alienated his son Clindor through excessive severity ten years previously. To obtain some news of him, he consults the magician Alcandre who proposes to show him, magically, some of his son's many adventures. As the play within the play begins, we see Clindor—who has had many adventures and jobs in the ten years—in the employ of a swashbuckling Mata-more. Both love Isabelle who is further admired by Adraste, while Lise, the maid of Isabelle, loves Clindor. While Matamore boasts of imaginary exploits and flees at the slightest danger, Clindor and Isabelle confess their love to each other. Jealous, Adraste fights Clindor who wounds him and is cast in jail for it. He is about to be condemned to death, but Lise conspires to allow him to escape by offering herself to the jailer, who loves her. The four are about to escape when the magician interrupts his evocation to show something even more startling to Pridamant. As the last act begins we see Clindor, who has obviously forsaken Isabelle, courting a princess whose husband sends men to kill Clindor for his boldness. But this tragic scene is an illusion in every way: we have just been allowed to witness a play within the play within the play, in that Clindor and Isabelle, after their successful escape, had joined a troupe of actors and were merely performing this fragment of tragedy. Pridamant, impressed by his son's success, goes to join him in Paris.

As can readily be seen from this plot summary, L'Illusion is indeed a departure from the vein previously mined by Corneille. This departure, however, concerns only the story and the main characters, for in theme, L'Illusion is the culmination, not the rejection, of the earlier plays. Until this play Corneille had shown a deftly controlled verve which he now let loose in what Garapon had called "verbal fantasy," concentrated in the person of Matamore, the miles gloriosus of antiquity, brilliantly revived by Corneille. More important still is the idea, not that Matamore lives in a world of fantasy (in that his exploits are imaginary), but that his world is literally an illusion which is not to be taken seriously. L'Illusion not only contains a very eloquent apology for the theater—culminating in the scene that sends father to rejoin son—but it is the embodiment of Corneille's dicta. The people creating illusions, be they magicians or actors, and illusion itself are the real heroes of the play. Appearances forever preempt reality, and Alcandre is not unlike Corneille himself in that respect. One might well ask why Alcandre does not, as requested, satisfy the father by giving him news of his son in a straightforward manner. If he did, of course, there would be no play, but the real reason is more complex for, as Clifton Cherpack points out, Alcandre, like a playwright, is compelled by the very presence of a captive audience to "demonstrate his talents" [Modern Language Notes 81 (1966)]. For all their supposedly realistic descriptions, the early plays revolve around the reality-fantasy dichotomy. At the end of L'Illusion the realistic father who, by his own confession, had been too harsh with his son, runs to escape into that son's newly found never-never world.

Nor is this the only way in which L'Illusion caps off the early plays of Corneille. The Machiavellian lover, not averse to wooing both servant and mistress, is again found in Clindor, courting both Isabelle and Lise. The father cast in the role of benevolent despot because of his desire to impose a reasoned will on rebellious lovers is the remorseful spectator of his son's adventures. In La Place Royalle a young man was willing to sacrifice his love for the sake of an inner peace. In L'Illusion the young people constantly remind the older "spectators" that such is precisely their quest. Isabelle intends to be absolute mistress of her destiny (906, 515-16, and so on) in her search for "happiness and inner calm" (664). The father realizes soon enough that when he opposed his paternal authority to his son's quest for freedom (26), he invited disaster. But most important is the idea, implicit in all the plays from Mélite to La Place Royalle, explicit here, that all the world is a stage. L'Illusion comique deserves its complete title not only in that it ends well, but because "illusion" is the basic characteristic of "comedy," a word frequently used in the seventeenth century in its broader sense, denoting "drama" or "theater." L'Illusion comique is, in fact, the triumph of theatrical illusion.

If these early plays had to be reduced to one or two central ideas or themes, it would have to be the very Baroque ones of instability and illusion. All the titles or subtitles, from Les Fausses letters to L'Illusion comique bear witness to that. The world of these plays is, in the words of La Veuve's Philiste, chaotic beyond remedy (919-20), and is ruled by fickle fate with only "uneven order" (L'Illusion, 1725-28). To make matters worse, men contribute to this chaos, so that nothing is really as it seems: letters are not letters, friends are foes, confidants are spies, reality is a dream, and dreams are real. Small wonder then that many characters, like Philis of La Place Royalle, reject fidelity as a "vanity" (47-48), believing that steadfastness in an unstable world can only lead to unhappiness. Freedom, to these characters, is thus not a goal sought for its intrinsic value, or a sine qua non of self-attainment, but a protective wall saving the "hero" from involvement. Nowhere is this more evident than in La Place Royalle where the walls that imprison Angélique not only protect her from an unreliable world but also save Alidor from a dreaded servitude; it is no less apparent in L'Illusion, where all escape into the make-believe world of the theater. It is this world of marionettes on a treadmill that Médée, the first truly tragic heroine of Corneille, rejected, because she was essentially a stranger in it, and by so doing gave the theater audience of 1635 a preview of what we have come to call Cornelian drama.

Gordon Pocock (essay date 1973)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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."]

1

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 Racine's plays. Nevertheless, the general impression left by Suréna is not at all Racinian. We are on former ground if we look at Suréna by itself and ask ourselves two questions: what is Corneille trying to express? and are the means of expression appropriate?

The key to Suréna is its language. Corneille's verse is usually forthright: we expect simply rhythms, sonorous abstract words, clear antitheses, straightforward heroics, irony or invective. The verse of Suréna is consistently unlike this. Its vocabulary is in general that of neoclassical tragedy, but some of the words it uses with relatively unusual frequency for Corneille: 'mystère', 'secret', 'soupçon'; 'craindre', 'deviner', 'murmurer', 'taire'. The constructions are also characteristic: the conditional, negative, subjunctive, pluperfect; 's'il', 'il n'y a que', 'ce n'est que', 'trop de'. The rhythms are unusual in Corneille: sometimes elegiac, often hesitant or broken, as if uncertain of their direction. The verse has a fluidity, a suggestiveness, unique in Corneille, yet quite without the luminous directness that accompanies these qualities in Racine.

I will take a short passage from Act III, Scene ii. Orode, King of Parthia, owes his throne to Suréna, and wonders how to reward him. At the same time, Orode not only is anxious at having such a powerful subject, but also suspects that Suréna hopes to marry Eurydice, a princess who for political reasons must marry Pacorus, Orode's son and heir. Orode decides that the only solutions are to kill Suréna or to offer him his daughter Mandane in marriage. If Suréna accepts Mandane, he obviously does not love Eurydice, and the marriage will both reward him and bind him more closely to Orode. If Suréna refuses Mandane, it will be clear that he loves Eurydice, and is thus a danger to Orode. When Suréna comes in, Orode addresses him thus:

Suréna, vos services
(Qui l'aurait osé croire?) ont pour moi des supplices;
J'en ai honte, et ne puis assez me consoler
De ne voir aucun don qui les puisse égaler.
Suppléez au défaut d'une reconnaissance
Dont vos propres exploits m'ont mis en impuissance;
Et s'il en est un prix dont vous fassiez état,
Donnez-moi les moyens d'être un peu moins ingrat.

What are we to make of this? The verse is indirect, even slow. Is this clumsiness and fatigue, an inability to force the words and sense into a clear form? Apparently not. There is undoubted skill in the way in which the lines express Orode's convoluted thought by the careful placing of the clause in parentheses and the complicated manipulation of negatives and subjunctives. The lines express exactly the deviousness behind the king's attitude: he cannot make up his mind whether to kill or reward Suréna, and is quite unsure of Suréna's real attitude. Two qualities in the lines are notable. The first is ambiguity. It is notoriously difficult, in a sentence that contains several negatives, to be certain whether the sentence means what it seems to mean or the exact opposite. Corneille makes full use of this. After Orode's first sentence, we may well wonder whether the king is expressing gratitude or hostility: Corneille not only presents Orode as not knowing, but also leaves the audience and Suréna in doubt about the king's intentions. The use of language, then, reflects and expresses by literary means the immediate dramatic situation.

The second feature is paradox. Orode is king, Suréna is a subject, but Orode approaches Suréna with deference ('J'en ai honte, et ne puis … ', 'Suppléez au défaut'). Suréna has served the king well and returned him to power; but these 'services' are 'supplices', these 'exploits' 'm'ont mis en impuissance'. The king wishes to reward Suréna, but cannot see a gift that is sufficient: he therefore asks Suréna to give him the means with which to give (though this is just what Suréna has done in restoring the king to his throne, and this is why Orode wishes to reward him). This paradoxical quality, reinforced by the ambiguity, gives the lines a resonance which is audible at many levels: it expresses the immediate situation; it points to a paradoxical quality in the play as a whole; and it evokes suggestions of a mysterious significance beyond the immediate prose sense of the lines or the immediate (rather banal) situation. Nor does the ambiguity end here. The situation is on the face of it political: it could easily be accommodated in Nicomède. But the treatment points to something quite different. There are definite, if muted, sexual undertones. 'Ingrat', in seventeenth-century French tragedy, is the regular word for a loved one who does not return or appreciate the love bestowed on him. 'Services', 'supplices', 'reconnaissance' are words which, though ordinary in themselves, are often found with specialised meanings in the conventional language of galanterie. 'Consoler' and 'impuissance' have obvious sexual connotations. This undertone is relevant, not just to the immediate situation, but to the whole pattern of the play. Nor is the relevance just a vague fitting-in with the general mood. Some of the words ('supplice', 'impuissance', 'ingrat') have a very precise significance in the pattern. To examine what the pattern is, we shall review briefly some of the main features of the play.

First, plot. As has often been remarked, the plot is extremely simple. Orode has decided that Pacorus, who has loved and is loved by Suréna's sister Palmis, shall marry Eurydice for political reasons. Eurydice loves Suréna, and is manifestly reluctant to marry Pacorus. Orode and Pacorus realise that this is because she loves Suréna. Orode therefore has Suréna murdered. Eurydice dies (whether of grief or by suicide is not clear from the text, but, as we shall see, the significance in either case is the same). The plot material is as slight as in Bérénice. But Corneille handles it in a way which is very unlike Racine's.

In Act I, Eurydice tells Ormène, her confidante, that she must marry Pacorus, though she loves Suréna. She is jealous of Mandane, whom she thinks Suréna is likely to marry. Several points call for comment. Although Eurydice dwells lyrically on her love for Suréna, she never questions that she will in fact marry Pacorus; her grief springs hardly more from her impending marriage than from her jealousy of Mandane; this premonition that Mandane is intended to marry Suréna is so far quite unconfirmed; and Ormène says plainly that Eurydice's grief has a self-inflating quality:

Votre douleur, Madame, est trop ingénieuse.

Palmis appears, and Eurydice confesses her love for Suréna. Palmis in turn confesses her love for Pacorus. Suréna comes in, and he and Eurydice express their love for each other. Again, the precise manner in which these banal exchanges are treated is illuminating. Eurydice does not exactly reveal her secret: it is communicated to Palmis without actually being put into words:

Nor do Suréna and Eurydice exactly express their love, still less propose to do anything about it. Eurydice is mainly concerned that Suréna shall not marry Mandane, though she is quite willing for him to marry someone else; and when Suréna is about to react to this strange requirement, she cannot even let him finish:

N'achevez point: l'air dont vous commencez
Pourrait à mon chagrin ne plaire pas assez …
Mais adieu; je m'égare.

Act I, then, is characterised by simplicity only if we think of the plot-material. The emotional content and the verse are characterised by over-refinement and inconclusiveness.

The same goes for Act II. Pacorus asks Suréna whether Eurydice loves someone else. Suréna evades the question. Pacorus asks Eurydice. She agrees that she loves someone else, but refuses to say whom. Pacorus asks Palmis to tell him, and she refuses. In Act III, Orode tries to find out whether Suréna is the mysterious lover; Suréna evades him and Palmis rebuffs him. By the beginning of Act IV, Orode has presumably made up his mind, as he has the palace gates closed and guarded. Palmis also seems to assume that the secret is out, as she begs Eurydice to marry Pacorus immediately and so divert suspicion from Suréna. Pacorus himself is now convinced that Suréna is his unknown rival, though no-one has told him so. Suréna still refuses to commit himself. By the beginning of Act V, everyone assumes that Orode will now kill Suréna, though still nothing definite has been revealed about any of the characters' intentions. At the same time, it seems to be assumed that Eurydice could save Suréna by marrying Pacorus, or by allowing Suréna to marry Mandane. Nevertheless, we feel that Suréna is doomed. Sure enough, he is killed—no doubt by order of Orode, but the assassin is not named:

A peine du palais il sortait dans la rue,
Qu'une flèche a parti d'une main inconnue;
Deux autres l'ont suivie; et j'ai vu ce vainqueur,
Comme si toute trois l'avaient atteint au coeur,
Dans un ruisseau de sang tomber mort sur la place.

Eurydice dies (presumably through suicide): that is, she says she is dying and according to the usual convention is carried off-stage, but no doubt we are meant to assume that she dies. We may certainly say that the plot of Suréna is simple, but the effect it makes is not: Corneille elaborately surrounds even the simplest action with ambiguities: it is not so much that nothing happens as that the action advances in spite of the fact that nothing happens.

Let us now look at the characters. The central oppositions are clear enough: Orode suspects Suréna of loving Eurydice; Eurydice loves Suréna but is required to marry Pacorus. Having said this, immediate doubts arise. What is Orode's attitude, and what are his reasons for it? He appears at first as, above all, anxious:

Qu'un tel calme, Sillace, a droit d'inquiéter
Un roi qui lui doit tant qu'il ne peut s'acquitter!
(III.i)

Suréna is too great for a subject, and Orode fears him—yet his fear (like Eurydice's jealousy) is 'trop ingénieuse'. There is no sign that Suréna is disloyal: what worries Orode is 'un tel calme'—that is, that there is no apparent cause for worrying. Orode tyrannically draws the conclusion that he must either marry Suréna to Mandane or kill him. Then, immediately, he revolts against the thought:

Son trépas … Ce mot seul me fait pâlir d'effroi;
Ne m'en parlez jamais: que tout l'Etat périsse …

Avant que je défère à ces raisons d'Etat
Qui nommeraient justice un si lâche attentat!

When he meets Suréna, he wavers between gratitude and threats. Suréna refuses to marry Mandane, and Orode veers. He explains frankly that Suréna is dangerous to him:

Vous êtes mon sujet, mais un sujet si grand,
Que rien n'est malaisé quand son bras l'entreprend.
Vous possédez sous moi deux provinces entières,
De peuples si hardis, de nations si fières,
Que sur tant de vassaux je n'ai d'autorité
Qu'autant que votre zèle a de fidélité.
Ils vous ont jusqu'ici suivi comme fidèle;
Et, quand vous le voudrez, ils vous suivront rebelle …
Et s'il faut qu'avec vous tout à fait je m'explique,
Je ne vous saurais croire assez en mon pouvoir,

Si les noeuds de l'hymen n'enchaînent le devoir.

Frank speaking, for once in the play. But is it? Orode is presented here as a man ruled by political realism, but he is not quite like this in most of the play. In this very scene he is shown on the one hand firmly announcing that Pacorus must marry Eurydice ('La paix de l'Arménie à ce prix est jurée'), and then plaintively asking Suréna to confirm that the decision is right and that he cannot now break off the marriage:

Mais, Suréna, le puis-je après la foi donnée?
… Que dira la princesse, et que fera son père?

Is Orode a cynical statesman, caressing his victims to disarm their resistance, or is he, as this passage suggests, a much put-upon man doing his best in difficult circumstances? The answer is that he is both, and these two attitudes are held in suspense throughout the play. When in Act V he makes his last appearance, his attitude is still ambiguous. On the one hand, he is preparing to murder Suréna; on the other, he seems sincerely anxious to find a solution:

Empêchez-la [the murder], Madame, en vous donnant à nous;

Ou faites qu'à Mandane il s'offre pour époux.
Cet ordre exécuté, mon âme satisfaite
Pour ce héros si cher ne veut plus de retraite.

Nor are Orode's actions and motives just obscure; Corneille presents them as obscure by choice:

Ne me l'avouez point; en cette conjoncture,
Le soupçon m'est plus doux que la vérité sûre;
L'obscurité m'en plaît, et j'aime à n'écouter
Que ce qui laisse encor liberté d'en douter.
(V.i)

To the very last, Orode's motives and actions are left ambiguous. Suréna is killed—and by Orode's orders, though we are never told so explicitly. He is killed for disobeying the king—but we are told so in the most oblique way possible, by what a confidante thought she heard an (unknown) person say:

Et je pense avoir même entendu quelque voix
Nous crier qu'on apprît à dédaigner les rois.

In Orode's character, then, we have ambiguities in plenty: we are as far as possible from the clear-cut marionettes which nineteenth-century critics alleged populated Corneille's later plays. But the point is certainly not that Orode is presented 'in the round' (as the phrase goes) as a man who must also act as a king. The vacillation is part of the design of the play, not a part of a naturalistic character-study.

If this is true of Orode, it is doubly true of Eurydice and Suréna. Undoubtedly they love each other, but their actions are curiously oblique. Will Eurydice marry Pacorus? Of course:

Epousez-moi, Seigneur, et laissez-moi me taire …
Je ferais ce que font les coeurs obéissants …
Ce que je fais enfin.
(II.ii)

But she will not marry him yet:

Il (Pacorus) se verrait, Seigneur, dès ce soir mon époux,
S'il n'eût point voulu voir dans mon coeur plus que vous …
Pour peine il attendra l'effort de mon devoir …
Le devoir vient à bout de l'amour le plus ferme.
(V.i)

She is willing that Suréna should marry anyone else but Mandane; she is willing that he should save himself by marrying Mandane, providing he does not ask her permission:

Qu'il s'y donne, Mandame, et ne m'en dise rien.
(IV.ii)

She repeatedly (and justly) vows to kill herself if Suréna is killed, yet she refuses on the following grounds to save him by telling him to marry Mandane:

Savez-vous qu'à Mandane envoyer ce que j'aime,
C'est de ma propre main m'assassiner moimême?
(V.iv)

Eurydice loves Suréna, yet she will not save him (as Palmis tells her in V.iv, 'Il court à son trépas, et vous en serez cause'). In obeying her 'devoir' she agrees to give him up, but by refusing to give him up she kills him. The paradox is carried down from the broad design to the details. In Act I, Scene ii, she tells Palmis that Suréna can hardly love her, because he avoids her:

Mais dites-moi, Madame, est-il bien vrai qu'il m'aime?
Dites; et s'il est vrai, pourquoi fuit-il mes yeux?

Four lines later, when he has come in, she says to him:

Je vous ai fait prier de ne me plus revoir,
Seigneur: votre présence étonne mon devoir.

In a different play, this might be psychological subtlety ('Ah! je ne croyais pas qu'il fût si près d'ici'). Here, it is so only incidentally: it is a local manifestation of an allpervading paradox. This comes out most clearly in the presentation of the hero. Suréna is a hero in all senses: brave, virile, a warrior. But here he appears in a passive rôle. He takes the true heroic stand:

J'ai vécu pour ma gloire autant qu'il fallait vivre,
Et laisse un grand exemple à qui pourra me suivre.
(IV.iv)

The threats and hints of Pacorus do not move him:

Je fais plus, je prévois ce que j'en dois attendre;
Je l'attends sans frayeur; et quel qu'en soit le cours,
J'aurai soin de ma gloire; ordonnez de mes jours.
(IV.iv)

Nevertheless, he is adept at evading the issue (Orode complains of this: Suréna m'a surprise, et je n'aurais pas dit Qu'avec tant de valeur il eût eu tant d'esprit), and he is capable of equivocation, even lies, when Pacorus asks him if Eurydice had any suitors:

Durant tout mon séjour rien n'y blessait ma vue;
Je n'y rencontrais point de visite assidue,
Point de devoirs suspects, ni d'entretiens si doux
Que, si j'avais aimé, j'en dusse être jaloux.
(II.i)

Again, this ambiguity is not to be taken as a personal trait showing his lack of heroic qualities: Suréna is a hero, because we are told so in verse that is unmistakably serious. He is not a king:

Mais il sait rétablir les rois dans leurs Etats.
Des Parthes le mieux fait d'esprit et de visage,
Le plus puissant en biens, le plus grand en courage,
Le plus noble.
(I.i)
Il n'est rien d'impossible à la valeur d'un homme
Qui rétablit son maître et triomphe de Rome.
(III.ii)

The point of the contrast is that it is paradoxical. The paradox is sustained to the end. In the last two acts, it becomes suffocatingly certain that Suréna will die. The gates of the palace are shut, and we can only wait for the murder. In Act V, Scene iii, it is quite obvious that Orode has decided to kill him, and that there is no escape from the palace save through death. But Suréna does not see this:

Non, non, c'est d'un bon oeil qu'Orode me regarde;
Vous le voyez, ma soeur, je n'ai pas même un garde.

Corneille is not trying to manipulate alternatives of hope and fear so as to generate suspense. Nor is he indulging in psychological byplay about the obtuseness of heroes. Even as Suréna speaks, we know that escape is hopeless. What we have is the supreme paradox, the trapped animal who cries, 'Je suis libre'.

Suréna leaves the palace, and even this detail has its significance in the close tissue of the play. Corneille usually avoids mentioning the rooms in which the actions of his plays take place, lest we should accuse him of infringing the unity of place. In his third Discours, he introduces the concepts of a lieu théâtral in which it is assumed that characters can tell their secrets as they would in their own apartments. As he points out, this is no more than an arbitrary convention. Nevertheless, the lieu théâtral in principle represents a place where the characters could, in real life, reasonably carry out their business, as the strict critics of the time demanded. Usually we can make out which concrete place it represents at any one time. A clear example is Tite et Bérénice. Act I takes place in Domitie's apartment: she voices her secret thoughts there, and Domitian comes to visit her. Act II is in Tite's audience chamber: Domitan, Domitie and Bérénice all come to him there. Tite expressly sends Bérénice to her apartment, and Domitie resolves to visit her there. Act III, then, is set in Bérénice's apartment, and the others come to visit her. In these three acts, we have three different rooms in the palace, and the reasons for the characters' comings and goings between them are plainly accounted for, as in any naturalistic play. They could be represented by three different sets, and the fact that they were all represented by one palais à volonté is purely a concession to the exigencies of stage-setting and the demands of the critics for exact unity of place. In Acts IV and V, however, Corneille cannot manage so neatly: the complications of the plot demand too much coming and going. He therefore takes refuge in vagueness. But this vagueness is due to embarrassment about the unity of place: we feel he would set his scenes in a definite room if he could.

There is nothing of this feeling in Suréna. The action takes place in an ideal space: a palace with gates that can be closed and with a street outside, but with no precise geography. Here the lovers meet, here the king consults his counsellor, here the king comes to visit Eurydice, but the place is impossible to define realistically. It is at once an open space to which all can come, a prison from which there is no escape, and an enclosure which anyone leaves at his peril: when Suréna leaves, he dies. It is not a series of physical rooms: it is a lieu vague; a place where dreams cross.

We can now perhaps look back at some of the features of the verse. It is full of the seventeenth-century jargon of love—'feux', 'flammes', 'soupirs'. What is extraordinary is how Corneille gives life and vigour to these banalities. Pacorus says he cannot marry Eurydice if she loves someone else:

Que sera-ce, grands dieux! si toute ma tendresse
Rencontre un souvenir plus cher à ma princesse,
Si le coeur pris ailleurs ne s'en arrache pas,
Si pour un autre objet il soupire en mes bras!
(II.i)

The first two lines are insipid enough, but with the last two the dead metaphors revive. 'Arrache', with its cruel tearing sound; its association with 'coeur' (a key word in the play); the way in which the abstract 'objet' takes on a new significance by association with the physical reality of a woman 'sighing' (another word that comes in again and again) actually in the arms of her husband; these catch up the dull jargon into the more intense life of poetry.

We may find a controlling purpose in the apparent clumsiness of some of the verse. Ormène reports to Eurydice:

Oui, votre intelligence à demi découverte
Met votre Suréna sur le bord de sa perte.
Je l'ai su de Sillace; et j'ai lieu de douter
Qu'il n'ait, s'il faut tout dire, ordre de l'arrêter.
(IV.i)

Even in this fragment the themes of the play appear: 'à demi découvert' (the secret throughout is revealed without being revealed—nothing is unambiguously stated); 'votre Suréna … sa perte' (Eurydice is causing the death of her lover); 'j'ai lieu de douter / Qu'il n'ait … ordre de l'arrêter' (the characteristic doubt again); 's'il faut tout dire' (the reluctance to speak directly which characterises the play and allows the action to proceed without proceeding); and the placing of the last phrase, where the sentence is checked, like a current running back on itself (the theme of paradox that runs through the play). And what follows this speech is significant. After the ambiguities and the check to the forward movement, we have a decisive lunge forward: 'On n'oserait, Ormène; on n'oserait.' This juxtaposition of contraries is also characteristic of the play, and even here the paradoxical form is maintained: the verb 'to dare' appears in the negative and the conditional.

It should now be clear that Corneille is following a consistent method. The consistency with which indirectness and paradox are expressed at every level—the plot, the setting, the characters, the language; the avoidance of any temptation to set up peripheral centres of interest; the lack of any neat 'meaning' that can be formulated in prose terms; above all, the completeness with which the action is controlled by and embodied in the verse: all these confirm abundantly that Suréna is poetic in method. Why, more than thirty years after Cinna, should Corneille return to the poetic form? And what shall we call the result?

2

The clue can be found only if we listen carefully to the verse:

Ne me parle plus tant de joie et d'hyménée.
(I.i)

Ma flamme dans mon coeur se tenait renfermée.
(I.i)

L'amour, sous les dehors de la civilité
(I.i)

Plus je hais, plus je souffre, et souffre autant que j'aime.
(I.ii)

Mais qui cherche à mourir doit chercher ce qui tue.
(I.iii)

Il est hors d'apparence
Qu'il fasse un tel refus sans quelque préférence,
Sans quelque objet charmant, dont l'adorable choix
Ferme tout son grand coeur au pur sang de ses rois.
(Ill.iii)

Happiness is refused; love, though greatly desired, is held back from expression; the pleasure of love is therefore pain. In the last line quoted, we have an almost physical enactment of the central image: the heart, the seat of life and passion, is closed against the blood, as though the symbol of life itself refused to live (which is what Eurydice and Suréna both do). Moreover, this refusal is the result of a conscious effort. This comes up strongly in [a passage already quoted], where Orode refuses to learn the secret he desires to learn. Its fullest development is in the lovers' scene at the end of Act I. Suréna will die of grief, but Eurydice (symbolic name!) adjures him:

Vivez, Siegneur, vivez, afin que je languisse,
Qu'à vos feux ma langueur rende langtemps justice.
Le trépas à vos yeux me semblerait trop doux,
Et je n'ai pas encore assez souffert pour vous.
Je veux qu'un noir chagrin à pas lents me consume,
Qu'il me fasse à longs traits goûter son amertume;
Je veux, sans que la mort ose me secourir,
Toujours aimer, toujours souffrir, toujours mourir.

It is this deliberate holding-back which forbids escape:

Où dois-je recourir,
Ï ciel! s'il faut toujours aimer, souffrir, mourir!

The sexual imagery is obvious enough, and is carried forward to the end. Suréna dies, and immediately Eurydice dies:

Non, je ne pleure point, Madame, mais je meurs.

Whether she swoons or kills herself, the erotic parallel is plain. The tension is discharged, and in Palmis's last words the normal pattern of Cornelian energy reasserts itself. There is nothing languid about the last lines of Corneille's last play:

Suspendez ces douleurs qui pressent de mourir,
Grands dieux! et, dans les maux où vous m'avez plongée,
Ne souffrez point ma mort que je ne sois vengée!

Corneille is of course not merely exploiting the sexual suggestiveness of his theme. Still less is he imitating Racine: his theme is based on the image of refusal to become directly conscious of passion, which is very different from what we find in Racine. We must look for a deeper reason for his use of this imagery. The reason is that he is writing tragedy.

Tragedy demands a sense of the inevitable, of a daemonic and perhaps malevolent power beyond conscious human control. Corneille as a poet had never admitted such a power; his plays, however harsh, leave men's destinies either in the hands of men, or at least formally in the hands of a benevolent providence. In Suréna, perhaps because Racine had shown that such a conception was possible, he turns inwards to find this ineluctable fate. To be sure, it is not embodied in the instincts themselves—this is not Corneille's view of human nature—but in the conscious effort to control these impulses. But—and this is the distinctive feature of Suréna—this conscious effort has become merged with the automatisms it suppresses. Hence this curious paradox, this flowing back of the stream upon itself, which gives the play its inner tension. This is a difficult conception to render, and one which is equally far removed from optimistic metaplay and the ritual and public tragedy of the Greeks. In Suréna, fate is inevitable, yet private and human: it is still caught and held 'sous les dehors de la civilité'.

3

Suréna is the most difficult of Corneille's plays to judge. The best starting point is perhaps the critique by Steiner, who, though he sees the high merit of the play, finally decides that it fails by a small margin to achieve greatness. His reasons are three: the verse is uneven because of the attempt to express things for which the heroic couplet is not suited ('Sometimes the complex motion—the attempt to maintain a free impulse beneath a rigid surface—produces in the verse a curious sag or concavity'); there is a softness about the play which is elegiac rather than dramatic ('Corneille's purpose … I take it, was the creation of a kind of dramatic elegy—a drama of lament rather than of conflict'); and the action is too weak ('Perhaps the action is too slight to sustain the elaboration and the complexity of the poetic means').

The overall judgment is hard to fault, and the adverse criticisms obviously have substance. Nevertheless, if the reading suggested in this chapter is correct, we might formulate them rather differently. Suréna is a poetic play, and the poetry is of a high order. The occasional weaknesses of the verse—by which Steiner perhaps means the awkwardness of such passages as Ormène's speech [already quoted, which begins with the words "Oui, votre intelligence à demi découverte"]—are not weaknesses of expression at all: they result from the thoroughness with which the overall design of the play is made to inform every detail. Nor is it quite fair to complain of the elegiac softness of the plot: the indirectness and ambiguity spring from the rigour with which the form of every element is dictated by the central meaning of the play. In my view it is also slightly misleading to speak of the action as being too slight to sustain the elaboration and complexity of the poetic means: in Suréna, to a quite remarkable extent, the poetic means are the drama. Rather than saying that the action will not sustain the poetry, we might say that the action and the verse, each in their own mode, are the exact expression of the meaning of the play. It is not as though directness and slowness of action in themselves make a play undramatic. There are many works of the highest quality which in their several ways are more tenous, more obscure, more lacking in plot, than Suréna:Prometheus Bound, The Trojan Women, En Attendant Godot, Long Day's Journey into Night, The Caretaker, La Guerre Civile. In each of these, we feel that the apparent lack of action is appropriate, because the simple structure of incidents is exactly what is needed to express the underlying theme; in each of them, we feel the action is dramatic, because the underlying theme is dramatic. Where we might legitimately find Suréna lacking is in the dramatic quality of its central idea. The tragic quality of the play depends very much on the concept that in complicity with our unconscious desires we may consciously seek our own destruction. This may strike us as true, and profound. But on the stage, it will nearly always seem that a conscious drive can be reversed, and if the drive is not reversed the destructiveness appears merely wilful. It is for this reason, if at all, that the play seems to lack essential strength.

I have said 'if at all' and 'seems to lack'. We have no opportunity to see the play's effect in the theatre. In the absence of this vital evidence, we cannot reach a firm conclusion about Suréna. It lacks the sweep and energy of Sertorius, just as Sertorius lacks the purity and concentration of Suréna. In Corneille's work, only Cinna combines formal perfection and strength. It is a matter of choice whether we place energy before purity of form. In our more wide-awake moments we must prefer Sertorius. But Suréna will always be loved by those who value formal perfection.

John Cairncross (essay date 1975)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 tradition,' writes Raymond Picard in his admirable analysis of the writer [Two Centuries of French Literature,] 'it has long been contended that, of all Corneille's plays, only a handful of tragedies such as Le Cid, Horace, Cinna, or Pompée (1637-43) deserve to survive. By disregarding all the rest, critics have had no trouble in reducing Corneille's genius to a few dramatic devices, some psychological stances and a certain lofty tone, and thus, by an obvious over-simplification, they have frozen the founder of the classical theatre in a pose of exaggerated sublimity.' But in fact 'his thirty-two plays show a prodigious range of talent. Far from having worked to a formula, Corneille again and again struck out in original directions, renewing his strength and genius over forty long years of writing. His work pulsates with an extraordinary creative vitality. A tragedy follows a comedy or a tragicomedy; a tragedy-ballet comes after a heroic comedy; and within the same genre there are profound differences between the plays.'

His first plays are poles apart from the stereotype of the bombastic tragedies he is represented as having written. 'With such works as Mélite, La Galerie du Palais and La Place Royale (1629-34), he created an original type of five-act comedy in verse.' They are remarkable for 'the naturalness, the freshness and the grace of the young people [portrayed], the badinage and the wit, the truth to life of the attitudes, the penetrating observation of the manners of the age—all in a simple colloquial style'. As Corneille himself pointed out (in 1634), 'My vein … often combines the lofty buskin with the comic sock, and … pleases the audience by striking contrasting notes.'

'But, at about the same time as Corneille wrote these three "contemporary" comedies, he produced in Clitandre an Elizabethan play in which fantasy runs wild. The stage changes from a wood to a prison, and then to a cave. Before the spectator's eyes, Pymantes tries to rape Dorisa who in her turn puts out one of his eyes. Frenzied, utterly impossible actions are enacted in an entirely fanciful world.' The Theatrical Illusion (L'Illusion Comique), dated 1636, also takes place in this world of fantasy, as readers will see from the Preface and translation of the play in the present volume; the irrepressible Corneille even parodies the martial sentiments of The Cid before that play was written.

What is more, though he 'appealed much more to the mind than to the eye in four or five of the finest tragedies of the seventeenth century, … he continued to delight and astonish visually … "My main aim," he wrote of the musical play of Andromède, "has been to satisfy the visual sense by the gorgeousness and the variety of the scenery and not to appeal to the intellect by cogent arguments or to touch the heart by delicate representations of the passions." '

The second obstacle to Corneille's demummification is the old but tenacious fallacy that his plays represent a school-book conflict, especially in The Cid, between 'love which is alleged to be a passion replete with weaknesses and honour which dictates duty. The carefully pondered love, which one feels for and claims from someone whom one deems worthy of it, is also a duty. Rodrigo goes so far as to affirm in a lyrical meditation at the end of the first act

Duty's not only to my mistress. It
Is also to my father.

Moreover, the two types of duty do not really conflict. If he does not avenge the insult done to his father, Rodrigo will draw down on himself the contempt of Ximena and will thereby forfeit her love for that love implies esteem and even admiration. Paradoxically it is his love for her, as well as his honour, that forces him to kill his sweetheart's father and thus to raise an obstacle between the two lovers which might to some appear insurmountable. As soon as Rodrigo has transcended the basic option between cowardice which would have involved the loss of everything—honour and love—and heroism, which is his vocation, he has no alternative but to fulfil his destiny as a hero. In this as in other tragedies, what is cornélien is the intolerable and sometimes agonizing situation in which the character is trapped and from which he can free himself only by shouldering his responsibility as a hero.

'Now, as it happens, Corneille's characters are nothing if not heroes. Rodrigo, Horace, Augustus and Nicomedes are of more than human stature. Endowed with extraordinary moral strength, they possess to the utmost degree the virtue of générosité (nobility of soul); they are ready to devote all their inner resources to the task of incarnating their sublime image of themselves. Will-power, self-control, courage and judgement, all these enhance man's powers and his greatness. In the humanist world in which they live, it would seem that nothing—misfortune, suffering or catastrophe—can undermine their overweening integrity. Fortified by their energy and stoicism, they have nothing to fear at the hands of Destiny. They will parry its blows, or bear them uncomplainingly. Fate may dog their steps. For them, it is nothing but a congeries of external accidents and mishaps, and it is powerless to force an entry into their hearts and alter their resolve. Man is entirely free and fully responsible. He has no grounds for dreading the gods. When treating the most sombre theme in Greek tragedy, Corneille in his Oedipe (1659) radically transforms the spirit of the legend and does not shrink from writing

The heavens, fair in reward and punishment,
To give to deeds their penalty or meed
Must offer us their aid, then let us act.

This concept of free will is clearly borrowed from the Jesuits and the humanist tradition. The tragic element in Corneille, then, is not to be sought in the pathetic helplessness of the characters but in the harrowing circumstances in which a wicked fate has placed them. What we have, in a way, is a tragedy of circumstances, over which the hero must rise superior, relying on his own forces.

'But he does so only after exacting and grievous efforts. Corneille's characters are no cardboard supermen. For them, heroism is not a second nature to which they need merely abandon themselves. They are not sublime automata. They know what suffering is, and they sometimes vent their feelings in lyrical stanzas and in monologues. They are tugged this way and that. They are rent by inner conflicts, and they admit as much. Ximena confesses that Rodrigo "tears [her] heart to pieces"; but she adds, it is "without dividing [her] soul" (III, 3); Pauline also, in Polyeucte, recognizes that her duty "tears her soul" although it "does not alter its resolve" (II, 2). There is no doubt that we must jettison the half-baked concept of the swashbuckling Cornelian hero, always sure of himself and unhesitatingly sublime, whose greatness is manifested primarily in a swaggering boastfulness. Even Augustus (in Cinna) complains of having "a wavering heart" (IV, 3). It is only at the end of the play when he proves victorious over himself that he exclaims (and this is more wishful thinking than actual fact):

I'm master of myself as of the world.
(V, 3)

There is a quivering sensitivity at loggerheads with itself, a three-dimensional reality, in these characters who are too readily described as being all of a piece. Heroism is not something already conferred on them. It is conquered stage by stage as the action unfolds. The hero takes shape before the spectator's eyes. People are not born heroes, they become heroes. Corneille's Theatre is, in the literal sense of the phrase, "a school of moral greatness".

'This greatness is not always synonymous with goodness and virtue. A great crime is also a great deed. Moral power and energy are important in their own right and not only because of the enterprises on which they are brought to bear. Thus, Cleopatra's crimes in Rodogune (1644) "are accompanied by a moral greatness which has something so grandiose about it," notes Corneille, "that, at the same time as we detest her actions, we admire the source from which they spring" (First Discourse). What one has to do is to arouse in the spectators' hearts a feeling of astonishment, indeed a transport, whether of horror or admiration, at the deeds of which man is capable at the summit of his powers. Now in Corneille the hero arrives at this paroxysm only when the society in which he lives and his place in it are challenged, when his gloire—that is, his dignity, his reputation, his honour—are at stake, as well as the safety of the state. Political interests are regarded as providing the hero with the best opportunity and means for their fulfilment. Hence their important role in this theatre. Love, as against this, remains in the background, for tragedy "calls for some great issue of state … and seeks to arouse fears for setbacks which are more serious than the loss of one's mistress". In Sertorius (1662), one character asks

When plans of such importance are conceived,
Can one put in the balance thoughts of love?
(I,3)

And in the same play, another character gives the following advice:

Let us, my lord, let's leave for petty souls
This lowly give and take of amorous sighs.
(I,3)

Love, which is convincingly portrayed in many guises in such a host of characters, may prove their downfall. It cannot shape their destiny.'

It could be added … that the particular type of heroism analysed by Picard is not to be found in the early works. It is only in The Place Royale (1634) that we find the first traces of the conviction which was to pervade all his later plays—that the hero must retain his inner, moral independence, especially in love. The dominant note until then is 'a joyous lust for life, a certain cruelty, a pronounced taste for women in their simplest and most sensual aspects, a love for sword play and adventure'. There is no trace, for example, of his subsequent ideals in The Theatrical Illusion, which has the same freshness and fantasy as some of Shakespeare's comedies. In the same way, Corneille was uninhibited by the famous three unities which demanded that the central subject be closely knit, the scene unchanging, and the action confined to the space of twenty-four hours.

In The Cid, on the contrary, the new heroic ideal is the driving force in the minds and acts of the main characters, as Picard has so lucidly shown. But in that play there is such a powerful charge of youthful passion and excitement and such a balance between richness of episode and tautness of construction that the work is free from pompousness, unreal heroism or contrivance.

However, The Cid, though universally popular and the first masterpiece of the classical French stage, came under heavy fire from the playwright's rivals and was later submitted (in 1637) by Cardinal Richelieu to the newly founded French Academy (the literary establishment of the day) which was to act as an arbiter between the opposing factions. The Academy, though it tried hard to be fair, was in the main composed of 'the learned' who, while able to see the formal weaknesses of the work, were blind to its elemental greatness. Their findings praised Corneille warmly, but agreed with the critics that he had not observed the rules. Corneille was deeply hurt by the verdict, and his friend, Chapelain, found him two years later still obsessed by this issue and working out arguments to refute the Academy's strictures. Even in 1660, he was still trying in his critical writings to win a retrospective battle on this debate.

And hence, when he emerged from a three-year silence and produced Horatius and Cinna (in 1640), his craftsmanship, his choice of subject and his views had suffered a sea-change. True, he was always to maintain that he accepted the rules only to the extent that they suited him (but, as a modern writer has put it neatly, only once he had established what the rules were), but all his life, as far as he possibly could, he tried to stick to them, and often with the most disturbing results. For his innate tendency was to cram his five acts with the most varied action, whereas the three unities are suited to the spare psychological tragedy where external action is reduced to the absolute minimum (as in Racine's works).

The same switch in emphasis is reflected in his subjects. Whereas both The Cid and The Theatrical Illusion are Spanish by inspiration and source, Horatius and Cinna (for the first time in Corneille's theatre) take place in ancient Rome. Of course, the change was not an absolute one, for Corneille by no means abandoned Spain as a quarry for dramatic themes. But that he veered in a different direction is clear.

And lastly, there is a difference in the political values underlying his work. In The Cid, even if we make the fullest allowances for the fact that the action takes place at the height of the Middle Ages in Spain when kings were by no means absolute, there is a distinct contrast between the image of the monarch in, say, The Cid and in Cinna. In the former play, the king is still very much primus inter pares. He is dependent on, and is defied by, his general (the Count) to a far greater degree than any other prince in Corneille's theatre, and certainly than Augustus. What is more, the spotlight in The Cid is focused on a mere knight—and a twenty-year-old stripling at that. On the other hand, the men who challenge the limitless power of Caesar (Cinna, Maximus and the rest) would be ignominiously swept into the discard of history were they not rescued by the equally limitless nobility of soul of the emperor. Here again, of course, it is not a question of a complete volte-face. Corneille retains his belief in the superiority of the concept of the king as a Christian knight, firm but merciful, as against that of the centralized monarchy and its Machiavellian ethos which was being sponsored by Richelieu. And the heroism which, from The Cid on, is a constant of his work is not only based on grandeur of soul, but is placed at the service of the romanesque ideal of honour.

'Romanesque', as the form of the word indicates, stands for the type of literature and ethos derived from the medieval romance, and hence impregnated with its spirit. The romanesque thus meant the far-fetched, the unusual, the adventurous, the ideal, often with a touch of the supernatural. The typical subjects were the exploits of knights errant—single combats and abductions. The guiding principle was that of honour and a romantic devotion to the beloved, and the ending was always a happy one. Much of the material for romanesque novels or plays was taken from Spain. (There was, it has been noted, a large Spanish colony in Corneille's native Rouen.) In this largely feudal world, nobility of soul and nobility of rank are broadly identical. If abstraction is made of this equation, however, the romanesque ethos of the early seventeenth century is disconcertingly similar to that of the cinema. There are also close analogies with the works of Shakespeare, and it is perhaps in this perspective that Corneille can best be appreciated by an Anglo-Saxon public. In fact, in the rare cases where the language barrier has been surmounted, the reaction of English and American readers is usually one of incredulous delight at finding a French classical dramatist in whose plays events actually happen and which do not consist simply of endless discussions.

Of Corneille the man, only the briefest account is called for. He was born of sound bourgeois stock in 1606 in the Norman town of Rouen, and, after studies with the Jesuits (who at the time had most of pre-University education in their hands), he entered the legal profession and practised till 1662 when he moved to Paris with his brother and fellow writer, Thomas. He was a model father to his seven children, though perhaps somewhat over-keen in soliciting pensions and favours, for example by obsequious dedications. He was also the first dramatist to treat his works as an important source of income, which shocked many of his contemporaries. He was awkward in speech and manner, but was always attracted, though within respectable limits, by women. He was justifiably proud of his works and fiercely aggressive in defending them against criticism. As Adam puts it, he had an unfortunate way of proving that he was right. He resented competition and used the 'Norman clan' (his brother and Donneau de Visé, who controlled much of the press at the time) to suppress his competitors such as the up-and-coming Racine, who referred to him waspishly as 'an ill-intentioned old playwright'. Corneille had small cause for such defensiveness, for he was the uncontested master of the dramatic scene. In 1663, a collected edition of his plays was published in two folio volumes—an honour usually reserved for the classics such as Virgil. He lived modestly, but there is no truth in the assertion that he died in poverty (1684, at the age of 78).

There is no obvious link between Corneille's life and theatre, unless we regard the latter as an escape from his relatively modest social position in an aristocratic world. He was a typical representative of his age in his attitudes, but he was highly untypical in his literary craftsmanship. To his inventive and inexhaustible dramatic genius must be added an infinite capacity for going over his works again and again, usually, but not always, with felicitous results, which, however, improved the clarity and impact of the lines rather than the music. If he lacks the harmony of Racine, he has a power and sonority which often, in the original, remind the listener of the finer flights of Elizabethan tragedy.

Sharon Harwood-Gordon (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 that met with sharp disapproval from both the critics and the public ensued, and, finally, with the failure of Pertharite in 1652 after only one performance, the weary dramatist acknowledged his passing from favor with theatre audiences and withdrew from dramatic production for seven years. However, when he returned to the stage in 1659 with the production of Oedipe, he once again found audiences willing to accept his particular style of tragedy. But his newly recovered mastery proved to be short-lived, for his moment of glory was soon dimmed by the brilliance of a young rival whose style and mood seemed more in harmony with that of audiences in the 1660's. During the remaining years of the seventeenth century Corneille was recognized as the talented author of the famous quartet of tragedies—Le Cid, Horace, Polyeucte, and Cinna—but the other plays of his repertory were generally ignored. The eighteenth century was particularly harsh in its attitude toward Corneille's dramatic compositions, which were scorned for their grandiloquent and unnatural style and ridiculed for their ponderous debates on the hierarchy of duties that forms the basis of so many Cornelian conflicts. Although Corneille began to find favor again with the Romantics, he was never as highly esteemed as his younger colleague, Racine. An ambivalent attitude toward the genius of Corneille and the literary merits of his work has persisted to the present day. Even though the universal themes of duty, honor, love, faith, and patriotism remain as true today as they were more than three hundred years ago, the modern reader feels at times bewildered and occasionally frustrated by the ornate linguistic style of Cornelian tragedy. However, we [can] see that the use of such a complex and embellished manner of speech contributes significantly to the definition of the characters' individual psyches and to the establishment of an appropriate psychological atmosphere for the tragedies.

The tragedies of Pierre Corneille have been criticized since the time of Voltaire for their grandiloquence, bombast, and excessive ornamentation; they are frequently characterized as being unrealistic and unnatural in both content and form. Critics have renounced the plays of Corneille for their failure to reflect the natural manner of expression of ordinary human beings, and this observation is quite accurate. But one must remember that Corneille's heroes and antagonists are not ordinary human beings who speak and act according to the codes of modern society; Corneille's personages are, on the contrary, extraordinary, superhuman creatures who belong to a rarefied heroic universe to which the conventional, everyday mortal, filled as he is with doubts, uncertainties, and trepidations, does not have access.

The exuberance and lyrical majesty of Corneille's style in his early tragedies is due at least partially to the writer's acquaintance with the declamatory grandiloquence of Renaissance tragedy. As a student in Rouen the young Corneille undoubtedly read the works of Jodelle, Montchrestien, Desmasures, La Taille, and Grevin whose works frequently echo the lyrical harmony of the Pléiade. The lengthy and ornate monologues coupled with the presence of lyrical choruses that serve as a commentary and elaboration of the action no doubt inspired the young dramatist to model the dramatic discourses of his early tragedies on the Renaissance style.

During the early years of the seventeenth century, especially in provincial centers such as Rouen, the philosophical heritage of the Renaissance still lived. The humanistic ideals that proclaimed man's innate goodness, probity, and strength of character had not, during the formative years of Corneille's education and training, yielded to the pessimistic view of human nature that would shadow the moral atmosphere of Corneille's later years. In the first few decades of the seventeenth century man continued to be seen as a powerful and virtuous creature whose will could triumph over most obstacles of human invention. And the individual was free to espouse the loftiest of ideals, which he was quite capable of defending and promulgating. Paul Bénichou has observed that Corneille has not in modern times been generally appreciated because of the "inhumaine bienséance morale" of his work [Morales du grand siècle, 1948]. Modern readers often feel uncomfortable with the uncompromising commitment to a sublime ideal that is made by so many Cornelian heroes; these readers dismiss as vainglorious, pompous, even absurd the Cornelian dedication to virtue, honor, and duty. Corneille's contemporaries, however, did not share this sentiment, for they greatly admired the passion, fire, and vigor of Cornelian tragedy. Mme de Sévigné spoke for the majority of her contemporaries when she wrote of her admiration for "ces tirades … qui font frissoner." During the age of Louis XIII the humanistic ideals still prevailed, particularly among the aristocracy who were, during this epoch, making a last heroic effort to affirm their supremacy with respect to the king. Under the ineffectual Louis XIII and during the minority of Louis XIV the power and influence of the nobility were aggrandized to the point that the aristocrats maintained for the last time the illusion that they were in control of France. During this period, which coincides with the composition of Corneille's most noble and grandiloquent tragedies, the nobility clung ferociously to the last vestiges of their feudal supremacy. The heroic stoicism and lofty eloquence of such heroes as Rodrigue, Horace, Polyeucte, and Auguste seem quite natural in the "atmosphère de la gloire, de la générosité et du romanesque aristocratiques, telle qu'on la respirait en France pendant le règne de Louis XIII … " [Bénichou]. The grandiloquent monologues, tirades, and stances spoken by Cornelian heroes and heroines in the early tragedies thus mirror the prevailing moral and psychological atmosphere of the times. And Corneille was not alone in glorifying the super-human hero whose will was stronger than his passions and whose polished discourse echoes the sublimity of his nature; exceptional individuals who are strong in soul and sublime in speech abound in the tragedies of Corneille's contemporaries such as Tristan l'Hermite, Rotrou, Mairet, Scudéry, and Du Ryer.

Corneille's style is thus a faithful mirror of the psychological, philosophical, and social attitudes of his day. Corneille's heroes belong to the rarefied universe of the French aristocracy at the crucial moment of its last undaunted assertion of political authority. Corneille creates a lofty and grandiloquent parlance for heroes who are larger than life, whose passions, ideals, and aspirations are noble, august, defiant, and majestic. Their speech is the somewhat pompous, ostentatious style appropriate to the aristocratic cavaliers who saw themselves as the appointed instigators of all movement in French society—a right to which they were entitled by their illustrious ancestry. And yet their manner of speech is not the mere braggadocio of a swaggering miles gloriosus; Corneille's heroes, like many of their real counterparts, were firmly committed to illustrious ideals and lofty aspirations that could be expressed only in extraordinary language. In this context, the elaborate discourses so brilliantly colored with highly ornate figures of speech and thought are in perfect accord with the lofty ideals of the hero who strives constantly to subjugate his base passions to his will and reason.

Previous

Corneille, Pierre (Drama Criticism)