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."
Little is known of Corneille's life. He was born into a middle-class family in Rouen and seems to have lived a quiet, retired, bourgeois existence all his life. His brother Thomas was also a playwright; his works, though very popular in their day, are now largely forgotten. Pierre studied law and joined the bar, but showed little aptitude for the profession. As a student he had written poetry and won prizes for his Latin versification. In 1629 he offered his first play, the comedy Mélite, ou Les fausses lettres (Melite; or, The False Letters), to a theatrical troupe led by the acclaimed actor Montdory during the group's stop in Rouen. The play was a great success when staged in Paris, and Corneille's theatrical career was effectively launched. Over the next several years, Corneille wrote five comedies—including Clitandre, La galerie du palais, ou L'amie rivale (1631; The Palace Corridor; or, The Rival Friend), and La place royale, ou I'amoureux extravagant (1633-34; Place Royale; or, The Extravagant Lover)—and the tragedy Medée (1634-35; Medea). During this period he attracted the attention of the powerful and influential Cardinal Richelieu, who enlisted him as a member of the "Society of Five Authors," a group of acclaimed writers who composed plays under Richelieu's direction, and whose number included (besides Corneille) François de Boisrobert, Guillaume Colletet, Claude de L'Estoile, and Jean de Rotrou. Although he contributed the third act to a joint effort, La comédie des tuileries (1635; The Comedy of the Tuileries), Corneille reportedly became involved in disputes with the Cardinal and soon resigned from the group.
Composed and first staged around 1636-37, The Cid was
a great popular success but gave rise to a heated controversy known as "la Querelle du Cid." The play's numerous violations of the neoclassical "rules" of tragic design prompted published attacks by Corneille's rivals as well as defenses by Corneille and his supporters. The rules demanded that the action of the play must transpire within a twenty-four-hour timeframe and must be noble in style. The matter of The Cid was eventually submitted by Richelieu to the newly formed Académie Française, which issued a judgment siding with Corneille's opponents. Wounded and discouraged, Corneille ceased writing plays for three years. After his return to the theater in 1640, he entered a very fertile period, producing at least three comedies and nine tragedies, including Horace (1640; Horatius), Cinna, ou La clémence d'Auguste (1640-41; Cinna; or, The Clemency of Augustus), and Polyeucte (1641-42; Polyeuctes), which are considered among his greatest.
In 1652 the signal failure of the tragedy Pertharite, roi des Lombards (Pertharites, King of the Lombards) led Corneille once again to leave the theater, this time for seven years. Although he attempted to regain his stature with Oedipe (Oedipus) in 1659, neither this tragedy nor the works that followed were nearly so successful as his former triumphs. Furthermore, the heroic mode of characterization that Corneille employed was giving way in public favor to the more firmly classical and Jansenist work of his younger contemporary and rival, Jean Racine. With a style that has been described as simple yet polished, smooth yet natural, Racine created dramatic characters, who—like their forerunners in classical Greek drama—are undone by their passions, driven to ruin by ungovernable impulses. Corneille, his own works paling beside Racine's, retired from the theater in 1674 and died in obscurity ten years later.
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.
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.