Pierre Corneille Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111201537-Corneille.jpg Pierre Corneille Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although Pierre Corneille is known principally for his plays, he wrote a number of poems and at least one ballet libretto. Of his poetry there remain approximately one hundred pieces in French and a small number in Latin. Outside the theater, however, his best-known literary work is a long religious poem of thirteen thousand lines, the Imitation de Jésus-Christ, published in its entirety in 1656. A free translation of Saint Thomas à Kempis’s Latin work, it enjoyed an immediate success; four editions were published in 1656 alone. Another adaptation of a Latin religious work into a lengthy French verse, Office de la Sainte Vierge, published in 1670, was a relative failure, for it was not reedited. To accompany a three-volume edition of his plays, Corneille published in 1660 a series of essays in which he formally presented his critical theories: three Discours and the Examens (one for each play). While some critics refer to Corneille’s theory of drama as evidence that he misunderstood his own plays, the Discours and Examens can nevertheless be very helpful in understanding French classical theater. There exist twenty-four letters by Corneille, of little general interest.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Generally hailed as the originator of French classical tragedy, Pierre Corneille is recognized as a master dramatist whose work founded a theater admired and envied by the rest of Europe throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ever the innovator, Corneille attempted many types of drama during his long career. Although he is known mainly as a tragedian, his thirty-three plays include heroic comedy, comedy of manners, comedy of intrigue, sacred plays, machine plays, and ballet librettos. His career met with both dazzling success and abysmal failure. He was praised as the greatest French dramatist during the first half of his career, but the changing tastes of the Parisian audience and the popularity of Corneille’s younger rival Jean Racine marred the latter part of his life. Although his later plays were for the most part critical and financial failures, recent critics have rehabilitated a number of these mature works.

Corneille’s lasting influence on the French theater is perhaps his most noteworthy achievement. Most commentators agree that he fixed the genre of tragedy, separating it from its Greek origins and giving it an entirely new character. With Corneille, tragedy presents to its audience a precise moral and emotional conflict which is thoroughly analyzed and finally resolved through the interactions of a limited number of characters. Many have noted that Corneille’s drama is not tragic in the Aristotelian sense. It was in essence a modern conception based not on the emotions of terror and pity but rather on admiration. Although destiny plays a role in Corneillian tragedy, the Greek tragic hero, a plaything of fate, becomes for Corneille a being confronted by an apparently irresolvable—and thus tragic—conflict, but who prevails, guided by an essential freedom enlightened by sound judgment and supported by will. Derived from tragicomedy, Corneille’s tragedies, with the exception perhaps of his last play, Suréna, end on a note of hope and even joy. In general terms, it is a theater of optimism.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Explain how the themes of Pierre Corneille’s political plays can have relevance in the twenty-first century.

To what extent was Corneille’s tragic vision governed by the principles of French neoclassicism?

Reveal how training in the law assisted Corneille in constructing his plays.

Tragedy, as the modern world understands it, did not exist in Europe before the Reformation because Romantic Catholic faith militated against a tragic outlook. What circumstances allowed the Catholic Corneille in the seventeenth century to compose tragedies?

What is a tragicomedy, and how does The Cid fulfill the definition?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Abraham, Claude. Pierre Corneille. New York: Twayne, 1972. An excellent general introduction to Corneille’s plays, which also includes an annotated bibliography of important studies on Corneille.

Auchincloss, Louis. La Gloire: The Roman Empire of Corneille and Racine. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. A study of the dramas of Corneille and Jean Racine that dealt with the Roman Empire.

Carlin, Claire L. Pierre Corneille Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Carlin, Claire L. Women Reading Corneille: Feminist Psychocriticisms of “Le Cid.” New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Clarke, David. Pierre Corneille: Poetics and Political Drama Under Louis XIII. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Discusses politics and literature in seventeenth century France and Corneille’s views.

Corneille, Pierre. Le Cid. Translated by Vincent J. Chang. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987. In addition to the most faithful English translation of The Cid, the text includes five elegantly written chapters on Corneille’s life and times and an analysis of the play. Chang directs his work toward the non-French-speaking reader,...

(The entire section is 538 words.)