(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The action in Polyeucte takes place in the Roman colony of Armenia. Emperor Decia hates Christians and insists that all of his governors enforce his draconian laws against them. Practicing Christianity is a capital offense. Polyeucte has married Pauline, the daughter of Félix, the Roman governor in Armenia. Although she loved Sévère, she acceded to her father’s wishes and married Polyeucte because he was then richer than Sévère. Things have changed, and Sévère is now an influential adviser to Emperor Decia. Polyeucte seems to be a very ordinary person. No one expects any surprises from him, but his friend Néarque persuades him to embrace Christianity. Both Polyeucte and Pauline speak of her recurring nightmare in which she sees Polyeucte’s death. He does not take this nightmare seriously, but she is terrified. Although he wants to become a Christian, he does not want to anger Pauline and Félix, who hold Christians in contempt. After much hesitation, Polyeucte publicly reveals his conversion.

This development creates an immediate problem for Félix, Sévère, and Pauline. Should Decia’s arbitrary law against Christians be enforced? At first, Félix thinks that he can profit from Polyeucte’s martyrdom if Pauline then marries the influential Sévère. Pauline rejects this proposal and vows never to marry Sévère; she appeals to Sévère’s love for her and begs him to intervene with her father. Félix is intransigent but gives his...

(The entire section is 537 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Pauline, daughter of Félix, the Roman governor in Melitene, has been married fourteen days to Polyeucte, an Armenian nobleman. Terrified by dreams that seem to portend her husband’s death, she vainly seeks to delay his departure on a secret mission, the nature of which is known only to his friend, Néarque. She relates her fears to her friend, Stratonice, and tells her of her earlier love for Sévère, a Roman of high birth whom her father would not allow her to marry because of Sévère’s lack of fortune. When Emperor Decie had appointed Félix governor of Armenia, she had accompanied him and dutifully married an Armenian nobleman of her father’s selection. Meanwhile, they had heard that Sévère had met a hero’s death while aiding the emperor in battle against the Persians. According to the report, the young Roman’s body has never been found.

Pauline has dreamed that Sévère is not dead, but rather threatens her husband’s life; that a band of impious Christians had thrown Polyeucte at the feet of Sévère, and that she, Pauline, crying out for aid from her father, has seen Sévère raise a dagger to pierce Polyeucte’s breast. Her fears are further stirred when her father approaches and says that Sévère is alive and is at that moment entering the city. It seems that the king of Persia, struck by Sévère’s gallantry, had reclaimed the body from the battlefield to gain the Roman an honorable burial. Miraculously, life had been restored to Sévère and the Persians had sent him to Rome in exchange for royal prisoners. Thereafter, his greater deeds in war had bound him closer to the emperor, who had sent him to Armenia to proclaim the good news of his victories and to make sacrifices of thanksgiving to the gods.

His love for Pauline is what really brings Sévère to Armenia. Sévère, informed by his servant that Pauline is married, decides that life is not worth living and that he would rather die in battle. First, however, he will see Pauline. When they meet, she tells him that if hers alone had been the choice she would, despite his poverty, have chosen him. She is married, however, and she will remain loyal to the husband whom she has learned to love. Pauline and Sévère say farewell to each other, he ready to die in battle, she to pray for him in secret.

Polyeucte returns from his mission, on which he had been secretly baptized a Christian. Ordered by a messenger from Félix to attend the sacrifices in the temple, he and Néarque plan to defy the idolatry of the worshipers there. Pauline tells him of Sévère’s visit but adds that she had obtained his promise not to see her again. Stratonice, a witness at the temple sacrifices, hurries to Pauline with the news that Polyeucte has become a Christian, a traitor to the Roman gods. He has mocked the sacred mysteries and, with Néarque, declared that their god alone is the almighty king of...

(The entire section is 1184 words.)