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 son-in-law one last opportunity to avoid death. He forces Polyeucte to watch the execution of Néarque offstage. Far from discouraging him, this martyrdom only serves to strengthen Polyeucte’s commitment to his new religion, and he is executed. The martyrdom of Polyeucte unexpectedly affects Félix and Pauline, who are so moved by his courage that they both convert to Christianity. As this tragedy ends, Sévère expresses admiration for Christians and promises not to persecute them. He believes that Félix and Pauline can serve both God and Decía.
Polyeucte is a very powerful tragedy that explores with much sensitivity the importance of courage, loyalty, and personal commitment to ethical and religious beliefs. Although Polyeucte had no intention of converting to Christianity before his conversations with Néarque, he comes to realize that his life would have no meaning if he were to deny his faith. He refuses to lose his immortal soul in order to save his life. Although Pauline would have preferred to marry Sévère, Polyeucte is her husband and she admires his courage. Her love and respect for him made her ready to accept the gift of faith after his execution. Similarly, Félix was displeased that his son-in-law was not as skilled a politician as Sévère, but he did recognize Polyeucte’s honesty. Félix’s conversion to Christianity has struck many critics as almost incredible, but one cannot question his sincerity. Félix tells Sévère: “I made him a martyr, his death made me a Christian.” Polyeucte continues to fascinate readers and theatergoers by its very effective representation of heroism through characters who refuse to compromise their moral beliefs.
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...
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