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...
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