Polyeucte, although a favorite of the general public in Pierre Corneille’s time, was not considered his best play. Modern criticism, however, has revised this judgment. Despite the play’s somewhat improbable plot, climaxed by miraculous conversions, it holds for today’s public particular religious interest, since it deals with the working of divine grace in the human soul. It is, however, the strong delineation of the main characters that has won for this work its present acclaim.
Ever since Polyeucte’s initial performance, critics have wondered what Corneille meant when he called the play “a Christian tragedy.” Corneille was a practicing Catholic who was educated by Jesuits. He translated religious works such as The Imitation of Christ (1486), a work traditionally attributed to Saint Thomas à Kempis, into French. No serious critic has ever questioned the sincerity of Corneille’s commitment to Christianity. For the title character in Polyeucte there is no conflict. Although he loves his wife, Pauline, he understands clearly that he would lose his immortal soul if he were to renounce Christianity to save his life. When he married Pauline, he was still a pagan, but afterward he received the gift of faith and was converted to Christianity, a religion then persecuted throughout the Roman Empire. He respects the temporal authority of his father-in-law Félix, who is the Roman governor of Armenia, but Polyeucte realizes that he owes a higher allegiance to God than he does to the Roman Empire. Certain critics have suggested that Polyeucte can be viewed as a tragedy for its other three principal characters, namely Félix, Pauline, and the Roman nobleman Sévère, but it is necessary to stress the major differences among these three characters.
Until his totally unexpected conversion announced in the final scene of the fifth act, Félix acts in a petty and insensitive manner. Félix is from Rome, and he considers himself superior to the Armenians whom he governs. Before her marriage to Polyeucte, Pauline had been attracted to Sévère, but she willingly acceded to her father’s request when he arranged her marriage to Polyeucte. Félix thought that Polyeucte would have a more promising political career than Sévère, but things turned out differently. Polyeucte never developed any interest in political intrigue, and Sévère’s military valor...
(The entire section is 987 words.)