Critical Evaluation

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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 brought him to the attention of influential people in Rome, and he quickly became a trusted confidant of Emperor Decie. Pauline loves and respects her husband, who is a decent and kind man. Félix is, however, insensitive to his daughter’s feelings for her husband, and he regrets bitterly that he chose the wrong husband for her. When he learns from Sévère that the Roman emperor Decie, who reigned for just two years (249-251), demands that all Roman governors enforce Roman laws that required a sentence of death for people found practicing Christianity, Félix does not hesitate. He is more afraid of losing his political position than worried about saving the life of his son-in-law. Félix also acts in a rather sadistic manner. In a vain effort to persuade Polyeucte to renounce Christianity, he forces his son-in-law to watch the execution of his friend and fellow Christian Néarque, but his martyrdom serves only to reinforce Polyeucte’s commitment to Christianity. Why should he fear death? He believes that his martyrdom will guarantee his spending eternity in heaven.

For Félix and Polyeucte no tragic conflict exists, but this is not necessarily the case for Sévère and Pauline. Their passion for each other was profound, and they would have gotten married had Félix not chosen Polyeucte to marry Pauline. Pauline and Sévère are, however, responsible adults, and they both resist temptation....

(This entire section contains 987 words.)

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Neither wants to commit adultery. Although her confidant, Stratonice, and her father tell her repeatedly that Néarque had “seduced” Polyeucte into converting to the hated religion of Christianity, Pauline still loves her husband and respects his judgment.

The most emotionally charged scene in Polyeucte is act 4, scene 3, which takes place in Polyeucte’s prison cell. Pauline tells her husband that his desire for martyrdom means that he has rejected her after she had sacrificed everything for him. Polyeucte assures her that he still loves her so much that he wants to lead her to Christianity so that she can also be saved. She is baffled by his arguments, which she describes as a “strange blindness.” Sévère is equally mystified by the behavior of Christians who willingly sacrifice their lives and even pray for those who condemn them to death. At the end of the fourth act, Sévère speaks of his intention of defending Polyeucte and other Christians who have been sentenced to death.

Also, there is a tragic misunderstanding between Sévère and Félix. Félix assumes that Sévère will have him dismissed from his position if he appears weak by requesting clemency for his son-in-law or if he does not enforce Decie’s cruel and unjust laws against Christians by ordering the execution of Polyeucte. Félix does not realize that Sévère believes that certain laws are so unconscionable that one’s conscience requires one to resist them. Félix acts hastily and orders Polyeucte’s execution before Sévère has an opportunity to reverse this unjust decision.

The martyrdom of Polyeucte produces extraordinary changes in the other three major characters. Félix and Polyeucte receive the divine grace of faith and announce their conversions to Sévère, who spares them both and expresses a fervent wish that the persecution of Christians will soon end. Polyeucte does not truly express a tragic vision of the world, but it does illustrate Corneille’s extraordinary skill in creating heroic characters whose actions are so admirable and exemplary that they provoke unexpected moral changes in others.