Governor’s palace. The fictional Armenia in this play is indistinguishable from any other Roman colony in which individual rights are ignored. This entire tragedy takes place in the palace of Félix, a Roman senator who has recently been appointed governor of Armenia. His residence seems to be comfortable, but its cellar houses a prison in which people are tortured and executed. From the very beginning of this play, Corneille effectively contrasts the elegant upstairs rooms of the rulers with the horrible downstairs prisons in which opponents of Roman rule suffer. Those who submit to Roman rule are welcome in the elegant rooms on the palace’s main floor, but below the surface there is much unnecessary suffering.
Governor Félix’s daughter Pauline, who is Polyeucte’s wife, moves between the upper and lower floors of the palace freely. She loves both her father and her husband, who has recently converted to Christianity, a religion that she does not yet understand. She believes that it should be possible for Rome to tolerate this new religion, but she soon recognizes her father’s brutality.
In an offstage scene, Félix makes his son-in-law watch in the palace’s basement the martyrdom of Néarque, who converted Polyeucte to Christianity. Far from persuading Polyeucte to abandon his new faith, it inspires in him a greater commitment to Christianity, so Polyeucte chooses to remain downstairs. The most powerful scene in this tragedy takes place in Polyeucte’s cell, when his wife implores him to save his life, but he persuades her to embrace Christianity to save her own soul. In act 5, Polyeucte’s martyrdom is announced onstage on the upper floor. His courage in accepting death provokes the conversions of both his wife and father-in-law, who come to realize that they can no longer justify brutal violations of individual rights.