An examination of Robert Garnier’s uvre discloses a marked progression: Of his first four plays, three (Porcie, Cornelia, and Antonius) treat the history of the collapse of the Roman Republic as recorded by Plutarch in his Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579).
Cornelia, published in 1574, is typical. Centering on Pompey the Great’s defeat in 48 b.c.e., the play presents Cornelia’s lamentations over the death of her husband two years earlier. Imitating very closely the Senecan model, Cornelia is structurally very similar to Porcie and to Antonius. The first act consists of a long monologue that serves as prologue: Ciceron sets the scene, moralizing on the continuing civil discord in Rome, which he interprets both as an inevitable turn of Fortune’s wheel and as Jupiter’s punishment for Rome’s overweening pride. A chorus summarizes Ciceron’s speech. In act 2, Cornelia and Ciceron engage in a long dialogue in which Cornelia laments the death of Pompey; ever the philosopher, Ciceron attempts to soothe Cornelia’s deepening despair. Composed of long speeches interspersed with stichomythic passages, this conversation concludes with the chorus’s meditation on the world as a scene of perpetual transformation and on the transitory nature of Caesar’s tyranny over Rome. Act 3 again focuses on Cornelia’s grief; in a dialogue with the chorus, she expresses her fear that her father and son may meet the same fate as Pompey. Ciceron follows with a commentary of Caesar’s present success and questions why fate has delivered the virtuous Romans over to a dictator. He foresees a day when the now-enslaved Romans will revolt against their master. After Ciceron’s exit, Philippes, a former servant of Pompey, brings to Cornelia an urn containing his master’s ashes. The prudent Philippes exhorts Cornelia to moderate her violent imprecations against a vengeful and watchful Caesar. She retorts that she has nothing to fear; she welcomes death as a means to end her torment. As in the other acts, the chorus concludes act 3 with reflections on that “inconstant Goddess,” all-powerful Fortune.
Whereas acts 2 and 3 consist solely of anti-Caesar sentiments, his appearance at the end of act 4 belies the hatred directed toward him. Act 4 encapsulates opposing political viewpoints. It opens with a debate between Cassie and Decime Brute in which the impetuous Cassie expresses his desire to assassinate the tyrannical Caesar, while Decime Brute, like Philippes in act 3, emphasizes Caesar’s admirable qualities and counsels moderation. Neither character convinces the other, yet Caesar’s future assassination appears more and more probable. The entrance of the chorus prevents Antoine and Caesar himself from seeing their political adversaries Cassie and Decime Brute. In conversation with Antoine, Caesar emerges as a proud yet compassionate and patriotic leader. Despite Antoine’s warnings, Caesar, trusting in Fortune, refuses to crush those who would kill him. The last act actualizes one of Cornelia’s fears: A messenger from Africa recounts the death of her father in an epic description (202 lines) of the battle of Thapsus. Cornelia ends the play as it opened: She grieves bitterly over Pompey, her father, and Rome.
As this summary indicates, Cornelia contains very little dramatic action. Aside from the news of the death of Cornelia’s father, nothing really “happens.” Although this catastrophe confirms her worst fears, the depth of Cornelia’s despair in preceding acts makes it difficult to accept further lamentations. The audience cannot sympathize with Cornelia as she grieves for two absent—and therefore unknown—characters. It is curious that the titular heroine is never mentioned by other, important characters in the play. In act 4, Cassie and Decime Brute, and Caesar and Marc Antoine argue diverse political viewpoints, yet they never refer to the anguished Cornelia, an obvious victim of the conflicts of which they speak. Garnier’s dramaturgy is clearly quite removed from the seventeenth century’s concept of linear plot and structural unity. The play appears to be largely didactic, as Garnier himself suggests in the preface. The example of civil discord in Rome and its effect on an individual reflects the tragedy of France’s civil war between Catholics and Protestants in the second half of the sixteenth century. Garnier does not, however, present the political antagonism in simplistic terms. The audience is led to expect a cruel and inhuman Caesar; however, the reasonable and forgiving Caesar who appears in act 4 affirms that human conflict cannot be reduced to black-and-white formulas. This notion constitutes the fundamental tragic sense of the play. Which side is ultimately right? Can savage brutality for any cause ever be justified?
The plays composed between Cornelia and the later Bradamante and Sédécie: Ou, Les Juives reveal a greater economy and tension than do the first...
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