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Pierre Corneille

Pierre Corneille

The French dramatist Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) wrote more than 30 plays and is often called the father of French tragedy. His tragedies characteristically explore the conflict between heroic love and heroic devotion to duty.

Pierre Corneille was born on June 6, 1606, in Rouen. Educated in the Jesuit school of the city, he completed law studies and became a lawyer there in 1624. In 1628 his father purchased for him, according to the custom of the times, the post of king's advocate in Rouen. Corneille continued for many years to discharge his legal duties as king's advocate, but his real interest was literature. At some time between 1625 and 1629 he wrote the comedy Mélite, which was taken up by a traveling theatrical troupe and subsequently presented in Paris, where it was an immense success.

French Classical Drama

In 1629 the French theater was moving away from the exuberant baroque style of the early 17th century toward a dramaturgy based on the theatrical precepts of Aristotle and his commentators since the Renaissance. The general rules included the famous principle of "three unities" (time, place, and action), according to which a play must present a single coherent story, taking place within one day in a single palace or at most a single city. They also included the principles of theatrical verisimilitude (the events presented must be believable) and of bienséance (standards of "good taste" must be followed to avoid shocking the audience). These three major precepts structured the great classical theater of the following decades in France.

Corneille apparently first encountered the theatrical mainstream while attending performances of Mélite in Paris, and he recalled in later years that his first play was "certainly not written according to the rules, since I didn't know then that there were any." Although Corneille observed the rules more conscientiously in his subsequent plays, he was never completely bound by them. His ambivalent attitude toward the Aristotelian precepts is evident in his highly baroque plays—the extravagant tragicomedy Clitandre (1630/1631), the violent tragedy Médée (1635), and the fascinating comedy L'Illusion comique (1636)—and remains apparent in his first masterpiece, Le Cid (1637).

Major Tragedies

Corneille's Le Cidis based on traditional stories about the Cid, a medieval warrior and Spanish national hero. In it the young Cid (Don Rodrigue) must avenge his father's honor by fighting a duel with the father of his own fiancée (Dona Chimène). Rodrigue thus finds himself torn between a duty to avenge family honor and a duty to act consistently with the precepts of love. To neglect either would tarnish his gloire. The concept of gloire, which combines elements of noblesse oblige, virtue, force of will, and self-esteem, seems to have formed the highest ideal of Corneille's world view. In the course of the play Rodrigue fights Chimène's father and kills him, thus forcing Chimène to choose between family honor and her love for Rodrigue. Rodrigue distinguishes himself by defending the city against a Moorish attack, and Chimène distinguishes herself by implacably pursuing vengeance against Rodrigue. In the end the King judges that both have acted according to the most heroic conception of gloire; he declares that Chimène has fulfilled her obligation to her father and commands her to marry Rodrigue within a year.

Le Cid was one of the greatest theatrical successes of the 17th century. And although its success was marred by a literary quarrel in which lesser authors attacked its sins against the literary rules, it marked Corneille as a major dramatist and opened the most important epoch of his career. During this period Corneille showed great pride in his literary accomplishments but continued to practice law in Rouen and remained very much a bourgeois provincial who had made good. He was both resentful of, and deferential to, the literary "authorities" who attacked his play. When the newly founded French Academy decided against him, he was genuinely discouraged and apparently abandoned the theater for some time. An academician who remained friendly with Corneille wrote: "I encouraged him as much as I could and told him to avenge himself by writing some new Cid. But he talked of nothing but the rules and the things he could have replied to the academicians."

Overcoming his discouragement, Corneille wrote the successful tragedy Horace (1640), which was soon followed by Cinna (1640) and Polyeucte (1642). In these tragedies he continued to explore the concepts of gloire, heroism, and moral conflict.

Horace, based on an incident from early Roman history, depicts a young man who with his brothers, the Horatii, is obliged to defend Rome in combat against three brothers (the Curatii) from an enemy town. Horace's wife, however, is a sister of the Curatii, and his own sister is engaged to one of them. In Cinna a conspirator hesitates between his fidelity to the state and the desire for vengeance of the woman he loves; and the Roman emperor Auguste, who discovers the conspiracy, must choose between vengeance or clemency for the conspirators. In Polyeucte the hero is converted to Christianity during the Roman persecution of the Christians. He openly attacks the pagan religion, and thus he, his wife, his father-in-law (the Roman governor), and a noble Roman envoy must reconcile personal feelings and religious or political duty.

Later Career

In 1644 Corneille returned successfully to comedy with Le Menteur and to tragedy with Pompée, but thereafter his success as a playwright was less consistent. Although such tragedies as Nicomède (1651), Oedipe (1659), and Sertorius (1662) were favorably received, Corneille wrote a larger number of unsuccessful plays. He tried one formula after another to make a comeback, and courtiers, great ladies, and men of letters took sides for or against him. But the success of each new play became more and more uncertain, and Corneille himself more and more embittered. His last play, Suréna (1674), skillfully imitated the style of the playwright who had eclipsed him, Jean Racine, but was less successful than Racine's play of the same year. Although Corneille remained active in the literary world, he wrote nothing more for the theater. He died on Oct. 1, 1684, in Paris.

Critical Judgment

In his tragedies Corneille's treatment of his heroes' moral dilemmas is ambiguous and has inspired divergent views of his meaning. Although his heroes typically possess almost superhuman virtue and courage, each tragedy is resolved by the intervention of superior authority. Some critics have therefore asserted that Corneille's tragic works do not inspire terror or pity, the reactions that Aristotle stated were proper to tragedy. In the 17th century, however, the critics and poet Nicholas Boileau pointed out that in differing from the Aristotelian model Corneille had written "tragedies of admiration."

Such romantics as Victor Hugo, while unfavorable to classical theater in general, admired the heroic and optimistic virtue of Cornelian personages, a characteristic that has also been noted by more recent critics. Others, however, have spoken deprecatingly of the curious innocence or naiveté of even the most admirable of Corneille's heroes and have depicted Rodrigue, Horace, Polyeucte, and the rest as prisoners of a rigid virtue and exaggerated gloire. These criticisms possess some validity but also indicate the subtlety of Corneille's tragic vision.

Further Reading

Some of Corneille's plays were translated into English verse by Lacy Lockert, ed., Chief Plays (2d ed., 1957). The best recent work on Corneille in English is Robert J. Nelson, Corneille: His Heroes and Their Worlds (1963). Nelson also reprinted selected Cornelian criticism in his excellent Corneille and Racine: Parallels and Contrasts (1966). Herbert Fogel surveyed critical opinion, The Criticism of Cornelian Tragedy (1967). The best work in English on the baroque esthetic in French literature is Imbrie Buffum, Studies in the Baroque from Montaigne to Rotrou (1957), which has chapters on some of Corneille's early plays. E. B. O. Borgerhoff, The Freedom of French Classicism (1950), and Will Grayburn Moore, French Classical Literature (1961), study the richness of 17th-century literary styles, including Corneille's.

Additional Sources

Corneille, Pierre, Polyeuctus; The liar; Nicomedes, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York: Penguin Books, 1980.

Couprie, Alain, Pierre Corneille, Le Cid, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1989. □

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Corneille, Pierre (1606–1684)


CORNEILLE, PIERRE (16061684), French dramatist and theoretician. Often considered the first major modern French playwright, Corneille was born and raised in Rouen, in Normandy, where his father was a lawyer. Little is known about his early life, except that he was a good student who studied law, but supposedly practiced only briefly. In 1625 his brother Thomas, who became a popular and respected (although now mostly forgotten) playwright, was born. Pierre's first play, Mélite, a comedy of manners, was staged in Paris in either 1629 or 1630, and during the next few years he wrote a number of comedies, including the fanciful L'illusion comique (16351636), and enjoyed the patronage of Cardinal Richelieu. In 1637 his most famous play, the tragicomedy Le Cid, was performed; it was immensely popular with audiences and yet drew critical controversy.

The proponents of the newly emerging classical aesthetic in the 1630s criticized many of the "irregularities" in the popular play and strove to reduce its influence and prevent it from serving as a precedent for imitators. During the "Quarrel of Le Cid, " critics found that the duels and the battle with the Moors stretched the credibility of the unity of time (one day), the various scenes set around the city stretched the unity of place (one locale), and the presence of the king's daughter (L'Infante) who loved Rodrigue was considered a subplot, thus destroying the unity of action (one plot line). The play mixes the genres of tragedy (death) and comedy (marriage) in a tragi-comedy, a popular form that classicism rejected. Also, the play was set in medieval Spain, that is, in a Christian context, whereas the rules of classicism held that tragic actions should be set in pagan times, ideally in ancient Greece or Rome.

In Corneille's play the young Rodrigue and Chimène love each other but are torn apart by their duty to family. In order to avenge the honor of his frail father, Rodrigue fights a duel (to the death) with the offender, who is Chimène's father. Rodrigue kills him and discovers that Chimène, despite her continued love, which she keeps secret, seeks either justice from the king or revenge from other suitors. The Moors attack, and Rodrigue, showing great skill in battle, saves the country and is recognized by the enemy as the leader, "le Cid." The king is satisfied that Rodrigue has risked his life and served his people, but Chimène still publicly seeks revenge. For her to acquiesce would be to lose honor. The king finally allows one decisive duel between Dom Sanche and Rodrigue; Rodrigue is again victorious, but he spares the life of his opponent. The play ends with plans for a marriage between Chimène and Rodrigue one year later, after she can grieve her father's death and Le Cid can further serve his country.

Corneille's next play, the more technically unified tragedy Horace, was performed in 1640, followed by Cinna (1641) and a Christian tragedy Polyeucte (16421643); these four plays formed the traditional group of his masterpieces that were esteemed in theaters and classrooms for three centuries. In 1641 Corneille married Marie de Lampérière, and the couple had six children. After several failed attempts, he was elected to the French Academy in 1647. Throughout the 1640s he was a fairly prolific playwright (Le Menteur, 1643; Rodogune, 1645; and several less successful works). In 1651, however, after the failure of his tragedy Pertharite, he renounced the theater for eight years. In 1660 he published an edition of his complete plays, which included three "Discourses on Dramatic Poetry" in which he explained contemporary stage theory. The plays he wrote in the 1660s and 1670s had varying success, but they did not equal his earlier triumphs. His last work was a tragedy, Suréna, in 1674. He spent the final years of his life working on another edition of his theatrical works, and on a translation of the De Imitatione Christi by Thomas à Kempis (1379 or 13801471).

Le Cid shows many distinguishing elements found in Corneille's other great works (Horace, Cinna, Polyeucte). The characters are torn by an internal division between duty (to family, country, or religion) and love. Because they choose reason and honor rather than succumbing to passion, the characters are praiseworthy, yet they are somewhat remote and inhuman in their renunciations. The poetry is noble and memorable, often quoted by critics and writers who nonetheless praised the dramatic techniques of the younger Jean Racine (16391699), who adhered more strictly to the tenets of classicism and whose characters were all too human, renouncing reason for their passions. It was Corneille, however, who gave French theater heroes whom the public could admire rather than pity.

See also French Literature and Language ; Racine, Jean .


Primary Sources

Corneille, Pierre. The Chief Plays of Corneille. Translated by Lacy Lockett. Princeton, 1957.

. Œuvres complètes. Edited by Georges Couton. 3 vols. Paris, 19801987.

Secondary Sources

Carlin, Claire L. Pierre Corneille Revisited. New York, 1998.

Clarke, David. Pierre Corneille: Poetics and Political Drama under Louis XIII. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Greenberg, Mitchell. Corneille, Classicism and the Ruses of Symmetry. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Hubert, Judd D. Corneille's Performative Metaphors. Charlottesville, Va., 1997.

Lyons, John D. The Tragedy of Origins: Pierre Corneille and Historical Perspective. Stanford, 1996.

Mallinson, Jonathan J. The Comedies of Corneille. Manchester, U.K., 1984.

Nelson, Robert J. Corneille: His Heroes and Their Worlds. Philadelphia, 1963.

Schmidt, Josephine A. If There Are No More Heroes There Are Heroines: A Feminist Critique of Corneille's Heroines, 16371643. Lanham, Md., 1987.

Allen G. Wood

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Corneille, Pierre

Pierre Corneille (pyĕr kôrnā´yə), 1606–84, French dramatist, ranking with Racine as a master of French classical tragedy. Educated by Jesuits, he practiced law briefly in his native Rouen and moved to Paris after the favorable reception of his first play, Mélite (1629), a comedy. His first trágedy, Médée (1635), was followed by Le Cid (1637). This masterpiece, based on a Spanish play about the Cid, took Paris by storm; "beautiful as the Cid" became a French proverb. However, Jean Chapelain composed a paper for the newly founded French Academy that attacked the play as plagiaristic and faulty in construction, and thereafter Corneille adhered to classical rules. Among the finest of his score of tragedies that followed are Horace (1640), Cinna (1640), and Polyeucte (1643). The comedy Le Menteur (1643) had great success. Corneille's tragedies exalt the will at the expense of the emotions; his tragic heroes and heroines display almost superhuman strength in subordinating passion to duty. At his best, Corneille was a master of the grand style, powerful and majestic. His last plays are marred by monotonous declamation. Corneille's old age was embittered by the rise of Racine, who replaced him in popular favor.

See studies by D. A. Collins (1966) and H. T. Barnwell (1982).

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Corneille, Pierre

Corneille, Pierre (1606–84) First of the great French classical dramatists. His plays include the tragedy Médée (1635), the epic Le Cid (1637), and a comedy Le Menteur (1643). He was elected to the French Academy in 1647.

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