Corneille, Pierre (1606–1684)

views updated May 29 2018


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

Corneille, Pierre

views updated May 29 2018

Pierre Corneille

BORN: 1606, Rouen, France

DIED: 1684, Paris, France


GENRE: Nonfiction, poetry, drama

Le Cid (1636–1637)
Horace (1640)
Cinna; or, The Mercy of Augustus (1642–1643)
The Martyr Polyeucte (1643)


Pierre Corneille was the first great tragic dramatist of France. Although many of his thirty-four plays are comedies

or works of mixed type, he is particularly known for creating the genre of French classical tragedy with his innovative and controversial masterpiece, Le Cid. His work dominated the French stage during the first half of the seventeenth century.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Jesuit Education to Legal Career Corneille was born June 6, 1606, in Rouen, Normandy, France, into a middle-class family. His father worked as an administrator of natural resources for the viscount of Rouen. His education at a Jesuit school, with its emphasis on the Latin classics and on the importance of the role of free will in man's search for a moral life, profoundly affected his later works.

Receiving his law degree in 1624, Corneille acquired two positions in government—one in the administration of natural resources and the other with the maritime court of Rouen, which was a major port and at that time the second biggest city in France and often visited by traveling theater companies. In 1641, he married Marie Lampérière, and the couple would have six children. Throughout his life, Corneille preferred an uncomplicated, suburban family life to the verbal sparring of Paris literary salons. At the time, France was ruled by king Louis XIII, who was guided in his decisions first by his powerful mother, Marie de Médicis and later by his minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu worked to enhance the crown's absolute rule at home. As a Catholic, Corneille was more free than his Protestant counterparts, who lost political power through censorship.

Successful Early Plays In this environment, success came fairly early to Corneille as an author of comedies of young love, with plots based largely on misunderstandings and misinformation spread about by jealous rivals. In 1629, he offered his first play, the comedy Melite; ou, Les fausses lettres (Melite; or, The False Letters), to well-known actor Montdory and his theatrical company while they were performing in Rouen. The play was a great success when staged in Paris, launching Corneille's theatrical career.

Over the next several years, Corneille wrote five comedies—including The Palace Corridor; or, The Rival Friend (1631) and Place Royale; or, The Extravagant Lover (1633–1634)—and the tragedy Medea (1634– 1635). During this period, he attracted the attention of the powerful and influential Richelieu, who enlisted him as a member of the “Society of Five Authors,” a group of acclaimed writers who composed plays under Richelieu's direction. Although Corneille contributed the third act to the joint effort The Comedy of the Tuileries (1635), he reportedly became involved in disputes with the cardinal and soon resigned from the group.

Controversy over Le Cid Le Cid (1636–1637) was a great popular success and a sensation at the royal court but gave rise to a heated controversy known as “La Querelle du Cid.” The play is based in part on a historical Spanish character—the national hero and military leader who was known for defeating enemies despite overwhelming odds, Rodrigo de Bivar (1040?–1099)—and tells the story of the young lovers Rodrigue and Chimène, whose apparently perfect match is disrupted by their fathers' political rivalry. Le Cid is often called the first great French classical tragedy, and its dramatic power resides in Corneille's skillful manipulation of the conflict of honor and love.

The play's numerous violations of the neoclassical “rules” of tragic design prompted published attacks by Corneille's rivals as well as defenses by Corneille and his supporters. The matter was eventually submitted by Richelieu to the newly formed French Academy, responsible for overseeing French language and literature to ensure absolute control by the crown, which issued a negative judgment of the play. Wounded and discouraged, Corneille ceased writing plays for the next three years.

Success Again with Cinna Corneille's three-year silence ended in May 1640 with the presentation of his second tragedy, Horace, quickly followed by two more tragedies, Cinna; or, The Mercy of Augustus (1641), and (Polyeucte) (1642). Horace continues the theme first

broached in Le Cid. Cinna, a political tragedy, and Polyeucte, a religious tragedy, were both based on Roman sources and definitively established Corneille's literary reputation.

Cinna has often been argued to be Corneille's finest play after Le Cid, principally because of its strict faithfulness to classical form and the depiction of the slow evolution of Augustus's character from apparent tyrant to magnanimous hero. In contrast with Cinna, Polyeucte incorporates a relatively complex plot with equally complex relationships between pagan and Christian characters of third-century Rome. By this time, there had been a change in leadership in France as both Louis XIII and Richelieu had died in the early 1640s. Child king Louis XIV took power, and his mother, Anne of Austria, acted as regent, guided by Cardinal Mazarin, until 1661, when her son began actively reigning.

Rejected by Playgoing Public In 1647, Corneille moved with his family to Paris and was elected to the French Academy. He continued to write, but soon the public turned against him. Corneille was sufficiently crushed by the chilly reception that he ceased writing for the stage for seven years. As the public turned to younger playwrights such as Molière and Jean Racine, Corneille was not only rejected, but forgotten. As France emerged as the leading power in Europe, he made a last attempt in 1674 with Suréna, a tragedy in which mutual love undermines the hero's political position and leads to his death. After the failure of this play, Corneille accepted that his career as a playwright was over. He died in obscurity on October 1, 1684, at age seventy-eight at his home in Paris.

Works in Literary Context

Though the controversy surrounding Le Cid created great stress for Corneille, it resulted in the establishment of a clearer sense of the definition of tragedy and comedy. The debate set the stage for the creation of the mature masterworks of Corneille himself as well as those of Jean Racine and Molière later in the century.

Corneille's Tragedies Most plays in the seventeenth century followed the theatrical “unities” of Aristotle; that is, the story must be coherent and believable, and the action should take place within one day and one city. According to Corneille, great tragedies are those that produce intense emotion in the audience through response to corresponding displays of passion and conflict on the stage. The subjects of such tragedies must always be implausible, yet, the playwright needs to persuade the audience to believe in this implausible subject. Some major character of each tragedy should, in this view, engage in a significant and implausible transgression of ethical norms, particularly those concerning family, friendship, or love. With this view Corneille produces the theoretical foundation for Le Cid.

In discussing the one action that was allowed in each tragic plot, Corneille had the new idea of simply counting how many times the hero risked death, and he thus renamed the unity of action the “unity of peril.” Once the hero had survived (or failed to survive) one mortal danger, the play should be finished. By this standard, Corneille's Horace fails to observe the rule, and the rule in turn is tied to the audience's emotional investment in seeing the hero risk death and escape.

With regard to the one day's time that Aristotle had allotted to tragedy, Corneille, following a contemporary trend, felt that the perfect tragedy should have a story that took as much time to happen as to present on stage. Therefore, if a stage performance, including intermissions, takes roughly two hours, then the play should ideally represent two hours in the lives of the characters. As a practical matter, Corneille recommends being as vague as possible about time passing and allowing the audience to imagine time to suit themselves. He does say, however, that there should be a slight distortion of time in the last couple of acts of the play, since the audience will be caught up in the suspense, and the actions on the stage should be accelerated. Corneille recommends similar vagueness about the single place, usually a room in a palace, where the action of the tragedy takes place.


Corneille's famous contemporaries include:

Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642): French religious leader, politician, and patron of the arts who strengthened the power of the king and established the French Academy.

Louis XIV (1638–1715): King of France, known as the Sun King for his belief that the royal court and all of France should revolve around him like the planets revolve around the sun.

Molière (1622–1673): French dramatist who revolutionized French comedy; well known for his satires, including The Bourgeois Gentleman (1670).

Jean Racine (1639–1699): French playwright and rival of Corneille's; well known for his graceful use of the standard French poetic form, the alexandrine, a specific type of twelve-syllable line.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669): Dutch artist, widely regarded as one of the best painters and printmakers in European history; well known for his use of chiaroscuro, or dramatic use of light and dark.

Works in Critical Context

Corneille's work is noted for its great diversity, brilliant versification, and complexity of plot and situation.

Although the decline in his reputation, which began in his own lifetime, continued throughout the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century saw a reappraisal of his place in literary history. Today, he is situated in the front rank of French dramatists. Corneille's great tragic personages, the grandeur of his style, and his relentless focus on the conflict between passion and moral obligation to society have also established his place in world literature.

His reputation among the larger public continues to rest on the four great tragedies written between 1636 and 1642, but modern scholarship suggests that both his early comedies and late tragedies, taken in context and viewed as a whole, reveal a continuous movement toward experimentation, on both poetic and thematic levels. Such works as the early The Comic Illusion (1635) and the late Suréna testify to the dramatist's persistent attempts to dazzle his public with innovative responses to old dilemmas. Often going against the grain of established literary conventions of the times, Corneille's genius for invention led him to both great success and total failure with critics, scholars, and audiences alike.

Le Cid

Despite its popular success, the play angered many of the conservative critics of the day. The ensuing stormy “Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns” over literary form lasted for nearly a year, and it was officially resolved at the request of Richelieu by the forty doctes (learned men) of the newly formed French Academy. The largely negative judgment of the academy dealt Corneille a severe blow. Although the academy quibbled with some of Corneille's versification and with his laxity in strictly maintaining the classical unities of time, place, and action, the central issue involved a rather academic determination of what was tragic, thus establishing those elements that could be properly included in a tragedy and those that could not.

The classicists, or ancients, of the Academy supported the Aristotelian distinction between le vrai (the real) and le vraisemblance (the simple appearance of the real, or the verisimilar). History, the doctes maintained, is full of true events that conflict with common moral decency and thus are not the proper basis of art. Thus from the docte perspective, Chiméne's marriage to her father's killer, though based in fact, was morally reprehensible and consequently an improper use of the real.

Responses to Literature

  1. How are Corneille's themes of honor, duty, and revenge applicable in today's society? Find examples from his works and present your ideas in small groups.
  2. Corneille twice stopped writing for several years because of bad reviews, yet now he is considered the founder of French classical tragedy. In groups, discuss how criticism affects an artist. Does criticism motivate people or does it discourage their creativity?
  3. Read one of Racine's plays. Then compare Racine with Corneille. Which of the two playwrights do you think is better? Support your response with examples from specific works.
  4. Read Horace and create a list of your ten favorite quotes. Share your list with the class and tell why you find the quotes memorable.
  5. Every period has certain rules to follow for various kinds of art. Using the Internet and your library's resources, research the painter Paul Cézanne. Write an essay analyzing what rules he broke in his art and how his works were viewed, both during his lifetime and today.


The fundamental tension throughout all of Pierre Corneille's great tragedies is the eternal human struggle to balance personal sentiment with duty to family and society. Here are some other works that deal with this struggle:

Antigone (c. 442 b.c.e.), a play by Sophocles. This drama explores the importance of duty to family versus civic duty. It tells the story of Antigone's fight to bury her brother suitably, against the wishes of her uncle, the king of Thebes.

Frankenstein (1818), a novel by Mary Shelley. This Gothic novel explores ambition versus social responsibility in its tale of a scientist and the semihuman creature he creates.

Like Water for Chocolate (1989), a novel by Laura Esquivel. This novel follows a young Mexican woman, forbidden by her mother to marry, as she struggles to express herself while remaining an obedient daughter.

The Remains of the Day (1988), a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. In this novel, an English butler reviews his life and considers what he has sacrificed in the name of duty to his employer and to his country.

Winterset (1935), a play by Maxwell Anderson. This tragedy is based on the true story of two Italian immigrants to the United States who were executed for their radical political beliefs. Moral duty conflicts with romantic love, and the main characters must choose between their responsibilities to their families and their love for each other.



Abraham, Claude. Pierre Corneille. New York: Twayne, 1972.

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

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

Knight, R. C. Corneille's Tragedies: The Role of the Unexpected. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1991.

Nelson, Robert J. Corneille, His Heroes and Their Worlds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963.


Rubidge, Bradley. “Catharsis through Admiration: Corneille, Le Moyne, and the Social Uses of Emotion.” Modern Philology 95 (1998): 316–33.

Pierre Corneille

views updated May 17 2018

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. □

Corneille, Pierre

views updated May 29 2018

Pierre Corneille


French dramatist

Early Success.

Pierre Corneille, the man who forged a reputation in French theater similar to Shakespeare in England, was born to an affluent family in Normandy and given an education in the classics by the Jesuits in his native Rouen. Eventually he took a law degree and entered into the king's service as an administrator of the royal forests and rivers. He continued to hold this post until his middle age, but in his early twenties he began to write dramas, the first of which was performed in Paris in 1530. The play, Mélite, became a hit on the Parisian stage, and Corneille continued to write dramas. Most of these early works were comedies, and in the years that followed the playwright came to the attention of Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII's chief minister. Richelieu named the young playwright to his "Society of Five Authors," a group of dramatists from whom he regularly commissioned dramas for the Parisian scene. The cardinal stipulated which themes the authors were to take up and he even outlined their plots, and the members of the society were expected to write the drama collaboratively. Corneille chafed under such restrictions, although the theory of the classical unities that the group followed left its mark on his work. At the time, French literary theorists and dramatists were concerned about how the classical unities might be applied to the theater to foster literary greatness in the drama. The notion of the laws of unity had developed in Italy during the late Renaissance from a mistaken understanding of Aristotle's Poetics. Those playwrights who subjected their works to these canons were expected to confine their action to a single place on a single day and they were not to wander into subplots. Under Richelieu's powerful patronage, major dramatists in France began to subject their plays to these rules. At the same time, the unities imposed grave challenges on any playwright hoping to entertain an audience over the course of an evening. In his Le Cid (1637) Corneille resolved these challenges brilliantly, creating a tragedy that was immediately hailed as masterful and decried as morally defective. The subject for the drama was drawn from Spanish literature, and involved a romance between offspring of feuding families. In the first version of his dramatization, Corneille resolved this struggle in favor of the lovers, who marry despite the fact that the hero has killed the girl's father. Richelieu found the work offensive, and he instructed the Académie Française, an institution he had recently founded to foster greatness in French literature, to examine it. The members of the Académie diplomatically responded that the work was filled with much great poetry, but that its ending was unsuitable. The play as it stood was thus suppressed.

Increasing Conservatism.

In the years that followed Corneille continued to write for the theater, at first under Richelieu's patronage, and then later under that of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIII and Louis XIV's chief minister. He married, and his brother Thomas, who also wrote for the theater, married Corneille's wife's sister. In the following years both brothers achieved great success in the theater, although Pierre Corneille's works have stood the test of time better than those of Thomas Corneille. While he continued to write tragedies, an increasingly conservative bent is discernible in these later works, one that after Le Cid rarely questioned social mores or standards. Many of his dramas, in other words, included subtexts that supported the absolutist monarchy and the Catholic religion, the two pillars of French society at the time. By 1643, the four finest of his tragedies were complete; these included Le Cid (1637), Horace (1640), Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1643). As his career as a playwright became more successful, he eventually moved from Rouen to Paris where he was admitted to the Académie Française. The failure of one of his plays in 1651 prompted Corneille to abandon writing for the theater for a number of years, although he continued to write poetry and to translate works into French. In 1659, he returned to drama and wrote plays until 1674, but his retirement from the theater in that year was prompted by the growing popularity of his rival, Jean Racine. For the remaining years of his life, Corneille wrote verse and lived to see some of his earlier dramas revived. While the quality of his dramas may not have risen to the high standard of Racine, he nevertheless helped to establish the canons by which the French stage was to flourish over the next century. His emphasis on drama as a literary force filled with beautiful poetry, often written in the twelve-syllable Alexandrine form, as well as his emphasis on the ennobling quality of tragedy were notions to which French playwrights returned time and again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


George Couton, Corneille (Paris: Hatier, 1958).

R. C. Knight, Corneille's Tragedies: The Role of the Unexpected (Cardiff, Wales: University of Cardiff Press, 1991).

P. J. Yarrow, Corneille (London: Macmillan, 1963).

Corneille, Pierre

views updated Jun 11 2018

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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