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).
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.
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.
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 on Pierre Corneille
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 Biography 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.