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Definition: Corneille, Pierre from Philip's Encyclopedia

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.

Summary Article: Corneille, Pierre
From The Classical Tradition

French dramatic author, 1606-1684. Corneille, the dominant French playwright of the middle of the 17th century, is an excellent example of the effect of Jesuit Humanist education in France. A Norman, educated in Rouen for a legal career, he left an impressive body of plays in all major genres as well as the French 17th century's liveliest and most intelligent text on dramatic writing, Three Discourses on the Dramatic Poem (1660). He presented himself as a brilliant maverick, and yet his tragedies subsequently provided the models for what is now often called French classical tragedy, preparing the way for Jean Racine, a younger rival who eclipsed Corneille in the 1660s.

Corneille first specialized in romantic comedies, but he made a breakthrough with his hugely popular 1637 tragicomedy, Le Cid (later revised and republished as a tragedy). During the "quarrel of Le Cid" the French Academy criticized the play as implausible and morally indecent. Corneille retrospectively provided a theoretical justification for this work and for his subsequent variations on its theme when he issued his Three Discourses in 1660. This major neo-Aristotelian treatise on poetics argued that all great tragic stories must be implausible and must have their foundation in a conflict between love and ethical codes. Seizing on a passage in chapter 14 of Aristotle's Poetics, Corneille found there authorization for historically real but improbable events that provide models of this conflict. Corneille argued that the playwright's task is to take an implausible story and then provide psychological and contextual details that make the story believable to an audience. His preference for true but implausible stories led him to use historical subjects rather than mythological ones for almost all his major plays: classical sources such as Livy, Tacitus, Seneca, Lucan, Plutarch, Dio Cassius, and Appian of Alexandria, as well as post-classical historians such as Paul the Deacon and Baronius. The subjects of Corneille's tragedies and heroic comedies, a historic panorama, cover more than 1,000 years of Roman and Byzantine history, ranging from the combat of Horatius against the Alban champions under Tullus Hostilius (7th cen. bce) to the Lombard king Perctarit (7th century ce). His heroes and heroines include the emperors Augustus Caesar, Otho, Titus, and Heraclius, and the empress Pulcheria, as well as Attila the Hun. Corneille and many of his contemporaries saw the sweep of Roman history without sharp distinction between classical Rome and Byzantium.

A second major innovation of Corneille's poetics is the promotion of romantic love to a status equal to family ties. This approach, which is the core of Le Cid, led to tragedies in which a man and a woman are attracted to each other in large part by their heroic adherence to duty, and yet that very duty puts them in opposition. Corneille saw himself as differing from Aristotle in preferring plots in which the principals are perfectly aware of identities, as opposed to the recognition-based plots favored by Aristotle.

Corneille wrote a small number of tragedies on mythological subjects, including Medea, Andromeda, The Conquest of the Golden Fleece, Oedipus, and—in a collaboration with Molière and Quinalt—Psyche. These, however, have not been widely performed or read.

  • Ariosto Croce, B., Shakespeare e Corneille (Paris1920).
  • Forestier, G., Essai de génétique théâtrale: Corneille à l'oeuvre (Paris1996).
  • Gasté, A., La querelle du Cid (Paris1898).
  • Lanson, G., Corneille (Paris1898).
  • Merlin-Kajman, H., Public et littérature en France au XVIIe siècle (Paris1994).
  • Voltaire, Commentaires sur Corneille (Geneva1764).
J.D. L.
© 2010 Harvard University Press (cloth) © 2013 Harvard University Press

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