Authors: Pierre Corneille

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French playwright

Author Works

Drama:

Mélite: Ou, Les Fausses Lettres, pr. 1630 (English translation, 1776)

Clitandre, pr. 1631

La Veuve: Ou, Le Traîte trahi, pr. 1631

La Galerie du palais: Ou, L’Amie rivale, pr. 1632

La Suivante, pr. 1633

La Place royale: Ou, L’Amoureux extravagant, pr. 1634

Médée, pr. 1635

L’Illusion comique, pr. 1636 (The Illusion, 1989)

Le Cid, pr., pb. 1637 (The Cid, 1637)

Horace, pr. 1640 (English translation, 1656)

Cinna: Ou, La Clémence d’Auguste, pr. 1640 (Cinna, 1713)

Polyeucte, pr. 1642 (English translation, 1655)

La Mort de Pompée, pr. 1643 (The Death of Pompey, 1663)

Le Menteur, pr. 1643 (The Liar, 1671)

La Suite du menteur, pr. 1644

Rodogune, princesse des Parthes, pr. 1645 (Rodogune, 1765)

Théodore, vierge et martyre, pr. 1645

Héraclius, pr., pb. 1647 (English translation, 1664)

Don Sanche d’Aragon, pr. 1649 (The Conflict, 1798)

Andromède, pr., pb. 1650

Nicomède, pr., pb. 1651 (English translation, 1671)

Pertharite, roi des Lombards, pr. 1651

Œdipe, pr., pb. 1659

La Toison d’or, pr. 1660

Théâtre, pb. 1660 (3 volumes)

Sertorius, pr., pb. 1662 (English translation, 1960)

Sophonisbe, pr., pb. 1663

Othon, pr. 1664 (English translation, 1960)

Agésilas, pr., pb. 1666

Attila, pr., pb. 1667 (English translation, 1960)

Tite et Bérénice, pr. 1670

Pulchérie, pr. 1672 (English translation, 1960)

Suréna, pr. 1674 (English translation, 1960)

The Chief Plays of Corneille, pb. 1952, 1956

Moot Plays, pb. 1960

Nonfiction:

Discours, 1660

Examens, 1660

Translations:

Imitation de Jésus-Christ, 1656 (of Thomas à Kempis’s poetry)

Office de la Sainte Vierge, 1670 (of St. Bonaventure’s poetry)

Biography

Pierre Corneille (kawr-nay), born in 1606, was the son of a barrister and king’s advocate of great prominence in the thriving city of Rouen. His mother was Marthe le Pesant. He was educated in the Jesuit school in his hometown and took his oath as a lawyer four years ahead of the usual time by special dispensation. The brilliant young man followed in his father’s footsteps, almost literally, by becoming for a time the king’s advocate “over waters and forests,” as the title read.{$I[AN]9810000562}{$I[A]Corneille, Pierre}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Corneille, Pierre}{$I[tim]1606;Corneille, Pierre}

Pierre Corneille

(Library of Congress)

His love of the theater and of literature were early manifest, and he wrote a play for a traveling troupe in 1629; later, Mélite was popular in Paris. While this comedy would seem crude by modern standards, it broke away from the stultifying conventions of the times. This and later comedies caused Cardinal de Richelieu to include the young Corneille in his group of hack writers who developed the great patron’s sketchy ideas into plays for the tennis court theater he had earlier established. However, the talented young man soon incurred the displeasure of his patron by doctoring up the ideas. Later, he was to create further discord through his failure to observe the “unities” (of time, place, and action) so highly regarded by the new classicists.

In Médée, Corneille began to show promise as a tragedian, and L’Illusion comique (a series of plays within plays) indicated that he had great versatility. By this time, he was at work translating and arranging the life of Spain’s national hero, the Cid Campeador, into a play which would become more famous than its hero and which would introduce a new type of play to theater–the tragicomedy. The play, The Cid, produced in 1637, aroused critics, playwrights, and patrons of the arts into a pamphlet war of recurring interest to scholars. Corneille himself had little to say, but he was universally scored for bad taste and the failure to observe rules of dramaturgy. The public put its seal of approval on the play, however, and it has inspired a healthy progeny of heroic drama to the present day.

For three years, Corneille was in virtual retirement; then he brought out, in Horace, dedicated to Richelieu, a tragedy more nearly in keeping with critical edicts. The cardinal bestowed on the poet a grant of five hundred crowns a year, a sum which allowed the playwright to marry Marie de Lampérière. In the following year Corneille’s father died and he himself suffered an illness, but plays continued to come from his facile pen until his peak year of 1643, when both a great tragedy and a comedy were on the boards, Polyeucte and The Liar. At about the same time, the French Academy finally invited him into their exclusive group after twice rejecting him over a period of disquieting years.

While the master dramatist continued to write plays, finally moving to Paris in order to be more nearly in the center of productions, he never again reached his former level of popular success, although his last play, Suréna, is now considered to be a superb tragedy. The influence on theater patrons of Molière and Jean Racine was increasingly noticeable, and the old plays of bombast and oratorical display were becoming passé. Corneille turned to a translation of The Imitation of Christ (1656) and to essays on dramaturgy, but he continued all the while to write plays.

The last ten years of his life were spent in uncertainty of his pension and in doubt as to his following, though there is a record of some verses thanking Louis XIV for ordering the revival of his better works. He was survived by four of his six children, to whom he had been devoted. His love of family seems to have been offset by his indifference to society. His manner was melancholy and reserved. He made little enough from his plays, and his pensions came later in life and erratically. He died in Paris in 1684.

While Corneille suffered greatly at the hands of some critics, he has been nobly defended by others. Although modern readers are often wearied by the theatrics and contrivance as well as the rhetorical language of his plays, it must be remembered that what are today widely regarded as his weaknesses were strengths in the lackluster theater of his day; even his weakest plays were stronger than anything seen previously on the French stage. In a sense, he was the Aeschylus to Racine’s Sophocles and Molière’s Aristophanes, if one carried out a neoclassical comparison. Nowhere before or since has so much excitement been contained in so few hours as in his greatest work, The Cid. The Cid created a great deal of interest in neoclassical theater in France and established Corneille’s reputation as the leading and most creative playwright of his era. His comedies, tragedies, and tragicomedies still bring pleasure to French theatergoers more than three centuries after his death.

BibliographyAbraham, Claude. Pierre Corneille. New York: Twayne, 1972. An excellent general introduction to Corneille’s plays, which also includes an annotated bibliography of important studies on Corneille.Auchincloss, Louis. La Gloire: The Roman Empire of Corneille and Racine. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. A study of the dramas of Corneille and Jean Racine that dealt with the Roman Empire.Carlin, Claire L. Pierre Corneille Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Carlin, Claire L. Women Reading Corneille: Feminist Psychocriticisms of “Le Cid.” New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Clarke, David. Pierre Corneille: Poetics and Political Drama Under Louis XIII. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Discusses politics and literature in seventeenth century France and Corneille’s views.Corneille, Pierre. Le Cid. Translated by Vincent J. Chang. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987. In addition to the most faithful English translation of The Cid, the text includes five elegantly written chapters on Corneille’s life and times and an analysis of the play. Chang directs his work toward the non-French-speaking reader, distilling the best of French and English scholarship into seventy-five tightly argued pages.Corneille, Pierre. Le Cid. Edited with an introduction, notes, and variants by Peter H. Nurse. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988. Edited by one of the foremost Corneillian scholars, this edition provides one of the most complete introductions to Corneille’s masterpiece. Designed for the serious student, the text contains all the variants of the 1682 edition of The Cid.Goodkin, Richard E. Birth Marks: The Tragedy of Primogeniture in Pierre Corneille, Thomas Corneille, and Jean Racine. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. A study of the tragedies of Pierre Corneille, Thomas Corneille, and Jean Racine with emphasis on primogeniture. Bibliography and index.Harwood-Gordon, Sharon. The Poetic Style of Corneille’s Tragedies: An Aesthetic Interpretation. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989. Corneille’s skill in creating effective comedies and tragedies is studied.Longstaffe, Moya. Metamorphoses of Passion and the Heroic in French Literature: Corneille, Stendhal, Claudel. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999. Analyzes the works of Corneille, Stendhal, and Paul Claudel.Lyons, John D. The Tragedy of Origins: Pierre Corneille and Historical Perspective. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996. Focuses on Corneille’s tragedies. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Mallinson, G. J. The Comedies of Corneille: Experiments in the Comic. Dover, N.H.: Manchester University Press, 1984. Corneille’s skill in creating effective comedies and tragedies is studied.Nelson, Robert J. Corneille, His Heroes and Their Worlds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963. The standard critical text dealing with the complex composition of Corneille’s heroes, written by one of the most eminent Corneillian scholars. For the young scholar there is no better introduction to Corneille’s plays. Detailed and reasoned analysis of all works is complemented by a vivid picture of the seventeenth century literary world.Pocock, Gordon. Corneille and Racine: Problems of Tragic Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Pocock’s work is among the most readable scholarly studies centering on the contrasts between Racine and Corneille. The first ten chapters are devoted exclusively to an analysis of Corneille’s principal works and his inventive versification. Although citations are in the original French, the author’s lucid argument is accessible to the serious reader.
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