Governor Félix’s daughter Pauline, who is Polyeucte’s wife, moves between the upper and lower floors of the palace freely. She loves both her father and her husband, who has recently converted to Christianity, a religion that she does not yet understand. She believes that it should be possible for Rome to tolerate this new religion, but she soon recognizes her father’s brutality.
In an offstage scene, Félix makes his son-in-law watch in the palace’s basement the martyrdom of Néarque, who converted Polyeucte to Christianity. Far from persuading Polyeucte to abandon his new faith, it inspires in him a greater commitment to Christianity, so Polyeucte chooses to remain downstairs. The most powerful scene in this tragedy takes place in Polyeucte’s cell, when his wife implores him to save his life, but he persuades her to embrace Christianity to save her own soul. In act 5, Polyeucte’s martyrdom is announced onstage on the upper floor. His courage in accepting death provokes the conversions of both his wife and father-in-law, who come to realize that they can no longer justify brutal violations of individual rights.