Literary Criticism of Pierre Corneille

Pierre Corneille(1606–1684), born in the French town of Rouen in Normandy, was primarily a playwright. Born into a middle-class family, and having failed in his initial endeavor as a lawyer, he launched into a stormy and controversial career in the theater. The most important text of his literary criticism, Trois Discours sur le poème dramatique (Three Discourses on Dramatic Poetry, 1660), was produced in response to the controversies he had ignited, to explain and justify his own dramatic practice. Those controversies had their origin in the varied reception of Corneille’s most renowned play, Le Cid, which appeared in 1637. While the play enjoyed great popularity with audiences, it was attacked not only by critics but also by the French literary and political establishment. This attack was based on the play’s alleged failure to observe the rules of classical theater as laid down by Aristotle and Horace. Critics claimed that the play violated the classical unities – of action, time, and place – as well as the Aristotelian precepts of probability and necessity; and in doing so, they argued, it undermined the morally didactic function of drama. Corneille responded to these charges both by writing further plays displaying his mastery of classical conventions and by producing his Three Discourses. While he is conventionally regarded as a champion of neoclassical virtues in the tradition of François de Malherbe and Racine, the actual texts of his Discourses suggest that he is concerned to adapt classical precepts to modern requirements of the stage and to provide a broader and more liberal interpretation of those precepts.

unnamedIn his third Discourse, entitled “Of the Three Unities of Action, Time, and Place,” Corneille attempts to explain the rationale behind his plays. Regarding the unity of action, Corneille resists any interpretation of this to mean that “tragedy should only show one action on the stage.” He takes Aristotle’s statement that a complete action should have a beginning, middle, and end to mean that these three parts are “separate actions which find their conclusion in the principal one.” And, just as these three parts are subordinated to the main action, so, Corneille urges, each of these three parts can contain subordinate actions. In other words, while he agrees that “there must be only one complete action,” he insists that “action can become complete only through several others . . . which, by serving as preparation, keep the spectator in a pleasant suspense.” He suggests that the end of each act “leave us in the expectation of something which is to take place in the following one.”2 So what Corneille is disputing is not that the action in a play should be complete, but the definition of a complete action; interestingly, his own definition attempts to develop the implication of Aristotle’s for the connections between the acts of a play; it also makes the audience’s response an integral component. In addition he develops Aristotle’s view, that one event must not simply follow another but be caused by it according to necessity or probability, into a rule which is “new and contrary to the usage of the ancients.” This rule is that, not only should all parts of the action be closely and causally connected, but also they should “all have their source in the protasis” (the protasis being the introduction of events in the first act) (102–103).

Aristotle had divided a play into two parts: the “complication” leading up to the “change of fortune” of the protagonist; and the “resolution,” the remaining part of the play. While Corneille accepts this division, he states that the “complication depends entirely upon the choice and industrious imagination of the poet and no rule can be given for it” beyond the requirements of probability and necessity (105). Corneille adds that the poet should not engage in lengthy narrations providing background to the play’s actual action; this will annoy and burden the spectator. Narrations should be used only to explain or comment on actions that have occurred within the play. Corneille reaffirms Aristotle’s view that the deus ex machina should be avoided, since this provides a “faulty resolution” of a plot. On the other hand, he finds Aristotle’s criticism of the flying chariot in Euripides’ Medea harsh since, Corneille argues, the audience has been adequately prepared for this otherwise improbable scene (106).

As for the number and unity of acts and scenes, there is no rule, Corneille asserts, for linking the various scenes which comprise each act; such linking indeed provides for continuity of action, but “it is only a beauty and not a rule.” Linking of scenes was not always practiced by the ancients, he observes, and it has become a rule for modern audiences merely through habituation, so that “they cannot now witness a detached scene without considering it a defect” (103). The kind of linking that should be effected, according to Corneille, is that which depends on the presence and speech of a character. For example, a character’s presence on stage must not simply fulfill the function of hearing what other characters say; his presence must be “dictated by the plot of the play,” with the character performing an indispensable function in a given scene, to link it with other scenes (104). Likewise, the number of acts was not prescribed by Aristotle; and though Horace limits a play to five acts, we do not know for sure, says Corneille, how many acts ancient Greek plays contained since they made no distinction between acts and scenes, and since they would separate episodes by the chanting of the chorus. The modern theater, he reminds us, is not encumbered with such long choral songs, which impose a substantial burden on the spectator, who is obliged to recall the action of the play after hearing the chant (107–108). In general, Corneille advises that while each act should express a portion of the overall action, the latter should be weighted more toward the later acts since the first act merely depicts the “moral natures” and relevance of the characters to the plot (106).

As for the unity of time, Corneille notes Aristotle’s precept that the action of a tragedy must be encompassed within one revolution of the sun. On the issue, argued by critics and dramatists, of whether this means twelve or twenty-four hours, Corneille is content to say that Aristotle’s view must be interpreted liberally, allowing even up to thirty hours’ duration of the action, since some subjects do not lend themselves to such brief treatment (109). Strict observance of this rule, Corneille points out, “forced some of the ancients to the very edge of the impossible,” since their action included journeys of armies and battles. In general, however, Corneille believes that it is not merely Aristotle’s authority but “common sense” that commends such a rule. The “dramatic poem,” he reminds us, “is an imitation, or rather a portrait of human actions, and . . . portraits gain in excellence in proportion as they resemble the original more closely.” On this basis, he recommends compressing the action “into the shortest possible period, so that the performance may more closely resemble reality and thus be more nearly perfect” (109–110). What Corneille appeals to here is realism as an aesthetic criterion. The realism that Aristotle espoused, as an option for tragic action, was one that “imitated” or portrayed the universal, the generalizable truths of a situation. The realism Corneille upholds is verisimilitude, the presentation of reality in “its proportionate dimensions” (110). Though constrained by time for these reasons, the poet can, points out Corneille, make known by devices such as narration what the background and circumstances of the hero are (111). As with the unity of action, Corneille gives the audience or spectator an integral role in determining what comprises the unity of time. The “matter of duration,” he suggests, should be left to “the imagination of the spectators.” It would be an “obtrusive affectation” to spell out in definite terms the portrayed duration of an action. He also appeals to audience response in proposing that the fifth act of a play has a “special privilege” to accelerate time: since it is the final act, it may recount offstage incidents which would take more time than allowed by the action of the stage itself. The reason behind this is, once again, the requirements of the audience, which by this stage of the play is impatient to know the conclusion (110).

For the unity of place, there is no rule, notes Corneille, prescribed by either Aristotle or Horace. Rather, this rule was established “as a consequence of the unity of one day,” covering “the points to which a man may go and return in twenty-four hours.” Corneille finds this opinion “a little too free”: it would allow for two sides of the stage to represent two cities. While he concedes that precise unity of time and place may be desirable, these unities would impose constraints on a playwright’s endeavor to depict probable actions. For example, many realistic situations would not admit of being portrayed in a single room or hall. Sophocles and many other successful dramatists, he points out, did not observe a rigorous unity of place. We should, thinks Corneille, adopt a compromise; for example, we could “concede that a whole city has unity of place,” provided that scenes are changed only between, not within, the acts, and that different places do not require different stage settings. This would help, he suggests, “to deceive the spectator, who . . . would not notice the change” (113–114). Corneille proposes an interesting compromise: just as jurists speak of “legal fictions,” so we might introduce “theatrical fictions,” whereby, for0 example, if the action of a play were to take place in a number of apartments belonging  to different characters, we might establish a room contiguous to all these other apartments, a room where it was understood that each of the characters could speak with secrecy (114–115).

In concluding his Discourse, Corneille effectively points out the underlying basis of his adaptation of the classical unities as propounded by Aristotle and Horace. It is easy, he remarks, for critics to be strict in their censure; but if they themselves had to produce plays, if they themselves “recognized through experience what constraint their precision brings about and how many beautiful things it banishes from our stage,” they might reconsider their own severity. The test, Corneille insists, is experience, actual practice. Corneille’s overall aim, as he suggests, is to “make ancient rules agree with modern pleasures” (115). In this endeavor, he is not so much making those rules more liberal – indeed, at times, he wishes them to be stricter – as reformulating them in the light of the needs and requirements of the audience, especially the modern audience. In this attempt to redefine their significance, he appeals not only to a broader vision of Aristotelian probability and necessity which enlists these in the service of a more modern verisimilitude, but also to other aesthetic criteria such as beauty, comprehensiveness, and unity. His text is an interesting example of ancient authority tempered not only by examples of the subversion of that authority by ancient writers themselves, but also above all by an appeal to experience and theatrical practice. Corneille effectively rescues the importance of performance from the peripheral status it meekly occupies in Aristotle’s text.


Pierre Corneille, “Of the Three Unities of Action, Time, and Place,” trans. Donald Schier, in The Continental Model: Selected French Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, in English Translation, ed. Scott Elledge and Donald Schier (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1970), pp. 101–102. Hereafter page citations are given in the text.

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