Analysis of Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid

Le Cid is a powerful work, but it lacks what the clumsiest sixteenth-century tragedy had: a concentration on a single tragic meaning. We have instead, a play which (for the firsttime in French drama) successfully attains seriousness by means of a clearly articulated plot arousing suspense and surprise and resting on the psychological confl icts of characters portrayed as human beings. . . . It looks forward to the see-sawing emotional effects of much of later drama, through the pièce bien faite to Ibsen and beyond. That is, Le Cid points forward (in this, and in its use of realistic and non-tragic elements) to a more naturalistic type of drama. It marks the beginning of something new: but this new element has little to do with the methods of the Greek and Latin dramatists, and still less to do with tragedy. Le Cid marks the beginning of a form of naturalistic pièce bien faite whose ghost still haunts our stages. It marks a break from the efforts in France to continue the classical tradition of tragedy.

—Gordon Pocock, Corneille and Racine: The Problems of Tragic Form

Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid has been described by critic Burns Mantle as “the first smash hit in the history of French drama.” It would establish the playwright as 17th-century France’s preeminent dramatist, le grand Corneille, who, along with Molière and Jean Racine, became one of the undisputed masters of French neoclassical drama. Voltaire, in his preface to Le Cid , argued that in contrast to the undisciplined extravagance of the Spanish and English playwrights, Corneille was the first writer to produce tragedies that were “sufficiently regular to move the audience to tears.” The beauty and excellence of the verses and the sentiment of Le Cid prompted the coinage of the proverbial expression “Cela est beau comme Le Cid ” (“That is lovely, like Le Cid ”), while the controversy surrounding the play produced the 17th-century’s greatest literary debate—the Querelle du Cid (Quarrel of Le Cid )—that helped establish the theory and practices of neoclassical drama, which would dominate the stage for the next two centuries. Le Cid became the exception that proved the rule. Its supposed violations of admired values of verisimilitude and decorum led to the assertion and ascendancy of neoclassical dramatic ideals as well as France’s greatest period of dramatic achievement.

Literary Criticism of Pierre Corneille

Born in Rouen in 1606, Corneille was educated to pursue a legal career. As a student in a Jesuit school from 1615 to 1622 he excelled in Latin translation and versification and acquired his first exposure to classical drama. After receiving his law degree in 1624, Corneille served in important administrative positions in Rouen, then the second largest city in France. Rouen attracted visiting theatrical troupes from Paris, and it is conventionally believed that Corneille met the actor Montdory on a visit and presented him with his first play, the comedy Mélite, ou Les Fausses Lettres (Mélite, or the Forged Letters), which was performed by Montdory’s company in Paris in 1629. Corneille described his play as “the portrayal of social intercourse among people of good breeding.” This early form of the French comedy of manners, with its lifelike situations and refined language, later prompted the playwright to assert:

The novelty of this kind of comedy, unprecedented in any language, and the natural style which produced a portrait of the manners and speech of gentlefolk, were no doubt the reason for the success and reputation of the play. It was unknown for a comedy to provoke laughter without ridiculous characters such as clownish servants, parasites, braggart captains, pedant doctors, and so forth. This one achieved its effect by the vivacious mood of characters of a higher social rank than those one sees in Plautus and Terence, who are merely shopkeepers.

Corneille began his dramatic career attempting to elevate comedy with an unprecedented imitation of actual life, while extending comedy’s range to include the higher-ranking characters usually reserved for tragedy. These refinements of genre and presentation would have a significant impact on the evolving neoclassical dramatic standards in both comedy and tragedy. Clitandre (1631), a tragicomedy; four more comedies; and his first tragedy, Médée (1635) followed. During this period Corneille attracted the attention of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu, who enlisted him as a member of the Society of Five Authors, who composed plays under Richelieu’s direction and with whom he contributed the third act of their joint effort, La comédie des Tuileries (The Comedy of a Tuileries), in 1635. Corneille would break from the group and Richelieu, which became a factor in the criticism that surrounded Le Cid , as two of the society’s members—Jean Mairet and Georges de Scudéry—were particularly outspoken against their rival. Another factor was Corneille’s resistance to courting the favor of the influential by remaining throughout his career in Rouen. Corneille, the foremost celebrator of the heroic in drama, preferred his bourgeois life in the provinces. Unlike most of his contemporaries in the theater, Corneille neither worked for nor was involved with the running of a theater or acting company. Following the Querelle du Cid, which lasted until 1740, Corneille responded to charges that he had violated neoclassical standards with his most admired tragedies—Horace (1640), Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1642)—models of the accepted subject, tone, and structure of neoclassical tragedy. In the 1650s Corneille wrote commentaries on his plays and produced the 17th century’s most important dramatic treatises, Discarse du poème dramatique, De la tragédie, and Des trois unités (Discourse on poetic drama, On Tragedy, On the Three Unities), in part as further replies to the criticism of Le Cid . None of Corneille’s later plays, with the exception of Oedipe in 1659, earned the same degree of critical acclaim or popular success as his earlier work, and the title as the age’s premier tragedian passed to the younger Racine, who had begun his career in imitation of the older playwright. Corneille retired from the theater in 1674 and died in relative obscurity 10 years later.

Le Cid is an adaptation of Las Mocedades del Cid (The youthful exploits of the Cid) by the Spanish dramatist Guillén de Castro, first published in 1618. Its subject is the most popular figure in medieval Spanish legend, the 11th-century Castilian nobleman Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar. Despite being exiled Rodrigo returned to defend his country against the Moors, earning from his enemy the honorific of el Cid (“the lord”) as a mark of respect for his battle prowess. Ballads and romances subsequently celebrated his real and imagined exploits, and the legend developed that Rodrigo married, on the king’s order, the daughter of a man he had killed. Castro embellished this story by suggesting that Rodrigo’s eventual bride had previously loved him before her father’s death and afterward, to serve her family honor, demanded the death of the man she loved. Castro’s focus on one of the central themes of the Spanish comedia—the conflict between love and honor—is lost in the interest of his overloaded chronicle play, which, in the words of critic Claude Abrahams, resembles “a long, rambling dramatic poem in which the tragic rubs elbows with the comic, the trivial with the epic, and the tasteless with the sublime.” Corneille’s version reduces all to the essential conflict between the two lovers—Rodrigue and Chimène—while adhering to the règles (rules) derived from Aristotle’s Poetics that his era increasingly considered essential for serious drama. Corneille observes the unity of place by restricting Castro’s multiple locations to the Spanish court at Seville. He preserves the unity of time by limiting the duration of the action to a single day and enforces a unity of action by eliminating subplots and inessential characters to focus on the internal crises of the two central protagonists. The result is a concentration and intensification of characters’ emotional and moral inner lives that was unprecedented in French drama.

The play opens with Chimène happily anticipating the approval by her father, the count of Gormas, of her choice of Rodrigue as her suitor. However, a quarrel between her father and his older rival, Rodrigue’s father, Don Diègue, occurs. The feeble Don Diègue, unable to claim satisfaction himself when he is struck by the Count, calls on his son to uphold the family honor. In act 2, Rodrigue manages to overcome his conflict between his love for the Count’s daughter and his obligation to his father and name by challenging and killing the Count in an off-stage duel. Chimène, learning of her father’s death, now faces the same conflict between love and honor that beset Rodrigue, and she too chooses to do her duty to her father at the risk of her love by demanding vengeance from the king. In the third act Rodrigue and Chimène, in the first of two emotional meetings in the play, grapple with their conflict as he offers her his life to satisfy her honor. Chimène’s love for Rodrigue prevents her from accepting his sacrifice, but she is compelled to continue her pursuit of vengeance. Their impasse is interrupted by the attack of the city by the Moors, and Rodrigue rushes to the defense. After an offstage battle Rodrigue appears before the king in triumph as the city’s savior. Chimène, realizing that the king will not help her exact vengeance on such a hero, invokes the tradition of single combat and offers to marry the champion who will slay Rodrigue. The king agrees but, suspecting that Chimène still loves Rodrigue, stipulates that she must wed whoever is victorious. In the final act Rodrigue again meets Chimène and gains her admission that she wishes him to survive the combat but that her honor forces her to risk his life. Rodrigue defeats her champion but pardons him, sending him back to Chimène with the news. She, believing she is meeting Rodrigue’s killer, reveals her grief and love for Rodrigue. The king asserts the play’s comic conclusion by decreeing that Rodrigue and Chimène have both acted nobly, that honor has been satisfied, and that the lovers can hope to be united in time.

Corneille’s play marks an important dramatic shift from external to internal stage action in which circumstances push his characters to extreme conflicts to reveal their inner resources and values. By concentrating attention on his two protagonists and by forcing Rodrigue and Chimène to reconcile the competing demands of love and honor, Corneille dramatizes the meaning of both in human, moral, and emotional terms. Drama, in Corneille’s handling, became less centered on plot and more on character and the sentiment that the circumstances provoked. Le Cid proved to be both an extraordinarily popular success and a target. Literary critics and rival playwrights, in a pamphlet war, attacked Corneille and the play’s perceived transgressions of decorum, realism, and morality. The playwright Scudéry was one of the most outspoken in a detailed attack that concluded with the charge that the play’s “subject is worthless, that it violates the principal rules of dramatic poetry, that it has many bad verses, that all its beauties are plagiarized.” Scudéry’s most damning complaint, however, centered on Corneille’s presumed violations of verisimilitude and morality in allowing Chimène to love her father’s murderer. Corneille’s defense rested on claims of historical truth and the play’s classically derived tone and structure. A war of words escalated into vicious personal attack, and the quarrel was finally appealed to the newly formed Académie Française for arbitration. After six months, the magisterial Sentiments de l’Académie sur Le Cid appeared. Largely the work of scholar Jean Chapelain, with the approval if not the input of Cardinal Richelieu, the treatise supplied a point-by-point critique of Scudéry’s charges as well as a scene-by-scene analysis of the play assessing questions of believability and “regularity.” Although Chapelain took issue with many of Scudéry’s complaints, he agreed with him that in attempting to follow the unities Corneille had shown too much action for a single day. This offense of verisimilitude, however, was minor compared to the play’s most serious transgression. By depicting “a girl introduced as virtuous” who consents to marry her father’s murderer, the play offends, Chapelain asserted, both verisimilitude and morality. For Chapelain a drama cannot be called good, “however pleasing it may be to the common folk,” unless the required precepts of decorum, verisimilitude, and propriety are observed. Corneille’s defense that the story was historically true was insufficient and misguided, in Chapelain’s view: “There are monstrous truths which must be repressed for the good of society,” and “It is primarily in these cases that the poet should prefer verisimilitude to truth.” For Chapelain Chimène is “too susceptible a lover and too unnatural a daughter” to be plausible.

The lasting significance of the Querelle du Cid was the impact of its widespread public debate on the ends and means of drama that tested and popularized neoclassical ideals. The debate would establish France as the European center for dramatic theory, and French critics would dominate and define the understanding and practices of drama for the next century and a half. The controversy brought attention both to the limitations and benefits of the classically derived stage principles that governed how a play should be presented, as well as the degree to which truth could be in conflict with the desire to edify and instruct an audience. Chapelain, advocating the emerging neoclassical ideals, had earlier asserted that the end of drama was “to move the soul of the spectator by the power and truth with which the various passions are expressed on the stage and in this way to purge it from the unfortunate effects which these passions can create in himself.” To do so drama must replicate the conditions of real life, and hence the performance must be “accomplished and supported” by verisimilitude. Vraisemblance, in the evolving conception of neoclassical drama, was in turn supported by the unities of time, place, and action and the principles of decorum that reserved the stage for the noble and banned vulgar characters or details. Corneille had shown in Le Cid the force and psychological and emotional possibilities that could be achieved by adhering to certain neoclassical conventions, even if he fell short of others. By concentrating dramatic interest on the human psyche and passions in distress, Corneille helped establish verisimilitude, or believability, as well as its limits, as crucial measures of a drama’s success. The legacy of Le Cid is the challenges and the achievements of later dramatists, such as Molière and Racine, who tried to abide by and profit from the neoclassical ideals that Corneille’s play had helped define and popularize.

Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time

Categories: Drama Criticism, French Literature, Literature

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