Pierre Corneille

Pierre CorneilleBorn June 6, 1606 in Rouen, France, to a family of lawyers, Pierre Corneille would follow in his father's footsteps. Educated by the Jesuits, he studied law and then entered the Rouen parlement in 1629. He would serve as the king's counselor in the local office of the department of waterways and forests for 21 years, and remarkably, he still found the time to write 20 plays during this period. After his retirement from the legal profession, he would write 12 more.

Although Corneille is considered by most critics to be the father of French tragedy, six of his first eight plays were comedies. His first play, Mélite, was presented by a strolling troupe that happened through Rouen in 1629. The play was well received, but it was not until Mélite was revived in Paris the following year that Corneille's career began to take off. He followed this initial offering with a series of comedies and tragicomedies including Clitandre (1631), La Veuve or The Widow (1632), La Galerie du Palais or The Palace Corridor (1633), La Suivante or The Maidservant (1634), La Place Royal (1634), and L'Illusion Comique (1636).

Among Corneille's many admirers was a political figure--Cardinal de Richelieu. Along with several other playwrights, Corneille was invited by Richelieu to join a group known as the "society of the five authors". The purpose of this group was to allow the Cardinal to supervise the creation of new drama for the stage. Much like a modern day studio executive, Richelieu would dream up ideas for plays, then present them to his playwrights who were expected to dramatize the events exactly as the Cardinal had outlined them. Corneille's temperment, however, was not suited to this rigid environment, and he tended to stray from the Cardinal's outlines, often causing a heated clash between the writer and his employer. So, after fulfilling his contractual obligations, Corneille left the group and returned to Rouen where he resumed his legal practice.

Fortunately, he did not remain in retirement for long. The playwright soon began to experiment with the tragic form and the result was the well received Médée (1635). Then, in 1637, Corneille stunned the French theatre with his first masterpiece: Le Cid (1637), based on the life of an 11th century Spanish hero. Le Cid opened at the Hôtel de Bourgogne and became the smash hit of the season. "Beautiful as Le Cid" became a proverbial expression--the equivalent of our own modern day expression: "Better than Cats". Even Louis XIII and his queen sent Corneille their compliments. Not everyone, however, was so enamored of the play. Richelieu, still harboring a grudge against Corneille, staged a vicious campaign against Le Cid. He and his followers criticized the play for not observing the "classical unities"--a formula that Richelieu was fond of imposing on all plays in order to control the drama still further. At Richelieu's urging, the Académie Francaise even went so far as to issue a document condemning Le Cid as "dramatically implausible and morally defective." Corneille was apparently deeply hurt by these attacks and did not write another play for almost three years. However, when he did finally return to the stage, it was with a vengeance. He would quickly produce a string of tragedies that would secure him a place in theatre history and which, along with Le Cid, would come to be considered his greatest works.

The first of these masterworks, Horace (1640), dramatizes the conflict of families divided by duty during a war between the ancient Romans and their Alban neighbors. Corneille followed this success with Cinna (1641) which tells the story of a conspiracy against the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, who outwits his potential murderers by granting them a political pardon rather than attempting to have them executed as they expect, thus proving that he has strength enough to be merciful. And finally, Polyeucte (1643), considered by some critics to be Corneille's greatest work, tells the story of a born-again Christian who finds that his wife is in love with another man. In 1643, Corneille also achieved a remarkable success with a comedy of intrigue, Le Menteur or The Liar. Like Le Cid, this comic masterpiece was based on a Spanish model and has come to be considered perhaps the finest French comedy written before the time of Molière.

In 1647, Corneille moved with his family to Paris and was admitted to the Académie Francaise, the same organization which had helped to wage the earlier campaign against Le Cid. Throughout the rest of his days, Corneille would continued to write, but the public taste had turned against him in preference of younger writers such as Jean Racine. Embittered by this change in fortune, Corneille was once said to have remarked, "Am I not always Corneille?" Complicating his situation still further was the financial difficulty caused by the intermittent disappearance of the pension he had been granted by Richelieu shortly after the composition of Horace in 1640. On October 1, 1684, Corneille died in his house on the rue d'Argenteuil, Paris.

Corneille's Plays  |  Biographies/Studies


Corneille's Plays


Related Sites

Corneille Index

French Theatre Index

Pierre Corneille

Pierre Corneille

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