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
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
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.