Corneille, Pierre

Corneille, Pierre pyĕr kôrnāˈyə [key], 1606–84, French dramatist, ranking with Racine as a master of French classical tragedy. Educated by Jesuits, he practiced law briefly in his native Rouen and moved to Paris after the favorable reception of his first play, Mélite (1629), a comedy. His first trágedy, Médée (1635), was followed by Le Cid (1637). This masterpiece, based on a Spanish play about the Cid, took Paris by storm; “beautiful as the Cid” became a French proverb. However, Jean Chapelain composed a paper for the newly founded French Academy that attacked the play as plagiaristic and faulty in construction, and thereafter Corneille adhered to classical rules. Among the finest of his score of tragedies that followed are Horace (1640), Cinna (1640), and Polyeucte (1643). The comedy Le Menteur (1643) had great success. Corneille's tragedies exalt the will at the expense of the emotions; his tragic heroes and heroines display almost superhuman strength in subordinating passion to duty. At his best, Corneille was a master of the grand style, powerful and majestic. His last plays are marred by monotonous declamation. Corneille's old age was embittered by the rise of Racine, who replaced him in popular favor.

See studies by D. A. Collins (1966) and H. T. Barnwell (1982).

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