Pierre Corneille

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Corneille, Pierre

Corneille, Pierre (pyĕr kôrnāˈyə), 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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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Corneille, Pierre


Born June 6, 1606, in Rouen; died Oct. 1, 1684, in Paris. French dramatist. Member of the French Academy from 1647.

The son of a lawyer, Corneille began his literary career writing verse. The plays that followed, notably the comedy Méelite, or the Spurious Letters (performed 1629, published 1633), the tragicomedy Clitandre, or Liberated Innocence (performed 1630–31, published 1632), and the tragedy Médée (performed 1635, published 1639), represented efforts to develop a genre form. His tragicomedy Le Cid, performed and published in 1637, marked the beginning of French classical tragedy. The play’s central conflict, the struggle between duty and passion, reflected the great contradiction of the time—the individual’s relation to the national state that was evolving in the form of absolute monarchy. Although in Le Cid there was a strong spirit of liberty, the chief cause of the play’s condemnation by the French Academy, it also presented the state as the highest principle of life, a theme subsequently developed in the tragedies Horace (performed 1640, published 1641) and Cinna, or Augustus’Clemency (performed 1640–41, published 1643).

The plays written in the early 1640’s are imbued with the triumph of reason over emotion and of civic valor over individual passions and with the victory of heroic will. These characteristics are reflected in the classically austere and clearcut form of the plays, in which the dramatist’s organizing artistic will is constantly present. Corneille also sought to apply the principles of classical poetics to comedy in Le Menteur (performed 1643, published 1644).

Beginning with the tragedy Rodogune (performed 1644–45, published 1647), new motifs appeared, resulting from disillusionment with the absolutist state. These motifs defined the character of the plays of the late 1640’s, which were later called the trage-dies of Corneille’s “second style.” The plays dealt not with the destinies of nations but with dynastic struggles for the throne and palace intrigues and crimes. The monarch, a tyrant motivated by personal ambition, was the central figure. Without a rational social purpose, the will of his heroes became an irrational, perverted, criminal force. The moving force of these dramas was blind chance, and the principle of simplicity and clarity, inherent in classical poetics, gave way to deliberately intricate intrigue. Corneille attempted to depart from the canons of classicism and to create genre forms intermediate between tragedy and comedy, such as Don Sanche d’Aragon (performed 1649, published 1650). The play’s democratic tendency, echoing the social upheaval brought about by the revival of forces opposed to absolutism, was developed in the best of Corneille’s later tragedies, Nicomède (performed and published in 1651), which ended with a popular uprising.

After the failure of Pertharite (performed, 1651; published, 1653), Corneille retired from the theater, not to return to dramatic work until 1659. Corneille’s tragedies of the 1660’s, including Sertorius (performed and published in 1662) and Othon (performed 1664, published 1665), show the dramatist’s declining power. Corneille stood aside from the new problems of the age. The play Suréna (performed 1674, published 1675) was his farewell to the theater. In his last years he wrote almost nothing and died poor and forgotten.

Corneille achieved new fame in the period of the Enlightenment and the Great French Revolution. In Russia, Corneille’s tragedies were translated and performed as early as the 18th century. He was especially popular in the years of struggle against the despotism of Catherine II and at the time of the Decembrist movement. New translations of Corneille’s tragedies appeared in the late 19th century and in the Soviet period (by M. L. Lozinskii).


Oeuvres, vols. 1–2. Paris, 1862–68.
In Russian translation:
Izbrannye tragedii. Moscow, 1956.
Teatr frantsuzskogo klassitsizma: P. KorneV, Zh. Rasin. Moscow, 1970.


Batiushkov, F. D. Korneliev “Sid “St. Petersburg, 1895.
Balashov, N. I. P. KorneV. Moscow, 1956.
Sigal, N. A. P. KorneV, 1606–1684. Leningrad-Moscow, 1957.
Klemperer, V. P. Corneille. Munich, 1933.
Dort, B. P. Corneille dramaturge. [Paris, 1957.]
Descotes, M. Les Grands Roles du théâtre de Corneille.…. Paris, 1962. (With bibliography.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
"Pierre Corneille's Medea-Machine." Romanic Review 85 (1994): 537-52.
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Beginning with female actors in court masques and ending with Katherine Philips's translations of Pierre Corneille's tragic plays, Tomlinson takes up a wide range of topics, theatrical and gendered.
Scheduled to follow are Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie," Marie Jones' "Stones in His Pockets," Lydia Diamond's adaptation of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" and Tony Kushner's version of Pierre Corneille's "The Illusion." Haj directs that season Closer, running April 11-May 6.
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The idea that Pierre Corneille's comedies were influenced by the early French novel is not a new one, but the focus of most critics seems to have been on Corneille's thematic borrowings in his treatment of love.
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