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Polyeucte   By: (1606-1684)

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By Pierre Corneille

Translated by Thomas Constable


Pierre Corneille was born in Rouen in 1606, the son of an official; was educated by the Jesuits, and practised unsuccessfully as a lawyer. His dramatic career began with the comedy of "Melite," but it was by his "Medee" that he first proved his tragic genius. "The Cid" appeared in 1636, and a series of masterpieces followed "Horace," "Cinna," "Polyeucte," "Le Menteur." After a failure in "Pertharite" he retired from the stage, deeply hurt by the disapproval of his audience. Six years later he resumed play writing with "OEdipe" and continued till 1674, producing in all some thirty plays. Though he earned a great reputation, he was poorly paid; and a proud and sensitive nature laid him open to considerable suffering. He died in 1684.

The works of Corneille represent most fully the ideal of French so called "classical" tragedy. The laws to which this type of tragedy sought to conform were not so much truth to nature as the principles which the critics had derived from a somewhat inadequate interpretation of Aristotle and of the practise of the Greek tragedians. These principles concentrated the interest of the play upon a single central situation, in order to emphasize which, subordinate characters and complicating under plots were avoided as much as possible. There was little or no action upon the stage, and the events of the plot were narrated by messengers, or by the main characters in conversation with confidantes. Further, the "dramatic unities" of time and place, as well as of action, were held to be binding.

One result of these rules was to give an extraordinary importance to the speeches; and it is in the eloquence of these, in the grandeur and dignity of the versification, and in the lofty moral elevation of the characters, that Corneille excels. All of these qualities are admirably exemplified in "Polyeucte"; and in the conduct of the leading personages one may perceive the most persistent trait of this dramatist's treatment of heroic character the conquest of the passions by the reason and the will. "Among the masterpieces of Corneille," says Paul de Saint Victor, "'Polyeucte' is assuredly the greatest; and nothing in all his dramas equals the extraordinary beauty of the character of 'Pauline.'"



FELIX, Governor of Armenia. POLYEUCTE, an Armenian noble, son in law to FELIX. SEVERUS, a Roman Knight, favourite of the Emperor Decius. NEARCHUS, an Armenian noble, friend to Polyeucte. PAULINE, daughter to Felix, wife to Polyeucte. STRATONICE, companion to Pauline. ALBIN, friend to FELIX. FABIAN, servant to Severus. CLEON, friend to FELIX. Three Guards.

The Scene is at Melitena, capital of Armenia. The action takes place in the Palace of Felix.


NEARCHUS. Shall woman's dream of terror hurl the dart? Oh, feeble weapon 'gainst so great a heart! Must courage proved a thousand times in arms Bow to a peril forged by vain alarms?

POLY. I know that dreams are born to fade away, And melt in air before the light of day; I know that misty vapours of the night Dissolve and fly before the morning bright. The dream is naught but the dear dreamer all! She has my soul, Nearchus, fast in thrall; Who holds the marriage torch august, divine, Bids me to her sweet voice my will resign. She fears my death tho' baseless this her fright, Pauline is wrung with fear by day by night; My road to duty hampered by her fears, How can I go when all undried her tears? Her terror I disown and all alarms, Yet pity holds me in her loving arms: No bolts or bars imprison, yet her sighs My fetters are my conquerors, her eyes! Say, kind Nearchus, is the cause you press Such as to make me deaf to her distress? The bonds I slacken I would not unloose Nothing I yield yet grant a timely truce... Continue reading book >>

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