Pierre Corneille Biography


Birthday: June 6, 1606 (Gemini)

Born In: Rouen, France

One among the greatest dramatists that France produced during the seventeenth century is Pierre Corneille. He was instrumental in paving a new path for French tragedy, defying the classical theories of drama. Though he was born into a family where most people were lawyers by profession, Corneille decided to travel on a different path altogether, unlike his relatives. He had an innate interest in plays and wrote them even while he was engaged with a job at the ‘Rouen department of Forests and Rivers’. Pierre’s innovative style of writing was evident from his first play itself and when it was staged, it earned him many accolades and launched his career as a playwright. He dabbled with writing verses as well and soon his talent as a poet attracted a Cardinal who chose him among his ‘Five Poets’. However, he felt suffocated to follow the Cardinal’s rules in writing, as those did not allow him to exercise his creativity to the fullest. So he parted ways with the Cardinal and followed his instinct, which led him to become one of the most exceptional and famous playwrights who reigned over the French stage for years. This playwright also approached the creation of French tragedy in a new manner, thus creating a new trend.

Quick Facts

French Celebrities Born In June

Died At Age: 78


Spouse/Ex-: Marie de Lampérière

father: Pierre Corneille

mother: Marthe le Pesant de Boisguilbert

siblings: Thomas Corneille

Born Country: France

Playwrights Theater Personalities

Died on: October 1, 1684

place of death: Paris, France

City: Rouen, France

Childhood & Early Life
He was born on 6th June, 1606, to Pierre Corneille and Marthe le Pesant de Boisguilbert in Rouen, France. Pierre’s father was a reputed lawyer of his time. Pierre also had a sibling named Thomas Corneille, who also later went on to become a playwright.
The lad received his education at the ‘Collège de Bourbon’, which was affiliated to the famous ‘Society of Jesus’ congregation. This institution later came to be known as ‘Lycée Pierre-Corneille’.
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When he was eighteen years old, the teenager started pursuing law but he did not achieve significant success in the profession. He father then arranged a job for him at the ‘Rouen department of Forests and Rivers’.
While working for the department, he inked his first play, titled ‘Mélite’. In 1629, Corneille pitched this piece of work to a group of actors.
The actors were impressed by the content of the play and decided to work on the same. It was performed in Paris and earned Corneille the recognition of being a playwright.
Since then, the playwright decided to pen plays regularly and even relocated to Paris. His creativity met with immense fame and was soon placed among the prominent playwrights belonging to the French stage.
In 1634, he was commissioned to create verses for the impending visit of Cardinal Richelieu to Rouen. His verses overwhelmed the Cardinal and the playwright was included to be a part of the ‘Les Cinq Auteurs’, also known as the society of five poets.
The society also included thinkers like Boisrobert, Guillaume Colletet, Jean Rotrou and Claude de L'Estoile.
The Cardinal desired to create a new form of drama which focussed on virtue. He made guidelines which the five writers were expected to follow while writing.
However, Corneille had an independent way of thinking and did not want to follow some pre-defined rules to write plays. Therefore, he parted ways with the ‘Les Cinq Auteurs’ group, and embarked on an independent journey as a playwright.
He created many comedies during his initial years as a playwright. A few of them include 'Clitandre', 'La Veuve', 'La Galerie du Palais', 'La Suivante', 'La Place royale' and 'L'Illusion comique'. However, he made a shift from comedy to tragedy and in 1635, wrote his first tragedy titled ‘Médée’.
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In 1637, his second play, titled ‘Le Cid’, was staged in front of the public. This work was inspired by dramatist Guillem de Castro’s renowned play ‘Mocedades del Cid’. Both the plays revolve around the story of an army man named Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, belonging to Medieval Spain.
‘Le Cid’ was a tragicomedy, which blurred the distinction between the tragedy and comedy genres of drama. This play met with immense success but it was criticised for defying the classical unities of time and other rules of creating by the great philosopher, Aristotle.
Cardinal Richelieu formed the ‘Académie Française’ also known as ‘The French Academy’ in 1635 and the play ‘Le Cid’ was subject to scrutiny by this academy. In spite of the success the play received, many other playwrights as well as ‘Academie Francaise’ denied the play to be a precious literary piece.
These controversies troubled the writer so much that he went back to Rouen, and sought a life of obscurity. It is said that he tried to rewrite the play several times in order to make it flawless.
However, these controversies surrounding his work, also termed as ‘Querelle du Cid’ (‘The Quarrel of Le Cid’), helped him focus more on the dramatic rules set by classical philosophers.
In 1640, he made a comeback into the world of theatre and the first play he produced after this long sabbatical from theatre life was ‘Horace’.He dedicated this piece of work to his most prominent critic, Richelieu.
During that decade he prolifically produced plays like 'Polyeucte', 'La Mort de Pompée', 'Cinna', Le Menteur', 'Rodogune', 'La Suite du Menteur', 'Théodore', 'Héraclius', 'Don Sanche d'Aragon' and 'Andromède'. He also brought out a few revised versions of his highly critiqued play ‘Le Cid’ which were in line with the classical tragedy theories.
The decade which followed, saw the creation of his plays ‘Nicomède’ and ‘Pertharite’. The latter, did not meet with much success during this period, and as a result, he quit writing plays, and took up the task of translating the literary piece ‘Imitation of Christ’ composed by Thomas à Kempis.
In 1656, he finished this work of translation and returned to the world of theatre because his audience and followers wanted him to resume playwriting.
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He wrote the play titled ‘Oedipe’ in 1659, which was followed by others works like 'Trois Discours sur le poème dramatique' and 'La Toison d'or', the next year.
He produced several plays in between 1662 to 1667, which include 'Sertorius', 'Sophonisbe', 'Othon', 'Agésilas' and 'Attila'.
In 1670, Corneille and one of his contemporary writers named Jean Racine were asked to compose one play each on the same theme. Neither of them was aware that it was a secret competition.
The following year, both the writers manifested their works, wherein Corneille wrote ‘Tite et Bérénice’ and Racine’s play was titled ‘Bérénice’. Surprisingly, Racine managed to win this competition. Gradually, Pierre started losing his popularity and was soon succeeded by a new generation of writers.
This accomplished writer composed a comedy in 1671 named ‘Psyché’ in association with other contemporary writers Molière and Philippe Quinault. This was followed by the play ‘Pulchérie’.
His last composed play was titled ‘Suréna’, which he completed in the year 1674, and after that abandoned the world of theatre forever.
Major Works
All his plays have been experimental and revolved around different themes. However, the work of his which is considered exceptional is a play titled ‘Le Cid’. In this play, he has given a new direction to French tragedies and marked the beginning of a new era of creativity.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1641, this eminent writer entered the wedlock with a woman named Marie de Lampérière, and the couple was blessed with seven children.
Ten years after his withdrawal from the theatre world, this prolific writer breathed his last in 1684. He was later cremated at a church named ‘Église Saint-Roch’, located in Paris.
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