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Magnanimous Women: Gender and Souls in Corneille’s Tragic Theater

Article Citation: 
Cahiers du dix-septième: An Interdisciplinary Journal XII, 1 (2008) 38–60
Michael Taormina
Article Text: 

In Corneille’s tragic theater, there are many examples or types of the “great soul,” what Aristotle calls the megalopsuchos in the Nicomachean Ethics: someone “who believes himself worthy of great things and is in fact worthy of them” (Aristotle, Ethics IV.iii.1123a34).1 For example: Horace and Polyeucte—one classical and one Christian hero. But what about Corneille’s heroines: Camille and Pauline? Do they not also display greatness of soul? While the category of gender in seventeenth-century France has been examined in terms of physical, social, or political bodies, this particular examination of gender in terms of soul—an explicitly metaphysical approach—is inspired by Corneille’s own discussion of character in Discours de l’Utilité et des Parties du Poème dramatique. (Corneille, Trois discours 63–94). Out of many possible examples, Corneille privileges Cleopatra and explicitly appeals to her greatness of soul. This same kind of analysis may be usefully extended to other female characters, such as Camille and Pauline. Given the patriarchal system of values, as well as the restricted means of action available to female characters, the question is whether and how these tragic heroines of Corneille exhibit greatness of soul.

Characterization and Cleopatra’s Soul

Addressing the question of characterization in the Discours, Corneille is faced with a philological quandary: What does Aristotle mean when he prescribes that a dramatic character be good? “Je ne puis comprendre par ce mot de bonnes,” writes Corneille, “qu’il faut qu’elles [les Mœurs] soient vertueuses” (Corneille, Trois discours 78). Corneille underscores this apparent contradiction with examples drawn from Horace: Medea, Ixion, and Achilles, each of whom by convention displays less than virtuous character traits. Corneille argues that if we faithfully portray these characters according to the conventional traits which Horace recommends, this does not leave much room for the expression of virtue as it is conventionally understood, in other words, moral goodness. Hence, reasons Corneille, Aristotle must mean something else by “good:” “je crois que c’est le caractère brillant et élevé d’une habitude vertueuse, ou criminelle, selon qu’elle est propre et convenable à la personne qu’on introduit” (Corneille, Trois discours 78).

Corneille supports his interpretation with citations from Aristotle and Robertello (an Italian commentator). According to Louvat and Escola (Corneille, Trois Discours 159, n. 41), 2 Corneille seems to have accurately intuited a possible conceptual link between what reads in Aristotle’s original text as “good” (khrèsta) and “suitable” (epieikeis) (Aristotle, Poetics XV.1454a15–1454b10). 3 In their view, our French playwright rejects a moral and social interpretation in favor of an esthetic one: it is not the character but the characterization that must be good in the sense of suitable. Tradition makes it suitable to portray the “bad” character traits of Medea, Ixion, or Achilles; and decorum makes it suitable to portray them with a certain elevation—the dignity and elevation of tragedy as a genre demand elevation of character.

However, when we take a closer look at how Corneille himself translates the crucial passage from Aristotle, we sense that the playwright may have something else in mind other than purely esthetic concerns: “ainsi les Poètes, représentants des hommes colères, ou fainéants, doivent tirer une haute idée de ces qualités”(Corneille, Trois Discours 79). Stephen Halliwell renders the original Greek: “Likewise the poet, while showing irascible and indolent people and those with other such character traits, should nonetheless make them decent [epieikeis]” (Poetics XV.1454b10). Although Corneille is working from a Latin translation, we might have expected “honnête” or “bienséant,” if the playwright’s concerns were merely esthetic. Instead, Corneille reads “une haute idée.” Corneille’s citation from Robortello4 only serves to reinforce this reading which conceptually links “cette bonté nécessaire aux Moeurs” to “cette elevation de […] caractère” (Corneille, Trois Discours 79). The link between “bonté” and “caractère” is more than esthetic.

Although this whole passage from the Discours is dealing with how best to create a fictional character, it also treats fictional characters as moral agents who express character traits through their acts. The passage shows Corneille making of elevation a conceptual link that is ethical and, ultimately, metaphysical in its import. This is perfectly consistent with what Fumaroli has repeatedly emphasized in his historical research on eloquence: there existed a close relationship among ethics, rhetoric, and poetics in the first half of the seventeenth century. To focus on the metaphysical dimension is merely to highlight the microcosm of social and political bodies. This metaphysical dimension would theoretically become unconcealed in action and speaking, would be represented by certain marks or traits, and, ultimately, would be played out in the social and political arenas. Hence there would exist a proportion of scale across the various dimensions or levels. The great actors on the historical stage would be great souls.

To shore up his reading of Aristotle, Corneille draws on his own work as well, citing Cleopatra as an example of a character that is “brilliant and elevated” and yet wicked:

Cléopâtre dans Rodogune est très méchante, il n’y a point de parricide qui lui fasse horreur, pourvu qu’il la puisse conserver sur un trône qu’elle préfère à toutes choses, tant son attache à la domination est violent ; mais tous ces crimes sont accompagnés d’une grandeur d’âme qui a quelque chose de si haut, qu’en même temps qu’on déteste ses actions, on admire la source dont elles partent (Corneille, Trois Discours 79).

This distinction between Cleopatra’s ambition and pride, on the one hand, and her actions and crimes, on the other, suggests that Corneille is working from an altogether different conception of virtue. As Paul Bénichou notes, Corneille’s conception of virtue has less to do with moral goodness and more to do with “valeur, force ou grandeur” (Bénichou, Morales 12). This is in turn associated with height or elevation (“quelque chose de si haut”), as Robortello intimates: “supremos quosdam [...] decoris gradus” (Corneille, Trois Discours 79). Virtue is a kind of superlative degree. In other words, Cleopatra is the outstanding type of her class. This conception of virtue as superlative elevation is very close to an Aristotelian conception of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics, where virtue is seen as human activity raised to the highest degree. 5

We know that Corneille was a reader of Aristotle’s Poetics. Marc Fumaroli tells us that Corneille was probably also a reader of the Nicomachean Ethics, or had at least second-hand knowledge of it from Latin versions used in the Jesuit schools (Fumaroli 330–331). In the Nicomachean Ethics Corneille would have acquired the conceptual tools necessary to articulate the complex relationship of character, soul, and virtue. For Corneille, this complex relationship is articulated in dramatic language. Therefore, when Fumaroli examines the Aristotelian “great soul” as the moral archetype of the Cornelian hero, he looks to Corneille’s eloquence: “Point de grande éloquence sans une grande âme qui soit la source” (Fumaroli 324). This formulation explicitly links the rhetorical sublime to the presence of a great soul. With his usual perspicacity, Fumaroli has linked the social and political to the metaphysical; the link is one of proportional elevation, height, greatness, across micro- and macrocosm. This correspondence between elevation of style and elevation of soul, I would assert, uncovers a metaphysical dimension to social and political bodies not only because such a correspondence presupposes a whole series of Aristotelian concepts (capacity, activity, movement, form, matter, etc.) that are part of the search for primary being in the Metaphysics, but also because it commits one to a view of the soul as a microcosmic source of power, inseparable from the human body, and perceptible in certain activities, like action or speaking.6 The representation of this microcosmic power in dramatic language may very well foreground the normally invisible operation of macrocosmic power in social and political bodies, such as the family and the State.

Precisely, then, this correspondence between soul and eloquence is so intriguing because, in that case, the eloquence of Corneille’s tragic heroines can be read as a representation of their soul. 7 Corneille’s choice of Cleopatra as an example of a great soul now looks all the more polemical. Corneille could have chosen a male character, even a wicked male character, to make his point, but instead he chose a female character. Cleopatra serves Corneille’s purposes in the Discours not just because her greatness of soul challenges the usual equation of virtue with moral goodness, but also because she is an archetype of the female threat to the patriarchal State. A femme forte, a woman with a great soul, has the power to challenge prevailing dramatic theory as well as social and political expectations for women in seventeenth-century France. 8 In this sense, Cleopatra, despite her wickedness, is an archetype for Corneille’s other magnanimous women, in this instance Camille and Pauline, whose actions and speeches often challenge dramatic, social, and political expectations. Analyzing some of Camille’s and Pauline’s speeches in terms of eloquence should allow us to determine in what sense and to what extent these Cornelian heroines possess great souls, and how this representation affects the social and political bodies of which they are part. It will become clear that Corneille’s characterization of women as great souls entails not just a social and political revaluation, but a metaphysical one as well. This is the line of argument we will pursue just as soon as we review the Aristotelian conception of magnanimity.

The Aristotelian “Ethos” of Magnanimity

We should briefly examine the definition of magnanimity in the Nicomachean Ethics to see how Corneille’s heroines compare. What makes this comparison feasible is, as Fumaroli notes in “L’Héroïsme cornélien et l’éthique de la magnanimité” (Fumaroli 336–338), the Christian reception of the Nicomachean Ethics in early seventeenth-century France but also, as Bénichou says in Morales du grand siècle (Bénichou 19), the transmission of “archaic” ideas of heroism to the early modern nobility. In principle, we do not want to exclude either the Christian or the archaic version of the megalopsuchos, albeit in female incarnations, Pauline and Camille. For our purposes, however, we will treat magnanimity, and the megalopsuchos, primarily as an “ethos,” that is, a character or a kind of person. Indeed, Aristotle himself, when he sets out to define magnanimity, merely describes the kind of person the megalopsuchos is. He singles out certain typical character traits. After reviewing these character traits, we can see to what extent they show up in the speeches of Corneille’s heroines.

Aristotle defines the magnanimous person in terms of worth and greatness: “one who thinks himself worthy of great things and is really worthy of them;” “magnanimity is found in greatness;” and “what he thinks he is worthy of reflects his real worth” (Aristotle, Ethics IV.iii.1123b1–15). Aristotle relates the idea of worth to external goods, such as wealth, power, or good fortune. However, honor, “the greatest of external goods,” is reserved for the magnanimous person alone, because honor is what “we award the gods” and is also “the aim of people with a reputation for worth” (Aristotle, Ethics IV.iii.1123b20). As a result, the defining characteristic of the magnanimous person is “the right concern with honors and dishonors” (Aristotle, Ethics IV.iii.1123b20). This last trait is crucial. The magnanimous person aims at honor in the right way and for the right reasons. He is therefore “at the extreme,” says Aristotle, “in so far as he makes great claims. But in so far as he makes them rightly, he is intermediate” (Aristotle, Ethics IV.iii.1123b14–15). He aims neither too high, which would make him foolish and vain, nor too low, which would make him merely small.

Magnanimity is the greatest of the Aristotelian virtues of character. Aristotle calls it “a sort of adornment of the virtues” (Aristotle, Ethics IV.iii.1124a1). On the one hand, magnanimity cannot arise without the other virtues. Aristotle argues that one could not be magnanimous, that is, worthy of great things, if one were cowardly, unjust, or base. On the other hand, magnanimity adds luster to the other virtues. If one is truly worthy of great things, then one is the best person, and the honor due to the best shows the other virtues also to be great. Magnanimity is the greatest of the Aristotelian virtues, and the most complete, because the magnanimous person raises to its highest degree what Aristotle calls “the human function,” that is, “the soul’s activity that expresses reason” (Aristotle, Ethics I.vii.1098a5–15). When the activity of the human soul expresses reason, and when it does this finely and well, Aristotle calls it virtue. It is a kind of excellence.

Other characteristics of the magnanimous person include a willingness to display greatness only to the great; an unwillingness to face danger and take action except in the most extreme circumstances; frank expression of friendship and enmity; a tendency to do more good than he has received, and hence to remember only the good he has done, not what he has received; and, finally, a moderate display of pleasure from public honors and recognition of his worth (Aristotle, Ethics IV.iii.1124a1–1125a15). Aristotle underscores all these characteristics as a function of the magnanimous person’s right concern with honor and dishonor.

This emphasis on honor and dishonor must have made Aristotelian magnanimity an attractive virtue to the nobility of early seventeenth-century France. At a time when noble treatises were struggling to define noble identity, the virtue of magnanimity, being “a virtue productive of great benefits [for others]” (Aristotle, Rhetoric I.ix.11), would have held out to a nobility increasingly sidelined in the affairs of state the promise of relevance in the political arena. Furthermore, magnanimity’s concern with honor dovetails with the definition of nobility found in some early seventeenth-century noble treatises. For instance, P. Boyssat states in Recherches sur les duels (Lyon, 1610): “Honor is by nature imprinted in the hearts of the Nobility, and it consists in never admitting defeat and considering only victory or death while fighting” (ctd. in Schalk 52). Thus, while Fumaroli is perfectly right to underscore the Christian appropriation and mediation of the Aristotelian “ethos” of magnanimity, one can very well imagine the nobility selectively choosing to ignore elements of that Christian accretion in favor of more “archaic” elements, what Bénichou calls “heroic morality,” in which pride and passion are awaiting only a sufficient obstacle to be transformed into the glory of triumph.

The Magnanimity of Two Cornelian Heroines

We know that the scope of action in Corneille’s tragedies is not the same for women as it is for men. In Horace (1640), it is Curiace and the younger Horace who must fight to the death to determine whether Alba or Rome will have supremacy. In Polyeucte martyr (1642), Polyeucte himself has the privilege of smashing the pagan idols and offering up his life to God. As Noémi Hepp notes, these tragic protagonists are heroes precisely because they have taken action; because they have done so in the name of honor, the State, or God; and because they have been recognized as heroes by the community, which has benefited greatly by their actions (Hepp 14). Generally speaking, each can be called magnanimous because he is truly worthy of great things.

Noémi Hepp explains further how this same scope of action is not truly open to seventeenth-century women. There exist different social expectations for women, and Hepp explores these by comparing masculine and feminine ideals as embodied in the hero and the heroine. “Si être un héros et être un homme parfait,” she writes, “sont une seule et même chose, faire des actions de héros et être une femme parfaite sont deux choses tout à fait différentes” (Hepp 19). According to Hepp, the characteristics of a perfect seventeenth-century French woman are defined not by her relation to action but by her relation to men. It is not just the case that she should be loyal to family and devoted to her husband; it is also that she is meant to mediate between men and heroic values, inspiring men to achieve great things. This can be done through love, through motherhood, or through prayer. In every case, moreover, she should be modest, hiding her feelings, her opinions, and her intellectual gifts. As Hepp shows, “les panégyristes les louent [les femmes] bien plus pour leurs vertus secrètes—prière, pénitence, humilité, fidélité à la volonté de Dieu,” and one might add, loyalty to the will of father and husband, “que pour leurs exploits [eux-mêmes]” (Hepp 14).

However, we often observe women contending with men in Corneille’s tragedies. In Horace, Camille directly impugns her brother’s rigid heroic code for its inhumanity (II.v); in Polyeucte, Pauline is pitted against every male protagonist, the most challenging being her old flame Sévère (II.ii). Thus, I would argue, what we find at the heart of Cornelian tragedy is not just the heroic imperative which Serge Dubrovsky has aptly formulated “meurs ou tue” (Dubrovsky 95), but also a war of prestige, a potlatch, a struggle in the name of honor between men and women. This struggle cannot be explained merely by assigning supremacy to men in the public sphere of action and supremacy to women in the personal sphere of love. Time and again, we see in Corneille just how entangled political rivalries and alliances are with love interests, such that it is difficult to separate the public from the personal and politics from love. Rather, what levels the playing field, so to speak, for the heroes and heroines in Corneille’s tragedies is not the representation of action per se, but the representation of decision-making. What we are in fact witnessing are male and female protagonists who are constantly called on to deliberate and who, eventually, do make a decision.

This representation of decision-making occurs both on the level of plot and on the level of style, that is, in action and in speaking. Given the more restricted scope of action allotted to Corneille’s women, however, our analysis will have to focus on the sublime eloquence of their speeches. To shore up the legitimacy of this focus on speaking, I want briefly to explain how, from an Aristotelian perspective, speaking involves voluntary decision just as action does. It should then be less of a leap to see how Corneille’s women may be considered just as magnanimous as his men.

Aristotelian magnanimity is a virtue but also a character or a kind of person. For Aristotle, the conceptual link between virtue and character is voluntary decision. “Decision,” he says, “seems to be most proper to virtue, and to distinguish characters from one another better than actions do” (Aristole, Ethics III.iii.1111b5). Broadly defined, virtue is the state that qualifies an activity as good. The activity characteristic of a human being is the activity of the soul, especially its rational parts. When the activity of the human soul expresses reason, and when it does this finely and well, Aristotle calls it virtue. It is a kind of excellence, a “high” actualization of a potential good. Decision is therefore proper to virtue, though only to the extent that decision involves reason and thought, in other words, the rational parts of the soul. The kinds of decisions a person makes, for what reasons, in what way, etc., not only characterize a person as virtuous but also distinguish one kind of person from another. Earlier we reviewed the traits characteristic of the megalopsuchos; these traits, therefore, essentially amount to the decisions the megalopsuchos is in the habit of making. And because these decisions involve the rational parts of the soul, they can be seen as essential attributes of the soul.

It follows that the “ethos” or character traits of magnanimity are available to the orator and the playwright. In oratory, a speaker will attribute the character traits of magnanimity either to himself or to another. In drama, the playwright will have the fictional characters make decisions characteristic of a magnanimous person. 9 What is more, style or manner of speaking is a rhetorical resource also available to orator and playwright. Style is understood here to be invention, disposition, and elocution taken as a whole. If we consider the choice of topics, the choice of arrangement, and the choice of figures to constitute a series of voluntary decisions, then we can read style as a portrait of character and, ultimately, a portrait of the soul, provided that voluntary decision is indeed a defining characteristic of the soul. This is claiming more than the idea that queens and kings should speak in a dignified and elevated way. This is saying that, on an Aristotelian view, stylistic traits are tantamount to character traits, and that such traits ultimately refer back to operations characteristic of the soul. This would hold for fictional as well as real speakers.

We can now understand more fully the rationale behind the idea that a great soul is the source of great eloquence. As Longinus defines them (Longinus 8), the characteristics of the rhetorical sublime—grand conceptions, vehement emotion, nobility of diction, majestic syntax, and striking figures—involving both “congenital disposition” and the voluntary decision-making of art, point to a grand and noble character. That is, they ultimately derive from a great soul. The audience’s elevation of soul, which results from the so-called flashes of sublimity in the speech, reveals the speaker’s own elevation of soul. The superlative heights associated with magnanimity would correspond to the superlative heights of sublimity. Elevation of style = elevation of soul.

To sum up, then, voluntary decision is more indicative of character than action itself, and style or manner of speaking, being the result of such decision, may potentially portray the soul in language. So, while women do have a more limited scope of action in Corneille’s tragedies, the decisions they make are no less momentous and crucial. Furthermore, if such decision, whether action or speaking, shows women to be as magnanimous as men, they are so in virtue of the same principle as men: the rational parts of the soul.

This is nowhere more evident than in Polyeucte. Pauline, the play’s heroine, displays many of the characteristics of magnanimity, though she conforms to the more traditional role expected of women. She could indeed serve as an example in Pierre Le Moyne’s highly Christianized poems “La femme forte” and “La Gallerie des femmes fortes” found in his Oeuvres poétiques of 1671. Her honor resides in her duty, expressed as obedience to her father, Félix, on the one hand, and as loyalty to her husband, Polyeucte, on the other. The obstacle to the fulfillment of this duty is the arrival of Sévère, Pauline’s old flame. The presence of Sévère not only tests Pauline’s loyalty to Polyeucte, but when Polyeucte boldly smashes the pagan idols of Rome, and Félix, as governor of Armenia, cannot commute Polyeucte’s death-sentence for fear of what Sévère might report to the Roman emperor, Sévère’s presence also tests Pauline’s obedience to her father and, by extension, to the State. In overcoming these obstacles, Pauline displays an extraordinary self-mastery. This self-mastery is her glory. It shows her to be worthy of great things. The ultimate recognition of her magnanimity comes not from the public sphere of the State, however, nor the sphere of the family, but from God in the form of irresistible grace that leads to instantaneous conversion.

Pauline displays several character traits of magnanimity. Pauline is magnanimous in the first place because she frankly expresses her friendships and enmities. She admits to her father that she still loves Sévère:

Il est toujours aimable, et je suis toujours femme;
Dans le pouvoir sur moi que ses regards ont eu,
Je n’ose m’assurer de toute ma vertu
(Polyeucte II.i.346–348).

The word “vertu” here certainly means duty, whether it be chastity, obedience, or fidelity, but in proximity to the idea of Sévère’s power over her, it also connotes Pauline’s microcosmic power, her power of self-mastery. Pauline represents her struggle for self-mastery in striking political and military imagery:

[Ma vertu] vaincra sans doute;
Ce n’est pas le succès que mon âme redoute:
Je crains ce dur combat et ces troubles puissants
Que fait déjà chez moi la révolte des sens
(Polyeucte II.i.353–356).

The sublime conceit here, in Act II, Scene i, as well as Act II, Scene ii, is the soul as microcosm of the body politic. Hence Pauline’s self-mastery is not mere temperance. Her inner turmoil is likened to a civil war; her senses have revolted. As a woman, Pauline seems to say, she is still susceptible to the powers or merits which Sévère possesses. His merits are plain for the eyes to see. Similar imagery recurs in her frank avowal to Sévère himself (Polyeucte II.ii). Formerly, in Rome, Pauline was discerning enough to perceive the “illustres marques” which made Sévère preferable “aux plus heureux monarques” (II.ii.469–470). This is still the case. Her senses are in a seditious turmoil (II.ii.504). The sovereignty of her reason can be restored only at the price of tyranny over her senses (II.ii.500–502). It is her frank recognition of Sévère’s greatness and, further, her confidence that she will have the strength to master her feelings, which show Pauline to be magnanimous. She has a worthy opponent, “il faut combattre un ennemi que j’aime” (II.i.357), so this is the right occasion on which to display her own greatness.

The political and military imagery that represents the state of Pauline’s soul is all the more striking when one considers that, despite the glory won by fulfilling her duty, Pauline characterizes the victory over her feelings as tyranny. The paradox is that the sublime virtue which makes Pauline so extraordinary, and hence the peer of Sévère, also prevents her from returning his affection. Pauline’s superlative virtue, as well as Sévère’s, are subordinated to the narrow demands of the patriarchal family and State. Like an unworthy sovereign, Félix is constantly imposing his decisions on his exceptional daughter and yet demands obedience merely out of duty, not because his decisions display any real prudence. The striking imagery of Pauline’s speeches shows the body politic mirrored in her soul. We need only complete the analogy. Reason, the father, the sovereign, has unjustly repressed the senses, the daughter, the nobility. This last term of the analogy becomes plausible when one juxtaposes the political turmoil represented in Polyeucte with the lingering political turmoil caused by the Protestant reformation in France, not to mention Richelieu’s harsh repression of nobles who continued to challenge royal authority.

As an unrecognized and unrewarded great soul, Pauline stands in a paradigmatic relation to all who are unjustly devalued in the body politic. Presumably, like the nobility, Pauline rises to greater and greater heights of self-mastery. Félix keeps raising the bar higher and higher. In Act V, Pauline refuses to lose face either to Polyeucte or to Félix—her threatened suicide would be a way to show herself more magnanimous than Polyeucte, who believes martyrdom to be salvation, and more so than Félix as well, who is putting Polyeucte to death out of narrow self-interest. For Pauline, on the other hand, death would be the ultimate sacrifice to the patriarchy. Were this to happen, Pauline’s greatness would in effect outstrip the boundaries imposed on it by the patriarchy. This is why God must intervene at the end. His recognition of her worthiness recuperates her for the patriarchy.

So, while Pauline’s actions are quite restricted (it is not so much what she does as what she chooses not to do), she herself represents her loyalty and obedience in vivid imagery that depicts her decision as an active and heroic struggle which, except for God, would have gone unrecognized and unrewarded by her husband and her father. Pauline’s magnanimity reveals the patriarchy of the body politic to be tyranny.

Camille, on the other hand, chooses death over subjugation to an unjust patriarchy. One of the more sublime moments in Corneille’s Horace occurs when Camille decides to revolt against her father in Act IV, Scene iv, and to confront her brother in Act IV, Scene v. Having suffered the cruel dilemma of choosing between brother and fiancé in the first three acts, Camille experiences a devastating reversal of fortune in Act IV, Scene ii. The early reports of Curiace’s victory are revealed to be false, and thus Camille’s plans for marriage are buried with Curiace. Her father, the elder Horace, shows her no compassion. Camille’s anger is aroused when she reflects on what Roman virtue asks of her in these devastating circumstances:

On demande ma joie en un jour si funeste.
Il me faut applaudir aux exploits du vainqueur,
Et baiser une main qui me perce le cœur
(Horace IV.iv.1232–1234).

This expectation is not just unfeeling; it is humiliating. Not only has the most celebrated Alban warrior been taken from Camille, but, adding insult to injury, she is expected to honor her brother Horace for it. How can this be? How can it be an honor for Camille to honor her brother, when his increase in prestige has led to a decrease in her own? Simply, it is an honor for Horace to serve the State, and it is an honor for Camille to be daughter and sister to Roman citizens who in their service to the State have demonstrated their greatness of soul. The patriarchy demands Camille’s subordination to father and brother.

Therefore, in truly magnanimous fashion, Camille decides to stake a claim for her own greatness of soul. She frankly declares her enmity toward a father and a brother who, in her view, have a warped idea of virtue: “la brutalité fait la haute vertu” (Horace IV.iv.1242). Camille would rather become “alien” to her father and “unworthy” of her brother:

Dégénérons, mon coeur, d’un si vertueux père;
Soyons indigne soeur d’un si généreux frère
(Horace IV.iv.1239–1240).

The epithets “virtuous” and “generous” are delivered with a stinging irony. For Camille, the elder Horace’s virtue and the younger Horace’s generosity are nothing but over-zealous patriotism. To escape what she considers a perversion of virtue, Camille must escape the patriarchal lineage. Camille therefore “degenerates.” She becomes “fatherless” and potentially “state-less.” She must degenerate from the patriarchy if she is to demonstrate her superior virtue, her superlative source of power, in other words, her magnanimity.

Camille clearly demonstrates the power of her soul when she thunders a curse down on Rome, her eloquence exhibiting flashes of the sublime:

Rome, l’unique objet de mon ressentiment!
Rome, à qui vient ton bras d’immoler mon amant!
Rome, qui t’a vu naître, et que ton coeur adore!
Rome enfin que je hais parce qu’elle t’honore!
Puissent tous ses voisins ensemble conjurés
Saper ses fondements encor mal assurés!
Et si ce n’est assez de toute l’Italie,
Que l’Orient contre elle à l’Occident s’allie;
Que cent peuples unis des bouts de l’univers
Passent pour la détruire et les monts et les mers!
Qu’elle-même sur soi renverse ses murailles,
Et de ses propres mains déchire ses entrailles
(Horace IV.v.1301–1312).

The emotion is vehement; the tone, majestic and fiery. The curse on Camille’s lips reveals a grand and sweeping vision. In the repetitive apostrophe, Camille reverses the value of Rome, progressively making it an object of hatred for the whole universe. What makes this vision particularly grand is its dramatic irony. Though merely expressing a wish, Camille is foretelling the history of Rome. Even more, she prefigures her own death in the personification of the city, with her guts ripped out by her own hands—a figurative suicide, but a literal fratricide.

The power of Camille’s eloquence, and hence her soul, is made all too plain by her brother’s murderous reaction. This is when we take the true measure of Horace’s soul. As Valère argues, what Roman citizen is safe to criticize Rome if Horace will not brook his own sister’s dissent (Horace V.1501–1502)? Does Horace’s great merit put him above the law? To be sure, Valère is not proposing to cut off the State’s right arm. Nor would Tulle allow it. In that case, however, Horace’s assassination of Camille is excused by reason of state, not by love for country, as the elder Horace argues (Horace V.iii.1655). The elder Horace is trying to defend his son against Valère’s charges of “aggression” and “arrogance,” qualities which Aristotle sees as typical of mere pretenders to magnanimity (Aristotle, Ethics IV.iii.1124a30). There is nothing noble or magnanimous about reason of state.

Camille may very well have succeeded in demonstrating her brother’s so-called virtue to be mere brutality. But what about Camille herself? Like Curiace, she is “un coeur abattu” (Horace IV.iv.1241). Camille and Curiace represent two kinds of defiance which the State cannot brook. Curiace’s defiance consists in his loyalty to another State. But Camille’s defiance, while certainly colored by the death of her beloved Curiace, threatens the patriarchal State. Horace recognized that threat. Camille, in expressing her unspeakable wish, had become “un monstre qu’il faut étouffer en naissant” (Horace IV.vi.1334). Camille is a female rebel. As Joan DeJean observes, in a period marked by fantasies and fears of female sedition (DeJean 11–17), Camille’s rejection of the patriarchy and the State gives her the appearance of an Amazon. The Amazonian heroine belongs to no community, is anti-hierarchical, solitary, and self-serving, and rebels within the society she seeks to undermine (DeJean 41–42).

This resonates with Bénichou’s idea of an “archaic” virtue, marked by power and independence, which deeply appealed to the nobility of the sword. The source of honor is no longer the patriarchal State and family. It is more individualist. It conceals a deeper hubris. It consists of a desire for autonomy and self-sufficiency usually reserved for the State, but now appropriated by the microcosmic source of power, the great soul, that would be a law unto itself. The megalopsuchos is self-sufficient; he just accepts what honors the State has to offer since “they have nothing greater to award” (Aristotle, Ethics IV.iii.1224a9). Similarly, the Amazon is a great soul, self-sufficient and noble, exiled to the marches of the classical imagination. Camille appears momentarily self-sufficient, proud, in the lineaments of the Amazon only to be immediately snuffed out by a homicidal ambush.

Corneille’s Feminist Revaluation

Corneille’s representation of Pauline and Camille as magnanimous heroines may be considered a feminist10 revaluation of the classical virtues, provided we take such a representation as a glorification of women in the social and political arenas. Strong reactions to Corneille’s magnanimous heroines, such as Scudéry’s violent diatribe against Chimène during the Querelle du ‘Cid,’ can be explained by the threat which self-sufficient, seditious women pose to patriarchal values. If women indeed participated in armed rebellion, as Joan DeJean maintains they did before and during the Fronde (DeJean 36), we should not discount the threatening nature of such a revaluation. Armed Protestants, women warriors, bellicose great nobles—these are all palpable and respectable threats to the most-Christian, patriarchal, monarchal State.

The mere presence of magnanimous women in Corneille’s tragic theater, however, constitutes, in my view, a positive revaluation on the social and political level precisely because it entails a revaluation in Aristotelian metaphysics. To grasp just how innovative Corneille is, we need briefly to consider Aristotle’s views on women.

Charlotte Witt, in “Form, Normativity, and Gender in Aristotle: A Feminist Perspective,” offers a critical perspective on Aristotle’s theory of hylomorphism. Rather than approach metaphysics as a paradigm of objectivity, and nature as value-free, Witt argues that “Hylomorphism is an inherently normative theory of reality because, for Aristotle, nature and reality are infused with value” (Witt 121). This perspective allows Witt to reinterpret “the way Aristotle attaches the gender norms of his culture to hylomorphism” (Witt 122). Critics usually look to Aristotle’s Generation of Animals and his Politics to confirm Aristotle’s biases: 1) that form is associated with the masculine, and matter with the feminine, and 2) that women are nothing more than “deformed” men. Witt stands the feminist critique of Aristotle on its head by showing how, for Aristotle, women and men must have the same form, since they are the same species (Witt 124). Aristotle lets his own cultural bias infuse his metaphysics in the way he attributes a lesser degree of form to women than to men. The function of a woman is the same function of a man: the soul’s activity that expresses reason. But Aristotle does not grant women the same degree of development as he does to men. Women are less because they have developed to a lesser degree the rational parts of the soul responsible for deliberation.

The same cannot be said of Corneille. The playwright gives his heroines ample scope to make life-changing decisions in sublime speeches. Pauline chooses to master the sedition of her senses because she knows the true worth of honor: “il n’est point aux enfers d’horreurs que je n’endure / Plutôt que de souiller une gloire si pure” (Polyeucte IV.v.1343–1344). Such hyperbole is equal to the greatness of her choices. She recognizes Sévère’s illustrious merits but bravely chooses to resist him. She is even ready to sacrifice her life to the patriarchy to force Félix to spare Polyeucte and Polyeucte to renounce his faith. Pauline rises to the occasion against worthy adversaries, the magnanimous men around her. The greatness of her choices, coupled with the sublimity of her speeches, points to her greatness of soul. Similarly, the Roman Camille rises up against worthy Roman adversaries. When the Roman State and family no longer offer her a path to honor, she revolts and becomes a stateless and fatherless Amazon. This daring is matched by her elevated and sublime speeches, in which Corneille raises up the soul of Camille: “Pour ce cruel vainqueur n’ayez point de respect; / Loin d’éviter ses yeux, croissez à son aspect” (Horace IV.iv.1245–1246). In the curse she pronounces on Rome, we witness a kind of metamorphosis. Her greatness of soul grows before our very eyes.

Corneille has in effect elevated the roles of women in tragedy. His tragic heroines rise to the greatness of the occasion, and they speak like sublime heroines: the greatness of their decisions is matched by the sublimity of their eloquence. To make such decisions, to speak as sublimely as they do, to contend with magnanimous heroes, this very much suggests that Corneille endowed his heroines with great souls. Corneille appears to belong in the ranks of Madeleine de Scudéry and the other pioneers of the femme forte.

Hunter College, CUNY


1Irwin notes (Ethics, 326): “‘Magnanimity’ is the traditional Latinized form of megalopsuchia (lit. ‘having a great soul’), and captures some aspects of it fairly well. The megalopsuchos will not be calculating, suspicious, ungenerous, or prone to nurse petty grievances, 1125a3. Megalopsuchia is concerned with HONOUR in its different aspects.”

2Bénédicte Louvat and Marc Escola write in their notes (Corneille, Trois Discours 159, n. 41): “Comme le suggère Corneille, le terme de khrèstos ne semble pas renvoyer, dans la Poétique, à la grandeur comme qualité morale ou sociale des personnages eux-mêmes—ce qui exclurait par exemple les criminels de la tragédie—mais à la qualité du traitement des caractères.” Louvat and Escola claim that textual misreadings in Corneille’s Latin translation of Aristotle were responsible for the philological quandary in the first place (Corneille, Trois Discours 160, n. 43).

3For epieikès, the Liddell and Scott gives “fitting” and “suitable” as literal meanings; “reasonable,” “fair” and “good” in the moral sense are figurative.

4Trois discours, 79: “Unumquodque genus per se supremos quosdam habet decoris gradus, et absolutissimam recipit formam, non tamen degenerans a sua natura et effigie pristina.” Louvat and Escola offer a very telling translation: “Chaque genre [de caractère] possède par lui-même son degré d’excellence, et admet une forme parfaite, sans dégénérer jamais de sa nature et de sa figure primitive.”

5Cf. Book I, Chapter vii, 1098a5-15. Terence Irwin comments in the glossary (Ethics 431): “Aristotle’s conception of virtue is much wider than moral virtue. In some cases, ‘excellence’ is the best rendering of aretè, and Aristotle develops his conception of a good person from excellence in a craft.”

6Aristotle does not in fact separate the soul from the body but sees the soul as particular activities in virtue of which a human organism can do all the things it does: i.e. moving and growing, but also desiring, thinking, imagining, etc. Cf. Michael Frede, ‘De Anima’ 97.

7Cf. Pascal, Pensées, 578 (26): “L’éloquence est une peinture de la pensée....” The logic of this correspondence deserves clarification, but I cannot fully develop it here. The line of argument is roughly as follows: The soul is the source of action; action involves voluntary decision, but so do speaking and writing; if voluntary decisions are indicative of character (because different kinds of people aim at different ends), then so are the stylistic choices one makes in speaking and writing. In this way, stylistic traits may be equated with character traits. Such traits represent the soul to the extent that they correspond to operations characteristic of the soul: judging, desiring, imagining, etc.

8 Cf. Joan DeJean, Tender Geographies 32: “The femme forte openly violated the standards for acceptable female behavior proposed by contemporary critics. Thus, in his Poétique (1640), Jules de la Mesnardière decrees that ‘with regard to decency of conduct (propriété de mœurs), the poet must consider that one should never introduce without absolute necessity either a valiant girl or a learned woman.’ To avoid ‘shocking normal plausibility’ (vraisemblance), the poet should keep ‘generosity’ a male preserve and create only ‘gentle and modest women.’” La Mesnardière, it should be noted, is merely echoing Aristotle.

9In Corneille’s Cinna, for example, Auguste’s decision not to retaliate against Cinna, Emilie, and the other conspirators, demonstrates not just clemency but also superiority, since a magnanimous person disdains making a show of greatness to his inferiors.

10 I am following Joan DeJean’s lead here; cf. Tender Geographies, 6: “I will use ‘feminist’ to describe two related enterprises: governmental and military endeavors by women [...] and creative writing that either glorifies female political daring or attempts to translate political activity into literary terms.”

Works Cited

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Terence Irwin. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985.

———. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

———. Poetics. Trans. Stephen Halliwell. Loeb Classical Library, 1995.

Bénichou, Paul. Morales du grand siècle. Paris: Gallimard, 1948.

Corneille, Pierre. Oeuvres complètes. Ed. André Stegman. Intro. Raymond Lebègue. Paris: Editions du Seuil, coll. “l’Intégrale, 1963.

———. Trois discours sur le poème dramatique. Eds. Bénédicte Louvat and Marc Escola. Paris: GF-Flammarion, 1999.

DeJean, Joan. Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Dubrovsky, Serge. Corneille et la dialectique du héros. Paris: Editions du Gallimard, 1963.

Frede, Michael. “On Aristotle’s Conception of the Soul.” Essays on Aristotle’s ‘De Anima.’ Eds. Martha C. Nussbaum and Amélie Oksenberg Rorty. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 93–107.

Fumaroli, Marc. Héros et Orateurs : Rhétorique et dramaturgie cornéliennes. Genève: Librairie Droz, 1996.

Hepp, Noémi. “La Notion d’Héroïne.” Onze études sur l’image de la femme dans la littérature française du dix-septième siècle. Ed. Wolfgang Leiner. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1984, 11–24.

Longinus. On the Sublime. Trans. W.H. Fyfe and Donald Russell. Loeb Classical Library, 1995.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Ed. Louis Lafuma. Paris: Editions du Seuil, coll. Points, 1962.

Schalk, Ellery. From Valor to Pedigree: Ideas of Nobility in France in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Princeton University Press, 1986.

Witt, Charlotte. “Form, Normativity, and Gender in Aristotle: A Feminist Perspective.” Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle. Ed. Cynthia A. Freeland. Penn State University Press, 1998, 118–137.

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