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Gaines: Princesses and Queens: A Reappraisal of Royal Women in Corneille and Du Ryer

Article Citation: 
Cahiers du dix-septième: An Interdisciplinary Journal XI, 1 (2006) 219–232
James F. Gaines
Article Text: 

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Beginning with Médée, Pierre Corneille’s theater offers an ample panoply of queens and princesses to the student of early modern drama. To consider only the first segment of his career, we encounter the Infante in Le Cid; Livie in Cinna; Cléopâtre in La Mort de Pompée; a different Cléopâtre and the eponymous princess of Rodogune; Pulchérie in Heraclius; Isabelle, Léonor, and Elvire in Dom Sanche d’Aragon; Laodice in Nicomède; and Rodelinde and Edvige in Pertharite, as well as the central characters of Théodore, vierge et martyre and Andromède. The retrospect of literary history has encouraged scholars to view these women in contrast to those of Racine, but one does well to remember that all of these plays were finished before Racine ever set pen to paper. They belong to Corneille’s first period of dramaturgical production, when he was in competition with dramatists such as Scudéry, Mairet, Tristan, Rotrou, and, for the primary focus of this study, Pierre Du Ryer.1

This was the golden age of heroic tragedy, of protagonists in glorious and often successful combat with their fates. The complex image of the female monarch that emerges from this period belongs not only to Corneille, but to the entire theatre that developed and sustained the debate on women’s political significance and psychological imperatives in the early modern period. A philosophical, as well as personal and dramaturgical, rival of Corneille, Du Ryer plays a key role in this process.2 I propose to examine certain of his female tragic leads in comparison to Corneille’s in order to distinguish Du Ryer’s contribution to the figure of the royal woman.

The problem of the princess and her choice among meritorious suitors derives from the fact that, as Ernst Kantorowicz showed for kings, she has two bodies: an official one subject to the exigencies of rank and to state marriages, and a human one that must contend with the more universal tribulations of emotional love. How can these two bodies be reconciled? In the case of Le Cid, which sets an important precedent for Corneille’s theater, they cannot. Therefore he divides his princess in two, with the royal body personified by the Infante and the human one by Chimène. The Infante has fallen in love with Rodrigue before the beginning of the play and has already learned to deal with his inferior status as her royal role dictates she must, by overpowering her own desires and renouncing emotional love. 3 In fact, she explains to her lady-in-waiting that it is she who has engineered the burgeoning passion between Rodrigue and Chimène as a way of deflecting desire.

Il est digne de moi, mais il est à Chimène;
Le don que j’en ai fait me nuit.
Entre eux la mort d’un père a si peu mis de haine,
Que le devoir du sang à regret le poursuit:
Ainsi n’espérons aucun fruit
De son crime, ni de ma peine,
Puisque pour me punir le destin a permis
Que l’amour dure même entre deux ennemis.
(Le Cid, V, ii, 1589–1596)

Although the troubles that subsequently erupt between the lovers establish the Infante as a rival of Chimène, she can never be a complete, active rival, since it is she who has engendered Chimène’s love by proxy, so as to give rein vicariously (the only legitimate way) to her own human inclination.4Chimène, for her part, lives in a state of aggravated passivity and victimization, since her own emotional engagement has actually been thrust upon her. This process, begun by the Infante, is irreversible, as the princess herself shows at the end of the play, where she points out that even though Rodrigue has now become worthy of her, it would be totally illogical and inherently unworthy for her to take back what she has already given away, the prospect of Rodrigue’s love. This division between the two royal female bodies will persist late into Corneille’s career, where only in plays such as Sertorius and Suréna will he be able to begin to reconcile the fission. 5

But let us look at two of Du Ryer’s plays that are contemporaries of Le Cid, Cléomédon, published in 1635, and Alcionée, produced in 1637, probably within months of Le Cid’s premier. The female lead in the former, named Celanire, finds herself in a situation that prefigures that of the Infante: she has privately developed an inclination for an inferior named Cléomédon. Starting far lower than Rodrigue, as a slave, Cléomédon has already risen faster, for by the beginning of the action he has saved the king’s life from an attacking lion, experienced emancipation and ennoblement, and taken command of the armies of the kingdom. By the second act, Celanire finds herself in a position to accept Cléomédon’s love legitimately, since he has by then saved the entire country from invasion. Unlike the Infante, then, who until the final act must acknowledge Rodrigue’s inferiority, Celanire can vocalize her lover’s meritorious and therefore equal status. “Si la condition rend mon amour blamable, / La gloire de ses faits le peut rendre louable,” she points out (II, 1). And whereas Chimène must hide her approval from Rodrigue except in the most elliptical terms, Celanire can assure Cléomédon of his acceptance: “Donne un nouveau laurier à ton courage extrême, / Et pour mieux t’animer, souviens-toi que je t’aime” (II, 2). In fact, when the cautious general temporizes over his status, it is she who reiterates her aveu, going so far as to place personal valor explicitly above dynastic concerns; “Bien qu’on sorte d’un dieu, bien qu’on sorte d’un roi, / Qui vante ses aieux ne vante rien de soi” (II, 2).

This happy situation does not last, for Cléomédon is soon beset with princely rivals from abroad and scheming envieux from within the palace, as Celanire’s father retracts his nuptial promise to the military savior and opts for a marriage of alliance, sacrificing his daughter to former foes in words that reek of bourgeois values. As her lover slides off into rebellion and madness, it is up to Celanire to incarnate the conscience of the play, reminding Cléomédon of his inherent greatness and excoriating her father for his baseness. In fact, she becomes an outstanding critic of royalty’s failure to fulfill its own definition, in stark contrast to Corneille’s Infante, the overt justifier of divine right monarchy. There can be no question that Corneille knew this play and was deliberately responding to it, for even Rodrigue’s famous, shocking confrontation with Chimène has a precursor in Du Ryer’s third act, where an increasingly desperate Cléomédon forces his sword into Celanire’s hands and asks her to end his life. In a sense, Du Ryer’s transformation of Celanire from a passive royal token into an advocate of moral criticism prompted Corneille to saw the figure of the princess in half, dealing with the two bodies separately in the Infante and Chimène.

If Celanire is as cool-headed as the Infante, Du Ryer’s next princess, Lydie, is much more cold-hearted than Chimène. Once again the audience is presented with the story of a king who has broken a marriage promise to a virtuous inferior, Alcionée, who had openly courted the princess. As Cléomédon had done before him, Alcionée reacted in desperation. However, where his predecessor had verged toward madness and suicide, Alcionée successfully exteriorized his frustration by accepting command of an invading army and forcing the beleaguered king into honoring his original pledge. Lydie’s reaction is also far different from Celanire’s for while feigning obedient complaisance and recognition of Alcionée’s flamme, she has secretly festered with resentment at the rebel and planned revenge against him. She tells her confidante that Alcionée’s rebellion has tarnished him in her eyes, and later, to her father, professes humiliation at the thought of marrying a mere commoner, “d’une naissance/ Où l’on n’est destiné que pour l’obéissance” (II, 1). She claims that her distaste for this “âme si basse et si noire” proceeds primarily from her concerns for the lineage. Her father, who has tried to warn Alcionée of the temerity of his inclination, leaves the final decision to Lydie, effectively making his daughter a queen. In their interview, Alcionée acknowledges this new status of hers (“Il vous donne un pouvoir que vous rend souveraine” III, 5), but is astounded when she asserts her power (“Craignez, craignez enfin un pouvoir absolu!”) and rejects him.

It is only after this confrontation that Lydie reveals she still harbors traces of tenderness for her former suitor, which she has had to stifle in her preoccupation with her dynastic gloire. But unlike Chimène struggling between love and duty, Lydie had to command herself as queen to condemn her lover, thus ironically becoming her own rival. As queen, the princess’s two bodies may become more incompatible than ever, a dilemma Corneille explored further in Rodogune. Yet here again, the royal woman’s body splits into the passive but positive Rodogune and the maleficent Cléopâtre. As her own rival for power, Cléopâtre has one son killed and comes within centimeters of poisoning the other, all to triumph over the incarnation of the amorous body represented by the Parthian princess.

But where does Du Ryer’s image of the self-controlled young woman originate? If we go back in time just a bit to his tragicomedy of Alcimédon, published in 1635, we find that the figure first emerges not in the context of a tragic, royal princess, but in a more bourgeois setting. The female lead, Daphné, already incorporates many of the qualities Du Ryer will pursue in Celanire and Lydie. When Daphné’s companion Nérine urges the princess to show some sympathy for her suitor Scamandre, she replies:

Termine ce discours que j’entends chaque jour!
Tu perds contre un Rocher les flèches de l’amour.
Appelle-moi cruelle! Appelle-moi sauvage!
J’endurerai ces noms plutôt que son servage;
Souffre enfin que mon cœur, hors de captivité,
Ne reçoive des lois que de ma volonté. (I,1)

When the confidante, following the tradition of Ronsard, presents a carpe diem argument to counter this call for liberty and power, Daphné points out that the fading nature of beauty contains an even more powerful reason for women to be cautious about love, since love itself physically destroys beauty more than a chaste life would.

Si la beauté du corps est un bien si leger
Penses-tu que l’amour l’empêche de changer?
Au contraire, l’amour la détruit devant l’âge,
Les soins qu’il met au cœur ternissent le visage,
Et lorsque de ses traits un esprit est atteint,
Son feu sèche les lys et les roses du teint;
Ainsi je fuis l’amour, cette source de larmes,
Pour garder plus longtemps le peu que j’ai de charmes.

This speech obviously alludes not just to the emotional scars of love, but to the physical damage it threatens to the female body through the rigors of pregnancy and childbirth, and the difficulties of postpartem recovery. Thus, Daphné considers emotional commitments as “de belles prisons.” Health, beauty, and liberty are set on one side of the paradigm; wear, care, and servitude on the other. In contrast to the image of love promulgated by male poets of the Pléiade such as Ronsard, where love offers a hedge against the erosion of human happiness by time, a hedge that takes the form of consolation through poetic immortality, Daphné evokes the more realistic and feministic presentation of love formed by female Renaissance poets such as Louise Labé and Pernette Du Guillet. This parallel becomes even stronger when Daphné reveals that despite her resolution, she has already become a victim of passion, falling in love at the tender age of 12 with an older boy named Alcimédon whom she was forced to leave. Shocked by the unwanted advances of a lubricious noble, her father found himself forced to pretend that his daughter had died and to send her overseas for her protection under a new identity.

Thus, the spectator finds that Daphné’s hostile attitude toward love springs not just from prudish philosophical inclinations or selfish desires to preserve her girlish figure, but from well-established patterns of suffering that began at a very early age. No wonder the surprised Nérine exclaims, “Je faisais des leçons à qui m’en pourrait faire!” Switching from an e to a stoical profile, the confidante urges her to give up the memory of Alcimédon and to “faire un acte de courage” in giving up her “premier servage.” But Daphné responds that she is incapable of such a Cornelian step, for she has no more heart to give to the new suitors who have appeared on her island of refuge. So when Scamandre and his sidekick Philante approach to woo Daphné, she gives them short shrift, causing Philante to call her, “O fille de Rocher!” This impression of hostility is so strong that although Nérine tries to encourage the men by pointing out that Daphné is bound to change just because she is a girl, Scamandre remains skeptical:

L’inhumaine qu’elle est, insensible au reproche,
De même que le cœur, a l’oreille de roche…
Pourrait-elle changer, si c’est une statue
Que nous voyons dans Chypre en fille revêtue? (I, 2-3)

The cool, self-possessed princess thus steps out of tragicomedy and a middle-class moralistic position into the world of Du Ryer’s tragedy. In a later tragicomedy in prose, Bérénice, published in 1645, Du Ryer returns to this ethos in order to fuse it to some degree with the concerns of royalty. It is important to point out that this Bérénice has nothing to do with the Palestinian queen and paramour of Titus who figures much later in the rival tragedies by Corneille and Racine. Instead, this young lady and her sister Amasie, though descended from the bloodline of the ancient kings of Sicily, have followed their deposed father into exile in Crete, where both have stirred the interest of local suitors of very different status. Appropriately, Bérénice begins the opening discussion of marriage prospects with a typically Stoical pronouncement on love; “Quand nous confessons notre amour, nous confessons notre aveuglement” (I, 1). She then goes on to teasingly ask her sister what she would think if she were loved by a prince? Or perhaps by a king? Amasie underlines the conflict between the two bodies of the princess by pointing out that the decrepit old king of Crete could not satisfy the earthly body, “Je vous avoue que d’un prince comme celui-là je n’aimerais que la couronne!” But Bérénice discloses that she has in fact developed an amorous relationship with that old king’s son, Tarsis the Conqueror, a relationship she has successfully dissimulated; “J’ai séparé de la flamme l’éclat et la lumière.”

On the other hand, Amasie admits that her lover Tirinte, is far inferior to her in the social order, “Vous aimez un plus grand que vous, et j’en aime un moindre que moi… nous sommes toutes deux gênées par l’inégalité de notre amour.” Evidently, Du Ryer has responded to the division of the princess in Le Cid, adding his own intense concern with the capacity of personal merit to level the monarchical playing field. Amasie expresses her confidence in just this principle when comparing her situation with her sister’s : “L’objet de votre amour est si haut que vous ne le pouvez atteindre, et la personne que j’aime n’est point si basse que sa vertu ne l’élève et ne l’approche de notre rang… je crois qu’un homme est grand dès qu’il mérite de l’être, et dès qu’il mérite d’être grand, il mérite aussi d’être aimé… on ne peut dire raisonnablement qu’un homme vertueux soit moindre qu’un autre.” Even for Du Ryer, these words are boldly egalitarian and democratic, and Bérénice borrows a page from the Infante’s textbook when she tells her sister that she should not consider such hypogamy: “Il n’appartient qu’aux dieux et aux rois de s’abaisser en leurs amours.”

Notwithstanding this promising beginning, Du Ryer is no more able to work out a thoroughly philosophical synthesis that was Corneille in Rodogune. A tragicomic imbroglio soon asserts itself, as the old King of Crete announces that he is smitten with Bérénice and wants to wed her, using Amasie as a pis-aller to console his son Tarsis. This peripeteia leads to a second conversation between the sisters, where Bérénice turns against the idea of royal marriage in the interest of her love for Tarsis, while Amasie pretends to like the idea of wearing a crown just to goad her sibling a bit. When they admit the discussion is just a game, the spectator realizes that the problem of the two bodies has not been solved or even seriously confronted. It is left to Tarsis to propose a solution, for he generously offers to sacrifice his royal body by eloping into obscurity with Bérénice: “Votre cœur est mon empire, votre cœur est ma couronne, et si je suis toujours aimé, je serai toujours heureux” (III, 4). Bérénice can only prove herself worthy of such devotion by tendering an aveu of her own, but then surpassing it by offering a sacrifice of her own: “ Vous serez donc toujours heureux, puisque vous serez toujours aimé; mais voulez-vous que l’on publie que la misérable Bérénice arame le fils contre le père?… Faites dessus vous un effort pour me délivrer de ce reproche.” Amasie and Tirinte mirror this battle of générosité, and it seems that the only outcome for the dilemma is that everyone will give everyone else up. But of course a startling scène de reconnaissance has long been brewing, and the girls’ father Criton eventually reveals that Bérénice and Tarsis had been switched in the cradle, that she is actually the princess of Crete and he the newly-restored prince of Sicily, thanks to a timely revolution back home. The Cretan monarch’s superannuated lust was thus really le cri du sang and he can avoid even the hint of incest by marrying Bérénice off to Tarsis, leaving Amasie free to join Tirinte.

Such last-minute coincidences are right at home in tragicomedy, but what of the tragic problem of the two bodies of the princess? If anything, Bérénice offers evidence of the effectiveness of Corneille’s Infante as a philosophical, as well as dramaturgical model. As unsatisfying as her role was to seventeenth-century critics and still is to twenty-first century directors, her ability to isolate the royal body and to attach to it a code of self-renunciation seems to prevail. Even Corneille’s rival Du Ryer implicitly admits this by borrowing elements of the Infante in one of his later plays.

A closer look at Rodogune reveals the deep conflict of the divided princess. The character Rodogune realizes that as long as Queen Cléopâtre blocks her way to the throne, her path is fraught with fear:

La fortune me traite avec trop de respect,
Et le trône et l’hymen, tout me devient suspect.
L’hymen semble à mes yeux cacher quelque supplice,
Le trône sous mes pas creuser un précipice,
Je vois de nouveaux fers après les miens brisés,
Et je prends tous ces biens pour des maux déguisés:
En un mot, je crains tout de l’esprit de la Reine
…dans l’état où j’entre, à te [à Laodice] parler sans feinte,
Elle [Cléopâtre] a lieu de me craindre, et je crains cette crainte.
(Rodogune, I, v, 305-316)

In this terrified climate, good and bad, freedom and servitude, marriage and suffering are confused. In effect, she cannot really be a princess because there is no possibility of being a queen. For Cléopâtre, who is already invested with royal power, albeit through usurpation and secret regicide, the division of the royal body is equally apparent and even more plainly fatal, since Rodogune’s access to the throne would entail her downfall. On logical terms, this is so because it would no longer be easy to cover up her role in Nicanor’s death. But the queen’s furor is based on a deeper psychic equation, according to which Rodogune incarnates a hatred that seeks to bring Cléopâtre to trial in a spiritual sense.

Je hais, je règne encor: laissons d’illustres marques
En quittant, s’il le faut, ce haut rang des monarques,
Faisons-en avec gloire un départ éclatant,
Et rendons-le funeste à celle qui l’attend.
C’est encor, c’est encor cette même ennemie
Qui cherchait ses honneurs dedans mon infamie,
Dont la haine à son tour croit me faire la loi,
Et régner par mon ordre et sur vous et sur moi.
Tu m’estimes bien lâche, imprudente rivale,
Si tu crois que mon cœur jusque-là se ravale.
(Rodogune, II, I, 409–420)

This symbolic rivalry seems to drive the queen into a further fragmentation of the self in her rather bizarre reference to “sur vous et sur moi.” If one analyzes the tirade, the “vous” must refer to the figure of Hatred she apostrophizes. But this missing figure, mentioned many lines before, is just as ghostly as the spirits of dissimulation, “vains fantômes d’état,” that she had dispelled with her opening words. Cléopâtre’s speech has all the earmarks of schizophrenia. Is the “vous” not also another side of herself, perhaps the vulnerable side she cannot admit?

It is significant that Rodogune will return to Cléopâtre’s characterization of her as a “lâche.” Lacheté, after all, seems to sum up for Corneille the entire dilemma of female passivity:

Quoi? Je pourrais descendre à ce lâche artifice,
D’aller de mes amants mendier le service,
Et sous l’indigne appas d’un coup d’œil affété.
J’irai jusque dans leur cœur chercher ma sûreté!
Celles de ma naissance ont horreur des bassesses.
Leur sang tout généreux hait ces molles adresses.
Quel que soit le secours qu’ils me puissent offrir,
Je croirai faire assez de le daigner souffrir:
Je verrai leur amour, j’éprouverai sa force,
Sans flatter leurs désirs, sans leur jeter d’amorce,
Et s’il est assez fort pour me servir d’appui,
Je le ferai régner, mais en régnant sur lui.
(Rodogune, III, iii, 843–854)

She can only find a way out of this dilemma by turning her passiveness into passive-aggressiveness. Instead of surrendering herself to either Seleucus or Antiochus as a protector, she will make them earn her by slaying Cléopâtre, since only by eliminating the usurper can one of them truly merit the throne. By actually reigning over the king in this sense, she also absolves herself of any baseness involved with seeking the princes’ help. As she herself but it, she will obey the man qho will become king by killing Cléopâtre: “J’obéis à mon roi, puisqu’un de vous doit l’être” (Rodogune, III, iv, 1012).

Thus, her word becomes even more powerful than the decisive word the queen wielded in naming which of the boys was the elder, and hence the rightful heir to the throne. She fully realizes the power of this approving word. Later, when Antiochus approaches her to tell her of his brother’s impending departure, she withholds exposing her feelings until the prince follows through on his duty toward his dead father.

It is certainly true that Corneille’s use of the confidante Laonice to deliver some two hundred eighty lines of exposition in this play stretches the limits of dramatic effectiveness, turning Rodogune into what critics have called a “personnage épisodique.” Yet Rodogune’s part, though not much longer than Laonice’s, manages to express the key factors in the princess’s position as Corneille constructs it. Her personification of the emotive, secular body of the royal woman corresponds, after all, to an increasingly passive stance. Once she has passed on her revenge imperative to her chosen fiancé, she has little to be concerned about apart from his welfare. She does not even have to spur him toward realizing what he has promised to do, for Cléopâtre ultimately falls victim to her own violent schemes without need of an avenger. As queen and political body, Cléopâtre espouses the preservation of her own power at the expense of any other possible emotional motive. She does not give in to even a hint of masculine hegemony without a fight, and a bloody one at that. Thus, Corneille’s attitude toward male power, so apparent in Horace, for example, becomes far more ambiguous at this point in his career. Without going so far as to show a successful queenly exercise of authority, he at least presents a play where the determination of who holds power lies squarely in female hands.

One can also say that both Corneille and Du Ryer deal with the impossibility of being a queen or even a princess, though in different ways. Corneille has Rodogune withdraw under the veil of submission to a masculine monarchy and Du Ryer abandons the princess’s tragic status for a tragicomic one. One cannot avoid the impression that Du Ryer’s princesses have set precedents in the decisive function of female monarchy that influence the evolution of Corneille’s drama.

University of Mary Washington,


1Marc Escola has recently made a case for examining Du Ryer himself outside the context of Racine in “Simplicité d’Alcionée: Notes sur une notion difficile,” See also Eveline Dutertre. “L’Influence de Scudéry sur Corneille.”

2There has been a recent rediscovery of Du Ryer in France, including Jean Rohou’s edition of Dynamis, M. Miller’s edition of Saül, André Blanc’s edition of Esther and Thémistocle and an entire issue of Littératures classsiques (edited by Dominique Moncond’huy) devoted to him in 2001. Charles Mazouer has also studied six of Du Ryer’s tragedies in “Pierre Du Ryer, contemporain de Corneille.” Mazouer highlights the interaction of the two dramatists, but this study pushes the onset of that interaction further back than Mazouer’s, and stands more in favor of a dialogue than of an imitation of Corneille by Du Ryer.

3 ….j’épandrai mon sang / Avant que je m’abaisse à démentir mon rang. / Je te répondrais [à Léonor] bien que dans les belles âmes / Le seul mérite a droit de produire des flammes; / Et si ma passion cherchait à s’excuser, / Mille exemples fameux pourraient l’autoriser; / Mais je n’en veux point suivre où ma gloire s’engage; / La surprise des sens n’abat point mon courage; / Et je me dis toujours qu’étant fille du roi, / Tout autre qu’un monarque est indigne de moi. / Quand je vis que mon cœur ne se pouvait défendre, / Moi-même je donnai ce que je n’osais prendre. / Je mis, au lieu de moi, Chimène en ses liens, / Et j’allumai leurs feux pour éteindre les miens. (Le Cid, I, ii, 91–104)

4Je me vaincrai pourtant, non de peur d’aucun blâme, / Mais pour ne troubler pas une si belle flamme; / Et quand pour m’obliger on l’aurait couronné, / Je ne veux point reprendre un bien que j’ai donné. (Le Cid, V, iii, 1637–1644)

5For a different reading of this relationship, see Alice Rathé, La Reine se marie and Georges Forestier, Essai de génétique théâtrale.

Works Cited

Corneille, Pierre. Œuvres complètes. Ed. André Stegmann. New York: Macmillan, 1963.
Du Ryer, Pierre. Alcimédon. Paris: A. Sommaville, 1635.
______. Bérénice. Paris: A. Sommaville and G. Courbé, 1645.
______. Dynamis. Ed. Jean Rohou. Exeter, UK:
______. Esther and Thémistocle. Ed. André Blanc. Paris: 2001.
_____. Saül Ed. M. Miller. Toulouse, 1996
Dutertre, Eveline. “L’Influence de Scudéry sur Corneille.” PFSCL 28, n. 55 (2001), 327–343.
Escola, Marc. “Simplicité d’Alcionée: Notes sur une notion difficile.” Littératures classiques 42 (2001), 197–219
Forestier, Georges. Essai de génétique théâtrale; Corneille à l’œuvre, Paris: Klincksieck, 1996.
Mazouer, Charles. “Pierre Du Ryer, contemporain de Corneille.” PFSCL 28, n. 55 (2001), 293–305.
Rathé, Alice. La Reine se marie. Variations sur un thème dans l’œuvre de Corneille. Geneva: Droz, 1990.

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