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CORNEILLE is the father of the French classical drama, and the first author who put a presentable play upon the stage in France. Born at Caen, in 1606, he was intended for the Bar, but in 1629 he produced his comedy of "Mélite," a play quite unprecedented in propriety and excellence; from this time his vocation fixed itself at once for dramatic writing, and his profession was thrown aside. Several plays followed of no particular merit, when, in 1635, appeared the "Cid," the object of that famous sensation recorded as one of the events of the period, the favour this piece gained with the public being so great as to silence the literary celebrity of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu, who, not satisfied with his political mightiness, aspired to dramatic triumphs. "Horace" next appeared in 1639, and then, also in 1639, the object of the present study, "Cinna; or, the Clemency of Augustus." The subject of this play is built upon a passage of Seneca, in his chapter on Clemency, and is as follows:—
Augustus, while on his road to the Empire, had caused the death of Toranius, his guardian, by proscription. Emilia, Toranius's daughter, now has her home in the Imperial court, where she is treated with every kindness and respect. But she has never forgiven Augustus her father's death, and is so strongly possessed by the desire of resenting it, that she has determined that the Emperor shall die by her hand or by her instigation. This vengeance, however, is not her only anxiety. About the Imperial court is also a nobleman, named Cinna, once Augustus's enemy, but won over to him by previous kindnesses and indulgence, and now enjoying office and favour. Cinna and Emilia are lovers, but Emilia will only become the wife of Cinna on condition that he assassinates Augustus. Cinna, loaded with Imperial bounties, is most reluctant to obtain Emilia's hand at
such a cost, but love is the strongest, and he plots a conspiracy against his benefactor's life.
The play divulges the working of this murderous scheme; the difficulty in which the ringleaders are placed by Cæsar's confidence; the irresolutions of Cinna, who has to be urged on to action by the taunts and feminine arguments of Emilia; and the disclosure of the plot to the intended victim by a traitor in the gang; all leading to the great event, which occupies the 5th act-Cæsar's forgiveness of the whole matter after convicting Cinna of his guilt. Augustus had but to strike; he deliberated, and preferred the course of clemency.
Incidents are involved in the plot which would not be missed if withdrawn: such as the rivalry of Maximus, one of the conspirators, also in love with Emilia, and in Cæsar's confidence; his behaviour in the business, his pretended suicide, and subsequent designs upon Emilia. There is also a large proportion of the wavering of the characters between antagonistic inclinations and desperate alternatives, so frequent in Corneille, and leading sometimes to superfluous niceties and entanglements of language; but the play is full of fine passages, of thoughts grandly expressed, and concise maxims and sentences, which the French delight to quote, with other passages from Corneille's best plays, as fond and familiar texts. The political arguments are full of wisdom, and so clearly and beautifully worded, that they might do for use in the present time, and often, indeed, seem perfectly applicable. The sentimental part is cold, and sacrificed to the display of the overwhelming grandeur of the Roman nationality, a theme which Corneille loves to propound.
It is reported somewhere that Napoleon said of Corneille, that if he had lived in his time, he would have made him his Prime Minister; attention should, therefore, be paid to the passages in which the author discusses political questions which might be profitably committed to memory.
ETON, June, 1871.
The notes and explanations will be found at the end of each play. They are arranged in accordance with the acts and scenes, with references to the lines in each page, not reckoning the names of the dramatis persona, the running title, or the stage directions.
In the seventeenth century the two letters ai preceding the consonants s and in the infinitives, present and imperfect tenses, and conditional mood, of some verbs, used invariably to be written oi, as
", je voudrats
il fallait, &c.,
The Editors have preferred pointing this out in a note to altering the text.
OCTAVE-CÉSAR-AUGUSTE, empereur de Rome.
CINNA, fils d'une fille de Pompée, chef de la conjuration
MAXIME, autre chef de la conjuration.
ÉMILIE, fille de C. Toranius, tuteur d'Auguste, et proscrit par lui durant le triumvirat.
FULVIE, confidente d'Émilie.
POLYCLÈTE, affranchi d'Auguste.
ÉVANDRE, affranchi de Cinna.
EUPHORBE, affranchi de Maxime.
La scène est à Rom.