Pierre Corneille was born in Rouen, in the region of Normandy, France, the son of a lawyer. His privileged upbringing allowed him to have a rigorous and thorough education. One of the subjects of his classical Jesuit education was theatre. His first official play--a comedy called Mélite--was taken on by a troupe of actors in 1629. Following its success, Corneille left Rouen and started writing for the Paris stage. In 1635, Corneille wrote his first tragedy, Médée.
Corneille's acclaim grew, and he came to the attention of Cardinal Richelieu, who had very strict ideas about how dramatic texts should present virtue and philosophy. Corneille--who was interested in the philosophical study but wanted to develop dramatic innovations--eventually broke with the Cardinal. He wrote Le Cid, generally considered his finest play. Produced in 1637, it blurred the lines between comedy and tragedy and defied the classical unities of time, place, and action. While the play itself was successful, there was an active campaign to discredit it because it did not adhere to the classical unities. Additionally, charges of immorality were levied against Corneille. He withdrew from public life for several years, perhaps to revise the play to satisfy the critiques from the Académie Française (the French authority on literature and cultural value).
In 1640, Corneille returned to the stage and a prolific career. He averaged a tragedy a year, but his artistic impact was on the decline with the rise of Jean-Baptiste Racine and competition with Moliere's comedies. He wrote his last play in 1674; it was a failure. As Corneille had always been sensitive to negative criticism, this humiliation drove him from the stage for the rest of his life. He died in 1684, at his home in Paris.
Corneille's legacy as a tragic playwright is based on his assertion of the French language as a medium for high art. French author Voltaire, decades after Corneille's death, lobbied the Académie Française to recognize his plays as valuable cultural contributions, and the first complete collection of Corneille's works and annotated criticism was published in 1764.
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