The Performance of Nobility in Early Modern European Literature

By David M. Posner | Go to book overview

4
Noble Romans: Corneille and the theatre of
aristocratic revolt

By the time of the appearance of the final version of Bacon's Essayes, in 1625, their author had been in involuntary retirement from the theatre of the Jacobean court for some time, and would quit a larger stage for good only a year later. The Essayes may indeed seem to represent both the apogee and the endpoint of a certain trajectory within the larger problem of noble identity in the literature of the late Renaissance; however, their appearance by no means signals an end to literary explorations of what we have called the “theatre of nobility. ” On the contrary, the crisis of noble identity is one of the dominant themes of Continental writing after 1600. We see this crisis reflected both in the popularity of the Essayes themselves (to say nothing of the many reeditions of Montaigne, Castiglione, Guazzo, and others), and in the proliferation of imitations of these works in the first half of the century in both England and France. We have already seen how these works, whether offering helpful advice on how to get ahead, or fulminating against the amorality and hypocrisy of the court and its denizens, are dominated by the master trope of theatre. We have also seen how these works, in Italy and England but also in France, constitute a kind of substrate for more complex literary versions of the discourse of nobility. I wish now to turn to the specific problem of theatricality “onstage, ”as it were; therefore, my focus will shift from the semi-private stage of the essayist to the public stage of the theatre itself, and from England back across the Channel to France. In the work of Pierre Corneille, the intersection between theatre per se and the metaphorical theatre of nobility is most strongly displayed; indeed, the question of the performance of noble identity dominates his entire oeuvre, and is addressed repeatedly throughout his career–with, one senses, results increasingly distressing to the playwright.

Few texts are as intimately linked with their historical context as those of Corneille. The settings of his plays, no matter how apparently remote even alien–in time and place, are inevitably variations on the historical situation of Corneille and his audience. Mediæval Spain, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, all seem to be seventeenth-century France in rather thin disguises. 1 The precise nature of the connection between Corneille's various

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