Corneille’s aggressive suicides: Rodogune and Théodore

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This article reads the deaths of two of the French playwright Pierre Corneille’s most powerful villain figures in in the light of sociologist Marzio Barbagli’s theory of ‘aggressive suicides’ – suicides intended primarily as harmful, destructive acts conducted against other people. In Rodogune (1644), the queen Cléopâtre attempts to trick her son and his bride into poisoning themselves by first drinking from the poisoned nuptial cup herself; her intended act of aggression fails, however, when her deadly symptoms become apparent too soon. In contrast, the murderous Marcelle in Theodore (1646) achieves a far more effective ‘aggressive suicide’. She triumphantly stages both a double murder and her own subsequent suicide before the eyes of her true intended victim, the helpless onlooker Placide. By killing her enemies and then herself in front of Placide, Marcelle deprives the young man of the sacrificial victim he seeks; unable to avenge his beloved Théodore’s murder, Placide turns the knife upon himself, but does so – in copycat fashion – before the horrified eyes of his own father, whom he deems ultimately responsible and whom he seeks to punish but without physically harming him. Both Marcelle’s and Placide’s suicides become aggressive acts that specifically set out to emotionally assail their spectator-victims. These plays, I argue, thus problematise the very narratives of poetic justice or divine punishment that they themselves evoke, while simultaneously transforming suicide into a dangerous and aggressive spectacle whose true victim is not necessarily the one who dies.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLast Scene of All
Subtitle of host publicationRepresenting Death on the Western Stage.
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2020

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