Death sentences: Corneille’s prison monologues

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Although prisons are uncommon in French theatre after the 1640s, Pierre Corneille is no conventional playwright; indeed, no fewer than five of his characters are imprisoned and face the death penalty. This article thus explores Corneille’s ‘prison monologues’ — soliloquies uttered by imprisoned characters contemplating their own forthcoming execution. Unable to engage materially with the world, Corneille’s prisoners are effectively reduced to voices; although objectively powerless, they are subjectively able to wield language as a tool to engage with and symbolically triumph over death (a phenomenon that historian Douglas J. Davies calls ‘words against death’). Refusing to condemn the potential fallibility or illegitimacy of the legal power that has condemned them, prisoners like the eponymous tragicomic hero of Clitandre and Clindor in L’Illusion comique devise creative, poetic accounts to justify and explain their imprisonment on a symbolic level, in an attempt to reconcile themselves to — or even to transcend — the degraded reality of their current situation and their upcoming fate. Corneille’s prison monologues dramatize the tension between the prisoners’ abstract trust in justice and their physical, embodied experience of imprisonment. Exploring these prisoners’ creative verbal engagements with justice and their fear of death thus unearths a new side to these early Cornelian heroes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)145-159
Number of pages15
JournalEarly Modern French Studies
Issue number2
Early online date12 Feb 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 Feb 2021


  • Corneille
  • death
  • prison
  • death sentence
  • monologue
  • mortality

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