Vileness and Violence: The Cornelian Corpse

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Although the title hero never sets foot onstage during the play, Corneille’s tragedy La Mort de Pompée (1643) offers one of the author’s most extensive and gruesome engagements with the corporeality of death. Having been led into a trap set by the cowardly Egyptian king Ptolomée, the Roman military hero Pompée is cruelly assassinated early in the play; his dead body is then decapitated, and then dumped into the sea, while his head is triumphantly presented to his horrified military rival César. Although, as I demonstrate, a vocabulary of vileness recurs throughout the play in words such as ‘vil’, ‘bas’, and ‘abject’, it is not — as we might expect — Pompée’s mutilated corpse that is depicted in such terms. Paradoxically, the body itself retains a certain moral (if not physical) integrity; both Pompée’s head and trunk serve as touchstones for the nobility or villainy of those who encounter them. For the nobler characters, Pompée’s corpse evokes the grandeur of his heroic past. Conversely, the stain of vileness and villainy is displaced from the corpse itself onto Pompée’s cruel assassins and the craven king who authorized the murder — those who prove too base to recognize the true horror of their deeds.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)144-156
Number of pages13
JournalEarly Modern French Studies
Issue number2
Early online date13 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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