Time Spent With the Harvard Classics: Polyeucte – Pierre Corneille

The French tragedian Pierre Corneille lived from June 6, 1606 through October 1, 1684.  Along with Moliere and Jean Racine, he is considered one of the three great 17th century dramatists.  He had originally enjoyed the patronage of Cardinal Richelieu before falling into his disfavor over creative differences pertinent to the right to express himself differently from strictly following a classical format.  Despite this disfavor Corneille went on to write successful plays for another forty or so years.

Polyeucte martyr is drama in five acts that debuted in October of 1643.  It is based on the life of Saint Polyeuctus (Polyeucte).   The drama is set in the ancient Armenian city of Melitene.  In a time when the Roman Empire severely persecuted Christians, a Roman officer who happens to be an Armenian nobleman coverts to Christianity.  He does so boldly – tearing up the emperor’s edict to worship idols and then when coming on a procession of idols he dashing them on the street.

His death as a martyr causes his wife, Pauline, and his father-in-law, Felix to convert as well.  In a dramatic subplot, the Roman Severus falls in love with Pauline and tries to convince her to come to be his.  She refuses his overtures and stays with her husband Polyeucte.  Before he is killed, Polyeucte entrusts her well-being to Severus.

Polyeucte is one of the last 17th century French dramas with a religious theme.  Later playwrights turns from this subject as to not mix religious and worldly themes.  There have been multiple adaptions for opera and ballet.

You may read Act II of Polyeucte by Pierre Corneille here:


A piece written in honor of this work can be listened to here:



About alohapromisesforever

Writer, poet, musician, surfer, father of two princesses.
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