36 pages 1 hour read

Pierre Corneille

Le Cid

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1636

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Summary and Study Guide


Le Cid is a five-act tragicomic play by Pierre Corneille, first performed in 1636 at the Théâtre du Marais in Paris. The plot is based on the Spanish play Las mocedadas del Cid by Guillén de Castro, which itself is based on the legend of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (1043-1099), a Castilian knight and Spanish national hero whose title “El Cid” is derived from the Arabic word for lord, sayyid. Corneille (1606-1684) is considered one of the greatest French playwrights of the 17th century, often called the Golden Age of French literature. Corneille’s work was patronized by the influential Cardinal Richelieu, though the two parted ways after quarreling over Corneille’s innovations upon the standard conventions of plays at the time.

Le Cid itself was a controversial success. It was groundbreaking theater for its day as a tragedy that dared to have a happy ending, was without clear-cut heroes or villains, and resisted the classical unities of time, place, and action prescribed by Aristotelian dramatic theory. The play sparked a debate—known as La querelle du Cid—about the essential aesthetics of drama. Corneille showed that tragedies could have a variety of different endings and need not end in a heavy-handed moral or adhere to the classical rules of playwriting. In addition, the play’s central conflict—the main character must choose between his love for his fiancée and the defense of his father’s honor—gave rise to the term “Cornelian dilemma,” referring to a difficult or impossible choice. Today, Le Cid is widely considered Corneille’s finest play.

Although Le Cid was originally written in rhyming verse, some English translations, such as the one by Roscoe Mongan used in this guide, render the play into prose.

Plot Summary

In the 11th century in the city of Seville in the Castile region of Spain, Don Sancho and Don Rodrigo both seek to marry the same woman, Chimène. Both Chimène and her father, Don Gomes the Count de Gormas, prefer Rodrigo as a suitor, but Chimène fears that fate will intervene in some way.

The Infanta, the daughter of Don Fernando, the King of Castile, also loves Rodrigo, but cannot marry him because of his lower social status. The Infanta decides to help unite Rodrigo and Chimène, hoping that their marriage will lessen her own feelings for Rodrigo.

The Count de Gormas is jealous that the king has appointed Rodrigo’s father, Don Diego, to tutor the prince. The Count confronts Diego, disarming and insulting him. Humiliated, Diego—who is too old and frail to fight—asks Rodrigo to avenge him. Rodrigo knows fighting the Count would mean losing Chimène’s love, but he agrees to fight anyway for his father’s honor.

In Act II, Don Arias warns the Count that the King won’t allow him to duel with Rodrigo, but the Count doesn’t care. He attempts to insult Rodrigo, but when Rodrigo is unmoved the Count praises his courage instead and asks him to agree to back down from the fight. Rodrigo refuses.

Chimène, distressed over the impending duel between her lover and her father, confides in the Infanta. The Infanta imagines that if Rodrigo wins, Chimène will reject him for her father’s sake, leaving the Infanta free to pursue him herself.

The King is displeased with the Count for insulting Diego and insisting on dueling with Rodrigo, and is also concerned about the approaching Moorish navy. Don Alonzo announces that Rodrigo has killed the Count in their duel, costing the King one of his greatest veteran fighters as the Moorish threat draws closer.

Act III opens as Rodrigo tells Chimène’s nursemaid, Elvira, that he knows the grief he has caused Chimène and wants Chimène to kill him as vengeance for her father. Elvira tells Rodrigo to hide before Chimène returns home.

Chimène, believing she is alone with Elvira, admits that she cannot bring herself to hate Rodrigo but acknowledges that she must avenge her father. Rodrigo reveals himself and begs Chimène to kill him on the spot, but she is unable to do so. Chimène tells Rodrigo she understands that he had to challenge the Count to protect Don Diego’s honor, but that she must protect her own father’s honor in turn. Chimène believes she has no choice but to have Rodrigo killed.

Rodrigo returns home, and Diego tells him the Moors are about to attack the city. If Rodrigo fights, he might earn accolades from the King and regain a place in Chimène’s heart.

Act IV finds Rodrigo returned from war a hero. The Moors he has captured hold him in awe and call him “The Cid.” The Infanta asks Chimène to abandon her quest for revenge, but she cannot. Diego tells the King that Chimène still loves Rodrigo and wishes to save him. The King pretends Rodrigo has been killed to observe Chimène’s reaction, and her grief proves she still loves him. Don Sancho declares he will fight Rodrigo on her behalf, and she agrees to marry the winner of the fight.

In the final act, Rodrigo tells Chimène he will not defend himself against Sancho because he would rather die than live with Chimène’s resentment. She tells him he must defend himself, to save her from having to marry Sancho.

The Infanta delivers a monologue declaring that Rodrigo and Chimène belong together, since there is still no hate between them after all that’s happened.

Sancho appears with a bloody sword, and Chimène fears Rodrigo is dead. She declares her love for Rodrigo, and begs to enter a convent instead of marrying Sancho, where she will spend her life grieving for her father and her lover.

The King informs Chimène that Rodrigo is still alive: He disarmed Sancho, but chose not to kill him. Sancho says that since Rodrigo and Chimène are obviously in love, they should marry. The King tells Chimène that she has avenged her father enough. He suggests she marry Rodrigo, but wait a year first so that her emotional wounds can heal. During that year, Rodrigo will continue to fight the Moors and win honor for himself.