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Compte rendu: Joseph Harris, 'Corneille's (Un)natural Deaths'

posted 4 Nov 2014, 03:13 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 28 Jan 2015, 08:39 ]
The touching deathbed meeting depicted in John Everett Millais’s engraving Last Words is a luxury afforded to few classical tragic characters, whose traditionally sudden deaths allow no time to anticipate the end and exchange final thoughts with their loved ones. There are, though, a number of characters in Corneille’s plays who ‘just die’: of grief, or love, or – as an anecdote by Lessing would have it – ‘of the fifth act’. Joseph Harris’s close reading of four such deaths – Isabelle in L’Illusion comique (1635, 1660), Flavie in Théodore, vierge et martyre (1646), Attila in Attila, roi des Huns (1668) and Eurydice in Suréna, général des Parthes (1674) – tracked with great precision how these deaths are prepared, linguistically and narratively, how they contribute to the tragic effect by avoiding the need for either the virtuous to spill blood or a villain to triumph, and how the transformation of amorous rhetoric into stage reality can produce a surprising pathos.

The dramatic function of each of these four deaths is very different. One reveals the fine line between illusion and reality, another breaks a deadlock
that unleashes tyrannical destruction, and yet another conflates divine punishment with the inevitable (natural?) conclusion to a longstanding malady. But Harris argued that these disparate examples deserve consideration in a single category, for they force us to acknowledge that death in tragedy is not always sudden, not always vengeful, and even, perhaps, not always tragic.

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