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Corneille: Rodogune

Cléopâtre avalant le poison


This 1647 play links maternity and the pursuit of political power: an unusual combination in the period. Cléopâtre, queen of Syria, has been ruling as regent successfully for a number of years. Her twin sons have reached the age of majority and it is her duty to reveal the name of the first born so that he may rule. She withholds this information in order to continue to reign, and plots to kill her own children to avoid being removed from the political sphere. The plot is further complicated by a peace treaty with neighbouring Parthia requiring princess Rodogune to marry the first-born son (something she will only do if that son kills his mother). Intrigue abounds! See the extracts from critical material below for more on how we will approach the play...

‘Despite devouring the males who surround her she [Cléopâtre] is not immune to the constantly recurring anxiety that she is not sovereign.’

Mitchell Greenberg

'Rodogune stands at the crossroads of two worlds, and at this nexus of ambivalence men are unsexed and women are virilized. The essential traits defining sexual difference, the separation of the Cornelian world into the well-ordered camps of masculinity and femininity, are blurred. It is from the blurring of these "natural" positions, from their perversion, that the monstrous - of which Rodogune is perhaps the best example - is born and triumphs.'

Mitchell Greenberg.

'Corneille’s queen Cléopâtre figures prominently among the monsters of seventeenth-century tragedy. The playwright calls his villain from Rodogune a “nouvelle Médée” [...] and she undoubtedly belongs in the pantheon of evil mothers and dangerous women.It is thus quite logical that the majority of critics tend to emphasize her hateful nature. Yet, despite her evil disposition, Corneille admits to a certain amount of respect for his monstrous creation: “Tous ses crimes sont accompagnés d’une grandeur d’âme qui a quelque chose de si haut, qu’en même temps qu’on déteste ses actions, on admire la source dont elles partent” (Discours, 79)

Perhaps it is wise to follow the lead of critics like Sweetser and Muratore, who highlight the Syrian queen’s impressive ability to impose her will. They show that she is not simply a monster dominated by a passionate bloodlust, but also a very strong woman who almost manages to triumph despite her initial position of weakness. Primarily, her strength derives from her remarkable intelligence.'

Skye Paine.