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Caravaggio: Bacco Baroque (XVII Century)

Corneille: Le Cid

When it was first performed this is tragedy caused some scandal. Mainly attacked by Scudéry with three main charges, including plagiarism and breaking with the Aristotelian rules, Le Cid also received harsh criticism from the Académie, in answer to which Corneille, unable to defend himself and very bitter about the attacks, amended the play somewhat. Today the plot may seem frivolous and unbelievable (or stretching the borders of reality) to us, who are used to conceiving glory and honor differently. To understand and appreciate this work we have to place it in its historical and cultural context, keeping in mind, that is, that there are two worlds, two different ways of government rule apparently in a symbiotic relationship, but deeply at war with each other; on the one hand feudal, medieval Spain (war against the invading Moors) and on the other the Richelieu "revolution" (centralization of the state by suppression of internal differences and removal of power of the provincial nobility), whose policy tended to reevaluate and strengthen the values of a feudal, warlike society. For a thorough evaluation of the play I strongly recommend reading it in the Nouveaux classiques Larousse, presenting a great wealth of notes, comments and historical/literary annotations.
electronic text:
Cid (Abu)
Cinna - ed. 1682 (Abu)

for an overall view with many questions:
Le Cid (petits classiques larousse)

Giambattista Basile: Lo cunto de li cunti (Pentamerone)

Drawing from the rich heritage of the Neapolitan oral tradition, Gian Battista Basile "reinvents" the fairy tale in a literary, "adult" form including those tales which have descended down to us in an edulcorated and almost unrecognizable form in the last two centuries, from the Grimms to Disney. Written in Neapolitan dialect (the title sounds something like "The Tale of Tales"), they preserve all the naturalness and spontaneity of the original oral version, presenting however more literate, refined, well-read inoculations of personal style (the endless repetition of similies besides emulating the vulgar they also convey an ironic and enchanted tone). Some examples are quite enlightening if compared with more modern versions, such as "Sun, Moon and Thalia", a sort of erotic, pagan Boccaccian version of "Sleeping Beauty", quite different from what we have become accustomed to in our childhood: a tale of adultery, cannibalism and matricide. For the lover and scholar of fairy tales, this book represents a precious source of archetypes, and for the writer a close to inexhaustible source of inspiration. The best English version that I know of is Nancy Canepa's book From Court to Forest
electronic texts:
La gatta cenerentola (napolitan)
Maria the Cenerentola (english)
Site dedicated to Lo cunto de li cunti (italian)

Ben Jonson: Volpone, or the Fox

Elizabeth dead, James I still fresh on the throne, London society had turned into a thriving, fermenting pod of corruption and greed and Volpone, set in Renaissance Venice, is more a comedy on money than on cunning, of which the title character obviously lacks not, thus reflecting back a grotesque, satirical portrait. This play also responds to the tradition of the animal allegory; every character bears the name of an animal (Mosca, Volpone, Corbaccio, Voltore...) who, in turn, is meant to embody a human characteristic (parasitism, cunning, avarice, greed...). However, as Alvin B. Kernan points out, the real protagonist of the play is the theater, acting, role exchange, the playful love for transformation. It is not by chance that the play begins with an allegorical ballet representing the journey the human soul makes through its different reincarnations, moving progressively farther from its divine origins down toward the lowest forms, i.e., lawyers, puritans and hermaphrodites. Similarly, the characters of Volpone will perform a journey downward to total abjection and/or annhilation of their own social identity. Throughout the centuries, this play has enjoyed great success with generations of audiences, so much so that it hasn't limited itself to the stage. There are few filmic versions worthy of note; the one that immediately comes to my mind is the one with Rex Harrison.
electronic texts:
UMich Electronic Text Library

Racine: Athalie Theatre Complet

The French tragedy classical author by definition, rightfully admired for his sublime use of language and his great mastery in rendering the most delicate sentiments. With Racine tragedy reaches its climax embodying the noblest tones, sensibly surpassing the stature of a Corneille. Personally, it has constituted a reliable source of inspiration for a long time, thanks to that sort of elation, of spiritual elevation which each reading causes me, that mixture of emotions and stupor one always feels in front of perfection. At least, this is certainly true to the first half of Racine's production, the "classical" (and pagan, so to speak) plays; conversely, I really cannot convince myself to gulp down the second half, perhaps dictated by religious preoccupations (adhering to the newest inclinations at Versailles?), but this is my own business and I would certainly never attempt to condemn or dissuade the reading of any of Racine's tragedies (ergo, you are warmly encouraged to read these as well!). My personal favorites: Phèdre and Andromaque. Lastly, one cannot approach Racine without taking into consideration Roland Barthes' On Racine.
electronic text:
Andromaque (Abu)
Phèdre (Abu)
Athalie (Abu)
Britannicus (Abu)
Iphigénie en Aulis (Abu)

Phèdre (Lancaster University)

for an overall view with many questions:
Phèdre (petits classiques larousse online)
Encyclopédie de l'Agora
Les plaideurs (foire aux textes)
critical essays:
The Enigma of a Legend: Jean Racine, by Jennifer Kiger
Search Racine on

Moliere: Le Misanthrope

All of Molière is enjoyable and I would be hard pressed picking just one as the favourite; nevertheless, I have to give my wholehearted personal preference to Le Misanthrope, partly because the hero somewhat resembles me, at least in his major defects (!), partly because I simply find that here Molière has really reached his personal highest. I find him in perfect shape in mixing sympathy for Alceste's censoring of high society morals with Molière's own censoring of censors. Alceste is supposed to make us laugh "from the deepest of our soul" and he does, because as much as I too sympathize with him for his general contempt of hypocrisy and stupidity, there is something so inherently comic in his contradictions and the (irritating) way in which he brings disaster upon himself (and loving it). Yet, till the end I route for him, just because he's so unreasonable, so humanly flustered and hypersensitive; his final retirement into isolation is not only logic to the story, but also desirable and his only way out of suffering. Celimène too is likable. She's frivolous, she's badmouthing, but she is above all a free woman, mistress of her own destiny, and extremely young. She's endowed with sublime esprit (shall we imagine the young Marquise de Sevigné at court?) and she knows it: this is what I find most charming in her, her self-control and self-consciousnes. She's too smart not to understand that Alceste is right, but if only he could be a little bit more patient with everybody! Why condemn her, at so young an age, to confine herself in some desert alone with a (shall we call him that?) nag? Yes, Alceste can be boring, for all his passion and impulsiveness; his censorious nature, dictated perhaps by his great pride, can make him dull in the long run.
altra cosa e' che il senso di rivalsa e' assai debole. ho provato, per To better grasp the comic side of the play, I strongly suggest you read George Meredith's The Essay on Comedy (download), where the poet traces the affinities between Le Misanthrope and William Congreve's The Way of the World (see below) in order to illustrate his concept of "comedy of the head".
Of course, in matters of Molière, one cannot ignore Tartuffe or the saucy, controversial Ecole des femmes (followed by L'Ecole des maris and his answer to critics, La Querelle; btw all three plays are available as well in one single volume). Last, but not least, to all lovers of Mozart's (and Da ponte's) Don Giovanni, Molière's Dom Juan (éditions Larousse), much closer to Tirso de Molina's play, the earliest version of the story. Still escapes me where the comedy lies, safe for Sganarelle's character.
"The Misanthrope" and other plays (Penguin)
electronic texts:
Le misanthrope (site moliere)
Dom Juan (abu)
Dom Juan (site moliere)
Le Tartuffe (abu)
L'école des femmes (abu)
L'école des femmes (
Critique de l'École des femmes (site moliere)
Lécole des maris (site moliere)

English translations online:
Tartuffe (english)

Edmond Rostand: Cyrano De Bergerac

I know perfectly well that Rostand wrote and published at the turn of last (remember!) century, but given the subject of this deservedly famous play, I thought it best to include it in this page, also as an introduction to the real Cyrano, the libertine, the follower of Gassendi and friend of Molière's; the one who is best known for his imaginative voyages to the moon (L'Autre monde, Voyage dans la Lune), utopic opportunities to breathe his own thoughts in terms of religion, morality and sex. From these works, as well as from the portrait that his contemporaries have left us, we gather a rather different character from the one who gives name to the play. Cyrano didn't have a big nose, was of no noble origin and he was no Guascon (now, take that!). But this really doesn't make a nip of a difference when it comes to enjoying the play, which is at least faithful to the spirit of the real Cyrano: unconventional, censorious (Alceste?), impulsive, valliant and gallant. Regardless, Rostand's play carries with it all the charm of the fairy tale, Cyrano being a sort of swashbluckling "ugly duckling" winning over the heart of the charming Roxane through his wit, Beauty and the Beast all over again. There's too the stronger seductive power of the word over the image. But, above all, there's the final and tragic final resolution with its moving denouément, which inevitably wells up my eyes with tears, no matter how many times I've seen it or read it.
electronic text:
Cyrano de Bergerac by Rostand (Abu)
Voyage dans la lune by Cyrano (Abu)

Samuel Pepys: The Shorter Pepys

Not exactly a literary work, but rather the portrait of a time period through the eyes of a high official of the Navy Board, London 1660-69. (For an introduction to Pepys and a sampling of his entries, see Ben's Home Page or visit the Pepys Library.) Meetings and work related worries, domestic tiffs with wife and/or servants, occasional amours, personal problems and great national events (the Great Plague and the Great Fire) are all intertwined in the over 6,000 pages of diary spanning nine years from the beginning of the Restoration. Besides being considered the best diarist of all times, Pepys reveals a great capacity for rendering differing realities with a lively language, albeit often synthetic, jotted down at the speed of thoughts, faithful to the varying subject matter, and above all humanly sympathetic. The great value of his diaries lies in the total picture we get from this historical period, where against a background of street vendors, cooking smells, and publican noise, history unveils itself in its national as well as personal ripercussions. Curiously enough, while national secrets are not such to the reader, the language Pepys adopts to describe his clandestine encounters is veiled with a sort of esperanto, a mysterious mixture of french, italian and spanish. "And so to bed."
Also quite recommendable: The Illustrated Pepys.
electronic text:
1665-66 (bibliomania)

Madame de Lafayette: La Princesse De Cleves

Officially the "choral" work of salon of Madame de Lafayette (La Rochefoucault figures among the "collaborators"), one of the highest ésprits that enlivened the second half of the XVII Century, woman of great talent and penetrating intelligence. Actually, there are several arguments in favor of a two-hand authorship, where the other collaborators may have just acted as historical consultants. As a matter of fact, it is easy to notice, upon comparing La princesse with the other works of Mme de Lafayette: plots, historical backgrounds, characters, and above all her distinctive style, all suggest one single mind behind the project. With that delicate touch, that racinian lucidity of language, the power to evoke deep emotions through mastered expressions, all these are part of the charm that exudes from the pages of this novel. The theme is quite in line with the sentiments of noblewomen of XVII Century France: the misfortunes of marriage (which meant pre-arranged), the tragic consequences thereof, all set in an historical context (a century earlier, when Catherine de' Medici was regent--just as Louis's mother had been--, Mary Stuart was still a the Dauphine and la reine Margot had not yet been born), close enough to be recognized and appreciated by her readership, but also distant enough from Louis XIV's court to avoid all unpleasantness from the all-powerful monarch. My personal and altogether biassed reason for appreciating La Princesse de Cléves is the closeness of its major theme with those treated later by Sade (surprised?): virtue and a moral sense of duty counterposed with feelings and, more generally, nature's calling; the misfortunes of upright virtue in a world ever more cruel and hypocritical, even when lined with civility and manners.
Livre de poche
English translation:
Penguin ed. (Robin Buss, trans.)
electronic text:
La Princesse de Cleves (
La princesse de Cleves (Abu)
The Princesse of Cleves (authorsdirectory)

     Madame de Sevigné: Lettres Choisies

Great friend of and kin spirit to Madame de Lafayette was the other shining star of Parisian salons. Full of that ésprit which enlivened gallant conversations and made her one of the most sought for ladies of the Court, Madame de Sevigné was a peculiar type of woman of letters: she published nothing, she merely expressed all her writing skills and charms through her letters, addressed to her distant, beloved daughter. The very least pleasure that a XXI Century reader will derive from these letters is, no doubt, in the portraiture of a delightful (but gossipy) society, formed of the old aristocracy which is finding its new role in the salons, in gallant discussions, in chronicling its events and leisures, and above all in differentiating itself from rising bourgeois in its new (or renewed) life-style, devoted mostly to pleasure. Mme de Sevigné devotes entire pages in relating to her daughter the goings on in her circle of friends, her readings, her moods and Parisian news. The sentiments which she gives breath to are delicate, psychologically intriguing and universal in nature. Many a writer in the following centuries will have her in mind in their writings, particularly Proust, who could recognize in her feelings many of his own sentiments and intuitions (e.g., "if I come to Provence, my dearest, think that it is only for the purpose of seeing you..."). They should be read, as she herself said of her daughter's letters, "slowly, out of fear of having already read them" ("doucement, de peur de les avoir déjà lu").

G. Etherege, W. Wycherley, W. Congreve:
     Three Restoration Comedies - Man of Mode, The Country Wife, Love for Love

To make a full list of all the Restoration Theater plays by far surpasses the scope and limits of this bibliography and, as far as I know, there isn't one single authoritative text on this subject (meaning that there are too many!!). There are certainly a few good sites offering ample and diversified information on the Restoration; of course Voice of the Shuttle is the best starting point (a site devoted to the XVVIII century). For other useful sites, see my other sources page. Otherwise, one could start by reading the most brilliant comedies of the period: for George Etherege, no doubt The Man of Mode; for William Wycherley, The Country Wife (the old theme of the libertine who pretends to have become an eunuch so that he can get easier access to married ladies' boudoirs without being harness by jealous husbands has been variously used off and on throughout the centuries); and for Sir John Vanbrugh, The Relapse, or Virtue in Danger a biting, ironic reply to Colley Cibber's Apology). Out of sheer duty I should also stress the importance of Aphra Behn's plays, which still today enjoy still quite a following among scholars and lovers of the Restoration, but which I personally find insufficiently interesting.
electronic texts:
Man of Mode (bibliomania)
The Country Wife (bibliomania)
Love for love (encyclopediaindex)

William Congreve: The Way of the World

Undoubtedly the masterpiece of Restoration comedy. As I have already mentioned, characters and plot owe much to Molière's play, but the treatment, development, the refined sense of humor and the delicate touch are all typical of this author. Incidentally, this was the last play by Congreve before retiring, still young and popular, to private life (devoting his time to various projects, including a bit translation for Pope's Iliad) under the affectionate care of the Lady of Marlborough, so much in love with the charming playwright to have a wax statue made in his resemblance in order to still pretend to be living with him after his death.
electronic text:

J. de la Fontaine: Les fables

testo online:
Les fables de La Fontaine (petite bibliothèque)




Titles available at

Corneille: Le Cid

Molière: Le Misanthrope

Three Restoration Comedies

Cyrano De Bergerac

The Illustrated Pepys

Etherege: The Man of Mode

Vanbrugh: The Relapse

Barthes: On Racine

Mme de Lafayette: La princesse de Cleves

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