Corneille was the first author of great French tragedies. He and his contemporary Jean Racine are generally considered the foremost playwrights of the Neoclassical period in France. Using Greek tragedy as his model, Corneille wrote dramas of epic grandeur and dignity. His masterpiece is The Cid (1637), a romantic story based on the legends of the Spanish hero El Cid.
Many of Corneille's plays are based on legend and history. The principal figures are people of noble character and high position who must resolve a conflict between their emotions and their sense of duty. Corneille exalts reason and willpower above sentiment, and at times his heroes seem almost superhuman in their devotion to honor. His plays are especially celebrated for their eloquent poetry and their studies of character.
Corneille studied law but never practiced it. From 1629 to 1650 he was a magistrate in Rouen. He began his dramatic career with a comedy, Melite, which was successfully produced in Paris in 1629. He wrote several other successful comedies, the best known of which is The Liar (Le Menteur, 1643). His first tragedy was Medea (Médée, 1635).
For a short time, Corneille was patronized by Cardinal Richelieu, but the two men quarreled. When The Cid was first produced, the French Academy, at Richelieu's request, endorsed a critique of the play that claimed it had faulty construction and forced Corneille to adhere more closely to strict Classical rules. After several years of silence he produced his three famous tragedies, Horace (1640), Cinna (1640), and Polyeucte (about 1643). His later plays were less successful. The four great tragedies, however, remain among the undisputed classics of French literature.