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Les Horaces (The Horatii) by Pierre Corneille -­ 1640 Characters: TULLUS, King of Rome OLD HORATIUS, a Roman nobleman and father of three sons, the Horatii HORATIUS, eldest son of Horatio and the most renowned warrior of the three brothers CURIATIUS, eldest of three brothers, a young Alban nobleman betrothed to Camilla SABINA, wife of Horatius and sister of Curiatius CAMILLA, the betrothed of Curiatius, daughter of Old Horatius, and sister of the Horatii VALERIUS, a young Roman nobleman who wishes to marry Camilla JULIA, a Roman lady, close friend of Sabina and Camilla FLAVIAN, an Alban soldier PROCULUS, a Roman soldier The basic situation at the start of the play: The Romans and Albans have been involved in warfare for some considerable period, with deaths on both sides. Still, no large-­‐scale battle has yet taken place yet: very early in the play, Sabina characterizes the action up to this point as “skirmishes.” Now, though, both sides find themselves on the eve of what Sabina refers to as an all-­‐out battle that will be decisive: But now when Alba needs must fall or Rome, One or the other cannot but succumb, And when after their battle there can be Nothing to stay the conqueror and no hope For the defeated, I would have to hate My city [her native Alba] savagely if I could still Be wholly Roman and if I could ask The gods to give you [Julia, her friend and interlocutor, and a staunch Roman] a victory That would cost so much blood so dear to me [for example, that of her brothers, the Curiatii]. Mass casualties are a certainty, as is the enslavement of the losing side by the victors. Both Sabina, wife of Horatius but also sister of the Curiatii (three valiant brothers of the Alban tribe) and Camilla, sister of Horatius but engaged to Curiatius, have been living with tremendous anxiety, worse even than the fear of death or enslavement, which they must also fear. In this case, Sabina and Camilla despair that they can’t “win” either way: they don’t want any of their loved ones to kill their other loved ones, or to be killed by them. Many other families amongst both tribes are in similar situations, since intermarriage between Albans and Romans has been extensive. In fact, the two tribes are described, at some points in the play, as constituting more or less one cohesive “people,” or society. Although the term “civil war” is never used, the conflicting loyalties suffered by all the players in this drama of both family and civic/military society are really those generally associated with such internecine conflicts, where everyone is keenly aware that kinsmen are being killed. (Compare to the situation in Antigone, which arises from a sort of civil war in which the leaders of the two competing factions are the brothers, Eteocles and Polynices. However, in Sophocles’ tragedy, one gets the idea that the two brothers chose their fates: they instigated the war themselves, at least to some extent. In Corneille’s play, the three brothers on both sides, the Roman Horatii and the Alban Curiatii, don’t lead others into battle. Rather, they do their utmost simply to serve their own tribes with courage and valor – although Horatius’s thirst for honor and fame manifests itself in so extreme a manner, in the course of the play’s action, as to constitute a (dare we say tragic?) flaw.) The plot – in the form of the positions taken by each character in turn: their main “arguments” Act I Corneille wrote Les Horaces with no recourse to monologues and without the use of a chorus that might serve as the voice of the people, of tradition, of morality, and of common sense. Throughout the play, the only way we find out what the various characters are thinking is by hearing them speak to others. Almost always, their speeches are intended to persuade and convince others of the validity and justice of their own points of view. Julia, the good friend of Sabina, and to a lesser extent of Camilla, is a character who Corneille really had to invent so that, at various points — including at the very start of the drama — Sabina (and, again, to a far lesser extent, Camilla) will have someone to argue with. The play begins with Sabina asking Julia to excuse her for her weakness. Sabina knows that, especially as a member of the very distinguished Horatii family, she should not betray great grief on the eve of battle. But she explains why she cannot help it, excusing herself by saying that, at least, she is shedding no outward tears. Julia complains that a good Roman should have no conflicting emotions. Sabina expresses the strong feelings she still has for her native Alba. She realizes that Rome, as has been prophesied, seems destined for great things, for empire: she should be happy, as the wife of Rome’s greatest soldier, Horatius, to root for the Romans to win. But, as she points out, “Yet marriage bonds would be but chains of slavery If they forbade me to recall my birthplace. Alba, where first I breathed the breath of life, Mine own dear city and my earliest love.” Julia expresses surprise at Sabina’s current agitation and grief, noting that, up to now, Sabina had appeared quite stoic and unconcerned about the fate of Alba. Sabina says that this was only because the war had not yet reached a critical point, and she had still harbored “hopes of peace.” Now, she realizes that those hopes were in vain. Her friend now contrasts Sabina’s emotional arc to Camilla’s: Camilla had been distraught during all the fighting up to now, but suddenly, in face of the present moment of crisis, seems joyful. Sabina says that she fears this swift change in her sister-­‐in-­‐law’s demeanor. She goes on to say that she saw Camilla being friendly with Valerius, the Roman suitor she has snubbed in favor of her fiancé, Curiatius, as if Camilla’s love has now shifted its object, since Curiatius has been away fighting. Camilla enters and right away makes it clear that she is every bit as grief-­‐stricken as Sabina: “My soul is terrified by equal fears. Like her, I lose by either army’s loss. I shall behold my lover, my sole joy, Die for his country or mine own destroy. Yes, he I love will midst my anguish be One to be mourned or hated. Alas me!” Julia now advises Camilla to drop Curiatius and accept Valierius as a suitor. Since she can freely make this choice — after all, she’s not married yet! — why not get herself out of the awful bind she finds herself in? Camilla thinks that this would be immoral behavior. Her avowals of love to Curiatius are, in her mind, binding and sacred, even though the two have not yet wed. Julia then says that she doubts Camilla’s words, since she saw Camilla being friendly with Valerius on the previous day. Camilla sets Julia, and Sabina, straight, and explains why she did not exhibit her usual cold behavior towards Valerius: At her wit’s end, and in total despair, Camilla besought the oracle of Apollo at Mount Aventine. The seer told her that Alba and Rome would “peace tomorrow see,” and that “thou shalt with thy Curiatius be united. Ye thenceforth will part no more.” Overjoyed by this prophecy, she was so happy that even the unwanted attentions of Valerius couldn’t vex her as they usually would. However, that night, she had nightmare visions “of carnage and of horror” that have banished all her joy, plunging her once more into despair. Julia tries to reassure Camilla: “Dreams mean the opposite of what they show us.” At this point, the audience might do well to remind itself that the same could be said of oracles. Camilla declares emphatically that, in any case, she sees a grim future for herself. How can she possibly hope for a happy outcome with Curiatius, given current prospects? “No man shall ever, ever, have that name who is my city’s conqueror or slave.” On cue, her betrothed, Curiatius, enters. Having heard this last speech, he declares that she need no longer fear that he will either be defeated or will be one of the hated conquerors of Rome. Excited, Camilla doesn’t let him finish his explanation, jumping, rather, to the conclusion that he has fled the battle. She excuses him for doing this out of excess love for her. (Very notably, Camilla places love higher on the scale of values than most of the other characters in this play.) After her speech, Curiatius resumes, and clarifies matters. He asserts that he still loves honor, and would fulfilled his duty valiantly, though with a very heavy heart, had the circumstances made it necessary. But now, peace is at hand: a truce has been declared. On the brink of disaster, Alba’s leader (unnamed, and never directly present in the play) spoke out and called everyone to their senses. He pointed out just how linked through marriages the two tribes had become: why should the Albans and Romans, who are neighbors and virtually “one blood,” slaughter each other, weaken each other, while common enemies “Await with joy the time when the defeat Of one of us shall make the other one An easy prey, exhausted, half undone, — Triumphant, but in consequence thereof Stripped of the aid it hath itself destroyed.”? [Note that this speech is an ironic, if subtle, foreshadowing of the fate of the Curiatii in battle with the Curiatii.] The Alban ruler then proposes that each side choose three champions to do battle. Both sides will accept the outcome of this more limited battle as binding, but with the understanding that the winning side will not enslave the losers. Rather, the losing party will be “. . . subjects but not slaves, With no dishonor for such valiant warriors, No shame, no tribute, no constraint but this, To follow everywhere the victor’s banners. Thus our two cities shall become one realm.” The first act ends with all characters expressing optimism, relief, and gratitude. The fighters are free for two hours, at which time the choice of champions will be announced. Much briefer summaries of the action in Acts II through Act V: Near the beginning of Act II, Horatius and his counterpart on the Alban side, his brother in-­‐law Curiatius, are informed that each of them, with their respective two brothers, will be pitted against the other in a battle to settle the entire conflict: whichever set of three brothers wins will win complete victory for its people. The two men react differently to this news. Curiatius will be proud to represent his family and his people, but he already bemoans his fate, since, whether he wins or loses, he will share in a good measure of grief. (Again, remember how intertwined the Romans and Albans were: Curiatus, for instance, was the brother of Sabina and thus the brother-­‐in-­‐law of Horatius, with whom he dicusses this whole situation; in addition, he was the betrothed of Horatius’s sister Camilla.) Horatius, on the other hand, doesn’t acknowledge any place for softer emotions such as grief. All he seems to perceive is a once-­‐in-­‐a-­‐lifetime chance to win great glory by saving the Romans through brave combat. In contrasting their different outlooks, Curiatius says: “I thank the gods that I am not a Roman; That so I something human still may cherish.” That is to say, he sees Horatius’s over-­‐valuation of warfare, glory, heroism, and patriotic duty as so extreme that Horatius is somewhat in-­‐human. Camilla pleads with Curiatius not to do battle. Caught in an impossible situation, Curiatius renounces his love for Camilla and withdraws his betrothal, the idea being that, by minimizing the bonds between the two families, the fated combat between the two sets of brothers will be less “fratricidal”. (However, he’s not very convincing in all this, least of all in his declaration that he no longer loves Camilla.) Sabina comes on the scene, and quite dramatically suggests that Horatius and Curiatius will have to kill her in order to get at each other. In a sense, she’s saying that the proposed battle will, in any event, have the effect of killing her, such will be her grief no matter what the outcome and no matter who the victor: there can be no outcome that doesn’t break her heart. She presents herself as the sacrificial victim: by killing her, the men can avoid committing fratricide when they do battle. The men do not take her up on this offer. Old Horatius enters and tells the men that they must ignore the pleadings of their beloved, must flee the women and get ready to do battle. At one interesting point, Horatius pleads with his father to keep Camilla and Sabina indoors (their “proper place,” as one imagines he might put it) in order that their pleas, entreaties, and tears not mar the nobility of the upcoming battle. Some might think that the men “put them up to this” (crying and all) so that everyone would call off the battle, and he doesn’t want to risk anyone thinking he’s not willing (indeed eager) to fight to the death for Rome. Act III begins with Sabina agonizing over her divided loyalties and loves. Should she consider herself an Alban or a Roman? For which sides victory should she pray? The choice is impossible, inconceivable. Her friend Julia then enters, and updates her on the battle. At first, the news seems good. When onlookers from both sides see who the leaders have chosen to do battle, all agree that this is an outrage: how could the leaders have pitted these conjoined families against each other? Clearly, popular sentiment gives the six brothers (three vs. three Alban and Roman) a way out: no one wants to see them kill each other. But the brothers themselves insist: they will do their duty, and the battle will proceed. They agree to a delay, however, when some suggest that the gods should be consulted. While this is happening, Sabina and Camilla have a discussion: they compare their predicaments. Camilla feels hers is more acute, since Sabina should have vastly more loyalty to her husband, Horatius, than to a mere brother, Curiatius. She sees herself (Camilla) as more horribly caught, since she is only betrothed to Curiatius, although entirely committed to him in her own heart. This dialogue between Sabina and Camilla probes the values of each woman, and also shows the attempt to make sense of —
really to rank — different kinds of love, such as that of a brother as compared to that of a husband. Old Horatius comes with the news that the gods have said the battle should proceed. As the conversation proceeds, he differentiates between kinship and love, on the one hand, and mere friendship on the other. Eventually, Old Horatius makes a speech which concludes with a prophesy that underlines the importance of the upcoming battle to the fate of Rome: “The day will come, when, o’er the whole wide world, The name of Rome will be as thunder feared . . .” But, immediately after this speech, Julia enters with news that the Romans have been defeated. She’s heard that the two younger Horatii have been slain, dying noble deaths while valiantly fighting. However, witnesses say that Horatius himself fled the scene of battle, a coward. Old Horatius envies his younger sons’ heroic sacrifices, while cursing his eldest son, Horatius: “Mourn ye the third; ay, mourn the stigma vile His cowardice hath set upon our brows; Mourn the dishonour of our honoured house . . .” In fact, Old Horatius speaks of killing Horatius in order to wipe out this dishonor, this blot upon the family name of Horatius. The opening of Act IV finds Old Horatius still venting his wrath and still insisting that he’ll kill his son Horatius upon his return. Such action, he argues, will be within his rights as a father. But Valerius enters bearing important news. Julia’s information was accurate but highly incomplete. It turns out that Horatius’s flight from battle was merely a tactic. Seeing that all three Albans had been, to varying degrees, wounded, he calculated that he could readily defeat all three if only he could take on each singly. As he fled, the Alban brothers pursued him, but each at a different speed. Thus, each “overtook” him (in fact, unwounded himself, he allowed himself each time to be “caught”) at different times. Thus, singly and one at a time, he slew them all and is even now returning, victorious. Reinforcing the point that, to Old Horatius, conduct — in this case, one’s actions in battle — are paramount, Horatius’s father now reverses himself completely: his curses turn into odes of thanksgiving and praise: “My son! my joy! thou honour of our time! Thou unhoped saviour of a tottering state! Meet child of Rome and of Horatius! Stay of thy country, glory of thy house! Hi daughter, Camilla, reacts to the news quite differently. Having ridden an emotional roller coaster throughout the long ordeal both leading up to the battle and during it, with conflicting reports boding both well and ill for her beloved, she’s pretty much at the end of her tether. Now that the worst has happened and she has lost both her fiancé Curiatius and two of her brothers, she is in no mood to sing the praises of the cold remaining brother, the hero Horatius. She bemoans her fate: “On this fell day I’m bidden to rejoice, To laud the exploits of this conqueror, And kiss the hand that strikes me to the heart.” She declares that she’s now got nothing left to lose. Rather than avoid or praise her brother, then, she looks forward to provoking him, realizing that she might thereby bring about her own death. When Horatius returns, he is indeed angered by her words, which show that she is thinking about Curiatius and wondering how or what could ever avenge his death. Horatius insists that Camilla should only be feeling one emotion: joy at the Roman victory. She promises to “ceaselessly reproach” him “with [Curiatius’s] death. This doesn’t go over well with Horatius, and the siblings further enrage each other with more and more extreme statements, culminating in Camilla directly cursing Rome. This is too much for Horatius, who slays Camilla. Horatius, after killing her, cries out: “Thus may all traitors die That dare to mourn an enemy of Rome!” Sabina asks of Horatius that he slay her, too. She is, as she argues, not all that different from Camilla: she too mourns. But she cannot anger Horatius to this degree, and there is some reconciliation, although, after Horatius suggests that Sabina should “ . . . take me for guide, And my example make thy constant law,” she replies that she cannot quite live up to this request, as she explains in these lines: “But I pretend not to your Roman standard, Since to attain it I must be inhuman.” Still, she cannot goad Horatius into killing her. She then takes another approach, pleading with him to put her to death, if not in anger, then out of pity for her and her suffering. At this, Horatius flees, and Act IV draws to a close. Act V revolves around the fate of Horatius. Should he be put to death for killing his sister? Valerius argues that justice demands this. The Roman king, Tullus, wants to consider and reckon justice carefully: he wants to hear arguments on both sides: Let him [Valerius] proceed: I joy to render justice Freely to all, no matter when or where: For justice makes a king a demi-­god. My pity is that, fresh from glory’s field, Against your son justice can be invoked. Valerius then presents his case. (Remember that he loved Camilla, and wished to marry her; although she had pledged herself to Curiatius, he has never stopped loving her, and he seeks to avenge her as her lover.) Valerius sees his strongest argument as being the curse of sibling murder. The gods, he suggests, will wreak vengeance on all the Romans if they allow a brother to get away with killing his sister. This sort of crime is, he argues, one of the most vile and one that the gods hate with the greatest intensity. Horatius, given a chance to speak, asserts that he wants the same thing Valerius wants: he seeks his own death. But this is not because he sees himself a criminal or repents his slaying of Camilla. Rather, he wishes to die in full glory, having just rescued Rome in heroic style. After performing this great feat, the remainder of his life could only be an anticlimax, and he’d rather have people remember him before he might do something to dishonor himself. (Clearly, he doesn’t see what he did to his sister as being a blot on his honor!) “The like of me, sire, deem their glory fouled By the mere risk of shame, from which this hand Already had redeemed me utterly . . . “ Sabina enters and asks to be killed in place of Horatius. “The boon I sue for, and must win, would thus Double his agony while ending min. Oh think, sire! think what weight of woe mine is! Think in what pitiable plight I’m cast: What horror to live mated with a husband Whose ruthless steel has all my kindred slain; And what impiety to hate a husband Who so has served his kin, the State and you!” Old Horatius then enters his pleas and makes his arguments. He asks the king, Tullus, to consider that acts of “impulsion” were never considered crimes, and that Horatius killed Camilla impulsively, out of his great love of Rome, He further asks Tullus to consider his son’s heroic actions. Finally, he pleads that his one surviving child be allowed to survive, more or less out of pity of himself. Tullus reflects. He rejects the argument that the murder can be absolved because of its impulsive nature: that is not how he interprets Roman laws and traditions. However, he decides to spare Horatius because the “hero” has saved the Romans, and without Horatius great bravery, strength, and strategy, he himself would no longer be king of the Romans. Owing his own continued power to Horatius, he cannot bring himself to condemn Horatius with that power.