The Works of Monsieur de St. Evremond/A Dissertation on Racine’s Tragedy, call’d The Grand Alexander

To Madam Bourneau.

Since I have read the Grand Alexander, the old age of Corneille does not so much alarm me; and I am not so apprehensive that the writing of Tragedies will end with him. However, I could wish, that before his death he would adopt the Author of this Piece, and, like a tender father, give a right cast to the Judgment of one, who alone deserves to be his Successor. I wish that he would give him a good taste of Antiquity, which he enjoys to so much advantage; that he would make him enter into the Genius of those dead Nations, and know judiciously the Character of Heroes that are now no more. This is, in my opinion, the only thing which is wanting in so great a Genius. Some of his Thoughts are strong and bold; his Expressions equal the force of his thoughts: but then you must give me leave to say, he is not acquainted with Alexander, or Porus. By his performance one would think, that he had a mind to give the world a greater idea of Porus, than of Alexander, in which it was not possible for him to succeed : for the History of Alexander, as true as it is, has much of the air of a Romance in it; and for an Author to make a greater Hero than him, is to affect to deal in fiction, and rob his Work, not only of the credit of truth, but the agreeableness of probability. Let us not therefore imagine any thing greater than this Conqueror of the World, otherwise our imaginations will range too far, and soar too high. If we would give other Heroes an advantage over him, let us take from them the Vices which he had, and give them the Virtues which he had not : let us not make Scipio greater, altho there never was amongst the Romans, a soul so aspiring as his; he should be made more just, more dispos’d to do good, more moderate, more temperate, and more virtuous.

Let not those that are most partial to Cesar, against Alexander, alledge in his favour, either his passion of Glory, greatness of Soul, or firmness of Resolution. These Qualities are so conspicuously shining in the Grecian, that to have had them in a higher degree, would have been to have had them to excess; but let them make the Roman more wise in his undertakings, more dextrous in his affairs, one that better understood his own interests, and was more master of himself in his passions.

A very nice Judge of the merits of Men, is contented to compare to Alexander, the man whom he thought worthy of the highest character : he durst not attribute to him greater qualities, but took away from him the bad : magno illi Alexandro, sed sobrio neque iracundo simillimus1.

Perhaps these considerations influenc’d our Author in some measure : perhaps, to make Porus the greater man, without diving into fables, he thought it convenient to lessen his Alexander. If that was his design, ’tis impossible for him to have executed it better; for he has made him so moderate a Prince, that a hundred others may be preferred to him, as well as Porus. Not but that Hephestion gives us a fine idea of him; that Taxilus and Porus himself, speak advantageously enough of his greatness : but when he appears himself, he has not force enough to sustain it; unless, out of modesty, he has a mind to appear an ordinary Man amongst the Indians, in a just repentance, for having been ambitious to pass for a God amongst the Persians. To speak seriously, I can here discern nothing of Alexander, but his bare name; his Genius, his Humour, his Qualities, appear to me no where. I expect to find in an impetuous Hero such extraordinary motions, as should excite my passion; but I find a Prince of so little spirit, that he makes no manner of impression upon me. I imagin’d to find in Porus, a greatness of soul, which would be somewhat more surprizing to us; an Indian Hero should have a different character from one of ours. Another Heaven, if I may so speak, another Sun, and another Earth, produce other Animals, and other Fruits : the Men seem to be of another make, by the difference of their faces, and still more, if I dare say so, by a distinction of Reason : both their Morals, and a Wisdom peculiar to their Climate, seem there to over-rule and guide another sort of Men in another World. Porus, however, whom Quintus Curtis describes an utter stranger to the Greeks and Persians, is here purely French. Instead of transporting us to the Indies, he is carried into France; where he is so well acquainted with our humour, that he seems to have been born, or at least to have pass’d the greatest part of his life among us.

They that undertake to represent some Hero of antient times, should enter into the Genius of the Nation to which he belong’d, of the time in which he liv’d, and, particularly, into his own. A Writer ought to describe a King of Asia, otherwise than a Roman Consul : one should speak like an absolute Monarch, who disposes of his Subjects as his Slaves; the other like a Magistrate, who only puts the Laws in execution, and makes their Authority respected by a free People. An old Roman should be describ’d furious for the publick good, and moved by a fierce sense of Liberty, different from a flatterer of Tiberius’s time, who knew nothing but interest, and abandon’d himself to the Slavery of the age. We should not make the same Description of Persons of the same condition and the same time, when History gives us different characters of them. It would be ridiculous to make the same Description of Cato and Cesar, Catiline and Cicero, Brutus and Mark Anthony, under pretence, that they liv’d at the same time, in the same Republick. The spectator, who sees these Antients represented upon our Theatres, follows the same Rules to judge exactly of them, as the Poet doth to describe them well; and the better to succeed in this, he removes his mind from all that he sees in fashion; he endeavours to disengage himself from the humour of his own time; and renounces the inclination of his own Nature, if ’tis opposite to that of the Persons represented : for the Dead cannot know our Manners, but Reason, which is of all times, may make us know theirs.

One of the greatest Faults of our Nation, is to make all center in it, even to that degree, as to call those very persons Strangers in their own Country, who have not exactly either our air or manners. Upon this score we are justly reproach’d, for not knowing how to esteem things, but by the relation they have to us; of which Corneille made a sad, but undeserv’d experiment, in his Sophonisba. Mairet, who describ’d his unfaithful to old Syphax, and in love with the young and victorious Massinissa, pleased the whole world, in a manner, by hitting upon the inclination of the Ladies, and the true humour of the Courtiers. But Corneille, who makes the Greeks speak better than the Greeks, the Romans than the Romans, the Carthaginians than the Citizens of Carthage speak themselves : Corneille, who is almost the only person that has a true taste of Antiquity, has had the misfortune not to please our age, for representing the true Character of Asdrubal’s Daughter. Thus, to the disgrace of our Judgments, he that hath surpass’d all our Authors, and has in this respect, perhaps, even surpass’d himself, by allowing to those great names all that was their due, could not oblige us to do him the same piece of justice; being enslaved by custom, to set a value on those things the present mode recommends; and little dispos’d by reason, to esteem those qualities and sentiments, which are not agreeable to our own.

Let us then conclude, after so long a Reflection, that Alexander and Porus ought to have preserv’d their Characters entire; that it was our business to view them upon the banks of Hydaspes, such as they were; not theirs to come to the banks of the Seine, to study our Nature, and speak our Thoughts. The speech of Porus should have had something more unusual, and extraordinary in it. If Quintus Curtius has made himself admir’d for his Oration of the Scythians, where he gives them thoughts and expressions natural to their Nation, this Author might have render’d himself as much admir’d, by representing to us the rarity of a Genius of another World.

The different conditions of these two Kings, in which both of them behav’d themselves so gallantly; their Virtue differently exercis’d in the variety of their fortune, bespeak the attention of Historians, and oblige ’em to describe them to us. The Poet, who was at liberty to add to the truth of things, or at least to set them off with all the ornaments of his Art, instead of using colours and figures to embellish them, hath taken away much of their beauty; and whether the scruple of saying too much of them, did not suffer him to say enough; or whether ’tis owing to the barrenness of his Invention, he falls vastly short of the truth. He might have enter’d into their most private thoughts, and have drawn from the bottom of those great Souls, as Corneille hath done, their most secret motions; whereas he scarce goes so far as their bare outside, little curious to remark well what appear’d and little prying to discover what lay conceal’d.

I could have wish’d, that our Author had laid the stress of his skill, in giving us a just representation of those great men; and that in a Scene worthy of the magnificence of the subject, he had carried the Greatness of their Souls as high as it was possible. If the Conversation of Sertorius and Pompey2 had such an influence upon our minds, what should not we expect from that of Porus and Alexander, upon a subject so uncommon? I could likewise have wish’d, that the Author had given us a greater idea of this War. And, indeed, the passage of the Hydaspes is so strange, that it is hardly to be conceived; a prodigious Army on t’other side the River, with terrible Chariots and Elephants, at that time formidable; the Lightning, Thunder, and Tempests, which occasion a general confusion; and, above all, when so large a River must be pass’d over in Skins; in more, a hundred dreadful things, which astonish’d the Macedonians, and which made Alexander say, that at last he had found a danger worthy of himself; all this, I say, ought to have raised the imagination of the Poet, both in the Description of the Preparations, and the Recital of the Battle.

However, he scarce mentions the Camps of these two Kings, whom he robs of their true Character, to enslave them to imaginary Princesses. All that is either great or valuable amongst men, the defence of a Country, the preservation of a Kingdom, don’t excite Porus to the Battle; he is encourag’d to it by the beautiful eyes of Axiana alone, and the design of his Valour, is only to recommend himself by it to her. Thus Knight-Errants are described, when they undertake an adventure; and the finest Genius, in my opinion, that Spain has produc’d, never makes Don Quixot enter the lists, before he has recommended himself to Dulcinea.

A maker of Romances may model his Heroes according to his fancy. Neither is it of great importance, to confine one’s self religiously to the true Character of an obscure Prince, to whose reputation we are perfect strangers : but those great Persons of Antiquity, so famous in their age, and better known amongst us than the living themselves; the Alexanders, the Scipios, and the Cesars, ought never to lose their Characters in our hands : for the most injudicious spectator perceives that he is offended, when an Author ascribes Faults to them, which they had not; or when he takes from them Virtues, which had made upon his mind an agreeable impression. Their Virtues, once establish’d, interest our self-love near as much as our own real merit; and ’tis impossible to make the least alteration in them, without making us feel this change with violence. Above all things, we ought not to injure the reputation of their Genius in the War, to render them more illustrious in their Amours. We may give them Mistresses of our own inventing, we may mix passion with their Glory : but let us take care of making an Anthony of an Alexander; and not ruin a Hero, confirm’d for so many ages, merely to favour a Lover of our own creating.

To banish Love out of our Tragedies, as unworthy of Heroes, is to take away that secret charm which unites our Souls to theirs, by a certain tie that continues between them : but then to bring them down to us by this common sentiment, don’t let us make them descend beneath themselves, nor destroy what they possess above men. Provided this discretion be observ’d, I dare affirm, that there are no subjects, where so universal a passion as Love is, may not be introduc’d naturally, and without violence. Besides, since Women are as necessary in the representation, as Men, we should give them frequent occasions to speak of that which is most agreeable to their nature, and which they talk better than any thing else. Take away from some of the Fair Sex the expression of amorous thoughts, and from others those private familiarities, into which the mutual confidence they have in each other leads them, and you reduce them, for the most part, to very tedious Conversations. Most of their motions, as well as their discourses, should be the effects of their Passion; their Joy, their Sorrow, their Fears, and their Desires, ought to have a little tincture of Love, in order to be taking.

If you introduce a Mother rejoicing for the happiness of her dear Son, or afflicting herself for the misfortune of her poor Daughter, her satisfaction, or her grief, will make but a weak impression upon the spectators. To affect us with the tears and complaints of this Sex, shew us a Mistress that bewails the death of a Lover; and not a Wife, that laments the loss of a Husband. The grief of Mistresses, which is tender and endearing, has a far greater influence upon us, than the affliction of an inveigling, self-interested Widow, who, as sincere as she happens to be sometimes, always gives us a melancholy idea of Funerals, and their dismal Ceremonies.

Of all the Widows that ever appear’d upon the Theatre, I can endure none but Cornelia3; because, instead of making me think of fatherless Children, and a Wife without a spouse, her affections truly Roman, recal to my mind, the idea of antient Rome, and of the great Pompey.

This is all that may reasonably be allow’d to Love upon our Theatres : let our Writers be contented with this, so far even as the severest Rules of the Drama will allow of it; and let not its greatest favourers believe, that the chief design of Tragedy, is to excite a tenderness in our hearts. In Subjects truly Heroick, a true Greatness of Soul ought to be maintain’d above all things. That which would be pleasing and tender in the Mistress of an ordinary man, is often weak and scandalous in the Mistress of a Hero. She may entertain her self, when alone, with those inward conflicts she feels in her self; she may sigh in secret for her uneasiness, and trust a beloved and virtuous Confident, with her fears and griefs : but, supported by her glory, and fortified by her reason, she ought always to remain mistress of her passions, and to animate her Lover to great actions by her resolution, instead of disheartning him by her weakness.

’Tis, indeed, an indecent sight, to see the Courage of a Hero softned by tears and sighs; but then, if he haughtily contemns the grief of a beautiful Person that loves him, he rather discovers the hardness of his Soul, than the resolution of his Heart.

To avoid this inconvenience, Corneille has no less regard to the Character of his illustrious Ladies, than to that of his Heroes. Emilia encourages Cinna to execute their design4, and answers all the scruples that oppose the assassinating of Augustus. Cleopatra hath a passion for Cesar, and leaves nothing undone to preserve Pompey5 : she had been unworthy of Cesar if she had not declar’d against the base treachery of her Brother; and Cesar undeservirig of her, if he had been capable of approving so infamous an action. Dirce, in Oedipus6, vies greatness of Courage with Theseus, turning upon her self the fatal explanation of the Oracle, which he would apply to himself, out of love to her.

But, above all, we ought to consider Sophonisba7, whose Character might be envy’d by the Romans themselves. We ought to behold her sacrifice the young Massinissa, to old Syphax, for the good of her Country : we ought to see her hearken as little to the scruples of Duty, in quitting Syphax, as she had done to the sentiments of Love, in losing Massinissa : we ought to see her subject the strongest Inclinations, all that binds, all that unites us, the most powerful ties, the most tender passions, to her love for Carthage, and her hatred for Rome. In a word, we ought to see her, when being utterly abandon’d, she’s not wanting to her self; and when those hearts, which she had gain’d to save her Country, fail’d her expectations, to owe to her self the last support to preserve her Glory and her Liberty.

Corneille makes his Heroes speak with so exact a Decorum, that he had never given us the Conversation of Cesar with Cleopatra8, if Cesar had believ’d that he had any work upon his hands at Alexandria, as beautiful as it is, even to that degree, as to make an amorous discourse agreeable even to indifferent persons that should hear it. He had certainly let it alone, but that the Battle of Pharsalia was fully won, Pompey dead, and all his party dissipated. As Cesar then believ’d himself to be the master of all, an Author might justly enough make him offer a Glory of which he was in full possession, and a Power, in all probability, well settled : but when he discover’d Ptolemy’s Conspiracy; when he beheld his Affairs in an ill condition, and his own Life in danger, he is no more a Lover, that entertains his Mistress with his passion, but a Roman General, that acquaints the Queen with the danger that threatens them, and leaves her in haste, to provide for their common security.

It is therefore very ridiculous, to busy Porus wholly with his Love, just before a great Battle, which was to decide his destiny; nor is it less preposterous to make Alexander quit the field, when the Enemy begin to rally. One should have introduc’d him impatient to find out Porus, and not make him leave the fight with precipitation, only to pay a visit to Cleophile; he that was never troubled with any such amorous disorders, and who never thought a Victory complete, till he had either destroy’d or pardon’d. That which is harder upon him still, is, that he is made to lose much on one side, without gaining any thing on t’other : he is as indifferent a Hero in Love, as in War; and thus the History is disfigur’d, without any ornament to the Romance : we find him a Warriour, whose glory cannot inflame our courage; and a Lover, whose passion cannot affect our tenderness.

This is what I had to say of Alexander and Porus. If I have not regularly tied my self to an exact Criticism, ’tis because, instead of entering into particulars, I rather chose to enlarge my self upon the Decorum that ought to be observ’d in the discourses of Heroes, and the difference of their Characters; upon the good and ill usage of the tenderness of Love in Tragedies, which is rejected too severely by those, that ascribe every thing to the motions of Pity and Fear; and is too nicely pursu’d by those, that have no relish, but for these sorts of sentiments.


1. Velleius Paterculus, meaning Cesar. Hist. Lib. II. cap. 41.

2. See Corneille’sSertorius, Act III. Scene I.

3. See Corneille’s Pompey.

4. See Corneille’s Cinna, Act I. Scene III.

5. In the Tragedy of Pompey.

6. In the Tragedy of Oedipus.

7. See Corneille’s Sophonisba.

8. See Corneille’s Pompey, Act IV. Scene III.