Like any other author, the tragic dramatist cannot fail to be influenced in what he writes by the world round about him: by current events and social conditions but also by happenings in the near or distant past, recorded in the history books. Yet it is difficult, indeed dangerous, for the modern reader to try to draw parallels between literature and what we at present know of contemporary events, between characters in fiction and named individuals who existed in real life at the time. For one thing, although recent scholarship has begun to reveal the full diversity of life in seventeenth-century France, its varied periods and social patterns, there are still enormous gaps in both our general and our detailed knowledge of the age. Then again, literary history itself is being constantly updated. Until the early 1960s, for example, some critics tried to see the action of Corneille’s tragedy Cinna as a comment by the author on Louis XIII’s handling of a peasant revolt in Normandy in the second half of 1639, just months before the supposed date of the play’s first performance. The latest scholarship places the appearance of Cinna in the summer of 1642, making any connection with the Norman nu-pieds even more improbable. The same general problem arises in attempts to link fictional situations with events recorded in past rather than recent history, although paradoxically the difficulty here is perhaps not so acute.
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