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Origins of the theory

Shakespeare in question

It would take until the 20th century for the idea that Corneille was the author of Moliere's works to emerge, in the mind of Pierre Louÿs. The idea was not so audacious: for several decades, some Englishmen and Americans had already claimed that a mere actor could not write a masterpiece, and thus that Shakespeare was not the author of his own plays. Several candidates were proposed, in particular the philosopher Bacon, the Count of Derby, the Count of Oxford, and it is this last candidate that has dominated for the past few decades. Even in France, the game of denouncing even the greatest works of western literature as shams had been going on for two centuries: a professor of rhetoric famous at the beginning of the 18th century, the Père Hardouin, had thus “demonstrated” that the bulk of Greco-Latin literature had been written by 13th century monks, that most of the writings of the Church Fathers had been forged by French jansenists of the 17th century, and that even the Divine Comedy was not by Dante, but by a forger from the late 14th or early 15th century. It is worth reading this text, which prefigures exactly the outrageous way of reasoning and “proving” adopted by Louÿs and his followers. Then, throughout the 19th century, certain scholars repeated that the Memoirs of Casanova were fake, and one scholar who wrote and gave his opinion on everything (including Moliere, unfortunately), Paul Lacroix (referred to as “le bibliophile Jacob”), declared that these Memoirs were in fact the work of Stendhal. As for Pierre Louÿs himself, he never ceased to play with pseudonyms and it is known that he became famous by passing off his Chansons de Bilitis as the personal translation of a forgotten Greek poetess that he had discovered.

In such a context, general and personal, the decisive element for Pierre Louÿs, seems to have been the publication in 1918, by the publisher Payot, of the first volume (the second appeared 1919) of a book by Abel Lefranc, professor at the Collège de France, entitled Sous le masque de William Shakespeare: William Stanley, VIe comte de Derby [Beneath Shakespeare's Mask: William Stanley, 6th Count of Derby]. In effect, the coincidence is remarkable: Abel Lefranc's two volumes appeared one after the other in 1918 and 1919, and it is in August 1919, in the journal l'Intermédiaire des Chercheurs et des Curieux, that Louÿs published his first article entitled, “Corneille est-il l'auteur d'Amphitryon” [“Is Corneille the Author of Amphitryon?”]. The clamour caused by Lefranc's publications gave Louÿs — at that time incapable for the past several years to bring success to any of his projects, out of money, more or less forgotten —, the confidence needed to remake a name and some semblance of fame for himself. And he succeeded, for the scandal that his theory provoked was of a scale altogether different from Lefranc's theory on Derby. While this latter author attacked a foreign writer whose literary paternity had been under scrutiny for a long time, Louÿs was attacking a French icon, no doubt the principal icon of the time, and he was the first to do so. The consequence of his weak arguments, however, was that there was little echo of his theory once the initial scandal had passed; a situation which led Louÿs, very much diminished mentally, to isolate himself in a sort of delirious brooding in which he progressively came to attribute an ever greater portion of the French literature of the 17th century to Corneille.

Curiously, no one takes Louÿs's entire “Corneille theory” seriously, and his current followers are careful to skip over the fact that, in the end, he saw the hand of Corneille in thousands of poems and even in Charles Sorel's Francion. But the fascination for the most provocative part of the théorie Corneille persists which, though it may not be as remarkable as the theories advanced by the Père Hardouin, has the good fortune of concerning itself with Moliere, one of the most famous French authors, and of being spread on the internet.


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