Querelle Du Cid
In the years directly following this break with Richelieu, Corneille produced what is considered his finest play. Le Cid (al sayyid in Arabic; roughly translated as 'The Lord'), is based on the play Mocedades del Cid (1621) by Guillem de Castro. Both plays were based on the legend of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (nicknamed 'El Cid Campeador'), a military figure in Medieval Spain.
The original 1637 edition of the play was subtitled a tragicomedy, acknowledging that it intentionally defies the classical tragedy/comedy distinction. Even though Le Cid was an enormous popular success, it was the subject of a heated argument over the norms of dramatic practice, known as the Querelle du Cid or The Quarrel of Le Cid. Cardinal Richelieu's Académie Française acknowledged the play's success, but determined that it was defective, in part because it did not respect the classical unities of time, place, and action (Unity of Time stipulated that all the action in a play must take place within a twenty-four hour time-frame; Unity of Place, that there must be only one setting for the action; and Unity of Action, that the plot must be centred around a single conflict or problem). The newly-formed Académie was a body that asserted state control over cultural activity. Although it usually dealt with efforts to standardize the French language, Richelieu himself ordered an analysis of Le Cid.
Accusations of immorality were leveled at the play in the form of a famous pamphlet campaign. These attacks were founded on the classical theory that the theatre was a site of moral instruction. The Académie's recommendations concerning the play are articulated in Jean Chapelain's Sentiments de l'Académie française sur la tragi-comédie du Cid (1638). Even the prominent writer Georges de Scudéry harshly criticized the play in his Observations sur le Cid (1637). The intensity of this "war of pamphlets" was heightened severely by Corneille's boastful poem Excuse À Ariste, in which he rambled and boasted about his talents, while Corneille claimed no other author could be a rival. These poems and pamphlets were made public, one after the other, as once 'esteemed' playwrights traded slanderous blows. At one point, Corneille took several shots at criticizing author Jean Mairet's family and lineage. Scudéry, a close friend of Mariet at the time, did not stoop to Corneille's level of 'distastefulness', but instead continued to pillory Le Cid and its violations. Scudéry even stated of Le Cid that, "almost all of the beauty which the play contains is plagiarized."
This "war of pamphlets" eventually influenced Richelieu to call upon the French Academy (l'Académie Française) to analyze the play. In their final conclusions, the Academy ruled that even though Corneille had attempted to remain loyal to the unity of time, "Le Cid" broke too many of the unities to be a valued piece of work.
The controversy, coupled with the Academy's ruling proved too much for Corneille, who decided to return to Rouen. When one of his plays was reviewed unfavorably, Corneille was known to withdraw from public life. He remained publicly silent for some time; privately however, he was said to be "troubled and obsessed by the issues, making numerous revisions to the play."