by Pierre Corneille
Translated by Sharon Nordley (1990)
Polyeucte, a Christian martyr
Nearque, a fellow believer
Pauline, Polyeucte’s wife
Felix, her father and governor of Armenia
Severe, her former love
Stratonice, confidant of Pauline
Fabian, confidant of Severe
Albin, assistant to Felix
Act One, Scene One
NEARQUE: What? You are halted by a woman’s dreams? Such trivial matters trouble your noble soul! Your heart, proved so often in battle, is alarmed by a peril dreamt up by a woman!
POLYEUCTE: I know that it’s only a dream, and I know the small significance a man should attach to its extravagance, which from a confused mass of nightly vapors forms vain objects that vanish when we wake. But you do not know what a woman is! You don’t know the power she has over a soul when, after a long time under her spell, the fires of marriage have only just been lit. Pauline, plunged senselessly into grief, fears and already believes to see my death she’s dreamed. She sets her tears against the plan I make and endeavors to keep me from leaving the palace. While I despise her fear, I yield to her tears. She makes me pity her without filling me with alarm, and my heart, tender without being intimidated, cannot despise the eyes to whom it belongs. Is time so pressing, Nearque, that it is necessary to be insensitive to the sighs of a beloved? Let us spare her anxiety by a slight delay so that we may do peacefully that which troubles her today.
NEARQUE: But are you fully assured that you will have enough days or enough strength? And God, who holds your very soul and life in His hand, does He promise that your prayers will have the strength for this tomorrow? He is all-righteous and all-good, but His grace does not always fall with the same efficacy; after a time what was slow progress may be lost. Grace leaves its arrow deep in the heart, but our hearts, grown hard, dismiss it and push it aside. The arm that poured it out grows sparing, and the holy zeal which should bring good falls more rarely or accomplishes nothing more. That which spurred you to desire baptism languishes already, ceasing to be the same; for nothing but some sighs which you heard, its flame diminishes and will disappear.
POLYEUCTE: You do not know me well, Nearque. The same zeal burns in me, and the desire grows as efficacy subsides. These tears that I look upon with a husband’s eye leave me in heart as Christian as you. But concerning this holy baptism, which washes away our sins in saving water, purging our soul and opening our eyes, giving us back the innocence we once had in heaven, even though I prefer it to the greatness of an empire as the supreme and sole good to which I aspire, to satisfy a righteous and holy love, I believe it can be put off for another day at least.
NEARQUE: And so the enemy of mankind deludes you. What he can’t take by force he gets by trickery. Jealous of the good intentions he labors to shake, he puts them off when he can’t break them. He will disrupt your plans with obstacle upon obstacle, today by tears, tomorrow by something else. This dream filled with dark visions is only the first of his illusions. He uses all, prayer and threat; he attacks constantly and never lets up. He can hope in what seems hopeless, seeing a pledge we put off for tomorrow as half-broken. Break up his first thrusts; let Pauline cry. God doesn’t want a heart dominated by the world, one that looks back and, doubting its decision, listens to another voice when He calls.
POLYEUCTE: Must a person love no one because he is given to God?
NEARQUE: We can love all. He allows it and commands it. But to speak candidly, this Lord of lords desires the first love and the first honor. As nothing equals His supreme grandeur, one must not search after anything but Him, neglecting for His sake wife and wealth and rank, risking all for His glory, even shedding all our blood. How far you are from this perfect zeal that you need and that I wish for you! I can hardly speak for the tears in my eyes. Polyeucte, today when they hate us in every place, when they believe they serve the state by persecuting us, when Christians are the subjects of the most cruel tortures, how will you be able to overcome the trials if you can’t resist a few tears?
POLYEUCTE: Your words do not disturb me. The pity that grieves me sits well in the most noble heart, and has no weakness. On men like myself, Nearque, a glance is very strong. Such men who do not fear death fear to hurt another. If it is necessary to face the most cruel penalties and find in them charm and delight, your God, whom I do not yet dare to call mine, will give me the strength in making me Christian.
NEARQUE: Make haste then to become one.
POLYEUCTE: Yes, I run there, dear Nearque; I burn to bear the glorious mark. But Pauline is distressed by it and cannot consent to let me go as long as this dream troubles her.
NEARQUE: Your return will be more delightful to her. In an hour or so you will wipe away her tears. The joy of seeing you again will seem sweeter to her the more she has wept for such a dear husband. Let us go, they wait for us.
POLYEUCTE: Calm her fears then, and soothe the grief that imprisons her soul. Look, she’s coming.
POLYEUCTE: I cannot.
NEARQUE: You must. Flee an enemy who knows your weakness, who finds it easily, who injures with a glance, and whose fatal blow gives you pleasure as it kills.
Act One, Scene Two
POLYEUCTE: Let us flee, since we must. Farewell, Pauline, farewell; I will return in an hour at most.
PAULINE: What is so pressing that you must leave? Honor? Life?
POLYEUCTE: It is much more.
PAULINE: What, then, is this mystery?
POLYEUCTE: You will know one day. I leave you reluctantly, but I must.
PAULINE: Do you love me?
POLYEUCTE: I love you, with heaven as my witness, a hundred times more than myself, and yet . . .
PAULINE: Yet my anguish cannot move you! You have secrets I may not know! Some proof of love! For the sake of our marriage, give my sighs this one day.
POLYEUCTE: A dream causes you fear.
PAULINE: Its forebodings are vain, I know; but I love you, and I’m afraid.
POLYEUCTE: Fear no evil from one hour of absence. Farewell; your tears hold too much power over me. I already feel my heart ready to turn, and I may resist only by fleeing. [Polyeucte and Nearque exit]
Act One, Scene Three
PAULINE: So, ignore my tears, run and hurl yourself in front of the death that the gods have shown me! Follow that deadly instrument of your ill fate who, it may be, delivers you into the hands of assassins. You see what times we live in, Stratonice: there’s our power over the spirits of men, there’s what we are left, and there’s the meaningless result of the love we offer and the vows we make. While they are only lovers, we are sovereign, and until the conquest they treat us like queens; but after the wedding they become the kings.
STRATONICE: Polyeucte lacks no love for you. If he doesn’t confide in you completely now, if he leaves despite your tears, it is because of wisdom. Without afflicting yourself by it, presume with me that it is more fitting for him to conceal his reasons. Assure yourself by his nature that he has good intentions. It is good for husbands to hide some things from us, to be open other times and not to abase themselves by always giving us an account of their every step. Man and wife have only one heart, but this heart has diverse functions, and the law of marriage that holds you together does not command that he tremble when you shake. What causes you fear cannot break him. He is Armenian and you are Roman; you should know that our two nations do not have the same ideas on these subjects. A dream is considered trivial in our minds; it leaves us neither hope, nor fear, nor care. However, it is received with authority in Rome as a faithful mirror of death.
PAULINE: Whatever little credit it may get in your land, I believe that your fear would equal mine if such horrors had accosted your spirit, or if I even told you of it.
STRATONICE: One’s problems are often relieved in the telling.
PAULINE: Listen, but first I must tell you more so that you may better understand such a sad tale. You must learn of my weakness and of my other loves. A woman of honor can admit without shame these feelings that reason has overcome. It is in these assaults that her virtue shines, for one doubts a heart never tested in battle. In Rome where I was born, this ill-fated vision of a Roman knight captured my heart. His name was Severe—pardon my sighs that are still pried from my desire by a name so dear.
STRATONICE: Is he the one who, at the expense of his own life, swam to save your emperor Decius from his enemies? The one who in dying snatched victory from their grasp and made fate turn from Persia to Rome? He whose body, among so many sacrificed for their master, could not be found or even recognized? Him to whom Decius finally for his fine exploits had empty tombs erected?
PAULINE: Alas! It was he, and never has our Rome produced a greater heart, nor seen a more honorable man. Since you know of him, I won’t tell you more. I loved him, Stratonice; he deserved it well. But what use is merit when riches are lacking? The one was great in him; the other was meager. Too strong an obstacle, a virtuous lover too rarely triumphs over a father.
STRATONICE: The worthy theme of a rare constancy!
PAULINE: Say rather of an unworthy and foolish resistance. Whatever fruit a daughter may pluck from this, it’s only virtue for she who wants to fail. Even with the great love I had for Severe, I waited for a spouse from the hand of my father, always ready to accept. My reason never admitted to my eye’s sweet treason. He possessed my heart, my desires, my thoughts. I didn’t hide from him how much I was hurt. We sighed together and cried over our misfortune. But in place of hope, there were only tears, and despite sighs so soft, so fond, my father and my duty were unyielding.
In the end I left Rome and this perfect lover to follow my father in his government here; and he, in despair, enlisted in the army to seek the great glory of a noble death. The rest you know: my arrival in this place caused me to meet Polyeucte, and I was pleasing to him. As he was the chief of nobility here, my father was delighted that he took me as his wife, and by this alliance assure himself of being more feared and more esteemed. He approved his love and decided for the marriage; and I, as I saw myself destined for his bed, gave by duty to his affection all that the other had by love. If you can doubt this, judge by the fear by which you see me stricken this sad day.
STRATONICE: It’s enough to show how much you love him. But what dream has been able to alarm you so?
PAULINE: I saw this ill-fated Severe last night, sword in hand, anger blazing in his eyes. He wasn’t covered in tatters that a desolate spirit wears up from the grave. He wasn’t pierced by those glorious wounds that, cutting short his life, assured his memory. He seemed triumphant, like Caesar on his chariot entering Rome victoriously. Naturally, seeing him startled me, but more so his words: “Bring to whom you will the favors that are due me, ingrate! When this day is done, weep over the husband you preferred to me.” I shook at his words; my soul was troubled.
Then an ungodly assembly of Christians, as if to fulfill this fatal promise, threw Polyeucte at the feet of his opponent. I called my father immediately to help him—alas! this part leaves me completely without hope—I saw my father, knife in hand, enter with his arm raised to pierce my husband’s heart. Then my great grief burned away these images; the blood of Polyeucte satisfied their rage. I know neither how nor when they killed him, but I know that they all had a hand in his death. That is my dream.
STRATONICE: Very sad, it’s true; but your soul must resist these terrors. The vision alone can create fear but not a justified dread. Can you fear a dead man? Can you fear a father who loves your husband, whom your husband reveres, and whose good reason gave you to him to make him a strong and sure support?
PAULINE: He told me as much and laughed at my fear; but I fear the plots and spells of the Christians, and that their flock gathered around my husband might avenge all the blood my father has shed.
STRATONICE: Their sect is foolish, impious, and sacrilegious, using magic in their sacrifice; but their foolishness only goes so far as smashing altars. They only attack the gods, not mortals. Whatever torture we use on them, they suffer without a sound and die with joy; and ever since they have been treated as enemies of the state, they can’t even be charged with one murder.
PAULINE: Hush, my father comes.
Act One, Scene Four
FELIX: My daughter, how your dream has also plunged me into strange fears! How I dread the fate that approaches.
PAULINE: What sudden alarm touches you?
FELIX: Severe is not dead.
PAULINE: What? But . . .what evil does his living hold for us?
FELIX: He is the favorite of Emperor Decius.
PAULINE: After saving him from the hands of his enemies, the hope of such a high rank was his due. Fate, so often unfortunate to noble hearts, sometimes resolves to do them justice.
FELIX: He is coming.
PAULINE: He’s coming here!
FELIX: You will see him.
PAULINE: This is too much—how can you know this?
FELIX: Albin met him in the countryside. A crowd of courtiers accompany him, clearly showing his rank and influence. But Albin, tell us again what his people told you.
ALBIN: You know what happened that glorious day, how his loss became so fortunate for us, when the emperor Decius, freed by his hand, rallied his already discouraged troops, even though Severe himself was overcome by their numbers. You know the honors that were bestowed on his spirit when they could not find him among the dead.
The king of Persia had removed his body. A witness to his great deeds and noble courage, this ruler wanted to see Severe. They put him in the monarch’s tent where, wounded and dying as he was, he made a thousand jealous. There he began to show signs of life. That noble monarch was thrilled, and in his joy, despite his recent defeat, he honored the valor of the arm that caused it. He took care of Severe with a secret cure, and his health was perfect in a month. He offered dignities, alliances, treasures, making a hundred efforts to win him over, to no avail. Respecting his noble refusal, the king sent an exchange proposal to Decius.
At once the emperor, overwhelmed with joy, offered the Persian his brother and a hundred chiefs of his choice. And so the brave Severe returned to camp receiving the due of his high virtue. The favor of Decius was a worthy price for it. Once again we fought, taken by surprise, yet this misfortune served to increase his glory. He alone reestablished order and took the victory, so glorious and complete that they offered us tribute, and we made peace. The emperor, who showed an infinite love after this great success, sent him to Armenia. He comes to bring news and to worship the gods with sacrifice.
FELIX: O gods! To what a state my fortune is reduced!
ALBIN: This is what I learned from a man in his company, and I ran to tell you of it.
FELIX: He comes without a doubt, my daughter, to marry you. Offering a sacrifice isn’t important to him. It’s a false pretense created by love.
PAULINE: That may be; he loved me dearly.
FELIX: What will keep him from resentment? And how far will he carry his vengeance, a just anger with great power? He will destroy us, my daughter!
PAULINE: He is too noble.
FELIX: In vain you wish to deceive your unfortunate father. He will destroy us! Regret kills me for not having loved his virtue alone! Ah, Pauline, you obeyed me too well. Your heart was good; your duty betrayed it. How favorable your rebellion would have been, that it would have saved me from this horrible state! If some hope remained to me, it is gone now, unless it is in the absolute power you had over him. Use the love that holds him in my favor, and cure this illness which I first caused.
PAULINE: Ah, me! That I should see such a powerful warrior again and expose myself to eyes that pierce my heart! My father, I am a woman, and I know my weakness. I already feel my heart go to him, and undoubtedly, despite my marriage vows, I will breathe some sigh unworthy of us both. I refuse to see him.
FELIX: Calm yourself.
PAULINE: He is still worthy of my love, and I am still a woman. With the power that his eyes have had over me, I cannot guarantee myself of my virtue. I will not see him.
FELIX: You must see him, my daughter, or you will betray your father and family.
PAULINE: I must obey, since you command it, but see the perils you expose me to.
FELIX: Your virtue is known to me.
PAULINE: It will certainly conquer; that isn’t what troubles my soul. I fear this hard fight and these powerful temptations that already cause my senses to revolt. But since it is necessary to fight one I love, allow me to arm against myself and a little time to prepare to see him.
FELIX: I will receive him beyond the walls. Recall your shaken strength, and remember that you hold our fate in your hands.
PAULINE: Yes, I go to conquer my feelings, again to become the victim to your commands. [they exit]
Act Two, Scene One
SEVERE: While Felix performs the sacrifice, may I seize this moment to see Pauline and give to her beautiful eyes the high homage that others offer to the gods? I haven’t hidden that she is what brings me; all else is a pretense to calm my pain. I come to sacrifice, but it is to her beauties that I surrender all my desires.
FABIAN: You will see her, my lord.
SEVERE: Ah, what perfect joy! This dear beauty consents to see me. But do I still have some power over her soul? What remains of love are still there? What pain, what joy does my coming cause her? May I hope for everything from this happy meeting? For I would sooner die than take advantage of Decius’ orders, that I have to marry her. They are for Felix, not for conquering Pauline. My heart was never rebellious to her wishes; if my ill luck has made her change her mind, I will control myself and claim nothing.
FABIAN: You will see her, that’s all I can say.
SEVERE: Why are you trembling, and what makes you sigh? Doesn’t she love me anymore? Please explain.
FABIAN: Do you trust me, lord? Don’t see her ever again! Bring the honor of your affection to a more worthy place. You will find plenty of other women in Rome, and with your high degree of power and honor, the most noble female will hold your love as a blessing.
SEVERE: That my thoughts should sink so low that I should hold Pauline unequal to my destiny! She has behaved better; I must imitate her. I only love my blessings if by them I am worthy of her. I’ll see her, Fabian; your words are a nuisance to me. Let’s go lay my high honor at her feet. I have found it happily in combat, in seeking a death worthy of her love, and so this rank and favor are hers. I have nothing that she should not hold.
FABIAN: No, again I implore you—don’t see her again.
SEVERE: Ah, enough! Explain yourself. Did she seem cool when you delivered my request?
FABIAN: I am afraid to tell you; she is . . .
SEVERE: Support me, Fabian! This is a great shock and hits me harder and harder as it sinks in.
FABIAN: Lord, what has become of your rich courage?
SEVERE: The noblest heart is overwhelmed by such sorrows. The most energetic virtue loses all vigor, and when a soul is infested by such a fire, death troubles it less than such surprises. I am no longer myself when I hear these words—Pauline is married!
FABIAN: Yes, for fifteen days now. Polyeucte, a lord of the nobles of Armenia, tastes infinite sweetness in his marriage.
SEVERE: At least I can’t blame her for making a bad choice. Polyeucte is renowned and from a royal bloodline. Small consolation for an incurable woe! Pauline, will I see another hold you? O gods who sent me back today despite myself, O fate who gave hope to my love, take back the favor you lent me, and give me the death you stole. Let’s see her all the same, and in this sad place gain death in saying goodbye to her. May my heart take the memory of her face to the grave; may my final breath do her homage.
FABIAN: Lord, consider . . .
SEVERE: All is considered. What harm can a despairing heart fear? Hasn’t she consented?
FABIAN: Yes, lord, but . . .
SEVERE: It doesn’t matter.
FABIAN: This loving grief will only become stronger.
SEVERE: This isn’t any injury I wish to heal. I only want to see her, to sigh and to die.
FABIAN: Without a doubt you will lose yourself in her presence. A lover who loses all has no more restraint. He follows his passion in such a meeting and breathes nothing but insults and curses.
SEVERE: Judge me differently; my respect still endures. As violent as it is, even my despair loves her. What reproach is permitted to me? What can I accuse her of when she promised nothing? She is not false, she is not frivolous. Her duty, her father, and my misfortune betrayed me. A little less luck a little sooner would have won Felix and Pauline and would have saved me. Too fortunate but too late, I have lost her. Let me see her then, and die.
FABIAN: Yes, I will assure her that in your extreme sorrow you are strong enough to conquer yourself. Like me, she feared these first emotions that are uprooted from true lovers by an unseen loss, which are violent enough without the object of the pain being present.
SEVERE: Fabian, I see her.
FABIAN: Lord, remember . . .
SEVERE: Alas! She loves another, who is her husband.
Act Two, Scene Two
PAULINE: Yes, lord, I love him and do not excuse myself. Though all others fool and beguile you, Pauline has a noble heart and speaks openly. The rumors of your death didn’t cause your loss. If the gods had left my marriage up to me, I would have given myself to your virtues alone, and all the rigors of your former lot would have been as nothing compared to your merit. In you I found enough distinguishing merit to prefer you to even the most noble monarch, but my duty imposed other laws on me, to take such a lover as my father would choose. Even when you had added the splendor of a crown to the great power that valor gives you, even if I had seen you, even if I had hated him, I would have sighed, but I would have obeyed. My reason, reigning over my passion, would have condemned my sighs and crushed my hate.
SEVERE: How fortunate you are that a few sighs easily cure all your sorrows! And so, constant queen of your desires, the greatest changes find you resolute. From the strongest passion you can transform your spirit to indifference and disdain. Your firmness easily makes your favor yield to scorn and your love to hate. O, that a little of your mood or will would ease the pains of this battered heart! A sigh, a tear of scattered regret would have soon healed me of my loss. My reason could then have conquered weakened love, going from indifference to oblivion, and my passion, following your example, could find its happiness in the arms of another. O, too worthy love who has charmed me too much, is this how you love? Did you ever love me?
PAULINE: I have made it all too evident, Severe. If in my soul I could extinguish the remains of my love, gods, how I would avoid such awful torture! My reason subdues my emotions, it’s true; but whatever authority it has taken, it does not reign, it tyrannizes; and though the surface may appear perfectly calm, there’s nothing but turmoil and revolt within. I don’t know what kind of spell still draws me to you. Your merit is great, even if my will is strong. I see it, the same as ignited my love, all the more strongly petitioning for my hand now that it is surrounded by power and glory and victory everywhere you go. I know best your worth, and that it has not let down the noble hope I had put in you. But the same duty that won in Rome, that puts me under another man here, still so strongly pushes away your advances that it tears my soul apart, but does not shake my will. This same virtue, cruel to our desires, you praised even as you cursed it. Continue to complain of it, but praise its rigor that triumphs over both you and my heart; and see that a less firm and sincere duty would not have been worthy of the love of the great Severe.
SEVERE: Ah, lady, excuse my blind despair that knows no more than excessive sorrow. This just duty’s most sublime effort I called inconstant and criminal. I pray you, shade from my desolate emotions the extent of my loss and of your worth; and out of pity hiding these rare virtues that increase my desire even as they separate us, show me the faults that may in their turn weaken my sorrow and my love.
PAULINE: Alas! This virtue, though invincible in the end, lets too much of a too sensitive soul be seen. These tears bear witness to it, as well as these incurable sighs uprooted from cruel memories of our love’s fire. Difficult signs of my beloved’s presence against which my duty has too little defense! But if you esteem this virtuous duty, leave me its glory and see me no more. Spare me the flames I regretfully put out. Spare me these sad meetings which only inflame your grief and mine.
SEVERE: Must I deprive myself of the one joy left to me?
PAULINE: Save yourself from a meeting fatal to us both!
SEVERE: This is the repayment of my love! The fruit of my labors!
PAULINE: It is the only cure for our troubles.
SEVERE: I prefer to die; cherish my memory.
PAULINE: I prefer to be healed. My honor would be stained.
SEVERE: Ah, since your honor has produced the decree, my grief must bow to its interest. Is there nothing that this honor will not obtain from me? It gives me back the care I owe to my own. Adieu! I go to search in the midst of battle the immortality that a noble death brings, and worthily fulfill by a glorious death the noble height of my first exploits, if after this mortal wound of fate I have yet enough life to search for death.
PAULINE: And I, whose torment increases at seeing you, will avoid the temple sacrifice. Alone in my room, enclosing my regret, I will offer secret prayers for you.
SEVERE: May the just gods, content with my ruin, fill with happiness and many days the life of Pauline and Polyeucte!
PAULINE: May Severe find, after so much sorrow, a reward worthy of his valor!
SEVERE: He found it in you.
PAULINE: I depended on a father.
SEVERE: O duty that brings me loss and despair! Farewell too virtuous and too charming object of my love!
PAULINE: Farewell, too sorrowful and too perfect lover. [Severe exits]
Act Two, Scene Three
STRATONICE: I pity you both; I still shed tears. But at least your spirit is free from alarm. You see now that your dream was meaningless. Severe doesn’t come armed for vengeance.
PAULINE: If you pity me, at least let me breathe between sorrows! At the height of my pain you renew my fear. Allow a little rest to come to my troubled spirit, and don’t weigh me down with redoubled evils.
STRATONICE: What? You’re still afraid?
PAULINE: I tremble, Stratonice, and although I am frightened with little reason, this unjustified fear continually produces the image of the evils I have seen this night.
STRATONICE: Severe is noble.
PAULINE: Despite his restraint, the image of Polyeucte, bloody, still afflicts my sight.
STRATONICE: You yourself are witness to the prayer he offered for him.
PAULINE: I also believe he would support Polyeucte, but be that true or not, his stay here is still dreadful to me. No matter what his virtue may dispose him to do, he is powerful, he loves me, and came to marry me.
Act Two, Scene Four
POLYEUCTE: Too many tears have been shed; it’s time that they be dried, that your pain be ceased and that your fears be ended. Despite the false ideas sent by your gods, I am alive, my lady, and you see me again.
PAULINE: The day is still long and what worries me the most is that half the dream already comes true: I thought Severe was dead, and I have seen him here.
POLYEUCTE: I know, but it does not concern me. I am in Melitene, and whatever Severe may be, your father commands here, and they respect me here. I don’t think that one may reasonably fear treason from a heart like his. They told me he was visiting you, and I came to give him the honor he deserves.
PAULINE: He just left me very sad and confused, but I won from him the promise that he will see me no more.
POLYEUCTE: What? You already suspect me of jealousy?
PAULINE: I would be doing all three of us too great an insult. I protect myself from his disturbing presence. The firmest virtue avoids pitfalls. He who puts himself in harm’s way wants to find his doom. To speak to you openly, ever since his true worthiness won my love, his presence has always had the power to charm me. Lest I shame myself by being overcome, it is better to suffer in resisting, and although virtue triumphs over these fires, the victory is painful and the battle shameful.
POLYEUCTE: O virtue too perfect and duty too sincere, how many tears you must have cost Severe! How happy you make me at the expense of a beautiful love, and how sweet you are to my lover’s heart! The more I see my faults and the more I watch you, the more I admire you . . .
Act Two, Scene Five
CLEON: Lord, Felix summons you to the temple. The victim is chosen and people are on their knees. The sacrifice only awaits you.
POLYEUCTE: Go, we will follow you. Are you coming, my lady?
PAULINE: Severe fears seeing me; it stirs up his love. I will keep my word to him and see him no more. Farewell. You will see him there; remember his power and his great influence.
POLYEUCTE: Enough; all his credit brings me no fear. And as I know his nobility, we will combat each other only in civility. [Pauline exits]
Act Two, Scene Six
NEARQUE: Where do you think you’re going?
POLYEUCTE: To the temple, where I have been called.
NEARQUE: What! You join in the prayers of pagans? Have you already forgotten that you are a Christian?
POLYEUCTE: You who converted me, do you remember it well?
NEARQUE: I abhor false gods.
POLYEUCTE: And I detest them.
NEARQUE: I hold their worship to be unholy.
POLYEUCTE: And I hold it to be fatal.
NEARQUE: Then flee their altars.
POLYEUCTE: I want to overturn them and knock them down or die trying. Let’s go, my dear Nearque, let’s go before the eyes of men, braving the idolatrous and showing ourselves for who we are. It is the expectation of heaven; we must fulfill it. I thank the God you have made known to me for this opportunity He so quickly created, where already in His goodness, ready to crown me, He pleases to test the faith He has just given me.
NEARQUE: Your zeal is too ardent; let it temper some.
POLYEUCTE: One cannot have too much for the God one reveres.
NEARQUE: You will only find death.
POLYEUCTE: For Him I seek it.
NEARQUE: And if your heart should be shaken?
POLYEUCTE: He will be my support.
NEARQUE: He does not command us to rush to death.
POLYEUCTE: The more voluntary, the more noble.
NEARQUE: It suffices, without searching for it, to wait and suffer.
POLYEUCTE: One suffers weakly who does not dare to offer oneself.
NEARQUE: But death is certain in the temple.
POLYEUCTE: The palm of martyrs is prepared in heaven.
NEARQUE: It must be won by a holy life.
POLYEUCTE: My sins, if I should live, could deprive me of it. Why give to chance what is assured by death? When it opens heaven, can it seem so hard? I am completely Christian, Nearque. The faith I have received aspires to fulfillment. He who flees believes but weakly and has a dead faith.
NEARQUE: Take care of your life; it is important to God. Live to protect the Christians here.
POLYEUCTE: The example of my death will strengthen them more.
NEARQUE: You want to die, then?
POLYEUCTE: Do you so enjoy living?
NEARQUE: I cannot hide my difficulty in following you. I fear falling under the horror of the tortures.
POLYEUCTE: He who walks with assurance has no fear of falling. God will give in need His infinite strength. He who fears he might deny Him has done so already in his heart. He believes he may do so and doubts his faith.
NEARQUE: He who fears nothing presumes too much of himself.
POLYEUCTE: I expect all of His grace and nothing of my weakness. But as far as you urged me, must I now urge you? Where does this chill come from?
NEARQUE: Even God feared death.
POLYEUCTE: He offered Himself, nevertheless. Follow His holy act; let us raise up altars to Him on piles of idols. We must, as you said, for Him neglect wife, goods and rank, risk all for His glory and spill all our blood. Alas! What have you done with that perfect love that you wished for me and that I wish for you? If it still remains in you, are you not jealous that so recent a Christian as I show more of it than you?
NEARQUE: You have just come from baptism, and that which drives you is His grace that is not yet weak from sin, still as it was given, whole, acting fully; and all seems possible in its raging fire. But this same grace is diminished in me, and worn by thousands of ceaseless sins, acts with so much languish in great circumstances that all seems impossible to its lack of vigor. This unworthy apathy and these weak excuses are the punishment for my sins, but God, who one should never mistrust, gives your example to strengthen me! Let’s go, dear Polyeucte, let’s go before the eyes of men, braving the idolatrous and showing ourselves for who we are. May I give you the example of suffering as you gave me of offering yourself!
POLYEUCTE: At this blessed zeal that heaven sends you, I recognize Nearque again, and weep for joy. Let us lose no more time. The sacrifice is ready; let us go there to uphold the true God. Let us shine light on their fatal blindness. Let us break these gods of stone and metal. Abandon our days to this holy zeal. Let God triumph; may He depose the rest!
NEARQUE: Let us make His glory flash in the eyes of all and answer with zeal all that He may ask of us. [they exit]
Act Three, Scene One
PAULINE: How these fleeting worries and confused shadows present their shifting images to my eyes! Sweet peace, for which I dare not hope, how long your divine ray is in clearing them! My troubles beget thousands of tremors that burn in my heart. No hope flows there to which I dare to cling. My spirit, embracing all it imagines, sometimes sees my bliss, sometimes my ruin, and follows their vain ideas with so little result that it cannot fully hope or fear. Severe constantly blurs my vision. I hope in his virtue; I fear his jealousy; and I dare not think that Polyeucte with an indifferent eye may view his rival here. As hatred is natural between two rivals, this meeting could easily end up in a fight. The one sees in the hands of the other that which he believes is his due; the other sees a desperate man who cannot attempt too much. Whatever high reason may rule their hearts, one will suspect envy, the other resentment. The shame of an affront that each believes to see in the other may consume all their patience, forming anger and defiance, and seizing both the husband and the lover, may betray them to their hatred despite themselves.
But how I create a strange situation, how I misjudge Polyeucte and Severe! As if the virtue of these honored rivals could not free them from these common faults! Their souls, masters of them both, are of too high an order for such base actions. They will meet as noblemen in the temple. But alas! They will see each other, and that is enough. What help is it for my husband to be in Melitene if Severe is armed against him with the Roman eagle, if Felix commands here and, fearing this favorite of the emperor, already repents of his choice of my husband? My little hope flickers weakly and gives way to dread. What should strengthen it only spirits it away. Gods! May my fears prove to be unfounded!
Act Three, Scene Two
PAULINE: But let me know the outcome, Stratonice. How did this extravagant sacrifice end? Did these noble rivals see each other at the temple?
STRATONICE: Ah, Pauline!
PAULINE: Have my prayers been deceived? I see a bad omen on your face. Did they fight?
STRATONICE: Polyeucte, Nearque, the Christians . . .
PAULINE: Speak now—the Christians . . .
STRATONICE: I cannot!
PAULINE: You give my soul strange unrest.
STRATONICE: You will never have a more just cause.
PAULINE: Have they killed him?
STRATONICE: That would be a small thing. All your dream is true; Polyeucte is no more.
PAULINE: He’s dead!
STRATONICE: No, he lives, but worthless tears! That great heart, that divine soul is no longer worthy of life or Pauline. No longer is he the husband so charming in your eyes. He is the common enemy of the state and of the gods, evil, infamous, a rebel, a traitor, a scoundrel, a coward, a parricide, an atrocious plague to all good people, a sacrilegious pagan—in short, a Christian.
PAULINE: That word would have sufficed without this barrage of insults.
STRATONICE: Are these false names for Christians?
PAULINE: It is as you say, if he embraces their faith; but you speak to me of my husband.
STRATONICE: Think only of the God he worships.
PAULINE: I love him by duty; this duty still remains.
STRATONICE: He now gives you a reason to hate him. He who betrays all our gods could also betray you.
PAULINE: I would still love him even if he betrayed me; and if such a love astounds you, learn that my duty in no way depends on his. He may fail, if he wants; I must do mine. What? If he loved another, should I be so disposed to follow his example of a foolish desire? Christian though he may be, I have no horror of it. I love him and I hate his error. But what resentment does my father show of it?
STRATONICE: A hidden rage, an excessive anger; despite that, there still remains some love for Polyeucte shown in some pity. He does not relish carrying out justice on him, and would torture false Nearque alone.
PAULINE: What? Nearque is in this?
STRATONICE: Nearque seduced him. This is the unworthy fruit of their old friendship. This traitor, moreover, despite Polyeucte tore him from your arms and brought him to baptism. That is the great, mysterious secret that your curious love could not extract from him.
PAULINE: You blamed me then for being too troublesome.
STRATONICE: I did not foresee such misfortune.
PAULINE: Before abandoning my soul to grief, I must try the power of my tears. I hope that, as wife or as daughter, they may conquer a husband or pierce a father. If they lack power over both, I will only take counsel of my despair. However, tell me what they did at the temple.
STRATONICE: It’s such an impious act as has never been, I can’t think about it without trembling, and I fear to sin by even recounting it. The priest had finally gotten silence and turned his face to the east, when they burst out in disrespect. At each moment of the ceremony they displayed their foolishness to each other’s envy, loudly mocking the holy rites, treating the gods we invoked with scorn. Everyone muttered and Felix was offended, but both carried on with even more irreverence. “What?” said Polyeucte raising his voice, “do you worship gods of wood or stone?” Spare me here the retelling of the blasphemies they both spewed out even against Jupiter, adultery and incest being the least.
“Hear me,” he then said, “O people, hear me. The God of Polyeucte and Nearque, of the earth and of the sky is absolute king, sole independent being, sole master of destiny, sole eternal principle, and sovereign end. We must thank the God of the Christians for the victories He gives to our emperor Decius. He alone holds the outcome of battles in His hand. He can lift him up or He can lay him low. His goodness, power, and justice are immense. He alone punishes; He alone repays. You worship powerless gods in vain.” With these words he threw himself upon the wine and the incense, after having thrown the holy vases to the floor without fear of Felix, without fear of Jupiter’s thunder, with the same folly he ran to the altar. Gods! Has anyone ever seen anything like it? The statue of the most powerful god we saw hurled to our feet, broken, the rites disturbed, the temple profaned, the flight and the clamor of an aroused people who fear being overwhelmed by heavenly wrath. Felix . . . but here he is to tell you the rest.
PAULINE: How dark and full of emotion his face is! How sad and indignant he seems!
Act Three, Scene Three
FELIX: How dare such insolence be shown! In public! In my presence! He will die for it, the traitor!
PAULINE: Allow your daughter to embrace your knees.
FELIX: I speak of Nearque, not your husband. As unworthy as he may be of the name of son-in-law, my soul still holds some feeling for him. The extent of his crime and of my discontent has not snuffed out the love that made me choose him.
PAULINE: I expected nothing less from a father’s kindness.
FELIX: I could have sacrificed him in my just anger. You can’t ignore the fullness of horror that rose from his audacious impiety. You must have heard it from Stratonice.
PAULINE: I know that Nearque is to see death.
FELIX: Polyeucte will know better what choice to make after he sees his seducer’s punishment. At the bloody spectacle of a friend whom he must follow, the fear of dying and the desire to live regrips a soul so forcefully that he who sees the end ceases wishing for it. The example is more eloquent than the threat. This insane zeal will soon turn cold, and we will see his troubled heart ask for forgiveness for such impiety.
PAULINE: Can you hope that he may have a change of heart?
FELIX: He should, at Nearque’s expense.
PAULINE: He should, but alas! Where do you send me to, and what awful risks must my husband run if I must finally hope in his inconstancy rather than in a father’s kindness?
FELIX: I have already been too gracious, Pauline, by letting him avoid death by prompt repentance. I should give equal punishment for the same crime, and in making a distinction between these two offenders, I betray justice to fatherly love. I make myself a criminal for him, and I expected from you more thanks than complaints.
PAULINE: What do I thank you for that gives me nothing? I know the disposition and spirit of a Christian. He will dwell in stubbornness to the end. Asking for his repentance is to ordain his death.
FELIX: He holds his salvation in his hand; let him consider it.
PAULINE: Make it without condition.
FELIX: He can win it.
PAULINE: Don’t abandon him to this foolish sect.
FELIX: I abandon him to the laws which I must respect.
PAULINE: Is this how a son is supported by a father?
FELIX: May he do as much for himself as I do for him.
PAULINE: But he is blind.
FELIX: He wants to be. He who cherishes his error doesn’t want to see it.
PAULINE: My father, in the name of the gods . . .
FELIX: Do not invoke them, gods whose interests demand his death.
PAULINE: They hear our prayers.
FELIX: Well, then, let him pray!
PAULINE: In the name of the emperor whose place you hold . . .
FELIX: I have his power in hand, committed to me to use against his enemies.
PAULINE: Is Polyeucte one?
FELIX: All Christians are rebels.
PAULINE: Don’t listen to these cruel maxims. In marrying Pauline he made himself your blood.
FELIX: I see his error and no longer his rank. When a crime against the state is mixed with sacrilege, neither blood nor friendship has any privilege.
PAULINE: What extreme harshness!
FELIX: Less than his crime.
PAULINE: Ah, too true an outcome of my dreadful dream! Do you see that you lose your daughter with him?
FELIX: The gods and the emperor are more than my family.
PAULINE: The loss of us both can’t stop you?
FELIX: I have both the gods and Decius to fear. But we have nothing yet for which to mourn. Do you think he will continue in his blindness? If he seems to run quickly to his doom, it is only the beginning zeal of a new Christian.
PAULINE: If you still love him, abandon this hope that he change beliefs twice in one day. Outside of Christians having more resolve, you expect too much weakness from him. This isn’t a childish error that his soul embraced without examination. Polyeucte is a Christian because he wanted to be, and brought to the temple a resolved will.
Act Three, Scene Four
FELIX: Albin, is it done?
ALBIN: Yes, lord. Nearque has paid for his crime.
FELIX: And Polyeucte saw his life cut short?
ALBIN: He saw it, but alas, with an envious eye. Instead of recoiling, he burned to follow him, and his heart, instead of shaking, reaffirmed itself.
PAULINE: I told you as much. Once again, my father, if my respect could ever satisfy you, if you have prized it, if you have cherished it . . .
FELIX: You have too much love, Pauline, for an unworthy husband.
PAULINE: I have it by your hand. My love is innocent; it is the glorious esteem of your choice. I have, in order to accept it, extinguished the most beautiful fire that has ever merited the vows of a well-born soul. In the name of that blind and prompt obedience that I’ve always rendered to the laws of my birth, if you could have all power over me, over my love, let me in turn have something over you! By your just authority, now too dreadful to behold, by my deep feelings that I had to crush, do not remove your gifts. They are precious in my sight; they have cost me enough to be dear.
FELIX: You impose too much. While I may have a tender heart, I show pity only at my price. Make better use of your just pain. To try to touch me despite myself is a waste of time and tears. I wish to be master of my pity, and I wish all to know that I disavow it when it is forced from me. Prepare yourself to see this miserable Christian, and make your effort after I have made mine. Go; do not further anger a father who loves you. Work to win your husband from himself. Soon I will have him come here. Meanwhile, leave us. I wish to speak to him.
PAULINE: Please allow . . .
FELIX: Leave us alone, I say. Your pain offends me even as it afflicts me. Apply all your cares to winning Polyeucte. You will achieve more pressing me less. [Pauline exits]
Act Three, Scene Five
FELIX: Albin, how did he die?
ALBIN: As a brute, as a pagan, braving the tortures, disdaining life, without regret, without a sound, in stubbornness—in short, as a Christian, with blasphemy on his lips.
FELIX: And the other?
ALBIN: As I said, nothing touches him. Far from being defeated, his heart is higher. He had to be pulled away from the scaffold. They led him to the prison where he is now, but you are still far from reducing him.
FELIX: How wretched am I!
ALBIN: Everyone pities you.
FELIX: No one knows the evils my heart is afflicted with. Thought upon thought disturbs my soul, care upon care worries it. I feel love and hate, fear and hope; joy and sorrow touch it in turn. I come upon feelings you wouldn’t believe. Feelings of violence, feelings of pity, feelings of nobility that would not dare to act, even low feelings, and those that make me blush. I love this wretch whom I have chosen as my son-in-law; I hate the blindness that has recently overcome him. I deplore losing him and while wishing to save him, I have the honor of the gods to uphold. I fear their fire and the fire of Decius. My charge goes with it as does my life. And so at times I risk my life for him, and at times I lose him to save myself.
ALBIN: Decius will excuse a father-in-law’s love. Moreover, Polyeucte is of revered blood.
FELIX: His law is strict about punishing Christians, the greater the example, the more dangerous. No distinction is made for a public offense; and though a crime within the family is passed over, by what authority can one punish in others what one allows in his own house?
ALBIN: If you dare not regard his rank, write to Decius that he might order it.
FELIX: Severe would destroy me if I did so. His hatred and his power are my greatest fears. If I delayed punishment of such a crime, though he be noble, though he be generous, he is still a man in love whom I have spurned. His spirit, indignant at my disdain that put to death his love of Pauline, from the crown of Decius would obtain my ruin. All seems to be permissible in revenging an insult, and the opportunity tempts the most forgiving. It may be—this suspicion is not impossible—that he rekindles some hope in his heart; and believing that he will see Polyeucte punished, he recalls a love once banished with great pain. Judge if his anger, here relentless, would make me innocent of saving the guilty, and if he would spare me, seeing his plans aborted a second time by my kindness.
Shall I tell you of an unworthy thought, base and cowardly? I snuff it out, it rekindles; it entices and chagrins me. Ambition continuously presents it to me, and all I may do is curse it. Polyeucte is the support of my family here; but if by his sin Severe would marry my daughter, I would thereby acquire a much stronger support that would put me up a hundred times higher than I am now. My heart, despite itself, takes a wicked joy in it; but let heaven sooner strike me in your sight than let me consent to thoughts so base, than let my glory dare to come to so great a contradiction!
ALBIN: Your heart is too kind, and your soul is too noble. But are you set on punishing this offense?
FELIX: I am going to the prison to make my best effort to conquer that spirit by the fear of death; and then we will see what Pauline may do.
ALBIN: What will you finally do if he continues to be stubborn?
FELIX: Do not press me so. In such a dreadful case I have yet to decide; I know not what to choose.
ALBIN: I must warn you, in faithful service, that the town already rises up in his favor and cannot surrender to the rigor of the laws its last hope and the blood of its kings. I hold that even his prison is not well secured. I left a battalion surrounding it, but I fear that it may be forced.
FELIX: He must be taken from there then, and be brought here to assure us of it.
ALBIN: Then bring him out, and with the hope of grace appease the fury of the people.
FELIX: Let us go; and if he persists in his Christianity, we will dispose of him without anyone’s knowledge. [they exit]
Act Four, Scene One
POLYEUCTE: Guards, what do you want of me?
CLEON: Pauline asks for you.
POLYEUCTE: O struggle that I fear above all! Felix, in my prison I triumphed over you. I laughed at your threat and I looked on you without fear. Now you take up your greatest weapon for your revenge; I feared your butchers much less than her tears. Lord, who sees the perils that I run, redouble your help in my pressing need, and you, Nearque, still rising from victory, lend your hand from heaven to your friend to conquer such a strong enemy.
Guards, would you dare to do me a good service? Not to lift me from the rigors of punishment—I do not plan to escape—but as it will suffice for three to guard me, the other would oblige me by going to find Severe. I believe that this can be done without danger. If I could tell him an important secret, he would live happier and I would die content.
CLEON: If you command me, I will run there in earnest.
POLYEUCTE: If I am unable, Severe will repay you. Go, lose no time, and return promptly.
CLEON: I will return within the moment, lord.
Act Four, Scene Two
POLYEUCTE: Sweet spring, rich in miseries, beguiling beauty, what do you want from me? Shameful attachment of the flesh and of this world, why do you not leave me when I have left you? Away, earth’s pleasures which war with me. All your enticement must in a moment pass; as it has the shine of glass, it also has fragility. So then, do not hope that I will long after you. In vain you display your powerless charms. In vain you show me throughout this vast empire God’s pompous and flourishing enemies. In His turn, He spreads out great reversals by which the proud are overthrown, and the swords He holds over the most favored guilty ones are more unavoidable the less their blows are expected.
Bloodthirsty tiger, unmerciful Decius, this God has abandoned his own too long. See the fearful end of your reign. Scythia will avenge Persia and the Christians. A little more yet, and your time is come. Nothing can protect you from it, and the lightning, ready to fall and crack the sky, can no longer be held back by an attempt to repent. Let Felix sacrifice me to your anger. Let a more powerful rival blind his eyes. Let him be, at the expense of my life, his father-in-law, and let him command in these places as your slave. I consent, or rather aspire, to my ruin.
World, for me you no longer hold anything. In a heart so completely Christian I carry a godly flame, and I do not see Pauline but as an obstacle to my good. Holy, worshipful blessings of heaven, you fill a heart which can receive you. The soul’s possessed of your sacred charms cannot conceive of anything else that may move them. You promise much and give more. Your blessings are faithful, and the happy death which I await serves you only as a quiet means to introduce us to the parting that will bring us eternal bliss.
It is you, O fire divine, that nothing can extinguish, who is going to make me see Pauline without fear. I see her, but my heart burning with a holy zeal doesn’t taste the appeal that once charmed it, and my eyes lit by heavenly lights no longer find in hers their customary grace.
Act Four, Scene Three
POLYEUCTE: Madame, what plan has made you ask for me? Is it to fight against me or with me? This noble effort of your perfect love, does it come to my aid or to my destruction? Does hate or love bring you here, as my enemy or as my dear wife?
PAULINE: You have no enemy but yourself. You alone hate yourself while all else love you. You alone fulfill all that I dreamed. Do not wish yourself lost, and you will be saved. To whatever extreme your crime may go, you are innocent if you pardon yourself. Consider the blood from which you have come, your noble acts, your rare qualities; cherished by all the people, esteemed by the prince, son-in-law of the province’s governor, not to mention bearing the name of my husband. It is a joy for me that isn’t as great for you, but after your exploits, after your birth, after your power, see our hope and don’t abandon to the hand of an executioner that which promises so fair a fate to our just prayers.
POLYEUCTE: I consider much more; I know my advantages and the hope that noble hearts base on them. In the end they only hope for passing blessings, troubling cares, dangers that follow. Death tears them from us, fate plays with them, today on the throne, tomorrow in the mire. Their dazzling splendor causes so much envy that few of your Caesars have enjoyed them for long. I have ambition, but it is more noble and more beautiful. This grandeur will perish; I want an immortal one, an assured blessing, without measure and without end, beyond envy, beyond fate. Is this too dear a price, my poor, sad life that I one day must lose anyway, that brings joy for only a fleeting moment, that cannot assure me of what follows it?
PAULINE: These are the ridiculous dreams of Christians; this is how far their lies have charmed you. All your blood is very little for so sweet a blessing, they say! But, is this blood for you to dispose of? You only have life as an inheritance. The very day that gave it to you mortgaged it at the same time. You owe it to the prince, to the people, to the state.
POLYEUCTE: For them I would like to lose it in battle. I know the joy and the glory that is in that. They boast in the memory of Decius’s ancestors, and that name, still precious to you Romans, puts the empire in his hands six hundred years later. I owe my life to the people, to the prince, to the crown, but I owe much more to the God who gives it to me. If it is a glorious fate for a man to die for his prince, how much more to die for his God!
PAULINE: What God?
POLYEUCTE: Softly, Pauline. He hears your words, and He is not a God like your empty gods, unfeeling and deaf, impotent, mutilated, of wood, marble or gold as you wish. He is the Christian’s God, my God, and your God, and the earth and the sky know no other.
PAULINE: Worship Him in spirit, and testify to nothing.
POLYEUCTE: So that I would be both idolater and Christian!
PAULINE: Pretend for but a moment; let Severe leave, and give my father’s kindness a chance to act.
POLYEUCTE: My God’s kindness is greater to be cherished. He lifted me from the evils I would have run, and without leaving me room to turn back, His favor crowns me as I enter the course. From the first fresh breath He has guided me to the door, and from baptism He sends me to death. If you could only understand the insignificance of life, and the pleasures that follow this death! But what use is it to speak of these hidden treasures to souls that God has not yet touched?
PAULINE: Tormentor! It is time that my sorrow burst forth, and that a just reproach overwhelm your ungrateful soul! Is this your brilliant love? Are these its feelings? Do you have even the smallest affection for me? I didn’t speak to you of the deplorable state in which your death will leave your wife. I thought that love would have spoken to you enough, and I didn’t want to force sentiment. But this love, so strong and so well deserved that you promised me and I gave you, when you want to leave me, when you make me die, can it not pluck from you a tear or a sigh? You leave me, ingrate, and you do it with joy! You do not even hide it; you want me to see it, and your head, numb to my sad appeals, imagines a bliss without me! Is this then the disgust that marriage vows bring? Once given, I am now hideous!
PAULINE: How difficult was that alas! Yet, if it began a welcome repentance, as forced as it was, I would find it sweet! But take heart! He is moved; I see tears flowing.
POLYEUCTE: Yes, I cry, and would to God that by shedding them this hard heart could finally be pierced! The deplorable state I leave you in richly deserves the tears my love has for you, and if one can feel some pain in heaven, I will cry for your extreme troubles. But if in that land of glory and light, this good and just God should accept my prayer, if He will hear a husband’s love, He will shed the light of day on your blindness. Lord, I must save her by your grace. She has too many virtues not to be a Christian. It pleased you to make her with too much merit for her not to know and not to love you, for her to live as an unfortunate slave to pagan fires and under their grievous yoke die as she was born.
PAULINE: What are you saying, wretch? What do you dare to hope?
POLYEUCTE: That which with all my blood I would like to purchase.
PAULINE: But rather . . .
POLYEUCTE: Defense is made in vain. This God touches hearts when least expected. This blissful moment has not yet come; it will come, but I do not know the time.
PAULINE: Leave this fantasy and love me.
POLYEUCTE: I love you; much less than my God, but much more than myself.
PAULINE: In the name of this love, do not abandon me.
POLYEUCTE: In the name of this love, condescend to follow in my steps.
PAULINE: It’s not enough to leave me; you also want to lead me astray?
POLYEUCTE: It’s not enough to go to heaven; I want to guide you there.
PAULINE: What imagination!
POLYEUCTE: What heavenly truth!
PAULINE: What strange blindness!
POLYEUCTE: Eternal light!
PAULINE: You prefer death to my love!
POLYEUCTE: You prefer the world to divine blessing.
PAULINE: Go, heartless man, and die; you never loved me.
POLYEUCTE: Live happily in the world, and leave me in peace.
PAULINE: Yes, I’m going to leave you; trouble yourself no more. I go . . .
Act Four, Scene Four
PAULINE: But what brings you to this place, Severe? Could one believe that so noble a heart could come here to condemn this miserable man?
POLYEUCTE: You treat one of so rare merit poorly, Pauline. He only makes this visit at my request. I have done you wrong, lord. May you forgive me in my captivity. Possessor of a treasure of which I was not worthy, permit that before my death I assign it to you and leave the rarest virtue to our eyes that a woman can have ever received from heaven in the hands of the most valiant and honest man that the earth has adored and that Rome has seen born. You are worthy of her, she is worthy of you. Do not refuse her from her husband’s hands. If he separated you, his death will reunite you. May a once known love so fine not diminish. Return your heart to him, and you receive her faith. Live happily together and die like me. This is the blessing Polyeucte desires for you. Let them lead me to death. I have nothing more to say. Guards, come; it is finished. [he exits]
Act Four, Scene Five
SEVERE: In my amazement I am bewildered by his blindness. His resolve is so unparalleled that I have a hard time believing my ears. A heart that loves you (but what heart however low could have known you and not loved you?), a man loved by you the moment he possessed you, leaves without regret. He even does more; he gives you over, and as if your love were a fatal gift, he makes it a present to his rival! Either the Christians have strange dreams, or their joys must be so infinite that in order to claim them, they dare to reject that which must be bought above all the empire. For me, if my destiny, a little more beneficent, were honored by your hand, I would never have worshipped anything but the sparkle of your eyes. I would have made them my king, I would have made them my gods; I would have been made dust, ashes, before . . .
PAULINE: Stop there; I fear hearing too much! This burning of earlier passion may force something unworthy on us both. Severe, know my mind completely. My Polyeucte nears his last hour; he has only a moment to live. You are still the cause, even though innocently. I do not know if your soul would have dared to form some hope on his loss, but know that there is no death so cruel that I would not assuredly walk, that there is no horror of hell that I would not endure, before soiling so pure a glory by marrying a man after his sad fate who in some way was the cause of his death; and if you believe my soul to be so foolish, the love that I had for you will all turn to hate. You are noble; be so to the end. My father is in a position to give you anything. He fears you and I give this word, that if he loses my husband, he is sacrificing him to you. Save this wretch; serve as his protector. I know that I ask much, but the nobler the task, the greater the glory. To save a rival whom you envy is a virtue you alone possess. If it’s not enough for your renown, it’s much that a woman, once loved so dearly and whose love may still be able to touch your heart, must owe to your nobility the dearest thing she has. Remember that you are Severe. Adieu. Decide what you want to do. If you aren’t as much as I dared to hope, I want to be ignorant of it that I may still esteem you. [she exits]
Act Four, Scene Six
SEVERE: What is this, Fabian? What new thunderclap falls on my happiness and reduces it to dust? The more I believe it near, the farther away it is. I find that all is lost when I thought all was won, and fate, always set on harming me, cuts down my hope as soon as it is born. Before offering prayer I receive refusal. Always sad, always ashamed and confused to see how timidly it has dared to appear, and that a woman in distress gives me lessons in honor. Pauline, your beautiful soul is high as well as unhappy, but it is inhuman as well as noble. Your sorrows with too much pain tyrannize the heart of your lover. It’s not enough to lose you; I must give you, indeed, must serve a rival who abandons you, and by a cruel and honorable effort lift him from death to give you back into his arms.
FABIAN: Leave this ungrateful family to its fate. Let fate restore peace between father and daughter, Polyeucte and Felix, husband and wife. What prize can you hope for from such a cruel task?
SEVERE: The glory of showing to this fine soul that Severe equals her and is worthy of her, that she is my due, and that the command of heaven is too unjust by refusing me.
FABIAN: Without accusing fate or heaven of injustice, take care to the perils that follow such a service. You risk much, lord; think well. You undertake to save a Christian! Can you ignore that for this impious sect Decius has now and always had absolute hatred? It is a crime against him so great, so fatal, that it may be deadly to even your favor.
SEVERE: That may be good advice for some common soul. Even if he holds my life and my fortune in his hands, I am still Severe, and all his great power can do nothing against my honor, nothing against my duty. Here honor obliges me, and I wish to satisfy it, so that whether fate shows itself kind or not, as its nature is always inconstant, I will die content, perishing gloriously.
I’ll tell you even more, but in confidence: the Christian sect is not what we think. We hate them; the reason, I do not know, and I think Decius unjust on this point. Out of curiosity I wanted to get to know them. We believe them to be sorcerers of whom hell is the master, and on this belief we punish them with death for the secret mysteries we do not understand. But Eleusinian Ceres and the good goddess have their secret religions likewise in Rome and Greece. In all places we allow with impunity all kinds of gods, except for their God. All the monsters of Egypt have their temples in Rome. Our ancestors made gods of men to their liking, and their blood preserving their errors in us, we fill heaven with all our emperors, but to speak frankly, despite these deifications, I doubt the effectiveness of these metamorphoses.
The Christians have only one God, absolute master of all, whose will alone rules. If I dare say between us what I think, our gods often go poorly together, and should their anger crush me in your sight, we have too many of them to be true gods. Finally, for the Christians their customs are innocent, vices detested, virtues flourishing. They pray for us who persecute them, and after all the time we have sacrificed them, have you seen them revolt? Have you seen them rebel? Have our princes ever had more faithful soldiers? Furious in war but meek before our executioners, they are lions in combat, but before us they die like lambs. I pity them too much not to defend them. Go, find Felix; let’s begin with his son-in-law; and let us satisfy in one action Pauline, my honor, and my compassion. [they exit]
Act Five, Scene One
FELIX: Albin, do you see Severe’s trick? Do you see his hatred, and my misery?
ALBIN: I have seen nothing in him but a noble rival, and I see nothing in you but a harsh father.
FELIX: How poorly you discern the heart from the appearance! In his heart he hates me and scorns Pauline. If once he loved her, today he holds a rival’s reject unworthy of him. Severe speaks for Polyeucte, he begs, he threatens to ruin me if I do not pardon this Christian. Pretending to be noble, he believes he will frighten me, but his craftsmanship is too crude to be misunderstood. I recognize a scheming politician and know their subtle ways better than he. He rages and fakes fury in vain. I see what he would whisper to the emperor. He would make what he asks of me a crime. Sparing his rival, I would then be his victim, and if he had to deal with some fool, the trap is so well set that he would undoubtedly ruin him. But an old courtier is not so gullible. He sees when he is being played and when he is being deceived. I have seen so much of it that I could give lessons to him.
ALBIN: Gods! How you torture yourself by this distrust!
FELIX: Living in court is the highest science. Once a man has a reason to hate us, we must presume that he searches to betray us. All his friendship must be suspect. If Polyeucte does not abandon his sect in the end, whatever his protector has in mind, I will follow the emperor’s orders.
ALBIN: Be merciful, lord! Have mercy on Pauline!
FELIX: The emperor’s mercy would not follow mine; far from pulling him from his dangerous path, my beneficence would only ruin us both.
ALBIN: But Severe promises . . .
FELIX: Albin, I know better than he the hate of Decius. If Severe sparks Decius’ fury by favoring the Christians, even he will perish with us. All the same, I want to try again one other way. Bring Polyeucte, and if I send him back, if he remains insensitive to this last effort, may he be executed at once.
ALBIN: Your command is harsh.
FELIX: I must follow it if I want to stop rebellion from arriving. I see the people rising to his side, and you have even warned me of this. I do not know how long I may be master of this zeal manifested for him. Possibly by tomorrow, by tonight, by this evening, I would see unwanted results, and Severe, running to his vengeance, would go to slander me with some gossip. I must break this fatal blow.
ALBIN: How strong a curse is so much foresight! All harms you, all ruins you, all makes you suspicious; but see that his death will enrage the people. It’s a poor cure that makes them desperate.
FELIX: They will grumble in vain after his death. If they dare to revolt, I’ll not bear insubordination twice. I will have done my duty, whatever may come. But Polyeucte comes, let’s put ourselves to saving him. Guards, draw back and watch the doors well.
Act Five, Scene Two
FELIX: Do you have such a strong hatred for life, miserable Polyeucte? Does the law of the Christians order you to abandon your family?
POLYEUCTE: I do not hate life at all, and I enjoyed the use of it, but without slavery’s bonds, always ready to give it back to God who lent it to me. Reason and the law of the Christians command me, and by it I show you all how you should live, if you have a heart noble enough to follow me.
FELIX: Follow you to the abyss into which you throw yourself?
POLYEUCTE: Sooner to the glory to which I go.
FELIX: Give me time, at least, to learn of it. To make me a Christian, serve as a guide for me to become one. Do not disdain teaching me of your faith, or you yourself will answer to your God about me.
POLYEUCTE: Do not joke about it, Felix. He will be your judge. You will find no refuge before Him. Kings and shepherds are equal there. He will avenge their blood and their cares on you.
FELIX: I will shed no more of it. Whatever comes, I will allow them life in the Christian faith. I will be their protector.
POLYEUCTE: No, no, persecute, and be the instrument of our blessings. What a true Christian has lies only in suffering. The cruelest torments are rewards to him. God, who repays good deeds a hundredfold, manifests them more in persecution. But these are hard secrets for you to understand. God reveals them only to the elect.
FELIX: I speak honestly and want to be a Christian.
POLYEUCTE: What, then, can hinder the realization of such a great blessing?
FELIX: The bothersome presence . . .
POLYEUCTE: Of whom? Severe?
FELIX: I have only shown anger against you for his sake. Pretend a moment until his departure.
POLYEUCTE: Is this how you speak honestly, Felix? Bring to your pagans, to your idols the poisoned sugar scattered by your words. A Christian fears nothing, pretends nothing. In everyone’s eyes he is always a Christian.
FELIX: This zealous faith serves only to seduce you, if you embrace death rather than choose to instruct me.
POLYEUCTE: To speak to you now would be out of season. It is a gift of heaven and not of reason. And it’s there that soon, seeing God face to face, I will obtain this grace for you more easily.
FELIX: Your loss, however, will dishearten me.
POLYEUCTE: You have in your hands the means to make repairs. In taking a son-in-law from you, you are left another whose rank goes better with your own. My loss is but an advantageous change for you.
FELIX: Stop outraging me by this conversation! I’ve thought more of you than you deserve, but despite my goodness which grows even as you irritate it, this insolence would finally make you odious, and I would avenge myself as well as our gods.
POLYEUCTE: What? How quickly you change the tone of your speech! Zeal for your gods returns to your heart. The Christian in you flees! By chance I’ve just forced you to speak honestly for the first time!
FELIX: Do not presume, whatever I may swear to you, that I shall follow the false faith of your new instructors. I flattered your folly in order to pluck you from the shameful precipice into which you’ll stumble. I wanted to gain time, to spare your life after the departure of Decius’s flatterer, but I have injured our all-powerful gods too much. Choose whether you will give them blood or incense.
POLYEUCTE: My choice cannot be in doubt. But I see Pauline. O heaven!
Act Five, Scene Three
PAULINE: Which of you would kill me today? Are both together, or each in turn? Will I not bend nature or love? Will I obtain nothing from husband or father?
FELIX: Speak to your husband.
POLYEUCTE: Live with Severe.
PAULINE: Tiger, at least kill me without insulting me!
POLYEUCTE: My love, my compassion seeks to soothe you. It sees the pain in your soul, and knows that another love is the only cure. Since such a great merit has inflamed you, his presence can still charm you. You loved him, he loves you, and his glory grows.
PAULINE: What have I done to you, monster, to be treated so, to be reproached, scorning my loyalty, for conquering so powerful a love for you? See what struggles I had to fight, what battles I fought to give you a heart so justly gotten by its first conqueror. If your heart is not dominated by ingratitude, make some effort on your part to give yourself back to Pauline. Learn from her to crush your own feeling. Take her strength to guide you in your blindness. Allow her to win your life from you that she may live ever enslaved under your laws. If you can reject such a noble desire, at least see her tears, hear her sighs. Do not drive a soul that loves you to despair.
POLYEUCTE: I have already told you, and I tell you again, live with Severe or die with me. I do not scorn your tears or your loyalty; but whatever our love speaks for you, I know you no longer if you are not a Christian. That’s enough, Felix, take up your rage again, and avenge yourself and your gods on this insolent one.
PAULINE: Ah! My father, his sin is difficult to pardon, but he is senseless; you are reasonable. Nature is too strong, and his worthy traits engraved in his blood are not erased forever. A father is always a father, and on this assurance I still dare to support a morsel of hope. Cast a fatherly eye on your daughter. My death will follow the death of this dear criminal, and the gods will find his punishment offensive since it will mix innocence and sin; it will change a just chastisement to unjust harshness. Our destinies, rendered inseparable by your hands, must make us happy or miserable together, and you would be cruel to the last degree if you separate that which you once joined. A heart united to another never takes itself back, and to separate the union requires the one heart be torn. But you are sensitive to my just agonies, and with a father’s eye you see my tears.
FELIX: Yes, my daughter, it is true that a father is always a father. Nothing can erase that sacred position. I hold a sensitive heart, and you have pierced it. I join with you against this madness. Unhappy Polyeucte, are you without feeling? Do you alone want to render your sin unforgivable? Can you see so many tears with such a detached eye? Can you see so much love without being touched by it? Do you no longer recognize stepfather or wife, without friendship for one and without love for the other? To take up again the name of son-in-law and husband, do you want to see us both embrace your knees?
POLYEUCTE: How unbecoming is all this posturing! After having tried threats, love, and a false thirst for baptism, to oppose the will of God you join together! Ah, hellish trickery! Must I conquer so many times before I triumph? Your resolutions are too long delayed. Make your resolve: mine is already made. I worship but one God, master of the universe, under whom heaven, earth, and hell tremble. One God who, loving us with an infinite love, died in dishonor for us, and who, by this love, would daily sacrifice Himself for us.
But I am wrong to speak of that to those who cannot hear me. See the blind error you dare to defend. You stain your gods with the blackest sins. You punish nothing that doesn’t have its master in heaven: prostitution, adultery, incest, theft, murder and all that man hates. Such is the example given by your immortals. I have profaned their temple and broken their altars. I would do it again, even before the eyes of Felix and Severe, even before the eyes of the senate and the emperor.
FELIX: At last, my kindness yields to my just fury. Worship them or die!
POLYEUCTE: I am a Christian.
FELIX: Infidel! Worship them, I tell you, or renounce your life!
POLYEUCTE: I am a Christian.
FELIX: Are you? O heart too hard! Soldiers, follow the command I have given you.
PAULINE: Where do you lead him to?
FELIX: To death!
POLYEUCTE: To glory! Dear Pauline, adieu; guard my memory.
PAULINE: I will follow you everywhere, and will die if you die.
POLYEUCTE: Quit your erring way, or do not follow my steps.
FELIX: Remove him from my sight, and let him be obeyed. Since he wants to perish, I consent!
Act Five, Scene Four
FELIX: I harm myself, Albin, but I had to. My natural kindness might have easily ruined me. Let the rage of the people now spread; let Severe thunder in fury. I have assured myself by this effort. But are you not surprised by this obstinacy? Do you know hearts as impenetrable as his? Or so blasphemous or detestable? At least I’ve satisfied my afflicted spirit. I haven’t neglected anything to soften his heart. I even pretended to base extremes in your sight, and certainly without the horror of these last blasphemies, which suddenly filled me with anger and disgust, I would have had difficulty overcoming myself.
ALBIN: It may be that one day you will curse this victory which holds unnamed evil unworthy of Felix, unworthy of a Roman, shedding your blood by your own hand.
FELIX: So once Brutus and Manlius spilled it, but their glory, far from being weakened, grew. When our old heroes had bad blood, they would open their own side to spill it.
ALBIN: Your zeal seduces you, but whatever it may tell you, when you feel it again cool, when you see Pauline and her despair and tears move you . . .
FELIX: You remind me that she has followed this traitor, and that this despair she shows him may impede my orders. Go then, run to give the command to watch her. Break any obstacle which her grief may cause. Pull her, if you can, from this sad spectacle. Try to console her. Go now, what keeps you?
ALBIN: There’s no need, lord; she returns.
Act Five, Scene Five
PAULINE: Barbarous father, complete your work. This second victim is worthy of your rage. Join your daughter to your son; dare it, what delays you? You see that same sin, or the same virtue. Your savagery finds the same motives in her. In dying my husband left me his light. His blood in which your butchers have just covered me has opened my eyes. I see, know, and believe, am enlightened. You see me baptized in his blessed blood! I am a Christian now; isn’t enough said? Keep your rank and your influence in losing me. Dread the emperor, fear Severe. My ruin is necessary if you don’t want to perish. Polyeucte calls me to this sweet death. I see him and Nearque holding out their hands for me. Lead me to your gods that I detest. They only broke one idol, I will break the rest. I will be seen braving all that you fear, these powerless thunderings you deem ever near, and in holiness rebel against the laws of my birth, show my lack of respect towards you at once. This isn’t my grief showing in this; this is divine grace that speaks, not despair. Must it be said again, Felix? I am a Christian! By my death secure both our fortunes. The blow will be precious to both, since it will secure you on earth and lift me to heaven.
Act Five, Scene Six
SEVERE: Unnatural father, unhappy politician, ambitious slave of a fantastic fear! Polyeucte, then, is dead! And by your cruelties you think to save your miserable honor! The favor I offered you for him, instead of saving him has hastened his ruin. I prayed, threatened, but you could not be moved, and you thought me a trickster or powerless. Well, at your expense you will see that Severe never boasts but of what he can do, and by your ruin he will make you know that he who can destroy you could have protected you. Continue this faithful service to the gods. Show them your zeal by such horrors. Farewell, but when the storm bursts on you, do not doubt whose arms will deal the blows.
FELIX: Stop, lord, and with an appeased soul allow me to show you an easy revenge. Reproach me no more that by my cruel deeds I work to save my feeble honors. I lay their false sparkle at your feet. I aspire to a more illustrious rank. I find myself forced there by secret steps. I give myself over to ecstasies I have never known. By a power I cannot understand I turn from my folly to the zeal of my son-in-law. It is he, no doubt, whose innocent blood prays to an all-powerful God for his persecutor. His love which spreads out over all the family pulls the father as well as the daughter after him. I made him a martyr; his death has made me a Christian! I caused his happiness; he wanted to cause mine. This is how a Christian takes out his wrath and revenge. Blessed cruelty whose end is so sweet! Sacrifice to your gods these two new Christians. I am one, she is one; fulfill your wrath.
PAULINE: How blessedly I rediscover my father! This blessed conversion makes my bliss complete.
FELIX: My daughter, nothing comes but from the hand that makes it.
SEVERE: Who would not be touched by such a tender sight? Such changes don’t happen without a miracle. Without doubt these Christians, who are persecuted in vain, have something in them that surpasses the human. They lead a life of such innocence that heaven owes them some recognition for it. Rising up stronger the more you are beaten is not a common virtue. I always loved them, whatever could be said. I didn’t see one of them die but that my heart didn’t sigh, and perhaps one day I will know them better. I approve, however, of each one having his own gods, that he serve them in his fashion, and without persecution. If you are Christian, you need not fear my hate any more. I love them, Felix, and would not change from their protector to your persecutor. Keep your power; take its mark again. Serve your God well, and serve our king. You will see an end to this severity, or I will lose my influence with the emperor. By this unjust hate he causes too much outrage.
FELIX: May heaven complete its work in you, and give you one day what you deserve as you aspire to all its truths! We others, let us bless our happy fortune and give holy burial to our martyrs, kiss them and place them in a worthy place, and make the name of God ring throughout the world.