a simple essay


The Princess of Cleves and Louis the XIV

It is said that the Royal Courts of France in the late medieval and early modern times were filled with playacting. Despite the theatrical connotation of this word, people in these courts were not acting in true plays which contain a script, a stage, and actors all for the amusement of the audience or for their own pleasure. So, what is the definition of this dramatic term “playacting.” Playacting is when one acts in a hypocritical manner, “feigning to be what one is not,” It is interesting to see the contrasts made in one the first French novels, The Princess of Cleves, which critiques the playacting of the current royal court with that of a court of a previous dynasty. Although there are similarities between the two courts (specifically the role each aristocrat must play in his or her own part), The Princess of Cleves focuses more on how people had to hide their emotions with playacting, while the court of Louis the XIV used playacting to exaggerate the amount of power the King really had.

Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves is an intricate story of life and love in sixteenth century France. It is a typical tale of “forbidden love” wherein two people must hide their relationship because society would not approve of it. The story follows the Princess of Cleves, wife of the Prince of Cleves, as she falls madly in love with the Duke de Nemours and must deal with these feelings while concealing them from others in the court of France, as well as Duke de Nemours. Of course, the Duke has inappropriate feelings for the Princess as well, but he is daring enough to express them to her. Such dealings, while common in the court, were kept clandestine as it was very important to keep proper appearances.

Although it is obvious to the reader that the Princess of Cleves was in love with the Duke de Nemours, it was not so obvious to the Duke. She never tells him directly how she feels, but there are some occurrences by which she would slip and let her feelings be known. For example, she saw him “[take] something very dexterously from off the table; she presently guessed it was her picture,” and he noticed that she had seen him do so (32). However, rather than demand that he give the picture back, she allows him to keep it. To him, this action speaks slightly louder than words, and he can have some reason to believe she shares his feelings. While she sometimes accidentally dropped her act, allowing the Duke to see through her façade, she was more careful about keeping her secret hidden from the other members of the court. Unfortunately for her, this is no easy task since as a prominent member of the court in France, she has to be in the court at all times. This makes it hard for her to employ the strategy of elusion she devised to keep from seeing the Duke. As a result, she pretends many times to suffer from some illness or worry in order “to pass some days at her Mother’s” so she can avoid the Duke as well as everyone else (19).

The Princess was not the only one to keep up appearances. It was not good for someone to openly court or play in gallantry for a married woman, and the Duke of Nemours had to be careful lest someone find out of his love and tell his rival the Prince of Cleves. He skillfully arranges meetings with the princess, by appearing to be tagging along with other guests. He even manipulates his sister into “[making] the first proposal herself of visiting Madam de Cleves” so that it does not seem as though he was the one who wanted to see her (63). It should be noted that it is unlikely these would be the only two people at the time who are keeping secrets and who must play games in order to keep them. Indeed, playacting must have been integral to the functioning of the entire court.

However, there is one way in which they can express their feelings that seems to be tolerated. The styles of the clothing and the colors one wears expresses one’s intentions, thoughts, and emotions (Patrouch). Many of the combatants of the tournament who are married wore colors not representative of their spouses, but rather colors that represented women whom they favored at one time.

It is said that this story bears some resemblance to, and is a critique of the court which ruled France during the time of de Lafayette. The court of Louis XIV contained plenty of playacting, though not all of it necessarily the same as what de Lafayette presents. The King’s court was one in which the theatre, music, and arts ruled (Patrouch). To have access to the court of Louis XIV one had to be knowledgeable of the arts and attend the many parties, ceremonies, and gatherings which the court held, whether or not one wanted to be there. Much like the Princess in the novel, to have power in Louis’ time was to always be at court, at all the gatherings, which meant that removing oneself from the court was not something to do. Considering how often the members of the court had to be present, it is not too far fetched to assume that some of the members would be forced to feign interest in some of the events of the court.

This was not the only way in which playacting existed in Louis’ court. Louis himself was the biggest actor, playing himself as the “all-powerful” king that he really was not. The chateau at Versailles was the stage in which he played this act, displaying his power and greatness. He depicted himself in war situations as a great warrior, though it was clear to see that he never went to war (Patrouch). Additionally, King Louis had the hall of mirrors made in this castle, showing that he had enough wealth to afford such a rare and expensive luxury. Also, the mirrors faced windows (glass being considered luxurious as well) that had a view over the massive garden which Louis had made. It was the beginning of a time when it was not necessary to regard your military as your only symbol of power. Having the most opulent home, most coveted artwork, and stylish clothing became another way to flaunt one’s power.

There became more of an emphasis on show rather than content. King Louis ruled his country and court through show. He only had to act, or play the part of greatness. He made sure those at the court followed suit and kept up appearances at all times. This is shown in de Lafayette’s novel; while there were many ways in which you could act in private, one must follow the many intricate, social rules that existed while one is in public. The critique that Madam de Lafayette makes is that when the importance of “the show of rule” overrides the importance of “the actual rule,” the country maybe left unprepared when a time of need arises.

Works Cited

Madame de Lafayette. The Princess of Cleves.

History and Philosophy


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