, , , , , , , , ,

burne_jones_cupid_delivering_psyche (2)

Cupid Delivering Psyche by Sir Edward Burne-Jones  (preraphalitesisterhood.com)


Molière’s Psyché was written in collaboration with dramatists Pierre Corneille[1] and Philippe Quinault. As director of the Troupe du Roi, Molière attended to several requests on the part of Louis XIV. These precluded his full participation, in a play based on the myth of Psyche, a theme he chose in 1670. Molière wrote the PrologueAct One and the first scene of Acts Two and Three. The music was composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully, to a libretto by Philippe Quinault. Pierre Beauchamp(s) was the play’s main choreographer. Scenery and stage effects, planned by Molière, were coordinated by Carlo Vigarani.

Psyché is a

  • tragi-comédie and
  • a tragédie-ballet,
  • in five acts, and includes
  • intermèdes.
  • It is in free verse and was
  • first performed at the Théâtre des Tuileries (Paris),
  • on 17 January 1671.
  • Psyché premièred again at the renovated Théâtre du Palais-Royal (Paris),
  • on 24 July 1671.

Molière’s Psyché was first performed at the Théâtre des Tuileries because this royal residence had sophisticated machinery, la salle des machines. It has been said that Louis XIV wanted to re-use a décor of hell built for Francesco Cavalli’s Ercole amante (Hercules in love), performed in 1662. For instance, when the immortal Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, etc. descends from some lofty abode lamenting rivalry from a mere mortal, she does so in a machine. Her rival, Psyche, is the most beautiful woman in the world. Special effects provided magnificence to the festivities that followed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1668), a victory for Louis XIV. After the Théâtre du Palais-Royal was renovated, at the troupe du Roi‘s expense, Psyché was staged at Molière’s troupe usual venue, the Théâtre du Palais-Royal.

Molière chose the subject of his play, the Tale of Cupid and Psyche, shortly after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1668) was signed. Psyche was a popular narrative in 17th-century France. It was used by Isaac de Benserade (1656, a ballet) and La Fontaine (1669, a novel). However, Psyche’s main source is 2nd century ApuleiusGolden Ass. The Golden Ass, first entitled The Metamorphosis, is a frame story containing “digressions,” or inner tales, one of which, and the most memorable, is the Tale of Cupid and Psyche. Apuleius had read Ovid (20 March 43 BCE – 17/18 CE) whose Metamorphoses was an extremely  influential work.

In the Golden Ass, Lucius Apuleius wants to be transformed into a bird, but he is mistakenly metamorphosed into an ass. The novel contains tales, but none as elegant as The Tale of Cupid and Psyche, Apulée’s Âge d’or. Few have endured. The Tale of Cupid and Psyche so differs from its sister tales that it seems a deviation rather than a digression (an inner tale). It appears misplaced, but its subject isn’t. Psyche will be transformed into an immortal, which is consistent with the carnivalesque, but dares reversing the Creation myth. Moreover, gods and humans interact as in magical realism. Mortals, such as Psyché’s sisters Aglaure and Cidippe can be jealous of Psyche’s beauty, the most beautiful woman in the world. Venus is a goddess and immortal. 

Our dramatis personæ is:

Love (Cupid).
Aegiale and Phaëne, two Graces.
The King.
Aglaura (sister to Psyche).
Cidippe (sister to Psyche .
Cleomenes and Agenortwo princesPsyche’s lovers.
Lycascaptain of the guards.
A River God
Two Cupids.



The front of the stage represents a rustic spot, while at the back the sea can be seen in the distance.

As a play Psyche’s main theme is Venus’ jealousy. It is expressed in the Prologue, which I will quote at some length:

Moi, la fille du dieu qui lance le tonnerre,
Mère du dieu qui fait aimer;
Moi, les plus doux souhaits du ciel et de la terre,
Et qui ne suis venue au jour que pour charmer;
Moi, qui par tout ce qui respire
Ai vu de tant de vœux encenser mes autels,
Et qui de la beauté, par des droits immortels,
Ai tenu de tout temps le souverain empire;
Moi, dont les yeux ont mis deux grandes déités
Au point de me céder le prix de la plus belle,
Je me vois ma victoire et mes droits disputés
Par une chétive mortelle!
Le ridicule excès d’un fol entêtement
Va jusqu’à m’opposer une petite fille!
Sur ses traits et les miens j’essuierai constamment
Un téméraire jugement!
Et du haut des cieux où je brille,
J’entendrai prononcer aux mortels prévenus:
« Elle est plus belle que Vénus! »

Vénus, Prologue, p. 6, 101

I, the daughter of the Thunderer, mother of the love-inspiring god;
I, the sweetest yearning of heaven and earth, who received birth only to charm;
I, who have seen everything that hath breath utter so many vows at my shrines,
and by immortal rights have held the sovereign sway of beauty in all ages;
I, whose eyes have forced two mighty gods to yield me the prize of beauty
I see my rights and my victory disputed by a wretched mortal.
Shall the ridiculous excess of foolish obstinacy 
go so far as to oppose to me a little girl?
Shall I constantly hear a rash verdict on the beauty of her features and of mine,
and from the loftiest heaven where I shine shall I hear it said to the prejudiced world, “She is fairer than Venus”?
Venus, Prologue


Auglure and her sister Cidippe bemoan their sorry fate and agree that they must be less reserved than they have been.

SCÈNE PREMIÈRE (first scene)

Quelle fatalité secrète,
Ma sœur, soumet tout l’univers
Aux attraits de notre cadette,
Et de tant de princes divers
Qu’en ces lieux la fortune jette,
N’en présente aucun à nos fers?

Auglure à Cidippe ( I. v. 180, p. 9)
[My sister, what secret fatality makes the whole world bow before our younger sister’s charms? and how is it that, amongst so many different princes who are brought by fortune to this place, not one has any love for us?]
Auglura to Cidippe (I. 1)

Est-il pour nous, ma sœur, de plus rude disgrâce, 196
Que de voir tous les cœurs mépriser nos appas,
Et l’heureuse Psyché jouir avec audace
D’une foule d’amants attachés à ses pas?
Aglaure (I. i. v. 196 -, p. 9)
[Can there be for us, my sister, any greater trial than to see how all hearts disdain our beauty, and how the fortunate Psyche insolently reigns with full sway over the crowd of lovers who ever attend her?]
Cidippe (I. 1)

Sur un plus fort appui ma croyance se fonde, 273 /Et le charme qu’elle a pour attirer les cœurs, /C’est un air en tout temps désarmé de rigueurs, /Des regards caressants que la bouche seconde, /Un souris chargé de douceurs /Qui tend les bras à tout le monde, /Et ne vous promet que faveurs.
Aglaure (I. 1. v. 273 -, p. 12)
[My opinion is founded on a more solid basis, and the charms by which she draws all hearts to herself are a demeanour at all times free of reserve; caressing words and looks; a smile full of sweetness, which invites everyone, and promises them nothing but favours.]
Aglaure (I. 1)

Oui, voilà le secret de l’affaire, et je voi /Que vous le prenez mieux que moi.
290 C’est pour nous attacher à trop de bienséance, /Qu’aucun amant, ma sœur, à nous ne veut venir, /Et nous voulons trop soutenir  /L’honneur de notre sexe, et de notre naissance. /Les hommes maintenant aiment ce qui leur rit, 295 /L’espoir, plus que l’amour, est ce qui les attire, /Et c’est par là que Psyché nous ravit / Tous les amants qu’on voit sous son empire. /Suivons, suivons l’exemple, ajustons-nous au temps, /Abaissons-nous, ma sœur, à faire des avances, 300 /Et ne ménageons plus de tristes bienséances /Qui nous ôtent les fruits du plus beau de nos ans.
[Yes, that is the secret; and I see that you understand it better than I. It is because we cling too much to modesty, sister, that no lovers come to us; it is because we try to sustain too strictly the honour of our sex and of our birth. Men, nowadays, like what comes easily to them; hope attracts them more than love; and that is how Psyche deprives us of all the lovers we see under her sway. Let us follow her example, and suit ourselves to the times; let us stoop, sister, to make advances, and let us no longer keep to those dull morals which rob us of the fruits of our best years.]

The sisters resolve to be more forthright with the princes who love Psyché.


The princes visit. They say that they have little power over their feelings. It is Psyche they love. According to the sisters, they will be harmed by Psyche. She will not respond to their love.

Les voici tous deux, et j’admire /Leur air et leur ajustement.
Aglaure (I. i, p. 13)
(Here they both are. I admire their manners and attire.
Aglaure (I. 1)
Ils ne démentent nullement /Tout ce que nous venons de dire.
Cidippe (I. i, p. 13)
They in no way fall short of all that we have said of them.
Aglaure (I. 1)

Scène II

D’où vient, Princes, d’où vient que vous fuyez ainsi? /Prenez-vous l’épouvante, en nous voyant paraître?
Aglaure (I. ii, p. 13)
Wherefore, princes, wherefore do you thus hasten away? Does our appearance fill you with fear?
Aglaure (I. 2)

The princes tell Aglaure and Cidippe that they love Psyche and have little power over their feelings.

Est-ce que l’on consulte au moment qu’on s’enflamme? /Choisit-on qui l’on veut aimer? /Et pour toute son âme, /Regarde-t-on quel droit on a de nous charmer?
Cléomène ( I. ii, v. 347-, p. 15)
[Do we reason when we fall in love? Do we choose the object of our attachment? And when we bestow our hearts, do we weigh the right of the fair one to fascinate us?]
Cléomène (I. 2.)

Sans qu’on ait le pouvoir d’élire, /On suit, dans une telle ardeur /Quelque chose qui nous attire, /Et lorsque l’amour touche un cœur, 355 /On n’a point de raisons à dire.
Agénor (I. ii, v. 351-, p. 15)
[Without having the power of choosing, we follow in such a passion something which delights us; and when love touches a heart, we have no reasons to give.]
Agénor (I. 2)

They may be dissatisfied, says Cidippe:

L’espoir qui vous appelle au rang de ses amants /Trouvera du mécompte aux douceurs qu’elle étale; /Et c’est pour essuyer de très fâcheux moments, 365 /Que les soudains retours de son âme inégale.
Cidippe (I. ii, p. 15)
[The hope which calls you into the rank of her lovers will experience many disappointments in the favours she bestows; and the fitful changes of her inconstant heart will cause you many painful hours.]
Cidippe (I. 2)

The princes no longer know their own worth, which makes the sister pity the love that guides them. They could find a “more constant heart.”

366 Un clair discernement de ce que vous valez /Nous fait plaindre le sort où cet amour  vous guide, /Et vous pouvez trouver tous deux, si vous voulez, /Avec autant d’attraits, une âme plus solide.
Cidippe (I. ii, p. 16)
[A clear discernment of your worth makes us pity the fate into which this passion will lead you; and if you wished, you could both find a more constant heart and charms as great.]
Cidippe (I. 2)

Par un choix plus doux de moitié /Vous pouvez de l’amour sauver votre amitié, /Et l’on voit en vous deux un mérite si rare, /Qu’un tendre avis veut bien prévenir par pitié /Ce que votre cœur se prépare.
Cidippe (I. ii, v. 370-, p. 16)
[A choice sweeter by half can rescue your mutual friendship from love; and there is such a rare merit apparent in you both that a gentle counsel would, out of pity, save your hearts from what they are preparing for themselves.]
Cidippe (I. 2)

Scène III

Psyche tells her lovers that her fate is to be decided by a father.

Ce n’est pas à mon cœur qu’il faut que je défère /Pour entrer sous de tels liens; /Ma main, pour se donner, attend l’ordre d’un père, 445 /Et mes sœurs ont des droits qui vont devant les miens.
Psyché (I. iii, p. 18)
[I must not listen to my heart only before engaging in such a union, but my hand must await my father’s decision before it can dispose of itself, and my sisters have rights superior to mine.]
Psyché (I. 3)

But she goes on to say:

Oui, Princes, à tous ceux dont l’amour suit le vôtre, /Je vous préférerais tous deux avec ardeur; 460 /Mais je n’aurais jamais le cœur /De pouvoir préférer l’un de vous deux à l’autre. /À celui que je choisirais, /Ma tendresse ferait un trop grand sacrifice,
Et je m’imputerais à barbare injustice 465 /Le tort qu’à l’autre je ferais. /Oui, tous deux vous brillez de trop de grandeur d’âme, /Pour en faire aucun malheureux, /Et vous devez chercher dans l’amoureuse flamme /Le moyen d’être heureux tous deux.
Si votre cœur me considère /Assez pour me souffrir de disposer de vous, / J’ai deux sœurs capables de plaire, /Qui peuvent bien vous faire un destin assez doux, /Et l’amitié me rend leur personne assez chère, 475 /Pour vous souhaiter leurs époux.
Psyche (I. iii, p. 18)
[Yes, Princes, I should greatly prefer you to all those whose love will follow yours, but I could never have the heart to prefer one of you to the other. My tenderness would be too great a sacrifice to the one whom I might choose, and I should think myself barbarously unjust to inflict so great a wrong upon the other. Indeed, you both possess such greatness of soul that it would be wrong to make either of you miserable, and you must seek in love the means of being both happy. If your hearts honour me enough to give me the right of disposing of them, I have two sisters well fitted to please, who might make your destinies happy, and whom friendship endears to me enough for me to wish that you should be their husbands.]
Psyche (I. 3)

Un cœur dont l’amour est extrême /Peut-il bien consentir, hélas, /D’être donné par ce qu’il aime? /Sur nos deux cœurs, Madame, à vos divins appas 480 /Nous donnons un pouvoir suprême, / Disposez-en pour le trépas, /Mais pour une autre que vous-même /Ayez cette bonté de n’en disposer pas.
Cléomène (I. iii, p. 19)
[Can a heart whose love, alas! is extreme, consent to be given away by her it loves? We yield up our two hearts, Madam, to your divine charms, even should you doom them to death; but we beg you not to make them over to any one but yourself.]
Cléomène (I. 3)

Scène IV

In Scene Four, Psyche is summoned to see the king. She is afraid.

De ce trouble si grand que faut-il que j’attende?
Psyché à Lycas (I. iv, p. 21)
[What am I to augur from your agitation?
Psyche to Lycas (I. 4)

Scène V

In Scene Five, Psyche learns from the king, that an oracle demands that she be led to a hill, dressed for a “pompous mournful line.” A monster/serpent will be her husband.

Que l’on ne pense nullement 525 /À vouloir de Psyché conclure l’hyménée; /Mais qu’au sommet d’un mont elle soit promptement /En pompe funèbre menée, /Et que de tous abandonnée, /Pour époux elle attende en ces lieux constamment 530 /Un monstre dont on a la vue empoisonnée, /Un serpent qui répand son venin en tous lieux, /Et trouble dans sa rage et la terre et les cieux.
Lycas (I. v, p. 22)
“No one must think to lead
Psyche to Hymen’s shrine;
But all with earnest speed,
In pompous mournful line,
High to the mountain crest
Must take her; there to await,
Forlorn, in deep unrest,
A monster who envenoms all,
Decreed by fate her husband;
A serpent whose dark poisonous breath
And rage e’er hold the world in thrall,
Shaking the heavens high and realms of death.”
Lycas (I. 5)

Scène VI

In Scene Six, Psyche’s sisters say they cannot grieve. On the contrary, they are relieved.

À ne vous point mentir, je sens que dans mon cœur /Je n’en suis pas trop affligée.
Cidippe (I. vi, p. 23)
[To speak the truth, my heart is not very much grieved at it.]
Cidippe (I. 6)

Moi, je sens quelque chose au mien /Qui ressemble assez à la joie. /Allons, le Destin nous envoie 545 /Un mal que nous pouvons regarder comme un bien.
Aglaure (I. vi, p. 23)
[My heart feels something which very much resembles joy. Let us go; Fate has sent us a calamity which we can consider as a blessing.]
Aglaure (I. 6)

I would love to conclude, but we must read the rest of the play. Remember that jealousy is a prominent theme in Molière’s plays and 17th-century French literature. However, jealousy in Molière is usually of a comedic nature. It is Arnolphe’s plight and it is linked to cuckoldry. (See The School for Wives, Wikipedia.)

In Psyché, Molière is true to the myth. Venus is jealous because Psyche is the most beautiful woman in the world, yet a mere mortal. Only mortals, Psyche’s two sisters, can be jealous of Psyche. They will harm her and nearly cause her death.

The juxtaposition of a mortal and an immortal is problematical. It is incongruous. Psyche’s beauty of a transitory nature. The soul, the psyche, has been deemed and is still deemed immortal. As a human being, Psyche will experience metamorphoses. She will age and die. This is l’humaine condition. Venus is a goddess and, therefore, immortal. However, after a string of trials and tribulations,  Psyche ascends to godliness, an honest twist consistent with the carnivalesque, but a reversal of the Judeo-Christian creation myth.

Psyché is an “all’s well that ends well” narrative. Our young lovers marry…  But the play  is a part of a celebration: festivities. “Pump and circumstance” colours Psyche. Louis is seen as divine, albeit briefly.

Le plus puissant des rois
  Interrompt ses exploits
  Pour donner la paix à la terre.
Descendez, mère des Amours,
Venez nous donner de beaux jours.
Flore (Prologue)

The din of battle is stayed;
The mightiest king of earth
His arms aside has laid;
Of peace ’tis now the birth!
Descend thou, lovely Venus,
And blissful hours grant us!
Flora (Prologue)


Sources and Resources

[1] Pierre Corneille is the author of Le Cid (1636), a play that generated a quarrel, la Querelle du Cid, which occurred shortly after the Académie-Française was established. Tragédies would have to respect classicism’s rule of the “three unities.” These consisted in one action that lasted no longer than 24 hours, and took place in one location: action, temps, lieu. Classicism inherited its rules from Aristotle.

Love to all of you 💕

Acte 5, Scène 4: Prélude de Trompettes pour Mars
00:00 Acte 5, Scène 4: Chanson “Laissons en paix toute la Terre”
01:48 Acte 5, Scène 4: Derniere Entrée
02:36 Acte 5, Scène 4: “Chantons les Plaisirs charmants” (chœur)
04:27 Olivier Laquerre (bass / Mars)
Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra & Chorus
Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs (conductor)

© Micheline Walker
6 September 2019