Although Cyrano de Bergerac takes place in the 17th century, it was written at the end of the 19th century, and Rostand looks back on 200-year-old French society with a mixture of admiration and disdain. One of the most foreign aspects of life in 17th century France—almost as strange to Rostand as it is to us—is the prevalence of a strict social hierarchy, one rooted in religion and the landed aristocracy.
Especially in the first half of Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand carefully paints a picture of the social pyramid in France. At the top of the pyramid are kings and cardinals. While neither appears directly in the play, the powerful characters who do appear in the play like to cite their close relationships with those at the top of the pyramid. For example, the Count de Guiche orchestrates most of his plots using his close ties to Cardinal Richelieu, his uncle (not to mention the most powerful man in France in the early 1700s). On the lower levels of the pyramid, then, characters like the Count assert their power over their inferiors through militarism. The Count commands a vast number of soldiers, and some of these soldiers, such as Cyrano himself, have their own subordinates, who are mere cadets. The law of French society is simple: obey one’s superiors at all costs.
In no small part, Cyrano is the hero of his own play because he refuses to “play along” with the laws of 17th century society—he’s a 19th century man living 200 years before his time. Cyrano reverses the social pyramid, befriending those who are “beneath” him, and showing blatant contempt for those, like de Guiche, who are above him. In many ways, Cyrano embodies the values of the Romantic era, the cultural movement that dominated European art and literature for most of the 19th century. Like a Romantic hero, Cyrano rejects the antiquated authority of the church and the monarchy. Instead of accepting his place in the hierarchy—dependent on those above him, tyrannical to those below—Cyrano instead opts for a rugged independence, arguably the quintessential Romantic trait. Almost fanatically sure of the power of art to nourish the soul, Cyrano claims that he can survive on poetry instead of food—a line that wouldn’t be out of place in a Romantic poem by Percy Shelley.
The downside of opting out of the social hierarchy, of course, is that it’s hard to eat only poetry. At the beginning of the play, Cyrano has some access to money, but as time goes on, and he becomes more and more Romantic and ruggedly independent, he alienates almost everyone around him. As a result, Cyrano is forced to go hungry for days and live in cruel poverty. In the end, Cyrano’s Romanticism kills him—because he doesn’t play along with social norms, his enemies murder him (and it’s implied that this enemy might be the Count himself). Yet this is a fitting ending—arguably the only fitting ending—for a Romantic hero living in immoral times. As a rugged, independent hero, Cyrano cannot survive for very long. His life outside the hierarchy is meteoric—brief but spectacular.
Social Hierarchy and the Romantic Ideal ThemeTracker
Social Hierarchy and the Romantic Ideal Quotes in Cyrano De Bergerac
These fops, would-be belligerent,
Will, if you heed them only, turn your head!. . .
Ask people of good sense if you would know
The effect of your fine insolence--
CYRANO (finishing his macaroon):
The Cardinal. . .
The Cardinal--was there?
Before you were the sworn comrade of all that crew, my friend, you did not
call your wife ant and Bacchante!
To turn fair verse to such a use!
'Faith, 'tis all it's good for.
Pray then, madam, to what use would you degrade prose?
CYRANO (who has been watching, goes toward Ragueneau):
Lulled by your voice, did you see how they were stuffing themselves?
RAGUENEAU (in a low voice, smiling):
Oh, ay! I see well enough, but I never will seem to look, fearing to
distress them; thus I gain a double pleasure when I recite to them my poems;
for I leave those poor fellows who have not breakfasted free to eat, even
while I gratify my own dearest foible, see you?
CYRANO (clapping him on the shoulder):
Friend, I like you right well!. . .
Well, what if it be my vice,
My pleasure to displease--to love men hate me!
Ah, friend of mine, believe me, I march better
'Neath the cross-fire of glances inimical!
How droll the stains one sees on fine-laced doublets,
From gall of envy, or the poltroon's drivel!
CYRANO (in a dreamy voice):
He's lost his mind, for sure!
What hour? What country this? What month? What day?
But. . .
I am stupefied!
Like a bomb
I fell from the moon!
Ay, for homesickness. A nobler pain than hunger,--'tis of the soul, not of
the body! I am well pleased to see their pain change its viscera. Heart-ache
is better than stomach-ache.
CYRANO (without lifting his eyes from his book):
And your white scarf?
DE GUICHE (surprised and gratified):
You know that detail?. . . Troth! It happened thus:
While caracoling to recall the troops
For the third charge, a band of fugitives
Bore me with them, close by the hostile ranks:
I was in peril—capture, sudden death!--
When I thought of the good expedient
To loosen and let fall the scarf which told
My military rank; thus I contrived
--Without attention waked--to leave the foes,
And suddenly returning, reinforced
With my own men, to scatter them! And now,
--What say you, Sir?
ALL THE SISTERS:
He is so droll!--It's cheerful when he comes!--
He teases us!--But we all like him well!--
--We make him pasties of angelica!
But, he is not a faithful Catholic!
Despite you there is yet one thing
I hold against you all, and when, to-night,
I enter Christ's fair courts, and, lowly bowed,
Sweep with doffed casque the heavens' threshold blue,
One thing is left, that, void of stain or smutch,
I bear away despite you.
ROXANE (bending and kissing his forehead):
'Tis?. . .
CYRANO (opening his eyes, recognizing her, and smiling):