Cyrano de Bergerac Introduction
In A Nutshell
Take out your hankies—you're going to be both crying with laughter and crying with serious sadness before this play is over. Yep—this bad boy is going to give you all the feels.
Seriously: pick an emotion and Cyrano de Bergerac will have you feeling it. You want to swoon? Listen to one of the titular big-shnozed hero's love speeches. You want to feel scorn? Check out the weasel-y Compte de Guiche's manic machinations. Pity? Cyrano's body issues have you covered. Fear? There's a dang battle scene that's full of suspense (and blood and guts).
But the major emotion you'll feel during the reading (or watching, if you're lucky enough to see a stage production of Cyrano) is admiration for Edmond Rostand's verbal acrobatics and blisteringly witty banter.
Cyrano de Bergerac is a play about an eloquent, talented, and brave man and his love for a beautiful woman, Roxane. Straightforward? Not so much. Because Our Hero is kind of an uggo—he has a nose the size of an elephant's trunk and a resulting inferiority complex the size of Jupiter.
So what does he do? He decides to use his eloquence to woo his beloved Roxane... on behalf of his hottie friend Baron Christian.
What could possibly go wrong with this scenario?
Playwright Edmond Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac as a comedy and a satire of the overly romanticized literature of France in the 1600s (such as Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers). As such, you’ll find it chock-full of historical references to writers, royalty, philosophers, dramatists, and scientists of the time. Light-hearted in nature, this work is full of frivolous pomp and overblown dialogue bursting at the seams with rhyming couplets. The translated meter you often see in English versions is iambic pentameter, which, as we all know, is a party waiting to happen.
Published in French in 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac hit the stages of Paris to instant acclaim. Under the flourishes of renowned stage actor Constant Coquelin (to whom Rostand dedicated his play), Cyrano came to life. Basing his main character on a historical figure of the same name, Rostand accurately recounts much of the real Cyrano’s life—as told by the real-life Le Bret and a number of other biographers—in his beloved play.
The real Cyrano de Bergerac was a French dramatist who lived from 1619-1655, which means Rostand did his history homework. De Bergerac really did fight at the Siege of Arras in 1640 and died in 1655. But we’re thinking he probably wasn’t as much fun as the fictional guy—because that's almost impossible.
Why Should I Care?
The standard, after-school special lesson of Cyrano de Bergerac is that we should all look past appearances and try to see people for who they really are. Awww.
But although we at Shmoop love after-school specials for their cheese and camp factors—especially if they star insanely an amped-up Helen Hunt (!)—we don't live our lives by them. No one does.
Especially not Edmond Rostand, the hyper-witty author of Cyrano de Bergerac. Instead, his play hinges on a much more nuanced bit of wisdom: don't let your own shortcomings—or longcomings, in the case of Cyrano's oversized beak—hobble you.
Sure, in the wrong hands that might sound like advice that could appear on an inspirational poster. But that doesn't mean it's super, super good advice.
After all, check out what goes down in Cyrano: a kind of homely guy falls for a kind of shallow hot chick. But because he's such an awesome guy, she falls head-over-heels in love with him. But—but—because he's so insecure, he hides from her love.
Ugh. When we read this play we end up screaming at the pages a lot: "Cyrano! Buck up, dude! Tell her it's you! Put yourself out there!"
But surprisingly, no matter how much we screech at our Penguin edition, Cyrano keeps doing the same thing.
Take this lesson to heart, oh reader. You want to wear a crop top but you're scared you have too much of a belly for anyone to consider you attractive? Pshaw. Sun's out, tums out.
You're a dude who's 5'8" and you've fallen for a statuesque woman who's 6'1"? Remember that Daniel Radcliffe is 5'5" and is also Harry freaking Potter.
You have crooked teeth and are afraid to smile? That's ridiculous—Kate Moss, Jane Birkin, and Isabella Rossellini have crooked teeth... and were supermodels.
If you've got it—it meaning an imperfection—flaunt it, and after a while people will start thinking "signature" rather than "weirdness" (if they ever thought "weirdness" in the first place, that is). We recommend taking a lot of cues from Cyrano—how to be witty, how to be brave, how to kill one hundred men in a night (hmm, maybe not)—but we think the biggest thing you can take away from this memorable character is that without his nose-related hangups, he could have been a super-happy guy.