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French dramatist
original name Jean-Baptiste Poquelin

baptized Jan. 15, 1622, Paris, France
died Feb. 17, 1673, Paris

French actor and playwright, the greatest of all writers of French comedy.

Although the sacred and secular authorities of 17th-century France often combined against him, the genius of Molière finally emerged to win him acclaim. Comedy had a long history before Molière, who employed most of its traditional forms, but he succeeded in inventing a new style that was based on a double vision of normal and abnormal seen in relation to each other—the comedy of the true opposed to the specious, the intelligent seen alongside the pedantic. An actor himself, Molière seems to have been incapable of visualizing any situation without animating and dramatizing it, often beyond the limits of probability; though living in an age of reason, his own good sense led him not to proselytize but rather to animate the absurd, as in such masterpieces as Tartuffe, L’École des femmes, Le Misanthrope, and many others. It is testimony to the freshness of his vision that the greatest comic artists working centuries later in other media, such as Charlie Chaplin, are still compared to Molière.

Beginnings in theatre
Molière was born (and died) in the heart of Paris. His mother died when he was 10 years old; his father, one of the appointed furnishers of the royal household, gave him a good education at the Collège de Clermont (the school that, as the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, was to train so many brilliant Frenchmen, including Voltaire). Although his father clearly intended him to take over his royal appointment, the young man renounced it in 1643, apparently determined to break with tradition and seek a living on the stage. That year he joined with nine others to produce and play comedy as a company under the name of the Illustre-Théâtre. His stage name, Molière, is first found in a document dated June 28, 1644. He was to give himself entirely to the theatre for 30 years and to die exhausted at the age of 51.

A talented actress, Madeleine Béjart, persuaded Molière to establish a theatre, but she could not keep the young company alive and solvent. In 1645 Molière was twice sent to prison for debts on the building and properties. The number of theatregoers in 17th-century Paris was small, and the city already had two established theatres, so that a continued existence must have seemed impossible to a young company. From the end of 1645, for no fewer than 13 years, the troupe sought a living touring the provinces. No history of these years is possible, though municipal registers and church records show the company emerging here and there: in Nantes in 1648, in Toulouse in 1649, and so on. They were in Lyon intermittently from the end of 1652 to the summer of 1655 and again in 1657, at Montpellier in 1654 and 1655, and at Béziers in 1656. Clearly they had their ups as well as downs. These unchronicled years must have been of crucial importance to Molière’s career, forming as they did a rigorous apprenticeship to his later work as actor-manager and teaching him how to deal with authors, colleagues, audiences, and authorities. His rapid success and persistence against opposition when he finally got back to Paris is inexplicable without these years of training. His first two known plays date from this time: L’Étourdi ou les contretemps (The Blunderer, 1762), performed at Lyon in 1655, and Le Dépit amoureux (The Amorous Quarrel, 1762), performed at Béziers in 1656.

The path to fame opened for him on the afternoon of October 24, 1658, when, in the guardroom of the Louvre and on an improvised stage, the company presented Corneille’s Nicomède before the king, Louis XIV, and followed it with what Molière described as one of those little entertainments which had won him some reputation with provincial audiences. This was Le Docteur amoureux (“The Amorous Doctor”); whether it was in the form still extant is doubtful. It apparently was a success and secured the favour of the King’s brother Philippe, duc d’Orléans. It is difficult to know the extent of the Duc’s patronage, which lasted seven years, until the King himself took over the company known as “Troupe du roi.” No doubt the company gained a certain celebrity and prestige, invitations to great houses, and subsidies (usually unpaid) to actors, but not much more.

From the time of his return to Paris in 1658, all the reliable facts about Molière’s life have to do with his activity as author, actor, and manager. Some French biographers have done their best to read his personal life into his works, but at the cost of misconstruing what might have happened as what did happen. The truth is that there is little information except legend and satire. The fact that authors like Montaigne, Plutarch, Julius Caesar, and Seneca may have been in his library (according to a legal inventory of 1708), for example, does not mean that his plays should be read with the doctrines of such authors in mind.

Although unquestionably a great writer, Molière was not an author in the usual sense: he wrote little that could be called literature or even that was meant to be published—some poems and a translation of the ancient Latin writings of Lucretius, incomplete. His plays were made for the stage, and his early prefaces complain that he had to publish to avoid exploitation. (Two of them were in fact pirated.) He left seven of his plays unpublished, never issued any collected edition, and never (so far as is known) read proofs or took care with his text. Comedies, in his view, were made to be acted. This fact was forgotten in the 19th century. It took such 20th-century actors as Louis Jouvet, Charles Dullin, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Jean Vilar to present a new and exact sense of his dramatic genius.

Nor was he at all a classical author, with leisure to plan and write as he would. Competition, the fight for existence, was the keynote of Molière’s whole career. To keep his actors and his audiences was an unremitting struggle against other theatres. He won this contest almost single-handed. He held his company together by his technical competence and force of personality.

Molière’s first Paris play, Les Précieuses ridicules (The Affected Young Ladies), prefigured what was to come. It centres on two provincial girls who are exposed by valets masquerading as masters in scenes that contrast, on the one hand, the girls’ desire for elegance coupled with a lack of common sense and, on the other, the valets’ plain speech seasoned with cultural clichés. The girls’ fatuities, which they consider the height of wit, suggest their warped view of culture in which material things are of no account. The fun at the expense of these affected people is still refreshing and must have been even more so for the first spectators.

Les Précieuses, as well as Sganarelle (first performed in October, 1660), probably had its premiere at the Théâtre du Petit-Bourbon, a great house adjacent to the Louvre. The Petit-Bourbon was demolished (apparently without notice), and the company moved early in 1661 to a hall in the Palais-Royal, built as a theatre by Richelieu. Here it was that all Molière’s “Paris” plays were staged, starting with Dom Garcie de Navarre, ou le prince jaloux in February 1661, a heroic comedy of which much was hoped; it failed on the stage and succeeded only in inspiring Molière to work on Le Misanthrope. Such failures were rare and eclipsed by successes greater than the Paris theatre had known.

Scandals and successes
The first night of L’École des femmes (The School for Wives), December 26, 1662, caused a scandal as if people suspected that here was an emergence of a comic genius that regarded nothing as sacrosanct. Some good judges have thought this to be Molière’s masterpiece, as pure comedy as he ever attained. Based on Paul Scarron’s version (La Précaution inutile, 1655) of a Spanish story, it presents a pedant, Arnolphe, who is so frightened of femininity that he decides to marry a girl entirely unacquainted with the ways of the world. The delicate portrayal in this girl of an awakening temperament, all the stronger for its absence of convention, is a marvel of comedy. Molière crowns his fantasy by showing his pedant falling in love with her, and his elephantine gropings toward lovers’ talk are both his punishment and the audience’s delight.

From 1662 onward the Palais-Royal theatre was shared by Italian actors, each company taking three playing days in each week. Molière also wrote plays that were privately commissioned and thus first performed elsewhere: Les Fâcheux (The Impertinents, 1732) at Vaux in August 1661; the first version of Tartuffe at Versailles in 1664; Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme at Chambord in 1670; and Psyché in the Tuileries Palace in 1671.

On February 20, 1662, Molière married Armande Béjart. It is not certain whether she was Madeleine’s sister, as the documents state, or her daughter, as some contemporaries suggest. There were three children of the marriage; only a daughter survived to maturity. It was not a happy marriage; flirtations of Armande are indicated in hostile pamphlets, but there is almost no reliable information.

Molière cleverly turned the outcry produced by L’École des femmes to the credit of the company by replying to his critics on the stage. La Critique de L’École des femmes in June 1663 and L’Impromptu de Versailles in October were both single-act discussion plays. In La Critique Molière allowed himself to express some principles of his new style of comedy, and in the other play he made theatre history by reproducing with astonishing realism the actual greenroom, or actors’ lounge, of the company and the backchat involved in rehearsal.

The quarrel of L’École des femmes was itself outrun in violence and scandal by the presentation of the first version of Tartuffe in May 1664. The history of this great play sheds much light on the conditions in which Molière had to work and bears a quite remarkable testimony to his persistence and capacity to show fight. He had to wait five years and risk the livelihood of his actors before his reward, which proved to be the greatest success of his career. Most men would surely have given up the struggle: from the time of the first performance of what was probably the first three acts of the play as it is now known, many must have feared that the Roman Catholic Church would never allow its public performance.

Undeterred, Molière made matters worse by staging a version of Dom Juan, ou le festin de Pierre with a spectacular ending in which an atheist is committed to hell—but only after he had amused and scandalized the audience. Dom Juan was meant to be a quick money raiser, but it was a costly failure, mysteriously removed after 15 performances and never performed again or published by Molière. It is a priceless example of his art. The central character, Dom Juan, carries the aristocratic principle to its extreme by disclaiming all types of obligation, either to parents or doctors or tradesmen or God. Yet he assumes that others will fulfill their obligations to him. His servant, Sganarelle, is imagined as his opposite in every point, earthy, timorous, superstitious. These two form the perfect French counterpart to Don Quixote and Sancho.

Harassment by the authorities
While engaged in his battles against the authorities, Molière continued to hold his company together single-handedly. He made up for lack of authors by writing more plays himself. He could never be sure either of actors or authors. In 1664 he put on the first play of Jean Racine, La Thébaïde, but the next year Racine transferred his second play, Alexandre le Grand, to a longer established theatre while Molière’s actors were actually performing it. He was constantly harassed by the authorities. These setbacks may have been offset in part by the royal favour conferred upon Molière, but royal favour was capricious. Pensions were often promised and not paid. The court wanted more light plays than great works. The receipts of his theatre were uncertain and fluctuating. In his 14 years in Paris, Molière wrote 31 of the 95 plays that were presented on his stage. To meet the cumulative misfortunes of his own illness, the closing of the theatre for seven weeks upon the death of the Queen Mother, and the proscription of Tartuffe and Dom Juan, he wrote five plays in one season (1666–67). Of the five, only one, Le Médecin malgré lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself, 1914), was a success.

In the preceding season, however, Le Misanthrope, almost from the start, was treated as a masterpiece by discerning playgoers, if not by the entire public. It is a drawing-room comedy, without known sources, constructed from the elements of Molière’s own company. Molière himself played the role of Alceste, a fool of a new kind, with high principles and rigid standards, yet by nature a blind critic of everybody else. Alceste is in love with Célimène (played by Molière’s wife, Armande), a superb comic creation, equal to any and every occasion, the incarnate spirit of society. The structure of the play is as simple as it is poetic. Alceste storms moodily through the play, finding no “honest” men to agree with him, always ready to see the mote in another’s eye, blind to the beam in his own, as ignorant of his real nature as a Tartuffe.

The church nearly won its battle against Molière: it prevented public performance, both of Tartuffe for five years and of Dom Juan for the whole of Molière’s life. A five-act version of Tartuffe was played in 1667, but once only: it was banned by the President of Police and by the Archbishop on pain of excommunication. Molière’s reply was to lobby the King repeatedly, even in a military camp, and to publish a defense of his play called Lettre sur la comédie de l’Imposteur. He kept his company together through 1668 with Amphitryon (January 13), George Dandin (Versailles, July 18), and L’Avare (September 9). Sooner or later so original an author of comedy as Molière was bound to attempt a modern sketch of the ancient comic figure of the miser. The last of his three 1668 plays, L’Avare, is composed in prose that reads like verse; the stock situations are all recast, but the spirit is different from Molière’s other works and not to everyone’s taste. His miser is a living paradox, inhuman in his worship of money, all too human in his need of respect and affection. In breathtaking scenes his mania is made to suggest cruelty, pathological loneliness, even insanity. The play is too stark for those who expect laughter from comedy; Goethe started the dubious fashion of calling it tragic. Yet, as before, forces of mind and will are made to serve inhuman ends and are opposed by instinct and a very “human” nature. The basic comic suggestion is one of absurdity and incongruity rather than of gaiety.

His second play of 1668, George Dandin, often dismissed as a farce, may be one of Molière’s greatest creations. It centres on a fool, who admits his folly while suggesting that wisdom would not help him because, if things in fact go against us, it is pointless to be wise. As it happens he is in the right, but he can never prove it. The subject of the play is trivial, the suggestion is limitless; it sketches a new range of comedy altogether. In 1669, permission was somehow obtained, and the long run of Tartuffe at last began. More than 60 performances were given that year alone. The theme for this play, which brought Molière more trouble than any other, may have come to him when a local hypocrite seduced his landlady. Of the three versions of the play, only the last has survived; the first (presented in three acts played before the King in 1664) probably portrayed a pious crook so firmly established in a bourgeois household that the master promises him his daughter and disinherits his son. At the time it was common for lay directors of conscience to be placed in families to reprove and reform conduct. When this “holy” man is caught making love to his employer’s wife, he recovers by masterly self-reproach and persuades the master not only to pardon him but also to urge him to see as much of his wife as possible. Molière must have seen even greater comic possibilities in this theme, for he made five acts out of it. The final version contains two seduction scenes and a shift of interest to the comic paradox in Tartuffe himself, posing as an inhuman ascetic while by nature he is an all-too-human lecher. It is difficult to think of a theme more likely to offend pious minds. Like Arnolphe in L’École des femmes, Tartuffe seems to have come to grief because he trusted in wit and forgot instinct.

Last plays
The struggle over Tartuffe probably exhausted Molière to the point that he was unable to stave off repeated illness and supply new plays; he had, in fact, just four years more to live. Yet he produced in 1669 Monsieur de Pourceaugnac for the King at Chambord and in 1670 Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme treated a contemporary theme—social climbing among the bourgeois, or upper middle class—but it is perhaps the least dated of all his comedies. The protagonist Jourdain, rather than being an unpleasant sycophant, is as delightful as he is fatuous, as genuine as he is naïve; his folly is embedded in a bountiful disposition, which he of course despises. This is comedy in Molière’s happiest vein: the fatuity of the masculine master is offset by the common sense of wife and servant.

Continuing to write despite his illness, he produced Psyché and Les Fourberies de Scapin (The Cheats of Scapin, 1677) in 1671. Les Femmes savantes (The Blue-Stockings, 1927) followed in 1672; in rougher hands this subject would have been (as some have thought it) a satire on bluestockings, but Molière has imagined a sensible bourgeois who goes in fear of his masterful and learned wife. Le Malade imaginaire (Eng. trans., The Imaginary Invalid), about a hypochondriac who fears death and doctors, was performed in 1673 and was Molière’s last work. It is a powerful play in its delineation of medical jargon and professionalism, in the fatuity of a would-be doctor with learning and no sense, in the normality of the young and sensible lovers, as opposed to the superstition, greed, and charlatanry of other characters. During the fourth performance of the play, on February 17, Molière collapsed on stage and was carried back to his house in the rue de Richelieu to die. As he had not been given the sacraments or the opportunity of formally renouncing the actor’s profession, he was buried without ceremony and after sunset on February 21.

Molière as actor and as playwright
Molière’s acting had been both his disappointment and his glory. He aspired to be a tragic actor, but contemporary taste was against him. His public seemed to favour a tragic style that was pompous, with ranting and roaring, strutting and chanting. Molière had the build, the elasticity, the india-rubber face, as it has been called, of the born comedian. Offstage he was neither a great talker nor particularly merry, but he would mime and copy speech to the life. He had the tireless energy of the actor. He was always ready to make a scene out of an incident, to put himself on a stage. He gave one of his characters his own cough and another his own moods, and he made a play out of actual rehearsals. The characters of his greatest plays are like the members of his company. It was quite appropriate that he should die while playing the part of the sick man that he really was.

The actor in him influenced his writing, since he wrote (at speed) what he could most naturally act. He gave himself choleric parts, servants’ parts, a henpecked husband, a foolish bourgeois, and a superstitious old man who cursed “that fellow Molière.” (The comparison with Charlie Chaplin recurs constantly.) Something more than animal energy and a talent for mime was at work in him, a quality that can only be called intensity of dramatic vision. Here again actors have helped to recover an aspect of his genius that the scholars had missed, his stage violence. To take his plays as arguments in favour of reason is to miss their vitality. His sense of reason leads him to animate the absurd. His characters are imagined as excitable and excited to the point of incoherence. He sacrifices plot to drama, vivacity, a sense of life. He is a classical writer, yet he is ready to defy all rules of writing.

To think of Molière as a cool apostle of reason, sharing the views of the more rational men of his plays, is a heresy that dies hard; but careful scrutiny of the milieu in which Molière had to work makes it impossible to believe. The comedies are not sermons; such doctrine as may be extracted from them is incidental and at the opposite pole from didacticism. Ideas are expressed to please a public, not to propagate the author’s view. If asked what he thought of hypocrisy or atheism, he would have marvelled at the question and evaded it with the observation that the theatre is not the place for “views.” There is no documentary evidence that Molière ever tried to convey his own opinions on marriage, on the church, on hell, or on class distinctions. Strictly speaking, his views of these things are unknown. All that is known is that he worked for and in the theatre and used his amazing power of dramatic suggestion to vivify any imagined scene. If he has left a sympathetic picture of an atheist, it was not to recommend free thought: his picture of the earthy serving man is no less vivid, no less sympathetic. Scholars who have tried to make his plays prove things or to convey lessons have made little sense of his work and have been blind to its inherent fantasy and imaginative power.

Since the power of Molière’s writing seems to lie in its creative vigour of language, the traditional divisions of his works into comedies of manners, comedies of character, and farce are not helpful: he does not appear to have set out in any instance to write a certain kind of play. He starts from an occasion in Le Mariage forcé (1664; The Forced Marriage, 1762) from doubts about marriage expressed by Rabelais’s character Panurge, and in Le Médecin malgré lui he starts from a medieval fable, or fabliau, of a woodcutter who, to avoid a beating, pretends he is a doctor. On such skeleton themes Molière animates figures or arranges discussion in which one character exposes another or the roles are first expressed and then reversed. It is intellectual rhythm rather than what happens, the discussion more than the story, that conveys the charm, so that to recount the plot may be to omit the essential.

His unique sense of the comic
The attacks on Molière gave him the chance in his responses to state some aesthetic home truths. Thus, in La Critique de L’École des femmes, he states that tragedy might be heroic, but comedy must hold the mirror up to nature: “You haven’t achieved anything in comedy unless your portraits can be seen to be living types . . . making decent people laugh is a strange business.” And as for the rules that some were anxious to impose on writers: “I wonder if the golden rule is not to give pleasure and if a successful play is not on the right track.”

The attacks on L’École des femmes were child’s play in comparison with the storm raised by Tartuffe and Dom Juan. The attacks on them also drew from the poet a valuable statement of artistic principle. On Dom Juan he made no public reply since it was never officially condemned. The documents in defense of Tartuffe are two placets, or petitions, to the King, the preface to the first edition of 1669 (all these published over Molière’s own name), and the Lettre sur la comédie de l’Imposteur of 1667. The placets and preface are aesthetically disappointing, since Molière was forced to fight on ground chosen by his opponents and to admit that comedy must be didactic. (There is no other evidence that Molière thought this, so it is not unfair to assume that he used the argument only when forced.) The Lettre is much more important. It expresses in a few pregnant lines the aesthetic basis not only of Tartuffe but of Molière’s new concept of comedy:

The comic is the outward and visible form that nature’s bounty has attached to everything unreasonable, so that we should see, and avoid, it. To know the comic we must know the rational, of which it denotes the absence and we must see wherein the rational consists . . . incongruity is the heart of the comic . . . it follows that all lying, disguise, cheating, dissimulation, all outward show different from the reality, all contradiction in fact between actions that proceed from a single source, all this is in essence comic.

Molière seems here to put his finger on what was new in his notion of what is comic: a comedy, only incidentally funny, that is based on a constant double vision of wise and foolish, right and wrong seen together, side by side. This is his invention and his glory.

A main feature of Molière’s technique is a mixing of registers, or of contexts. Characters are made to play a part, then forget it, speak out of turn, overplay their role, so that those who watch this byplay constantly have the suggestion of mixed registers. The starting point of Le Médecin malgré lui, the idea of beating a man to make him pretend he is a doctor, is certainly not subtle, but Molière plays with the idea, makes his woodcutter enjoy his new experience, master the jargon, and then not know what to do with it. He utters inanities about Hippocrates, is overjoyed to find a patient ignorant of Latin, so that he need not bother about meaning. He looks for the heart on the wrong side and, undeterred by having his error recognized, sweeps aside the protest with the immortal: “We have changed all that.” The miser robbed of his money is pathetic, but he does not arouse emotions because his language leads him to the absurd “ . . . it’s all over . . . I’m dying, I’m dead, I’m buried.” He demands justice with such intemperance that his language exceeds all reason and he threatens to put the courts in the court. Molière’s Misanthrope is even more suggestive in his confusion of justice as an ideal and as a social institution: “I have justice on my side and I lose my case!” What to him is a scandal of world order is to others just proof that he is wrongheaded. Such concision does Molière’s dramatic speech achieve.

A French genius
When Voltaire described Molière as “the painter of France,” he suggested the range of French attitudes found in the plays, and this may explain why the French have developed a proprietary interest in a writer whom they seem to regard in a special sense as their own. They stress aspects of his work that others tend to overlook. Three of these are noteworthy.

First, formality permeates all his works. He never gives realism—life as it is—alone, but always within a pattern and a form that fuse light and movement, music and dance and speech. Modern productions that omit the interludes in his plays stray far from the original effect. Characters are grouped, scenes and even speeches are arranged, comic repartee is rounded off in defiance of realism.

Second, the French stress the poetry where foreigners see psychology. They take the plays not as studies of social mania but as patterns of fantasy that take up ideas, only to drop them when a point has been made. Le Misanthrope is not considered as a case study or a French Hamlet but as a subtly arranged chorus of voices and attitudes that convey a critique of individualism. The play charms by its successive evocations of its central theme. The tendency to speak one’s mind is seen to be many things: idealistic or backbiting or rude or spiteful or just fatuous. It is in this fantasy playing on the mystery of self-centredness in society that Molière is in the eyes of his own people unsurpassed.

A third quality admired in France is his intellectual penetration in distinguishing the parts of a man from the whole man. Montaigne, the 16th-century essayist who deeply influenced Molière, divided qualities that are acquired, such as learning or politeness or skills, from those that are natural, such as humanity or animality, what might be called “human nature” without other attributes. Molière delighted in opposing his characters in this way; often in his plays a social veneer peels off, revealing a real man. Many of his dialogues start with politeness and end in open insults.

Molière opposed wit to nature in many forms. His comedy embraces things within the mind and beyond it; reason and fact seldom meet. As the beaten servant in Amphitryon observes: “That conflicts with common sense. But it is so, for all that.”

Will G. Moore



Type of work: Drama
Author: Moliere (Jean Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-1673)
Type of plot: Comedy of manners
Time of plot: Seventeenth century
Locale: Paris
First presented: 1666


The basic question in The Misanthrope—whether Alceste is an honest man behaving decently in a corrupt society, or a self-righteous, egocentric prig refusing to abide by the elementary rules of social discourse—has stimulated a long and continuing debate, a debate that may reveal more about the social attitudes and mores of the critics than about the play itself.


Principal Characters

Alceste (al-sest'), an outspoken, rigidly honest young man disgusted with society. Protesting against injustice, self-interest, deceit, roguery, he wants honesty, truthfulness, and sincerity. He hates all men because they are wicked, mischievous, hypocritic, and generally so odious to him that he has no desire to appear rational in their eyes. He would cheerfully lose a law case for the fun of seeing what people are and to have the right to rail against the iniquity of human nature. In love with a young widow, Celimene, he is not blind to her faults but feels that his sincere love will purify her heart. He controls his temper with her, for he deems her beneath his anger. Despite her coquetry, he will excuse her if she joins him in renouncing society and retiring into solitude. Seeing himself deceived on all sides and overwhelmed by injustice, he plans to flee from vice and seek a nook—with or without Celimene—where he may enjoy the freedom of being an honest man.
Celimene (sa-le-men'), a young widow loved by Alceste, though she embodies all qualities he detests. She is a flirt, a gossip with a satirical wit demonstrated in caustic sketches of her friends, a woman anxious for flattery. Not certain that she truly loves Alceste, she feels that he may be too jealous to deserve her love. In the end she scornfully rejects his invitation to grow old and bury herself in the wilderness with him.
Philinte (fe-lant'), a friend of Alceste. Believing in civilization, tact, conformity, he is a man of good sense and sober rationality who takes men as they are. Where Alceste says that Oronte's sonnet is very badly written. Philinte flatters him for the sentiment of the poem. Though he admits that trickery usually wins the day, he sees in it no reason to withdraw from society.
Oronte (6-ront'), a young fop who claims that he stands well in the court and with the king and offers to use his influence there for Alceste. When his offer of friendship and influence is rejected and his sonnet ridiculed, he brings charges against Alceste. Though in love with Celimene, he rejects his love when he learns of her ridicule of him, and admits he has been duped.
Eliante (ŕ-Ř-ant), Celimene's cousin, a woman whose ideas are similar to Philinte's and who marries him at the end. Though she enjoys gossip, she is sincere, as even Alceste admits, and favors people who speak their minds.
Arsinoe (ar-se-no-a'), a friend of Celimene. an envious prude who offers advice on honor and wisdom. Though a flatterer, she is also outspoken at times.
Acaste (a-cast') and Clitandre (kle-tandr'). noblemen and fops. Both desire the love of Celimene. who ridicules them.
Basque (bask), a servant to Celimene.
Dubois (du-bwa'), Alceste's servant.
An Officer of the Marechaussee (ma-ra-shosa'), who delivers a summons to Alceste.


The Story

Alceste had been called a misanthrope by many of his friends, and he took a rather obstinate delight in the name, this characteristic led him to quarrel heatedly with his good friend Philinte, who accepted uncritically the frivolous manners of the day. When Philinte warmly embraced a chance acquaintance, as was customary, Alceste maintained that such behavior was hypocritical, especially since Philinte hardly knew the man.
Philinte reminded Alceste that his lawsuit was nearly ready for trial, and that he would do well to moderate his attitude toward people in general. His opponents in the suit were doing everything possible to curry favor, but Alceste insulted everyone he met and made no effort to win over the judges.
Philinte also taunted Alceste on his love for Celimene, who, as a leader in society, was hypocritical most of the time. Alceste had to admit that his love could not be explained rationally.
Oronte interrupted the quarrel by coming to visit Alceste, who was puzzled by a visit from suave and elegant Oronte. Oronte asked permission to read a sonnet he had lately composed, as he was anxious to have Alceste's judgment of its literary merit.
After some affected hesitation, Oronte read his mediocre poem. Alceste, too honest to give false praise, condemned the verses and even satirized the poor quality of the writing. Oronte instantly took offense at this criticism, and a new quarrel broke out. Although the argument was indecisive, there were hints of a possible duel.
Alceste then went to call on Celimene. As soon as he saw her, he began perversely to upbraid her for her frivolous conduct and her hypocritical attitude toward other people. Although Celimene could slander and ridicule with a keen wit and a barbed tongue while a person was absent, she was all flattery and attention when talking with him. This attitude displeased Alceste.
The servant announced several callers, including Eliante. To Alceste's dismay, they all sat down for an interminable conversation. The men took great delight in naming over all their mutual acquaintances, and as each name was mentioned, Celimene made unkind remarks. The only gentle person in the room was Eliante, whose good sense and kind heart were in striking contrast with Celimene's caustic wit. Eliante was overshadowed, however, by the more brilliant Celimene. The men all declared they had nothing to do all day, and each swore to outstay the other, to remain longer with Celimene. Alceste determined to be the last to leave.
A guard appeared, however, to summon Alceste before the tribunal. Astonished, Alceste learned that his quarrel with Oronte had become public knowledge, and the authorities intended to prevent a possible duel. Loudly protesting that except for an order direct from the king nothing could make him praise the poetry of Oronte, Alceste was led away.
Arsinoe, an austere woman who made a pretense of great virtue, came to call on Celimene. She took the opportunity to warn Celimene that her conduct was creating a scandal, because her many suitors and her sharp tongue were hurting her reputation. Celimene spoke bitingly of Arsinoe's strait-laced character.
Arsinoe decided to talk privately with Alceste, with whom she was half in love. She comforted him as best she could for being so unfortunate as to love Celimene, and complimented him on his plain dealings and forthright character. Carried away by the intimacy of her talk, Arsinoe offered to do much for Alceste by speaking in his favor at court. But the two concluded that the love of Alceste for Celimene, though unsuitable from almost every point of view, was a fast tie.
Eliante and Philinte were in the meantime discussing Alceste and his habit of antagonizing his friends through his frankness. Philinte told her of Alceste's hearing before the tribunal. He had insisted that Oronte's verses were bad, but he had nothing more to say. Eliante and Philinte began to discover a mutual liking. If Eliante ever lost her fondness for Alceste, Philinte intended to offer himself as a lover.
Alceste received an unflattering letter, purporting to come from Celimene, which described him in malicious terms. After much coy hesitation, Celimene admitted that she had sent the letter and expressed surprise at Alceste's indignation. Other suitors appeared, each holding a letter and each much upset. On comparing notes, they found that they had all been ridiculed and insulted.
Meanwhile, Alceste had made up his mind to ask Eliante to marry him, but reconsidered when he realized that his proposal would seem to spring from a desire to avenge himself on Celimene. To the misanthrope there seemed to be no solution except to go into exile and live a hermit's life.
When Celimene's suitors clamored for an explanation, she told them that she had written the letters because she was tired of the niceties of polite conversation. For once she decided to say what she really thought. This confession was shocking to the suitors who thought frankness and rudeness were unpardonable crimes. Hypocrisy, flattery, cajolery, extravagances—these were the marks of a gentle lady. Protesting and disdainful, they left together, never to return.
Only Alceste remained. Even the coquettish and malicious heart of Celimene was touched. When Alceste repeated his vows of fidelity and asked her once more to marry him, she almost consented. But when Alceste revealed that he wanted them to go into exile and lead quiet, simple lives, she refused. Celimene could never leave the false, frivolous society she loved.
Now completely the misanthrope, Alceste stalked way with the firm resolve to quit society forever, to become a hermit, far removed from the artificial sham of preciosity. Philinte and Eliante, more moderate in their views, however, decided that they would marry.


Critical Evaluation

In a letter to a friend, Jean Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth century writer and philosopher, stated that "the character of Alceste in [The Misanthrope] is that of a fair, open and . . . truly honest man [and] the poet makes him a subject of ridicule." To what extent are these statements true?
If one examines the play closely, one finds that although Alceste is subject to ridicule, so is the society he ridicules. In other words, Moliere validates Alceste's criticism of the follies of the age: the hypocrisy of court life, the absurd manners required by all who attempt to appear at court, the dishonest practice of bribing judges in order to win a law suit, the ludicrous poetry written by those with no talent simply because writing poetry was one of the acts required of a gentleman of the time, the delight in gossiping even if the gossip were to destroy the good name of an individual. Moliere attacks all of these practices through Alceste.
And all of these attacks are seen to be valid because these practices are not observed in the behavior of those who represent the golden mean: Philinte (Alceste's best friend) and Eliante (who loves Alceste and is, in turn, loved by Philinte). They leave the gossiping, the poetry writing, the absurd activities to others. However, there is an important distinction between their behavior and Alceste's. They are willing to acknowledge certain social customs as essential to maintaining a stable society and accept those who practice these customs. Alceste, on the contrary, not only refuses to conform but delights in condemning all those who do not conform.
Thus, although Moliere would agree with Alceste's view of society (as shown by the assent of Philinte and Eliante), he would disagree with his excessive manner in attacking the social fabric, this leads to the first part of Rousseau's statement (that is, Alceste is "fair, open and truly honest"). For Moliere takes great pains to show us that Alceste is none of these.
The opening scene of the play shows him condemning his friend Philinte for having shown civility to a man he hardly knows. Alceste calls Philinte's action a crime and declares he would rather die than commit such an indignity. Alceste insists that acts of friendship should be reserved for those who are one's true friends. He declares that friendship has no meaning if it must be shared. His extreme reaction to Philinte's harmless act would seem to indicate that what Alceste resents most about the actions is that it reduces his relationship with Philinte to the same level as all other relationships; he insists that he wants to be singled out, chosen for his virtues, valued for himself. His attitude is hardly fair to Philinte, who fails to view his action as a criminal offense and maintains that in order to survive in society, one must sometimes compromise.
Although Alceste appears to be "open and truly honest," we find that his actions belie Rousseau's statement. When asked by Oronte to comment on a sonnet he has written, Alceste attacks it mercilessly. The poem is, obviously, of little merit, but Alceste again overreacts. One cannot help but wonder if Alceste's reaction to the poem stems from his knowledge that it was written to Celimene, whom he loves, by a rival, whom he detests.
It is, above all, in his relationship with Celimene, that we must question Alceste's openness and honesty. If he truly despises the falseness of his society, how can one account for his love for Celimene, the epitome of the falseness of that society? It is Celimene who recites nasty gossip about people, behind their backs, in the famous medallion scene. It is Celimene who leads on a number of suitors by writing loving letters to all of them. It is Celimene who is the quintessence of the hypocrisy of the society Alceste condemns. Yet, he loves her with a passion that overcomes his reason—a situation that serves as a source for comedy as well as tragedy in seventeenth century French drama.
Alceste is aware of all of Celimene's faults yet can do nothing to control his passion. The modest, reasonable Eliante would seem to be a more likely choice for his affections, but Celimene is the recipient of all his love. And, as with his friend Philinte, he refuses to share her love with anyone else. When she acknowledges that she enjoys her way of life, he chastises her in the extreme manner he used to criticize Philinte in the opening scene of the play. And can one call a man "fair" who, when he believes he has found proof that Celimene is untrue to him, turns to Eliante asking her to help him revenge himself on Celimene by accepting his heart? Eliante, fortunately, is reasonable enough to realize that Alceste is speaking in a moment of unreasonable anger and suggests that he not use her to seek revenge on Celimene.
The supreme example of Alceste's succumbing to the hypocrisy he professes to detest is presented in act 4, scene 3. He confronts Celimene with what he believes to be her treachery. Rather than give him the answer he desires—that is, that she loves only him—she agrees with his charges. He is brought to a point of ultimate despair and begs her to pretend that she loves him, that such pretense will suffice. At this point, the comedy closely approaches tragedy, for we find Alceste, the upholder of truth and honesty, begging for deception.
The seventeenth century belief in the overwhelming power of uncontrollable passion can account, in part, for Alceste's behavior. However, one can find examples throughout the play clearly demonstrating that although Alceste is correct in upbraiding society for its hypocritical behavior, much of his criticism is directed at those whose esteem he desires. It would thus seem that part of his protest rests in his fear that if all are treated with the same courtesy, how can one "set the worthy man apart"? He wishes to be loved and honored for himself and not merely because society deems such behavior correct. He wants to be set apart: to be Philinte's best friend (and not share the social niceties that Philinte bestows on others), to be Celimene's only lover (and not share her company with that of other men).
It would thus appear that not only is the first part of Rousseau's statement incorrect, but Moliere's title as well.
Alceste is no misanthrope (his fondness for Philinte and Eliante and his love for Celimene are obvious). He does, however, abhor the sham of society. But although Alceste's ridicule of society is shown to be valid, his behavior is shown to be ridiculous. Thus the second part of Rousseau's statement is correct.




Type of work: Drama
Author: Moliere (Jean Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-1673)
Type of plot: Comedy
Locale: Paris
First presented: 1664


When Tartuffe: Or, the Hypocrite was originally produced, Moliere was attacked by critics for undermining the very basis of religion: instead, his comedy was meant to satirize false piety, not true devotion. The famous portrait of the hypocrite has been the ancestor of similar types, from Dickens' Mr. Pecksniff to Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry.


Principal Characters

Tartuffe (tar-tiif), a religious hypocrite and impostor who uses religious cant and practices to play on the credulity of a wealthy man who befriends him. To gain money and cover deceit, he talks of his hair shirt and scourge, of prayers and distributing alms; and he disapproves of immodest dress. Before his first appearance, he is reported by some to be a good man of highest worth, by others to be a glutton, a drinker, and a hypocrite. Deciding that he wants his patron's daughter as his wife, he uses his seeming piety to convince his host to break his daughter's marriage plans. He then endeavors to seduce his host's wife by holding her hand, patting her knee, fingering her lace collar, and making declarations of love to her. When his conduct is reported to the husband by his wife and their son, the foolish man forgives Tartuffe and gives the hypocrite all his property. Another attempted seduction fails when the husband, hidden, overhears all that happens and orders Tartuffe out of the house. Tartuffe, boasting that the entire property is now his, has an eviction order served on his former patron. When a police officer arrives to carry out the eviction order, the tables are turned. Tartuffe is arrested at the order of the king, who declares him to be a notorious rogue.
Orgon (or-gon'), a credulous, wealthy man taken in by Tartuffe, whom he befriends, invites into his home, and proposes as a husband for his daughter, already promised to another. Defending Tartuffe against the accusations of his family and servants, he refuses to believe charges that the scoundrel has attempted to seduce his wife. He then disowns his children and signs over all his property to Tartuffe. Only later, when he hides under the table, at the urging of his wife, and overhears Tartuffe's second attempt at seduction, is he convinced that he is harboring a hypocrite and scheming rascal. Orgon is saved from arrest and eviction when Tartuffe is taken away by police officers.
Elmire (el-meV), Orgon's wife. Aware of the wickedness of Tartuffe, she is unable to reveal the hypocrite's true nature to her husband. When she finds herself the object of Tartuffe's wooing, she urges the son not to make the story public, for she believes a discreet and cold denial to be more effective than violent cries of deceit. Finally, by a planned deception of Tartuffe, she convinces her husband of that scoundrel's wickedness.
Dorine (do-ren'), a maid and a shrewd, outspoken, witty girl who takes an active part in exposing Tartuffe and assisting the lovers in their plot against him. Much of the humor of the play results from her impertinence. She objects straightforwardly to the forced marriage of Tartuffe to Mariane, and she prevents a misunderstanding between the true lovers.
Damis (da-me'), Orgon's son, regarded as a fool by his grandmother. His temper and indiscretion upset Tar-tuffe's carefully laid plans, as when, for example, he suddenly comes out of the closet in which he has listened to Tartuffe's wooing of Elmire and naively reports the story to his father. He is outwitted by Tartuffe's calm admission of the charge and his father's belief in Tartuffe's innocence, despite the confession.
Valere (va-ler'), Mariane's betrothed. He quarrels with her, after hearing that Orgon intends to marry the girl to Tartuffe, because she seems not to object to the proposal with sufficient force. In a comedy scene the maid, running alternately between the lovers, reconciles the pair, and Valere determines that they will be married. He loyally offers to help Orgon flee after the eviction order is served on him by the court.
Madame Pernelle (per-neT), Orgon's mother, an outspoken old woman. Like her son, she believes in the honesty and piety of Tartuffe, and she hopes that his attitude and teachings may reclaim her grandchildren and brother-in-law from their social frivolity. She defends Tartuffe even after Orgon turns against him. She admits her mistake only after the eviction order has been delivered.
Cleante (kla-ant'), Orgon's brother-in-law. He talks in pompous maxims and makes long tiresome speeches of advice to Orgon and Tartuffe. Both disregard him.
Monsieur Loyal (lwa-óŕĂ), a tipstaff of the court. He serves the eviction order on Orgon.
A Police Officer, brought in by Tartuffe to arrest Orgon. Instead, he arrests Tartuffe by order of the king.
Filipote (fe-le-pot'), Madame Pernelle's servant.


The Story

Orgon's home was a happy one. He himself was married to Elmire, a woman much younger than he, who adored him. His two children by a former marriage were fond of their stepmother, and she of them. Mariane, the daughter, was engaged to be married to Valere, a very eligible young man, and Damis, the son, was in love with Valere's sister.
Then Tartuffe came to live in the household. Tartuffe was a penniless scoundrel whom the trusting Orgon had found praying in church. Taken in by his cant and his pose of fervent religiousness, Orgon had invited the hypocrite into his home. As a consequence, the family was soon demoralized. Once established, Tartuffe proceeded to change their normal happy mode of life to a strictly moral one. He set up a rigid puritan regimen for the family, and persuaded Orgon to force his daughter to break her engagement to Valere in order to marry Tartuffe. He said she needed a pious man to lead her in a righteous life.
Valere was determined that Mariane would marry no one but himself, but unfortunately Mariane was too spineless to resist Tartuffe and her father. Confronted by her father's orders, she remained silent and remonstrated only weakly. As a result, Tartuffe was cordially hated by every member of the family, including Dorine, the saucy, outspoken servant, who did everything in her power to break the hold that the hypocrite had secured over her master. Dorine hated not only Tartuffe but also his valet, Laurent, for the servant imitated the master in everything. In fact, the only person besides Orgon who liked and approved of Tartuffe was Orgon's mother, Madame Pernelle, who was the type of puritan who wished to withhold from others pleasures she herself could not enjoy. Madame Pernelle highly disapproved of Elmire, maintaining that in her love for clothes and amusements she was setting her family a bad example which Tartuffe was trying to correct. Actually, Elmire was merely full of the joy of living, a fact that her mother-in-law was unable to perceive. Orgon himself was little better. When Elmire fell ill, and he was informed of this fact, his sole concern was for the health of Tartuffe. Tartuffe, however, was in fine fettle, stout and ruddy cheeked. For his evening meal, he consumed two partridges, half a leg of mutton and four flasks of wine. He then retired to his warm and comfortable bed and slept soundly until morning.
Tartuffe's designs were not really for the daughter, Mariane, but for Elmire herself. One day, after Orgon's wife had recovered from her illness, Tartuffe appeared before her. He complimented Elmire on her beauty, and even went so far as to lay his fat hand on her knee. Damis, Orgon's son, observed all that went on from the cabinet where he was hidden. Furious, he determined to reveal to his father all that he had seen. Orgon refused to believe him. Wily Tartuffe had so completely captivated Orgon that he ordered Damis to apologize to Tartuffe. When his son refused, Orgon, violently angry, drove him from the house and disowned him. Then to show his confidence in Tartuffe's honesty and piety, Orgon signed a deed of trust turning his estate over to Tartuffe's management, and announced his daughter's betrothal to Tartuffe.
Elmire, embittered by the behavior of this impostor in her house, resolved to unmask him. She persuaded Orgon to hide under a cloth-covered table and see and hear for himself the real Tartuffe. Then she enticed Tartuffe to make love to her, disarming him with the assurance that her foolish husband would suspect nothing. Emboldened, Tartuffe poured out his heart to her, leaving no doubt as to his intention of making her his mistress. Disillusioned and outraged when Tartuffe asserted that Orgon was a complete dupe, the husband emerged from his hiding place, denounced the hypocrite, and ordered him from the house. Tartuffe defied him, reminding him that the house was now his according to Orgon's deed of trust.
Another matter made Orgon even more uneasy than the possible loss of his property. This was a casket given him by a friend, Argas, a political criminal now in exile. It contained important state secrets, the revelation of which would mean a charge of treason against Orgon and certain death for his friend. Orgon had foolishly entrusted the casket to Tartuffe, and he feared the use that villain might make of it. He informed his brother-in-law Cleante that he would have nothing further to do with pious men: that in the future he would shun them like the plague. But Cleante pointed out that such rushing to extremes was the sign of an unbalanced mind. Because a treacherous vagabond was masquerading as a religious man was no good reason to suspect religion.
The next day Tartuffe made good this threat, using his legal right to force Orgon and his family from their house. Madame Pernelle could not believe Tartuffe guilty of such villainy, and she reminded her son that in this world virtue is often misjudged and persecuted. But when the sheriff's officer arrived with the notice for evacuation, even she believed that Tartuffe was a villain.
The crowning indignity came when Tartuffe took to the king the casket containing the state secrets. Orders were issued for Orgon's immediate arrest. But fortunately the king recognized Tartuffe as an impostor who had committed crimes in another city. Therefore, because of Orgon's loyal service in the army, the king annulled the deed Orgon had made covering his property and returned the casket unopened.


Critical Evaluation

Tartuffe was first produced in 1664 but was immediately censured by fanatical religious groups who viewed the play as an attack on religion. Despite three petitions to the king, Moliere was unable to have the ban on the play lifted until 1669. Were the attacks on the play valid? According to Moliere and to generations of readers and viewers since the seventeenth century, they were not.
In the preface to the 1669 edition of the play, Moliere pointed out that he was not attacking religion, but took "every possible precaution to distinguish the hypocrite from the truly devout man." This is evident from Tartuffe's behavior throughout the play.
Tartuffe is not truly religious but an extreme example of false piety. His hypocrisy (or "imposture," as the subtitle to the 1669 version of the play depicts him) is evident from his first appearance on stage, when he asks his valet to hang up his hair shirt. His hypocrisy is further emphasized by his lusting after Elmire (act 3). Although Tartuffe's language is couched in religious terms, his earthly desires are plainly discernible. His hypocrisy is most clearly revealed at the end of the play when he betrays Orgon, exposing Orgon's political secrets, and utilizing Orgon's gifts to destroy the entire family.
Religious hypocrisy, however, is not the only source of comic criticism in the play. Lack of moderation in other areas of human behavior is also under attack. Both Orgon and his mother exhibit extreme behavior in their inability to see through Tartuffe's imposture. Their absurd devotion to Tartuffe is illustrated in two important scenes. The first (act 1) exposes Orgon's foolish devotion when he returns from a trip and is oblivious to Donne's accounts of his wife's illness; his only concern is for the health and welfare of Tartuffe. When middle-aged Orgon, feeling jealous and resentful over the youth, passion, and high spirits of the other members of his family, establishes Tartuffe as the household's moral adviser, his admiration of that scoundrel reaches idolatrous proportions. Under Tartuffe's auspices, Orgon wildly distorts the spirit of Christianity to suit his own spiteful ends; as he so outrageously asserts to Cleante, "My mother, children, brother, and wife could die/ And I'd not feel a single moment's pain." A comic reversal of this situation is presented in act 5. After Orgon's eyes have seen Tartuffe's hypocrisy (in a scene in which Tartuffe attempts to seduce Elmire), he attempts to open his mother's eyes, only to be countered by her persistent devotion to Tartuffe.
Against the extreme comic figures of Tartuffe, Orgon, and Madame Pernelle, Moliere opposes those who see through hypocrisy because they view the world through the eyes of reason. Dorine, Elmire, and, above all, Cleante represent Moliere's examples of moderation triumphing over excess. It is Cleante who clearly points out in act 1 the distinction between false religious posturing and truly devout religious people. He cautions Orgon to distinguish between "artifice and sincerity . . . appearance and reality. . . false and true." He offers examples of "gentle and humane" religious people, particularly those who refrain from censuring others. When Orgon finally sees through Tartuffe's false appearance and is ready to condemn all "godly men," Cleante again warns him to learn to distinguish between "genuinely good men" and scoundrels like Tartuffe.
Cleante's advice indicates that the seventeenth century zealots who attacked the play were in error. Moliere is not condemning true religion, only false piety.



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