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With such satirical masterpieces as Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, Moliere elevated French comedy. He established comic drama as a genre equal to tragedy in its ability to depict human nature, thereby changing both the focus and purpose of comedy. Though condemned by court and church officials during his career, Moliere is widely recognized today as one of the most influential playwrights in world literature. His satirical denunciation of hypocrisy, vice, and foolishness, for example, became the inspiration for many of the greatest works of the English Restoration dramatists.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood of Promise in a Prosperous Merchant Family
Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin on January 15, 1622, in Paris, Moliere was the eldest child of a prominent family of merchant upholsterers. When Moliere was ten years old, his mother died, and his father soon remarried and moved his family to a house located in the cultural and social center of Paris. Moliere was sent to the Jesuit College of Clermont, an outstanding school attended by children of prosperous families, before beginning to study law in Orleans. In the meantime, Mohere’s father had purchased the mostly honorary office of valet and furnisher to the king. In 1637, he obtained hereditary rights to the position for Moliere, who took the oath of office. In 1641, Moliere became a notary. Given his family background, his education, his profession, and his future court position, Mohere’s future seemed promising.
The Overwhelming Lure of the Theater
When the young Moliere met actress Madeleine Bejart, his destiny was forever changed. In 1643, he renounced his court position, abandoned his social status, and risked damnation from the clergy in order to become an actor. Around this time, he started calling himself Moliere and, along with Bejart, her brother and sister, and nine other actors, formed a theatrical company, which Moliere managed. After renting a theater, the members of the troupe began producing their own plays in early 1644. Their venture was unsuccessful, and their financial condition so dismal, that Moliere was twice imprisoned for debt and had to be rescued by his father.
In 1646, Moliere, the Bejart siblings, and several other actors set out on a tour of the French provinces. During the next twelve years, Moliere learned not only the methods required to be a successful actor, producer, and manager, but also the skills necessary to write farcical sketches before progressing to full-length plays. Throughout his time in the provinces, Moliere proved a gifted leader whose energy and self-discipline reflected his commitment to the theater.
Back to Paris
On October 24, 1658, Moliere and his troupe of actors were prepared to make an impression on Paris with a performance at the Louvre before the young King Louis XIV, his brother “Monsieur” Philippe, and the court. Although the king was uninterested in their major play, a tragedy by Pierre Corneille, he found Mohere’s farce entertaining. As a result, the troupe was allowed to play at the royal Petit-Bourbon Theater, where they shared performance days with the Italian Comedians. Because they were under the patronage of Philippe, Mohere’s troupe was called the ”troupe de Monsieur,” the Monsieur’s troupe. Young King Louis’s interest in Moliere would prove pivotal to the playwright in the future.
Though based on Italian comedies and farces, Mohere’s plays were superior in language, plot inventiveness, and character depiction. As the king showed more and more appreciation for Mohere’s comedies, the Monsieur’s troupe began to revive some of the earlier full-length plays Moliere had written while in the provinces. In 1659, Moliere debuted his first comedy of manners, The Affected Young Ladies, which satirizes the affectations of Parisian society, followed by Sganarelle, a complicated story of love and misunderstanding, which became a favorite of King Louis.
The King’s Entertainment
Never one to conceal his disdain of hypocrisy—as evidenced by his satirical dramas—Moliere made many enemies throughout his career. Fortunately, his genius earned him friends who would defend him, including King Louis himself. Louis was a powerful and imposing force in French history. He reigned for more than seventy years and centralized the government firmly under his control. He famously remarked: “LYtat, c’est moi” (”I am the state”). He was known both as the Sun King and Louis the Great. Jealous of both the king’s approval and the public’s appreciation of the Monsieur’s troupe, rival theatrical companies united and, in 1660, succeeded in having Mohere’s theater demolished without notice, supposedly because it impeded construction on the Louvre. This event prompted King Louis to permit Mohere’s actors to use the theater of the Palais Royal, where Mohere’s company remained for the rest of his life. It was there that Moliere staged the first of several comic ballets, which was presented as entertainment in the king’s honor. From then on, Moliere spent a great deal of time writing for various court entertainments, creating works that critics feel do not live up to the dramatist’s potential; without the king’s favor, Moliere would have been in financial trouble in the years to come.
When he was forty, Moliere married Armande Bejart, the twenty-year-old sister of Madeleine Bejart. The union proved miserable for Moliere; fortunately, he was able to channel his discontent into writing. Without question, Mohere’s unhappy marriage is reflected in The School for Wives (1662), a play about a middle-aged man who attempts to create a chaste wife by raising her from girlhood in complete innocence. The drama was his greatest commercial success; however, the more successful Moliere became, the more fervently his enemies worked to destroy his career.
Quick to find parallels between The School for Wives and the playwright’s life, Mohere’s detractors accused him of incest, called him a cuckold, and proclaimed him a godless man. All were insults Moliere and his friends refuted in a 1663 series of essays, poems, and plays. Inevitably, the incessant contempt began to affect Mohere’s work. In 1664, for example, he was forbidden to perform Tartuffe, the story of a pious hypocrite, because of religious fanatics at court. The play was not approved until 1670, five years after Moliere had been forced to withdraw another one of his works, the drama Don Juan.
In 1666, Mohere’s troupe performed The Misanthrope, generally considered his critical masterpiece despite its unenthusiastic reception at the time it appeared on stage. Focusing on an honest, outspoken man in a dishonest society, the play parallels Mohere’s own difficulties with censorship and social persecution. By this time, Mohere’s personal problems were mounting: His father’s business was in trouble, his marriage had deteriorated, and his health was declining. Still, he continued to produce plays.
Moliere faced even more adversity in the last few years of his life. In 1670, his father died in poverty, and, in 1672, a newborn son died. Moliere himself was very ill and had to depend on doctors whom, as his plays reveal, he completely distrusted. Meanwhile, Moliere’s enemies in both court and clergy were at work, ensuring that he would no longer stage entertainments for the king. On February 17, 1673, Moliere became ill onstage while playing the title role in The Imaginary Invalid (1673). Moliere suffered from tuberculosis, a highly infectious disease—usually resulting in bleeding in the lungs—that was widespread but poorly understood in the playwright’s time. Although Moliere finished the performance, he died later that night. Even in death, Moliere caused controversy: The clergy insisted that he not be buried in consecrated ground. Only when the king intervened was Moliere given a quiet burial in Paris.
Works in Literary Context
By establishing a serious, refined basis for comic drama, Moliere changed the very essence of French comedy. As a result of his taking the comedy of manners to new heights of sophistication, Moliere inspired such playwrights of the English Restoration as William Congreve and William Wycherley. Moliere remains a popular figure in literature, as his plays continue to be performed throughout the world, immortalizing not only the playwright himself, but also his most complex characters.
Most readers agree that Moliere’s strength as a playwright lies not in his plot development, but in his handling of diverse, insightful characters. By using a simpler language than other writers of tragedy or farce, along with depicting recognizable character types in ordinary situations, Moliere attacks the hypocrisy and defects of society. Misanthropes, misers, foolish women, court flatterers—all are familiar character types in Moliere’s plays. Oftentimes, his plays present a specific character flaw taken to its extreme, as evidenced by Tartuffe’s hypocrisy or the obsessive greed of Harpagon in The Miser. In ruthlessly deriding selected characters, Moliere in essence scorns an entire social institution, as is the case with the medical profession in The Imaginary Invalid.
Intending to guide his audience to moral and social responsibility, Moliere has his characters attempt to deny their flaws. In The Misanthrope, for example, Arsinoe, because she cannot admit her inability to attract men, presents herself as a paragon of piety. Arsinoe, however, is not the only character given to self-delusion in The Misanthrope. The suitors are so consumed by gossip that they never have time—nor the inclination—for self-reflection. Rather than discover why he loves Celimene so deeply, Alceste denies his love for her by pointing out and criticizing her appalling personality traits. More often than not, the characters in The Misanthrope conceal their own faults by criticizing others.
Works in Critical Context
Regarded as more than the greatest writer of the French stage, Moliere is extolled by critics of every century as the father of modern comic drama, whose most important innovation as a dramatist was elevating comedy to the seriousness of tragedy. Explaining Moliere’s significance as a literary figure in France, Margaret Webster, one of the twentieth century’s most important women in theater, contributes the following to Approaches to Teaching Moliere’s Tartuffe and Other Plays. ”In his own language he is as towering a figure as [William] Shakespeare is in ours.” For nineteenth-century critic Henri Van Laun, Moliere’s reach extends beyond French literature in that ”he is equal, if not superior, to any other writer of character-comedies on the ancient or modern stage.”
Because his comedies were often extremely critical, Moliere was frequently the source of controversy in French theater. Most critics agree that rather than seeking to destroy existing social structures, Moliere was exposing hypocrisy, artificiality, and vice in French society with the hope that people would control and correct their behaviors. Certainly, because of possible repercussions, it was in Moliere’s best interests not to offend members of King Louis XlV’s court and members of the clergy. Nonetheless, Moliere’s biting sarcasm provoked the ire of such groups as clergymen and doctors. For instance, critic Harold C. Knutson observes that Love Is the Doctor (1665) is ”a particularly biting commentary on doctors and doctoring,” because the doctors ”drop the mask and betray their callousness . . . and contentiousness,” and that the doctors are concerned with rules and formalities instead of the well-being of their patients. Even more incendiary than Love Is the Doctor was Tartuffe, the story of a deceitful, manipulative spiritual adviser. This play resulted in demands not only for censorship, but also for excommunication of anyone who read, attended, or performed the play. Only with the king’s intervention—he was a quiet supporter of Moliere—did Moliere escape being executed for heresy.
While modern scholars, like their predecessors, continue to seek ethical, philosophical, and religious messages in Moliere’s comedies, critical interest has shifted away from simply evaluating his didactic and moral intentions. Instead, studies focus on the aesthetics of Moliere’s comic technique. For example, some theater scholars call attention to the staging of Moliere’s comedies in relation to historical relevance as well as theatrical spectacle. Furthermore, the universality of Moliere’s characters has long been recognized; however, various critics, including James F. Gaines, emphasize the playwright s use of paradox and ambiguity in his characterizations. Still other contemporary academics approach Moliere’s drama through his use of language, often finding it to be the essence of his comedy.
The Misanthrope premiered in 1666, with Moliere himself playing one of the main roles. Although audience and critical reception during its initial run was not positive, scholarly analysis over the following centuries has placed the play among the author s most important works. According to scholar Martin Turnell, ”The Misanthrope in the seventeenth century was the connoisseur s play and a contemporary described it with felicity as ‘une piece qui fait rire dans l’ame’ [a piece that makes people laugh in the soul]. Its preeminence lies not in greater depth or profundity, but in a greater variety of tone, a wider social reference, more complex and more delicate shades of feeling. It is one of the most personal of Moliere’s plays.” W. G. Moore describes it as ”a master-piece, of the same order as the Divine Comedy or Don Quixote.”
- Coward, David. Moliere: The Miser and Other Plays. New York: Penguin Books, 1959.
- Gaines, James F., and Michael S. Koppisch, eds. Approaches to Teaching Moliere’s Tartuffe and Other Plays. New York: Modern Language Association, Michel de Montaigne
- Knutson, Harold C. Molière: An Archetypal Approach. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.
- Strachey, Lytton. Spectatorial Essays, 1964. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965.
- Van Laun, Henri. History of French Literature. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892.
- Whitton, David. Molière: Don Juan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
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