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The phrase "humanely malign" is a comment that Meredith actually wrote about comedy, and which Kronenberger used to develop his own perspective on comedy as being a genre that could be quite cruel in the way it singled out characters for laughter and mockery, but at the same time, did so in a "humane" way because of the extent to which the foolishness in comedy was a foolishness that was common to mankind. When the audience laughs at the failings or stupidity of a character, therefore, they only laugh at their own capacity to make a similar mistake. This explains the somewhat paradoxical nature of the phrase, "humanely malign," as it describes both the enjoyment that an audience takes in laughing at characters who show themselves to be fools, but also the slighly uncomfortable recognition that accompanies such laughter when they realise that they are capable of making the same mistakes, if they have not done so already. This can be seen in Act IV of this play, where Orgon finally accepts how he has been taken in by Tartuffe after he witnesses Tartuffe trying to seduce his wife:
So, my good and saintly man, you've a mind to go behind my back. You give into temptations pretty easily, I must say! You were set on marrying my daughter and all the while you were lusting after my wife! For a time I couldn't bring myself to believe that this was how things really were and went on thinking I'd hear you change your tune.
The irony of this "good and saintly man" secretly "lusting" after a married woman shows the humour of the situation, and the audience is bound to laugh at the way in which Orgon was deceived in such an apparent and open way. However, at the same time, the action of the play is designed to make the audience think about when they might have given the benefit of the doubt to characters and were deceived in turn. This comedy is therefore "humanely malign" in the way that it makes the audience laugh at the ease with which Orgon was fooled, but at the same time they laugh at their own, all too human, capacity to be fooled and taken in.
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