During the mid-seventeenth century, a class of wealthy tradesmen and entrepreneurs who were not a part of the peasantry nor of the nobility began to increase in size in France. Known as the bourgeoisie, this increasingly powerful group lived in large towns, especially Paris, and largely worked as merchants, tradesmen, master-craftsmen, and professionals. Because of their financial power, the bourgeoisie were able to influence local politics and enjoy a distinguished legal status; they were able to extend these privileges to their peers and divide themselves from the laboring masses.
The bourgeoisie grew increasingly stable through the seventeenth century, and inspired a sense of belonging among its members. Business associations became personal and religious associations as bourgeois families met in church and attended the same social functions. Also, bourgeois father figures had complete control over their wives and daughters, who had almost no financial rights under the law, and these fathers tended to marry their daughters into other bourgeois families. These connections strengthened the sense of identity in the middle class, and tended to inspire economic growth in cities.
Outside the established traditions of the French court, however, the bourgeoisie met with a large amount of resentment and dislike as they became established. Although members of the bourgeois class were comparatively well educated, the...
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Once his theater troupe was established in Paris, Molière knew he had to please both Louis XIV, his most important patron, and the bulk of the theater-going bourgeois audience. Perhaps his greatest innovation in this regard was the invention of the ‘‘comedy-ballet,’’ a form that combines song and dance with farce and ‘‘comedy of manners’’ (witty comedy that is satirical of a particular social class). Comedy-ballets were Molière’s most popular genre, and often, especially in The Imaginary Invalid, their musical intervals provide an important and insightful commentary on the main action. A good example of this is Cléante and Angélique’s pastoral song, which directly mimics their own situation.
Comedies of manners originated in ancient Rome and, particularly in Molière’s work, are known for combining careful attention to character development with the use of characters of a certain ‘‘type,’’ meant to be representative of their social position. Molière’s comedies often contain an obsessive father, a reasonable brother, a manipulative second wife, and a plotting servant, although these characters are not merely stock types, but full and unique personalities. With over-elaborate plots that are often simply an unimportant backdrop to the characters and the social scene, comedies of manners provided an opportunity for theater audiences to laugh at themselves. Combining this convention with...
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Compare and Contrast
• 1670s: Under French law, a father has complete authority over his daughter’s marriage, and a husband has complete authority over his wife and her wealth.
Today: In France, women are financially equal under the law and no one requires his/her parents’ consent to marry, although males must be at least eighteen years old and females must be at least fifteen.
• 1670s: The Parisian theater is funded by a combination of the bourgeoisie, the nobility, and the king, but most theatergoers are bourgeois.
Today: Theaters are often subsidized by the French government and tickets are more accessible to lower-income groups, but the upper middleclass continues to be the primary audience group in many Parisian theaters.
• 1670s: Louis XIV is king of France, exerting increasing power over religious and state affairs, building an extravagant palace in Versailles, and pursuing an aggressive foreign policy agenda.
Today: France is a democratic republic and has not had a monarch since 1848. Its president is the center-right politician Jacques Chirac, who, along with the German president, opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
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Topics for Further Study
• The Imaginary Invalid is a comedy both in the classical sense of the word (a story with a happy ending) and in the sense that it is meant to be humorous. Seventeenth-century audiences found the play quite humorous. Explore the differences in humor between seventeenth-century France and twenty-first-century America, and explain why certain parts of the play would have been humorous then, but are not as humorous now. What techniques and sources does Molière use to amuse his audience, and which comedic traditions are the most important to The Imaginary Invalid?
• Molière was a masterful actor as well as a playwright, and he played the role of Argan for the first four performances of The Imaginary Invalid. Research Molière’s life and discuss the reasons he might have chosen to write this role for himself. Consider how Argan’s imaginary illnesses might have related to Molière’s real illnesses, from which he died after the play’s fourth performance. Also, discuss more broadly how you think Molière combined his acting and writing talents, and how each were affected by the other.
• Read two or three other comedies by Molière, such as Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, and/or Don Juan. Compare the common themes and techniques of the plays you read. Which of the plays do you find most applicable to today’s concerns? What makes The Imaginary Invalid unique? Many critics have found themes...
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What Do I Read Next?
• Molière’s Don Juan (1665) is one of the dramatist’s most compelling and radical plays. It follows the adventures of the seductive and antireligious Juan of Spain, and it was banned throughout Molière’s lifetime by religious conservatives.
• William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), a satirical play about the settling of a fortune and the arrangement of a marriage, is one of the most influential English comedies of manners from the Restoration period.
• Phaedra (1677), by Jean Racine, is a tragedy based on the classical model. Although it is vastly different in style and content from any of Molière’s works, it reveals another major prodigy from this period of French history.
• The French philosopher Voltaire’s famous work Candide (1759) is a provocative and ironic attack on optimism by a thinker who valued the philosophy he found in Molière’s plays.
• Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) is an example of a vibrant comedy of manners from a vastly different era, taking as its subject the vain and hypocritical English upper class of the late Victorian era.
• Geoffrey Treasure’s Louis XIV (2001) is a comprehensive and readable guide to the life of the famous French king and the atmosphere of seventeenth-century France.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Hubert, J. D., ‘‘The Doctor’s Curse,’’ in Molière: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Jacques Guicharnaud, Prentice Hall, 1964, pp. 134, 160–69.
Molière, The Hypochondriac, in The Miser and Other Plays: A New Selection, Penguin Classics, 2000, pp. 217–99.
Calder, Andrew, Molière: The Theory and Practice of Comedy, Athlone Press, 1993. Calder’s clear and useful analysis of Molière’s comedies discusses the dramatist’s works in terms of overarching themes.
Fernandez, Ramon, Molière: The Man Seen through the Plays, translated by W. Follet, Hill and Wang, 1958. This slightly dated biography nevertheless provides an interesting psychological approach to the dramatist.
Hall, H. Gaston, Comedy in Context: Essays on Molière, University Press of Mississippi, 1984. This collection of essays explores Molière’s comedies in terms of their literary context.
Hubert, Judd D., Molière and the Comedy of Intellect, University of California Press, 1962. Hubert’s book approaches each play from the standpoint of its intellectual themes.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Hubert, Judd D. Molière and the Comedy of Intellect. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. In the penultimate chapter, Hubert explores comic uses of language in The Imaginary Invalid and discusses the irony that Molière, who was then dying, played the role of an imaginary invalid in the first performances of his last comedy.
Johnson, Roger, Jr., Editha S. Neumann, and Guy T. Trail, eds. Molière and the Commonwealth of Letters: Patrimony and Posterity. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1975. Contains many essays on the critical reception of Molière’s comedies after his death in 1673, as well as an excellent bibliography and a survey of criticism on Molière.
Knutson, Harold C. The Triumph of Wit: Molière and Restoration Comedy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988. Discusses such important English Restoration playwrights as John Dryden and William Wycherley, who imitated plays by Molière. Interprets engravings by Molière’s contemporaries to show that Argan differed both in style of clothing and in behavior from more sympathetic characters.
Moore, Will G. Molière: A New Criticism. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1949. An excellent introduction to Molière’s comedies. Stresses that Molière was not just a playwright but also an actor and the head of a...
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