Molière

Introduction

Molière 1632-1673

(Pseudonym of Jean Baptiste Poquelin) French dramatist.

Molière is widely recognized as one of the greatest comic writers of seventeenth-century France and one of the foremost dramatists in world literature. In such masterpieces as Le Tartuffe (1664; Tartuffe), Dom Juan (1665; Don Juan), and Le misantrope (1666; The Misanthrope), he succeeded in elevating the traditional status of French comedy from farcical buffoonery to that of an influential forum for social criticism. Molière thus profoundly influenced the development of modern comedy and established comic drama as a legitimate literary medium, equal to tragedy in its ability to portray aspects of human nature

Biographical Information

Born in Paris, Molière was the eldest of six children of a well-to-do upholsterer to King Louis VIII. Molière developed an early passion for theater, attended Paris's finer schools, briefly studied law, and inherited his father's position at court. In 1642 he met and became romantically involved with actress Madeleine Bejart. Bejart's family strongly influenced Molière, who formally renounced his royal appointment to pursue a theatrical career. He adopted the pseudonym Molière to respect his father's desire to avoid associations with the theater and established the L'Illustre Theatre (The Illustrious Theater) with Bejart's family. For thirteen years, Molière struggled as an actor, director, and stage director, even spending time in a debtor's prison, and began adapting Italian commedia dell'arte farces. Returning to Paris in 1658, Molière's troupe staged his farce Le dépit amoureux (1656; The Amorous Quarrel); the play was greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm, and the production earned them both the favor of Louis XIV and the privilege of sharing a theater with the famous Italian performers of Scaramouche. The following year, he satirized French society and manners with Les précieuses ridicules (1659; The Affected Ladies). Molière's portrayal of pretentiousness in high society was so accurate that it outraged numerous aristocrats who believed themselves the target of the dramatist's parody. Molière thus earned the first of many influential enemies; thereafter, his life and plays were almost always at the center of controversy. He married the twenty-one-year-old Armande Bejart, thought to be the daughter or younger sister of Madeleine Bejart, in 1662. The marriage was rife with difficulties and is often considered the inspiration for many of Molière's subsequent works, including his most commercially successful play, L'école des femmes (1662; A School for Women). Plagued with recurrent illnesses due primarily to exhaustion from overworking, the dramatist was diagnosed a hypochondriac by doctors angered by Molière's parodies of their profession. He died of a lung disorder in 1673 following the fourth performance of his final comedy, Le malade imaginaire (1673; The Hypochondriac). Denied both the ministrations of a priest and interment in consecrated ground because of his profession, he was granted a secular funeral after Louis XIV intervened on his behalf.

Major Works

While Molière's early plays are generally divided between full-length comedies litteraires in verse, such as Dom Garcie de Navarre (1661; Don Garcie of Navarre), and one-act farces, such as Les précieuses ridicules (1659; The Affected Ladies); from L'école des femmes onwards these two forms became fused. Despite its success, L'éecole des femmes was attacked by Molière's enemies as immoral and sacrilegious, and Molière was accused of incest and labeled a cuckold. The controversy surrounding him increased, however, with the production of his most renowned work, Tartuffe, which skewered and/or offended several aspects of upper-class French society, the Roman Catholic Church, and the the influential underground society, Compagnie du Saint Sacrement, which boasted many powerful and influential members. Although Tartuffe was extremely popular with audiences and was acclaimed by Louis XIV, the Archbishop of Paris issued a decree threatening to excommunicate anyone performing, attending, or even reading the play. It was not until 1669—after the bulk of political and religious power had shifted away from his most adamant opponents—that Molière was permitted to perform publicly the final version of the play. In the midst of the controversy, Molière produced Don Juan, a cynical recasting of the legend of the irreligious libertine who embraces hypocrisy and commits unpardonable sins. Don Juan's sensitive subject matter invited further censorship from outraged church officials, who had the play suppressed after only fifteen performances. In 1667, Molière submitted a five-act revision of Tartuffe called L'imposteur in which he renamed Tartuffe Paulphe, secularized the hypocrite's priestly mien, and subdued the overtly religious attacks of the original play. This attempt to pacify church officials was unsuccessful, however, and he petitioned Louis XIV for an official reprieve. The King's personal support of Molière was unfailing, and it is possible that without his royal favor and protection, the dramatist might well have been executed for heresy. Following the controversy surrounding Tartuffe, Molière resorted on several occasions to writing less consequential farces.

Critical Reception

Despite attempts by traditionalists, religious leaders, and medical professionals to discredit Molière's work during his lifetime, his detractors had little effect on his theatrical success. His plays were extremely popular and, despite claims that he was merely a mediocre farceur, rival playwrights and companies soon began almost uniformly imitating his dramatic style. In England, Molière's work was widely imitated and evaluated, with many English critics ranking him beside Ben Jonson. That most Restoration dramatists were familiar with his works is evidenced in the nearly forty plays that appeared prior to 1700 in which such authors as John Dryden, William Wycherley, Aphra Behn, and Thomas Shadwell adapted, translated, or borrowed freely from his comedies. Molière's positive reputation in England continued to flourish during the eighteenth century. In France, however, public and critical opinion of his works declined drastically. In the early nineteenth century, during the French Restoration, Molière's comedies regained preeminence among dramatic critics and enjoyed a tremendous resurgence of public popularity. His work was also embraced by Romanticists as detailing a revolutionary, almost tragic, individualism that transcended rigid classicism. Twentieth-century scholars have addressed a number of issues concerning Molière and his works, and the majority of critical assessments has been positive. In general, scholars have continued the objective scholarly work instigated by such nineteenth-century scholars as Sainte-Beuve, Ferdinand Brunetiere, and Gustave Larroumet, probing virtually every literary, scientific, and historical aspect of the dramatist and his work. While scholars still seek philosophical, ethical, and religious messages in Molière's comedies, critical interest has, in many instances, shifted away from assessments of Molière's didactic intent toward purely aesthetic examinations of his comic technique.

Principal Works

La jalousie de Barbouillé [The Jealousy of Le Barbouillé] 1645?

Le médecin volant [The Flying Doctor] 1645?

L'estourdy; ou, Le contre-temps [The Blunderer; or, The Counterplots] 1653; also published as L'étourdi, 1888

Le dépit amoureux [The Amorous Quarrel] 1656

Le précieuses ridicules [The Affected Ladies] 1659

Sganarelle ou Le Cocu imaginaire [The Imaginary Cuckold] 1660

Dom Garcie de Navarre; ou, Le Prince jaloux [Don Garcie of Navaarre; or, The Jealous Prince] 1661

L'école des maris [A School for Husbands] 1661

Les Fâcheux [The Impertinents; also translated as The Bores] 1661

L'école des femmes [A School for Women; also translated as The School for Wives] 1662

La critique de “L'école des femmes” [“The School for Women” Criticised] 1663

L'impromptu de Versailles [The Impromptu of Versailles] 1663

Le mariage forcé [The Forced Marriage] 1664

La Princesse d'Élide [The Princess of Elis, being the Second Day of the Pleasures of the Inchanted Island] 1664

Le Tartuffe [Tartuffe: or, The Hypocrite; also translated as Tartuffe: or, The Imposter] 1664; revised versions also performed as L'Imposteur, 1667, and Le Tartuffe; ou, L'Imposteur, 1669

Dom Juan; ou, Le festin de pierre [Don John; or, The Libertine; also translated as Don Juan; or, The Feast with the Statue] 1665

Le médecin malagré lui [The Forced Physician; also translated as The Doctor in Spite of Himself] 1666

Le Misantrope [The Misanthrope; or, Man-Hater; also translated as The Misanthrope] 1666

Amphitryon [Amphitryon; or, The Two Sosias] 1668

L'Avare[The Miser] 1668

George Dandin; ou, Le mary confondu [George Dandin; or, The Wanton Wife] 1668

Monsieur de Pourceaugnac [Monsieur de Pourceaugnac; or, Squire Trelooby] 1669

Le bourgeois gentilhomme [The Gentlemen Cit; also translated as The Bourgeois Gentlemen] 1670

Les fourberies de Scapin [The Cheats of Scapin; also translated as The Rogueries of Scapin] 1671

Psiché [with Pierre Corneille] [Psiché; also translated as Psyche] 1671

La Femmes savantes [The Learned Ladies] 1672

Le malade imaginaire [The Hypochondriac; also translated as The Imaginary Invalid] 1673

The Works of Mr. de Molière 6 vols., 1714

The Dramatic Works of Mr. de Molière 6 vols., 1875-76

The Plays of Molière in French with an English Translation 8 vols., 1902-07

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Henry Phillips (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Molière and Tartuffe: Recrimination and Reconciliation,” in The French Review, Vol. 62, No. 5, April, 1989, pp. 749-63.

[In the following essay, Phillips examines the changing attitudes towards Molière's drama, focusing on the criticisms of the church.]

The year 1922 marked the three-hundredth anniversary of Molière's birth. An occasion, one might think, to celebrate unequivocally the life and work of one of the three great dramatists of the seventeenth century in France and indeed one of the great figures of French literature. After all, the controversies over Tartuffe and Dom Juan, and especially over L'Ecole des femmes had...

(The entire section is 6837 words.)

David Shaw (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Molière's Temporary Happy Endings,” in French Studies, Vol. XLV, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 129-42.

[In the following essay, Shaw examines Molière's use of comic denouements, contending that they suggest that real-life endings are not always happy.]

Many would say that Molière's plays end happily. Tartuffe is arrested, Harpagon finds his money, Philaminte sees the error of her ways: the obstacle is removed, the lovers can marry, order is restored, the celebrations can commence. But this is not the whole picture. His plays do not all end on a note of unrestrained happiness. If the ending of Tartuffe anticipates the ‘doux hymen’ to come, George...

(The entire section is 6097 words.)

Robert Kenny (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Molière's Tower of Babel: Monsieur de Pourceaugnac and the Confusion of Tongues,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 59-70.

[In the following essay, Kenny explores Molière's struggles in creating the new genre of musical-comedy.]

Much modern criticism has positively re-evaluated Molière's comédies-ballets in the context of the argument for a ‘third manner’ Molière who turns away from high comedy of language towards an irrational world of fantasy and illusion. Gérard Defaux and Claude Abraham make this case eloquently in spite of the somewhat embarrassing presence of Les Femmes savantes, while more...

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Noël A. Peacock (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Translating Molière for the English Stage,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 83-91.

[In the following essay, Peacock discusses the issues surrounding the translation of Molière's plays, focusing on three types of translators: conservationists, modernists, and postmodernists.]

If we are not careful, Molière could become one of the obstacles to a united Europe. How can you trade freely, let alone merge with a nation whose best comedy does not travel?1

This ironic taunt by John Peter in 1987, which could so easily have been taken for a backbench salvo in the...

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Larry W. Riggs (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Desire, Disclosure, and Power: Molière's Unmasking of Hegemonic Ideology,” in Romance Languages Annual, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, pp. 144-50.

[In the following essay, Riggs discusses the relationships between desire, discourse, and the institutionalized world as presented in Molière's comedies.]

… the ocularcentrism of modernity, the hegemony of vision, the the installation of the reign of the despotic eye, is also a verbocentrism, the consciousness of the book, and an egocentrism, the consciousness of a separated, detached atom of individuality.—Robert D. Romanyshyn

In his Jameson, Althusser,...

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James F. Gaines (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Molière and Marx: Prospects for a New Century,” in L'Esprit Createur, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 21-30.

[In the following essay, Gaines delineates the connection between Marx and Molière.]

Of all the avatars of structuralism that fueled the critical imagination during the third quarter of this century, none now seems more doomed than Marxism. The social-philosophical colossus that once commanded respect from worldwide scholars (in many cases, all too literally) finds itself banned in Russia, micro-miniaturized in Western Europe, and forgotten like a dimestore turtle in Asia, as Deng Chaiao-Ping uses his last breath to revive the merchant class...

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Criticism: L'Impromptu De Versailles

SOURCE: “Molière in the Post-Structuralist Age: L'Impromptu de Versailles,” in Theatre Journal, Vol. 34, No. 3, October, 1982, pp. 373-83.

[In the following essay, Lindsay provides an in-depth look at Molière's L'Impromptu de Versailles, commenting on possible reasons why the play has been overlooked.]

Molière's L'Impromptu de Versailles (The Rehearsal at Versailles) has not, over the critical ages, received much attention. Traditionally considered a marginal element in Molière's repertoire, the Impromptu has in the main been a singularly, even signally neglected work. For in the vicissitudes of literary history since the...

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Criticism: Tartuffe

Quentin M. Hope (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Place and Setting in Tartuffe,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 89, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 42-9.

[In the following essay, Hope maintains that the setting of Molière's Tartuffe had a distinctive, expressive function.]

The theme of place and setting in the classical theater has attracted far more attention in Racine than in Molière.1 The action of most Racine tragedies is inseparable from certain deeply expressive settings: altar, temple, sea and seaport, labyrinth, seraglio, and a palace which seems to imprison its occupants. There is also in Racine the evocative use of place names recalling...

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Myrna Kogan Zwillenberg (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Dramatic Justice in Tartuffe,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 90, No. 4, April, 1975, pp. 583-90.

[In the following essay, Zwillenberg explores Molière's use of justice in Tartuffe.]

Few will quarrel with the judgment that Molière's Tartuffe is a masterpiece, yet those who agree on the excellence of the play frequently express hostility and confusion about the intervention of the King at the end. The King's justice, it is argued, may be thorough and effective, but it is so unexpected as to cast doubt upon the dramatic coherence of the entire comedy. Probably, Molière himself is responsible for this reaction, having resorted to a...

(The entire section is 3521 words.)

Andrew McKenna (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Tartuffe, Representation and Difference,” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 30, 1989, pp. 76-93.

[The following essay, McKenna discusses Molière's Tartuffe, focusing on misinterpretations embodied within the work that serve to entrap its audience.]

Molière's Le Tartuffe, ou l'Imposteur is a play about sex, religion and politics, the canonical topics of adult conversation. It affords the requisite opportunities for a radical critique of desire, the sacred, and power, the canonical topics of our demystifying fervor—with which we often remystify readers by the use of such terms as theophallogocentrism....

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Peter H. Nurse (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Tartuffe: Comedy or Drama?” in Modern Languages Journal, Vol. 70, No. 2, June, 1989, pp. 118-22.

[In the following essay, Nurse surveys aspects of Molière's Tartuffe, examining the long disputed question as to which genre it belongs: pure comedy, satirical comedy, drame bourgeois, or tragedy.]

If ambiguity is one of the necessary characteristics of a masterpiece, then Tartuffe clearly qualifies for such a distinction, for, together with Dom Juan and Le Misanthrope, it is one of the plays which has consistently stirred controversy since its first performance. The critical arguments centre on two interrelated...

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Criticism: Dom Juan

David Shaw (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Egoism and Society: A Secular Interpretation of Molière's Dom Juan,” in Modern Languages, Vol. LIX, No. 3, September, 1978, pp. 121-30.

[In the following essay, Shaw considers Molière's ambiguity towards the issues brought forth in Dom Juan.]

That Dom Juan is the most ‘difficult’ play in the whole Molière canon is something of a critical commonplace: fault has repeatedly been found with its alleged incoherence:

Dom Juan révèle une incohérente ténèbre … Molière, comme jamais, donne l'impression de ne tendre, pour l'immédiat, qu'à ficeler de bric et de brac, un succes au hasard...

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Nathan Gross (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Obligation in Dom Juan,” in From Gestures to Idea: Esthetics and Ethics in Moliere's Comedy, Columbia University Press, 1982, pp. 39-71.

[In the following essay, Gross presents an in-depth discussion of Molière's Dom Juan, focusing on the gestural nature of the play.]

Dom Juan, composed in the shadow of the banned Tartuffe, is a machine-play, a “spectacular” in the etymological sense, whose use of mechanical devices in the tomb and the Statue belongs to a pattern of gestures implicit in the text which shape the comedy's structure and meaning. Sganarelle's gestures during his opening speech supplement his praise of snuff....

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Larry W. Riggs (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Ethics, Debts, and Identity in Dom Juan,” in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2, May, 1987, pp. 141-46.

[In the following excerpt, Riggs explores the role of the individual in society as presented in Molière's Dom Juan.]

In Molière's comedy, the desire to eliminate or avoid the risks in social and sexual relationships is a fundamental theme. The issue of debt, or obligation, is explicitly central in some of the plays, and it serves as a metaphor for the cohesiveness of society itself.1Dom Juan is a play in which this theme is particularly important, and whose progress explores the social implications of debt, risk, ethics, and...

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Beryl Schlossman (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Disappearing Acts: Style, Seduction, and Performance in Dom Juan,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 106, No. 5, December, 1991, pp. 1030-47.

[In the following essay, Schlossman evaluates Molière's approach to portraying Dom Juan indirectly through other character interpretations of him.]

Quel diable de style! Ceci est bien pis que le reste.

(Molière, Dom Juan, V, iv)

Molière's Dom Juan ou le festin de pierre begins after Dom Juan's disappearing act. His absence in the first scene allows other characters to allude to his flight, and to present a...

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Joy Sylvester (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Molière's Dom Juan: Charity's Prodigal Son,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXXII, No.1, Fall, 1991, pp. 23-7.

[In the following essay, Sylvester analyzes“la scène du Pauvre” from Molière's Dom Juan—a scene considered one of the most misunderstood in all of French drama.]

What has been called “la scène du Pauvre” (III, 2) is one of the most important and controversial scenes in all of French drama. It occurs in the exact middle of the play and it is after this scene that the growing pattern of defeats that Dom Juan suffers increase both in pace and in importance (Guicharnaud 252-58). It also marks a change in Dom Juan's dramatic...

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Michael Spingler (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The Actor and the Statue: Space, Time, and Court Performance in Molière's Dom Juan,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1991-92, pp. 351-68.

[In the following essay, Spingler concentrates on the scenic structure of Molière's Dom Juan and how the space itself questions the codes that govern court society.]

In Dom Juan, Molière inscribes the organized world of seventeenth-century French court life within a dramatic space which reflects the relationship between theatrical and social performance. In what follows, I will focus on how Molière's handling of the play's scenic structure questions the codes which govern life at...

(The entire section is 7547 words.)

Criticism: Le Misanthrope

Dorothy F. Jones (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Love and Friendship in Le Misanthrope,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Winter, 1982, pp. 164-69.

[In the following essay, Jones explores the polarities of the characters in Molière's Le Misanthrope.]

Two fundamental contrasts strike the audience of Le Misanthrope: the contrast between Alceste and Célimène, and the contrast between Alceste and Philinte. Critics have been sensitive to the psychological, philosophical, and theatrical value of these polarities. “Alceste est l'exacte antithèse de Célimène,”1 declares Jean Mesnard, while Jacques Guicharnaud defines the hero and his love as “deux univers soumis à...

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Patricia Francis Cholakian (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The ‘Women Question’ in Molière's Misanthrope,” in The French Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, March, 1985, pp. 524-32.

[In the following essay, Cholakian contends that Molière's Le Misanthrope's underlying presumption is that women camouflage their true selves in order to become what men desire.]

Molière's theater is generally seen as profeminist because it champions the cause of ingénues, like Agnès in L'Ecole des femmes, against the tyrannical power of an older male who seeks to prevent them from exercising their “natural” right in the choice of a mate.1

On the other hand Les Précieuses...

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Larry W. Riggs (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Another Purloined Letter: Text, Transparency, and Transcendence in Le Misanthrope,” in The French Review, Vol. 66, No. 1, October, 1992, pp. 26-37.

[In the following essay, Riggs, focuses on the character of Alceste and his attempts to discern text from reality in Le Misanthrope.]

Alceste, the Misanthrope, is a man trying to escape from the jungle of social semiotics. His constant threats to retire to a désert are symptomatic of his desire to avoid the agony of watchfulness and waiting imposed on him by performative interaction with others. At the same time, he longs to be present in a potent and central way. He aspires...

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Noel Peacock (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Lessons Unheeded: The Denouement of Le Misanthrope,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 10-20.

[In the following essay, Peacock examines the ending of Molière's Le Misanthrope, contending that its paradoxical nature is representative of the comic, and not the tragic, dramatic genre.]

‘Le dénouement, quel qu'il soit, ne peut être que tragique’.1 Horville's dark interpretation of the ending of Le Misanthrope is representative of a tradition in Molière criticism which is still widely accepted despite persuasive attempts to correct it.2 Evidence, however meagre, from Molière's...

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Criticism: L'Avare

Dorothy F. Jones (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Treasure in the Garden: Biblical Imagery in L' Avare,” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. XV, No. 29, 1988, pp. 517-28.

[In the following essay, Jones emphasizes the importance of the symbolic garden treasure—representing both death and life—presented in Molière's L'Avare.]

Harpagon's treasure—his “chère cassette”—has received considerable attention as a central symbol in L'Avare. “Cette petite cassette grise … est le personnage principal,” declares Couton in his Pléiade edition of the play.1 In their staging, directors such as Jacques Mauclair and Charles Dullin have emphasized the...

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John McCann (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Harpagon: The Paradox of Miserliness,” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. XXII, No. 43, 1995, pp. 555-69.

[In the following essay, McCann maintains that the character of Harpagon, of Molière's L'Avare, rises above pure meanness.]

Being mean is not funny. We despise those whom we consider to be tight-fisted. People such as Harpagon, therefore, are unpromising subjects for comedy. Yet, as Pierre Gaxotte has pointed out:

Par bonheur, Molière a éclairé son homme de tant de façons, lui a prêté tant de postures que non seulement il fait rire de ce qui aurait pu paraître odieux, mais...

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Michael S. Koppisch (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “'Til Death Do Them Part: Love, Greed, and Rivalry in Molière's L'Avare,” in L'Esprit Createur, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 32-49.

[In the following essay, Koppisch discusses the role of greed and rivalry in Molière's L'Avare.]

Avarice has a dual function in L'Avare: it is both the dominant character trait of Harpagon and the sign of a contagion that touches every aspect of his family's existence. From the moment he steps on stage, Harpagon is obsessed with money. His first words are to demand that La Flèche, his son's valet, leave immediately, lest the servant spy on him in the privacy of his own home and discover the...

(The entire section is 7704 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

Cruikshank, John, ed. French Literature and Its Background. London: Oxford University Press, 1969, 187 p.

Considers the literary, intellectual, and social aspects of seventeenth-century France.

Hope, Quentin M. “Dramatic Techniques in Les Précieuses Ridicules.” In Renaissance and Other Studies in Honor of William Leon Wiley, edited by George Bernard Daniel, Jr., pp. 141-150. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Surveys playwriting techniques first seen in Les Précieuses Ridicules.

Knutson, Harold C. Molière: An Archetypal Approach. Toronto:...

(The entire section is 354 words.)