(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
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.
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.
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.
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
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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 surely abated by then, leaving the way open for the consecration of a supreme representative of the culture of France. Everybody could at least agree on that. Not quite.
The tercentenary revived, in a particularly acute fashion, arguments over Molière's Tartuffe, which had raged fitfully throughout the nineteenth century. The more general context was in any event the relations between the Church and the theater, especially in the former's attitudes to actors. It should be recalled that the so-called querelle du théâtre in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France had pitted those who believed drama to have a morally improving function against those who, like Nicole, Bossuet, and Rousseau, saw in...
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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 Dandin ends with talk of suicide. If Les Femmes savantes ends with the marriage of Clitandre and Henriette, Le Misanthrope ends with the separation of Alceste and Célimène. The pattern is not obvious.
It has been claimed that Molière's endings are poor, victims of the pressure under which he worked. ‘Que n'ai-je toujours été le maître de mon temps!’, he says in Voltaire's Temple du Goût, ‘j'aurais trouvé des dénouements plus heureux’.1 Mornet argues that his endings are implausible, careless, mere concessions to fashion: ‘Ses dénouements sont rarement vraisemblables […]. Molière assurément imagine n'importe quoi. Son indifférence s'explique par celle de ses...
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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 recently Patrick Dandrey has disagreed radically with this thesis, particularly with reference to the musical coherence of the comédie-ballet.1 The tripartite division of Molière's thought and work, though it contains many useful insights, is largely the result of neat academic hindsight and the deification of Molière the classical genius. It is perhaps worth noting that this critical view in a more benign form is already present in Sainte-Beuve's notice for his edition of the Oeuvres; ‘De la farce franche et un peu grosse du début, on se sera élevé, en passant par le naïf, le sérieux, le profondément observé, jusqu'à la fantaisie du rire dans toute sa pompe et au gai sabbat le plus...
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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 Maastricht debate in 1993, gives expression to the disquiet, shared by numerous actors, directors, and especially theatre box-office managers, at the lack of performable translations of Molière in English. The dramatic ineffectiveness, not to mention unspeakability, of certain versions, has given a misleading impression of the great comic dramatist, even to the point of causing The Daily Telegraph's drama critic, Charles Spencer—paradoxically—to suspect ‘that there was nothing wrong with Molière that a sense of humour wouldn't have put right […]’.2 One of the problems is the discrepancy between page and stage: many translations are aimed at publication rather than at performance. The result is that they are often...
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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, Marx, William Dowling demonstrates that an ideological discourse contains a system of abstract rules and implies a system of concrete institutions. I would argue that such a discourse is, in fact, constituted by the ambition or desire to produce such a system of institutions, such a social and cultural world. The discourse and the institutions constitute, legitimate, and perpetuate one another. I will attempt to persuade you that it is just this relationship among desire, discourse, and an institutionalized world that is at issue in Molière's major comedies. A concretized, materialized discourse is an institutionalized desire, an ambitious hallucination transformed into a social world. This definition enables us to see that, for...
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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 and Castro holds photo-ops with the Chevaliers du taste-vin. The former reverend fathers of leftist thought, like Louis Althusser, and their fellow travelers, including Sartre and Foucault, are bespattered with the shame of little murders, club-footed deceptions, and careless propagation not of revolution, but of the AIDS virus. Yet at the very time when Marxism seems to have attained its absolute nadir, there may be some sense in examining a kind of intellectual counter-investment strategy, returning to see if there are any salvageable elements amid the rubble of its once-proud towers.
To recapitulate historically—for that, after all, was one of its great watchwords—the impetus for Marxist criticism of...
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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 classical era, the fortunes of Molière's plays have provided an accurate gage of critical changes through successive generations. In The Misanthrope, for example, the honnête homme Philinte flattered the classical era's notions of restraint, moderation, and social adjustment, while the Romantics saw in Alceste a noble and kindred spirit whose keen sense of personal integrity made him near-tragically unsuited for life in the degraded society of more pliant folk. Existentialist criticism of The Misanthrope, on the other hand, has more recently indicted Alceste for his exemplary bad faith and self-deception. That the ascendancy or decline of Alceste's star can be correlated with the tides of literary criticism has been a...
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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 a dark past or foretelling a brilliant future. Burning Troy is the backdrop of Andromaque and imperial Rome the illusory goal of Mithridate. Some of Racine's most memorable lines evoke places (“Dans l'Orient désert quel devint mon ennui”) or suggest them (“Vous mourûtes aux bords où vous fûtes laissée”).
These prestigious allusions to place belong to the world of heroic exploit and imperial grandeur rather than to a comic setting. Place can be significant in comedy, however. One has only to remember the many Shakespeare comedies in which the scene shifts from court to country and often back again as in The Winter's Tale. The contrast between the polish and corruption of civilized life and...
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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 deus ex machina that appears to defy internal resolution. By relying on a device which introduces a new character possessed of sweeping powers, he seems to be saying that there is a break between dramatically motivated expectations of justice and the King's own dazzling display of power and omniscience.
The earliest extant criticism of the play (thought to be written by Molière) is the Lettre sur la comédie de l'Imposteur, a pamphlet which circulated after the 1664 version of Tartuffe. In it the author assumes the conventional posture of an Aristotelian critic who defends the portrayal of the Hypocrite as a moral corrective to vice. The King's justice does not surprise this critic; on the contrary, he...
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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. Moreover, it is a text whose misunderstanding-misinterpretation is inscribed within it, thereby deploying tactics of entrapment (of reader or spectator) which are deemed by many as indispensable to strategies identified as deconstructive. Finally, it is a text in which psychological and rhetorical structures are imbricated, mutually implicated and complicated, so that the allegory of true and false devotion unfolds as an allegory of reading. As a consequence, its analysis serves in this essay as the occasion for interrelating a critique of representation and difference, as exhibited most notably in the writings of Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, with a critique of violence and desire, particularly as we find it in the writings of René...
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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 problems, one of them specific and one more general, namely: how should the character of Tartuffe himself be interpreted, and to what kind of dramatic genre should the play be assigned, with the choice ranging between pure comedy (with a large dose of farce), satirical comedy, drame bourgeois (anticipating the 18th-century category of that name) and, finally, tragedy. However, if the latter rates a mention, it is mainly because of a famous pronouncement by Goethe referring to the ‘eminently tragic situations’ in such plays as Tartuffe or L'Avare where family conflicts led to fathers cursing their sons. This encouraged somewhat inflated statements such as Jules Janin's remark in 1839 that ‘Le Tartuffe est...
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Criticism: Dom Juan
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 des prises, des échos, des coins de table. [J. Audiberti, Molière Dramaturge. L'Arche, 1954, p. 73.] … l'intrigue reste décousue, incomplète. [G. Michaut, Les Luttes de Molière. Hachette, 1925, p. 148.]
Cette tragédie-comédie fantasque et bouffonne est une macédoine incroyable de tous les genres: elle est étrange, elle est bizarre, elle est hybride, elle est obscure en diable. [J. Lemaître, Impressions de théâtre. Paris, 1888, 1920, I, 57.]
Its seemingly endless succession of ambiguities and false trails might indeed suggest, at first sight, a hastily composed baroque tangle of conflicting ideas, a confused answer...
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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. Like the allusions to kneeling in Tartuffe, they are recalled throughout the play and, in an entirely different sense, in his final speech as he cries for his wages. Molière, playing the role in 1665, must have brought the full tradition of comic turns and pranks, inflection and gesture of the Italian commedia to his delivery. But seventeen years had passed and Molière was dead when the play was first printed by La Grange, who, acting Dom Juan, may never have seen Sganarelle's gestures at the play's beginning or end. He was offstage, probably preparing to enter; and by 1682 memory of Molière's gestures during rehearsals would have dimmed. Even if the edition were based on Molière's own script, no detailed gestural directions...
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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 identity. Like Le Tartuffe, whose interdiction forced Molière to write Dom Juan in order to have a new play to produce, Dom Juan studies the relationship between gestures and meaning as that relationship either supports and renews, or exploits and exhausts, social beliefs and ethical significances. A nobleman's effort to make himself independent of the very network of meanings and obligations that is the basis of his status as nobleman is an excellent vehicle for exploring the issue of identity and the ineluctably social ground of individuality.
Dom Juan dramatizes the refusal of ethical risk in such a way as to show that society can be either a stagnant, ceremonial game, circling toward total...
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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 ‘disembodied’ version of his rhetoric of seduction. Molière subtracts the initial seduction scenes from the Spanish and Italian theatres of Don Juan's desire. He suspends the lover's intrigues and presents Dom Juan indirectly, through Sganarelle's representation of him. Sganarelle offers an oblique representation of Dom Juan's fictions, his beautiful rhetoric, and his stylistic effects.
Under the comic mask of the harlequin valet, the libertine Seducer first appears as the vanishing point of his beautiful rhetoric. The identity of the courtly intriguer is shifted from sword and mask to the verbal fictional performances of love; these performances are anticipated and seconded by the valet...
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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 personality, for it is here that, for the first time, he actually takes the initiative and attacks religion in an active attempt to demonstrate that the truth resides within him and that he is in the right. It is, as J. Guicharnaud has pointed out, “la mise en action de l'incroyance de Dom Juan” (255). The danger that Dom Juan represents to society is multifaceted. He combines in himself many temptations, the power of a man accustomed to being a master, the prestige of a grand seigneur and the resources of his riches, but most of all he is dangerous because he represents the principle of disorder set against the order of the universe. His defeat at the hands of the Pauvre is thus highly significant because symbolically it...
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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 court. Considered from the point of view of the actor's location and movement on stage, Dom Juan is an interrogation of the court's attempt to adjust the perception of time and space to its own needs, in particular the need to transform history into a repeatable script. The way Molière incorporates the spatial and temporal consciousness of the courtier into Dom Juan is at the heart of his critical representation of the court as a constructed performance which relies excessively on theatrical self-presentation.
By the mid-seventeenth century, court space in France had long been organized into a framed and coherent whole, a cultural and social field which was the ideal setting for the representation of prestige...
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Criticism: Le Misanthrope
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 quelque attraction réciproque, mais dont les éléments imcompatibles ne parviennent à aucun moment à fusionner.”2 Guicharnaud suggests that Célimène's dramatic function is to “s'opposer point par point à Alceste sur le plan de l'amour, comme Philinte … sur le plan de l'amitié …” (p. 396).
Philinte, indeed, has been viewed almost exclusively as a foil to Alceste. “Rien ne fait paraître davantage une chose que celle qui lui est opposée,”3 declared Donneau de Visé of the hero and his friend, in our earliest analysis of the play. Few critics since then have been able to resist taking sides is such a meeting of opposites. Gustave Michaut, in a lengthy ironic footnote, lists the...
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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 ridicules and Les Femmes savantes have often been considered anti-feminist because they ridicule women who seek to break away from the role assigned to them within marriage and the family and to invade the male world of words and ideas (speaking and knowing).2 According to Bénichou, Molière thus confines women to the feminine domain of feeling, which he calls “l'accomplissement dans l'amour” or self-realization through love. Molière may be said, therefore, to favor woman's desire to follow the dictates of her emotions, so long as she does not challenge the superiority of men in the domain of the “word.”3
This analysis does not seem to apply, however, to Molière's most elusive masterpiece,...
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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 to control the allocation of attention in his social circle, guaranteeing both admiration for himself and others' guilt-ridden submission to him. Like any person aspiring to dominate, Alceste must try to define the Other in order to delineate his own identity clearly and to found the desired hierarchy. This is where Célimène's letter comes in. The essence of the sexual encounter between Alceste and Célimène emerges through the confrontation occasioned by this “text within the text.” Alceste's refusal of difference, his attempts to obliterate the Other, are exemplary of the solipsist's absorption of everything into the self. Alceste tries to absorb into himself the status of texts as privileged signifiers. The play challenges this...
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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 contemporaries indicates a comic ending. Montausier, who was thought at the time to have been a prototype of Alceste, claimed that he had become the butt of everyone's laughter. The first performance of the play provoked what Donneau de Visé termed ‘rire dans l'âme’. The tragic lighting seems to have been introduced in productions after Molière's death featuring Baron in the title role. Baron's interpretation gained critical support in the eighteenth century from German classicists, particularly from Goethe, who viewed the play as a societal tragedy in which the noble Alceste is defeated in his struggle against the world.3 The Romantics turned Alceste's separation from Célimène into a moment of supreme pathos. This...
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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 tie between the miser and his treasure. A famous photo of Dullin in the title role shows him cheek to cheek with his cassette, in a terrible parody of lovers united. More recently, in Roger Planchon's 1986 production, Harpagon falls sobbing across the cassette in a tearful embrace as the curtain drops. But an equally important symbol has gone largely unnoticed: the garden where Harpagon's treasure is buried throughout most of the play.
No garden appears in Molière's principal source, the Aulularia of Plautus. Euclion's pot of gold is hid not in his garden but in the hearth of his house, and he twice moves it in the course of the play. Far from being linked to a particular place, the treasure is in almost constant...
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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 qu'Harpagon se trouve être de tous les temps, du nôtre comme du sien.1
Few would dispute this. The status of L'Avare, unlike Le Misanthrope, is in no doubt: it is a comedy. There is, as Gaxotte says, a density of characterization that raises Harpagon above mere meanness.
Robert McBride finds density of another kind. For him it is:
the simultaneous perception of two self-contained but rationally incompatible ideas [that] characterizes through and through the purely intellectual form of Molière's comedy.2
The word “incompatible” is crucial here. Molière's other plays demonstrate McBride's...
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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 whereabouts of his hidden treasure. The play ends with Harpagon eagerly awaiting the moment when he can see once again “ma chère cassette” (5.6).1 By this time, his treasure has become the old man's only friend, “mon support, ma consolation, ma joie,” he calls it (4.7). Harpagon's conviction that, deprived of his money, he can no longer carry on anchors the play's comic vision in a darker realm. Indeed the miser is, arguably, as unhappy before the theft of his ten thousand écus as he is after it. He frets constantly about how dangerous it is to have so much money around the house (1.4). Burying his money in the garden puts it out of sight, but not out of mind, for Harpagon is terrified that others may have guessed his...
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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: University of Toronto Press, 1976, 208 p.
An archetypal approach analyzing the comedy of Molière.
———. “Molière in Performance.” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature IX, No. 16, (1982): 151-71.
Focuses on the theatrical aspects of Molière's work.
———. The Triumph of Wit: Molière and Restoration Comedy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988, 192 p.
Examines Molière's work using criteria normally associated with Restoration manners comedy.
Konstan, David. “A Dramatic History of Misanthropes.” Comparative Drama XVII, No. 2 (1983): 97-123.
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