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...

(The entire section is 5944 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 4437 words.)

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,...

(The entire section is 6180 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 4320 words.)