Study Guide

Molière

Molière Essay - Molière (Vol. 28)

Molière (Vol. 28)

Introduction

Molière 1622–1673

(Pseudonym of Jean Baptiste Poquelin) French dramatist.

The following entry provides critical discussion of Molière's works from the last four decades. For further information on Molière's life and works, see LC, Volume 10.

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 misanthrope (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. While Molière's daring parodies of the pretentiousness of the Parisian upper classes and the hypocrisy of many religious leaders became extremely popular with audiences, they were also the source of heated controversy throughout his life.

Biographical Information

Born in Paris and christened Jean Baptiste Poquelin, Molière was the eldest of six children. His father held a prestigious appointment as valet de chambre and tapissier, or upholsterer, to Louis XIII. Molière was apprenticed in his father's trade, but was little interested in the family business. He instead became fascinated with the theater while attending one of the best secondary schools in Paris, the Jesuit Collège de Clermont, where he studied classical dramas by such authors as Terence and Plautus. After leaving Clermont, Molière studied law briefly before inheriting his father's position at court. In 1642, possibly while traveling as valet de chambre to Louis XIII, he became romantically involved with an actress named Madeleine Béjart, who strongly influenced his decision in 1643 to renounce his royal appointment in order to pursue a more precarious theatrical career. He adopted the stage name of Molière and established the troupe L'Illustre Théatre with Madeleine Béjart and her family. Numerous expenses, general inexperience, and Molière's dubious abilities as a tragic actor, however, caused the troupe's collapse in July, 1645. Following a brief imprisonment for the theater's debt, Molière continued to pursue his dramatic career, touring the provinces with the Béjarts for the next thirteen years and writing his first plays—La jalousie de Barbouillé (1645; The Jealousy of Le Barbouillé), Le mèdecin volant (1645?; The Flying Doctor), and L'étourdi (1653; The Blunderer)—all short adaptations of Italian farces in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte. Upon returning to Paris in 1658, the troupe performed Molière's farce Le dépit amoureux (1656; The Amorous Quarrel), which was greeted with overwhelming

enthusiasm, and earned the favor of Louis XIV. While Molière's next work, Les Précieuses ridicules (1659; The Affected Ladies), was also a popular success, the comedy's mockery of the pretentiousness of the Parisian upper class insulted many aristocrats who believed themselves to be the targets of the parody. Molière thus earned the first of many socially prominent enemies, and thereafter, his life and plays continued to generate controversy. In 1662, Molière married Armande Béjart, a twenty-year-old woman who was thought to be either the sister or the daughter of Molière's former mistress, Madeleine Béjart. The union was marked by periodic separations, and Armande's uncertain parentage and rumored infidelities became the subject of hostile pamphlets and malicious gossip by Molière's enemies. Molière was also frequently plagued with charges of impiety, which culminated in the censorship battle surrounding his most renowned work, Tartuffe, which presents a daring criticism of the Catholic church. Although Tartuffe was extremely popular with audiences and was acclaimed by Louis XIV, the Archbishop of Paris issued a decree threatening to excommunicate anyone who performed, attended, or even read the play. In the midst of the controversy, Molière produced Don Juan, which provoked further censorship from outraged church officials, who managed to suppress the play after only fifteen performances. Louis XIV, who had previously protected Molière from censorship, became reluctant to oppose powerful religious interests. It was not until 1669 that Molière was permitted to perform Tartuffe. Plagued with recurrent illnesses due primarily to exhaustion, Molière was diagnosed a hypochondriac by doctors who were offended by his parody of the medical profession. Ironically, he died of a lung disorder in 1673 following the fourth performance of his final comedy, Le malade imaginaire (1673; The Imaginary Invalid), in which he played the role of the hypochondriac. Denied both the ministrations of a priest and interment in consecrated ground because of his profession, Molière was granted only a serviceless funeral, and that only after Louis XIV intervened on his behalf.

Major Works

While Molière's early plays may be divided into full-length comédies littéraires in verse, such as Dom Garcie de Navarre (1661; The Jealous Prince), and one-act farces, such as Les Précieuses ridicules; from L'École des femmes (1662; The School for Wives) onwards these two forms became fused. W.D. Howarth commented: "Molière's originality is thus to have created a formula which combined the 'classical' structure, the linguistic refinement and the portrayal of manners belonging to the accepted conventions of 'comedy,' with the heightened, even caricatural, characterization proper to farce." Commentators have consistently emphasized the vivid personalities of Molière's characters, often deeming characterization the central element of interest and unity in his plays. His works typically focus on ordinary people in recognizable societal roles who are perverted or corrupted by a particular obsession or character flaw—for example, the obsessive avarice of Harpagon in L'avare (1668; The Miser). Relationships between the sexes, particularly between older men and much younger women, were also the focus of several plays. Written within a few months following his marriage, for example, The School for Wives concerns a middle-aged man's attempt to create a wife who is incapable of betraying him by raising her from her childhood in complete isolation from the outside world. While Molière sought above all to entertain, his view of comedy gradually evolved to embrace the belief that "the business of comedy is to present, in general, all the defects of man and principally of our country." Thus, social criticism played a prominent role in his satirical works such as Tartuffe, which portrays a hypocritical priest who ingratiates himself into a household by posing as his host's spiritual director, and then usurps control of his property.

Critical Reception

Variously considered a blasphemer, a social satirist, and a writer of pure comedy, Molière has, as Alvin Eustis notes, "borne a different message for each successive generation since his own." His introduction of realism to the seventeenth-century French stage brought to the fore a longstanding debate over the role of comedy in literature in a society in which most writers and critics deemed comic drama intrinsically inferior to tragedy. Although Molière remained highly popular during this time, he battled many attempts to discredit his plays as the works of a mediocre farceur. During the eighteenth century in France, both the popularity and critical reception of Molière's works declined sharply, as his natural style was rejected in favor of the more elegant comedies of Pierre Marivaux and Nivelle de la Chalussée. The French Restoration of the nineteenth century, however, witnessed a tremendous resurgence of Molière's works; his plays were by far the most frequently performed of the era, and, except for the detractions of the influential German critic August Wilhelm von Schlegel, he was widely considered the purest representative of the classical theater of the age of Louis XIV. Twentieth-century assessments of Molière's works have been predominantly concerned with characterization and comic technique. While critics during the first half of the century frequently focused on the emotions and motivations of Molière's characters, much criticism since the 1960s has focused on the playwright's use of language, and the unifying structural elements of his works. Alvin Eustis, for example, proposed that each of Molière's works are constructed around an ironic situation or paradox. Recent criticism has also addressed the plays in the context of seventeenth-century social history, exploring the influence of social hierarchy on Molière's writing process, the possible moral and cathartic functions of the productions, and the psychology that may have motivated the fearful reaction surrounding many of his works.

Principal Works

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

Le médecin volant [The Flying Doctor] (drama) 1645?

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

Le dépit amoureux [The Amorous Quarrel] (drama) 1656

Les précieuses ridicules [The Affected Ladies] (drama) 1659

Sganarelle; ou, Le cocu imaginaire [The Imaginary Cuckold] (drama) 1660

Dom Garcie de Navarre; ou, Le prince jaloux [Don Garcia of Navarre; or, The Jealous Prince] (drama) 1661

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

Les fâcheux [The Impertinents; also translated as The Bores] (drama) 1661

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

La critique de 'L'école des femmes" ["The School for Women" Criticised; also translated as "The School for Wives" Criticised] (drama) 1662

L'impromptu de Versailles [The Impromptu of Versailles] (drama) 1663

Le mariage forcé [The Forced Marriage] (drama) 1664

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

Le Tartuffe [Tartuffe: or, The Hypocrite; also translated as Tartuffe: or, The Imposter] (drama) 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] (drama) 1665

Le médecin malgré lui [The Forced Physician; also translated as The Doctor in Spite of Himself] (drama) 1666

Le misantrope [The Misantrope; or, Man-Hater; also translated as The Misanthrope] (drama) 1666; also published as Le misanthrope, 1851

Amphitryon [Amphitryon; or, The Two Sosias] (drama) 1668

L'avare [The Miser] (drama) 1668

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

Monsieur de Pourceaugnac [Monsieur de Pourceaugnac; or, Squire Trelooby] (drama) 1669

Le bourgeois gentilhomme [The Bourgeois Gentleman] (drama) 1670

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

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

Les femmes savantes [The Learned Ladies] (drama) 1672

Le malade imaginaire [The Hypocondriac; also translated as The Imaginary Invalid] (drama) 1673

The Works of Mr. de Molière. 6 vols, (dramas) 1714

The Dramatic Works· of Molière. 6 vols, (dramas) 1875-76

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

Criticism

Robert J. Nelson (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "The Unreconstructed Heroes of Molière," in The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, March, 1960, pp. 14-37.

[Nelson is an American critic and educator whose works on French literature include Play Within a Play: The Dramatist's Conception of His Art (1958), and Corneille: His Heroes and Their Worlds (1963). In the following essay, he discusses Molière 's treatment of the relationship between appearance and reality in Le Tartuffe, Dom Juan, and Le Misanthrope, "in order to assess [the meaning of this theme] for Molière 's art in particular and for comic theory in general."]

There are, as Bailly has said [in L'Ecole classique...

(The entire section is 11491 words.)

J. D. Hubert (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "The Seducer as Catalyst," in Molière and the Comedy of Intellect, University of California Press, 1962, pp. 113-29.

[Hubert is an American essayist and critic. In the following essay, he discusses characterization, setting, and language in Dom Juan, which he considers to be one of Molière's most controversial and unique works.]

Dom Juan stands out as Molière's most controversial play. Like Tartuffe, it struck the parti dévot as an abominably irreligious work. Unlike L'Imposteur, it has appeared to many critics, irrespective of their religious convictions, as an artistic failure in spite of a certain number of redeeming...

(The entire section is 6209 words.)

Lionel Gossman (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Molière in His Own Time," in Men and Masks: A Study of Molière, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1963, pp. 164-251.

[Gossman is Scottish essayist and educator. In the following excerpt, he discusses "the comic hero's relation to the world" in Molière's plays, focusing on the themes of social class and the rejection of society.]

We tend, occasionally, to think that some of Molière's comedies are gay and light-hearted, whereas others are more somber and ambiguous. A Jourdain or a Magdelon presents audiences with no problems, but an Alceste leaves them perplexed and uncertain. Jourdain and Magdelon are figures of unalloyed fun, according to this view, pure fools as...

(The entire section is 4666 words.)

J. Cameron Wilson (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Expansion and Brevity in Molière's Style," in Molière: Stage and Study, edited by W. D. Howarth and Merlin Thomas, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1973, pp. 93-113.

[Wilson is an English educator and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the characteristic comic techniques of Molière 's dialogue.]

Molière's style, long praised for its naturalness and truth to life, possesses a degree of artifice which suggests that its intention is quite different from this. It is the unobtrusive nature of this artifice, however, which both guarantees its success in achieving its aim and explains the fact that critics have been so slow to recognize it. Unlike that of...

(The entire section is 6606 words.)

Alvin Eustis (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Paradox, Plot, and Outcome," in Molière as Ironic Contemplator, Mouton & Co., N. V., Publishers, 1973, pp. 61-99.

[Eustis is an American critic, translator, and educator. In the following excerpt, he discusses the structure of Molière's plays and suggests that an ironic situation or paradox is at the center of each of the comedies.]

(The entire section is 10119 words.)

William A. Mould (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Illusion and Reality: A New Resolution of an Old Paradox," in Molière and the Commonwealth of Letters: Patrimony and Posterity, Roger Johnson, Jr., Editha S. Neumann, Guy T. Trail, eds., University Press of Mississippi, 1975, pp. 521-26.

[Mould is an American educator and critic who specializes in seventeenth-century French theater. In the following essay, he examines Molière 's treatment of the paradoxical relationship between illusion and reality in his plays.]

Molière is the first French dramatist to use the paradox of illusion and reality to express a sophisticated world view. His work transformed a dramatic device into a powerful statement of belief in...

(The entire section is 2394 words.)

W. D. Howarth (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Molière's Comic Vision," in Molière: A Playwright and His Audience, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 244-57.

[Howarth is an English educator and critic whose works on French literature include Life and Letters in France: The Seventeenth Century (1965), and Sublime and Grotesque: A Study of French Romantic Drama (1975). In the following essay, he discusses Molière 's view of human nature, the problems of contemporary production of Molière 's plays, and the moral function of Molière 's drama. Howarth concludes that "the cathartic function" of the Molière 's comedies was "to preserve a healthy view of the relationship between the individual and...

(The entire section is 5965 words.)

Harold C. Knutson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Molière's Reactionary Theater," in Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History, Vol. 13, 1986, pp. 115-22.

[Knutson is an American educator and critic whose writings on French literature include Molière: An Archetypal Approach (1976). In the following essay, he examines Molière's portrayal of social hierarchy and asserts that his theater may be considered "reactionary."]

Tragedy conveys its political message through the prism of exemplary history and its royal protagonists. The comic dramatist usually mirrors the affairs of lesser mortals, normally in their own time setting. To grasp the political significance of...

(The entire section is 3712 words.)

Mitchell Greenberg (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Molière's Tartuffe and the Scandal of Insight," in Subjectivity and Subjugation in Seventeenth-Century Drama and Prose: The Family Romance of French Classicism, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 113-40.

[In the following excerpt, Greenberg offers a psychoanalytic explanation for the fearful reaction against Le Tartuffe during the seventeenth-century.]

Unquestionably Le Tartuffe is Molière's most scandalous comedy. From its creation at Versailles as part of the royal festivities known as the "Plaisirs de l'Ile Enchantée" in May of 1664 to its withdrawal from the stage and the royal government's refusal to allow its public performance...

(The entire section is 12028 words.)