Molière (Vol. 64)
(Pseudonym of Jean Baptiste Poquelin) French dramatist.
The following entry presents recent criticism of Molière's works. For further information on his life and career, see LC, Volumes 10 and 28.
Molière is widely recognized as the greatest comic writer of seventeenth-century France and one of the foremost dramatists in world literature. In such masterpieces as L'École des femmes (1662; The School for Wives), Le Tartuffe (1664; Tartuffe), Le Misanthrope (1666; The Misanthrope), and L'Avare (1668;The Miser) he set precedents that completely altered the focus and purpose of comedy, introducing realism to the French stage and elevating comic drama from farcical buffoonery to an important forum for social and religious 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, Jean Baptiste Poquelin was the eldest of six children born to a well-to-do bourgeois who held a prestigious royal appointment as valet de chambre to Louis XIII. Jean Baptiste was apprenticed in his father's trade but showed little inclination for the family business. The boy's interest in acting was sparked by his grandfather, who had a passion for the theater and occasionally took his grandson to see productions at the famous Hôtel de Bourgogne. Jean Baptiste attended school at the prestigious Jesuit Collège de Clermont, where he studied classical playwrights, including Terence and Plautus, who would be important influences on his comedies. He is also believed to have studied there with the eminent philosopher Pierre Gassendi, best known for his bitter public arguments with René Descartes as well as his affiliation with French Libertinism. After leaving Clermont Molière studied law briefly before inheriting his father's position at court. His final enticement to the stage was his affair with the actress Madeleine Béjart, whom he likely met while traveling as part of his royal office in 1642. With her influence he left the court for the stage in 1643, adopting the stage name Molière and establishing an acting company, L'Illustre Théatre, with Béjart and her family. By 1645 the troupe collapsed, and Molière was briefly imprisoned for debt, but from that year onward he began writing plays and touring the provinces. During this period he wrote short adaptations of Italian farces in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte, including La Jalousie de Barbouillé (1645; The Jealousy of Le Barbouillé) and Le Mèdecin volant (1645?;The Flying Doctor). In 1658 Molière and his troupe returned to Paris, where their premier performance consisted of Corneille's Nicomède, accompanied by Molière's farce Le Dépit amoureux (1656; The Amorous Quarrel). The actors apparently failed to pull off the tragedy, but the farce was a great success, winning the admiration of Louis XIV. More farces mocking the pretensions of the aristocracy earned Molière important enemies although they met with further success. Molière made his last attempt at tragedy with Dom Garcie de Navarre; ou, Le Prince jaloux (Don Garcia of Navarre; or, The Jealous Prince) in 1661, the failure of which moved him to abandon the genre. In 1662 Molière married a girl half his age, twenty-year-old Armande Béjart, who was thought to be either the sister or the daughter of his former mistress. Shortly afterward he produced his greatest commercial success, The School for Wives, which tells the story of a middle-aged man who attempts to create a chaste wife by raising her from girlhood in complete ignorance and innocence. Molière's enemies were quick to find parallels, accusing him of incest and labeling him a cuckold. He met with further trouble in the production of his most critically successful work, Tartuffe. The comedy about a devious, manipulative spiritual advisor inspired calls for censorship and the excommunication of anyone who performed, attended, or even read the play. The intervention of Louis XIV, who supported Molière silently to avoid arousing the ire of the Church, likely spared Molière execution for heresy. Plagued with recurrent illnesses due primarily to exhaution, Molière was diagnosed a hypochondriac by doctors, whose profession he maligned in many pieces. Molière himself played the hypochondriac in his last comedy, Le Malade imaginaire (1673; The Imaginary Invalid). He died following the fourth performance, the result of a lung disorder. As an actor, he was denied the ministrations of a priest and burial in consecrated ground. He was granted a serviceless funeral, following the intervention of his old patron, Louis XIV.
Commentators agree that Molière's strength as a dramatist lies in his diverse, insightful characterizations rather than in his plots, a number of which have been deemed unoriginal, contrived, and awkward. Portraying recognizable characters in ordinary circumstances and using a simpler, more natural language than had been previously utilized by writers of farce or tragedy, Molière exposed artificiality and vice in society. His plays frequently depict a specific character flaw in its extreme form—for example, the hypocrisy of Tartuffe or the obsessive avarice of Harpagon in The Miser—or pillory a social institution, as in the merciless ridiculing of members of the medical profession in The Imaginary Invalid. Juxtaposed with such monomaniacs as Alceste in The Misanthrope are such honnetes hommes and raisonneurs as Alceste's rational counterpart, Philinte, who add balance and serve to restore social harmony at the play's conclusion. Though often extremely critical, Molière's comedies are considered good-natured, and commentators note that they are surprisingly free of bitterness. Indeed, critics generally agree that rather than wishing to destroy existing social structures, Molière intended to point out specific, willful vices in hopes that society might eventually correct itself. This goal, along with Molière's desire to make audiences laugh, resulted in a legacy of dramas of human nature considered humorous yet profound.
Modern scholars have probed virtually every literary, scientific, and historical aspect of Molière's work. Heralded by critics of every century as the father of modern comic drama, Molière continues to be esteemed for the universality of his comic portraits, and recent studies have analyzed the psychology of such renowned characters as Tartuffe, Don Juan, and Alceste. Commentators such as James F. Gaines and John McCann have explored some of Molière's most vexing characters, stressing the playwright's use of paradox and ambiguity in his characterizations. While modern scholars, like their predecessors, still seek philosophical, ethical, and religious messages in Molière's comedies, critical interest has, in many instances, shifted away from assessments of the playwright's didactic intent toward purely aesthetic examinations of his comic technique. Critics such as David Hartley have explored Molière's use of language, finding it to be the heart of his comedy. Recent scholarship has also placed greater emphasis on Molière's role not only as a writer but as an actor and designer of theatrical spectacle. Theater scholars such as Jim Carmody have stressed the study of the staging of Molière's comedies as an important component of a historically aware interpretive process. Several critics have taken an interest in Molière's comedy-ballets, which blend comedy, music and dance. Robert McBride has suggested that interpretation of Molière's comedy-ballets is strongly supported by recognizing their emphasis on aesthetics as well as language and satire. David Whitton has noted that the development of the genre is closely linked to royal patronage and thus to the social and political circumstances of seventeenth-century France. In a similar vein, Helen L. Harrison has analyzed the influence of royal patronage on Molière's creative process and his treatment of money and power in his plays.
La Jalousie de Barbouillé [The Jealousy of Le Barbouillé] (drama) 1645?
Le Médecin volant [The Flying Doctor] (drama) 1645?
L'Éstourdy; ou, Le Contretemps [The Blunderer] (drama) 1653
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 [The School for Husbands] (drama) 1661
Les Fâcheux [The Bores] (drama) 1661
L'École des femmes [The School for Wives] (drama) 1662
La Critique de “L'École des femmes” [“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 Princess 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]...
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SOURCE: “Language and Authority in Molière,” in Voices in the Air: French Dramatists and the Resource of Language, University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1992, pp. 29-41.
[In this essay, Hartley argues that in Molière's plays a character's use of language reveals the reliability of his or her authority, and that Molière satirizes those who value language as a marker of status.]
In recent years, Molière criticism has tended to concentrate on the theatrical, rather than the literary side to his plays. Attention has focused on such topics as his debt to the commedia dell'arte, with whose performers he shared for some months the Petit-Bourbon,1 the nature of the seventeenth-century theatre and the demands and tastes of the audiences of the time,2 the importance of his role as theatre-manager.3 The change in approach brought about largely through the pioneering work of Moore, Bray, Jouvet and others4 has borne fruit. Bray, for example, makes the crucial point that, alone among French dramatists, Molière was a comédien, not an écrivain.5 A more balanced approach to the plays of Molière is now possible for students of literature.
However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the primary tool of the comédien was nevertheless language.6 The appeal of Molière's comedy was...
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SOURCE: “Two Comedy-Ballets of Salon Life,” in The Triumph of Ballet in Molière's Theatre, The Edwin Mellon Press, 1992, pp. 271-97.
[In this excerpt, McBride focuses on La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas and, particularly, on The Learned Ladies as grand aesthetic spectacles. McBride argues that the sheer theatricality of The Learned Ladies becomes more important than either its overt themes or its satire when the play is staged.]
La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas was composed as part of Le Ballet des ballets to celebrate the marriage of Monsieur, widower of Henriette d'Angleterre, with Elisabeth-Charlotte de Bavière, known as La Palatine. The ballet was performed on 2 December 1671 at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, with Charpentier in charge of the music and Beauchamps of the ballets. The ballet's livret informs us that ‘Sa Majesté a choisi tous les plus beaux endroits des divertissements qui se sont représentés devant Elle depuis plusieurs années, et ordonné à Molière de faire une comédie qui enchaînât tous ces beaux morceaux de musique et de danse, afin que ce pompeux et magnifique assemblage de tant de choses différentes puisse fournir le plus beau spectacle qui se soit encore vu pour la salle et le théâtre de Saint-Germain-en-Laye’.1 The king also requested Molière to write a pastoral for the occasion,...
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SOURCE: “Context: Genre and Occasion,” in Molière: Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1992, pp. 15-26.
[In this excerpt from his book-length study of The Bourgeois Gentleman, Whitton discusses Molière's role in the development of the uniquely French genre of the comedy-ballet.]
Il a le premier inventé la manière de mêler des scènes et des ballets dans les comédies, et il avait trouvé par là un nouveau secret de plaire.
(21, p. 4)
It is interesting that in an age which affected to mistrust originality—or at least to prize it less than manner and style—Molière was valued for his absolute originality. That originality had many facets. To mention only two: as a playwright, Molière's creation of ‘serious’ comedy is completely without precedent. By serious comedy I mean comedy which is consistently funny, yet at the same time deals with major topical and human questions. And secondly, as an actor-manager, Molière created for himself and his fellow-actors a new style of acting. In opposition to the rhetorical style of delivery prevalent in the theatre of the day, and to the highly stylised performance of farce, he created a more detailed realistic style based on observation of how people behave in real life. Contemporaries remarked on this style with...
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SOURCE: “Parasitology in Molière: Satire of Doctors and Praise of Paramedics,” in Literature and Medicine, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1993, pp. 1-18.
[In this essay, Jaymes explicates Molière's view of health and medicine, arguing that his satire of doctors is rooted in questions of responsibility and what constitutes appropriate authority. Molière, the critic contends,“seems to take serious issue with any attempt to sever the link between mind and body.… For him consulting a physician is tantamount to abdicating responsibility for one's health, an abdication that usually consists of turning one's body over to a mere physical specialist.”]
Molière's doctors are a strange lot. All the real ones in his plays are bad doctors; the only ones who heal, usually servants in a middle-class family, are masquerading as doctors.1 Molière seems to have been fascinated by the paradox of a sclerotic, parasitic profession given to ineffective, violent medical practices. How is one to make sense of a therapeutic world in which the real doctors fail, the fake doctors succeed in healing, and the difference between doctor and patient is not always clear? In this study of two of Molière's comedies, Doctor Cupid and The Imaginary Invalid, I propose that the playwright's satire of the medical profession emerged as the comic exploitation of a phenomenon of interference.2 In Molière's...
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SOURCE: “Reading Molière in the Theatre: Mise en Scène and the Classic Text,” in Rereading Molière: Mise en Scène from Antoine to Vitez, University of Michigan Press, 1993, pp. 1-23.
[In this excerpt, Carmody develops a methodology for interpreting Molière's works through the lens of twentieth-century stagings. Carmody's interest is in how these stagings address issues of historical distance and Molière's status as a classic author.]
Since the 1949 publication of Will Moore's seminal book, Molière: A New Criticism, English-speaking critics of Molière have accepted the premise that Molière's texts should be interpreted in the context of the theater. In France, René Bray's 1954 book, Molière: homme de théâtre, exerted a similar kind of influence.1 Although Moore and Bray were pursuing very different, even fundamentally opposite, intellectual agendas, they agreed that the theatrical aspects of the plays had been far too long ignored, and that when interpreting Molière's writings, scholars should remember that Molière wrote for the theater.
As a corrective, Moore offered a reading that discussed some of Molière's major plays under such rubrics as “Mime,” “Mask,” and “Scene,” thus creating a prototype for what has come to be known as “metadramatic criticism.” Moore's readings of individual plays, however, are less sensitive...
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SOURCE: “Caractères, Superstition and Paradoxes in Le Misanthrope,” in Alteratives, edited by Warren Motte and Gerald Prince, French Forum Publishers, 1993, pp. 71-84.
[In this essay, Gaines argues that the series of oppositions and dualities in The Misanthrope comprise a deliberate pattern of paradoxes.]
Beginning with Rousseau's Lettre à d'Alembert and continuing through modern studies by Jules Brody and others,1 it has been common critical practice to analyze Le Misanthrope as a system of conflicting dualities: Alceste against the rest of the characters, sincerity versus dissimulation, ethical versus esthetic principles, homme de bien versus honnêtes hommes. This tradition of analysis by antinomies is carried to a ridiculous extreme in Fabre d'Eglantine's drama of the revolutionary era, Le Philinte de Molière, where the evil aristocrat Philinte is righteously chastised for his dissembling by an anti-establishment Alceste.2
From the perspective of language, however, the binary tradition does not provide an adequate entry into the text.3 Philinte and Eliante, who function as mediators, cannot be conveniently grouped either with Alceste or with the other members of Célimène's clique, for their tendency to form their discourse around the object of conversation rather than the subject clashes...
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SOURCE: “Molière's Bawdy,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, 1994, pp. 124-32.
[In this essay, Maber traces the sexual humor throughout Molière's works, distinguishing playwright's use of bawdy, a broad, obvious form of comedy, from his use of subtle double entendre, which requires some complicity from the audience for the humor to be realized.]
Molière is one of the most accessible of all French writers, and arguably the most universal in his appeal; and yet at the same time he is one of the most elusive. From his own lifetime to the present day, he has been the subject of a great diversity of interpretations, of his own complex and multi-faceted personality as a man as much as his intentions as an author; and the same diversity of interpretation has of course always been brought to the performance of the plays.
The title of this paper is a deliberate echo of Eric Partridge's famous study of Shakespeare.1 The parallel highlights the profound differences between the two dramatists rather than their similarity in this respect: compared with Shakespeare, one might feel that there is hardly enough in the French playwright to be worth investigating at all. However, the sense that one should look for something different in Molière can form a useful starting-point, and this paper offers some preliminary comments towards a fuller study of this aspect of his...
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SOURCE: “Harpagon: the Paradox of Miserliness,” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. 22, No. 43, 1995, pp. 555-69.
[In this essay, McCann claims that the humor in the character of Harpagon in The Miser comes not from his excessive avarice but from his paradoxical but inherently logical revisions of concepts of generosity and charity. As a result, McCann suggests, Harpagon retains his humanity, even if he is not finally reformed.]
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...
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SOURCE: “Comic Theory, Molière, and the Comedy-Ballets,” in Music, Dance, and Laughter: Comic Creation in Molière's Comedy-Ballets, Biblio 17, 1995, pp. 21-43.
[In this excerpt, Fleck reviews comic theory from Aristotle to the twentieth century as a context for examining Molière's comic method in his comedy-ballets, focusing on notions of paradox and realism.]
I. MAJOR IDEAS ON THE COMIC: SOME CLASSIC VIEWS AND PROBLEMS
Comedy, the comic, and laughter constitute a famously problematic and ill-defined area of thought; one can scarcely discuss the three terms apart from each other, but each presents problems of definition. For Umberto Eco, the comic is an “umbrella term” covering a wide range of phenomena—irony and the grotesque among many others—and thus susceptible of no single definition (“Frames” 1). Western definitions of comedy as well as of the comic have generally revolved around such ideas as error and vice, superiority and inferiority, incongruity, and lack of harm. Each of these ideas is evident within a brief passage from the extant first book of Aristotle's Poetics:
Comedy is, as we said, a representation of people who are rather inferior—not, however, with respect to every [kind of] vice, but the laughable is [only] a part of what is ugly. For the laughable is a sort of error and...
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SOURCE: “‘Don Juan,’ 1665-1925,” in Molière: Don Juan, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 1-17.
[In this excerpt, Whitton reviews the performance history of Don Juan, one of Molière's more challenging comedies from an interpretive standpoint. For Whitton, the servant character of Sganarelle is a crucial factor in interpreting the play and its ambiguous main character for modern audiences.]
Tales about statues of the dead coming to life to exact retribution from the living were endemic in medieval folk legend, and in literature stretching back to antiquity. But the fusion of the Stone Guest motif with the story of an unrepentant womaniser first appeared in Spain in 1630. Written by a monk, Tirso de Molina, The Joker of Seville and the Guest of Stone recounts the life of Don Juan Tenorio, whose adventures are punished when the statue of a Commander whom he had killed, and whose daughter he has tried to seduce, invites him to supper and drags him down to Hell. This cautionary tale, despite its pious intentions, is actually a much more exciting play than it sounds, as a recent production by the Royal Shakespeare Company proved.1 In addition to its sensational story, the play broaches two major themes which, at the emergence of the modern world, were starting to take a grip on Western consciousness: the clash between the rationalist mind and phenomena which transcend the...
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SOURCE: “Language for Money: the Patron and the Servant,” in Pistoles/Paroles: Money and Language in Seventeenth-Century French Comedy, Rookwood Press, 1996, pp. 151-70.
[In this excerpt, Harrison argues that Molière's depiction of the relationship between artistic creation and patronage demonstrates his own status as a royal servant. The critic finds that the connections Molière draws between art and power work to support the authority of the king.]
During his Parisian career, Molière was a servant of the king. He shared the obligation of all subjects to use his talents for the monarch, and as a comédien du roi, he provided the king with entertainment at court. Molière also worked for the king in his performances in the Paris theater, for here, too, he offered pleasure on Louis' behalf. In examining the ways in which Molière's comedies base their value on the authority of the monarch, I shall show how the playwright contributes to the image of the king as bestower of prosperity and peace and at the same time constructs a new role for himself as a royal agent.
Hopes for prosperity had some justification at this time. 1659 had brought an end to the long war with Spain. When Louis began his personal rule in 1661, he presided over a much desired period of peace which would last, without serious interruption, until 1672, the date of the war with Holland. Direct taxes,...
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SOURCE: “L'École des femmes: Marriage and the Laws of Chance,” in Intruders in the Play World: The Dynamics of Gender in Molière's Comedies, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996, pp. 77-98.
[In this excerpt, Lalande examines The School for Wives as a struggle between the “masculine” principle of Law and the “feminine” principle of Chance. Ultimately, she argues, the principles are reconciled, but the reconciliation is based upon the subservience the feminine to the masculine.]
Mon Dieu, ne gagez pas: vous perdriez vraiment.
—L'Ecole des femmes II, 5
It would be difficult to undertake a study of the dialectics of inclusion, exclusion, and intrusion of the female character in relation to the parameters of the comic circle without examining L'Ecole des femmes. The theatrical motif is immediately apparent and leads to an early division of the characters into three groups: director, spectator, and object of ridicule. These roles, however, do not remain static but are in constant mutation throughout the play. Not only can the real-life spectator easily identify the shifting parameters of play, but s/he can thereby examine the dynamics of participation and nonparticipation in the game. Within the context of L'Ecole des femmes, it is matrimony that is defined as a game of chance in...
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Parish, Richard. “Molière en Travesti: Transvestite Acting in Molière.” Nottingham French Studies 33, No. 1 (1994): 53-8.
Examines transvestism in Molière's plays as a form of disguise rather than as a means of generating sexual ambiguity.
Philips, Henry. “Authority and Order in Molière Comedy.” Nottingham French Studies 33, No. 1 (1994): 12-19.
Suggests that examples of authority in Molière's plays create a model for kingship, asserting the supremacy of the king but also giving direction to the king.
Shaw, David. “Molière and the Doctors.” Nottingham French Studies 33, No. 1 (1994): 133-42.
Proposes that Molière's representations of doctors were not intended as satire and do not reflect seventeenth-century opinions on the practice of medicine.
Additional coverage of Molière's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Modules—Dramatists Module and Most-Studied Authors Module; and World Literature Criticism.
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