Tartuffe Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Religion and the Church

Censorship and Molière's Tartuffe have run hand in hand since the very first production of the play, which scandalized ecclesiastical authorities to the point of banning the play for many years. Many studies on the work examine the trials and tribulations that Molière underwent in order to stage the work; Molière had to rework the play no less than three times over the course of five years in order to have the production finally staged. However, in spite of Molière's extensive changes, there is still an allegorical criticism of authority, especially a patriarchal monarchy which runs throughout the play.

Considering the era in which the play was staged, Molière could not have helped but step on a few toes in writing Tartuffe; the comedy, which originally poked-fun at religion, when combined with the low regard for theater in general, was bound to cause offense no matter what the author's true intent. Richard Parish sums up the predicament in which Molière found himself:

Relations in France between the Catholic Church and the theatre were, throughout the seventeenth century and beyond, conflictual, irrespective of any perceived offense. Those sections of the church which promoted an austere morality were predictably uncompromising..Within the climate of disapproval, the threat of Tartuffe is easy to account for: if all theatre is sinful, comedy as a frivolous genre, falls into a more sensitive category again; and comedy which addresses itself to religious issues, however superficially, pushes the tension to the limit.

Unfortunately, there is no extant complete text of the two earlier versions which Molière had to emend to appease the ecclesiastical authorities who specifically appealed to the king. Nevertheless, scholars have managed to piece together the major changes implemented in the final version in order to get the seal of approval from King Louis XIV. The most obvious change involves a toning down of the character of Tartuffe in order to make him less priestly. Mikhail Bulgakov summarizes the original Tartuffe: ‘‘The play portrayed the most complete and consummate swindler, liar, scoundrel, informer, and spy—a hypocrite, lecher, and seducer of other men's wives. And this personage, clearly a danger to surrounding society was none other than a priest. All his speeches were interlarded with honeyed, pious maxims, and in addition to that, he accompanied his reprehensible actions at every step with quotations from the Holy Writ.'' Of course, the final version of the comedy portrays Tartuffe as an imposter who puts on religious airs but who is clearly not a priest. Tartuffe pretends to be holy, but he holds no official office. He is an imposter, a fact clearly illustrated by the expansion of the title Le Tartuffe, ou L'Imposteur (Tartuffe, or The Imposter), a title which is often shortened to just Tartuffe in English translations. In addition to no longer wearing holy garb, the final Imposter does not quote directly from the Holy Writ. The Tartuffe who has survived is clearly a flawed man taking advantage of religion to further his material aims, not a legitimate member of the clergy who is a representative of God. In order to emphasize this change, Molière beefed-up the lines of the level-headed Cleante, a character who is a counterbalance to all the chaos in the play and who embodies reason and diplomacy and who is not fooled by the imposter Tartuffe. Throughout the play, he attempts to reconcile the feuding family factions. One brief speech stands out as a virtual disclaimer for any religious authorities who might still have been offended by the play:

You've recognized your recent grave mistake In falling victim to a pious fake; Now, to correct that error, must you embrace An even greater error in its place, And judge our worthy neighbors as a whole By what you've learned of one corrupted soul? Come, just because one rascal made you swallow A show of zeal which turned out to be hollow, Shall you conclude that all men are deceivers, And that, today, there are no true believers? Let atheists make that foolish inference.

Appeasing the clergy was only part of the battle. Molière also inserted a new ending which includes a literary device known as deus ex machina. Playwrights and authors resort to a deus ex machina (Latin for "God out of the works’’) to create a neat ending. Basically, a deity descends onto the scene to restore order to the chaos. In this instance, the deus (god) is literally the king, which in Latin is rex. Thus, deus ex machina is transformed by Molière to rex ex machina. In the final scene, the benevolent and...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)

Motif of the Social Mask

Deception is a recurring theme in Tartuffe. Tartuffe himself is a master of deception, successfully deceiving Orgon into believing he...

(The entire section is 1921 words.)

Some Power Structures Observed

The shift from a comedy such as La Princesse d'Elide to one of quite serious content, Le Tartuffe, for a second featured play...

(The entire section is 7562 words.)

Dramatic 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...

(The entire section is 3263 words.)