Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Orgon’s house. Parisian home of Orgon, a wealthy former officer of the King’s Guard, that is the play’s principal setting. The class and wealth of Orgon’s home exist with the craziness and irrationality found inside. The extravagant house where Orgon, the master, and his new younger bride, Elmire, abide is a place where carriages frequently appear at the door, and footmen and lackeys are kept busy. Orgon’s children and loyal maid, Dorine, must share their dwelling with duped Orgon’s new houseguest, the religious hypocrite Tartuffe. The house becomes a battleground between Tartuffe’s supporters, Orgon and his mother, and the more “enlightened” or reasonable personages of Dorine and Elmire, and especially Cleante—Orgon’s wise and temperate brother-in-law.
Closet. Small and well-hidden enclosed space in one of the sitting rooms in Orgon’s mansion that represents the pivotal point in the play’s plot. In the third act, Orgon’s son Damis, while hiding in the closet, overhears the pious Tartuffe attempting to seduce his father’s wife, Elmire. The closet also serves to heighten the erratic behavior of Orgon, who refuses to believe the accusations against Tartuffe. Orgon even denounces and disinherits his son, forces Mariane to commit herself to Tartuffe, rather than her lover Valere, and then makes the religious imposter his sole heir.
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The Reign of King Louis XIV
Tartuffe was first written and performed during the reign of King Louis XIV of France, which lasted from 1643 until the king's death in 1715. The social, cultural, and political atmosphere that characterized the reign of Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, was so distinct that it lent itself to the name of an era in French history. Louis XIV was the son of King Louis XIII and the Spanish Queen Anne of Austria. He was born in 1638 and officially ascended the throne at less than five-years-of-age. During the early years of his reign, Louis XIV struggled through a series of civil wars known as the Fronde (1648-1653). As an adult, Louis XIV worked hard to consolidate his power and eventually became one of the most powerful monarchs in history. The reign of Louis XIV came to be considered the epitome of absolutist monarchy. He combined an international policy of aggressive warfare with a domestic policy of fostering the development of cultural arts such as architecture, theater, and dance. The "Louis XIV style'' designates characteristic elements in the visual and decorative arts that developed during his reign, making Paris the European center of fashion, architecture, and culture.
Seventeenth-Century French Theater and Drama
The reign of Louis XIV fostered the development of the theatrical arts, and Molière's career was largely dependent on the direct patronage of the King himself. During the...
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Questions and Answers: Act I
1. Why is Madame Pernelle leaving the household?
2. Why is Madame Pernelle dissatisfied with Dorine? What is one larger implication behind a character like Dorine’s having so many lines?
3. At what point does the reader or audience realize that Orgon is behaving strangely?
4. Dialogue is ironic when the literal meaning is the opposite of the intended meaning. When and why is the dialogue in Tartuffe ironic? Give examples.
5. What is Orgon alluding to when he says he will be guided by “Heaven’s will” concerning the wedding of his daughter?
1. Madame Pernelle is upset that no one listens to her. She thinks that the family behaves badly. Elmire, her daughter-in-law, is needlessly lavish. In addition, the children are apt to entertain guests, which causes the neighbors to gossip. Madame Pernelle thinks that the family is not pious enough and that they should all listen to Tartuffe, the holy man whom her son Orgon has befriended and taken under his roof.
2. Dorine is Mariane’s lady’s maid. Despite her servant position, Dorine openly speaks her mind. In fact, Dorine has quite a few lines throughout the play; she is impetuous and prone to telling the truth in a sarcastic manner. Considering the social order in France (pre-French Revolution), she is behaving as if outside her social class, which can be viewed as a sign of disrespect or a sign that the deluded patriarch needs to be confronted.
3. Scene IV. Prior to Scene IV, a difference of opinion pits Madame Pernelle against the rest of Orgon’s family. However, since neither Orgon nor Tartuffe have yet made an appearance, the audience does not know whose side to take. All this changes when Orgon asks Dorine for news of his family. From the exchange, it is clear that Orgon has rearranged his priorities in a very bizarre manner. From this point on, it is obvious that the family’s complaints, not Madame Pernelle’s, have a great deal of validity.
4. Tartuffe is rife with irony, and it is often used for comedic effect. In Scene IV, Orgon keeps responding, “Poor fellow” whenever Dorine relates just how well Tartuffe is doing. In Scene V, Cléante calls his brother-in-law “humane” even though Orgon states, “My mother, children, brother, and wife could die, / And I’d not feel a single moment’s pain.” Later in Scene IV, Orgon...
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Questions and Answers: Act II
1. According to Orgon, why should Mariane obey him?
2. Does Mariane defend herself well? Does she have help?
3. What does Dorine predict will occur if Mariane is forced to wed Tartuffe?
4. What causes the misunderstanding between Valère and Mariane?
5. What tactic, in addition to predicting infidelity, does Dorine resort to when confronting Orgon? Could you consider the tactic passive-aggressive?
1. Orgon is the father, and it is natural—especially in a patriarchal society—for everyone in a family to obey the father. Because her father loves her, Mariane should be grateful and comply with his every wish: “That’s well said, Daughter; and you can repay me / If, in all things, you’ll cheerfully obey me.”
2. Mariane is rather silent by nature. Although she is horrified at the thought of marrying Tartuffe, she does not give much of an argument. Instead, she relies on Dorine to confront Orgon for her.
3. Dorine predicts that Mariane will cheat on her new husband immediately. If Orgon persists in demanding that his daughter marry a man whom she hates, he will be responsible, in the eyes of heaven, for the sin of infidelity that she will later commit.
4. Neither Valère nor Mariane is sufficiently upset at the news that Orgon intends for his daughter to wed Tartuffe. Their masked indifference hurts each other. Valère is hurt that Mariane will obey her father. Mariane, in turn, is hurt when Valère feigns callousness and announces that he will simply find another woman. Eventually Dorine reconciles the two lovers.
5. Dorine directly confronts Orgon in a mocking tone. When he tells her to keep quiet, she persists by talking in asides, directing her commentary to the audience rather than to Orgon—although he can still hear her. This tactic of no longer addressing the person with whom she is arguing can certainly be construed as passive-aggressive. Eventually, Orgon tries to slap Dorine.
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Questions and Answers: Act III
1. What character flaws does Damis have that prevent him from initially attaining his goals?
2. How does Tartuffe reconcile his physical passion for Elmire with his religious nature?
3. How does Elmire react to the improper advances?
4. How does Tartuffe escape Orgon’s wrath after Damis’ accusation?
5. Does Elmire offer any resistance when Organ disinherits his son?
1. Damis is too hotheaded and impetuous. He fails to think things through logically before acting on his emotions and hatred. In acting without thinking, he fails to comprehend that his father may still take Tartuffe’s side after hearing the accusation. In his need for immediate action, Damis endangers his long-range goals. He would do better to follow the rational advice of his mother.
2. Tartuffe is, of course, a fraud, who is not really religious at all. However, for appearance’s sake, he must still present a religious philosophy that allows for his sexual gratification. In his speech from lines 933-960, he amply addresses this point. In his worldview, a love of heavenly beauty does not preclude “proper love for earthly pulchritude.” Elmire is too beautiful; how could a mere mortal, like him, resist her?
3. Elmire tells Tartuffe that she will keep the incident to herself if he agrees to consent to the marriage of Mariane and Valère. In this respect, Elmire is wise. She plans to use the incident to get what she wants. Additionally, she feels that improper advances are all too common; there is no need to tell a husband about such trifles.
4. Tartuffe confesses everything, proclaiming that he is a base sinner. He is overly penitent and acts as if the sins of the world are upon him. Heaven has chosen to “mortify” him, much like Christ. The ploy works for Tartuffe. Just as in an outcome of reverse-psychology, Orgon ends up mistakenly believing that Tartuffe is so pious that he is actually covering for Damis’ “lies.”
5. The scenes in Act III are—for the most part—very brief. Elmire is not present in Scene VI when Orgon disinherits his son. Although she was present in the two preceding scenes, she can exert no influence over her husband’s rash decision; only Orgon, Damis and Tartuffe are present for the final confrontation. In Scene V, Elmire voices the opinion that Damis should have remained silent and spared...
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Questions and Answers: Act IV
1. Why doesn’t Cléante think that Tartuffe is a true Christian?
2. By Act IV, what is Orgon’s main motive in marrying his daughter to Tartuffe?
3. Why does Orgon wait so long in appearing from under the table?
4. What tone does Elmire adopt with her husband when he finally emerges from under the table?
5. Why doesn’t Tartuffe attempt to use reverse-psychology anymore?
1. A true Christian would preach forgiveness for Damis and not accept an inheritance that is not morally his. Tartuffe has no satisfactory response to these charges.
2. Orgon wants to spite his family. He considers them ungrateful. He is also suffering from a religious complex; from his language, he wants to sacrifice his daughter much the way saints sacrifice themselves: “Marry Tartuffe, and mortify your flesh!”
3. There is no simple answer to this question. Most likely, Molière drags out the scene to maximize comedic effect. Orgon has been duped for so long that it is only natural to drag out the scene to emphasize how badly he has been fooled. The extended seduction and rebuff gives the actor who plays Tartuffe an opportunity to ham up the part. He can constantly grapple and paw Elmire while giving a speech on piety. The reader should always remember that Tartuffe is a comedy.
4. In ironic language, Elmire mocks her husband for how badly he has been duped up until that scene, even resorting to quoting Tartuffe’s seduction line (prove “concretely”):
What, coming out so soon? How premature!
Get back in hiding, and wait until you’re sure.
Stay till the end, and be convinced completely;
We mustn’t stop till things are proved concretely.
5. Orgon has signed over his entire estate to Tartuffe and also given him an incriminating letter. Tartuffe feels that he has all he needs to take complete control over Orgon’s property. There is no longer any need to play a role.
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Questions and Answers: Act V
1. Why is Orgon worried about the papers in the strongbox?
2. Is Monsieur Loyal ironically named? Explain.
3. Which member of the family is the most level-headed during the final confrontation?
4. Why is Tartuffe arrested instead of Orgon? Could the political and religious climate of 17th-century France have influenced this “Happy Ending”?
5. In earlier (banned) versions of the play, which no longer exist, the character Tartuffe was an actual priest who quoted holy writ. In the final version he is an “imposter” who pretends to be holy. What may have caused this change in the final version?
1. Orgon’s friend, Argus, committed a crime and had to flee the kingdom. He gave self-incriminating papers to Orgon. Orgon accepted them like a true friend, but by accepting the papers, he became complicit in the affair. Tartuffe tricks Orgon into giving him the box by arguing that Orgon is not guilty of anything if he doesn’t have the box and papers. By giving Tartuffe the box, Orgon gives Tartuffe the power to ruin him.
2. Monsieur Loyal is ironically named because, although he once served under Orgon for many years (presumably in battle), he is serving Orgon eviction papers on Tartuffe’s behalf. Monsieur Loyal is not loyal at all.
3. Cléante is the most level-headed member of the household throughout the play and, particularly, in the final act. He consistently analyzes situations rationally, dissuades Damis from violence, and pleads for true Christian charity. In the final scene of the play, he even hopes that Tartuffe will one day discover the virtue of true piety. Cléante’s wisdom counters the gullibility of Orgon and Madame Pernelle as well as the impetuousness of Damis.
4. Tartuffe is arrested because the King sees through his act of false loyalty. In 17th-century France, the King was considered the final authority. Tartuffe was banned for years by censors; it would have been impossible for the play to have been performed if phony authority figures triumphed in the end. Much better to appease the King by portraying him as a wise and sagacious ruler who could never fall for Tartuffe’s cheap ruse. In the end, the King exercises his rightful authority in jailing an impostor who lays a phony claim on Heaven’s authority. The final act had to be constructed very carefully for a right of...
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Tartuffe is set in a wealthy family home in Paris, France, in the mid-seventeenth century, during the reign of King Louis XIV. All of the action in the play takes place in the home of Orgon, thus foregrounding the effect of Tartuffe's presence on the dynamics of the family unit. The setting of the play in times contemporary to Molière and his original theater-going audience is also significant in that mention of the King toward the end of the play is meant to be understood as a reference to King Louis XIV; Molière is careful to describe the King as a fair and venerable ruler whose kind treatment of Orgon is regarded with immense gratitude and respect. The setting of the play in France during this period in history is also a significant element of the story. Molière addresses various societal issues of the day, particularly concerning religious controversy. Discussion among the characters regarding the nature of religious devotion and the challenges posed by "free-thinkers'' would have been relevant to Molière's audience at the time. Yet, although Tartuffe is set in a very specific historical, geographic, and cultural location, critics have often noted that the central themes and characters of the play remain relevant to readers and theater-goers throughout the world and across a span of several centuries. Thus, while the setting of the play is very specific, its significance and appeal remains universal.
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Compare and Contrast
Seventeenth Century: From 1643 to 1715, France is ruled by a monarchy under the reign of King Louis XIV. Early in the reign of Louis XIV, a series of civil wars known as the "Fronde," erupts in France. After this initial instability, Louis XIV becomes one of the most powerful monarchs in history, and his reign is later considered the epitome of absolutist rule.
Today: France, in an era of government known as the Fifth Republic, is a democracy headed by a president who is elected by popular vote.
Seventeenth Century: The reign of King Louis XIV fosters the theatrical arts. Three theaters dominate the Parisian world of drama: the Marais, the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and the Palais-Royal. After the death of Molière in 1673, the king orders the merging of the three main theater troupes, which, in 1680, become the Comédie-Française, the first national theater in Europe.
Today: The Comédie-Française performs the classic French plays of Molière, Corneille, and Racine, as well as new and contemporary plays.
Seventeenth Century: Until 1682, the Louvre, a building complex in Paris, serves as the seat of French government. During his reign, Louis XIV oversees major additions to and renovations of the Louvre. Meanwhile, the Palace of Versailles is transformed from a royal hunting lodge into the seat of absolutist power in France. The Palace of Versailles, located in the city of Versailles some...
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Topics for Further Study
Molière's theatrical career took place during the reign of King Louis XIV of France. Write a report about the reign of Louis XIV and his influence on French society, culture, and history.
The playwrights Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine were contemporaries of Molière, as famous for their tragic plays as Molière was for his comic plays. Write a report on either Corneille or Racine, discussing his biography, theatrical career, major works, and the central themes of his plays.
The Baroque movement in the arts was contemporary with the theatrical productions of Molière. Write a report about baroque art. What are the central themes and stylistic elements of Baroque art? Who were some of the major artists of Baroque? What are some of the most famous and important works of art from the Baroque period?
With a group of students, pick one of the five acts from Tartuffe to perform before the rest of the class. Write an essay discussing how this performance helped you to gain greater understanding of the play and insight into the characters.
Pick one character from Molière's play Tartuffe, and write an original short story from the point of view of that character. First, look carefully at the play to get a good sense of this character's personality and significance to the play. In writing your own story, however, be inventive and creative: try to bring out various elements of this character that are not fully...
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Tartuffe was adapted to the screen in a 1925 silent film of the same title, directed by the German filmmaker F. W. Murnau and starring Emile Jannings as Tartuffe. This film was released on video with English language intertitles by Grapevine Video in 1995.
Tartuffe or, The Imposter, was adapted to the screen in a 1984 film of the same title, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and directed by Bill Alexander. This production stars Anthony Sher as Tartuffe, Nigel Hawthorne as Orgon, and Alison Steadman as Elmire. It was produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and distributed on video by RKO Home Video.
Tartuffe was adapted to the screen in a 1986 film of the same title, directed by Pierre Badel. This production was performed by the Société des Comédiens Français and was released on video with French dialogue with English language subtitles by Films for the Humanities.
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What Do I Read Next?
Pierre Corneille, a contemporary of Molière, was a master of French tragic drama and a major influence on Molière. His play Le Cid (1637) takes place during the time of the Roman Empire and concerns a conspiracy against the Roman Emperor Augustus.
The School for Women or The School for Wives (1662) by Molière, was a popular success in its initial production but created controversy that lasted for over a year. The story concerns a man who, afraid of the power of mature women, opts to marry an inexperienced young woman only to find himself at her mercy.
The Misanthrope (1666) is one of Molière's most celebrated plays. It is set amidst the fashionable Parisian high society of seventeenth-century France and concerns a young man who is disgusted with the hypocrisy, injustice, and overall corruption of human society. His disdain for society is complicated by the fact that he is in love with a young woman who represents all of the social behaviors he deplores.
Molière himself starred in the initial production of his play The Hypochondriac, or The Imaginary Invalid (1673), as a hypochondriac who is afraid of doctors. Molière had written the part to suit the cough he suffered due to tuberculosis, but he collapsed on stage during the fourth performance and died several hours later.
Phèdre (1677) is the masterpiece of the great seventeenth-century tragic playwright Jean Racine. It...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Frame, Donald M., "Introduction," in Tartuffe, and Other Plays by Molière, translated by Donald M. Frame, Signet Classic, 1967, pp. vii-viii.
Mander, Gertrud, Molière, Frederick Unger, 1973, p. 87.
Molière, ‘‘Preface to Tartuffe,’’ in Drama: The Major Genres, an Introductory Critical Anthology, edited by Robert Hogan and Sven Eric Molin, Dodd, Mead, 1962, pp. 303-07.
Molière,Tartuffe or The Imposter, in Tartuffe, and Other Plays by Molière, translated and with an introduction by Donald M. Frame, Signet Classic, 1967, pp. 235-312.
Walker, Hallam, Molière, updated ed., Twayne's World Author Series, No. 176, Twayne's World Author Series, No. 176, Twayne, 1971, p. 84.
Walker, Hallam, Molière, updated ed., Twayne's World Author Series, No. 176, Twayne, 1990, p. 153.
Webster, Margaret, "Introduction," in Molière, Coward-McCann, 1950, p. v.
Auchincloss, Louis, La Gloire: The Roman Empire of Corneille and Racine, University of South Caroline Press, 1996.
Auchincloss discusses the historical setting of ancient Rome in the tragic plays of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine.
Bernier, Olivier, Louis XIV: A Royal Life, Doubleday, 1987.
Bernier provides a biography of King Louis XIV of France, who reigned from 1643 until 1715 and was a strong...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bermel, Albert. Molière’s Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Original interpretations of the plays, partly designed to help actors think about the characters’ motivations. Discusses the possibility of a homosexual relationship between Tartuffe and Orgon; also discusses why Dorine can speak so freely to her master.
Hall, H. Gaston. Comedy in Context: Essays on Molière. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. Analyzes Molière’s work thematically. Especially useful in examining the historical background of religious issues, as well as social customs, in Tartuffe.
Lewis, D. B. Wyndham. Molière: The Comic Mask. New York: Coward-McCann, 1959. Discusses Molière’s life and works; immerses readers in seventeenth century French society. Sees Tartuffe as having a fundamental flaw, Molière’s lack of insight, read or feigned, into religion; as a result, Tartuffe comes across as a convincing villain, but the religious component remains confusing.
Mander, Gertrud. Molière. Translated by Diana Stone Peters. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. Includes descriptions and analyses of fourteen plays and a usefully detailed chronology of his life. Examines why Molière’s contemporaries found Tartuffe so threatening and...
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