How do Moliere's characters play against expected gender roles in Tartuffe?

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The first version of Tartuffe, by Jean Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere, was performed at the Palace of Versailles in 1664, during the reign of King Louis XIV of France, who promptly banned the play from public performance.

A second version of the play, titled L'Imposteur (The...

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The first version of Tartuffe, by Jean Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere, was performed at the Palace of Versailles in 1664, during the reign of King Louis XIV of France, who promptly banned the play from public performance.

A second version of the play, titled L'Imposteur (The Imposter), was performed in 1667 in the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris and was also banned.

The third version of the play, Le Tartuffe, was performed in 1669, also at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris. The third version was not banned, and this is the version of the play which has come down to us.

Moliere changed the title from Tartuffe in 1664 to Le Tartuffe in 1669 partly because the term "tartuffe" was in common use in France and England as a synonym for "hypocrite," and Moliere shifted the title from "Tartuffe," the title character in the play, to "the Tartuffe," meaning someone who acts like Tartuffe.

In relation to the question of gender roles, Tartuffe wasn't banned because of any controversy concerning the portrayal of men or women in the play, but because influential Roman Catholic Church leaders strongly objected to what they considered Moliere's attack on religion. They also objected to the portrayal of Tartuffe as an outwardly pious person who is actually a lecherous, deceitful hypocrite.

Instead of directly undermining gender roles by portraying all of the female characters in ways that are adverse to societal norms, Moliere established one character, Mariane, as the cultural standard of the time. Mariane is quiet (seen but not heard, like a child), passive, and obedient to her father, Orgon, even to the point of agreeing to marry Tartuffe, even though she's in love with Valère.

Having established Mariane as the perfect woman (and perfect daughter), Moliere uses two other female characters, Elmire and Dorine, to satirize and criticize society's fixation with the perfect woman.

Elmire, Orgon's second wife and Marian's stepmother, is strong-minded, intelligent, and independent. Elmire actually "wears the pants" in the household. Except when bullying his daughter, Mariane, Orgon defers to Elmire, which is a definite role reversal.

Tartuffe attempts to seduce Elmire, and, not being as easily misled as Orgon is by Tartuffe's feigned virtue, Elmire rejects Tartuffe and eventually helps expose him for what he is.

Moliere's portrayal of Dorine is even more revolutionary than his portrayal of Elmire. A "henpecked husband" like Orgon is a well-known character in comic plays, but Dorine's character goes well beyond Elmire in terms of her relationship with men and her place in society.

Dorine is a servant. Of all the woman in the play, Dorine is the one person who should "know her place." Of all the woman in the play, however, Dorine is the most outspoken, both as a character in the play and as a commentator on the role of women in the play.

Dorine doesn't know her place. She has opinions, and she expresses them in no uncertain terms. She argues with men, and she encourages Mariane to argue with Orgon and stand up for herself. Dorine tells Orgon that she would never let a man choose who she married. Even though Dorine is a servant, she's definitely not subservient to any man.

In his first appeal to Louis XIV to lift the ban on Tartuffe, Moliere wrote that “the purpose of the comedy is to correct the faults of men.” In Tartuffe, Moliere shows that the prevailing attitude regarding a woman's role in French society is one of the "faults of men" that needs to be corrected.

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