French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, first wrote Tartuffe in 1663–1664. This first version of the play was immediately banned by King Louis XIV in response to complaints against the play by the Archbishop of Paris, who was opposed to the play because of what he believed was a satirical attack against the Catholic religion and the clergy.
The Archbishop was at least partly justified in his opposition to the play. Tartuffe wasn't an attack against religion and the clergy, but it was a pointed satire against religious fanaticism, false piety, and amoral, hypocritical con artists like Tartuffe who hide behind religion and present themselves as religious zealots akin to clergy.
Tartuffe manipulates wealthy Orgon into disinheriting his children and signing over all of his property to Tartuffe, while maneuvering to marry Orgon's daughter, Mariane, and attempting to seduce Orgon's wife, Elmire.
In act 3, scene 2, Dorine, Mariane's outspoken maid, calls for Tartuffe to meet with Elmire at Elmire's request, and while they're waiting for Elmire, Tartuffe assumes a sense of false modesty and hands Dorine a handkerchief to cover her bosom.
TARTUFFE: Cover that bosom, girl. The flesh is weak,
And unclean thoughts are difficult to control.
Such sights a that can undermine the soul.
Dorine effectively calls him out on his hypocrisy.
DORINE: Your soul, it seems, has very poor defenses,
And flesh makes quite an impact on your senses (3.2, translation by Richard Wilbur).
Elmire appears and Dorine exits, leaving Elmire and Tartuffe alone together. Tartuffe uses the opportunity to try to seduce Elmire by taking her hand, placing his hand on her knee, and touching the lace of her gown suggestively while he sweet-talks her.
TARTUFFE. A love of heavenly beauty does not preclude
A proper love for earthly pulchritude;
Our senses are quite rightly captivated
By perfect works our Maker has created.
Some glory clings to all that Heaven has made;
In you, all Heaven's marvels are displayed (3.3, translation by Richard Wilbur).
Over the next five years, Molière rewrote Tartuffe two more times until it was finally permitted to be performed publicly, even though, seemingly hypocritically, private performances of the play for the French aristocracy had always been allowed on the pretense that the upper classes were less likely to be unduly misled or influenced by the play than the lower classes.
Molière's The Misanthrope wasn't nearly as controversial as Tartuffe, primarily because Molière doesn't satirize amoral religious hypocrites, but amorality and hypocrisy in general.
The Misanthrope is a comedy of manners, a type of comedy that satirizes society, societal standards, and the often trivial but strict social manners and customs. Although a comedy of manners might touch on the topics of religion and morality, the focus of such a play, and of The Misanthrope, is a wider range of what Molière considers society's notable shortcomings and foibles.
In The Misanthrope, Molière uses the main character, Alceste, the misanthrope, to satirize Alceste's rigid principles—particularly his—as well as society's more malleable principles.
The opening scene of the play begins in media res, "in the middle of" a conversation between Alceste and his friend, Philinte. Just prior to the scene, Alceste observed Philinte greeting someone with effusive praise and affection, but when Alceste asks Philinte who the person is, Philinte doesn't even know his name.
The scrupulously and obsessively honest Alceste takes Philinte to task for his petty deceptions.
ALCESTE. My God, you ought to die in self-disgust!
I call your conduct inexcusable, sir,
And every man of honor will concur.
I see you almost hug a man to death,
Exclaim for joy until you're out of breath,
And supplement those loving demonstrations
With endless offers, vows, and protestations;
Then when I ask you "Who was that?" I find
That you can barely bring his name to mind! (1.1, translation by Richard Wilbur)
Philinte counters with society's somewhat more flexible view of the matter.
PHILINTE. In certain cases it would be uncouth
And most absurd to speak the naked truth,
With all respect for your exalted notions,
It's often best to veil one's true emotions.
Wouldn't the social fabric come undone
If we were wholly frank with everyone? (1.1, translation by Richard Wilbur)
Ultimately, because of his inflexible principles and his obsessive honesty, Alceste alienates himself from society, fails in a lawsuit, and loses the love of Célimène, who is, ironically, one of the most obsessively deceitful characters in the play.