What is Moliere critiquing in the play Tartuffe?

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The first version of the classic French comedy Tartuffe, written by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622–1673), known as "Moliere," was banned by King Louis XIV of France in 1667 in order to appease French Roman Catholic Church leaders who objected to what they considered Moliere's attack on religion.

The Archbishop of Paris, Paul Philippe Hardouin de Beaumont de Péréfixe (1606–1671), went so far as to threaten excommunication for anyone who viewed, performed in, or read the play.

Considering that in a time when our great Monarch so freely exposes his life for the good of his State, and where our main care is to exhort all the good people of our Diocese to make continual prayers for the preservation of his Sacred Person and for the success of his weapons, there would be impiety to attend shows capable of attracting the wrath of Heaven, have and do very express inhibitions and defenses to all people of our Diocese, to represent, to read, or to hear recite the above-mentioned Comedy [Tartuffe], either publicly, or in particular, under any name and pretext whatsoever, on pain of excommunication. (Ordonnance of 11 August 1667)

It's not entirely clear how people who read Tartuffe in the privacy of their own homes were apprehended, even by the long arm of the Church. It's interesting to note, too, that it appears from the wording of the Archbishop's edict that a person could own a copy of the play, but they were expressly forbidden from reading it.

The second version of the play, titled L'Imposteur (The Imposter), was banned for the same reason as the original version. Moliere argued that the play wasn't a satire about religion, but a satire about religious imposters, hence the change of the title of the play.

Moliere also changed the name of the main character from Tartuffe to Panulphe, to further distance the revised version of the play from the original, but religious leaders continued to object to the play, and threatened to excommunicate Moliere himself.

Louis XIV actually liked the play, and prevailed on church leaders to lift the ban on performances of the play at his court, and to allow private performances for the French aristocracy. The thinking seems to be that royalty and the upper classes wouldn't be tainted by the play, or at least not to the same extent that the lower classes and peasants would be.

By 1669, opposition to the play subsided, and Moliere's third version of the play, titled Le Tartuffe—with Tartuffe restored as the main character—was permitted to be performed.

French church leaders missed the satirical point of the play for two reasons: (1) their short-sighted, sanctimonious self-interest, and: (2) Moliere's clever misdirection.

Church leaders reacted publicly to Tartuffe as Moliere's attack on religion. It wasn't, but that's not the real reason that church leaders objected so vehemently to the play.

Church leaders thought that Moliere was attacking them through the character of the religious hypocrite, Tartuffe, who, like many of them, wore a mask of humility, piety, virtue, and religious fervor which concealed their personal and organizational corruption.

Moliere was attacking them, of course, and for the reasons that they thought he was attacking them, but Tartuffe is as much an attack on religious fanaticism as it is an attack on religious hypocrisy. The Archbishop of Paris—himself a religious fanatic—absolutely proved Moliere's point about religious fanaticism by his threat to excommunicate anyone who even dared to read the play.

In the second version of Tartuffe, Moliere moderated his attack on religious hypocrisy by changing the content and the title of the play to reflect that the main character wasn't religious, but simply a religious imposter. Moliere let the church leaders fixate on the character of Tartuffe, and even pointed them in that direction, but Moliere left his attack on religious fanaticism intact.

The character in Tartuffe who represents fervent religious fanaticism is Orgon. Orgon isn't duped by Tartuffe. Orgon is encouraged by Tartuffe in his irrational, unreasoning, extremist fanaticism, and he's carried along by Tartuffe in the direction that he's already going. Tartuffe helps Orgon to be even more fanatical.

A telling aspect of Orgon's character is revealed after Tartuffe is exposed as an imposter. Orgon's reaction is as extreme in renouncing Tartuffe as it was in embracing and defending him.

ORGON. Just think of it: behind that fervent face,
A heart so wicked, and a soul so base!
I took him in, a hungry beggar, and then...
Enough, by God! I’m through with pious men:
Henceforth I’ll hate the whole false brotherhood,
And persecute them worse than Satan could. (5.1.31-36, Translation by Richard Wilbur)

It was part of Orgon's character to be extreme in thought and action, and Tartuffe simply took advantage of Orgon's intrinsically fanatical nature.

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