What makes Tartuffe engaging, even entertaining?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The critic Walker wrote in 1971 of Moliere's "Tartuffe":

The subject of "Tartuffe" was controversial in 1664, and it is no less interesting and stimulating at present  because we cannot see or read the play without sensing the truth of its presentation of the effect of unthinking belief, love, lust, and power on the human creature. (enotes)

This satire, with its moments of hilarious parody and farce, is, indeed, entertaining and engaging.  Perhaps the funniest scene occurs after Damis tries to tell his crass father Orgon that Tartuffe is trying to seduce his mother, Orgon's wife.  Orgon, the religious zealot, becomes enraged, accusing Damis of maligning the holy man and ordering his son from his home.  So, knowing that "amorous men are gullible," Elmire plots to expose Tartuffe.

In Act 4, scene 4, she tells her husband to hide under the table because she has "her plans" to expose Tartuffe as the religious impostor that he is. He agrees to indulge her "through this infantile charade."  In the next scene, Elmire pretends to be interested in Tartuffe's sexual advances.  She says that her heart "Feels free to let its passion be revealed."  Tartuffe is confused by this expression of lust since Elmire has rebuffed him until now and tells her she must prove her feelings.  Elmire coughs, to warn her husband, but he does not react from under the table.  To hold off Tartuffe's advances, Elmire says,

But how can I consent without offense/To Heaven, toward which you feel such reverence? (IV, v,93-94)

Tartuffe replies,

If Heaven is all that holds you back, don't worry/I can remove that hindrance in a hurry./Nothing of that sort need obstruct our path. (IV,v,95-97)

He tells Elmire that he will teach her how to overcome scruple and that "Heaven is not averse to compromise:

There is a science, lately formulated,/Whereby one's conscience may be liberated,/And any wrongful act you care to mention/May be redeemed by purity of intention.(V, 103-106)

Here is Moliere's satire upon the excusing of the immoral behavior of such high persons as King Louis XIV who was known to have had mistresses.  Also, Moliere humorously points out the religious hypocrisy of Tartuffe himself.

As Tartuffe advances upon Elmire with exaggerated movements typical of parody, Elmire coughs loudly.  Still, her husband does not move even though she is about to be raped.  Unaware of her intentions, Tartuffe says, " You've a bad cough." [funny]

As Tartuffe continues to advance, Elmire coughs again and remarks,

Well, clearly I must do as you require/....If this is sinful, if I'm wrong to do it,/So much the worse for him [hint,hint] who drove me to it./The fault can surely not be charged to me (IV,v,131-134)

Desperately, now she asks Tartuffe to step outside the door and check for her husband.  At last, Orgon comes out from under the table and his wife wrily exclaims,

What! Coming out so soon? How premature!/Get back in hiding, and wait  until you're sure./Stay till the ned, and be convinced completely;/We mustn't stop till things are proved concretely. (IV, vi,3-6)

Moliere's clever ridicule of human foibles is always funny.  This scene is hilarious of itself, and it is also funny and satirical in light of Tartuffe's earlier pretensions of being offended by Dorine's decolletage.

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