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Satire is a comic form that ridicules a human foible, either in an individual or in a class of humanity, with the aims of ridiculing those with a defect, and (at least in theory) contributing to the betterment of humanity by underlining its flaws as the first step toward correcting them. In the largest sense both these plays by Moliere are satires of high society in the French 17th century, of the excesses of the society in power, comic dramatic commentary on those excesses (here, hypocrisy and misanthropy, the unwarranted and indiscriminate criticism of all humans). Specific examples of satire in the dialogue can be found everywhere. In Tartuffe, for example, Moliere is satirizing the false piety of all those who pretend a humility they do not feel, and wear a pious, holy countenance while thinking lustful thoughts. Dorine, the common-sense maid, sees through Tartuffe very early in the play: Dorine: He passes for a saint in your opinion. In fact, he's nothing but a hypocrite.
Madame Pernell, the mother-in-law, and of course her son, Orgon, do not see Tartuffe’s hypocrisy until near the end of the play, just before the denouement. The famous under-table scene in which Orgon finally learns the truth about Tartuffe’s lust for Elmira, contains the essence of how satire works:
Tartuffe: Though pious, I am none the less a man;
And when a man beholds your heavenly charms,
The heart surrenders, and can think no more.
I know such words seem strange, coming from me;
(Act III scene iii)
In The Misanthrope, Alceste’s loathing of the hypocrisy of all men is satirically undercut by his affection for Elmira, so that Moliere is satirizing the blanket condemnation that such personalities use to judge everyone. While it is true that society demands the courtesy of a little restraint when speaking of others, the habit is not to be condemned as an unbearable hypocrisy, but is to be tolerated as a way to spare the feelings of others. Alceste’s behavior is satirized is such scenes as:
Oronte: It is to you, if you please,that my words are addressed.
Alceste. To me, monsieur?
Oronte. To you. Do you find them displeasing?
Alceste. Not at all. But my surprise is great, for I did not expect the honor I receive.
Oronte. You need feel no surprise at the es teem in which I hold you, since that of the whole universe is yours.
Oronte. The State has no reward that is not far beneath the dazzling merit all men see in you.
Alceste. Monsieur (Act I scene ii)
Here, as Oronte offers his friendship to Alceste, Alceste applies his loathing of all persons to Oronte, and replies with a curt “Monsieur”. In the main conflict, Alceste questions Elmire’s sincerety, almost to the loss of her affection. The satirical element in all these actions lies in the audience’s understanding of the truth. The matter of the sonnet Alceste criticizes is a case in point – he absolutely refuses to amend his opinion, even in the face of a lawsuit, rather than compromise his reputation as a truth-teller.
So, in the respect that these human imperfections are exaggerated for instructive effect, these plays are satires.
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