Why did the king ban Tartuffe? Who influenced his decision and what was his fear?

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King Louis XIV issued a ban against the public performance of Moliere's Tartuffe because of its depiction of a member of the clergy as an impostor and a hypocrite.

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French playwright Moliere, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622–1673), wrote his comic masterpiece Tartuffe in 1663–1664. The first version of the play—which was never published, and for which no text has survived—was performed at the Palace of Versailles for King Louis XIV in May of 1664.

It is reported that the king and his court enjoyed the play—the fawning court enjoyed whatever the king enjoyed, of course—but the king almost immediately banned the play from public performance.

The person who most directly influenced the king's decision to suppress the play was the Archbishop of Paris, Paul Philippe Hardouin de Beaumont de Péréfixe. It was Archbishop de Beaumont de Péréfixe's responsibility as preceptor to Louis XIV, and as his religious tutor and counselor, to uphold the laws and traditions of the Catholic Church and to protect the Church against any attack against its religious tenets and its clergy.

The Archbishop considered Moliere's Tartuffe such an attack against the clergy. The title character, Tartuffe, is an amoral, hypocritical con-man who hides behind the guise of a religious zealot.

The Archbishop himself was likely influenced by members of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrament (the Company of the Holy Sacrament), a secret society of laymen and clergy who held high positions in the Church and in the government.

The Compagnie du Saint-Sacrament brought pressure on the Archbishop to prevail on Louis XIV to issue a ban against the play for its depiction of a "holy man," as Madame Pernelle calls him in the play, and her following lines essentially convey the Archbishop's feelings towards the play itself:

MADAME PERNELLE. He is a holy man, and must be heeded;
I can't endure, with any show of patience,
To hear a scatterbrains like you attack him (1.1).

The Archbishop even went so far as to threaten excommunication against anyone who was complicit in the performance of Tartuffe or attended a performance of the play, or, in fact, against anyone who even read it.

Interestingly, and seemingly hypocritically, although the play was banned from public performance, private performances of the play were permitted for the French aristocracy.

The rationalization was that although the common people would be misled to believe that clergy could act so hypocritically, the upper classes wouldn't be unduly influenced by the play. The irony is that the people who Moliere represented in the play as most susceptible to the hypocrisy of an impostor like Tartuffe were those who were permitted to watch the play.

Another irony is that the aristocracy likely knew all too well that what Moliere was representing on stage in the character of Tartuffe was true for many members of the clergy.

Even though Moliere wrote to the king that the play wasn't intended to criticize the clergy but to enlighten the audience members and correct their wayward and sometimes hypocritical behavior, the king's ban against Tartuffe remained in place.

Moliere revised the play and changed the title to L'Imposteur (The Impostor), and the play was performed at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris in August, 1667. This version of the play was also banned, after only one performance, essentially for the same reasons.

Moliere wrote a third and final version of the play entitled Le Tartuffe, which was performed at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in February, 1669.

By this time, the Church's and Archbishop de Beaumont de Péréfixe's influence over Louis XIV had diminished considerably, and the king intervened on Moliere's behalf to have the ban against the play lifted.

Moliere's third revision of the play was allowed to be published, and this is the version of the play that has been performed since that time.

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