Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 847

Moliere is perhaps the greatest writer of the French stage. David Coward, in an introduction to Moliere: The Miser and Other Plays, states that Moliere is "one of the world's greatest comic playwrights." Margaret Webster, in an introduction to Moliere, explains his significance as a literary figure in France, noting, "in his own language he is as towering a figure as Shakespeare is in ours." James F. Gaines and Michael S. Koppisch, in Approaches to Teaching Moliere's Tartuffe and Other Plays, state that "Moliere has, almost since the moment he began writing, been a central—and controversial—figure in French culture." In his lifetime, Moliere enjoyed immense popularity among audiences, as well as the ongoing favor and patronage of King Louis XIV, while suffering the censorship and banning from the stage of some of his greatest works, as well as harsh condemnation from church and civic leaders. According to Coward,

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In his day Moliere had many enemies and they did not mince their words. He alienated a section of the Court, the devout party, doctors, the Faculty of Theology, not to mention rival actors and authors, who called him a 'public poisoner,' spread slanderous rumours about his private life and tried to silence him.

However, he enjoyed a popular international reputation during his lifetime. His plays, which were performed in England, Germany, and Holland, Coward notes, "immediately struck sympathetic chords with spectators unacquainted with the specific social culture of France." Coward adds that this "universal appeal" persisted into the twentieth century as Moliere continued to be "a magician of the theatre." Hallam Walker points to the continuing popularity of Moliere's plays as theatrical productions to indicate the immensity of his achievement:

It is a fact that the plays seem to be ever prepared to go on stage, revealing to new audiences new meanings about themselves. An ongoing process of creation was set in motion by Moliere more than three centuries ago, and this is his real legacy.

In the course of his career, Moliere transformed the comic stage in France, adding a depth of humanity and philosophical complexity to the standard genres of comic theater. Coward observes that "Moliere blended the various strands of traditional comedy—farce, spectacle, manners, character and situation—into a new kind of integrated comedy of observation." Coward asserts, "Moliere would bring these disparate comic strands together in plays which drew their unity from a more consistent concern with human behavior," adding that "he never forgot that farce was the great laughter-maker, but he civilized it, building it into situations which highlighted personal and social folly." Dromgoole observes that Moliere elevated the status of theatrical comedy to the extent that:

By the end of his career he had raised the status of comedy so that inside and outside theatre buildings that smiling mask of comedy and the anguished mask of tragedy were of equal size and equal importance.

He explains,

Moliere was doing something new. He was bringing real life, recognisable people into the theatre, speaking down-to-earth language and making fun of the artificial diction and pompous language his same audience were so enthusiastic about in their tragedies.

Three and one-half centuries of international notoriety have generated an overwhelming quantity of critical responses to the work of Moliere. Critics generally concur in broad sweep overviews of the development of this criticism. Early discussion of Moliere's work after his death was frequently concerned with the autobiographical elements of his plays, noting parallels between his own life and career and his central characters. For instance, as Peter Hampshire Nurse states, this biographical criticism led to:

... the view that plays like Le Misanthrope, in which Alceste suffers from being in love with an apparently unfaithful coquette, are based on the playwright's own unhappy relationship with an actress-wife who was twenty years younger than himself and was generally rumoured to be unfaithful lo him.

Continuing discussion, however, has been primarily concerned with the question of the extent to which Moliere wished to convey a moral message through his plays, as well as the precise nature of this message. However, a significant shift in Moliere criticism took place in the mid-twentieth century, to a focus on Moliere as dramatist, rather than Moliere as moralist. Walker, for example, asserts that "Moliere was above all a man of the theater and not a conscious promoter of philosophical views," and suggests that:

... if we can accept him on his own terms, as the entertainer on the boards, and try to understand his works as living theater, then we shall follow the surest route to an understanding of his greatness.

Other critics in the latter half of the twentieth-century delved into the social and political context of seventeenth-century France in order to illuminate Moliere's plays. Walker describes Moliere criticism since the early 1980s as an amalgam of approaches taking into account significant threads of thought developed throughout the twentieth century, so that now "work is done on Moliere in the comic tradition, in the climate of his times, as a commentator on the human condition, and as a creator of theater."

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