Molière Biography

Molière really knew how to tick people off. Born in 1622, he is considered France’s answer to Shakespeare and is arguably the greatest writer of neoclassical comedy. Several of his plays drew the ire of members of the inner circles of French aristocracy. Many were scandalized by his comedy of infidelity, The School for Wives. Not content to accept the rebukes quietly, Molière wrote a short play, The School for Wives Criticized, which defended his writing and poked fun at those who opposed him. The biggest controversy, however, was precipitated by his satire of religious hypocrisy, Tartuffe. Because of the king’s close ties to the church, the play was roundly condemned. After two rewrites, Tartuffe finally debuted in an edited version several years later. It has since become a classic of world literature.

Facts and Trivia

  • The playwright was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. He later took Molière as a stage name.
  • At one point, Molière came in close contact with an Italian theatrical troupe. The influence of the troupe’s commedia dell’arte is evident throughout his plays.
  • Molière was an actor as well as a writer. He and his wife often played the principal roles in his plays.
  • Molière collapsed onstage during a performance and died shortly thereafter. Ironically, he was performing the title role in The Imaginary Invalid, which ridiculed doctors and medicine.
  • Because of the lowly status of theater people during his time, Molière was denied a Christian burial.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2249

Article abstract: By grafting character study and social commentary upon traditional farce, Molière became the creator of modern French comedy and continues to be ranked as France’s finest comic playwright.

Early Life

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born in Paris, France, and was baptized on January 15, 1622, the eldest child of...

(The entire section contains 2249 words.)

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Article abstract: By grafting character study and social commentary upon traditional farce, Molière became the creator of modern French comedy and continues to be ranked as France’s finest comic playwright.

Early Life

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born in Paris, France, and was baptized on January 15, 1622, the eldest child of Marie Cressé Poquelin and Jean Poquelin, who came from well-to-do families, prominent for two generations as merchant upholsterers. Jean-Baptiste was followed by five other children, only three of whom survived. When he was ten years of age, his mother died, and his father remarried and moved to a house in the cultural and social center of Paris. Meanwhile, Poquelin was assuring his son’s future. He sent Jean-Baptiste to the Jesuit College of Clermont, an excellent school which was attended by students of the most prominent families, and then had him begin the study of law in Orléans. In 1641, Jean-Baptiste became a notary.

In a society whose center was the king, anyone who was ambitious needed court connections. In 1631, Jean Poquelin had purchased from his brother the largely honorary office of valet and upholsterer to the king. Six years later, he had obtained hereditary rights to the position for Jean-Baptiste and had him take the oath of office. Given his family background, his education, his profession, and his future court position, Jean-Baptiste’s pathway to prosperity seemed clearly marked.

Jean-Baptiste, however, had fallen under the influence of the actress Madeleine Béjart, and in 1643 he renounced his court position, abandoned his social status, and even risked damnation, according to the clerics of his time, in order to become an actor. Béjart, her brother Joseph, her sister Geneviève, Jean-Baptiste (now calling himself Molière), and nine other actors formed a theatrical company, rented a theater, and, at the beginning of 1644, began to produce their plays. They were, however, unsuccessful. Their financial condition was so poor that Molière, who had become the manager of the troupe, was twice imprisoned for debt and had to be rescued by his father.

In 1646, Molière and the three Béjarts, along with several other actors, began a tour of the provinces. During the next twelve years, Molière learned his craft as an actor, who before long was regularly cast in leading roles; as a producer and financial manager; and as a writer, who practiced his skill in farcical sketches before proceeding to full-length plays. By 1658, Molière and his troupe of seasoned actors were ready once again to attempt the conquest of Paris. With his self-discipline, his energy, and his dedication to the theater, Molière was to prove a brilliant leader. Although his hatred of hypocrisy, which he expressed in telling satire, would earn for him enemies, his genius would bring him friends to defend him, not the least his king. While he was uncompromising in principle, Molière was tolerant in practice and equipped with consistent good humor. It was fortunate that Molière possessed such qualities, for there would be adversities during the last fifteen years of his life that must have made him yearn for the carefree, vagabond days in the provinces.

Life’s Work

On October 24, 1658, Molière and his troupe gave the performance that would determine their future. They appeared at the Louvre before the young King Louis XIV, his brother Philippe, or “Monsieur,” and the court. Although the king was unenthusiastic about their major play, a tragedy by Pierre Corneille, he enjoyed Molière’s farce. As a result, the troupe was granted permission to play at the royal Petit-Bourbon theater, where they shared performance days with the Italian Comedians until the Italians went back to Italy in July, 1659. Because they were under the patronage of Philippe, Molière’s troupe was called the troupe de Monsieur (Monsieur’s troupe).

It is not surprising that the king preferred Molière’s comedies to other plays that the company performed. Although they were based on Italian comedies and farces, Molière’s plays were superior in language, in wit, in the inventiveness of their plots, and, above all, in the realistic depiction of character. Soon the company was reviving Molière’s earlier full-length plays, written when he was in the provinces, L’étourdi: Ou, Les Contretemps (1653; The Blunderer, 1678) and Le Dépit amoureux (1656; The Love-Tiff, 1930). Molière followed them with his first comedy of manners, Les Précieuses ridicules (1659; The Affected Young Ladies, 1732), which satirizes the affectations of Parisian society. This play was then followed by Sganarelle: Ou, Le Cocu imaginaire (1662; Sganarelle, 1755), a complicated story of love and misunderstanding, which became one of Louis’s favorites.

A contemporary portrait of Molière at breakfast with Louis XIV reveals the strength of character which was one of the playwright’s dominant traits. Molière’s sharp features, hawklike nose, and firm chin reflect his determination; barely resting on the chair, he is all nervous energy, a creative artist temporarily restrained only by the presence of his monarch.

Unfortunately, the approval of the king and the adulation of the public aroused the jealousy of rival troupes, who intrigued against him and in 1660 succeeded in having his theater torn down without notice, supposedly because it was in the way of a new façade for the Louvre. Unwilling to interfere with the plans formulated by his own officials, Louis instead permitted Molière’s actors to use the theater of the Palais Royal. This was to be the home of Molière’s company for the rest of his life.

The first play to be produced in the Palais Royal was a failure. The second, L’école des maris (1661; The School for Husbands, 1732), was very popular. The play is based on the situation in a comedy by Terence, in which two boys receive very different kinds of education. In Molière’s play, however, the children are girls. Molière’s audience was delighted with the success of the heroine, who foils her severe guardian in his plans to wed her and even tricks him into helping her into the arms of the young man with whom she is in love.

Probably to strengthen his position at court, in 1660, when his brother died, Molière resumed his rights to the court office of his father and later performed the quarterly duty of making the king’s bed. In 1661, Molière also produced the first of a number of comic ballets, which was presented at an entertainment in the king’s honor. Critics have lamented the fact that thereafter Molière spent so much of his time on various court entertainments; yet without the king’s favor Molière would have been in serious trouble during the years to come.

Although Molière’s greatest works were still ahead of him, so were his greatest difficulties. In 1662, when he was forty, Molière married the charming, spoiled actress Armande Béjart, who was the twenty-year-old sister of Molière’s friend and mistress Madeleine Béjart. Scholars do not credit the persistent rumor that Armande was really Madeleine’s daughter, perhaps by Molière. They do, however, agree that Armande brought Molière more misery than joy. It is obvious that the themes of jealousy and infidelity, so often arising from the marriage of an older man to a young woman, as in L’école des femmes (1662; The School for Wives, 1732), reflected Molière’s own unhappy experience with a girl much like the coquettish Célimène of his Le Misanthrope (1666; The Misanthrope, 1709).

The more successful Molière became, the more his enemies sought to destroy him. Calling Molière godless, they attempted to suppress The School for Wives, the story of a country girl made vulnerable by her own innocence. In 1663, in a series of essays, verses, and plays, Molière and his friends battled against those who traduced the playwright, calling him a cuckold and charging him with incest. In 1664, Molière was forbidden to perform Tartuffe: Ou, L’Imposteur (1664; Tartuffe, 1732), the story of a pious hypocrite; because of objections from religious fanatics at court, the play was not approved until 1670. Meanwhile, in 1665, pressure on Molière forced the withdrawal of his play Dom Juan: Ou, Le Festin de Pierre (1665; Don Juan, 1755), which dealt with the legendary seducer.

In 1666, Molière’s troupe performed the work that many critics consider his masterpiece, The Misanthrope, which, significantly, relates the difficulties encountered by an outspoken, honest man in a dishonest society. The play was only moderately successful. By now, Molière’s troubles with his wife had become worse, his father’s business was in difficulty, and his own health was declining. Yet he continued to produce plays, including Le Médecin malgré lui (1666; The Doctor in Spite of Himself, 1672), Amphitryon (1668; English translation, 1755), L’Avare (1668; The Miser, 1672), and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670; The Would-Be Gentleman, 1675).

Despite the success of most of his plays, Molière’s last years were dark. In 1670, his father died in poverty, and in 1672 a newborn son died. Molière himself was desperately ill and forced to depend on the doctors whom, as his plays indicate, he deeply distrusted. Meanwhile, Molière’s enemies triumphed: He lost the right to stage musical entertainments for the king, and finally he was refused permission to stage a play at court. Molière’s play Le Malade imaginaire (1673; The Imaginary Invalid, 1732) was about a healthy man who imagined himself to be ill. On February 17, 1673, Molière, who was playing the title role, became ill onstage. Although he managed to finish the performance, he died later that night. Even then, the clergy were not done with him; they insisted that he should not be buried in consecrated ground. The king intervened, and, during the night of February 21, Molière was quietly interred in the cemetery of Saint-Joseph in his native Paris.

Summary

Molière is generally said to have created modern French comedy. Examined carefully, Molière’s plots are farfetched, with the farcical situations of his dramatic predecessors. Yet he develops them masterfully, piling complication on complication and reversal on reversal, until, in the denouement, he resolves the difficulties which he has so carefully created. More important was his handling of character. Misers and misanthropes, foolish women and greedy doctors, court flatterers and pious hypocrites were familiar types in earlier plays. Although his comic characters, like those of Ben Jonson in England, were still types, Molière individualized them. In Tartuffe, for example, the autocratic father Orgon, who is so easily deceived by the hypocrite, is not only a fool; he is a middle-aged man, married to a young wife, who does not believe that he can control her, his domineering mother, his rebellious children, or even his outspoken maid. Thus, Molière converts a standard character into a realistic and complex person, with whom the audience can sympathize, even while they condemn his folly.

By providing a serious basis for comic drama, the satirical denouncement of hypocrisy, vice, and folly, Molière changed the nature of French comedy. His influence spread through the Continent and across the Channel to England, where the Restoration Wits imitated his plays. In later centuries, his popularity has persisted; his plays are frequently performed throughout the world, and his characters have become immortal.

Bibliography

Chapman, Percy Addison. The Spirit of Molière: An Interpretation. Edited by Jean-Albert Bédé. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1940. A portrait of Molière in the context of his times, written by a scholar who knew the period extremely well. Includes critical chapters on half a dozen of the major plays. Sections on the court and the theater provide valuable material which is difficult to find elsewhere.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957. With references to works by various comic playwrights, Frye propounds his own theories as to the structure of comedy. His comments on the use of proofs and ordeals, the movement toward reconciliation, and the methods of eliminating the characters who attempt to block a happy ending are all applicable to various Molière plays.

Gossman, Lionel. Men and Masks: A Study of Molière. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963. In seven brilliant essays, five major plays are studied in detail, with particular emphasis on the issue of identity in Molière’s characters. The last two chapters survey criticism of Molière in his own period and in subsequent centuries.

Mander, Gertrud. Molière. Translated by Diana Stone Peters. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. A book in the World Dramatists series, Mander’s study is well organized and thorough. Sections are devoted to fourteen of the major plays. Includes a detailed and useful chronology, excerpts from reviews of twentieth century productions, and an extensive bibliography. Useful for the general reader.

Moore, Will G. Molière: A New Criticism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949. This work is directed specifically toward the resolution of certain difficulties in the interpretations of Molière’s plays. The approach is analytical, based on close study of the works themselves. Readers will also be interested in Moore’s discussion of the several levels of comedy in Molière’s plays. A major work in Molière criticism.

Nicholas, Brian. “Is Tartuffe a Comic Character?” Modern Language Review 75 (1980): 753-765. This essay replies to Moore’s analysis of Molière’s most controversial character. Nicholas’ theories of the purpose and nature of satire in comic drama are the basis for his discussion of Tartuffe.

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