(Pseudonym of Jean Baptiste Poquelin) French dramatist.
Molière is widely recognized as one of the greatest comic writers of seventeenth-century France and one of the foremost dramatists in world literature. In such masterpieces as Le Tartuffe (1664; Tartuffe), Dom Juan (1665; Don Juan), and Le misantrope (1666; The Misanthrope), he succeeded in elevating the traditional status of French comedy from farcical buffoonery to that of an influential forum for social criticism. Molière thus profoundly influenced the development of modern comedy and established comic drama as a legitimate literary medium, equal to tragedy in its ability to portray aspects of human nature
Born in Paris, Molière was the eldest of six children of a well-to-do upholsterer to King Louis VIII. Molière developed an early passion for theater, attended Paris's finer schools, briefly studied law, and inherited his father's position at court. In 1642 he met and became romantically involved with actress Madeleine Bejart. Bejart's family strongly influenced Molière, who formally renounced his royal appointment to pursue a theatrical career. He adopted the pseudonym Molière to respect his father's desire to avoid associations with the theater and established the L'Illustre Theatre (The Illustrious Theater) with Bejart's family. For thirteen years, Molière struggled as an actor, director, and stage director, even spending time in a debtor's prison, and began adapting Italian commedia dell'arte farces. Returning to Paris in 1658, Molière's troupe staged his farce Le dépit amoureux (1656; The Amorous Quarrel); the play was greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm, and the production earned them both the favor of Louis XIV and the privilege of sharing a theater with the famous Italian performers of Scaramouche. The following year, he satirized French society and manners with Les précieuses ridicules (1659; The Affected Ladies). Molière's portrayal of pretentiousness in high society was so accurate that it outraged numerous aristocrats who believed themselves the target of the dramatist's parody. Molière thus earned the first of many influential enemies; thereafter, his life and plays were almost always at the center of controversy. He married the twenty-one-year-old Armande Bejart, thought to be the daughter or younger sister of Madeleine Bejart, in 1662. The marriage was rife with difficulties and is often considered the inspiration for many of Molière's subsequent works, including his most commercially successful play, L'école des femmes (1662; A School for Women). Plagued with recurrent illnesses due primarily to exhaustion from overworking, the dramatist was diagnosed a hypochondriac by doctors angered by Molière's parodies of their profession. He died of a lung disorder in 1673 following the fourth performance of his final comedy, Le malade imaginaire (1673; The Hypochondriac). Denied both the ministrations of a priest and interment in consecrated ground because of his profession, he was granted a secular funeral after Louis XIV intervened on his behalf.
While Molière's early plays are generally divided between full-length comedies litteraires in verse, such as Dom Garcie de Navarre (1661; Don Garcie of Navarre), and one-act farces, such as Les précieuses ridicules (1659; The Affected Ladies); from L'école des femmes onwards these two forms became fused. Despite its success, L'éecole des femmes was attacked by Molière's enemies as immoral and sacrilegious, and Molière was accused of incest and labeled a cuckold. The controversy surrounding him increased, however, with the production of his most renowned work, Tartuffe, which skewered and/or offended several aspects of upper-class French society, the Roman Catholic Church, and the the influential underground society, Compagnie du Saint Sacrement, which boasted many powerful and influential members. Although Tartuffe was extremely popular with audiences and was acclaimed by Louis XIV, the Archbishop of Paris issued a decree threatening to excommunicate anyone performing, attending, or even reading the play. It was not until 1669—after the bulk of political and religious power had shifted away from his most adamant opponents—that Molière was permitted to perform publicly the final version of the play. In the midst of the controversy, Molière produced Don Juan, a cynical recasting of the legend of the irreligious libertine who embraces hypocrisy and commits unpardonable sins. Don Juan's sensitive subject matter invited further censorship from outraged church officials, who had the play suppressed after only fifteen performances. In 1667, Molière submitted a five-act revision of Tartuffe called L'imposteur in which he renamed Tartuffe Paulphe, secularized the hypocrite's priestly mien, and subdued the overtly religious attacks of the original play. This attempt to pacify church officials was unsuccessful, however, and he petitioned Louis XIV for an official reprieve. The King's personal support of Molière was unfailing, and it is possible that without his royal favor and protection, the dramatist might well have been executed for heresy. Following the controversy surrounding Tartuffe, Molière resorted on several occasions to writing less consequential farces.
Despite attempts by traditionalists, religious leaders, and medical professionals to discredit Molière's work during his lifetime, his detractors had little effect on his theatrical success. His plays were extremely popular and, despite claims that he was merely a mediocre farceur, rival playwrights and companies soon began almost uniformly imitating his dramatic style. In England, Molière's work was widely imitated and evaluated, with many English critics ranking him beside Ben Jonson. That most Restoration dramatists were familiar with his works is evidenced in the nearly forty plays that appeared prior to 1700 in which such authors as John Dryden, William Wycherley, Aphra Behn, and Thomas Shadwell adapted, translated, or borrowed freely from his comedies. Molière's positive reputation in England continued to flourish during the eighteenth century. In France, however, public and critical opinion of his works declined drastically. In the early nineteenth century, during the French Restoration, Molière's comedies regained preeminence among dramatic critics and enjoyed a tremendous resurgence of public popularity. His work was also embraced by Romanticists as detailing a revolutionary, almost tragic, individualism that transcended rigid classicism. Twentieth-century scholars have addressed a number of issues concerning Molière and his works, and the majority of critical assessments has been positive. In general, scholars have continued the objective scholarly work instigated by such nineteenth-century scholars as Sainte-Beuve, Ferdinand Brunetiere, and Gustave Larroumet, probing virtually every literary, scientific, and historical aspect of the dramatist and his work. While scholars still seek philosophical, ethical, and religious messages in Molière's comedies, critical interest has, in many instances, shifted away from assessments of Molière's didactic intent toward purely aesthetic examinations of his comic technique.