(Pseudonym of Jean Baptiste Poquelin) French dramatist.
The following entry provides critical discussion of Molière's works from the last four decades. For further information on Molière's life and works, see LC, Volume 10.
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 misanthrope (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. While Molière's daring parodies of the pretentiousness of the Parisian upper classes and the hypocrisy of many religious leaders became extremely popular with audiences, they were also the source of heated controversy throughout his life.
Born in Paris and christened Jean Baptiste Poquelin, Molière was the eldest of six children. His father held a prestigious appointment as valet de chambre and tapissier, or upholsterer, to Louis XIII. Molière was apprenticed in his father's trade, but was little interested in the family business. He instead became fascinated with the theater while attending one of the best secondary schools in Paris, the Jesuit Collège de Clermont, where he studied classical dramas by such authors as Terence and Plautus. After leaving Clermont, Molière studied law briefly before inheriting his father's position at court. In 1642, possibly while traveling as valet de chambre to Louis XIII, he became romantically involved with an actress named Madeleine Béjart, who strongly influenced his decision in 1643 to renounce his royal appointment in order to pursue a more precarious theatrical career. He adopted the stage name of Molière and established the troupe L'Illustre Théatre with Madeleine Béjart and her family. Numerous expenses, general inexperience, and Molière's dubious abilities as a tragic actor, however, caused the troupe's collapse in July, 1645. Following a brief imprisonment for the theater's debt, Molière continued to pursue his dramatic career, touring the provinces with the Béjarts for the next thirteen years and writing his first plays—La jalousie de Barbouillé (1645; The Jealousy of Le Barbouillé), Le mèdecin volant (1645?; The Flying Doctor), and L'étourdi (1653; The Blunderer)—all short adaptations of Italian farces in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte. Upon returning to Paris in 1658, the troupe performed Molière's farce Le dépit amoureux (1656; The Amorous Quarrel), which was greeted with overwhelming
enthusiasm, and earned the favor of Louis XIV. While Molière's next work, Les Précieuses ridicules (1659; The Affected Ladies), was also a popular success, the comedy's mockery of the pretentiousness of the Parisian upper class insulted many aristocrats who believed themselves to be the targets of the parody. Molière thus earned the first of many socially prominent enemies, and thereafter, his life and plays continued to generate controversy. In 1662, Molière married Armande Béjart, a twenty-year-old woman who was thought to be either the sister or the daughter of Molière's former mistress, Madeleine Béjart. The union was marked by periodic separations, and Armande's uncertain parentage and rumored infidelities became the subject of hostile pamphlets and malicious gossip by Molière's enemies. Molière was also frequently plagued with charges of impiety, which culminated in the censorship battle surrounding his most renowned work, Tartuffe, which presents a daring criticism of the Catholic church. Although Tartuffe was extremely popular with audiences and was acclaimed by Louis XIV, the Archbishop of Paris issued a decree threatening to excommunicate anyone who performed, attended, or even read the play. In the midst of the controversy, Molière produced Don Juan, which provoked further censorship from outraged church officials, who managed to suppress the play after only fifteen performances. Louis XIV, who had previously protected Molière from censorship, became reluctant to oppose powerful religious interests. It was not until 1669 that Molière was permitted to perform Tartuffe. Plagued with recurrent illnesses due primarily to exhaustion, Molière was diagnosed a hypochondriac by doctors who were offended by his parody of the medical profession. Ironically, he died of a lung disorder in 1673 following the fourth performance of his final comedy, Le malade imaginaire (1673; The Imaginary Invalid), in which he played the role of the hypochondriac. Denied both the ministrations of a priest and interment in consecrated ground because of his profession, Molière was granted only a serviceless funeral, and that only after Louis XIV intervened on his behalf.
While Molière's early plays may be divided into full-length comédies littéraires in verse, such as Dom Garcie de Navarre (1661; The Jealous Prince), and one-act farces, such as Les Précieuses ridicules; from L'École des femmes (1662; The School for Wives) onwards these two forms became fused. W.D. Howarth commented: "Molière's originality is thus to have created a formula which combined the 'classical' structure, the linguistic refinement and the portrayal of manners belonging to the accepted conventions of 'comedy,' with the heightened, even caricatural, characterization proper to farce." Commentators have consistently emphasized the vivid personalities of Molière's characters, often deeming characterization the central element of interest and unity in his plays. His works typically focus on ordinary people in recognizable societal roles who are perverted or corrupted by a particular obsession or character flaw—for example, the obsessive avarice of Harpagon in L'avare (1668; The Miser). Relationships between the sexes, particularly between older men and much younger women, were also the focus of several plays. Written within a few months following his marriage, for example, The School for Wives concerns a middle-aged man's attempt to create a wife who is incapable of betraying him by raising her from her childhood in complete isolation from the outside world. While Molière sought above all to entertain, his view of comedy gradually evolved to embrace the belief that "the business of comedy is to present, in general, all the defects of man and principally of our country." Thus, social criticism played a prominent role in his satirical works such as Tartuffe, which portrays a hypocritical priest who ingratiates himself into a household by posing as his host's spiritual director, and then usurps control of his property.
Variously considered a blasphemer, a social satirist, and a writer of pure comedy, Molière has, as Alvin Eustis notes, "borne a different message for each successive generation since his own." His introduction of realism to the seventeenth-century French stage brought to the fore a longstanding debate over the role of comedy in literature in a society in which most writers and critics deemed comic drama intrinsically inferior to tragedy. Although Molière remained highly popular during this time, he battled many attempts to discredit his plays as the works of a mediocre farceur. During the eighteenth century in France, both the popularity and critical reception of Molière's works declined sharply, as his natural style was rejected in favor of the more elegant comedies of Pierre Marivaux and Nivelle de la Chalussée. The French Restoration of the nineteenth century, however, witnessed a tremendous resurgence of Molière's works; his plays were by far the most frequently performed of the era, and, except for the detractions of the influential German critic August Wilhelm von Schlegel, he was widely considered the purest representative of the classical theater of the age of Louis XIV. Twentieth-century assessments of Molière's works have been predominantly concerned with characterization and comic technique. While critics during the first half of the century frequently focused on the emotions and motivations of Molière's characters, much criticism since the 1960s has focused on the playwright's use of language, and the unifying structural elements of his works. Alvin Eustis, for example, proposed that each of Molière's works are constructed around an ironic situation or paradox. Recent criticism has also addressed the plays in the context of seventeenth-century social history, exploring the influence of social hierarchy on Molière's writing process, the possible moral and cathartic functions of the productions, and the psychology that may have motivated the fearful reaction surrounding many of his works.