(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...
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