Molière Molière (Vol. 64)

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Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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Molière 1622-1673

(Pseudonym of Jean Baptiste Poquelin) French dramatist.

The following entry presents recent criticism of Molière's works. For further information on his life and career, see LC, Volumes 10 and 28.

Molière is widely recognized as the greatest comic writer of seventeenth-century France and one of the foremost dramatists in world literature. In such masterpieces as L'École des femmes (1662; The School for Wives), Le Tartuffe (1664; Tartuffe), Le Misanthrope (1666; The Misanthrope), and L'Avare (1668;The Miser) he set precedents that completely altered the focus and purpose of comedy, introducing realism to the French stage and elevating comic drama from farcical buffoonery to an important forum for social and religious 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.

Biographical Information

Born in Paris, Jean Baptiste Poquelin was the eldest of six children born to a well-to-do bourgeois who held a prestigious royal appointment as valet de chambre to Louis XIII. Jean Baptiste was apprenticed in his father's trade but showed little inclination for the family business. The boy's interest in acting was sparked by his grandfather, who had a passion for the theater and occasionally took his grandson to see productions at the famous Hôtel de Bourgogne. Jean Baptiste attended school at the prestigious Jesuit Collège de Clermont, where he studied classical playwrights, including Terence and Plautus, who would be important influences on his comedies. He is also believed to have studied there with the eminent philosopher Pierre Gassendi, best known for his bitter public arguments with René Descartes as well as his affiliation with French Libertinism. After leaving Clermont Molière studied law briefly before inheriting his father's position at court. His final enticement to the stage was his affair with the actress Madeleine Béjart, whom he likely met while traveling as part of his royal office in 1642. With her influence he left the court for the stage in 1643, adopting the stage name Molière and establishing an acting company, L'Illustre Théatre, with Béjart and her family. By 1645 the troupe collapsed, and Molière was briefly imprisoned for debt, but from that year onward he began writing plays and touring the provinces. During this period he wrote short adaptations of Italian farces in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte, including La Jalousie de Barbouillé (1645; The Jealousy of Le Barbouillé) and Le Mèdecin volant (1645?;The Flying Doctor). In 1658 Molière and his troupe returned to Paris, where their premier performance consisted of Corneille's Nicomède, accompanied by Molière's farce Le Dépit amoureux (1656; The Amorous Quarrel). The actors apparently failed to pull off the tragedy, but the farce was a great success, winning the admiration of Louis XIV. More farces mocking the pretensions of the aristocracy earned Molière important enemies although they met with further success. Molière made his last attempt at tragedy with Dom Garcie de Navarre; ou, Le Prince jaloux (Don Garcia of Navarre; or, The Jealous Prince) in 1661, the failure of which moved him to abandon the genre. In 1662 Molière married a girl half his age, twenty-year-old Armande Béjart, who was thought to be either the sister or the daughter of his former mistress. Shortly afterward he produced his greatest commercial success, The School for Wives, which tells the story of a middle-aged man who attempts to create a chaste wife by raising her from girlhood in complete ignorance and innocence. Molière's enemies were quick to find parallels, accusing him of incest and labeling him a cuckold. He met with further trouble in the production of his most critically successful work, Tartuffe. The comedy about a devious, manipulative spiritual advisor inspired calls for censorship and the excommunication of anyone...

(The entire section is 87,279 words.)