(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.
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 who performed, attended, or even read the play. The intervention of Louis XIV, who supported Molière silently to avoid arousing the ire of the Church, likely spared Molière execution for heresy. Plagued with recurrent illnesses due primarily to exhaution, Molière was diagnosed a hypochondriac by doctors, whose profession he maligned in many pieces. Molière himself played the hypochondriac in his last comedy, Le Malade imaginaire (1673; The Imaginary Invalid). He died following the fourth performance, the result of a lung disorder. As an actor, he was denied the ministrations of a priest and burial in consecrated ground. He was granted a serviceless funeral, following the intervention of his old patron, Louis XIV.
Commentators agree that Molière's strength as a dramatist lies in his diverse, insightful characterizations rather than in his plots, a number of which have been deemed unoriginal, contrived, and awkward. Portraying recognizable characters in ordinary circumstances and using a simpler, more natural language than had been previously utilized by writers of farce or tragedy, Molière exposed artificiality and vice in society. His plays frequently depict a specific character flaw in its extreme form—for example, the hypocrisy of Tartuffe or the obsessive avarice of Harpagon in The Miser—or pillory a social institution, as in the merciless ridiculing of members of the medical profession in The Imaginary Invalid. Juxtaposed with such monomaniacs as Alceste in The Misanthrope are such honnetes hommes and raisonneurs as Alceste's rational counterpart, Philinte, who add balance and serve to restore social harmony at the play's conclusion. Though often extremely critical, Molière's comedies are considered good-natured, and commentators note that they are surprisingly free of bitterness. Indeed, critics generally agree that rather than wishing to destroy existing social structures, Molière intended to point out specific, willful vices in hopes that society might eventually correct itself. This goal, along with Molière's desire to make audiences laugh, resulted in a legacy of dramas of human nature considered humorous yet profound.
Modern scholars have probed virtually every literary, scientific, and historical aspect of Molière's work. Heralded by critics of every century as the father of modern comic drama, Molière continues to be esteemed for the universality of his comic portraits, and recent studies have analyzed the psychology of such renowned characters as Tartuffe, Don Juan, and Alceste. Commentators such as James F. Gaines and John McCann have explored some of Molière's most vexing characters, stressing the playwright's use of paradox and ambiguity in his characterizations. While modern scholars, like their predecessors, still seek philosophical, ethical, and religious messages in Molière's comedies, critical interest has, in many instances, shifted away from assessments of the playwright's didactic intent toward purely aesthetic examinations of his comic technique. Critics such as David Hartley have explored Molière's use of language, finding it to be the heart of his comedy. Recent scholarship has also placed greater emphasis on Molière's role not only as a writer but as an actor and designer of theatrical spectacle. Theater scholars such as Jim Carmody have stressed the study of the staging of Molière's comedies as an important component of a historically aware interpretive process. Several critics have taken an interest in Molière's comedy-ballets, which blend comedy, music and dance. Robert McBride has suggested that interpretation of Molière's comedy-ballets is strongly supported by recognizing their emphasis on aesthetics as well as language and satire. David Whitton has noted that the development of the genre is closely linked to royal patronage and thus to the social and political circumstances of seventeenth-century France. In a similar vein, Helen L. Harrison has analyzed the influence of royal patronage on Molière's creative process and his treatment of money and power in his plays.