Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Paris. France’s capital and leading city whose liberating influence on the naïve, obedient, exploited Isabelle makes place essential to the play’s plot. Since using minimalistic props made it impossible to show where the play’s action takes place, the dialogue establishes the location. For example, Valère tells Sganarelle, “Paris really is unique; / Its pleasures elsewhere you may vainly seek.” Elaborate costumes worn by Ariste, Valère, and especially by Léonor, as well as the rich assortment of activities and amusements these characters describe, also establish Paris as the only possible location for this play.

Within the strict limitations of the Aristotelian unities of place, time, and action, Moliere creates the illusion of a whole exciting city exerting its intoxicating and liberating influence on a young newcomer who escapes an aging tyrant to find freedom, love, and happiness. Much of the laughter is evoked by showing the self-important gentleman Sganarelle used as a go-between by his ward, Isabelle, and her lover, Valère.


Houses. The exigencies of the Aristotelian unity of place required that the set represent two houses separated by an open space, all within the confines of approximately thirty feet. Valère lives in one, and Isabelle is imprisoned in the other. Sganarelle has good reason to fear the dangerous proximity of his sophisticated, fashionable young rival in this glamorous city and for wishing to marry his young ward and spirit her away to the country as quickly as possible. Only a small portion of Sganarelle’s own house and only a wall and window of Valère’s house could be shown in the seventeenth century productions. When Sganarelle confronts Valère, they happen to meet outdoors. Valère invites Sganarelle to come inside, but the older man replies, “There is no need.” Valère then calls his servant to bring the older gentleman a chair. Through such contrivances, most of the action takes place in the open area between the two dwellings, and unity of place is preserved.