The School for Wives

by Moliere

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The School for Wives is a five-act theatrical play that was first performed for royalty in France in 1662. It was written by Moliere, a French actor and playwright known for writing farces, comedies, and tragic comedies. Like its companion piece, The School for Husbands, The School for Wives is a comedic play.

The School for Wives is a comedy because it mocks weak men who are afraid of intelligent women. This mockery is presented through the protagonist's misguided plan to create the perfect wife by controlling and brainwashing a malleable young orphan girl who has been left in his care.

Arnolphe, the protagonist, considers himself very clever at the outset, but when his scheming fails to get him his heart's desire, he ends up feeling outwitted and betrayed. This turn of events is foreshadowed in the first act of the play when Arnolphe tell his friend, Chrysalde, about his plan to marry a young girl who is both innocent and ignorant. Arnolphe insists that clever, educated women are trouble and will inevitably cheat on their husbands.

Chrysalde expresses his appreciation for intelligent women, and points out the flaw in Arnolphe's plan, saying:

But how can you expect, after, all, that a mere simpleton can ever know what it is to be virtuous? Besides, to my mind, it must be very wearisome for a man to have a stupid creature perpetually with him. Do you think you act rightly, and that, by reliance on your plan, a man's brow is saved from danger? A woman of sense may fail in her duty; but she must at least do so knowingly; a stupid woman may at any time fail in hers, without desiring or thinking of it.

Chrysalde's point is that if a woman is too innocent and too witless to think for herself, she may betray her husband without even knowing that what she is doing is wrong. This statement is applicable to a later event in the play when Agnes, the sheltered young girl who Arnolphe hopes to marry, falls in love with another man and allows him to caress and kiss her hands. Arnolphe becomes angry and confronts her, but she does not understand why he is chastising her for sinning.

Comedic moments also occur through a series of misunderstandings. Arnolphe does not initially tell Agnes that he wishes to marry her. When she requests to marry another young man, Arnolphe mistakenly thinks that she wants to marry him. And when Arnolphe changes his name to Monsieur de la Souche, it confuses everyone, including Horace, the young man Agnes wishes to marry. Horace hilariously asks Arnolphe to help him steal Agnes from the evil Monsieur de la Souche, not realizing that Arnolphe and Monsieur de la Souche are the same person.

Arnolphe continues to scheme to keep Horace and Agnes apart but feels outwitted and betrayed at every turn by the very woman he has worked so hard to manipulate and control. He eventually gives Agnes a choice: she can marry him or she can go to a convent. But even this ultimatum fails to give him what he wants, because there is one last turn of events.

Although everyone believed Agnes to be an orphan, her father is actually alive and well, and he has conspired with Horace's father to arrange a marriage between Agnes and Horace. This final twists results in the most ironic moment in the play: the woman who Arnolphe works so hard to mold into a faithful, devoted wife ends up in the arms of another man.

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