With Tartuffe, Molière moved further away from the simple structure derived from French farce. In this play, there is again a middle-aged man, Orgon, who can be tricked because of his obsession. Yet, although the trickster, Tartuffe, is a person outside the power structure, in this case he is a vicious hypocrite who must be stripped of his power over Orgon if poetic justice is to prevail. Therefore, there is another pair of tricksters—Orgon’s wife Elmire and his servant Dorine—who must set things right and aid the usual young lovers.
The structure of this play is also unusual in that the title character does not appear until the third act. In the first two acts, the characters voice their opinions of Tartuffe, this mysterious, seemingly pious man whom Orgon, the head of a prosperous Parisian household, has taken into his home as an honored guest. Except for Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother, the family members are unanimous in voicing their dislike of the man. Orgon’s young wife, Elmire, her stepson Damis, her stepdaughter Mariane, and her brother Cléante, the raisonneur, as well as the impertinent servant Dorine, all see Tartuffe for the hypocrite that he is.
After this preparation has been made, Orgon enters, and Molière begins to substantiate the fact that he is indeed besotted by this stranger. In a hilarious dialogue, Dorine attempts to report on the family, only to be answered over and over again by Orgon’s anxious inquiry, “And Tartuffe?” followed by a heartfelt “poor fellow.” Since Tartuffe’s activities involve gluttonous eating and a good deal of sleeping, Orgon’s concern about the man is ridiculous. The fact that Orgon’s infatuation could have serious results is soon made clear, when he reveals his plan to make Tartuffe a member of the family by giving him his daughter in marriage. It is at this point that Elmire and Dorine begin to formulate plans to deceive the deceiver by attacking his own weaknesses.
Tartuffe’s susceptibility to lust is revealed as soon as he makes his long-awaited entrance in the third act, when he begs Dorine to cover her bosom, so as not to tempt him to sin. Elmire’s plan seems foolproof: She will lead him to make his designs upon her explicit and then threaten to tell Orgon unless Tartuffe relinquishes his claims on Mariane. The plan fails, however, and Tartuffe plays upon Orgon’s emotions so skillfully that he manages to get Damis disinherited and himself made Orgon’s heir. Now both of Orgon’s children are powerless, and, of course, the raisonneur is still being ignored. Somehow, Elmire and Dorine must expose Tartuffe’s perfidy so that even Orgon cannot deny it. They do have an ally, Tartuffe’s own weakness.
Actors, directors, and critics agree that the nature of that weakness is the central issue of Tartuffe. There is no doubt that Tartuffe is bent on having his way with Elmire. Yet even in the scenes where he attempts to seduce her, he can be seen as dominated by the desire for power. Whether his later arrogance is the result of his humiliation by Elmire or merely his true nature, Tartuffe viciously seeks to deprive his former patron of his property, his freedom, perhaps even of his life, and he is stopped only by the intervention of the godlike King, who Molière says cannot be deceived.
This graceful compliment was not only politic but also probably expressed Mohere’s gratitude to Louis XIV, who had supported the playwright through his various attempts to stage this play. For some time, Molière had been suspect in the eyes of an influential group at court, which considered itself the guardian of public morals. This group managed to have two versions of Tartuffe suppressed, first in 1664, then in 1667. Only after Louis XIV obtained the opinion of a theologian who was too prominent to be refuted was the final version of Tartuffe presented. Within its first year, it was performed fifty-five times. It has continued to be one of Molière’s most popular plays, and it is considered one of his greatest masterpieces.
Orgon’s home is a happy one. Orgon is married to Elmire, a woman much younger than he, who adores him. His two children by a former marriage are fond of their stepmother, and she of them. Mariane, the daughter, is engaged to be married to Valère, a very eligible young man, and Damis, the son, is in love with Valère’s sister.
Then Tartuffe comes to live in the household. Tartuffe is a penniless scoundrel whom the trusting Orgon found praying in church. Taken in by his words and his pretended religious fervor, Orgon has invited the hypocrite into his home. As a consequence, the family is soon thrown into chaos. Once established, Tartuffe proceeds to change their normal, happy mode of life to a very strict one. He sets up a rigid Puritan regimen for the family and persuades Orgon to force his daughter to break her engagement to Valère in order to marry Tartuffe. He says that she needs a pious man to lead her in a righteous life.
Valère is determined that Mariane will marry no one but himself, but unfortunately Mariane is too spineless to resist Tartuffe and her father. Confronted by her father’s orders, she remains silent or remonstrates only weakly. As a result, Tartuffe is cordially hated by almost every member of the family, including Dorine, the saucy, outspoken servant, who does everything in her power to break the hold the hypocrite has secured over her master. Dorine hates not only Tartuffe but also his valet, Laurent, for the servant imitates the master in everything. In fact, the only person other than Orgon who likes and approves of Tartuffe is Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle, who is the type of Puritan who wishes to withhold from others pleasures in which she herself would not indulge.
Madame Pernelle highly disapproves of Elmire, maintaining that in her love for clothes and amusements Orgon’s wife is setting her family a bad example that Tartuffe is trying to correct. Actually, Elmire is merely full of the joy of living, a fact that her mother-in-law is unable to perceive. Orgon himself is little better. When he is informed that Elmire has fallen ill, his sole concern is for the health of Tartuffe. Tartuffe, however, is in fine health, stout and ruddy-cheeked. For his evening meal, he consumes two partridges, half a leg of mutton, and four flasks of wine. He then retires to his warm and comfortable bed and sleeps soundly until morning.
Tartuffe’s romantic designs are not really on the daughter, Mariane, but on Elmire herself. One day, after Orgon’s wife has recovered from her illness, Tartuffe appears before her. He compliments Elmire on her beauty and even goes so far as to lay his hand on her knee. Damis, Orgon’s son, observes all that goes on between them from the cabinet where he is hidden. Furious, he reveals to his father what he has seen, but Orgon refuses to believe him. The wily Tartuffe has so completely captivated Orgon that Orgon orders his son to apologize to Tartuffe. When Damis refuses, Orgon, violently angry, drives the young man from the house and disowns him. To show his confidence in Tartuffe’s honesty and piety, Orgon signs a deed of trust turning his estate over to Tartuffe’s management and announces his daughter’s betrothal to Tartuffe.
Elmire, embittered by the behavior of this impostor in her house, resolves to unmask him. She persuades Orgon to hide under a cloth-covered table to see and hear for himself the real Tartuffe. Then she entices Tartuffe, disarming him with the assurance that her foolish husband will suspect nothing. Emboldened, Tartuffe pours out his heart to her, leaving no doubt as to his intention of making her his mistress. Disillusioned and outraged when Tartuffe asserts that Orgon is a complete dupe, the husband emerges from his hiding place, denounces the hypocrite, and orders him from the house. Tartuffe defies him, reminding Orgon that according to the deed of trust, the house now belongs to Tartuffe.
Another matter makes Orgon even more uneasy than the possible loss of his property. He had been in possession of a box that was given to him by a friend, Argas, a political criminal now in exile. It contains important state secrets, the revelation of which would mean a charge of treason against Orgon and certain death for his friend. Orgon has foolishly entrusted the box to Tartuffe, and he fears the use the villain might make of its contents. Orgon informs his brother-in-law, Cléante, that he will have nothing further to do with pious men and that, in the future, he will shun them like the plague. Cléante, however, points out that such an extreme reaction is the sign of an unbalanced mind. He says that it is not fair to cast aspersions on religion itself simply because a treacherous vagabond is masquerading as a religious man.
The next day, Tartuffe follows through on his threat, using his legal right to Orgon’s property to force Orgon and his family from their house. Madame Pernelle cannot believe Tartuffe guilty of such villainy, and she reminds her son that, in this world, virtue is often misjudged and persecuted. When the sheriff’s officer arrives with the notice of eviction, however, even she finally believes that Tartuffe is a villain.
The crowning indignity comes when Tartuffe takes to the king the box containing the state secrets and orders are issued for Orgon’s immediate arrest. Fortunately, before the king has a chance to examine the contents of the box, he recognizes Tartuffe as an impostor who has committed crimes in another city. Therefore, because of Orgon’s loyal service in the army, the king annuls the deed that Orgon made turning his property over to Tartuffe and returns the box to Orgon unopened.