Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1435
Tartuffe: The pious fraud whom Orgon has befriended and sheltered.
Laurent: Tartuffe’s lackey.
The impetuous Damis, enraged by his father’s plan—which will ruin his chance to wed Valère’s sister—vents frustration and wants to confront the “quack,” Tartuffe. Dorine dissuades him by convincing him that his mother, Elmire, should deal with Tartuffe. Dorine has observed that Tartuffe seems very devoted to Elmire; indeed, he may have a crush on her. This could work in the family’s favor.
At last, the long-anticipated Tartuffe appears with his lackey in front of Dorine. As predicted, he spouts all sorts of pious clichés that are transparent to Dorine. Tartuffe is a comedy, and the lead character is usually played as an obvious fraud and buffoon; Molière originally wrote the part for a rather portly actor in his troupe. Dorine and Tartuffe engage in a verbal joust: Tartuffe tells her to cover her bosom better, and Dorine retorts that he must truly be weak when confronted with temptation—she could never feel passion for him, even if she saw him completely naked. Dorine leaves after quickly getting Tartuffe excited by announcing that Elmire is on her way to see him.
Scenes III - IV
Elmire and Tartuffe are alone in a room together; Elmire wishes to discuss her husband’s plans to have Tartuffe wed Mariane. Tartuffe has a crush on his host’s wife. He begins flattering her beauty almost immediately. Elmire has a difficult task in discussing the marriage because Tartuffe constantly attempts to seduce her; he puts his hands all over her. This scene is usually played in an over-the-top fashion, with Tartuffe playing an inept lecher. Elmire keeps rebuking Tartuffe, but he persists. He gives a long monologue on her beauty and his inability to resist her charms. He promises to be discreet if she will accept his offer of love: “In short, I offer you, my dear Elmire, / Love without scandal, pleasure without fear.”
Elmire warns him that she could reveal everything to her husband. Tartuffe retorts that she is much too charitable to do that, especially since she has captivated him with her beauty. Elmire does not relent to his advances, but she promises to be discreet and not reveal the attempted seduction to her husband. Tartuffe, in return, promises to advocate the marriage of Mariane and Valère. The conversation is interrupted by the hotheaded Damis, who has been hiding in the closet. Damis vows vengeance and proclaims that he will reveal all that has occurred to his father. Elmire tries to dissuade him by minimizing the incident: “Good wives laugh off such trifles, and forget them; / Why should they tell their husbands, and upset them?” Damis is unmoved; his hatred of Tartuffe compels him to speak out.
Scenes V - VI
Orgon enters and Damis immediately blurts out that Tartuffe has been an ungracious guest; he has attempted to make his host a cuckold. Elmire does not deny it; rather, she retorts that Damis should have remained silent.
Orgon confronts Tartuffe with the accusation. Tartuffe admits everything, exclaiming that he is foul. Once again, Tartuffe’s dialogue is filled with pious sentiments; he uses reverse psychology. By admitting everything in an overly penitent manner, he actually convinces Orgon that Damis is lying. Seeing that the ploy works, Tartuffe continues the act. Orgon chastises his son for concocting the entire incident in order to discredit Tartuffe. He calls his son a “monster” and sides with the imposter. Furthermore, the incident makes Orgon feel like his entire family is against him. To spite them, he plans to hasten the marriage of Tartuffe and Mariane; this will show his family who is in charge—they will marry that very night. In a closing retort, Orgon banishes his son from the household and disinherits him.
Orgon and Tartuffe remain alone. As the clear victor in the affair, Tartuffe continues the act that has completely bamboozled Orgon. Tartuffe feigns distress at the familial strife that he has caused and makes as if to abandon the house before such outrageous charges are taken seriously. Orgon will have nothing of it. He wants Tartuffe to stay. When Tartuffe responds that it will mean his martyrdom, Orgon is deeply touched. He is even more impressed when Tartuffe, continuing with the reverse-psychology, says that, henceforth, he will avoid Elmire. Again, Orgon falls for the ploy completely. He not only wishes to vex his family by having Tartuffe constantly at his wife’s side, but he also offers to sign over to Tartuffe the deed and title to all his possessions. Orgon is truly deluded. Tartuffe, of course, consents to this final offer of idiotic charity: “In all things, let the will of Heaven be done.”
Tartuffe as a Holy Impostor
In Act III, Scene II, the audience is finally treated to an appearance by Tartuffe, who lives up to the family’s descriptions immediately upon his entrance; his transparence and false piety are evident to the audience from his first lines. Molière had to be very careful in his portrayal of Tartuffe. He was forced to revise the play several times in order to present a toned-down version that could gain the grudging approval of ecclesiastical authorities. Although there are no longer any existing copies of the earlier versions of the play that ran afoul of the censors, scholars have been able to determine that, in the original version, Tartuffe was an actual priest. Moreover, in the earlier version, Tartuffe was prone to quote Holy Writ. This was too much for the church authorities. In Molière’s lifetime, it was inconceivable that a play or comedy could poke fun at a man of the cloth, a member of the church whose behavior is representative of religion. In addition, biblical quotations used in jest or for personal gain, even in a comedy, were bound to cause a scandal.
Molière managed to appease the church authorities by toning down Tartuffe’s character. In the final version, Tartuffe most certainly is not an actual priest. Rather, he is a common beggar who feigns piety in order to dupe a wealthy benefactor; as the revised title of the work suggests, Tartuffe is an impostor. Furthermore, Tartuffe no longer quotes Holy Writ; rather, he presents his own piety-based philosophy to justify his behavior. While Tartuffe does invoke religious sentiment, he never uses words attributed to Jesus Christ or biblical quotations. When Tartuffe attempts to seduce Elmire, he does not quote from the bible or church dogma. Instead, he presents his own rationalizations, attempting to convince her that his sexual longing can be reconciled with the concept of chastity:
A love of heavenly beauty does not preclude
A proper love for earthly pulchritude;
Our senses are quite rightly captivated
By perfect works our Maker has created.
Tartuffe is, of course, a fake whose behavior cannot truly be reconciled with the concept of celibacy. He is a smooth talker whose utterances are full of contradictions. The above lines go completely against his earlier admonition of Dorine for showing too much flesh:
Cover that Bosom girl. The flesh is weak,
And unclean thoughts are difficult to control.
Such sights as that can undermine the soul.
Since Tartuffe is not an actual priest, his moral transgressions could be excused by the church authorities. He is nothing but a hypocrite trying to have his way with a married woman. To make matters worse, the woman in question is none other than the wife of his benefactor; Tartuffe is a true scoundrel without any of the moral scruples that he so piously utters.
With each act, Orgon’s behavior becomes more and more irrational. He has progressed from a person obsessed by a fraud (Act I) to a patriarchal tyrant (Act II). By the end of Act III, Orgon is rebelling against his family. Instead of believing the truth from his own son’s lips, he takes the side of the impostor and orders Damis out of his house. By disinheriting and cursing his son, he behaves like a spiteful deity who is unworthy of authority. Yet, he still retains complete control over his family. Ultimately, Orgon’s folly is so absolute that he actually relinquishes his authority by giving Tartuffe his entire estate. This final irrational act transfers all the power normally associated with the patriarch to a mere fraud. In order to recoup his belongings, Orgon will have to rely on a higher authority, the king.