New Characters Monsieur Loyal: A bailiff who has been sent by Tartuffe to serve the eviction notice.
The Officer: An agent of the Law sent by the king to make an arrest.
Scene I Cléante and Orgon discuss Tartuffe’s threats. Orgon admits to having given Tartuffe papers that a friend, Argus, who fled the land, entrusted with him. The papers reveal a crime. Since Orgon did not turn these papers over to the Prince, he can be considered guilty of treason for his complicity. Orgon is now afraid that Tartuffe will use these papers against him.
Cléante is horrified that Orgon could behave so foolishly and admits that Tartuffe, with both the papers and the deed to the estate, clearly has the upper hand. Orgon rues the day he fell for Tartuffe, deciding that, henceforth, he will openly persecute holy men. Always the voice of reason and moderation, Cléante rebukes him for not acknowledging the power of the middle path. Orgon should not run from true religious piety just because he fell for an impostor, for this would be an even graver error than his initial one:
Come, just because one rascal made you swallow A show of zeal which turned out to be hollow, Shall you conclude that all men are deceivers, And that, today, there are no true believers? Let atheists make that foolish inference.
Scene II Having returned to his father’s good graces, Damis threatens to trim Tartuffe’s ears for Orgon. Cléante warns Damis not to be so hotheaded and to learn to moderate his rage.
Scene III The tables have been turned on Orgon. Instead of being the one who fails to listen to his family, he now tries to convince his mother, Madame Pernelle, who has returned, that Tartuffe is a fake. Madame Pernelle does not believe her son and behaves just as obstinately as her son did when he dealt with the rest of his family throughout the previous acts. Madame Pernelle persists in her belief that the family is persecuting Tartuffe, much to Orgon’s frustration.
Scene IV The family conference is interrupted by Monsieur Loyal, a bailiff who has been sent by Tartuffe. Monsieur Loyal informs Orgon that Tartuffe is evicting him from the house that Tartuffe now possesses. The family is horrified; Damis threatens violence.
Out of the goodness of his heart, Monsieur Loyal gives the family until the next morning to pack up and vacate the premises. Orgon, Damis, and even Dorine utter threats of violence. Monsieur Loyal informs them that it is illegal to threaten a bailiff. Cléante intercedes and takes the eviction papers as Monsieur Loyal departs.
Scenes V - VI At last Madame Pernelle realizes just how vicious the holy man is. Dorine gets a final laugh at Orgon and his mother for once believing in the impostor:
Oh, come, be fair. You mustn’t take offense At this new proof of his benevolence. He’s acting out of selfless love, I know. Material things enslave the soul, and so He kindly has arranged your liberation From all that might endanger your salvation.
Valère enters, bringing even more bad news. He has heard that Tartuffe has denounced Orgon in front of the King (or Prince—translations vary for the French words Prince and souverain, even in individual instances of the Richard Wilbur translation) on account of the papers Orgon had been hiding for his friend. Orgon is despondent. Everything seems lost.
Scene VII An officer sent by the King enters Orgon’s household, where the family and Tartuffe are all present. Tartuffe is expecting the officer to arrest Orgon for...
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treason. He gloats in anticipation, again shamelessly invoking Heaven in his ruse. Elmire and Cléante point out that he is nothing but an impostor and hypocrite. Growing weary of the accusations, Tartuffe asks the officers to carry out his orders and arrest Orgon. However, he is shocked to learn that the officer has been sent by the King (or Prince) to arrest him, Tartuffe, and not Orgon. The officer gives a short speech that describes how the King, in his sagacity and benevolence, saw through the impostor; he realized that Tartuffe was wanted for other crimes and that he had wronged Orgon. Furthermore, he returns Orgon’s papers to him and rewards him for his actions in a recent civil war.
The King has set everything right. Orgon begins to berate Tartuffe but is stopped by Cléante, who hopes that Tartuffe will one day recognize the error of his ways and seek true piety:
Leave the poor wretch to his present fate, And don’t say anything to aggravate His present woes; but rather hope that he Will soon embrace an honest piety, And mend his ways, and by a true repentance Move our just King to moderate his sentence.
His authority restored, Orgon proclaims that they should all bow in thanks to the King. Then, he gives his blessing to the marriage of Valère and his daughter.
A Contrived Ending To the modern reader, the ending of Tartuffe may appear a bit too neat and tidy; everything falls into place, and happiness ensues as if a sympathetic deity were controlling events from above. However, one must consider the era in which Molière was writing before being too critical of the ending.
In addition to having the clergy looking over his shoulder, Molière also had to consider the King, Louis XIV. Any play dealing with the usurpation of authority could rub the possessor of all authority in France the wrong way. It was important for Molière to appease him in his work. While Molière made conciliatory gestures to the clergy by making Tartuffe a religious impostor, he also made concessions to the King by ensuring that a messenger appears in the final act, advertising the king as a wise and benevolent ruler who restores order.
This ending, which was not part of the earlier version that is no longer in existence, makes use of a literary device known as deus ex machina (Latin for “God out of the works”). Playwrights and authors resort to a deus ex machina to create an ending where all the pieces fall together neatly. Basically, a deity descends onto the scene to restore order from chaos. In this instance, the deus (god) is literally the king (rex). Thus Molière transforms deus ex machina into rex ex machina (as the Divine Right of Kings states, God and king were virtually one and the same).
In the final scene, the benevolent and all-powerful king saves the day by jailing Tartuffe and returning Orgon’s property. The play winds down with Orgon’s utterly expected lines, “Well said: let’s go at once and, gladly kneeling, / Express the gratitude which all are feeling.” In other words, “Hail to the King!” Although seemingly obvious to the modern reader, the employment of this literary device must have mollified King Louis XIV. Permission was granted for Tartuffe to be performed.
Orgon and Authority Orgon finally understands that he has been duped. However, does this realization excuse the way that Orgon has treated his family, particularly Mariane, in the preceding acts? While in 17th-century France, the male head-of-household naturally and without question possessed the authority, Orgon, until the very end of the play, does not behave in a manner worthy of it. Are spite and vengeance good characteristics for an authority figure to hold?
The French revere Molière much the way the English-speaking world reveres Shakespeare. New words, neologisms, were often coined by both authors. Today, the word “Tartuffe” in French is a synonym for a hypocrite. Orgon’s character is too ambiguous and rife with allusions questioning the legitimacy of monarchy to pigeonhole with a one word definition; thus, there is no word “Orgon” in French to describe a delusional tyrant.
Although Tartuffe is billed as a comedy with the best laughs reserved for the imposter and the scenes involving seduction, it is no mistake that the character from whom the name of the play derives does not appear until Act III, Scene II, about halfway through the work. Molière’s play is much more about Orgon and his family’s struggle to make him realize the folly of hypocrisy. These struggles contain a minefield of allegorical allusions that question the very idea of monarchy. Of course, in France the system of patriarchal monarchy would come crashing down in violent tumult a little over a century later.
By focusing attention on the imposter, the comedic fat man groping at another man’s wife, Molière deflects attention from the uncomfortable questions about unrestrained power and the worthiness of its holder, Orgon. If the play were entitled Orgon, Molière, in spite of all his efforts and textual changes, might never have been given permission to finally stage it.