Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1942
Censorship and Molière's Tartuffe have run hand in hand since the very first production of the play, which scandalized ecclesiastical authorities to the point of banning the play for many years. Many studies on the work examine the trials and tribulations that Molière underwent in order to stage the work; Molière had to rework the play no less than three times over the course of five years in order to have the production finally staged. However, in spite of Molière's extensive changes, there is still an allegorical criticism of authority, especially a patriarchal monarchy which runs throughout the play.
Considering the era in which the play was staged, Molière could not have helped but step on a few toes in writing Tartuffe; the comedy, which originally poked-fun at religion, when combined with the low regard for theater in general, was bound to cause offense no matter what the author's true intent. Richard Parish sums up the predicament in which Molière found himself:
Relations in France between the Catholic Church and the theatre were, throughout the seventeenth century and beyond, conflictual, irrespective of any perceived offense. Those sections of the church which promoted an austere morality were predictably uncompromising..Within the climate of disapproval, the threat of Tartuffe is easy to account for: if all theatre is sinful, comedy as a frivolous genre, falls into a more sensitive category again; and comedy which addresses itself to religious issues, however superficially, pushes the tension to the limit.
Unfortunately, there is no extant complete text of the two earlier versions which Molière had to emend to appease the ecclesiastical authorities who specifically appealed to the king. Nevertheless, scholars have managed to piece together the major changes implemented in the final version in order to get the seal of approval from King Louis XIV. The most obvious change involves a toning down of the character of Tartuffe in order to make him less priestly. Mikhail Bulgakov summarizes the original Tartuffe: ‘‘The play portrayed the most complete and consummate swindler, liar, scoundrel, informer, and spy—a hypocrite, lecher, and seducer of other men's wives. And this personage, clearly a danger to surrounding society was none other than a priest. All his speeches were interlarded with honeyed, pious maxims, and in addition to that, he accompanied his reprehensible actions at every step with quotations from the Holy Writ.'' Of course, the final version of the comedy portrays Tartuffe as an imposter who puts on religious airs but who is clearly not a priest. Tartuffe pretends to be holy, but he holds no official office. He is an imposter, a fact clearly illustrated by the expansion of the title Le Tartuffe, ou L'Imposteur (Tartuffe, or The Imposter), a title which is often shortened to just Tartuffe in English translations. In addition to no longer wearing holy garb, the final Imposter does not quote directly from the Holy Writ. The Tartuffe who has survived is clearly a flawed man taking advantage of religion to further his material aims, not a legitimate member of the clergy who is a representative of God. In order to emphasize this change, Molière beefed-up the lines of the level-headed Cleante, a character who is a counterbalance to all the chaos in the play and who embodies reason and diplomacy and who is not fooled by the imposter Tartuffe. Throughout the play, he attempts to reconcile the feuding family factions. One brief speech stands out as a virtual disclaimer for any religious authorities who might still have been offended by the play:
You've recognized your recent grave mistake In falling victim to a pious fake; Now, to correct that error, must you embrace An even greater error in its place, And judge our worthy neighbors as a whole By what you've learned of one corrupted soul? 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.
Appeasing the clergy was only part of the battle. Molière also inserted a new ending which includes a literary device known as deus ex machina. Playwrights and authors resort to a deus ex machina (Latin for "God out of the works’’) to create a neat ending. Basically, a deity descends onto the scene to restore order to the chaos. In this instance, the deus (god) is literally the king, which in Latin is rex. Thus, deus ex machina is transformed by Molière to rex ex machina. In the final scene, the benevolent and omnipotent king saves the day by jailing Tartuffe and returning Orgon's property. The play winds down with the utterly expected lines by Orgon, "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 modified literary device must have mollified King Louis XIV, since he granted permission for Tartuffe to be performed.
While the above changes considerably lighten any tone of religious mockery which may have appeared in the earlier versions, it is still surprising that permission to stage the work was finally granted. Although Tartuffe is a mere criminal and the king a benevolent and wise ruler, there is a subtle allegorical criticism of patriarchal monarchy embedded within the play. If a viewer or reader understands the Orgon family as an allegorical representation of the French monarchy, with Orgon in the role of king, the play can still be viewed as quite seditious.
The prevailing philosophy which dominated the Ancien Régime (Old Guard) in France during Molière's era was that of the Divine Right of Kings. This philosophy, which fell out of favor after the French Revolution, compares the king favorably to God. Just as God rules in heaven, the king rules on earth. The king need only answer to God for his actions. An often overlooked condition in this philosophy is that the king is male. The French monarchy is a patriarchy. Unlike several other European monarchies, France had to be ruled by a king, never a queen. While this system was relatively stable in Molière's era (it was, of course, to come crashing down about a hundred years later during the French Revolution), it was by no means perfect. Nevertheless, questioning the prevailing system was inconceivable. Witness the lines of Monsieur Loyal when he comes to evict Orgon and his family:
Young man, my business here is not with you, But with your wise and temperate father, who, Like every worthy citizen, stands in awe Of justice, and would never obstruct the law.
Although Molière would not dare to openly question authority or the law, he creates a work in which a main character and his family represent a microcosm of the French crown. Orgon is the patriarch, the king within his family. The female characters are all reduced to a state of powerlessness that mirrors French society of the time. Madame Pernelle is the perfect example of the powerlessness of French woman, all complaint and no action. Her status is due only to her son's position as the head-of-household. Elmire's power resides in her tact and sexual wiles. Mariane is unable to disobey her father. Although her maid, Dorine, has a saucy tongue, she is constantly told to shut up, and on one occasion, Orgon even tries to slap her. The male characters are all reduced to trying to make Orgon realize that he is being duped. Orgon clearly has all the power. Unfortunately, he is unworthy of it. One might even claim that the household is dysfunctional based on the bizarre behavior of a leader, Orgon, whose authority cannot be questioned.
The beauty of the theater resides in the play's ambiguity, where so much rests on the interpretation of a particular performance. Depending on the director's whim, Orgon can come across as a fool, a man undergoing a midlife crisis or even worse, a man with a mental illness. Cleante, always the voice of reason, makes an accurate diagnosis: "That deed of gift, were actions of a kind / Which scarcely indicate a prudent mind.''
Orgon's behavior is that of a tyrant who does not have the best interests of his family in mind. In fact he almost brings about the ruination of his family due to his pig-headedness. While Molière may have tamed his play in that the Tartuffe no longer quotes Holy Writ, Orgon's speeches contain allusions to the Divine Right of Kings (‘‘I plan, Sir, to be guided / By heaven's will.’’) as well as certain phrases which indicate that he believes himself to be a god. There is a certain Old Testament brutality to Orgon's speech, especially while arranging the marriage of his daughter. ‘‘Without delay, / I'll spite this household and confound his pride / By giving him my daughter as his bride.’’ (64) Furthermore, religious connotations implicit in the command "mortify" (mortifiez in the original), which align themselves well with Augustinian Christian concepts of abstinence as well as the self-inflicted pain and discomfort of saints, make it clear that Orgon suffers from a severe delusion of grandeur:
Get up! The more you loathe the man, and dread him, The more ennobling it will be to wed him. Marry Tartuffe, and mortify your flesh!
Although the magical deus ex machina appears to restore Orgon to a position of dignity at the end of the play, the questions one might ask concerning his behavior and the irrational power that he wields within his family can lead to some disconcerting conclusions. Why is the family so powerless in the face of the father's mental breakdown? Is there nothing that can be done short of divine intervention to save the family from ruin? And if Orgon is viewed as an allegorical king, how should the family behave when faced with his insanity? Failing to obey would be tantamount to insurrection. Is this an instance—that is, when the king is not in his right mind—that a monarchy is not a reasonable political system?
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 struggles with his family than the folly of hypocrisy. These struggles contain a minefield of allegorical allusions which question the very idea of monarchy. By focusing attention on the imposter, Molière deflects attention from the uncomfortable questions that Orgon's character poses. 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; with the title "Orgon," the inherent criticism of French royalty would have been all too blatant and not camouflaged sufficiently by the false piety of Tartuffe.
Source: David Partikian, Critical Essay on Tartuffe, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
Partikian is a freelance writer and English instructor.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7562
The shift from a comedy such as La Princesse d'Elide to one of quite serious content, Le Tartuffe, for a second featured play at the royal fete, may strike us as odd, yet the themes are not too different. Both comedies deal with illusions about love and power, and both show us figures consciously playing roles in situations created by fancy. Le Tartuffe treats these ideas and actions against a background of contemporary reality, however, and the result is a theatrical masterpiece.
On the sixth day of ‘‘The Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle,’’ Moliere presented three acts of Le Tartuffe, ou l'imposteur (Tartuffe, or the Impostor) with the rather unlikely seemingly subject of abuse of religious zeal by a confidence man and his victim. This play had been occupying the attention of the author so fully that he had managed to put into verse only the first scene of La Princesse, but Louis had excused this omission because of the merits of Tartuffe. He had heard a reading of the new work in April 1664, according to the troupe's register kept by La Grange, and must have approved its performance at the fete, an ideal setting in which Moliere might win support of the courtiers as well as of the king. He would need such support in view of the inevitable opposition to the comedy by churchmen and a powerful faction of laymen who found the comedian's piety very suspect. The controversy started by L 'Ecole des femmes would be revived and embittered by a comedy that appeared to mock religion. To understand the violent reaction to Tartuffe, we must look briefly at the place of church and faith in the intellectual, cultural, and political life of the times, because they had important functions beyond religious and moral guidance. Moliere had aimed at human failings and had hit a great power structure.
The fact that the play treated credulity and abuse of faith was beside the point when Moliere's contemporaries were all passionately involved in controversies on the nature of religion and were divided into doctrinal factions. Each might feel that his position was parodied in Tartuffe in some manner, and the major Catholic lay brotherhood felt most wronged and most obliged to act to get the play banned. Fakery on the part of a lay director of conscience was no hypothetical case in this period, no matter how unlikely the matter might seem to us three hundred years later, for such figures existed in an era that took its religious forms seriously. We must recall that France had just barely emerged from a time of general slaughter in the name of piety.
Imperfectly and precariously united in a political sense, despite the imposing facade of the monarchy, the French were deeply split in matters of faith after long years of war between Catholics and Protestants. The amnesty and tolerance extended to the Huguenots in the first part of the seventeenth century was jeopardized by the warfare of the ‘‘Frondes,’’ when religious groups sided with the various noblemen struggling for power. The increasing pressure upon all segments of society to conform and to serve a central government being built by Cardinal Richelieu and developed by Louis XIV found little room for independent thinking on the part of anyone, but the main danger to national unity was believed to lie in heresy. Religion and politics were inextricably bound together. The official policy of tolerance set forth in the Edict of Nantes under Henri IV became more and more disregarded, as Protestants were persecuted, suppressed, and exiled, until Louis XIV finally abandoned any pretense at allowing religious liberty and revoked the edict in 1685.
In addition to this great split there was vigorous dissension within the Catholic Church over principles and forms of worship. The puritanical sect of Jansenists opposed what they held to be moral laxity in Jesuit practices, and this controversy had been given a lively public airing in the witty Provincial Letters (1656-57) by Blaise Pascal. The literate world of court and city in 1664 was eager to approve or decry further discussion of religious issues, but the comic stage was not considered as appropriate a rostrum as the letters. Moliere was in a delicate area both as to subject and form. The French Catholic church was further subjected to quarrels over the role of mysticism in faith, upheld by ‘‘Quietism,’’ and over the degree of independence that the Gallican church should enjoy from Rome. Agnostic, free-thinking ideas were very much present, although carefully screened for fear of the real possibility of execution for heresy.
The church was fully supported by the state, and vice versa, so that a clever man like Richelieu could pursue interlocking careers in the church hierarchy and government. One path to temporal power was ecclesiastical, not only over the spirits of men but in the political and social sense. Seldom has there been a period when all aspects of a culture were so ruthlessly centralized and that yet produced true beauty of artistic creation and true progress in intellectual matters. The happy chance of the existence of men of genius like Moliere, Corneille, and Racine may explain some of this phenomenon, but the combined forces of church and state must be credited with providing magnificent patronage and great sympathy for creativity that did not offer direct threat to the total structure. To say that Moliere had any direct intention of speaking out against the structure of the world in which he was just beginning to function fully is to misunderstand his situation. The theatrical creator needed material circumstances that would give him full rein; to criticize government or the church united with it would destroy all that he worked to build. But when a subject involving human delusions based on perversion of faith occurred to him, he may well have felt that the lesson of false piety was for the public good. The artist had a serious role as instructor of the people, this age believed, and Moliere's experiments in theater had led him to an awareness of how much comedy could say that was useful as well as amusing.
There were plentiful examples of moral tales about false piety, and actual cases of crimes hidden behind such a front. The author quite possibly had in mind a case of a layman, Charpy de Sainte-Croix, who took advantage of the faith of his patron to seduce the man's wife. The basic scheme of the ‘‘deceiver deceived’’ that was common in farce could be developed from such a situation, the dramatist perceived, if the seducer were duped and caught by justice. Themes of knowledge and blind ignorance, reality and appearances, love and its distortions—all suggested themselves to the comic playwright. The material for was artistically and dramatically excellent, popularly appealing, and psychologically fascinating, so there is small wonder that Moliere threw himself into the project of bringing it to the stage. The subject was controversial in 1664, and it is no less interesting and stimulating at present because we cannot see or read the work without sensing the truth of its presentation of the effects of belief, love, lust, and power on the human creature.
The peculiar mixture of religion and temporal power that existed in Moliere's time at once furnished him this material and the means by which his enemies would get his play prohibited. Even before the Versailles performance, the opposition was bringing pressure to bear upon Louis to keep the comedy from the public, and, failing in this, they redoubled their efforts to suppress it. The archbishop of Paris warned the king of the ‘‘bad effects’’ of Tartuffe, and the queen mother expressed her dismay. With such voices raised against the comedy, it suffered legal sanctions against its being presented, although private readings of the work were given by Moliere as part of his campaign to get it before the public. La Grange, the troupe's recorder, says that the comedy was performed in September 1664, and a five-act version was presented in November of the following year, but it was not until 1669 that the present form of the play in five acts was offered on stage and in published version. In order to accomplish this in the face of hard opposition, Moliere fought long and skillfully, seeking powerful ears into which to read his play and suggest his arguments. The ultimate triumph he sought was not over religious groups, per se, but rather over pressure groups that calumniated him as an artist and as a man. Professional success and personal reputation were at stake. An attempt to present Tartuffe in 1667 caused the Palais-Royal theater to be closed, and, because Louis was off for eighteen months of military operations, the playwright could not make a direct appeal to his sympathetic patron. When the king returned and rescinded the closing of the theater, all Paris lined up for tickets to the controversial comedy, pouring a large sum into the troupe's treasury for forty-five city performances and five private ones. The author had accomplished a certain self-justification, and the director had fulfilled his obligation to his players to get a hit on the boards. In preserving his Tartuffe from oblivion, Moliere gave the world a work that showed a new direction in comedy.
The material that he dealt with was not all original, it must be said, for Italian and Spanish sources suggest themselves. The standard editions of the play indicate these. What he added was the remarkable psychological validity of the forces in the play projected through original theatrical techniques blending the old and the new. The title character of Tartuffe apparently takes his name from the Italian for truffle, and a certain sense of deception is in the verb truffer according to H. G. Hall. This critic observes that the sound of the name must have been important to Moliere because he called the character ‘‘Panulphe’’ in the abortive 1667 attempt to give the play. It was good box office, at any rate, for one name to suggest the other. In analyzing the play, we find that it uses and expands situations and characters familiar to us from the earlier comedies, and that it stands as a logical development in depth and skill. The complexity of the motives and the behavior of Tartuffe and his patron Orgon moves far beyond that of Arnolphe of L 'Ecole des femmes, the most significantly ambiguous of the author's figures. The basically clownish quality of a situation of ‘‘deceiver deceived’’ is not absent from Tartuffe, but it is a framework for an examination of very complicated motives and their effects.
French theater had had ‘‘false’’ types since medieval farce, but Moliere was the first author to conceive of a character like Orgon, the self-deceiving dupe whose motives are really ugly, or Tartuffe, the wily masker who chooses to drop his mask to satisfy his lust. These are not wholly humorous characters, it is evident, yet they function in the way that farce figures do, that is, as dramatic caricatures. Tartuffe thus remains in comic or low mode even as its meanings become serious or grim. The vehicle for such characters is largely a familiar plot with tyrannical father opposing the marriage of his daughter to the man she loves. The routine of the eavesdropper under the table is hardly proper to elevated drama, and an outspoken servant girl adds earthy wit as she aids her mistress to wed her love. A lovers’ quarrel in the second act seems to have been added as a filler, or it at least is transplanted from Le Depit amoureux to lighten the tone of the play. The resultant total impression is one of the surprising blending of seemingly disparate elements such as physical humor, psychological realism, and conventional form and diction. Boileau, the leading critic of the day, was sympathetic to the author, yet disturbed by the odd combination of crude farce and elevated social satire. This style was not to be found in any standard text on drama such as Aristotle's Poetics. The very nonconformity, of course, was the reason for Moliere's progress in theatrical invention, and the same phenomenon can be observed in his colleagues in tragedy. Imitation of ancient examples was a principle honored in theory but flouted in practice. So long as the playwright remained within comprehensible boundaries of techniques and expression, his audience was willing to applaud innovation.
Classification as to regular genre appears to be of no great aid in analysis of a play like Tartuffe, and it is of more help to try to perceive what thematic ideas are expressed and how. These are set forth, varied, repeated, and even inverted by means of the words and the framing of the players. We are trying to understand just how a stage illusion is created that does not mirror actual life but uses obviously exaggerated and stagy elements to suggest patterns of human behavior. Tartuffe is thus not just a stage imitation of a religious hypocrite of 1664 but instead is a stage caricature of certain traits that are more clear to us as we learn a bit about religion in that period. Tartuffe's primary meaning is as a self-contained dramatic persona with absurdly contrasting characteristics, an ascetic who is fat and lustful. The same remarks apply to the other characters and to the parts of the plot that seem to reflect faithfully contemporary life because realistic elements immediately take on a stylized effect. By the use of exaggerated, theatrical effects the playwright imparts to us a knowledge that he is dealing with general matters of belief, trust, and love.
The idea of belief is paramount in Tartuffe and expressed through many parts of the play, although not as religious belief because the stress in the central figure is upon his belief in himself and in his power over others. Similarly, in Orgon belief is not in the religious faith but in a perverted system of dogma that will make him triumph over his family while gaining salvation. Orgon and his mother, Mme Pernelle, want to believe in Tartuffe because he nourishes their pet notion and desires, while the rest of the characters protest against belief that has degenerated into credulity. The facts of Tartuffe's hypocrisy are evident, but Orgon feeds his mind on fantasy and establishes his own faith in which all doubters are infidels and damned. He treats his family like an inquisitor and declares that for his belief he would see them perish like heretics. The ruling figure who pursues an existence in a world of illusion to which he tries to bend all reality is characteristic of Moliere's major comedies.
The thematic ideas turning about the axis of belief become more complicated as we observe that the psychology of the situation is that of the ‘‘confidence game,’’ the idea that one may reap great rewards (here it is salvation) for belief and an outlay of cash. Belief must be expressed to the confidence man by some tangible means, so that the dupe establishes himself as purely credulous when he gives something for nothing. Tartuffe and his victim need each other in a sort of symbiosis of cupidity. The concomitant faking of belief by the agent is imposture and hypocrisy, and thus the subtitle of ‘‘the imposter’’ for which we might substitute ‘‘the confidence man.’’ The word confidence is most useful to suggest the basic action of the comedy in which Tartuffe is confided in by Orgon, who in turn feels confident. Trust is misplaced and abused until it becomes distrust and then disbelief. But before such a denouement of shattering of confidence on both sides there must be established an impression of confident belief in Tartuffe and Orgon. Each proceeds with utter trust in his own judgment and control of his life, all the while unknowingly committing part of this control to the other as a system of mutual confidence is created. The play turns upon the relationships between these two figures, and thus we may call it a play of nexus, a drama of a causal link of belief and confidence.
The use of the words ‘‘confidence game’’ also reminds us of the playwright's perception of the game playing that goes on in human contacts, and how it may serve as the structure for a comedy. We recall how Les Facheux was built on this basis. In the case of Tartuffe we see a masker and poseur of great skill acting out a role designed to dupe others and to give him power over them. The title figure is a supple and strong player in the sparring for advantage that goes on within the family, able to accept small losses while concentrating upon the ultimate goal of control of a fortune. The play shows us the skirmishes of a group of people tightly bound to each other, all disguising true feelings and intentions beneath the exteriors conventionally required for their roles. As the struggle within Orgon's home becomes more intense, the occasional slight dropping of a mask shows us the seriousness of the game being played. The sexual advances by Tartuffe toward his host's wife are a remarkable example. Elmire rapidly makes adjustments in her mask with Tartuffe to play for advantage, suggesting that an affair would not be impossible. The competitive game for the confidence of Orgon is being played in dead earnest beneath the masking that the audience finds so amusing. The tension of a ‘‘no win’’ situation emerges despite the farcical apparatus of placing Orgon under the table to overhear the courting of Elmire by Tartuffe. The power struggle is only intensified.
Tartuffe is not only the consummate masker but also a competitor who does his best to manipulate the other players. Moreover, he is a gambler who engages in a great game of chance because the outcome of his pursuit of power and fortune ultimately lies in factors beyond his control. He gambles upon the unending credulity of Orgon and his own ability to stay ahead of the law. But for the ending, when the king's justice descends upon him like fate, he would emerge the victor in the game. The last scene is not merely a deus ex machina but a reminder that the most adept player in the game for power are subject to chance or destiny. Translating these observations to the mode of tragedy is not difficult, and the somber cast of Tartuffe becomes more understandable. A tragic hero gambles for the highest stakes and loses. Tartuffe is a sort of grotesque caricature of this hero who plays within the social world of comedy, operating as a confidence man. It will be helpful to keep in mind this remarkable character as we come to what Moliere makes of the Don Juan figure in his version of the legend, his next play.
A confidence game involves play with belief and also with a special type of love, that between the gullible victim and the deceiver, Orgon and Tartuffe. The peculiar nature of love in Orgon makes Arnolphe (L'Ecole des femmes) seem simple in comparison because the former combines a love of God, love of Tartuffe, and love of self in such a way as to suggest that he is acting in fear and hatred. What he chooses to call Christian love leads him to punish his family and himself, and all this is done through the agency of Tartuffe. Moliere depicts a sturdy bourgeois who becomes infatuated with religious mysticism and its promise of sure salvation for his soul, but this conflicts with demands for love in his temporal life by his wife and children. The selfish side of his nature finds an excuse for denying affection and material support to them and for giving these to Tartuffe in the name of God. Tartuffe is evidently the object of his warm feelings because he is a means of indulging tastes that suggest the sadistic, even masochistic. Religion is a ready-made justification for his behavior, and Tartuffe is a living embodiment of the principles according to which he acts. Self-love by Orgon is termed love of God and is directed toward the divinity through a surrogate. The scheme is heavily drawn by the author who shows us Orgon loading gifts and favors upon the sort of alter ego who is his means of evading aspects of life that he wants to deny. If the situation were one of a middle-aged man abandoning wife and family for a young mistress, it would be quite common and comprehensible, with obvious motives of denial of age and search for lost youth. But when the love is fixed upon a Tartuffe with an avowed object of escape from the material world of flesh into a realm of mysticism, then the love expressed in this play has some murky depths.
The other member of the central linked pair is equally interesting. Tartuffe in some ways parallels Orgon, for as Orgon is the ‘‘would-be mystic,’’ Tartuffe is the ‘‘would-be seducer.’’ The use of spiritual love to deny the flesh by Orgon is balanced by a hardly concealed eagerness in Tartuffe for the pleasures of the flesh with Orgon's wife. The confidence man intends to seduce Elmire, his patron's wife, and his sensual proclivities are seen in his crude eyeing of the bosom of the maid as he rebukes her for immodesty. He plans prudently to combine pleasure and profit by marrying Orgon's daughter for her beauty and her large dowry. The real similarity of the two main characters is their great self-love, however, for Tartuffe is oblivious to the bad impression he makes on all the feminine characters, being supremely confident in his egotism. (We cannot include the deluded Mme Pernelle because she has a function of echoing her son. The old woman is well beyond attracting Tartuffe and the role was taken by a man). He is shown as plump, gluttonous, and lecherous, hardly a dashing figure to play the Don Juan part that he envisions for himself. The seed of his destruction is in this sensuality that will cause him to drop his mask of puritanism. The spiritual love relationship with Orgon is thus Tartuffe's way to physical triumphs in sex and in control over the lives and fortunes of others. In the idea of power over others Tartuffe and Orgon join hands and work with similar aims, each one cherishing the other because he offers a means to rule. Their feelings are like those of conspirators cooperating yet planning selfish ends.
Normal and healthy forms of love abound in the comedy to reinforce our impression of the peculiarities of the central characters. The daughter, Mariane, and her suitor pursue the typical romance of comedy and are betrothed at the end, but the picture of family love of mother, sister, and brother for one another and for Orgon is set against the ugly distortions. Such a family situation is treated with a depth of feeling and realism not found before in French theater, and this alone would make the play noteworthy. The middle-class interior has a certain warmth and natural quality despite the obvious conventions observed; the wifely concern and impetuous loyalty of the son emerge despite the alexandrines of their speeches. The reactions of the family to the real threat of destruction naturally create some dramatic interest and tension, even though we know that a proper comic ending will come.
Indeed, we must not forget that comedy traditionally affirms such an ending of love's triumph as part of its values. This genre has as a regular tenet the social goodness and health of mankind, and this is a value that cannot brook distortions and perversions of love, sex, and procreation for alien purposes like those of Tartuffe and Orgon. Selfishness, hatred, and lust that seek to find ways to command are the great enemies in comedy's world, and Moliere moves from merely hinting at them, as he did in early plays, to presenting them boldly. It turned out that the most glaring case of the enemy in action was to be found in the social manifestations of religious faith, or rather the use of the externals of piety to exert political and personal power. The play dwells upon the warping of the principle of love, both Christian and sociocomic, in a household that is a microcosm of society. With no intention of irreverence, we might say that the informing idea or action of the comedy is ‘‘to love thy neighbor,’’ and how not to. The strength of this play becomes evident, as does the size of the wrath of ecclesiastical circles in 1664.
The opening scene emphasizes the rupture within what should be a loving family group as Elmire and the son and daughter, Damis and Mariane, accompanied by Orgon's reasonable brother, Cleante, argue about Tartuffe with Mme Pernelle. The old mother-in-law is on her way out, according to the speeches. Elmire: ‘‘You are walking so fast that I can hardly follow you.’’ Stage directions are contained within the lines themselves, but the first impression is one of great naturalness. A very contrived arrangement of speeches ensues promptly, however, to remind us of the nature of this sort of play. Each character remonstrates ineffectually in turn with Mme Pernelle, who cuts each one off with a withering comment, limiting them to one syllable of speech less at each exchange. The battle lines are clearly drawn as Damis mentions "your Monsieur Tartuffe’’ to his grandmother and gets the reply, ‘‘He is a worthy man to whom you must listen, and I can't bear to hear a fool like you criticize him.’’ The young man sets forth a theme by complaining that Tartuffe usurps tyrannical power in the family, and the rest of the scene illuminates the character of this figure. By the time Tartuffe makes his entrance in the third act, he is so well known to us by reputation, that the appearance is an exciting moment. According to the maid, Dorine, he ‘‘controls everything’’ and has made himself ‘‘master in the house.’’ ‘‘Hypocrisy’’ is her sharp analysis of his game, nor does she fail to see that he is coveting Elmire: ‘‘I believe he's jealous of Madame.’’
A variation on the discussion of personal integrity and its counterfeit is introduced as Mme Pernelle criticizes what she thinks is shameless social freedom in Elmire. Cleante defends her right to visit friends and to move in polite circles despite any gossip about her. Dorine then describes a prying and slanderous couple who find fault with everyone to cover their own indiscretions. The thematic idea of hypocrisy and good faith in matters of love and sex is thus brought out early in the comedy in the discussion of a wife's fidelity and its appearances in the eyes of others. The scene in which Tartuffe makes his proposition to Elmire is being prepared. The foreshadowing of things to come is neatly accomplished also by a suggestion that physical violence accompanies an assertion of power. Mme Pernelle slaps her servant and rudely shakes off the family, and this farcical version of violence will be followed by scenes of rage on the part of Orgon. Damis is like his father in his impetuous anger. It is to be remembered that the most violent acts are done in the name of persuading people to piety and that Tartuffe will eventually offer a genuine physical threat to everyone. The containment of the threat masked under humble pose is the core of the dramatic plot, and this idea of containing Tartuffe was graphically indicated in early productions of the play in which the police officer is recorded as limiting the movements of Tartuffe in the last scene by means of a staff. The stick can turn violence upon him.
An exposition scene of the customary sort occurs as Dorine explains to Cleante her master's infatuation with his protege, and we are thus prepared for Orgon's behavior in scene 4. Elmire and the young people flee at the news of his return, indicating the fragmenting of the family. The maid relates Orgon's mad actions: ‘‘He calls him brother and loves him in his soul a hundred times more than his mother, son, daughter, or wife. He is his sole confidant and director of his actions. He dotes on him, embraces him, and could not have, I believe, more tenderness for a woman he loves.’’ She sums up by calling him crazy, and this exaggeration tends to create an impression of a clownish oaf, a true aspect of the character. Dorine also speaks of Tartuffe's hypocrisy about women, to lead toward the later scenes.
Scene 4 features a famous example of Moliere's effective repetition of a line with increasingly comic results. Orgon's concern for Tartuffe is contrasted with his indifference toward Elmire and the illness she suffered in his absence, for his only inquiry is ‘‘And Tartuffe?’’ and his only comment ‘‘The poor man!’’ Dorine depicts the saintly man in heavily sarcastic terms that are lost on Orgon, who then tries to explain to Cleante the merits of Tartuffe. ‘‘He is a man who—well, a man—a man, then.’’ The inarticulate wonder at such a creature is grotesque and revealing of the unreasonable state of his mind, but this takes on a serious complexion as he states, "I would see brother, children, mother, and wife die and care no more than that,’’ accompanying the speech with a disdainful gesture. The words actually paraphrase Scripture, which then is debased by the snapping of thumbnail on teeth. The author's prudent regard for criticism by church and lay groups caused him to include a long argument by Cleante about the need for distinguishing real and false piety, a speech that is obvious polemic and not essential to the play, but this is the only place in which adjustment to criticism is permitted to intrude. By the end of the first act, Orgon has been established not only as a deluded tyrant, but as a hypocrite, for he can gloss over a breach of faith in the matter of not giving Mariane to Valere as was pledged. He speaks vaguely of ‘‘doing Heaven's will.’’
The second act continues the presentation of Orgon's distortion of love as he insists that Mariane be willing and indeed eager to marry Tartuffe. Parental love seems to lose all meaning here, as it does in the later scene when he disinherits his son. The announcement of the marriage plans is made only after Orgon suspiciously looks for eavesdroppers, an action that serves two dramatic purposes, that of stressing an atmosphere of lack of trust despite all the talk of faith, and that of building toward the eavesdropping scenes to come. Spying and suspicion are the results of warped beliefs and affections, so these are important concepts that are acted on in various ways. Orgon is overheard by Dorine, in spite of his precautions, and she stands behind him and mimes her horror at his conversation with Mariane. The essence of this talk is that he expects his daughter not only to appear to love Tartuffe but also to make such ‘‘imposture’’ real. A violently forced semblance of pious love and belief is what he requires of himself, of Tartuffe, and now of his family.
With deceit and falsehood the keynotes, the blunt and truthful words of Dorine are an essential contrast. She tries mocking disbelief, cajolery, and then sharp argument against her master, pointing to the lack of social status and wealth of Tartuffe and declaring that such a marriage would force Mariane to be an unfaithful wife. Such ideas are unavailing against the determination of Orgon, and his description of the joys of marriage with Tartuffe foreshadows the tone of Tartuffe's speeches, which will mix sensuality and piety: ‘‘He is most favored by Heaven, and it is a wealth second to none. This marriage will fulfill your desires and will be sugared with sweetness and pleasure. You will live together in a faithful ardor like two children, like two turtledoves.’’ A bit of clowning on Dorine's part ensues as she talks ‘‘to herself’’ when forbidden to speak. Her enraged master finally takes a swing at her, demonstrating that reasonable communication has become impossible and that violence is his recourse.
Mariane despairingly thinks of suicide while Dorine encourages her to fight, enumerating the horrors of life in the country as the wife of Tartuffe. Yet, the girl's notions of proper behavior for a fiancee are limited to precious conventions, no matter how great her wish to escape Tartuffe, and she rejects unmaidenly forwardness. Dorine warns against faintness of heart, saying that this will lead to getting her ‘‘Tartuffified,’’ her own coined term. Valere enters and the young couple perform a neatly balanced lovers' quarrel in which they manage to work themselves up to a point of parting, only to be brought together by Dorine, who then must urge them to break up the love scene. The carefully organized scene has suggested the formality of dance to many critics, and it indeed shows the great use of stylized elements in the midst of this play with its grave implications. The scene is not introduced as an attractive set piece to enliven the comedy, however, for it emphasizes the extent to which love has been disrupted and thus forms a variation on a basic theme.
Act 3 brings Tartuffe on stage at last, and his hypocrisy is entirely equal to what we have been led to expect. References in his first speech to his hair shirt and his scourge contrast with the self-indulgence that Dorine has described. The action moves rapidly toward his first declaration of love for Elmire, the famous speeches blending gallantry and religious zeal in a way both laughable and revolting. Elmire counters by dealing with him frankly in an attempt to talk him out of marrying Mariane, and this conversation is overheard by Damis. The saintly faker fondles Elmire as he elects to unmask his desires, expressing them with pious words. The perversion of love that he terms ‘‘heavenly’’ to sheer sensuality is of great thematic significance, especially so at this midpoint in the play, its crux and turning point. Once Tartuffe openly reveals his inner self, the means of his defeat are in the hands of Elmire and the family. Good faith and true love are called upon for maximum effort to counter the character who speaks thus: ‘‘Ah, for being a devout man I am no less a man, and when one sees your heavenly attractions, one's heart surrenders and does not reason.’’ We think of the unreasoning love of Orgon for his holy friend and perceive how Moliere constantly works over his themes.
The words of Tartuffe are in part a parody of casuistry that finds ways to excuse moral turpitude by idea juggling. He says that Elmire can trust him, further distorting this concept. When Damis bursts out of hiding he is convinced that the evidence will rid them of Tartuffe, but Orgon shrugs off the report in his complete confidence. The accused Tartuffe is so sure of his power by now that he humbly confesses to his imperfections: ‘‘Yes, brother, I am an evil, guilty, wretched sinner filled with iniquity, the greatest rascal ever.’’ He can express the literal truth and not be believed by Orgon, the great test of his certain control. The father is so angered at the accusation by Damis that he cuts him off from his inheritance and gives it to Tartuffe. This is capped by Orgon's insistence that Tartuffe frequent Elmire to stop any gossip. We wonder whether the perversion of values can proceed any further, for Orgon seems bound to be the voluntary cuckold as well as the tyrant. A neat reprise of characteristic utterances ends act 3: Tartuffe says, ‘‘The will of Heaven be done in all things!’’ and Orgon, ‘‘The poor man!’’
If this point were the original ending of the three-act version presented by Moliere at Versailles, it would certainly form a coherent whole. There has taken place exposition, development, and climax of action based upon a well-defined complex of themes. We do not know whether this was the form of the first Tartuffe, and scholars are divided in their opinions on the matter. Some think that the three-act version was intended to constitute a finished play, while others believe that Moliere was just sounding out his public and patron with what he had prepared by May 1664. A recent theory propounded by John Cairncross holds that Acts 2 and 5 were the late additions, judging by internal evidence. Our present concern, however, is with the existing form and its theatrical excellence, and we may simply note that Moliere undoubtedly worked over his comedy to a point where some uneven spots are visible. The slick finish of Le Misanthrope is lacking, but this in no sense impairs its effectiveness and strength as theater. The parts all function forcefully to illuminate each other and to focus light upon the central ideas.
Act 4 opens with an almost formal debate between Tartuffe and Cleante, the ‘‘reasoner’’ in the comedy. Recapitulation is thus given, and it is shown again that reason is useless against entrenched smugness and hypocrisy. A sense of desperate acceleration is created by the announcement that Mariane is to wed Tartuffe in the evening, and the efforts to prevent this must be swift and clever. Elmire realizes that Tartuffe must be induced to unmask before Orgon, so she urges her husband to test his faith in Tartuffe and listen to his words to her. Orgon gets beneath the table over which Tartuffe continues to try to seduce Elmire, and this farcical arrangement gives physical embodiment to levels of meaning in the talk. The hidden and the evident constitute a clever pattern in actions and words. Elmire coughs to alert Orgon to the meanings of Tartuffe as she leads him on: ‘‘But how can I consent to what you want without offending Heaven, of which you are always speaking?’’ Tartuffe: ‘‘If it is only Heaven which is the obstacle to my desires, doing away with that is a small matter for me, and that should not restrain your heart.’’ When he says, ‘‘Scandalizing people is what gives offense, and sinning is not sinning if done in silence,’’ Elmire pretends to give in and tells him to be sure they are alone. Tartuffe goes to look out the door, then returns, arms extended to embrace her only to find before him his erstwhile ‘‘love’’ in the person of Orgon. The lifting of the veil from the mind of Orgon comes too late, however, for the power of Tartuffe is now legally established over the property of the household. He is literally the master and can afford to drop his pious pose, giving another variation on the theme of the hidden and the revealed. He does not abandon his vocabulary, we note, as he warns that he has what he needs ‘‘to confound and punish imposture, to avenge offended Heaven, and to cause repentance in those who talk of making me leave.’’ The situation of Orgon has become that of ‘‘impostor’’ as owner of his own home, and he realizes that Tartuffe controls his destiny because he has given him a chest containing some damaging evidence against him. In summation, misdirected trust and love have revealed, at last, that matters have become so distorted that Orgon has ruined himself and his family. The unwilling coming to harsh knowledge has been observed as a basis of other comedies.
The sudden introduction of a new plot element creates suspense in the final act and permits the defeat of Tartuffe by royal justice at the end, but the main thing to be treated is Orgon's rescue from his unhealthy love and beliefs, and this must be done through a reunion of the family that was broken. The plot is to be resolved, the comic entertainment is to be maintained, and the thematic parts are to be summarized, so Moliere deliberately simulates dramatic tension at the start of the act. An impression of danger and urgency is given by Orgon's worry over the papers in the chest, for he explains that they were held for a friend in political trouble. His blanket recriminations against all ‘‘holy men’’ are amusing, nevertheless. Damis arrives, intent upon punishing Tartuffe, but his uncle stops him by saying that they live under a prince who sees justice done. The comic tone is resumed in a scene in which Orgon tries to persuade his mother of Tartuffe's guilt and samples the frustrations of his family. Revelation of truth by actions is another idea repeated here as Mme Pernelle sees the legal officer arrive to order them out of the house that belongs to Tartuffe. Monsieur Loyal is thus the agent of justice that is unjust, the representation of disloyalty and bad faith, as his name ironically suggests. He speaks exactly like a Tartuffe with elaborate politeness and sanctimoniousness.
It now seems that distorted principles will triumph for Tartuffe even though love and trust have returned to the family group, to which Valere brings his added bit of good faith by warning Orgon that his arrest is imminent. Orgon may be saved from his own spiritual folly, but his material situation appears desperate. The villain of the piece returns with an officer to assert his power, and this arrangement is less important for the working out of the plot than for a reprise of the themes of false belief and overconfidence. Trust in his own abilities to control all has led Tartuffe to go to justice and denounce Orgon as a traitor, but the confidence man turns out to be the victim of his own schemes because the law recognizes him as a wanted criminal. A dramatic arrest of Tartuffe shows us the deceiver as the ultimate dupe of himself, and the comedy can end upon a proper note of betrothal of Mariane and Valere.
The denouement is heavily contrived yet so completely appropriate for the purposes of the play that we accept it without worrying about its lack of precise preparation. Thematically and structurally, the final act repeats the idea of the family threatened, and the threat turns out to be its own undoing, just as Tartuffe worked his own downfall in the eyes of Orgon. The perversion of principles of the title character goes full circle and brings evil to him. False love has been unmasked as hatred, misdirected faith has led to punishment and not salvation, and blind confidence has produced disaster. The family unit has been regrouped, as a paternalistic royal power extends its protecting hand to one of society's menaced parts, and the comedy can thus finish with a stress upon a higher and greater structure of power that it is the playwright's duty and pleasure to uphold. Cleante holds back his brother who wants to take revenge upon Tartuffe:
Stop, brother, do not descend to such indignity. Let the wretch go to his evil fate, and do not be part of the remorse which is overpowering him. Rather wish that his heart may return to virtue and mend its ways while he comes to hate his vice. May the great Prince temper his justice while you go on your knees to give thanks for such generous treatment.
ORGON: Yes, that is right. Let us go to his feet with joy to praise his goodness which his heart extends to us. Then, having performed some of this duty, we shall have to provide for the needs of another duty and for Valere crown with marriage the devotion of a noble and sincere lover.
Within the sheltering limits of a healthy social convention and organization, sincere love is rewarded, and the distorted form is condemned.
This analysis has been rather long, not in an attempt to be exhaustive in pointing out themes and their expressions but to show how thoroughly the author controlled a unified theatrical work. Other ideas will occur to the reader of Tartuffe, but all will be found woven into an integral theatrical pattern. It may be observed how the comedy fuses together into a new type of creation, elements from the traditional farce, conventionalized playing, and a grave moral problem. Moliere managed to offer a study of the abuse of power in the name of religion, a matter seemingly requiring a tragic dramatic treatment, in standard comic entertainment. He mixed psychological realism, a certain illusion of contemporary reality, and familiar comic routines and techniques. In a word, he was inventive. Unfortunately, all of his public was not ready to welcome theatrical invention that overstepped its bounds of subject matter. Moliere not only had a fight on his hands but also a lack of a new hit for his troupe, so he endeavored to remedy both situations with typical creative industry and wrote a new play. In his Don Juan we suspect that he intended to preserve some of the achievements of Tartuffe while seeming to move toward theater of spectacle in which latent ideas are less likely to offend. He may have figured to appear to deal in fantasy while holding his ground on the principles of comic theater enunciated by Tartuffe.
Source: Hallam Walker, ‘‘Some Power Structures Observed,’’ in Molière, Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3263
Few will quarrel with the judgment that Molière's Tartuffe is a masterpiece, yet those who agree on the excellence of the play frequently express hostility and confusion about the intervention of the King at the end. The King's justice, it is argued, may be thorough and effective, but it is so unexpected as to cast doubt upon the dramatic coherence of the entire comedy. Probably, Molière himself is responsible for this reaction, having resorted to a deus ex machina that appears to defy internal resolution. By relying on a device which introduces a new character possessed of sweeping powers, he seems to be saying that there is a break between dramatically motivated expectations of justice and the King's own dazzling display of power and omniscience.
The earliest extant criticism of the play (thought to be written by Molière) is the Lettre sur la comédie de l'Imposteur, a pamphlet which circulated after the 1664 version of Tartuffe. In it the author assumes the conventional posture of an Aristotelian critic who defends the portrayal of the Hypocrite as a moral corrective to vice. The King's justice does not surprise this critic; on the contrary, he saves his greatest praise for the dénouement:
Il me semble que si, dans tout le reste de la pièce, l'auteur a égalé tous les anciens et surpassé tous les modernes, on peut dire que dans ce dénouement il s'est surpassé lui-même, n'ayant rien de plus grand, de plus magnifique et de plus merveilleux, et cependant rien de plus naturel, de plus heureux et de plus juste...’’
Today such hyperbole and its critical perspective seem quaint at best. Nevertheless, the Lettre remains more than a charming, but useless antique. The author of that document, like so many generations of spectators after him, sensed the relationship between the tensions generated by the figure of Tartuffe and the audience's desire that he not go unpunished at the end of the play. The comic and unsympathetic nature of the character suggests that he is a ridiculous figure destined to lose the protection of his mask, opaque only to Orgon and his mother. Indeed, it seems safe to say that a final triumph by Tartuffe would betray the comic essence of the play: the folly of both Tartuffe and Orgon would not be amusing if comedy were to dissolve into melodrama, leaving the hypocrite victorious over a helpless family.
Interestingly enough, the author of the Lettre skirts completely the issue of Orgon' s complicity in Tartuffe's rise to power. This embarrassing omission, no doubt motivated by a desire to defend, rather than analyse the play, has long since been corrected. Lionel Gossman, notably, has summarized modern critical opinion: ‘‘Tartuffe cannot be given credit for having bamboozled Orgon. Orgon is as much Tartuffe's creator as Tartuffe himself.’’
Here it seems, we are arriving at the heart of the dilemma. The comic tensions provoking audience laughter are directly related to situations and characters perceived as unjust. Even where no legal breaches occur—as in the case of Orgon's decision to marry off his daughter to Tartuffe or to banish and disinherit his son—the injustice of such actions is manifest to the audience. To be sure, Molière has taken the precaution of signaling such incidents by having the servant Dorine express her exaggerated moral outrage, a significant device which pinpoints the areas meant to be ridiculous. But even if Dorine were not present, the excessive authority exercised over the sympathetic characters by both Orgon and Tartuffe would be cause enough to desire that they receive their just desserts.
When considered in the light of a need for closure, however, this type of scenario poses thorny problems. Audience expectations of dramatic justice, nurtured through the repeated exposure of comic folly, demand confirmation, usually in the form of order replacing comic disorder. But if there are two strong comic figures, it would surely not do to foil only one of the protagonists. Dramatic justice, in the case of Tartuffe, would seem to necessitate the punishment of Orgon and the hypocrite, two figures whose outrageous behavior constitutes an aberration we are willing to enjoy as a comic spectacle, but only with the knowledge that it will not go unchecked.
This conclusion may help to explain the traditional hostility to the dénouement. Even if the ending did not include a deus ex machina, it would still be difficult to justify, as a solution, an ending that treats one comic figure so harshly and the other so lightly.
However, a fundamental error in this reasoning derives, I believe, from a narrow view of justice as a final rather than evolving concept. Seventeenth-century theoreticians traditionally considered only the final reversal in a series to be the dénouement, but if one takes into consideration the comic tensions engendered by a multiplicity of evolving characters and situations, it might be more proper to expand the dénouement to include the relaxation of all the major tensions. Moreover, appreciation of the gradual nature of such an extended process might make it possible to perceive not only the means employed, but also its effect upon the dynamics of the play.
Perhaps the most important factor is that the roles of the protagonists do evolve in the course of the play. If one compares, for example, Orgon's early posture of power and insensitivity with his plight in Act IV, scene vii, when Tartuffe announces control over the family's wordly possessions, it becomes clear that the lines of comic force have shifted. Nor is the role of Orgon the only one to change, for this scene also heralds a major change in the role of the hypocrite. Functioning formerly as Orgon's alter-ego and as a ridiculous figure inspiring laughter, he now appears as a menace whose power threatens the internal equilibrium of the comic process.
This striking scene, with its overwhelming reversals, may hold a key to the final proceedings. First of all, it separates the lines of force which permitted Orgon and Tartuffe to function as comic accomplices. This is important because it strengthens the individuality of each figure at the same time it separates the fate of one from the other. Secondly, it serves as a dénouement of sorts because it humbles Orgon, punishing him for his folly and humiliating him for his blindness. All of his unjust acts make him ripe for humiliation, and Tartuffe's assumption of power provides at least partial justice in the spectacle of Orgon's helpless rage.
But it would be erroneous to see in this scene any complete comic closure for the play. Orgon deserves to be humiliated, but not in so abject—and one could add, unfunny—a manner, and certainly not by a figure who is at least as guilty of misconduct as he. In brief, this pivotal scene shifts the focus to Tartuffe's power, but resolves only a fraction of the tensions present.
If Orgon cannot dispel Tartuffe's power, who is left to do it? A rapid glance at the remaining cast of characters offers little hope of a solution. The docile daughter Marianne cannot even openly challenge her father. Damis, with his adolescent rage and simplistic idealism, has, of course, been banished. Elmire, the discreet and self-effacing wife, would appear to have some chance for success, but she already seems exhausted, having expended all her energy in the plot to trick Tartuffe, a plot so contrary to her nature that she feels obliged to apologize for it. Dorine and Cléante perceive the situation most clearly, but for all their talking, they have been lacking the force and prestige to bring about any significant change. That leaves only old Madame Pernelle, who shares with her son Orgon the blindness and gullibility which make of her another accomplice, rather than a possible savior for the family.
Boileau's suggested dénouement, which would have the family judge and then perhaps chase Tartuffe from the house in a farcical manner, is deftly dismissed by Professor Scherer, who points out that the family, devoid of its legal documents, is hardly in a position to judge Tartuffe. This simple fact, coupled with the dramatic havoc to be created by changing the formerly weak character of the family, would therefore make such a solution impossible. Also, once again, a concerted effort by Orgon and his family would bypass the important issue of Orgon's guilt and posture as a comic figure.
The burden of comic closure falls to Act V which, it will appear, deals with the problem in steps. The proceedings of Act IV have given ample proof of Tartuffe's true nature even to a mind as closed as that of Orgon. Therefore, Orgon's awakening comes as the proper and logical first step. Scene ii brings the return of Damis, welcomed home by a chastened father. The rhythm then changes, bringing comic relief in the obstinate ramblings of Madame Pernolle during Scene iii. In Scene v, after she has seen for herself the crimes perpetrated by Tartuffe's henchman, Monsieur Loyal, she, too, awakens to the truth, exclaiming: ‘‘Je suis tout ébaubie, et je tombe des nues!'' Valère' s offer of aid in the following scene puts the final touch on the reunion and shows him to be a worthy husband for Marianne. All would thus seem to be very sweet just before the play's final scene—except for the significant fact that the problems have again only partially been solved. This is the moment of the arrival of the Exempt, representative of the police and the King. The play's final scene is also the moment for the play's greatest reversal, the deus ex machina that resolves all of the difficulties still remaining.
It should be noted that this ending does have its supporters, and in recent years most of the arguments have centered about the thematic justification for the King's intervention. Given the theme of abused authority, set in motion in the play's initial scene and sustained throughout the comedy, the validity of introducing a supreme authority figure at its close seems largely justified. However, thematic coherence alone would not explain Molière's recourse to so spectacular an ending. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, the surprise of the Exempt's arrival, his silence, and then his startling revelation of the reasons for his appearance suggest a structural breach as powerful as any thematic link.
Clearly then, any full explanation for the deus ex machina must look to structural as well as thematic criteria. One clue can be found in the spectacle of Act V. These scenes are usually cited to show that Molière had reached a dead end: that "real life’’ drama has brought Orgon and his family to contrition and reconciliation, without a happy ending. However, this interpretation ignores two structural details that have dominated the comedy: the impulse to justice and the pattern of comic equilibrium.
When considered as a dramatic device, the first part of the fifth act reveals itself to be a period of apprehension that makes the coming storm more impressive. The weakness of the sympathetic figures cries out for a strong and just reversal precisely because the comic structure of the play (which descends at times to a farcical level) makes highly unlikely a final victory for the villain of the piece.
Molière's careful attention to detail in Act V would also support this view. The reunion of the family, the conversion of Madame Pernelle, the hope of a wedding for the young lovers if Tartuffe' s dastardly plot can be thwarted—all combine to create an emotionally charged cliff-hanger. Nor is the solution a particularly difficult one, for having disposed of the other major problems, Molière need solve only one more: foiling Tartuffe.
However, the climate of suspense means that any solution to the dilemma will have to match the emotional heights reached in the first part of Act V. A wink and a pardon, as in L 'Avare, will not suffice, nor will a happy carnival setting, as in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme; on the contrary, a tonic chord will have to be very forceful.
In the final scene timing is all-important. Molière exploits the suspense to an extreme, allowing Tartuffe his final vindictive tirade in the presence of the Exempt, whose initial silence seems to bear witness to the hypocrite's victory. This is the moment for the play's most startling reversal, and it comes only after Tartuffe himself has set the trap:
Tartuffe, à l'Exempt:
Délivrez-moi, Monsieur, de la criaillerie,
Et daignez accomplir votre ordre, je vous prie.
Oui, c'est trop demeurer sans doute à l'accomplir:
Votre bouche à propos m'invite à le remplir;
Et pour l'exécuter, suivez-moi tout à l'heure
Dans la prison qu'on doit vous donner pour demeure.
No dramatic or linguistic flourish is spared in this or in the Exempt's following speech. One listens in stunned silence to a litany of the King's superhuman qualities and to the sentence he has decreed. Not only for the family, but for the spectator as well, the words bring sweet relief that comes from a reprieve from fear. The intolerable cloud of injustice which has loomed menacingly overhead is slowly lifted, leaving the pure light of Le Roi Soleil. The impulses to justice and to comic equilibrium have been fulfilled after all, and the structural integrity of the play is intact. To be sure, the suspense was painful, but the pleasure is all the more intense for it.
Another major aspect of the dénouement, distinct from the orchestration of the scene, is the means by which Tartuffe is punished and order restored to the household: Tartuffe is discovered as a result of past crimes, and Orgon is excused because of past favors rendered to the King during the "Fronde." The text is very explicit on both points, noting with respect to Tartuffe that he is:
Un fourbe renommé
Dont sous un autre nom il étoit informé,
Et c'est un long détail d'actions toutes noires
Dont on pourroit former des volumes d'histories.
As for Orgon's pardon, it is the result of a favor dating back about twenty years:
Et c'est le prix qu'il donne au zèle qu'autrefois. On vous vit témoigner en appuyant ses droits.
When these two aspects, the surprise of the deus ex machina and the device of relating both the punishment and the pardon to the past, are examined in the light of tensions generated earlier, the ending appears anything but arbitrary.
First of all, the intervention of the King resolves all of the major tensions remaining: it punishes Tartuffe, recognizes and then excuses Orgon's culpability, restores family harmony, and guarantees that such excesses will not soon take place again. In brief, it unties all the knots (and does not merely chop them off, as a wag suggested) at the same time it releases the tensions resulting from the Tartuffe-Orgon fraternity. The audience is rewarded for its correct perception of comic forces by the spectacle of seeing the guilty defeated, and it also experiences the pleasure of suspense preceding the welcome reversal which terminates the play.
Secondly, the device of reverting back in time reveals itself to be a beautifully simple measure for solving a complex problem gracefully. Punishing Tartuffe by other means, such as a judgment by the family or an invalidation of the contract in the courts, would have still left unsolved the matter of Orgon's complicity. Moreover, this sort of ending would have been devoid of the éclat which comes from Tartuffe's final blunder, exposed for all to see in the refracted light of the reversal. Nor is the problem of Orgon's crimes ignored; they are simply separated from those of Tartuffe, permitting the King to treat each individually.
This is not to say, however, that the substance of the ending is inferior to its form. On the contrary, the device of making the King the agent of justice more than adequately meets the specific needs of the ending. The impulse to dramatic justice, which has been growing more intense throughout Act V, finds an appropriate carrier in the person of the King. Only a figure of superhuman stature could see into the hearts of men, and only he could remember good and evil dating back to the Fronde. In fact, by putting on stage the one mortal figure capable of transcending time, Molière has solved the greatest problem still remaining. Certainly, no solution is possible in the present, but an earlier time, free of complications, easily meets the need for an outside form of justice.
The point is that Molière has paced himself in such a way as to exploit all of the dramatic potential in Tartuffe's rise to power and in his subsequent, inevitable fall. Like an elastic band stretched to its breaking point, the action of Act V creates increased audience apprehension proportional to the growing threat of disaster. Unlike the subtle play of forces which marked the period of complicity between the two comic figures, the technique here is linear and cumulative, building up force for a reversal whose shock is equal to the suspense preceding it.
On the other hand, this does not mean that just any final reversal will have the desired effect. It is the mark of an expert craftsman that the means employed correspond so perfectly to the tensions generated earlier. Moreover, this would appear to be Molière's primary consideration, rather than any attempt to explain the King's interest in Orgon's dilemma. Although such interest comes as a great surprise, it is one which strengthens the force of the Exempt's pronouncements. Surely, a monarch who knows all things past and present should cause little wonder that his perception of injustice is accurate. Just how accurate becomes apparent in his balanced dispensation of justice, which corresponds not only to past crimes or favors, but also to the dramatic exigency of relaxing the tensions caused by the ascendance of a villain.
Looking back to Act IV, Scene vi, the dénouement further reveals itself to be the second stage of a process begun much earlier. From a pattern of balanced complicity Molière moved to the imbalance of allowing Tartuffe apparent victory, at the expense of the family's humiliation and helplessness. This permitted him to relax one major tension deriving from the injustice of Orgon's abuse of authority. However, it left another major tension, that of Tartuffe's unjust rise to power, which then demanded an even greater reversal to redress the balance. And since a satisfying solution could ignore neither Orgon's earlier complicity, nor his present helplessness, dramatic equilibrium could be restored only by an outside agent able to transcend the present. Also, by choosing the one figure capable of perceiving all the divisions, justice could be dispensed with an even hand.
When examined in the light of both structural and dramatic exigencies, therefore, Molière's recourse to a deus ex machina emerges as a fitting vehicle for the resolution of comic tensions. It effectively restores the equilibrium of the comic universe, releases all remaining tensions, and confirms the validity of the spectator's perception. Tartuffe may disappoint those looking for ‘‘real life’’ drama, but the play itself has no such pretensions. Its internal comedy, nourished by examples of injustice, constitutes a closely controlled dramatic mechanism whose evolving plan leads us to expect a just ending. Tartuffe clearly fulfills this expectation, and provides masterful comedy in the process.
Source: Myrna Kogan Zwillenberg, ‘‘Dramatic Justice in Tartuffe,'' in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 90, No. 4, April 1975, pp. 583-90.
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