Despite his central role, Tartuffe is not the play’s principal character. That dubious distinction belongs to Orgon, the wealthy bourgeois who has befriended Tartuffe and is almost willingly gulled by the latter’s machinations.
The character of Tartuffe himself does not appear onstage until the third of the play’s five acts, by which time his entrance has been amply prepared by grumblings among the various members of Orgon’s household. A most selfish and demanding houseguest, Tartuffe has turned the household upside down, disrupting any semblance of order and routine. Orgon, meanwhile, staunchly defends his guest as a man of rare piety and probity, a truly religious individual from whom the others could learn much if only they would follow his example.
Like Moliere’s other comedies both high and low, this one builds upon a base of stock characters drawn from early Italian comedy. Here, as in his other high comedies, Moliere develops the featured characters (such as Orgon) well beyond stereotype, observing also the classic rules of construction and development established for French tragedy by Pierre Corneille. Tartuffe himself is a highly individualized and extremely complex character, not without some true sincerity even as he tries to relieve Orgon of both his money and his wife, Elmire. The play’s ending, quite frankly artificial and contrived, functions at least in part as a parody of artificial endings on the stage, underscoring the play’s self-conscious theatricality.
Orgon, onstage throughout the action, emerges from stereotype (the gullible bourgeois) as he grows and develops toward the end, truly learning and profiting from his mistakes. Tartuffe, in contrast, remains locked in character, however fascinating that character may be.
Bermel, Albert. Molière’s Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Original interpretations of the plays, partly designed to help actors think about the characters’ motivations. Discusses the possibility of a homosexual relationship between Tartuffe and Orgon; also discusses why Dorine can speak so freely to her master.
Hall, H. Gaston. Comedy in Context: Essays on Molière. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. Analyzes Molière’s work thematically. Especially useful in examining the historical background of religious issues, as well as social customs, in Tartuffe.
Lewis, D. B. Wyndham. Molière: The Comic Mask. New York: Coward-McCann, 1959. Discusses Molière’s life and works; immerses readers in seventeenth century French society. Sees Tartuffe as having a fundamental flaw, Molière’s lack of insight, read or feigned, into religion; as a result, Tartuffe comes across as a convincing villain, but the religious component remains confusing.
Mander, Gertrud. Molière. Translated by Diana Stone Peters. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. Includes descriptions and analyses of fourteen plays and a usefully detailed chronology of his life. Examines why Molière’s contemporaries found Tartuffe so threatening and disturbing.
Walker, Hallam. Molière. Boston: Twayne, 1971. Examines Tartuffe in the context of religious controversies of the period, but also in terms of its artistic antecedents; believes Molière achieved new psychological realism and artistic complexity with this play. Sees Orgon’s willingness to punish himself and his family, which Tartuffe exploits but does not create, as a central theme.