The Would-Be Gentleman

by Moliere

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Critical Evaluation

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The Would-Be Gentleman was first presented at court in 1670 in the Grand Gallery of Chambord, a royal castle on the Loire, which, like all the royal residences, was large and luxurious. The play, by command of Louis XIV, was to be a “turquerie.” In 1699, an ambassador from Turkey had visited the king, and enthusiasm was still high for the exotic. Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote the music and Molière added his comedy to it. The expenditures indicate that the initial production was elaborate. It was a great success, and the play has remained one of Molière’s most popular.

Twenty-first century productions of the play often cut the ballet scenes. The play is, however, actually a combination of comedy and ballet, in which the ballet is an integral, if separable, part. Dance has a literary or symbolic function as the extension of Monsieur Jourdain’s obsession with display; the more preposterous the ballet, the better Jourdain is shown to like it.

Although in some way no more than light entertainment, The Would-Be Gentleman has become one of the best-known French plays and Monsieur Jourdain one of Molière’s most celebrated characters. He is something of an archetype in French tradition of the bourgeois who tries to conform to aristocratic manners and circles.

The English translation of the play’s title is somewhat misleading, as gentilhomme means “nobleman” and the juxtaposition of Le Bourgeois and Gentilhomme should be understood as a contradiction. It is an idea, according to Molière and the court for which he wrote, worthy only of ridicule. The satire, however, is relatively mild; Monsieur Jourdain is more a buffoon, and the comedy is essentially farce, rather than a profound critique of vicious social traits.

Of the inner circle into which Monsieur Jourdain is trying to gain admittance, the audience never sees more than the marchioness, Dorimène, and the count, Dorante. The marchioness has a minor role and is not only the object of Monsieur Jourdain’s absurd affection but also remains relatively untainted by his foolish intrigues. Dorante, too, is of noble birth, but if he associates more or less intimately with the bourgeois, it is clearly to exploit the latter’s gullible ambitions and to get the marchioness for himself. His duplicity is charming, however, and he cannot be accused of much more than shallowness, since Monsieur Jourdain appears sufficiently wealthy and remains blissfully deceived to the end. All of the other characters within the family circle are notable for their relatively good sense. In large measure, this good sense means knowing one’s place in the social hierarchy.

The principal counterpoint, or foil, for Monsieur Jourdain is Madame Jourdain. Her loyalty to her class and her proud insistence that both her father and Monsieur Jourdain’s were merchants, is presented as solid, if contentious, good sense. When she argues that their daughter Lucile would do better to marry a man proper to her sphere in life, an honest, nice-looking, and rich bourgeois, the absurd response of Monsieur Jourdain is that he himself is rich enough for his daughter to require only “honor,” so that she can become a marchioness. When she interrupts the banquet Monsieur Jourdain and Dorante are having for Dorimène, Madame Jourdain is told by Dorante that she needs better eyeglasses. The irony here is that she needs them not at all, and that of the others present, only Dorante has an inkling of what is going on, for it is his private scheme to gull Monsieur Jourdain by courting Dorimène with Jourdain’s money and lavish gifts. The deceptions and self-deceptions of the play, chiefly of Monsieur Jourdain, are the main source...

(This entire section contains 850 words.)

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of the humor inThe Would-Be Gentleman.

From the series of educational vignettes at the opening to the finale, Monsieur Jourdain is a victim of “stage irony.” The audience is aware of something of which he himself is unaware, for not only the examples of his self-deception but also the various tricks played on him are quite evident. A critic has theorized that comic characters are essential types more or less constantly at risk of being revealed, as opposed to the process of self-discovery in tragedy: Monsieur Jourdain’s wealth permits him the freedom to reveal himself very liberally. He pursues every foolish symbol that the parvenu par excellence feels he must have. What he constantly reveals is that the symbols, worn by him, are empty of meaning. The main action of the play displays that Monsieur Jourdain cannot see beyond display and thus is easily duped.

An extreme example of his obsession with external symbols of status, as well as his foolish single-mindedness in their pursuit, is when the tailor’s assistant addresses him by titles of honor. The boy gets a larger tip for each higher title. If he had gone so far as to say “your highness,” Jourdain was going to give him the whole purse. However, if the symbol of status is more profound, as when the philosophy teacher instructs him on moderating the passions, Monsieur Jourdain is unimpressed and completely uninterested.