Molière Writes

The comedy Tartuffe sparked public uproar and provoked outrage among the clergy, who called for its banishment and for Molière’s punishment for writing a work critical of the Catholic Church. The play, which highlighted extreme religious hypocrisy during an era characterized by religious piety, was considered heretical by the pious but was loved by secular audiences. Molière was perhaps the first to show how daily life and manners could be reflected through comedy.

Summary of Event

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, stands at the helm of French comedy. Born in Paris in January, 1622, and the son of an upholsterer, he was educated at the Jesuit College of Clermont, whose students were drawn from the middle class as well as the aristocracy. For some time he studied law, which he soon abandoned for the stage, joining a troupe named Illustre Théâtre, which failed after two years. His life was spent acting, directing, managing, producing, and writing plays in Paris and the French provinces. The satire in his comedies made him many enemies, and he was the object of slanderous attacks. His marriage was unhappy, which increased the bitterness that the public hostility brought into his life. Theater;France
[kw]Molière Writes Tartuffe (1664)
[kw]Tartuffe, Molière Writes (1664)
Theater;1664: Molière Writes Tartuffe[2140]
Cultural and intellectual history;1664: Molière Writes Tartuffe[2140]
Literature;1664: Molière Writes Tartuffe[2140]
France;1664: Molière Writes Tartuffe[2140]
Tartuffe (Molière)

Tartuffe: Ou, L’Imposteur (1664; Tartuffe, 1732), about a pious hypocrite, is considered Molière’s masterpiece. It is the most frequently performed of all his plays by the French acting company La Comédie Française. The first version of Molière’s Tartuffe was performed in three acts at the royal court of Versailles in 1664, before the young king Louis XIV Louis XIV;theater and . Louis granted Molière and his troupe annual subsidies, creating the King’s Troupe King’s Troupe[Kings Troupe] . News of its contents aroused scandal and outrage among Church leaders. The archbishop of Paris ordered the play denounced from every parish pulpit in Paris. Consequently, Molière reworked Tartuffe during the next five years, and the play was finally authorized in 1669. It was a rousing success, having a run of more than thirty performances, which was a record at the time.

During the second half of the sixteenth century, religious wars waged between a Catholic majority and a Protestant minority in France. The power of the monarchy had diminished the status and privileges of the nobility, many of whom used the religious wars in an attempt to win back what they had lost. Between 1630 and 1660, French chief ministers Cardinal de Richelieu Richelieu, Cardinal de and Jules Mazarin Mazarin, Jules reestablished and extended the king’s power. A failed civil uprising that began in 1648 and ended in 1653 was the last attempt to reverse this process. From 1661 to 1715, through his long reign, King Louis XIV ruled without a chief minister. Catholicism Catholicism;France regained renewed vitality. Movements such as Gallicanism and Jansenism reflected fresh energy and piety. Other attempts to renew faith occurred in Calvinism by the Protestants and a revival of ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism among the educated. The most frequently named targets for Molière’s satire in Tartuffe are the Jesuits Jesuits;France , the Jansenists, and the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement. According to critics, a weak case is made for the Jansenists Jansenism;France and a stronger case has been made for the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement , a group of powerful zealots who worked together to defend what they saw as the interests of the Church, installing their members in important positions in order to promote their own policies through existing institutions. The strongest case has been made for the Jesuits, distinguished and powerful, who viewed themselves as promoting the authority of the Church and the pope.

Molière discusses a performance with his troupe of players.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Tartuffe traces what Molière considered the Jesuit “invasion” of France, and that invasion’s influence on French religion and culture. Politically, the play is significant in that even though it was supported by the king, it took five years and two revisions to receive permission to be performed openly and freely. The play sparked another attack in this atmosphere of renewed faith because it infuriated the deeply religious. The play centers on a rich man, Orgon, who takes a self-proclaimed religious holy man, Tartuffe, into his home, offers him his daughter’s hand in marriage, and gives him property until Tartuffe’s treachery is finally discovered. It is thought that Molière’s Tartuffe-the-schemer was constructed to reflect Jesuit policy. Through Tartuffe’s weaknesses of the flesh, Molière’s satire encompasses the entire field of Jesuit moralist teachings. Tartuffe’s gross behavior is said to illustrate humorously the activities of the rascal while appearing innocent in the eyes of the moralist.

Molière demonstrates that Orgon had been a good man before he was blinded and corrupted by Tartuffe’s hypocrisy as well as his own beliefs; he had been a loyal Frenchman surrounded by a loyal family. When transferred from the context of the family to the wider context of the state through the use of satire, the play actually stands for Molière’s belief that many who were lured by the appeal and outward trappings of religion not only dangerous but also instruments of injustice. The family’s failure to counter Tartuffe’s moves reflects what Molière and several of his contemporaries, such as Blaise Pascal, viewed as the helplessness of honest people attempting to oppose the advance of the Jesuits.

Critics have attacked Molière because his characters do not develop. Instead, they spring to life as recognizable and universal types in human nature, but they do not learn from experience. It must be realized that Molière’s plays are about ideas embodied in funny and believable people who theatergoers can recognize as embodiments of themselves. The genius of Molière was in his exposing social hypocrisy and folly through satire. The art of comedy enhances some imperfections and weaknesses. By calling his comedies “public mirrors,” Molière responded to the desire by the theatergoing public to see itself depicted on stage by creating characters with whom the viewer could identify. Faced with censorship and possible censure from those who identified themselves in his characters, his art became one of creating portrayals through techniques such as gesture, disguise, indirection, irony, ventriloquism, and public humiliation. Critics have concluded that these techniques make satire a dramatic art and not a moral commentary.


Tartuffe was an attack on the hypocrite caricaturing religious practices as well as using religion for political and material ends. Many interpreted Molière’s masterpiece as a condemnation of all religious practice. The controversy surrounding the play made clear how difficult it was to produce a work that was critical of the Church and its leaders, even if that criticism was accomplished through humor.

Molière was so despised by Church authorities that he was denied a Christian burial, even with King Louis XIV’s intervention.

Further Reading

  • Bermel, Albert. Molière’s Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. A comprehensive review of Molière’s plays in English from the standpoint of their theatrical possibilities, dramatic structures, settings, and roles, as well as their interactions.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Molière. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. A research and study guide containing biographical and bibliographical data. Also outlines major life events and literary accomplishments, and provides critical analysis of significant themes in Molière’s works.
  • Bloom, Harold. Molière: Modern Critical Views. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002. A collection of essays and comprehensive studies dealing with various aspects of Molière scholarship.
  • Brereton, Geoffrey. French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. London: Methuen, 1977. A survey of French literature in the genre of comic drama.
  • Fowlie, Wallace. French Literature: Its History and Its Meaning. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. A concise history of French literature in its historical and literary context.
  • McCarthy, Gerry. The Theatres of Molière. New York: Routledge, 2002. Explores the practice and method of Molière’s playwriting and acting.
  • Norman, Larry F. The Public Mirror: Molière and the Social Commerce of Depiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. A scholarly study of the works of Molière, with emphasis on the manner in which the works mirror society.
  • Polsky, Zachary. The Comic Machine, the Narrative Machine, and the Political Machine in the Works of Molière. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 2000. Examines the general nature of comedy and the specific nature of seventeenth century French comedy to understand how these ideas apply to six of Molière’s plays.
  • Scott, Virginia. Molière: A Theatrical Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. In the first significant English biography written in many years, Scott recounts the incidents of Molière’s life and describes his plays within the wider context of French seventeenth century theater.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Pierre Corneille; Louis XIV; Jules Mazarin; Molière; Jean Racine; Cardinal de Richelieu. Tartuffe (Molière)