Major Division: Fiction
Sub-genre: - Comedy/ Romantic
Nationality: - French
Rated: - A+
Use: Masterpieces in World Literature
First Read and Last Read: Masters Course in Shakespeare in '83 and Spring 2000
Location: - Dr. Rearick's Office, MVNU Bookstore and
Scripture that comes to mind:
The wealthy but shallow Orgon discovers the imposter
Tartuffe praying fervently in church and is conned by him into taking him
into his house. Tartuffe continues duping him and most of the household
until he's tricked Orgon into deeding him his estate. Orgon's wife Elmire
has not been deceived, though, and sets a trap to expose the swindler by
playing to the lustful appetites that betray his true nature.
MADAME PERNELLE, mère d'Orgon. Orgon's mother
ORGON, mari d'Elmire. Husband of Elmire
ELMIRE, femme d'Orgon. Wife of Orgon -- pursued by Tartuffe
DAMIS, fils d'Orgon. Orgon's son and Elmire's stepson
MARIANE, fille d'Orgon et amante de Valère. Orgon's daughter and Elmire's stepdaughter love with Valere
VALÈRE, amant de Mariane. In love with Mariane
CLÉANTE, beau-frère d'Orgon. Orgon's brother-in-law
TARTUFFE, faux dévot. A false devotee, Hypocrite
DORINE, suivante de Mariane. Mariane's lady servant
MONSIEUR LOYAL, sergent. a bailiff
UN EXEMPT. A police officer
FLIPOTE, servante de Madame Pernelle.
Tartuffe, an odious hypocrite whose apparent piety has ingratiated him with the credulous Orgon and his mother Mme. Pernelle, has been taken into Orgon's home. Both Orgon and his mother believe that Tartuffe's pious example will be good for the other members of the family. But everyone else in the family, including even the outspoken servant Dorine, is perceptive enough to see through the impostor.
Despite the protestations of his sensible brother-in-law Cleante and his son Damis, Orgon determines that his daughter Mariane, who is in love with a young man named Valere, shall marry Tartuffe. When Orgon's wife Elmire seeks out Tartuffe to beg him to refuse Mariane's hand, he attempts to seduce her. Damis, who has over heard, denounces the impostor, but Orgon reacts by banishing his son rather than his guest and by signing over his entire property to Tartuffe.
Realizing the futility of reasoning with either Tartuffe or her husband, Elmire devises a way to expose the hypocrite to Orgon. She persuades Orgon to conceal himself under a table while she speaks to Tartuffe, and her husband is thus a witness to the impostor's advances to her.
Orgon's eyes are opened a little too late, for he has already assigned all he owns to Tartuffe. When Tartuffe realizes his hypocrisy has been discovered, he promptly turns the family out of the house. Then by reporting to the authorities that Orgon possesses a strongbox containing the papers of an exiled friend, Tartuffe contrives to have his former host arrested. But by order of the King, the arresting officer apprehends Tartuffe instead, and the impostor is hauled off to prison for his treacherous behavior toward his well-meaning if too-credulous host. The play ends as Damis is reconciled with his father and the wedding of Mariane and Valere is announced.
Summary by Kevin Bergen
Introduction from the Norton Vol. D 303-306
Son of a prosperous Paris merchant, Jean-Baptiste Moliere (originally named Poque-lin) devoted his entire adult life to the creation of stage illusion, as playwright and as actor. At about the age of twenty-five, he joined a company of traveling players established by the B6jart family; with them he toured the provinces for about twelve years. In 1658 the company was ordered to perform for Louis XIV in Paris; a year later, Moliere's first great success, The High-Born Ladies (Les Pre'cieuses ridicules), was produced. The theatrical company to which he belonged, patronized by the king, became increasingly successful, developing finally (1680) into the Com&lie Fran¬chise. In 1662, Moliere married Armande Bejart. He died a few hours after performing in the lead role of his own play The Imaginary Invalid.
Moliere wrote both broad farce and comedies of character, in which he
caricatured some form of vice or folly by embodying it in a single figure. His
targets included the miser, the aspiring but vulgar middle class, female
would-be intellectuals, the hypochondriac, and in Tartuffe, the religious
In Tartuffe (1664), as in his other plays, Molière employs classic comic devices of plot and character—here, a foolish, stubborn father blocking the course of young love; an impudent servant commenting on her superiors' actions; a happy ending involving a marriage facilitated by implausible means. He often uses such devices, however, to comment on his own immediate social scene, imagining how universal patterns play themselves out in a specific historical context. Tartuffe had contemporary relevance so transparent that the Catholic Church forced the king to ban it, although Moliere managed to have it published and produced once more by 1669.
The play's emotional energy derives not from the simple discrepancy of man and mask in Tartuffe ("Is not a face quite different from a mask?" inquires the normative character Cleante, who has no trouble malting such distinctions) but from the struggles for erotic, psychic, and economic power in which people employ their masks. One can readily imagine modem equivalents for the stresses and strains within Orgon's family. Orgon, an aging man with grown children, seeks ways to preserve control. His mother, Madame Pernelle, encourages his efforts, thus fostering her illusion that she still runs things. Orgon identifies his own interests with those of the hypocritical Tartuffe, toward whom he plays a benevolent role. Because Tartuffe fulsomely hails him as benefactor, Orgon feels utterly powerful in relation to his fawning dependent. When he orders his passive daughter Mariane to marry Tartuffe, he reveals his vision of complete domestic autocracy. Tartuffe's lust, one of those passions forever eluding human mastery, disturbs Orgon's arrangements; in the end, the will of the offstage king orders everything, as though a benevolent god had intervened.
To make Tartuffe a specifically religious hypocrite is an act of inventive daring. Orgon, like his mother, conceals from himself his will to power by verbally subordinating himself to that divinity which Tartuffe too invokes. Although one may easily accept Moliere's defense of his intentions (not to mock faith but to attack its misuse), it is not hard to see why the play might trouble religious authorities. Moliere suggests how readily religious faith lends itself to misuse, how high-sounding pieties allow men and women to evade self-examination and immediate responsibilities. Tartuffe deceives others by his grandiosities of mortification ("Hang up my hair shirt") and charity; he encourages his victims in their own grandiosities. Orgon can indulge a fantasy of self-subordination (remarking of Tartuffe, "He guides our lives") at the same time that he furthers his more hidden desire for power. Religion offers ready justification for a course manifestly destructive as well as self-seeking. Ckeante, before he meets Tartuffe, claims (accurately) to understand him by his effects on others. Throughout the play, Cleante speaks in the voice of wisdom, counseling moderation, common sense, and self-control, calling attention to folly. More (end of page 306) important, he emphasizes how the issues Moliere examines in this comedy relate to dominant late seventeenth-century themes:
Ah, Brother, man's a strangely fashioned creature
Who seldom is content to follow Nature,
But recklessly pursues his inclination
Beyond the narrow bounds of moderation,
And often, by transgressing Reason's laws,
Perverts a lofty aim or noble cause.
To follow Nature means to act appropriately to the human situation in the created universe. Humankind occupies a middle position, between beasts and angels; such aspirations as Orgon's desire to control his daughter completely, or his apparent wish to submit himself absolutely to Tartuffe's claim of heavenly wisdom, imply a hope to surpass limitations inherent in the human condition. As Cleante's observations suggests, "to follow Nature," given the rationality of the universe, implies adherence to "Reason's laws." All transgression involves failure to submit to reason's dictates. Moliere, with his stylized comic plot, makes that point as insistently as does Racine, who depicts grand passions and cataclysm] c effects from them.
Although Cleante understands and can enunciate the principles of proper conduct, his wisdom has no direct effect on the pla) 's action. Although the comedy suggests a social world in which women exist in utter subordination to fathers and husbands, in the plot, two women bring about the clarifications that unmask the villain. The virtuous wife, Elmire, object of Tartuffe's lust, and the articulate servant girl, Dorine, confront the immediate situation with pragmatic inventiveness. Dorine goads others to response; Elmire encourages Tartuffe to play out his sexual fantasies before a hidden audience. Both women have a clear sense of right and wrong, although they express it in less resounding terms than does Cleante. Their concrete insistence on facing what is really going on, cutting throi igh all obfuscation, rescues the men from entanglement in their own abstract formulations.
The women's clarifications, however, do not resolve the comedy's dilemmas.
Suddenly the context shifts: economic terms re place erotic ones. It is as
though Tartuffe were only playing in his attempt to seduce Elmire; now we get to
what really matters: money. For all his claims of disinterestedness, Tartuffe
has managed to get control of his dupe's property. Control of property! the
action gradually reveals, amounts to power over life itself: prison threatens
Orgon, and the prospect of expulsion from their home menaces him and his family
alike. Only the convenient and ostentatious artifice of royal intervention
rescues the victims and punishes their betrayer.
reasonable people as Cleante and Elmire money, power, genuinely endangers the
soci of the constant threats to rationality, of ho v much we have at stake in
trying to use reason as principle of action.
Tartuffe's monstrous lust, for women, al structure. Tartuffe enforces recognition
Comedies conventionally end in the restoration of order, declaring that good
inevitably triumphs; rationality renews itself de spite the temporary deviations
of the foolish and the vicious. At the end of Tartuffe, Orgon and his
mother have been chastened by revelation of their favorite's depravity, Mariane
has been allowed to marry her lover, Tartuffe has been judged, the king's power
and justice have reasserted them¬selves and been acknowledged. In the orga
nization of family and nation (metaphorically a larger family), order reassumes
dominion. Yet the arbitrary intervention of the long leaves a disturbing
emotional residue. [The play has demonstrated that Tartuffe's corrupt will to
power (as opposed to Orgon's merely foolish will) can ruthlessly aggran¬dize
itself. Money speaks, in Orgon's society as in ours; possession of wealth
implies total control over others. Only a kind of miflacle can save Orgon. The
miracle occurs, given the benign world of comedy, but the play reminds its
readers of the extreme precariousness with which reason finally triumphs, even
given the presence of such
H. Walker, Moliere (1990), provides a general biographical and critical introduction (end of page 305) in the playwright. Useful critical studies include L. Gossman, Men and Masks: A Study of Moliere (1963); Jacques Guicharnaud, ed., Moliere: A Collection of Critical Essays (1964); N. Gross, From Gesture to Idea: Esthetics and Ethics in Moliere's Comedy (1982); J. F. Gaines, Social Structures in Moliere's Theater (1984); and L. F. Norman, The Public Mirror: Moliere and the Social Commerce of Depiction (1999). An excellent treatment of Moliere in his historical context is W. D. Howarth, Molfere: A Play-vmght and His Audience (1984). Harold C. Knutson, The Triumph of Wit (1988), examines Moliere in relation to Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Martin Turnell, The Classical Moment: Studies of Corneille, Moliere, and Racine (1975), offers useful insight into French dramatic tradition
Preface by Moliere
Here is a comedy that has excited a good deal of
discussion and that has been under attack for a long time; and the persons who
are mocked by it have made it plain that they are more powerful in France than
all whom my plays have satirized up to this time. Noblemen, ladies of fashion,
cuckolds, and doctors all kindly consented to their presentation, which they
themselves seemed to enjoy along with everyone else; but hypocrites do not
understand banter: they became angry at once, and found it strange that I was
bold enough to represent their actions and to care to describe a profession
shared by so many good men. This is a crime for which they cannot forgive me,
and they have taken up arms against my comedy in a terrible rage. They were
careful not to attack it at the point that had wounded them: they are too crafty
for that and too clever to reveal their true character. In keeping with their
lofty custom, they have used the cause of God to mask their private interests;
and Tartuffe, they say, is a play that offends piety: it is filled with
abominations from beginning to end, and nowhere is there a line that does not
deserve to be burned. Every syllable is wicked, the very gestures are criminal,
and the slightest glance, turn of the head, or step from right to left conceals
mysteries that they are able to explain to my disadvantage. In vain did I submit
the play to the criticism of my friends and the scrutiny of the public: all the
corrections I could make 2, the judgment of the king and queen2 who saw the
play, the approval of great princes and ministers of state who honored it with
their presence, the opinion of good men who found it worth- while, all this did
not help. They will not let go of their prey, and every day of the week they
have pious zealots abusing me in public and damning me out of charity.
I would care very little about all they might say except that their devices make enemies of men whom I respect and gain the support of genuinely good men, whose faith they know and who, because of the warmth of their piety, readily accept the impressions that others present to them. And it is this which forces me to defend myself. Especially to the truly devout do I wish to vindicate my play, and I beg of them with all my heart not to condemn it before seeing it, to rid themselves of preconceptions, and not aid the cause of men dishonored by their actions.
If one takes the trouble to examine my comedy in good faith, he will surely see that my intentions are innocent throughout, and tend in no way to make fun of what men revere; that I have j resented the subject with all the pre-cautions that its delicacy imposes; an 1 that I have used all the art and skill that I could to distinguish clearly the character of the hypocrite from that of the truly devout man. For that purpose I used two whole acts to prepare the appearance of my scoundrel. Never's there a moment's doubt about his character; he is known at once from t\ e qualities I have given him; and from one end of the play to the other, he does not say a word, he does not perform an action which does not depict to the audience the character of a wicked man, and which does not bring out in sharp relief the character of the truly good man which I oppose to it.
I know full well that by way of reply these gentlemen try to insinuate that it is not the role of the theater to speak of these matters; but with their permission, I ask them on what do they base this fine doctrine. It is a prop-osition they advance as no more than i supposition, for which they offer not a shred of proof; and surely it would not be difficult to show them that comedy, for the ancients, had its origin in religion and Constituted a part of its ceremonies; that our neighbors, the Spaniards, have hardly a single holiday celebration in which a comedy is not a part; and that even here in France, it owes its birth to the effort ; of a religious brotherhood who still own the H6tel de Bourgogne, where tl e most important mystery plays of our faith were presented;3 that you can sti U find comedies printed in gothic let¬ters under the name of a learned doctor4 of the Sorbonne; and without going so far, in our own day the religious d ramas of Pierre Corneille5 have been performed to the admiration of all Frs nee.
If the function of comedy is to connect men's vices, I do not see why any should be exempt. Such a condition in our society would be much more dangerous than the thing itself; and we have seen that the theater is admi-rably suited to provide correction. The most forceful lines of a serious moral statement are usually less powerful than those of satire; and nothing will reform most men better than the depiction of their faults. It is a vigorous blow to vices to expose them to public laughter. Criticism is taken lightly, but men will not tolerate satire. They are quite willing to be mean, but they never like to be ridiculed.
I have been attacked for having placed words of piety in the mouth of my impostor. Could I avoid doing so in order to represent properly the character of a hypocrite? It seemed to me sufficient to reveal the criminal motives which make him speak as he does, and I have eliminated all ceremonial phrases, which nonetheless he would not have been found using incorrectly. Yet some say that in the fourth act he sets forth a vicious morality; but is not this a morality which everyone has heard again and again? Does my comedy say anything new here? And is there any fear that ideas so thoroughly detested by everyone can make an impression on men's minds; that I make them dangerous by presenting them in the theater; that they acquire authority from the lips of a scoundrel? There is not the slightest suggestion of any of this; and one must either approve the comedy of Tartuffe or condemn all comedies in general.
This has indeed been done in a furious way for some time now, and never was the theater so much abused.6 I cannot deny that there were Church Fathers who condemned comedy; but neither will it be denied me that there were some who looked on it somewhat more favorably. Thus authority, on which censure is supposed to depend, is destroyed by this disagreement; and the only conclusion that can be drawn from this difference of opinion among men enlightened by the same wisdom is that they viewed comedy in different ways, and that some considered it in its purity, while others regarded it in its corruption and confused it with all those wretched performances which have been rightly called performances of filth.
And in fact, since we should talk about things rather than words, and since most misunderstanding comes from including contrary notions in the same word, we need only to remove the veil of ambiguity and look at com¬edy in itself to see if it warrants condemnation. It will surely be recognized that as it is nothing more than a clever poem which corrects men's faults by means of agreeable lessons, it cannot be condemned without injustice. And if we listened to the voice of ancient times on this matter, it would tell us that its most famous philosophers have praised comedy—they who professed so austere a wisdom and who ceaselessly denounced the vices of their times. It would tell us that Aristotle spent his evenings at the theater7 and took the trouble to reduce the art of making comedies to rules. It would tell us that some of its greatest and most honored men took pride in writing comedies themselves;8 and that others did not disdain to recite them in public; that Greece expressed its admiration for this art by means of handsome prizes and magnificent theaters to honor it; and finally, that in Rome this same art also received extraordinary honors; I do not speak of Rome run riot under the license of the emperors, but of disciplined Rome,