Lecture Notes
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere

General Background

see also The Enlightenment

Antoine Coysevox, Louis XIV, Bronze (1640), Carnavalet Museum

Historical figures and events:

Louis XIII (1601-1643, reigned 1610-1643), aided by his chief minister Cardinal de Richelieu, involvement in Thirty Years War

Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), minister of Louis XIII, secretary of state 1616, cardinal 1622, chief minister 1624, in full control of France since 1630; founder of French Academy and protector of artists and writers; at times instigated anti-protestant policies

Marie de Medici (1573-1642) mother of Louis XIII, Regent (1610-1614), initially supported Richelieu, eventually became enemy of Richeliu and was exiled in 1631

Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), struggle of German Protestant princes in alliance with France, Sweden, England, Denmark and others against Holy Roman Empire (Hapsburgs) and Catholic German nobility; Peace of Prague (1635); hostility of Richelieu toward Hapsburgs, French offensive (1635); Peace of Westphalia (1648), France emerged as dominant power.

Anne of Austria (1601-1666) mother of Louis XIV and Regent of France (1643-1651), perhaps secretly married to Jules Mazarin

Jules Mazarin (1602-1661), papal ambassador 1634-36, 1643 chief minister to Anne of Austria (1643) and her son, Louis XIV; participated in negotiation of Peace of Westphalia (1648); forced into exile in 1651 by Fronde Revolt but returned victorious in 1653; negotiated peace with Spain, Peace of the Pyrenees (1659)

Louis XIV, Le Roi Soleil ("The Sun King") (1638-1715, reigned 1643-1715), married Spanish princess Marie Therese (1660); absolutism; profoundly anti-Protestant, 1685 revocation of Edict of Nantes which was originally issued in 1598 by Henry IV in protection of Protestant rights of worship

Palace of Versailles, prototype in 1657 Chateau Vaux le Vicomte; major expansion of Versailles after 1668, seat of government moved to Versailles in 1682

The Fronde Revolt (1648-1653), series of anti-royal, anti-absolutist, anti-taxation, anti-Mazarin rebellions instigated by Parlement de Paris, French nobility, spread to popular classes

Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière (1622-1673), father upholsterer, law degree 1641, joined Béjart family theatre company, performed for Louis XIV 1658; Les Precieuses ridicules (The High-Brow Ladies) 1659; 1662 marriage to Armande Bejart; 1665 Troupe du roi (eventually La Comedie Française (1680); Le Misanthrope (1666); death on the stage after performing The Imaginary Invalid

Tartuffe (1664); Tartuffe was bitterly opposed by Catholic Church, the archbishop of Paris, the Queen Mother Anne of Austria, and the Company of the Holy Sacrament which influenced banning of play; five act revision in 1667 still opposed, finally brought back to the stage in 1669 (current version); vice or folly embodied in a central figure; masks/deception; struggle for power; Moliere claimed not to mock faith but to attack its misuse; characters' hidden desire for power; critique of religion as justification of destructive and self-seeking ways; Cleante as voice of wisdom, moderation, common sense, self-control, Nature, Reason; economic issues underlying erotic ones; comedy, restoration of order in family and nation; but near success of Tartuffe, power of money and intrigue.

Palais-Royal Playhouse


Chauveau, Tartuffe, engraving (1669)

Discussion Issues

Pietro Longhi illustration

Possible remnants of Fronde ideology as an undercurrent in the play, spirit of the "Mazarinades" (propaganda against Mazarin and royal absolutism); Orgon as Louis XIII/Louis XIV, Tartuffe as Richelieu/Mazarin, Orgon's mother as Marie de Medici/Anne of Austria. Revelation of the king's vanity and manipulation by the cardinals and others; also possibility of a certain Jansenist influence, sympathy toward rationalist and Reformation and Counter-Reformation ideals

Tartuffe's influence on Orgon as hubristic pride (Orgon: ORGUEIL/orgullo, 'pride') and radical selfishness, insensitivity, lack of concern for even his own family (opposite of Christian love) (313-314); Tartuffe as 'evil' aspect of Orgon; house as metaphor for the soul where the devil is invited to dwell

Tartuffe as the devil, almost supernatural powers of manipulation, ability to seize upon and exploit the weaknesses of others, labor of 'possession' ("This house belongs to me" 346), elusiveness of his character/identity ("He is a man who a man who . . ." 314)

Cleante as voice of reason and virtue, moderation, forgiveness, reconciliation; Cleante and Tartuffe as opposing poles of Orgon's psychomachy (battle for/in the soul)

Flaws in everyone, near-tragedy of self-interest:

All characters participate in schemes of deception similar to Tartuffe's own machinations, series of attempts to catch the deceiver by deception, problem of means and ends, cf. "We serve a Prince to whom all sham is hateful" (355); envy of Tartuffe's position as the favorite and heir of Orgon; all out struggle for power and possessions; ironic truth of Tartuffe's critique of the family member's self-absorbed way of life ("he tells you what you're loath to hear/condemns your sins, points out your moral flaws" 309; "these visits, balls, and parties in which you revel" 310); strongbox as symbol of dark secrets/guilt of the self, power of Tartuffe lies in the possession of the box. Ultimate problem is self-deception, lack of self-knowledge as exemplified in Orgon; characters' relation to Tartuffe's own ethos of deception: "there is a science, lately formulated/ whereby one's conscience may be liberated," "there is no evil till the act is known" (345)

Question of the family's deserving of rescue, evidence of transformations, Orgon's enlightenment/recognition ("I saw it; saw it" 349); help of Valere (money, carriage, himself 353-354), Orgon's "I wish that I could show you/my gratitude for everything I owe you") cooperative action, forgiveness, gratitude, fulfillment of promises, humility ("let's go at once and, gladly kneeling, express the gratitude which all are feeling" 356); but temptations present even at the end (Orgon about to abuse Tartuffe 356); deus ex machina, forced ending; flattery of the king, also hint of relative undeserving of the family, unnaturaleness (inversimilitude) of justice and truth in a crooked world

Art of the actor and playwright as ironically similar to that of Tartuffe, acting, pretending, assuming a false appearance, implied self-critique

Theological and moral allusions as underlying level of symbolism: Tartuffe as devil, King as God, Cleante as Christ; ultimate referent is the self; drama of personal responsibility; meaning converging to the inner human self; ultimately no transcendental or external referent; no transcedental reference to the devil or God, reduction of both to human agency; Counter-reformation spirit of play in the sense of its emphasis on human action as force of damnation and deliverance; rational, ethical and human-centered religion