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Moliere

Has your sense of humor ever gotten you in trouble? Rest assured, it happens to everyone—even the greatest comedic writers of the 17th century. The Parisian playwright Molière (1622‐1673) is hailed as the greatest writer of French comedy. However, gaining this title was a battle against people who deemed his humor disrespectful and distasteful. Molière's comedic plays were commonly condemned by religious and secular authorities for their direct, yet unconventional approach to mocking societal conventions of his time.

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Has your sense of humor ever gotten you in trouble? Rest assured, it happens to everyone—even the greatest comedic writers of the 17th century. The Parisian playwright Molière (1622‐1673) is hailed as the greatest writer of French comedy. However, gaining this title was a battle against people who deemed his humor disrespectful and distasteful. Molière's comedic plays were commonly condemned by religious and secular authorities for their direct, yet unconventional approach to mocking societal conventions of his time.

Moliere, Painting of Moliere, StudySmarterFig. 1 ‐ Moliére acted in the plays that he wrote.

Molière: Biography

Molière's life was shaped by his passion to pursue theater despite difficulties and disapproval from elite French societies and religious authority.

Molière's Early Life and Education

Molière was born Jean‐Baptiste Poquelin around 1622. Though his actual birth date is unknown, he was baptized as a baby on January 15, 1622. Molière was born into an upper-middle-class family. His mother died when he was only 10, and he lived with his father in a wealthy part of Paris.

Molière was called ‘Le Nez’ by his family members, which means the nose. When he was born, one of the maids pointed out that he had a large nose.

For high school, Molière attended a prestigious Jesuit university called College de Clermont. Here he was immersed in a rigorous school environment, made contacts with nobility, and began performing in plays.

The famous French writer Voltaire attended the College de Clermont.

Molière's Early Career with the Illustre Theatre

Jean‐Baptiste Molière's father was a furnisher of the royal household who maintained the carpets and upholstery. Though a valet or male servant, his position was a well-respected appointment of the royal court. Molière's father expected him to take over his position. However, at the age of 21, Molière decided that pursuing theatre was more important to him than maintaining social status.

Being an actor was not a respectable profession during Molière's time.

In 1643, Molière left his father and founded a theater company called the Illustre Theatre with the actress Madeleine Béjart. Molière poured his efforts into this theatre for the remaining 30 years of his life. However, the theatre went bankrupt several times and struggled to stay afloat. In 1645, Molière was imprisoned for a day because of the theatre company’s debts.

It is assumed that the playwright began using the stage name Molière to spare his family from the embarrassment of having an actor with financial troubles associated with their name.

Despite Molière and Madeleine Béjart's extreme talent and fortitude, the Illustre Theatre company struggled to compete with two, well-established theaters in Paris. Instead, the troupe toured provinces around France for over 10 years, visiting places such as Lyon, Montpellier, and Béziers. These years with the traveling troupe were critical to Molière's development as an actor and troupe manager.

Molière's Return to Paris and Theatrical Success

Molière's theatrical success came about in 1658 when he and his troupe performed for King Louis XIV in the Louvre. They performed the play Nicomède (1651) by Pierre Corneille, followed by Molière's original play Le Docteur Amoureux, or The Amorous Doctor (1658). The addition was adored by the king’s brother Philippe I, Duke of Orléans who became a patron for the troupe. The royal recognition gave the actors access to high social circles and celebrity status, but Molière still had to work hard against criticism and competition to make his work known.

Moliere, Paris Louvre, StudySmarterFig. 2 ‐ The Louvre was originally built as a fortress, was reconstructed as a palace and is now a famous art museum.

In 1659, Moliere’s play Les Précieuses ridicules, or The Affected Young Ladies, premiered at the Théâtre du Petit-Bourbon. Les Précieuses ridicules was Molière's first play that satirized social mannerisms in France. Forming critiques of French society through humor was a staple of Molière's plays and writing.

The Petit-Bourbon was destroyed in 1660 and the theater company moved to perform in a hall in the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. Many of Molière's plays premiered here, most notably L’École des femmes, or The School for Wives (1662).

L’École des femmes was highly criticized, and Molière responded to his critics by staging backstage insight and performing conversations that audience members might have discussing it.

In 1661, Molière began producing comédies-ballets, which combined traditional ballet dance with professional theatre. These performances used both dance and acting to tell a story and were dedicated to King Louis XIV. For the comédies-ballets, Molière worked with the choreographer, composer, and dancer Jean-Baptiste Lully, who helped bring ballet and opera into the sphere of professional arts at the Paris Opera.

Moliere, Ballet and Theater, StudySmarterFig. 3 ‐ Molière shifted from purely writing comedies and dramas to frequently writing plays that incorporated music, song, and dance.

In 1662, the Théâtre du Palais-Royal began hosting Italian actors as well. Molière was greatly influenced by the physical comedy of the Italians who specialized in the commedia dell’arte.

Commedia dell'arte is a form of theater that originated in Northern Italy and was popular around Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. The performances center around a playful cast of stock characters who perform a basic plot with improvisation and humor. The most common plot centers around young lovers who cannot be together because of the disapproval or jealousy of others.

Also in 1662, Molière married Armande Béjart. He initially thought she was the sister of his theater partner, Madeleine Béjart. However, she was likely her illegitimate daughter. The couple had three daughters, but only one survived into adulthood.

In addition to the Théâtre du Palais-Royal plays, Molière wrote privately commissioned plays that premiered at other theaters. The most notable of these is Tartuffe (1669), which premiered in Versailles. This play was banned shortly after its release for its depiction of a wretched man who projects religious piety.

Molière's plays gained strong opposition from traditional writers, religious authorities, members of French high society, and Jansenists. This opposition led to numerous rumors being spread about his personal life and marriage. However, Molière steered clear of making attacks on the monarchy in his writing, as King Louis XIV was one of his greatest supporters.

Jansenism was an early modern Christian theological movement that was declared a heresy by the Catholic Church. Jansenism was prominent in France during the 17th century. Though the founders of Jansenism claimed to be following the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo, the movement enforced Calvinist beliefs of predestination

—the belief that God has preselected certain people to be saved and others to be condemned. The Catholic Church opposes Jansenism and predestination because of the belief in humanity's free will to accept or reject God's grace. In his play Tartuffe, Moliére mocks the emphasis on original sin and predestination that Jansenists adhered to.

In 1666, Molière's play Le Misanthrope premiered and was published the next year. Though it is now considered one of his best plays, it was not a commercial success.

In 1672, Molière premiered and acted in his final play Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies). It was a successful play that was pure drama and comedy without music.

Molière's Death

Molière died on February 17, 1673, from pulmonary tuberculosis. He was 51 years old and had suffered from tuberculosis for a great portion of his life.

At his final performance of his last written play in 1673, Le Malade Imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid), Molière had a coughing fit that caused him to collapse on stage. He got back up and finished the performance. However, after the show, he collapsed again and had severe hemorrhaging. He died that night.

At the time of Molière's Death, actors were not allowed to be buried on sacred cemetery grounds under French law. Molière was buried in a section of the cemetery for unbaptized infants. In 1816, his remains were moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Molière: Accomplishments

Today, Molière is known as the best French dramatist and the father of modern French comedy because he added a new twist to the genre. Molière took a Realism approach to comedy. He believed that comedy must serve as a reflection of human nature and reality. He staged critiques of his own works, creating a backstage view of his rehearsals and conversations audience members would have about the play to explain his new approach to comedy.

Molière's plays have shaped the modern understanding and expanses of comedy. He shocked his audiences because he treated every matter in life as something capable of being mocked to present greater truth or criticism. Molière defined comedy as the coming together of opposites or incongruities—right and wrong, wisdom and foolishness, reverent and irreverent. He faced great criticism for the unconventionally of his work but paved a path of progression in comedy and the dramatic arts.

Molière: Plays

Three famous plays by Moliere include The School for Wives, Tartuffe, and The Misanthrope (1666). At the time of their release, these plays faced criticism and even censoring for their surprising satire that mocked social norms, but they are well appreciated today.

The School for Wives (L'école des femmes)

The School for Wives premiered at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in 1662. It was written for the brother of King Louis XIV and is one of Molière's most significant plays. It demonstrated Molière's unique comedic genius and ability to turn conventions on their head.

The play follows a man named Arnolphe, who is so afraid of a woman leaving him that he grooms a young girl named Agnès, keeping her to be raised by nuns until he is to marry her. Arnolphe is obsessed with following the rules of society and tries to court Agnès in a terribly awkward manner. Ultimately, his worse fear comes true and Agnès ends up with another man.

Molière was highly criticized for the liberties he took in this play. He cleverly responded to the outrage over his play with La Critique de L'École des femmes, or The Critique of The School for Wives (1663), in which he explains and justifies his new form of comedy.

Tartuffe

Tartuffe, which means imposter or hypocrite, is a theatrical comedy that premiered in 1664. A second version of the play premiered in 1667 and a third version premiered in 1669. The play was banned by King Louis XIV upon its release and then by the archbishop of Paris. However, by its third production, the play was highly successful.

Tartuffe centers around a character named Orgon and his family. Orgon has a houseguest named Tartuffe who is a hypocritical religious man who feigns piety while trying to seduce Orgon's mother Elmire.

Tartuffe was initially banned because of its depiction of a person who feigns holiness but is actually deceitful and preys on other people. This portrayal of religion was opposed by the French Roman Catholic Church and parts of upper-class French society. Molière argued that the play mocks Tartuffe's actions and therefore does not endorse them.

Tartuffe is written entirely in rhyming couplets.

The Misanthrope

The Misanthrope is a comedy of manners that mocks the hypocritical nature of French society and points out flaws in human nature. The play was not successful at the time but is now Molière's best-known play.

A misanthrope is someone who dislikes people and human society.

A comedy of manners, also known as an anti-sentimental comedy, is a genre of comedy from the Restoration period (1660-1710). The comedy of manners genre creates realistic satire by questioning, commenting, and mocking social manners and conventions.

The play centers around a man named Alceste who is a misanthrope. He despises social conventions in French society and does not want to act pleasantly and superficially to satisfy societal expectations. Ironically, Alceste is in love with a flirtatious woman named Celimene who embodies all the values he opposes. Although he dislikes people, he has a number of women after him.

Molière: Quotes

The play Tartuffe deals with the themes of hypocrisy and deception, as Tartuffe makes himself out to be a good, holy man, but is quite the opposite. Molière uses rhyming couplets and rhetorical questions to evoke a playful yet inquisitive perspective:

A rhyming couplet is two consecutive lines of poetry that end in rhyming words. A rhetorical question is a question that is asked for dramatic effect and does not expect a literal answer.

How can you know what I might do, or be?

Is it on my good actions that you base

Your favor? Do you trust my pious face?

Ah, no, don't be deceived by hollow shows;

I'm far, alas, from being what men suppose;" (Act 3.6)

Molière is a master of irony. In The Misanthrope, the cynical lead Alceste finally declares his love for Célimène in grand terms. He tells a girl who loves being wealthy that he wishes she were poor so he could love her more purely:

Yes, I wish that you were wretchedly poor,

Unloved, uncherished, utterly obscure;

That fate had set you down upon the earth

Without possessions, rank, or gently birth;

Then, by the offer of my heart, I might

Repair the great injustice of your plight;

I'd raise you from the dust, and proudly prove

The purity and vastness of my love." (4.3)

Molière - Key takeaways

  • The Parisian playwright Molière (1622‐1673) is hailed as the greatest writer of French comedy.
  • When he was 21, Molière founded a theater company called the Illustre Theatre with the actress Madeleine Béjart. Molière poured his efforts into this theatre for the remaining 30 years of his life.
  • Molière shaped modern dramatic comedy. He believed that comedy must serve as a reflection of human nature and reality.
  • Molière fought against great criticism and opposition to his plays.
  • Three famous plays by Molière include The School for Wives, Tartuffe, and The Misanthrope.

Frequently Asked Questions about Moliere

Molière is a French drama and comedy writer and actor hailed as the greatest writer of French comedy.

Molière is known for his comedic, controversial dramas including The School for Wives (1662), Tartuffe (1669), and The Misanthrope (1667).

Molière's writing style was highly satirical and ironic. He used comedy to make critiques of society and often wrote in rhyming couplets.

Molière was greatly influenced by the physical comedy of the Italians who specialized in the commedia dell’arte.

Molière is famous for the plays Tartuffe and The Misanthrope.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

The Misanthrope is set in which European country?

A misanthrope is a person who ______________. 

Alceste repeatedly accuses those around him of _________. 

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