Tartuffe (1664) is a satirical comedy play by French playwright Molière (1622-1673). When the head of a wealthy French family falls under the influence of a shady character known as Tartuffe, the family becomes desperate to uncover the fraudster's true nature. Tartuffe explores the danger of religious hypocrisy and proved to be highly controversial with the French Catholic Church. 

Tartuffe Tartuffe

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Table of contents

    Tartuffe Molière StudySmarterFig. 1 - Moliere used many of his works to highlight the hypocrisy of powerful institutions and individuals in French society.

    Tartuffe: Summary

    The action of Tartuffe takes place in the home of the Orgon family, a clan of wealthy, land-owning aristocrats.

    Act I

    Orgon's family is concerned for him. His wife and children, sister and brother-in-law, and even the servants believe he has fallen under the influence of a man called Tartuffe. Orgon found Tartuffe begging outside a Church and, in an attempt to be charitable, offered to take the man in to help him back on his feet. Tartuffe quickly managed to charm both Orgon and Orgon's mother, Madame Pernelle, with his supposed holiness.

    When the rest of the family confronts Madame Parnelle about Tartuffe, what are some of the charges they level against him?

    The rest of the family seems convinced that Tartuffe's continual religious showboating is part of a scam to steal Orgon's fortune. When the family attempts to confront their mother about Tartuffe's devious behavior, she dismisses their concerns as groundless and accuses the family of being untrustworthy and deceitful.

    Tartuffe Playbill StudySmarterFig. 2 - Tartuffe likes to talk loudly about his good deeds so others will see him as a holy and just man.

    When Orgon arrives home from a trip to the country, he ignores the maid's plea to visit his sick wife and inquires about Tartuffe. Orgon's brother-in-law, Cléante, tries to warn him about Tartuffe, but Orgon counters by listing the good deeds Tartuffe claims to have committed. Cléante argues that Tartuffe often talks about good deeds but is rarely seen doing them. Orgon refuses to listen to Cléante's warnings and tells his brother-in-law that he is ending his daughter Mariane's current engagement to Valère. Mariane will instead marry Tartuffe.

    Act II

    Orgon informs Mariane that she will marry Tartuffe. She is shocked but does not protest. They are interrupted by the entrance of Dorine, a housemaid, who laughs at the proposition of Mariane marrying Tartuffe. Dorine informs Orgon that Tartuffe has no fortune to bring to the family, and despite his repeated claims about rejecting materialism, he often brags about his wealthy background. Once again, Orgon refuses to acknowledge Tartuffe's hypocrisy and storms out.

    Throughout the play, many characters storm off when logical statements challenge their arguments. What was Molière trying to represent with this behavior?

    Dorine asks Mariane why she passively accepted her father's plan to marry Tartuffe, to which she simply replies she must respect her father's wishes. An upset Valère confronts Mariane and implores her to fight for their love, but she remains unsure about disobeying her father. The pair fight until Dorine intervenes and promises to help the family finally expose Tarrufe's lies and hypocrisy.

    Act III

    Dorine approaches Orgon's son, Damis, who is similarly enraged by Orgon's plan to wed Mariane to Tartuffe. Sensing that Tartuffe may be attracted to Orgon's wife, Elmire, they plan to have the pair meet while Damis secretly hides in the closet. When Tartuffe propositions Elmire, the family believes they finally have the proof they need. However, Orgon rejects the story as a jealous lie and disowns his son rather than thinking Tartuffe would be capable of such an act. In a rage, Orgon alters his will to make the pious Tartuffe his soul heir.

    Act IV

    With the family torn apart, Cléante asks Tartuffe to repair the divide between father and son. Tartuffe refuses, saying it would be improper for a religious man like himself to become involved in a family's personal and financial affairs. When Cléante attempts to use reason with Tartuffe, he quickly makes his excuses and leaves.

    How does Tartuffe feel about Cléante? What do both men believe?

    Orgon enters to show Mariane the wedding contract. She begs her family not to force her into the marriage and even offers to forfeit her inheritance to Tartuffe rather than marry him. Elmire begs her husband to see the truth about Tartuffe. She finally convinces him to hide under a table and sends a servant to fetch Tartuffe.

    Tartuffe Seduction StudySmarterFig. 3 - Tartuffe attempts to seduce Orgon's wife, Elmire, assuring her their infidelity will not be a sin in the eyes of God.

    With Orgon hidden, Tartuffe enters, and Elmire asks if their affair would be an insult to God. Tartuffe reasons that God will forgive them as long as their love is pure. He tries to embrace Elmire, but she begs for a moment to catch her breath. Worried they may be interrupted, she asks Tartuffe to ensure the hallway is clear. Tartuffe responds that even if they are caught, Orgon is so stupid he will believe anything Tartuffe tells him.

    Orgon emerges from hiding and orders Tartuffe to leave his house at once. Tartuffe refuses, stating that he is now the legal owner of the house and all the family fortune. Orgon confides in his wife that Tartuffe is in possession of a set of documents that could ruin Orgon's standing in the court.

    Act V

    As Orgon, Damis, and Cléante discuss the family's problems, the father and son become so enraged they contemplate violence while a level-headed Cléante argues for restraint and patience.

    Does Tartuffe's behavior change when his lies are exposed? Why or why not?

    Madame Pernelle returns to the estate but refuses to believe her son's story about Tartuffe's lies and deceit. She is finally convinced when a group of bailiffs arrive to remove the family from the house. The bailiff asks Orgon to respect the law and says he will wait until the morning to carry out the order. In the meantime, the bailiff and his men must remain stationed at the house.

    Valère arrives and tells the family that Tartuffe has handed Orgon's damaging document over to the King. Orgon is to be declared a traitor and will face immediate arrest. Valère offers Orgon money and a carriage to help him evade capture. As they are about to flee, Tartuffe arrives with a company of officers to bring Orgon to jail.

    Tartuffe Ending StudySmarterFig. 4 - A last-minute intervention by the wise King saves Orgon and his family.

    Orgon and Cléante attempt to reason with Tartuffe, but he refuses to listen and instructs the officers to arrest Orgon. Instead, the officers arrest Tartuffe. The men explain that the King saw Tartuffe's devious and manipulative nature. As Tartuffe is taken away, Orgon grants Valère permission to marry Mariane.

    Tartuffe: Characters

    Here is a look at the most important characters from Molière's Tartuffe.


    The play's antagonist is a dishonest hypocrite who claims to be a devout and pious man. Orgon discovered Tartuffe begging outside a church and decided to take him in as an act of charity. Tartuffe was quickly able to convince both Orgon and his mother that he was highly religious. He begins to scam money from Orgon, which earns the suspicion of other family members. Tartuffe stays in Orgon's good graces by appealing to his religious convictions and offering a chance at eternal salvation.


    Having proved his loyalty to the King during a recent war, Orgon is a wealthy and well-connected landlord. Husband to Elmire and father to Damis and Marine, Orgon distances himself from his family when they dare to criticize his new friend Tartuffe. Despite his treatment of his loved ones, Orgon is presented as a generally good but slightly naive person who completely believes Tartuffe's pious persona.


    Cléante is Orgon's brother-in-law and presented as the rational counterpoint to Tartuffe's religious posturing. At several points, Cléante inserts himself in tense situations to act as the voice of moderation and logic. While disagreements between Orgon and family members become emotional and volatile, Cléante displays patience and understanding. Though his arguments have little effect, even Orgon admits that Cléante's reasoning is sound.

    Orgon's Family

    Most of the play's supporting cast is made up of Orgon's close family and servants. Orgon's young wife, Elmire, is extremely smart and able to finally prove Tartuffe's lies. Elmire is the stepmother to Orgon's children, Damis and Mariane. While Mariane is indecisive and compliant, Damis is quick-tempered and impulsive. Orgon's mother, Madame Pernelle, is the only other member of the family to fall under Tartuffe's influence. A deeply religious woman, Madame Pernelle desperately wants to believe that Tartuffe is a devout man.

    Dorine, the family's maid, is depicted as one of the play's most intelligent and capable characters. Despite her lower social status, Dorine often insults and teases members of the Orgon family. She can speak unfiltered to them because she is loved and trusted by all.

    Tartuffe: Themes

    Many of Molière's famous works, like The Misanthrope (1666), deal with the theme of hypocrisy amongst France's aristocracy. However, Tartuffe focuses on the theme of religious hypocrisy and how people's words often contradict their actions.

    Religious Hypocrisy

    Throughout the play, Tartuffe espouses highly religious values and makes a grand show of his holiness. Before he gives money to the poor, he ensures he's being watched. He prays loudly and often so others will hear and brags about whipping himself as penance for his sins. This supposed piety wins the trust of Orgon and Madame Pernelle, who accept his actions at face value. Because Tartuffe can present himself as a devout man, he is beyond recrimination.

    Tartuffe Saintly StudySmarterFig. 5 - Tartuffe is able to convince people that he is a pure and saintly figure.

    In reality, Tartuffe's true feelings and hidden actions contradict his public image. He claims to be honest but is a liar; he claims to be charitable and forgiving but is, in reality, greedy and vengeful. To Molière, the religious hypocrisy committed by Tartuffe is the most offensive form of dishonesty. Religious hypocrisy negates the Christain values it asserts and can be highly damaging to individuals and society. Molière presents Tartuffe's religious hypocrisy as particularly corrosive and infectious.

    Similarly, Madame Pernelle prides herself on being a forgiving and understanding mother. Yet when under Tartuffe's spell, she quickly declares her family to be jealous liars. Orgon also claims to be committed to family but completely dismisses family members when they question Tartuffe.

    Tartuffe is aware of his hypocrisy; he openly lies and uses people's perspectives of him to scheme, but Madame Pernelle and Orgon are blind to their hypocrisy. Ultimately, Molière uses the play as a moral warning;

    Tartuffe's hypocrisy and vices lead to his downfall when his lust and deceit catch him.

    Tartuffe: Analysis

    Tartuffe is an example of a satirical comedy.

    Satire is a comedy that uses humor to point out a serious message or warning. Writers often employ satire to highlight the shortcomings or misdeeds of important institutions or individuals.

    With the character of Tartuffe, Molière satirizes those who use religion as a cover to amass money and power. Through witty dialogue and broad characters, Molière warns his audience that those most outspoken about their righteousness often hide dark secrets. In a more general sense, this can be viewed as a satire of the Catholic Church's position and power in 17th-century France.

    Tartuffe Catholicism StudySmarterFig. 6 - In 17th-century France, the Catholic Church held tremendous power in all aspects of everyday life.

    The relationship between Orgon and Tartuffe represents the dangers of blindly following religious teachings. Despite his family's warning and evidence, Orgon cannot engage in critical thinking when it comes to Tartuffe. Moliere presents Tartuffe as someone who preaches a version of Christianity that sees man as inherently sinful. In this interpretation of Christianity, man is born into sin and can only be saved by submitting to the will of the Church. Tartuffe knows Orgon wants to be a better person and uses this knowledge to manipulate his host.

    Tartuffe's lies and manipulation are so convincing because he can link himself to a sense of religious integrity. He presents himself as the embodiment of Christian values, which makes him unimpeachable in the eyes of Orgon and his mother. Molière used Tartuffe to warn against the dangers of being tricked by shallow acts of righteousness. The Catholic Church viewed this as a thinly veiled attack on their institution and used its power to repress Molière for some time.

    In the 17th century, France's most powerful social institutions were the monarchy and the Catholic Church. While Molière enjoyed a cozy relationship with the reigning king, Louis XIV, his plays often explored the themes and situations that the Church found controversial.

    In Tartuffe, the Church viewed the titular character's use of religious piety to con as dangerous and subversive. They viewed this as an attack on religion and holy men, with the Archbishop of Paris issuing a proclamation that threatened ex-communication to any Catholic who watched the play. Although Louis XIV enjoyed the work, he found himself under increasing pressure to ban the play. He compromised by prohibiting public performances while still allowing private readings.

    To work around this repression, Molière redrafted the play in 1667. He changed the title to The Imposter and renamed Tartuffe Panulphe to avoid association with the original play. Despite toning down the criticisms of religion, the Church continued to exert pressure, and it wasn't until 1669 that Molière was able to publically stage a production.

    Even after the writer's death, the Church remained hostile to the work. During the French Revolution, audiences were keen to consume art openly criticizing the Church's disproportionate control of public life. The Church continued to condemn the work through the 19th century, and in the 1820s, several riots broke out at performances of the play.

    Deus ex Machina

    At the end of the play, the family is saved from ruination by a perfectly timed intervention from the King's decree. This intervention is an example of Deus ex machina.

    Deus ex machina is an improbable device or character introduced at a convenient moment to resolve a complex problem quickly. Deus ex machina comes from the Latin phrase "god from the machine." In Roman and Greek theatre, actors representing a god would be introduced from above the stage using a crane; this reflects the device's unbelievable characteristics.

    Molière uses Deus ex Machina to represent the true danger of lies and hypocrisy. Since Tartuffe's deceit is so successful, it takes the action of divine power (the King) to overcome his evil. By having the intelligence of the King rescue the day, Molière was able to stay in the good graces of King Louis XIV, which helped him stave off some of the criticisms leveled at the play by the Catholic Church.

    Tartuffe King Louis StudySmarterFig. 7 - King Louis XIV, the "Sun King," was a patron of the arts and a close friend of Moliere.

    As Orgon's family attempt to expose Tartuffe's lies and deceit, many arguments emerge representing more significant social issues of the day. During the 17th century, writers, artists, and scientists began to argue for a more rational and grounded approach to looking at the world. The Enlightenment favored evidence and logic over emotion and religion. When family members point out Tartuffe's dishonesty, they often use logic and reason. However, Tartuffe is shown to employ emotional manipulation to exert his power.

    Although Molière was critical of the Catholic Church, he still believed in God. Throughout the play, many characters are often offended by Tartuffe's actions and consider them an affront to God. Molière argues for a more enlightened approach to worship and the Church's role in life. He rejects the dogmatic belief that man is inherently evil and can only be saved through religion.

    Tartuffe: Quotes

    In Tartuffe, Molière uses witty dialogue to provide deep insights into people's nature and religion's role in society.

    "So nothing is more odious to me

    Than the display of specious piety

    Which I see in every charlatan

    Who tries to pass for a true holy man"

    (Act I, scene v).

    Even the level-headed Cléante is angered by Tartuffe's fake displays of piousness. While Tartuffe's talk fools Orgon, the rest of the family notices his lack of action. Molière uses the disconnect between Tartuffe's words and actions to highlight the dangers of those who invoke religion to win people's trust.

    "There'll be no sins for which we must atone,

    'Cause evil only exists when it's known

    Adam and Eve were public in their fall to sin

    in private is not to sin at all"

    (Act IV, Scene vii).

    As Tartuffe attempts to seduce Elmire, he uses a religious argument to justify their infidelity. Tartuffe's belief that a sin is only an actual sin if others know about it completely sums up his hypocrisy. At several points throughout the play, Tartuffe uses Biblical references and arguments to justify the contradictory nature of actions.

    Tartuffe - Key takeaways

    • Tartuffe is a play by French playwright Molière.
    • The story follows a manipulative con artist who gains influence over the head of a wealthy, aristocratic family in France.
    • The play is a satirical comedy that highlights the challenges the level of power religious institutions had over everyday life in France during the 17th century.
    • Molière uses Tartuffe to warn against the dangers of blindly following religious dogma and the corrupting effect of hypocrisy.
    • The play was highly controversial and suffered repression from the French Catholic Church.


    1. Fig. 1 - Moliere from Rijksmuseum, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portret_van_Jean_Baptiste_Poquelin_de_Moli%C3%A8re,_RP-P-1906-3270.jpg
    2. Fig. 2 - Tartuffe by Maywind; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tartuffefront.jpg
    3. Fig. 3 - Le Tartuffe from Rijksmuseum: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ongewenste_omhelzing_Le_tartuffe_(titel_op_object),_RP-P-1913-865.jpg
    4. Fig. 4 - Tartuffe Act V by Helsingborgs stadsteater: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tartuffe_1963.jpg
    5. Fig. 6 - French Catholic by Xophe84: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drapeau_royaliste.svg
    6. Fig. 7 - Louis XIV by Robert Nanteuil: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/428863
    Frequently Asked Questions about Tartuffe

    Why did Moliere write Tartuffe?

    Moliere wrote Tartuffe to warn against the dangers of blindly following religious dogma and hypocrisy. 

    Who did Tartuffe fool?

    Tartuffe managed to fool Argon and his mother Madam Pannelle. 

    What genre is Tartuffe?

    Tartuffe is a satirical comedy. 

    Who wrote Tartuffe?

    Tartuffe was written by French playwright Moliere. 

    When was Tartuffe written?

    Tartuffe originally appeared in 1664. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In which European country is Tartuffe set? 

    Who is the head of the aristocratic family Tartuffe infiltrates? 

    What is Cléante's relationship to Orgon? 

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