WORLD LITERATURE II (ENG 252)
Tartuffe Study Guide
Dr. Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI
Tartuffe is a delightful play from France's Golden Age. Not only is Tartuffe a great classic, it is fun to read or to see (there are excellent films of Tartuffe available; it is also performed fairly often). It deals with family troubles, struggles between the generations, thwarted young love, reasonable folks who are ignored, pompous fools who cause great trouble, and a truly evil villain, the hypocrite, Tartuffe. Tartuffe also offers a solid basis for comparison and contrast with later works you will be reading, including Candide (varieties of fools), Faust (two sorts of evil leaders), and Hedda Gabler (women's conditions and behavior).
Louis XIV, the Sun King, reigned in France from 1643-1715. He was an absolute monarch who ruled by divine right and was considered God's vicar on earth. The court he ruled over was incredibly elaborate, with complex public ceremonies for every moment of the day and night, including a very public dressing ceremony, where the King would be surrounded by increasing crowds of courtiers as he went through the process of getting dressed each morning.
Early in Louis' reign (1648-49), there had been a brief, but violent civil war, the Fronde; this is the uprising that Orgon's friend was involved in; his papers nearly got Orgon arrested.
Religion was a very serious issue in 17th century Europe. In the early 17th c., there had been bitter, violent religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots. This was followed by a period of intense religious fervour during Louis' reign.
One powerful group in France was the Company of the Holy Sacrament -- an extreme, influential Catholic organization, which enforced strict religious practices among its members. They emphasized good deeds and a puritanical code of behavior. They also encouraged placing spiritual directors into people's homes, so one can understand why they felt particularly attacked by the character of Tartuffe, an evil spiritual director in the home of a fool. This group was very hostile towards Tartuffe.
French literature under Louis XIV enjoyed one of the rare "golden ages," like those of Shakespearean England and Classical Greece. French writers drew on the Greek and Latin classics as sources for many of their stories and plays. They greatly admired the restraint, formal excellence and power of these classics. But, this was not a period of hollow imitation--brilliant new literature was created out of these ancient sources. The French classicists of this period venerated reason and good sense, not formal logic. Cleante, in Tartuffe, is a fine example of this ideal. He is a reasonable man, a pious man, but not a dry academic. He exhibits good sense, not rigid logic. Of course, within the comic world of the play, no one pays any attention to his reasonable suggestions, and that is part of the fun of Tartuffe.
Moliere's primary goal was to entertain, "A...very spoiled, and generally well-educated public... the middle and upper-middle classes of the city, the aristocrats and officials at court, the royal family and...the Sun King himself, who was obsessed with the theater." (Mander, 18)
Louis XIV loved Moliere's satires, so long as they did not make fun of kings. Louis' favor was especially important when Moliere wrote Tartuffe, in which the villain is a despicable hypocrite who took advantage of the powerful religious feelings of the age. Moliere created Tartuffe as a satirical attack on religious hypocrisy, not religion. The Church, however, saw Tartuffe as an attack on its spiritual directors, and "...though Louis XIV took a saner view [of Tartuffe] he was pressed by his advisers to prevent a public performance...." (Maland, 258)
From old French farce, Moliere learned about "... knock-about clowning...stumbling drunks and bewildered cuckolds." From the Italian Commedia dell'Arte he learned "how to improvise on stock situations according to the nature of each audience; like them he often performed with a mask or floured face..." (Maland, 173)
Moliere first developed his characters from the Italian mask, a kind of comedy which used a set of stock characters who wore masks. These "masks" or stock characters included the "...Captain [who] is no more than vanity and cowardice; Scaramouche, roguery and impudence... Harlequin, the naïve and awkward valet...and Pantaloon [who] is melancholy old age, miserly and foolish." (Lanson, 23)
"For Molière a character is a person who is powerfully unified by the domination of a passion or vice that destroys or subdues all other likes and dislikes of his soul, and this quality becomes the motivating force of all his thought and action." (Lanson, 22)
Moliere's comic fools and villains "...retain the ...fixity of characters...of Italian masks....the only purpose of the action is...to bring forth inexhaustibly, by different acts and under different light, that feeling which is the single mainspring of the character." Because these characters are changeless, "...their comedy has no denouement, because they have to be as they are from start to finish..." (Lanson, 25)
Thus, when Orgon realizes that Tartuffe has deceived him, he immediately switches from loving religion to hating religion without a pause in the middle to be reasonable. The king may save the day, but nothing will enlighten Orgon and make him into a reasonable man.
The opposition of "...the fool and the villain, the dupe and the intriguer...." is an ancient comic pattern. "Moliere's...comedies...follow this...pattern.... The victim never learns from experience: ridiculous characters are incapable of learning in this manner, for one of their weaknesses is always unreasonableness, lack of insight, and unresponsiveness in the face of attempts to persuade them of their folly.... " (Mander, 32-33)
I have collected a number of interesting WWW sites that deal with 17th century French culture. This site is actually designed for studying another French playwright, Racine, a contemporary of Moliere. However, it links to many fascinating sites that offer background in 17th century French culture, so it is equally useful for gathering background information on Moliere. To get there, click on Racine Web Site.
Guicharnaud, Jacques, Ed. Molière: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1964. Includes the following essays:
Gossman, Lionel, "The Comic Hero and His Idols," pp. 69 - 78. Rpt. from Men and Masks, a Study of Molière, Johns Hopkins, 1963. Rpt. from the chapter "Molière in His Own Time."
Guicharnaud, Jacques, "Introduction," pp. 1-13.
Lanson, Gustave, "Molière and Farce," pp. 20 - 28. Rpt. from the Tulane Drama Review, VIII, 2 (Winter 1963); pages 144-54 of the article are reprinted here. The original article, "Molière et la farce," Revue de Paris (May 1901), was translated by Ruby Cohen.
Ergang, Robert. Europe From the Renaissance to Waterloo. 1954 edition with revised bibliography. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1939.
Maland, David. Culture & Society in Seventeenth- Century France. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.
Mander, Gertrud. Moliere. Trans. Diane Stone Peters. World Dramatists. N. Y.:Frederick Ungar, 1973.
Wolf, John B. Louis XIV. New York: Norton, 1968.
(c) Diane Thompson: 2/27/1999: updated: 08/11/2005