Moliere grew up in a bourgeois family, but finding such a life stifling he gave it up in order to write plays and the lead the life of an actor. He had much success in this new career and many of his works were patronized and performed for King Louis XIV. Besides the ridiculous characters themselves driving the comedy of his plays, he employs other standard comical tropes such as slapstick and misunderstandings. Like Shakespeare, most of these comedies center on marriages and forces that threaten to thwart these unions, but his characters lack Shakespeare’s depth and tend to be one-dimensional, focusing on a single idea and obsession. Nevertheless, one quality that recommends these plays is that they are genuinely funny. Moliere really does a great job at capturing the ridiculousness of humanity and their sometimes obsessive tendencies.
Two young ladies named Madelon and Cathos have developed ridiculous expectations about romance and courtship from reading too many novels. The novels have left them with unrealistic expectations about how a relationship should proceed. This goes so far that they even want to change their name to make them more in line with the heroines of these stories. The father of Madelon believes his daughter and niece have gone mad. After rejecting two potential suitors whom they find to be bores, Madelon’s father tries to lecture them to have more commonsense, but to no avail. Offended by the rejection, the two suitors decide to play a trick on them and have their servants pretend to be nobility in order to court them. Soon Madelon and Cathos become enraptured by the fake nobles who fit all their ludicrous expectations only to have the illusion pulled from under their eyes and realize they’ve been fooled.
Although very different plots and dramatic tones, the “novel reading creating false expectations about reality” theme is a forerunner of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, both of which possess heroines that become partially dissatisfied with their lives due to novels. Although this is a comical take on the issue rather than a tragic one like those later novels. The play raises the important point that various forms of media often present unrealistic ideals of romantic relationships, which can lead to dissatisfaction when the real thing fails to live up to the idealistic make-believe. Likewise, the practical is being contrasted with the idealistic.
With the help of his reluctant servant, Sganerelle, Don Juan seduces women after woman by marrying them and then leaving them. Don Juan believes heaven and hell are mere superstitions and therefore there will not be any consequences for his actions. The play opens shortly after he has abandoned Dona Elvira, a woman he snatched from a convent and made break her vows of chastity in order to marry her, sleep with her, and then leave her. After his betrayal, she sends her brothers to avenge her honor and Don Juan must flee for his life, but along the way of seducing more women he unwittingly saves one of the brother’s life from robbers. This debt causes the brother to give Don Juan a chance to repent and fulfill his marriage vows to Dona Elvira. Don Juan ends up visiting a statue of the local commander whom Don Juan killed in a duel the previous year. He jokingly invites the statute to dinner, which then leads to the statue nodding its head and accepting the invitation. The superstitious and God-fearing Sganerelle warns his master that this is heaven’s sign that G-d has grown tired of Don Juan’s sinful ways, but Don Juan remains skeptical and refuses to repent. At dinner the statute arrives and then invites Don Juan to sup with him. Sganerelle warns him again that it is a sign from heaven that Don Juan must change his ways and repent. Not planning to change his ways, Don Juan attempts to put off the revenge of the brothers of Dona Elvira by pretending to be religious, convinced that you can fool anybody with false religious appearance. This fake and hypocritical religiosity offends heaven further; the statue arrives for their dinner date and drags Don Juan down to hell. This play inspired Mozart’s famous opera, Don Giovanni.
Harpagon loves money more than anything else in the world to the extent that his own son must stoop to borrowing in order to afford decent clothes. His daughter, Elise has fallen in love with Valere, a disenfranchised nobleman who is currently acting as Harpagon’s steward and pretending to agree with his miserly ways in order to win his favor. Meanwhile, his son, Cleante, has fallen in love with a neighbor named Mariane. The only problem is that Harpagon has decided to marry Mariane himself, impressed by her frugality, which potentially crushes the dreams of his son. He has also plans to crush Elise’s dreams when he reveals that he has arranged a marriage for her to a wealthy gentlemen, who requires no dowry for Elise and thus Harpagon can avoid giving up any money. While all of this is happening, Harpagon has buried a large sum of money in his backyard. Eventually the money is stolen by one of his servants in league with Valere. Obsessed with his lost fortune, Harpagon promises to give up Mariane to his son if only he can have the money back. The miser figure appears earlier in the Roman playwright Plautus’ play, The Pot of Gold, and later in the form of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.
The Would-be Gentleman
M. Jourdain is a bourgeois who tries his best to imitate the nobility, taking frivolous dancing, music, fencing, and philosophy lessons. He dreams of one day becoming a true gentleman. He befriends the nobility who take advantage of him by borrowing large sums of money that they never intend to pay back. His noble “friend” named Dorante, a comte, pretends to court a marquise named Dorimene for him, but really is courting the marquise for himself with Jourdain’s money. Jourdain’s obsession with the nobility becomes so bad that he refuses to marry off his middle-class daughter to anyone without a title and rejects her wealthy bourgeois suitor, Cleonte, because he lacks a title. So they play a trick on him; Cleonte dresses up and pretends to be a Turkish prince so that he can marry Jourdain’s daughter.
The School for Wives
The plays opens describing a Paris full of women cheating on their husbands. In fear that he will be made a cuckold like everyone else, Arnolphe comes up with a plan to raise up an adopted ward named Agnes in a way that would make her completely ignorant about the world and thus unlikely to cheat on him when he eventually marries her. Before he can broach the subject of marrying her, though, it turns out a boy named Horace has stumbled upon her by accident and they’ve fallen in love with each other. Complicating matters further is that Horace is the son of Arnolphe’s good friend. Based on his father’s friendship, Horace confides in Arnolphe about his love and conspires with him to get the upper hand over his mistress’s guardian, not realizing Arnolphe is the guardian and he keeps struggling to figure how the guardian keeps learning of his plans and spoiling them.
This is a play about a religious hypocrite named Tartuffe who finds favor with a wealthy bourgeois named Orgon. The rest of the family can see through Tartuffe’s religious façade and into his hypocritical nature, but Orgon cannot see it. Orgon takes pity on him, and tries to punish his family for their treatment of Tartuffe by disinheriting them and leaving all his property to Tartuffe. Orgon eventually discovers the truth when Tartuffe tries to seduce Orgon’s wife and arrange an affair, while Orgon is hidden in the same room. However, it is too late. Tartuffe, now in control of Orgon’s property, kicks them out of the house. Tartuffe then reports them to the law because Orgon in confidence foolishly reveals that he failed to turn over a letter to the authorities from someone who was branded a traitor, which itself is a punishable offense. However, the king sees through this ploy and the guards sent to supposedly arrest Orgon end up giving Tartuffe his just deserts.
Alceste is a misanthrope who appreciates genuine sentiments and hates the phoniness of humanity. He’s an early Holden Caulfield! Against his will, he has fallen in love with Celimene who flirts with all the men in town. He competes against other suitors for her hand and almost ends up in major trouble with the law because he refuses to repent his genuine sentiments and ends up offending certain people high up in court. He also refuses to suck up to the judge, which was a common practice during the time, and believes his position, which is the truth, will win the day. After losing his case, tired of society’s evils, he decides he needs to move to the countryside, away from people. Celimene agrees to marry him, but she won’t move to the country to escape the hypocritical city life, which she loves. All this helps him realize that she is not the woman for him.
The Clever Women
Philaminte rules over her husband, Chrysale, and makes all the important decisions in the house. She is a female philosopher who dreams of one day opening up her own school for female intellectuals. Day after day Philaminte, her daughter Armande, and her sister-in-law Belise spend philosophizing about obscure issues, debating unimportant points of French grammar, reading third-rate Romantic novels, and fall into raptures as they listen to a talentless third-rate poet, their friend, Trissotin. Armande refuses to marry any man, corrupted by her philosophy into believing that love should be pure and unadulterated, not physical, which prevents her from returning Clitandre’s love in a way satisfactory to him. Eventually Clitandre falls in love with her sister, Henriette, who returns his love back. She has more simple tastes and doesn’t fit in with her intellectual relatives. Her father, Chrysale approves of the marriage, but her mother, Philaminte, has plans for Trissotin to be her future son-in-law, leading to a battle of the sexes over who Henriette will end up marrying.
When looking at these plays as a group, certain larger commonalities become evident. Moliere creates his comedy from the obsessive vices of his main characters. Harpagon is too obsessed with money, M. Jourdain is too obsessed with the nobility, Arnolphe is too obsessed with his fear of being cuckolded, etc. It is precisely these obsessions that lead them into trouble. Moliere is mocking the bourgeois of his times as social climbers (M. Jourdain), obsessed with money (Harpagon), and having a complete lack of taste or social decorum. This makes sense given his upper-class patrons. However, this characteristic so important to his plays goes deeper than the merely historical and tries to point out the dangers of irrational obsessions in general. There is nothing wrong with caring about money in relation to your needs, there is nothing wrong with secretly having some fear about being cheated on by a wife or lover; these are natural reactions. It only becomes a problem when these worries become an obsession and lead to irrational and unreasonable behavior.
From plays like the Precious Provincials and The Clever Women, it is clear that he is also interested in exploring what he sees as the problems with women’s rights. The female intellectuals of The Clever Women are clearly proto-feminist figures, wanting to create their own school for female intellectuals. In both plays, Moliere mocks the idea of such women, pointing out that they often have poor perceptions of the world, often misunderstand much of the scholarship they’re reading, their taste in poetry and novels are terrible, and all around come off as ridiculous. Now I don’t necessarily agree with these sentiments, but it would be irresponsible of me to ignore an issue that Moliere is exploring in his work. Even without agreeing, though, the way he does portray these characters makes for some comedy gold. Likewise, even though Moliere was targeting a particular type of woman who would frequent the salons of his day, the Precious Provincials can be read as making a more generalized statement against idealizing impossible relationship standards found in art and The Clever Women can be read as mocking anyone with intellectual pretentions who play at intellectualizing and philosophy, but actually have no idea what they’re talking about and lack good sense.