Molière Explained

For other uses see Molière (disambiguation).

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin
Born:15 January 1622
Birthplace:Paris, France
Deathplace:Paris, France
Notableworks:Tartuffe; The Misanthrope; The Learned Women; The School for Wives
Spouse:Armande Béjart
Partner:Madeleine Béjart

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, also known by his stage name Molière, (January 15, 1622 - February 17, 1673) was a French playwright and actor who is considered one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature.[1] Among Molière's best-known dramas are Le Misanthrope, (The Misanthrope), L'école des femmes (The School for Wives), Tartuffe ou l'Imposteur, (Tartuffe or the Hypocrite), L'Avare ou l'École du mensonge (The Miser), Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid), and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman).

From a prosperous family and having studied at Clermont College (now Lycée Louis-le-Grand), Molière was well suited to begin a life in the theatre. Thirteen years as an itinerant actor helped him polish his comic abilities whilst he also began writing, combining Commedia dell'Arte elements with the more refined French comedy.[2]

Through the patronage of a few aristocrats, including Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, the brother of Louis XIV, Molière procured a command performance before the King at the Louvre. Performing a classic play by Pierre Corneille and a farce of his own, Le Docteur amoureux (The Doctor in Love), Molière was granted the use of Salle du Petit-Bourbon at the Louvre, a spacious room appointed for theatrical performances. Later, Molière was granted the use of the Palais-Royal. In both locations he found success among the Parisians with plays such as Les Précieuses ridicules (The Affected Ladies), L'École des maris (The School for Husbands) and L'École des femmes (The School for Wives). This royal favour brought a royal pension to his troupe and the title "Troupe du Roi" (The King's Troupe). Molière continued as the official author of court entertainments.[3]

Though he received the adulation of the court and Parisians, Molière's satires attracted criticisms from moralists and the Church. Tartuffe ou l'Imposteur (Tartuffe or the Hypocrite) and its attack on religious hypocrisy roundly received condemnations from the Church while Don Juan was banned from performance. Molière's hard work in so many theatrical capacities began to take its toll on his health and, by 1667, he was forced to take a break from the stage. In 1673, during a production of his final play, Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid), Molière, who suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, was seized by a coughing fit and a haemorrhage while playing the hypochondriac Argan. He finished the performance but collapsed again and died a few hours later. In his time in Paris, Molière had completely reformed French comedy.[3]


Molière was the son of Jean Poquelin, who served as valet de chambre to Louis XIII, and Marie Cressé, the daughter of a prosperous bourgeois family.[4] Jean-Baptiste Poquelin lost his mother at the age of 10 and doesn't seem to have been particularly close to his father. After his mother's death, he lived with his father above the Pavilion de Singes on the rue Saint-Honoré in an affluent quartier of Paris. It is likely that his education commenced with studies in a Parisian petty school; this was followed with his enrollment in the prestigious Jesuit College de Clermont, where he completed his studies in a strict academic environment.

At the age of 18 Jean Poquelin arranged for his son to receive his title ("Tapissier ordinaire de la chambre du Roi") which he had purchased with the payment from Richelieu's enlargement of the court offices. The title required only three months' work and an initial cost of 1,200 livres; the title paid 300 livres a year and provided a number of lucrative contracts. Poquelin also studied as a provincial lawyer some time around 1642, probably in Orléans, but it is not documented that he ever qualified. So far he had followed the plan of his father and it had served him well; he had mingled with nobility at the College and seemed destined for a career in office.

It was at this point that Molière became disenchanted with his father's plans. At age 21 he decided that he preferred a career on the stage. In June 1643 he abandoned his social class and family's plans for his future and pursued the theatre. Taking leave of his father, he joined the beautiful Madeleine Béjart, with whom he had crossed paths before, and founded L'Illustre Théâtre with 630 livres. They were later joined by Madeleine's brother and sister.

The newly founded theater troupe became bankrupt in 1645. Molière had become head of the troupe, due in part, perhaps, to his acting prowess and his legal training. However, the troupe had acquired large debts, mostly for the rent of the theatre (a court for jeu de paume), for which they owed 2000 livres. Historians differ as to who paid his debts, his father, or perhaps the lover of a member of the troupe; either way after a 24-hour stint in prison he returned to the acting circuit. It was at this time that he began to use the pseudonym Molière, possibly inspired by a small village of the same name in the Midi near Le Vigan. It was also likely that he changed his name to spare his father the shame of having an actor in the family (actors, although no longer vilified by the state under Louis XIV, were still not allowed to be buried in sacred ground).

After his imprisonment, he and Madeleine began a theatrical circuit of the provinces with a new theatre troupe; this life was to last about 12 years, during which he initially played in the company of Charles Dufresne, and subsequently created a company of his own, which had sufficient success and obtained the patronage of Philippe I, Duke of Orléans. Few pieces survive from this period, which is documented by La Grange. The most noteworthy are L'Etourdi and Le docteur amoureux; with these two pieces Molière finally moved away from the heavy influence of the Italian Commedia dell'arte whose improvisation had scarred his earlier work, and showed the genius for mockery which was to serve him so well in later life. In the course of his travels he met the Prince of Conti, the governor of Languedoc, who became his patron, and named his company after him. This friendship would later end, when Conti, after contracting syphilis (the result of an unfortunate night spent with a prostitute rather than his official mistress), attempted to reconcile himself with religion and so cure himself. Conti acquired a religious advisor, as was the style at the time, who counseled him against maintaining actors and encouraged him to join Molière's enemies in the Parti des Dévots and the Compagnie de Saint Sacrement.

In Lyon, Mademoiselle Duparc, known as Marquise, joined the company. Marquise was courted, in vain, by Pierre Corneille and later became the lover of Jean Racine. Racine offered Molière his tragedy Théagène et Chariclée (one of the first works he wrote after he had left his theology studies), but Molière would not perform it, though he encouraged Racine to pursue his artistic career. It is said that soon thereafter Molière became angry with Racine when he was told that he had secretly presented his tragedy to the company of the Hôtel de Bourgogne as well.

Arrival in Paris

Molière was forced to reach Paris in stages, staying outside for a few weeks in order to inveigle himself with society gentlemen and allow his reputation to feed in to Paris. Molière reached Paris in 1658 and performed in front of the King at the Louvre (then for rent as a theatre) in Corneille's tragedy Nicomède and in the farce Le docteur amoureux (The Doctor in Love), with some success. He was awarded the title of Troupe de Monsieur (Monsieur being the honorific for the king's brother Philippe I, Duke of Orléans) and with the help of Monsieur, his company joined a famous Italian Commedia dell'arte company. He became firmly established at their theatre, Petit-Bourbon, where on November 18, 1659, he performed the premiere of Les Précieuses Ridicules (The Affected Young Ladies).

Les Précieuses Ridicules was the first of Molière's many attempts to satire certain societal mannerisms and affectations then common in France. It is widely accepted that the plot was based on Samuel Chappuzeau's Le Cercle des Femmes of 1656. He primarily mocks the Académie Française, an 'organization' created by Richelieu to organise and classify the rules of the fledgling French theatre, they preached unity of time and action, styles of verse. He is often associated with the claim that comedy castigat ridendo mores or "criticizes customs through humor" a phrase in fact coined by his contemporary Jean de Santeuil and sometimes mistaken for a classical Latin proverb.

Height of fame

Despite his own preference for tragedy, which he had tried to further with the Illustre Theatre, Molière became famous for his farces, which were generally in one act and performed after the tragedy. Some of these farces were only partly written, and were played in the style of Commedia dell'arte with improvisation over a canovaccio. He also wrote two comedies in verse, but these were less successful and are generally considered less significant. Later in life Molière concentrated on writing musical comedies, in which the drama is interrupted by songs and dance or a combination of both.

Les Précieuses ridicules won Molière the attention and the criticism of many, but it was not a popular success. He then asked his Italian partner Tiberio Fiorelli, famous for his play Scaramouche, to teach him the techniques of Commedia dell'arte. His 1660 play Sganarelle, ou le Cocu Imaginaire (The Imaginary Cuckold) seems to be a tribute both to Commedia dell'arte and to his teacher. Its theme of marital relationships dramatizes Molière's pessimistic views on the falsity inherent in human relationships. This view is also evident in his later works, and was a source of inspiration for many later authors, including (in a different field and with different effect) Luigi Pirandello. It describes a kind of round dance where two couples believe that each of their partners has been betrayed by the other's and is the first in Molière's 'Jealousy series' which includes Dom Garcie de Navarre (a flop), L'École de Maris and L'École des femmes.

In 1661, in order to please his patron, Monsieur, who was so enthralled with entertainment and art that he was soon excluded from state affairs, Molière wrote and played Dom Garcie de Navarre, ou le Prince Jaloux (The Jealous Prince), a heroic comedy derived from a work of Cicognini's. Two other comedies of the same year were the successful L'École des Maris (The School for Husbands) and Les Fâcheux, subtitled Comédie faite pour les divertissements du Roi (a comedy for the King's amusements) because it was performed during a series of parties that Nicolas Fouquet gave in honour of the sovereign. These entertainments led Jean-Baptiste Colbert to demand the arrest of Fouquet for wasting public money, and he was condemned to life imprisonment.

In 1662 Molière moved to the grander Théâtre du Palais-Royal, still with his Italian partners, and married Armande, whom he believed to be the sister of Madeleine. She may have instead been her illegitimate daughter with the Duc of Modène. The same year he played L'École des Femmes (The School for Wives), subsequently regarded as a masterpiece. It poked fun at the limited education that was given to daughters of rich families, and reflected Molière's own marriage. Both this work and his marriage attracted much criticism. The play sparked the protest called the "Quarrel of L'École des femmes". On the artistic side he responded with two lesser-known works: La Critique de "l'École des Femmes", in which he imagined the spectators of his previous work attending it. This perhaps needs some explanation: the piece mocks the people who had criticised L'Ecole des Femmes by showing them at dinner after watching the play; it addresses all the criticism raised about the piece by presenting the critics' arguments and then dismissing them. This was the so-called Guerre Comique (War of Comedy), in which the opposite side was taken by writers like Donneau de Visé, Edmé Boursault, and Montfleury.

But more serious opposition was brewing, focusing on Molière's politics and his personal life. A so-called parti des Dévots arose in French high society, who protested against Molière's excessive "realism" and irreverence, which were causing some embarrassment. These people accused Molière of having married his daughter. The Prince of Conti, once Molière's friend, joined them. Molière had other enemies, too, among them the Jansenists and some traditional authors. However, the King expressed his solidarity with the author, granting him a pension and agreeing to be the godfather of Molière's first son. Boileau also supported him through statements that he included in his Art Poétique.

Molière's friendship with Jean Baptiste Lully influenced him towards writing his Le Mariage Forcé and La Princesse d'Élide (subtitled as Comédie galante mêlée de musique et d'entrées de ballet), written for royal "divertissements" at Versailles.

Le Tartuffe, ou L'Imposteur was also performed at Versailles, in 1664, and created the greatest scandal of Molière's artistic career. Its depiction of the hypocrisy of the dominant classes was taken as an outrage and violently contested. It also aroused the wrath of the Jansenists and the play was banned.

Moliére was always careful not to attack the institution of monarchy. He earned a position as one of the king's favorites and enjoyed his protection from the attacks of the court. The King allegedly suggested that Molière suspend the performances of Tartuffe, and the author rapidly wrote Don Juan, ou le Festin de Pierre to replace it. It was a strange work, derived from a work by Tirso de Molina and rendered in a prose that still seems modern today. It describes the story of an atheist who becomes a religious hypocrite and for this is punished by God. This work too was quickly suspended. The king, demonstrating his protection once again, became the new official sponsor of Molière's troupe.

With music by Lully, Molière presented L'Amour médecin (Love Doctor or Medical Love). Subtitles on this occasion reported that the work was given 'par ordre du Roi', by order of the king, and this work was received much more warmly than its predecessors.

In 1666, Le Misanthrope was produced. It is now widely regarded as Molière's most refined masterpiece, the one with the highest moral content, but it was little appreciated at its time. It caused the "conversion" of Donneau de Visé, who became fond of his theater. But it was a commercial flop, forcing Molière to immediately write Le Médecin malgré lui (The Doctor Despite Himself), a satire against the official sciences. This was a success despite a moral treatise by the Prince of Conti, criticizing the theater in general and Molière's in particular. In several of his plays, Molière depicted the physicians of his day as pompous individuals who speak (poor) Latin to impress others with false erudition, and know only clysters and bleedings as (ineffective) remedies.

After the Mélicerte and the Pastorale Comique, he tried again to perform a revised Tartuffe in 1667, this time with the name of Panulphe or L'imposteur. As soon as the King left Paris for a tour, Lamoignon and the archibishop banned the play. The King finally imposed respect for Tartuffe a few years later, after he had gained more power over the clergy.

Molière, now ill, wrote less. Le Sicilien, ou l'Amour Peintre was written for festivities at the castle of Saint-Germain, and was followed in 1668 by a very elegant Amphitryon, obviously inspired by Plautus's version but with allusions to the King's love affairs. George Dandin, ou le Mari Confondu (The Confounded Husband) was little appreciated, but success returned with L'Avare (The Miser), now very well known.

With Lully he again used music for Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, for Les Amants Magnifiques, and finally for Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Middle Class Gentleman), another of his masterpieces. It is claimed to be particularly directed against Colbert, the minister who had condemned his old patron Fouquet. The collaboration with Lully ended with a tragédie et ballet, Psyché, written in collaboration with Pierre Corneille and Philippe Quinault.

In 1672, Madeleine Béjart died, and Molière suffered from this loss and from the worsening of his own illness. Nevertheless, he wrote a successful Les Fourberies de Scapin (Scapin's Schemings), a farce and a comedy in 5 acts. His following play, La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, is considered one of his lesser works.

Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies) of 1672 is considered one of Molière's masterpieces. It was born from the termination of the legal use of music in theater, since Lully had patented the opera in France (and taken most of the best available singers for his own performances), so Molière had to go back to his traditional genre. It was a great success, and it led to his last work, which is held in high esteem.

In his 14 years in Paris, Molière single-handedly wrote 31 of the 85 plays performed on his stage while simultaneously holding his company together.


Molière suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, possibly contracted when he was imprisoned for debt as a young man. One of the most famous moments in Molière's life was his last, which became legend: he collapsed on stage in a fit of coughing and haemorrhaging while performing in the last play he'd written, ironically entitled Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac). King Louis XIV, who was in the audience, urged him to rest but Molière insisted on completing his performance. Afterwards he collapsed again with another, larger haemorrhage before being taken home, where he died a few hours later, without receiving the last rites because two priests refused to visit him while a third arrived too late. The superstition that yellow brings bad luck to actors is said to originate from the colour of the clothing he was wearing at the time of his death.

Under French law at the time, actors were not allowed to be buried in the sacred ground of a cemetery. However, Molière's widow, Armande, asked the King if her spouse could be granted a "normal" funeral at night. The King agreed and Molière's body was buried in the part of the cemetery reserved for unbaptised infants.

In 1792 his remains were brought to the museum of French monuments and in 1817 transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, close to those of La Fontaine.


Some critics accuse Molière of writing his plays too hastily and not maintaining a consistent style. They point out his occasionally mistaken grammar and metaphors and his use of filler words to complete his lines.[5]

Though conventional thinkers, religious leaders, and medical professionals in Molière's time criticized his work, their ideas did not really impact his widespread success with the public. Other playwrights and companies began to emulate his dramatic style in England and in France. Molière's works continued to garner positive feedback in 18th Century England, but they were not so warmly welcomed in France at this time. However, during the French Restoration of the 19th Century, Molière's comedies became popular with both the French public and the critics. Romanticists admired his plays for the unconventional individualism they portrayed. Twentieth Century scholars have carried on this interest in Molière and his plays and have continued to study a wide array of issues relating to this playwright. Many critics now are shifting their attention from the philosophical, religious, and moral implications in his comedies to the more objective study of his comic technique.[6]

Influence on French culture

Molière is considered the creator of modern French comedy.

Many words or phrases used in Molière's plays are still used in current French:

Portrayals of Molière

A French film very loosely based on the life of Molière starring Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini and Ludivine Sagnier, called Molière,[7] was released in 2007. A previous French film also titled Molière,[8] directed by Ariane Mnouchkine and more accurately presenting his complete biography, was in competition for the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1978.

List of major works


External links

Notes and References

  1. Hartnoll, p. 554. "Author of some of the finest comedies in the history of the theater." and Roy, p. 756. " of the theatre's greatest comic artists."
  2. Roy, p. 756.
  3. Roy, p. 756-7.
  4. Book: Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Lives of the Most Eminent French Writers. 1840. Lea and Blanchard. Philadelphia. 116.
  5. Bellinger, Martha Fletcher (1927) A Short History of the Drama New York: Henry Holt & Company. pp. 178-81. Accessed: Nov 27, 2007
  6. "Molière: Introduction" Drama Criticism. Vol. 13. Ed. Linda Pavlovski. Gale Group, Inc., 2001. Accessed: 28 Nov, 2007