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Moliere’s Tartuffe and Its Role in The World Literature

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“Tartuffe or The Impostor” is one of Moliere’s most famous plays, which premiered in 1664, but remains popular to this day. The name Tartuffe became a household name, denoting a deceiver, a prude, a hypocrite. Moliere is an outstanding satirist, a talented poet, but in addition, he is also a brilliant propagandist. In the finale of the comedy, the king punishes injustice and the expected happy ending comes. The play combines both classic and innovative features, the genre of comedy and the skill of political propaganda. This comedy was a phenomenon of the historical era in which it was created. The premiere of this work, the historical context, and the reaction of the French society of those times show that this is not only a work of art but also a product of the propaganda of the absolutist monarchy.

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin is 17th-century French playwright, creator of classic comedy, gaining popularity under the pseudonym Molière. Jean-Baptiste was born in 1622 in Paris. Considering the fact that the father of the writer acquired the position of royal clerk and valet of the king, they had no problems with finances. Jean-Baptiste received a good education but soon realized that he was not interested in a family craft at all. He decided to become an actor. Just at that time in France, theatrical art was subjected to change. The theater passed from the street stages to the magnificent halls, transformed from fun for the crowd to exquisite entertainment for aristocrats. Together with several actors, Jean-Baptiste created his theater, which, however, did not last long, unable to withstand competition with professional Parisian troupes. And he left the capital, deciding to try to succeed in the provinces. During his long wanderings in France, Moliere re-trained from a tragedy actor to a comedian, since it was farcical performances that the provincial audience liked most. Besides, the need to constantly update the repertoire made Moliere begin to compose plays on his own. Jean-Baptiste, who dreamed of playing the main characters in performances, involuntarily became a playwright. Thus, Moliere traveled a lot around the country, was familiar with different audiences and, therefore, thoroughly studied human and social vices. After all, it is impossible to become a playwright without such special knowledge.

Moliere’s first original play was presented to the Parisian public in 1659. The success was overwhelming and even scandalous. The main characters of Moliere’s works express, as a rule, three main human vices: the hypocrite Tartuffe, who believes that for any sins he can find an excuse; the atheist Don Juan, defying all that is holy and as a result perishing; and Alceste, who does not recognize his vices and weaknesses. It is important to notice that all the comedies, which presented the author with literary immortality, brought him a lot of trouble in life. After “Tartuffe” Moliere became the object of increased attention of Jesuits. “Tartuffe” initially was banned because priests saw in mockery of the religious hypocrisy of Tartuffe attacks on the church. If it were not the support of the king and historical circumstances (the formation of Absolutism, the weakening of the role of the church and the strengthening of the power of the monarch), who knows, perhaps Moliere would have been burned at the stake as a malicious heretic who undermined the foundations of faith. To save the Moliere’s theater from the attacks of the church and Jesuits, the king raised him in rank, giving the name “Actors of the King”, and the troupe began to receive a salary from the treasury. Consequently, Moliere aroused the anger of the church, which, however, was no longer as omnipotent as in the Middle Ages, but he was “approved” by the king.

The comedy “Tartuffe” is based on a family conflict between Orgon and his mother against Tartuffe. There is still a love conflict. Moliere does not refuse a comedy story and weaves it into a play. Tartuffe combines both conflicts, although he does not participate in the conflicts themselves, everything happens as if around him. Tartuffe is an ideological image. This image is created until the appearance of Tartuffe (before the second act), in order to destroy it in the end, of course. Before he appears, he must seem like a thin, nice guy, while in reality, he is a well-fed hypocrite. Since 1530, France has been waging a revolutionary religious war. As part of this religious confrontation, the monk Tartuffe should be considered good, but in reality, he is not good at all. The character promotes asceticism, although he does the opposite. Moliere plays on this contrast, on the discrepancy between words and deeds. Tartuffe believes that one can adapt to life only through hypocrisy and treachery. Moliere does not oppose religious ideals, but oppose “bad priests” and the fact that values become an object that can be manipulated.

The play was innovative enough for its time. It violated some classic theater norms. The first violation of these norms was the choice of the upper class as characters for the comedy. In the finale, even the king appears. The second violation of the dramatic classics of those times was the presence of two storylines. The third violation was that the comedy genre, which was considered “inferior”, was written in poetry, not prose. On the whole, Moliere created a high comedy for a high audience. The result was a new type of comedy. However, the innovative features and the genre of comedy do not prevent “Tartuffe” from entering the classics. On the contrary, appeal to the “low” genres of literary creativity allowed Moliere to present to the viewer a model of social comedy, in which the vices of the upper social class and the inexhaustible thirst for a life of the lower class are equally well shown. The characters of “Tartuffe” are not exalted ones of “high” classic genres, they are the most ordinary people who live their small, private lives, but nevertheless, do not become less interesting.

The central character, Tartuffe, appears before the reader as a creature devoid of human dignity. He is a kind of receptacle of a host of vices: he has passion for the wife of his benefactor, he wants to rob one who believes and helps him, and finally, he is not afraid of the law and “heavenly judgment”, sinning before people and before God. “Assuage my keen desires, and feel no dread: The sin, if any, shall be on my head.” As we have already mentioned, a special place in “Tartuffe” is occupied by anti-clerical ideas. Under the image of the main villain of the comedy lies the well-known image of the monk, cunning and greedy for life’s pleasures, which only hides behind the faith to commit his bad deeds. Recall the following Tartuffe’s words, “Yes, Brother, I’m a wicked man, I fear: A wretched sinner, all depraved and twisted, the greatest villain that has ever existed.” Initially, Tartuffe was a priest, but due to the attacks of the church, Moliere changed his image to secular, making ham simply a “pious man”.

Thus, the Tartuffe was created at a time when the king significantly strengthened his authority. Louis XIV believed in the motto, “one king, one law, one faith”. The king supported Moliere, and Moliere, considering gratitude and loyalty to the regime, praised the king in his plays. He performed in art an extremely important function for his time strengthened respect for the royal power through the theater, which was then the most important of the arts. Both the playwright and the king perfectly understood the importance of art for propaganda. The 17th century in France was a time of the strengthening of absolutism; the king, with the support of the famous Cardinal Richelieu, was engaged in strengthening centralization, fought with the high nobility, which periodically rebelled against the king, attempted to take advantage of the chaos to wrest power from the king. Echoes of these events also sound in this play and the personality of a certain “Leader”, that is, a king. Let us pay attention to the following lines, the words of an officer from a comedy.

“We serve a Leader to whom all sham is hateful,

A Leader who sees into our inmost hearts,

And can’t be fooled by any trickster’s arts.

His deep soul, though generous and human,

Views all things with discernment and acumen;

His sovereign reason is not lightly swayed,

And all his judgments are discreetly weighed.”

Consequently, Moliere’s play was innovative and classical at the same time; it had not only social, satirical but also propaganda purposes. Art within the framework of the absolutist monarchy was, to a large extent, a state affair of glorifying unlimited royal power, reflecting the ideals of absolutism. Moliere partially embodied this policy in his works, including “Tartuffe”.

The importance of Jean-Baptiste Moliere in world literature is difficult to exaggerate. He combined the traditions of French folk theater and the ideas of humanism, creating a new kind of drama, a new comedy, thereby opening a new page in the history of not only French but also the world theater. Moliere outlined the paths for the subsequent development of theatrical art. In the comedy “Tartuffe” Moliere enters the fight against religious hypocrisy. The author shows how a hypocritical religious sermon destroys all normal human and family relationships. The image of Tartuffe reveals a great social phenomenon. It embodies the centuries-old religious lie, the hypocritical dogma of asceticism, and the gloomy features of the clique of churchmen. Orgon is a type of narrow-minded French bourgeois of that era, uncultured, easily influenced. And the king, naturally, acts as a symbol of justice and wisdom. “Tartuffe” is a product of its era, a masterpiece of world literature, but at the same time a disguised political ode to Absolutism.

Works Cited

  1. ‘Reign Of Louis XIV’. Www2.Stetson.Edu, 2019, https://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/classes/louisxiv.html. Accessed 5 Dec 2019.
  2. ‘Tartuffe By Moliere Translated By Richard Wilbur’. 2019, https://usm.maine.edu/sites/default/files/theatre/Tartuffe%20Production%20Script%20USM%208%2718%2718.pdf. Accessed 4 Dec 2019.
  3. ‘The Path To Royal Absolutism – Creating French Culture | Exhibitions – Library Of Congress’. Loc.Gov, 2019, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/bnf/bnf0004.html. Accessed 5 Dec 2019.

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