Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière (January 15, 1622 – February 17, 1673), was a French writer, director, and actor who, along with Jean Racine, is one of the most important figures in the establishment of French drama. His importance to French theater is analogous to Shakespeare's influence on the English stage. Molière, however, unlike Shakespeare or Racine, was exclusively a master of comedy, and he possessed a particular genius for ironic satire. His satires, and the characters they produced, like Tartuffe and Argan, are among the best-loved comic creations of the modern stage because they so perfectly unmask the pretensions of human weaknesses. Owing to his satirical wit, Molière was always getting himself into entanglements with censors, and it would not be until the king of France himself became the producer of Molière’s acting company that he would be free from harassment and controversy.
Molière’s position in French literature is perhaps most similar to that of Christopher Marlowe, even though Marlowe was primarily a tragedian. Like Marlowe, Molière pushed the boundaries of French taste by launching satires on virtually every sacred subject: marriage, infidelity, religion, the government—nothing was above (or below) Molière. The openness of French literary tastes (for centuries after Molière's death, it would be a trend for French writers to be the progenitors of almost every major literary movement in the Western world) in many ways owes its existence to Molière's wry comedies.
Molière, writing at the beginning of what would become The Enlightenment, was in the midst of rapidly changing times in which almost every belief about the nature of the world was being turned on its head—his times would produce some of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking writers of all time—and standing at the start of all this intellectual progress, Molière made it permissible not only for us to think great thoughts, but to laugh at them also. He was a comedian of such genius and sensitivity that he is still, more than three centuries after his death, invoked as a point of reference by critics and comedians alike.
The son of a Parisian artisan and furniture upholsterer, Poquelin lost his mother when still a child. He entered the prestigious Jesuit Collège de Clermont, to complete his studies. There are many stories about his time at the college: it is said that his father was very demanding, that he met the prince of Conti, or that he was a pupil of the philosopher Pierre Gassendi, but none of these seems to have any foundation.
It is certain, however, that Poquelin was a close friend of the abbé La Mothe Le Vayer, son of François de La Mothe-Le-Vayer, in the years in which the abbé was editing his father's works, and it has been suggested that Poquelin may have been influenced by them. Among his first works was a translation (now lost) of De Rerum Natura by the Roman philosopher Lucretius.
When Poquelin reached the age of 18, his father passed on to him the title of Tapissier du Roi, and the associated office of valet de chambre, which brought him into frequent contact with King Louis XIV. It has been claimed that Poquelin graduated in law at Orléans in 1642, but some doubts remain about this.
In June 1643, together with his lover Madeleine Béjart and a brother and sister of hers, he founded the theater company or troupe of L'Illustre Théâtre, which became bankrupt in 1645. At this time he assumed the pseudonym Molière, possibly inspired by a small village of the same name in Southern France, close to Le Vigan. The failure of the company caused him to spend some weeks in prison for debt. He was freed with the help of his father, and left with Madeleine for a tour of villages as a traveling comedian. This life lasted 14 years, during which he initially played with the companies of Charles Dufresne, and subsequently created a company of his own. In the course of his travels he met the prince of Conti, governor of Languedoc, who became his patron, and named his company after him. This friendship would end later, when Conti joined Molière's enemies in the Parti des Dévots.
In Lyons, Mme. Duparc, known as la Marquise, joined the company. La Marquise was courted, in vain, by Pierre Corneille, later becoming 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 after Molière became very angry with Racine for secretly presenting his tragedy to the company of the Hôtel de Bourgogne as well.
Molière reached Paris in 1658, playing with some success at the Louvre (then a theater for rent) in Corneille's tragedy Nicomède and in the farce Le docteur amoureux (“The Doctor in Love”). He was awarded the title of Troupe de Monsieur (the Monsieur was the king's brother) and with the help of Monsieur, his company joined a famous Italian Commedia dell'arte company. He became firmly established at their theater, Petit-Bourbon, where on November 18, 1659, he performed the premiere of Les Précieuses Ridicules (“The Affected Young Ladies”), one of his masterpieces.
Les Précieuses Ridicules was the first of Molière's many attempts to make fun of certain mannerisms and affectations then common in France. He coined the phrase that satire castigat ridendo mores (“criticizes customs through humor”), sometimes mistaken for a classical Latin proverb. The style and the content of his first success were soon at the center of a wide literary debate.
Despite his own preference for tragedy, Molière became famous for his farces, which were generally presented 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, a very brief written outline. He also wrote two comedies in verse, but these were less successful and are generally considered less significant.
Les Précieuses 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.
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”), an 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 honor 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 Théâtre du Palais-Royal, still with his Italian partners, and married Armande, whom he believed to be the sister of Madeleine; she was in fact her illegitimate daughter, the result of a flirtation with the Duc of Modène in 1643, when Molière and Madeleine were starting their affair. The same year he played L'École des Femmes (“The School for Wives”), subsequently regarded as a masterpiece. Both this work and his marriage attracted much criticism. 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 in attendance, and L'Impromptu de Versailles, a work about Molière's troupe preparing an improvisation. 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 parti des Dévots arose in French high society, who protested against Molière's excessive "realism" and irreverence, which were causing some embarrassment. Molière was accused of marrying 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, creating 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.
The king allegedly suggested that Molière suspend the performances of Tartuffe, and the author rapidly wrote Dom Juan, ou le Festin de Pierre to replace it. It was a strange work, derived from a work by Tirso de Molina, inspired by the life of Giovanni Tenorio, 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”). 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 Vasé, who became fond of his theater, but it was a commercial flop, forcing Molière to immediately write the 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 troupe 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 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 archbishop 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”), which remains popular.
With Lully he again used music for Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, for Les Amants Magnifiques, and finally for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (“The Would-Be Gentleman”), another of his masterpieces which is reportedly directed against Colbert, the minister who had condemned his old patron Fouquet. The collaboration with Lully ended with a tragic ballet, Psyché, written with the help of Thomas Corneille, brother of Pierre.
In 1671, Madeleine Béjart died, and Molière suffered from this loss and from the worsening of his own illness. Nevertheless, his Les Fourberies de Scapin (“Scapin's Schemings”), a farce and a comedy in 5 acts, was successful. 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, so Molière had to go back to his traditional genre. It was a great success, leading to his final work, which was also one that is held in high esteem.
One of the most famous moments in Molière's life is the last, which became legend: he died on stage, while performing his final play, Le Malade Imaginaire. Strictly speaking, he collapsed on stage, and died a few hours later at his house, without sacraments, because two priests refused to visit him and the third arrived too late. According to the tradition, Molière was wearing yellow, and because of that, there is a superstition that yellow brings bad luck to actors.
As an actor, he was not allowed by the laws of the time to be buried in an ordinary cemetery, in sacred ground. His wife Armande asked the king Louis XIV to allow a "normal" funeral celebrated at night.
Many words or phrases used in Molière's places are still used in current French:
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