English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Study Guide to
Moliere's Tartuffe

Be sure to read the excellent introduction to the play by the translator of our edition, Richard Wilbur.

Molière (1622-1673) was a younger contemporary of Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), though as an actor and manager of a theatre company his social status hardly compared with that of the Roman architect.  Yet Molière enjoyed the patronage of most powerful monarch in Europe during the 17th Century -- Louis XIV of France (1638-1715).  Louis' reign was extraordinarily long, lasting from the death of his father (Louis XIII) in 1643 until his own in 1715, although between 1643 and 1661 direct responsibility for the conduct of government fell to his mother, Catherine de Medici, who delegated it in turn to Cardinal Mazarin.  Molière first performed before the king in 1658, and continued with at least an annual hit until his death, which occurred during a performance of his The Imaginary Invalid, while he was playing the title role.  His greatest comedies were produced during the high point of Louis' career as "Le Rey Soleil" ("The Sun King"), before Louis' policies resulted in religious repression and crippling financial crisis at home and determined opposing alliances abroad.

Before reading the play, you should acquaint yourself with the material in WH on Louis' reign (1643-1715).  The chief sections to cover are

"Absolutism, Monarchy, and the Balance of Power" (in Chapter 14)

What were the aims of the French state under Cardinals Richlieu and Mazarin that were pressed further by Louis XIV?

What were the forces that opposed these policies at home and abroad?

What was the outcome of the absolutist project in France?

How were similar conflicts at work in England and Germany -- but with different outcomes?

"The Revolution in Political Thought" (in Chapter 15)

What was the political theory advanced to legitimize Louis XIV's policies in France?

What alternative political theories were advanced elsewhere in Europe?

"The French Baroque" (in Chapter 14)

How did the architectural complex of the Louis XIV's palace and grounds at Versailles express the political theory under which he sought to rule France?

After you finish reading the play, you should work through the remarks on Tartuffe as a political parable and on the play as a critique of religious fanaticism. You may also wish to consult an outline of the play. (Only the first 3 acts are covered. There are 3 documents, but you will find a link to the outline for Act II at the end of the outline for Act I, etc.)

Here are the main questions to ask yourself as you work your way through the play.

Track the ways in which Molière exploits the following paradox:

In how many instances does Orgon insist on his authority?

In those instances what does he base his claim to authority on?

In those instances, what are his real motives (expressed or unexpressed)?  How do these motives convict him of acting like a child (i.e., someone who needs to be ruled by an authority)?

King Louis XIV never directly appears as a character in the play.  But he is a powerful "presence" by proxy at the end.  Consider some of the ways the King is indirectly characterized.

Check a college dictionary for the term deus ex machina. How does the plot of this play qualify as an example of this kind of structure?

What is the connection with this kind of structure and the concept of "advent" with which we have often been concerned in the course of this semester?

What qualities of character of the King are attested to by his actions as reported by the Officer in his final speech in the play?

How might these be classified under the connotations attaching to the idea of the "sun"?

Here you might want to recall some of the Christianized neo-Platonic attributes of the sun that played a role in Copernicus' decision to experiment theoretically with imagining the sun at the center of the cosmos.

You may wish to review Matthews and Platt, pp. 354-57, 358-59, 368-70, and 386 (Fig. 15.7).

For some additional reflections on the theme of authority and reason, see the mini-essay on Tartuffe as a political parable.

Can you recognize the Augustinian picture of the human condition at work in the kind of Christianity Orgon is so eager to hear from Tartuffe, and to impose on his family?

What, for example, is the view the various characters take towards the pleasures of this life?  With which to you think the play as a whole expects the audience to be in sympathy?

What are these? (What sorts of pleasures count as "pleasures of this life," in the play?)

What attitude does the play as a whole seem to endorse towards these?

How does it get these ideas into play?  Are there, for example, characters in the play that we are supposed to recognize as spokespeople for sound views in the issues under dispute?

What do you notice about the bottom line in Orgon's reply to Marianne's objection to his plan to marry her off to Tartuffe?

What do you notice about the picture of human nature Tartuffe appeals to in the speech by which he gets himself off the hook with Orgon in the face of Damis' accusation?

What is the connection between this picture of human nature and Orgon's view that he is doing the right thing in trying to break the wills of his children?  (What is the connection with this picture of human nature and the idea of the sinfulness in general of insubordination?)

How does Orgon's mother Madame Pernelle indirectly help clarify the roots of Orgon's religious extremism?

Study carefully the way she behaves in the opening scene.  What does she complain of about the household she's leaving?  How does she conduct herself in the course of this altercation?

How does Dorine's analysis of Madame Oronte implicitly apply to Madame Pernelle?

If it applies to Madame Pernelle, might it apply to Orgon?  Is there any evidence in what follows that it might?

In how many other ways, for instance, does Orgon's personality (as expressed in his sentiments and behavior) express that of his mother?

Does what you come up with here tend to confirm or disconfirm Wilbur's hypothesis about how Orgon has come to go off the deep end?

After you've done your best to formulate answers to these questions, it would be profitable to consult the mini-essay on Tartuffe as a satire on religious fanaticism.

  Go to Reading List #3.

  Go to the Home Page of the course.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright © 1997 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 29 November 1998.