Molière’s comedies impose social norms with the ferocious help of laughter
Between 1664 and 1670 Molière wrote the three comedies Le Misanthrope, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Le Tartuffe, all of which were written and performed in Paris, receiving a varied reception contemporaneously. The latter saw the playwright embroiled in an ongoing debate, due to its apparently egregious treatment of the ecclesiastical orders. Molière would subsequently be required to redact this play meticulously before it could be performed again in 1669. Whilst scholars have generally agreed that to bracket these plays as ‘comedies’ is a reasonable conclusion, the extent to which, and manner wherein they are satirical, and consequently what the implications of this are in Molière’s treatment of social and moral stereotypes is a far more contentious issue.
Ostensibly, there could be said to be some synthetic social and moral types in each play- this essay will focus on Alceste and Célimène in Le Misanthrope, the titular character in Le Tartuffe, and likewise the titular character in Le Bourgois Gentilhomme. All these personalities contain many elements of caricatures which were satirized and mocked regularly in 17th century France- be they a coquette, a hypocrite, a faux dévot, or a social climber. Molière tantalizes us with aspects of social stereotypes, although the characters which Molière has created are in fact nuanced, complex, and it is often rather difficult to condense their essence into a few recognizable traits. Ambiguity resides at the heart of them all, and as such whether or not they are laughed at or with is not a decision which Molière forces his audience to make, due to their multi-faceted characters, and the often morally and socially ambiguous situations they find themselves in. As a result, it is rather difficult to assert that Molière’s comedies help impose social norms through laughter, as the audience often question what and who exactly it is that they are laughing at.
First, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which on a superficial level tells the story of a hapless social climber, so blinded by his desperation to further his social eminence that he frequently encounters comic domestic complications. Whilst Molière satirizes this man and his desperation, due to his ineffectual and bumbling demeanor, Monsieur Jourdain is not merely a puppet, and although we do laugh at this social stereotype, the audience might well also find themselves pitying him occasionally. The Bergsonian idea that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion” might well be borne in mind whilst ascertaining the extent to which we laugh at Monseiur Jourdain. The denouement of the play, with Monsieur Jourdain’s daughter’s wedding to whom he erroneously believes to be a Turkish prince, in act 5, for instance combines slapstick comedy at the expense of Monsieur Jourdain, juxtaposed with the calculating and evil character of Dorante, which keeps the reader in limbo concerning their feelings towards the title character. Robed in Turkish garments and intoning nonsensically “hou la ba ba la chou…” accompanied by the stage direction “danse et chante,” to which his bewildered wife exclaims “Hélas! Mon Dieu! Mon mari est devenu fou,” one would be hard pressed to miss the comic value of the situation, especially given that Monsieur Jourdain would not allow his daughter to marry for love due to his own self-interested motivations concerning her fiancé’s social status.
Yet this apparently poetic justice, rendered all the more forceful through the farcical behavior of Jourdain, is offset by the dialogue between Dorante, an impecunious nobleman who is attempting to seduce Dorimene shortly afterwards. Dorante proudly introduces Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme gloating that « [il] ne [croit] pas dans tout le monde il soit possible de trouver encore un homme aussi fou que celui-là. » Molière here sets up a dramatic tension- whilst the implicit inferiority of the lower-class title character is displayed through his being duped into thinking that his behavior legitimately befits a Turkish wedding ceremony, a point made through the ferocious laughter and compounded by his wife’s reaction, the nobility in question are such inherently repugnant characters that it would not be reasonable to assert that Molière is using laughter and satire to mock a bourgeois social stereotype. Nor, however, does this reflect the subversion of the established social hierarchy, as Monsieur Jourdain is portrayed in an objectively unflattering light. What the denouement of this play does is encapsulate the tension and ambiguity which prevail- the object of satire is unclear and above all the audience must come to an informed decision themselves, as we feel both pity and a sense of ridicule towards the bourgeois main character.
In a similar vein, Tartuffe is a satirical play and undoubtedly a comic one, yet there are ambiguities and tensions which abound, the implications thereof being that the audience can never fully deride a well-recognised moral or social stereotype. There is, however, an essential distinction that must be made when putting Tartuffe and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in dialogue with one another. Whereas during Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the tension arises from the sentiment that one never feels quite certain of the legitimacy of their derision for the title character, in Tartuffe it is clearer that the title character is a villain, yet the manner in which this is the case is not altogether clear. The stereotype of the faux dévot is one which would have been familiar to many a contemporary of Molière’s, and indeed this would be not be an unreasonable characterization of Tartuffe. Yet, the type of religious hypocrite which he is remains translucent at best- he may be a Jesuit priest, but this is by no means a fixed certainty. Much of the terminology used to describe Tartuffe encompasses a Jesuit semantic field. One notes for instance that the term “cabale” is used of him on two instances throughout the play- this being a term which was frequently employed when referring to Jesuit activities. R. Allier’s tract “Cabale des devots” was a polemic mostly focusing on the Company of the Blessed Sacrament- a Catholic secret society containing many Jesuit members, for instance the confessor to Louis XIII. In addition, the bailiff, a close associate of Tartuffe is known as “ Monsieur Loyal,” perhaps a play on words given that St. Ignatius of Loyola was the founding father of the Jesuits, and that “Loyoliste” was a term frequently applied to Jesuits of the era.
Interestingly, in satirizing Tartuffe, Molière above all condemns his disloyalty to the family of Orgon- an accusation frequently leveled against Jesuit priests was one of disloyalty- as it was thought that their preaching had undertones of regicide- contributing to the assassination of Henry IV in 1610. Their ties with Spain were likewise a source of popular misgiving, especially since 1640 when this was in conjunction with the Jansenist’s fiercely anti-Jesuit rhetoric. In 1643 for instance, during a Malthusian crisis in France, the Jesuits were accused of sending grain to Spain. In act 1 scene 5, his religious hypocrisy becomes manifest through the description of Orgon. Orgon, when describing Tartuffe, exclaims that he is “un homme… qui… ha!…. un homme… un homme enfin.” The anacoluthic syntax with frequent use of ellipsis reveals Orgon stumbling to find an epithet, thus at this early stage Tartuffe is already presented somewhat unfavourably, as even a sycophant cannot elucidate his support for him. Moreover, this description fixes Tartuffe as a human being, complete with all the baggage this entails such as being a sinner. In addition, this scene is rife with dramatic irony. One notes for instance that Orgon “lui [faisait] des dons” but that Tartuffe replies that these are “trop” each time, despite later going on to covet his wife. Cléante is scornful, stating “point de cabale en eux,” and at the denouement is proved right. Thus, although in this instance through his heavy deployment of dramatic irony, Molière pours scorn upon the religious hypocrite, a distinct moral type, the exact social type of Tartuffe is left hazy, with the playwright refusing to identify Tartuffe as belonging to any order, although hinting at it, which keeps a certain dramatic ambiguity and tension.
When examining Le Minsanthrope, one is conscious again of social stereotypes, such as an archetypal coquette like Célimène, and a cantankerous and pessimistic character who still yields to her like Alceste. Although satire again abounds in this play, here the ambiguities and tension in terms of who or what are the object of this are twofold. Molière encourages us to level a degree of derision at both of these characters, yet especially in Célimène there exist likable and interesting traits once one examines beyond the synthetic. Act 2 provides an insight into her multi-faceted personality- as she appears in quick succession a tasteless and cruelly flirtatious character, yet equally an intellectual and witty one. Céimène behaves in a deceptive and flirtatious fashion towards the lovestruck Alceste in this act that “c’est vrai, votre ardeur pour moi est sans seconde,” which seems a mocking retort in contrast with his heartfelt and genuine expression of love, when he declares “Ah! Que si de vos mains je rattrape mon cœur/ je bénirai le ciel de ce rare bonheur… Thus, the juxtaposition of her taunting and coquettish response with his leads us to condemn Célimène for he cruelty, yet likewise admire her irony, as she punctures his sense of self-pity. As a result, despite the fact that Célimène appears to be a cold and heartlessly flirtatious character, for whom love is a game, she is in fact a very minor character within this play, speaking roughly 320 lines out of 1800. Moreover, the calamitous ending of the play for her essentially leaves an abiding sense of scorn surrounding her. This leads to the audience being left unsure once again as to what conclusion to draw about a character- as although Molière seems to be pouring scorn upon this flirtatious woman- a recognized social stereotype, he also adorns her with witty and attractive character facets.
Molière as we have seen takes the reader through a kaleidoscopic range of emotions and situations when presenting these different characters to us. In each play examined, the audience have been given various quasi- stereotypical characters, at which we are encouraged and sometimes forced to laugh. Yet Molière very often leaves ambiguity and tension surrounding these characters, and it is this refusal to continually mock a caricature in his plays that Molière does not allow us to deride social stereotypes continually. Concurrently, there are too many episodes of an ostensibly hackneyed character who finds themselves in a ridiculous predicament to conclude that subversion is the result of these comedies. What resounds instead is a series of tensions, both between the characters and within themselves which represent neither a reinforcement of the existing social order through satire, nor a subversion of it through the same means.
Bergson, Henri. Key Writings (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2014), p.465.
 Calder, Andrew. Molière, Le Tartuffe and Anti-Jesuit Propaganda. (Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte, Vol. 28, No. 4 (1976), p.310.
 Whitton, David, Molière : Le Misanthrope. (University of Glasgow French and German Publications: 1993), p.40
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