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The son of a Parisian artisan and furniture upholsterer, Poquelin lost his mother when still a child and 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 of him, 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 gave 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.
Arrival in Paris
In June 1643, together with his lover Madeleine Béjart and a brother and sister of hers, he founded the theatre 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. It was also likely that he changed his name to spare his father of the shame of having an actor in the family. 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 travelling comedian. This life lasted fourteen 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, the 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 Lyon, Mlle 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 after Molière became very angry with Racine when he was told that he had secretly presented his tragedy to the company of the Hôtel de Bourgogne as well.
Molière reached Paris in 1658 and played 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 (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 theatre, 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 (criticises customs through humour), sometimes mistaken for a classical Latin proverb. The style and the content of his first success were soon at the centre of a wide literary debate.
Height of fame
Despite his own preference for tragedy, 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.
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 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 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 attending it, and L'Impromptu de Versailles, 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 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.
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 and inspired by the life of Giovanni Tenorio, 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 Visé, who became fond of his theatre. 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 theatre 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 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 Would-Be 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 tragic ballet, Psyché, written with the help of Thomas Corneille (brother of Pierre).
In 1672, Madeleine Béjart died, and Molière suffered from this loss and from the worsening of his own illness. Nevertheless, he gave 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 theatre, since Lully had patented the opera in France, so Molière had to go back to his traditional genre. It was a great success, and it led on to his last 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 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. It is said that he 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. It was his wife Armande who asked the king Louis XIV to allow a "normal" funeral celebrated at night.
Influence on French culture
Many words or phrases used in Molière's places are still used in current French:
- A tartuffe is a hypocrite, especially a hypocrite displaying affected morality or religious piety.
- A harpagon, named after the main character of The Miser, is an obsessively greedy and cheap man.
- The statue of the Commander (statue du Commandeur) from Don Juan is used as a model of implacable rigidity (raide comme la statue du Commandeur).
- A Don Juan is a man who seduces women with false pretenses, then abandons them.
- In Les Fourberies de Scapin, Act II, scene 7, Géronte is asked for ransom money for his son, allegedly held in a galley. He repeats, "What the devil was he doing in that galley?" ("Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?") The word galère ("galley") is used in French nowadays to mean "a cumbersome, painful affair".
- In Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the title character, M. Jourdain, composes a love note as follows: "Beautiful marchioness, your beautiful eyes make me die from love" ("Belle marquise, vos beaux yeux me font mourir d'amour"). He then asks his poetry teacher to rephrase the sentence which he does by shuffling the words in nearly every single way ("Beautiful marchioness, from love," etc.). M. Jourdain then asks which phrasing is best and the teacher promptly replies that the first is best. Nowadays, the phrase "Belle marquise..." indicates that two different sentences mean the same thing.
- At the beginning of the same scene of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, M. Jourdain requests some help from his poetry teacher to write his love note. His teacher then asks him if he wants to write a poem or just prose. To that question, M. Jourdain replies he does not want either poetry nor prose. His teacher tells him it has to be one or the other, for the reason that these are the two only ways to write. M. Jourdain is very surprised, tells his teacher a very common sentence and asks him whether it is poetry or prose. The teacher says it is prose. M. Jourdain is amazed: "God! It is more than forty years since I have told prose, not even knowing it, and I thank you very much for telling me". Now, in French, when somebody says that a person has been "doing prose without knowing it" ("faire de la prose sans le savoir"), it means that she has done something or succeeded in something just by chance, with no will to do so.
List of major works
- Le Médecin volant (1645) ;
- La Jalousie du barbouillé (1650) ;
- L'Étourdi ou les Contretemps (1655) ;
- Le Dépit amoureux (December 16th 1656) ;
- Le Docteur amoureux (1658), a play which has since been lost; the first play performed by Molière's troupe for Louis XIV ;
- Les Précieuses ridicules (November 18th 1659) ;
- Sganarelle ou le Cocu imaginaire (May 28th 1660) ;
- Dom Garcie de Navarre ou le Prince jaloux (February 4th 1661) ;
- L'École des maris (June 24th 1661) ;
- Les Fâcheux (August 17th 1661) ;
- L'École des femmes (December 26th 1662) ;
- La Jalousie du Gros-René April 15th 1663 (this play has been lost) ;
- La Critique de l'école des femmes (June 1st 1663) ;
- L'Impromptu de Versailles (October 14th 1663) ;
- Le Mariage forcé (January 29th 1664) ;
- Gros-René, petit enfant April 27th 1664 (this play has been lost) ;
- La Princesse d'Élide (May 8th 1664) ;
- Tartuffe ou l'Imposteur (May 12th 1664) ;
- Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre (February 15th 1665) ;
- L'Amour médecin (September 15th 1665) ;
- Le Misanthrope ou l'Atrabilaire amoureux (June 4th 1666) ;
- Le Médecin malgré lui (August 6th 1666) ;
- Mélicerte (December 2nd 1666) ;
- Pastorale comique (January 5th 1667) ;
- Le Sicilien ou l'Amour peintre (February 14th 1667) ;
- Amphitryon (January 13th 1668) ;
- George Dandin ou le Mari confondu (July 18th 1668) ;
- L'Avare ou l'École du mensonge (September 9th 1668) ;
- Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (October 6th 1669) ;
- Les Amants magnifiques (February 4th 1670) ;
- Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (October 14th 1670) ;
- Psyché (January 17th 1671) ;
- Les Fourberies de Scapin (May 24th 1671) ;
- La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas (December 2nd 1671) ;
- Les Femmes savantes (March 11th 1672) ;
- Le Malade imaginaire (February 10th 1673).
- Works by Molière at Project Gutenberg
- Molière's works online at toutmoliere.net (in French)
- Molière's works online at site-moliere.com
- Molière's works online at InLibroVeritas.net
- Molière's works online at classicistranieri.com
- Biography, Bibliography, Analysis, Plot overview at biblioweb.org (in French)