“It is from the beginnings of Western society that we can observe a scathing remark can go unpunished so long as it is accompanied by a joke.” On Molière, satire, and power.
A Public Mirror
The Intersection of Molière, Satire, and Power
Though Molière was born in 1622, the story of his success begins in Ancient Greece. Athens was home to several great political writers who are cemented in our minds today: Thucydides, Socrates, and Aristophanes. The first was a father of political theory (Zagorin 1), the second a father of Western society (Gill 20), and the third a father of comedy (Kotini 2). When the Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 BC (Kotini 1), all three men were sent to trial, but had separate fates: Thucydides was exiled (Zagorin 9), Socrates was sentenced to death (Gill 26), and Aristophanes, the only writer of the three who chose to write in the comic form, was let off scot-free (Kotini 11). It is from the beginnings of Western society that we can observe a scathing remark can go unpunished so long as it is accompanied by a joke.
Satire still has a powerful presence in Western society. Comics like Jon Stewart and Stephan Colbert present fictionalized versions of themselves to provide television audience with truth. In fact, satire is so treasured in modern American culture that Jon Stewart has been called “the most trusted news source in America” (Riggio). Today, the sense of wit and honesty that accompanies satirical programming is often considered superior to censored content. In a democratic society that values individual thought, satire is not only permitted but trusted. When satirical thought is placed into the context of an autocratic society, the stakes become higher.
We have established that satire is a genre that spans from our most ancient democratic society until present day, and yet Molière is often regarded as the master of the field. That Molière is well deserving of praise is an understatement, but his cementation as the king of satire has as much to do with the genius of his plays as with the context in which they were written. Born as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin to a shopkeeper in 17th century France, Molière was not afforded the luxury of free speech (Chatfield-Taylor 2). He was born into a society that permitted no religious or political discussion and accepted nothing short of adoration of its monarch (Cardullo 4). And yet when Louis XIV asked the French poet Boileau which French playwright best respected his reign, the answer he heard in response was “Molière” (Chatfield-Taylor 1). How is it that Molière managed to be both a royal servant so loved by the King that he dined among nobles, and a playwright who so scornfully critiqued royal society?
The answer is something we are advised almost never to do: compromise. In order to preserve his career, and moreover his livelihood, Molière was often required to speak his mind implicitly. Though he began his career writing farcical plays, he would become the master of subtly, deftly incorporating political undertones into comedic spectacle. If political satires are hammers hitting their audiences over the head, Molière’s hammer was wrapped in velvet, delivering a blow so soft that some couldn’t detect it. His compromises, then, were not a matter of political alliance, but of practicality. Molière’s ability to satirize his autocratic society while still thriving within it reveals satire’s unrivaled ability to critique the deficiencies of civilization while protecting the integrity of the critic.
It is no wonder that Molière, born to an upholsterer of royal appointment, was destined to have a complicated relationship with his king. Parisian born and Parisian bred, he grew up observing his father’s customers whom he would later come to mock (Chumbley). This acquaintance with the aristocracy would later serve him well, as he is still praised today for the humanity with which he depicted his characters. Though he vowed to never follow in his father’s footsteps, young Molière was also brought up to revere the King (Chatfield-Taylor). This impeccable balance of admiration and critique, which he found as early as childhood, would come to define Molière’s career.
His first dramatic work was an Italian-inspired farce, which was received jollily by Louis XIV (Lanson 28). According to Chatfield-Taylor, Molière had such a natural aptitude for “jugglery, or rather an unerring skill in painting human nature” that his farces often read like comedies of manners and were well received by crowds (51). In fact, farce was not permitted in France until Molière made the King laugh (Chatfield-Taylor 52). Soon, he would begin crafting court plays and royal ballets as a response to Louis’ demand for amusement, an exercise that required him to sharpen his wit and turn obvious farce into delicate admiration (Lanson 20). In his preface for his royal comedy The Versailles Impromptu, Molière writes, “Kings like nothing so much as prompt obedience, and are not at all pleased at finding obstacles in their path…in catering to their wishes, we must never consider ourselves, for we exist only to please them” (xvi).
While Molière did have a true admiration for His Majesty, these early, non-satirical works were simultaneously a medium through which he began to gain the King’s trust. Though these works don’t exemplify the humor that is so closely associated with Molière, the playwright still found subtle ways to poke fun at the King. In the final stanzas of The Versailles Impromptu, Molière writes, “A prince magnificent but asks/ for compliments full brief and true/ and ours, you see, has other tasks/ than hearkening to words from you / Untouched is he when fulsome praise he sips…” (qtd. Chatfield-Taylor 189). In this closing passage, Molière both praises Louis for being a “magnificent prince,” but delicately undermines him by suggesting he is superior to his subjects’ praise. Surprisingly, Louis adored the playwright’s refined quips. Never before had anyone, let alone a servant, the courage to laugh at the monarch. Molière’s humor revealed Louis’ humanity while his poetic voice flattered the King’s ego, and Louis was overjoyed to be seen as both a man and a monarch for the first time. According to M. Bazin, “From the moment these two men, places so far apart in social order, saw and understood each other—a tacit understanding was established between them, permitting the subject to dare everything, and promising him full assurance and protection under the sole condition that the monarch be amused” (qtd. Chatfield-Taylor 200). With the encouragement and protection of the King, Molière found the confidence to become a champion of truth.
The first of Molière’s most renowned and most scandalous plays was his 1669 piece Tartuffe. The play shares a name with the central character, a self-righteous religious hypocrite who has won the devotion of Orgon, a wealthy Parisian patriarch. While the play deals explicitly with religion, the playwright maintains that Tartuffe is a commentary on hypocrisy rather than spirituality, a decision that would later help Molière defend himself from attack (Norman 19). In the words of Larry Norman, “Satire is a dangerous business, and claims to a ‘general thesis’ provide the best defense when one is faced with a hostile spectator” (20).
The name Tartuffe alone informs us of the playwright’s feelings towards the title character, as it stems from the Old French word truffe, meaning deceit (Chatfield-Taylor 217). Though Tartuffe is not physically introduced to audiences until about half way through the show, his invisible presence dominates the show from the opening scene. After Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother, finishes criticizing his entire household, she remarks about Tartuffe, “He is a holy man, and must be heeded;/ I can’t endure, with any show of patience/ to hear a scatterbrains like you attack him” (Tartuffe I.i.46-48). Here, we see that Molière is not just mocking Tartuffe for his religious hypocrisy. Rather, he is criticizing each character for their inability to see their own faults. Molière manages to separate his critique of hypocrisy from faith even further when Cleante says, “They call you atheist if you have good eyes/ and if you don’t adore their vain grimaces/ you’ve neither faith nor care for sacred things/…heaven sees my heart” (Tartuffe II.vi.56-60). Molière juxtaposes heaven and religion as separate entities; in Tartuffe, hypocrisy is no route to salvation.
It seems fitting that perhaps the most striking line in Tartuffe comes not from one of the wealthy aristocrats, but the house maid, Dorine. When counseling Orgon’s daughter, Mariane, on how to marry man she loves instead of Tartuffe, she advises her about how to proceed with her father, saying, “You had better humor/ his notions of consent/ so that in the case of anger you can still/ find means to block the marriage delay” (Tartuffe II.ii.106-110). Here, we see Molière manifest his voice in the character of Dorine, describing his exact methods of avoiding persecution. Just as Mariane will flatter her father in order to get away with what she really wants, Molière flattered Louis in order to say what he truly thought. On several instances, Molière employed moments of meta-theatricality in his writing, but Dorine’s lines in Tartuffe are among his most politically charged.
Much like Mariane had to defend her marriage to her disapproving father, Molière had to defend Tartuffe to an irate public. According to Robert Cardullo, the French were “imperfectly and precariously united” (2) at the time that Tartuffe was written, and any inkling of heresy was seen as a threat to national unity and piety. “Spiritual correctness” was to be adhered to at all times, and therefore independent thought was not respected nor permitted (Cardullo 4). Naturally, then, Tartuffe enraged nearly every sect of France, but within this outrage lies the genius of our playwright: each group thought Molière was depicting the hypocrisy of their enemies. (Chatfield-Taylor 213). While Molière himself described his satires as a sort of “public mirror” (Norman i) that he held up to audiences, it appears that audience members could never see themselves. While they were outraged that Molière dared to offend heaven, they never felt that they themselves were the subject of scrutiny, and so he was able to defend his play. Norman writes that Molière’s plays did not create a single theme or message, but instead produced “an animated surface, which like the mirror, in metamorphosed by each new viewer” (2). Molière believed that the comedy of his shows not only stemmed from what was happening on the proscenium stage, but also the reactions that were happening in the audience (Norman 9). His shows did not just satirize the aristocracy, but caused the aristocracy to respond with the same amount of ridiculousness depicted on stage.
Molière learned from the backlash he received as a result of Tartuffe and crafted a subtler attack on hypocrisy in a work known as The Misanthrope. Dealing in love rather than religion, the play centers on Alceste, a pessimistic aristocrat who hates everything but Célimène, an insincere and flaky flirt who commits to no one. Once again, Molière finds a voice for himself in the character of Philinte, Alceste’s best friend. After Alceste finishes praising Célimène, Philinte remarks, “How is it that in her you tolerate/ failings which, found in others, rouse your hate?/ Are they no longer faults in one so dear?/ Are they unseen?/ Are others too severe?” (The Misanthrope I.ii.221-224). Unlike in Tartuffe, where Molière most openly criticizes the religious, Philinte’s criticism of Alceste is a commentary on our blindness for the ones we love, a universal downfall.
The irony in the show lies in Alceste’s love for Célimène (as she represents all that he despises about humanity), but Molière spares no character from parody. From the moral to the immoral, each character is painted with the brush of hypocrisy. Even Philinte, representative of Molière, is mocked for his false kindness to others when Alceste laments:
I see you almost hug a man to death,
Exclaim for joy until you’re out of breath,
And supplement these loving demonstrations
With endless offers, vows, and protestations;
Then when I ask you “Who was that?”, I find
That you can barely bring his name to mind! (The Misanthrope I.i.16-21).
It is this decision to paint each character as equally flawed that classifies The Misanthrope as Molière’s greatest triumph. Chatfield-Taylor posits that while Tartuffe was more well-rounded in its theatricality, The Misanthrope cannot be rivaled in “its marvelous character analysis, its profound philosophy of life.” (256) Due to said profundity, The Misanthrope is often received as a comedy of manners (Lanson 25), but the ending is what separates it from this field. While comedies of manners must end in marriage, the main characters of The Misanthrope do not get what they want. Rather, they get what they deserve. Alceste leaves to become a hermit, still infatuated with Célimène, who, in turn, is finally deserted by her numerous courters. It is with this finale that Molière informs his audiences of a universal fate: if one does not avoid hypocrisy, one will end up alone.
The delicacy of The Misanthrope was followed by what might be considered Molière’s most direct insult to the kingdom yet, Amphitryon. His only play set outside of Paris, Amphitryon utilizes the setting of Ancient Greece to parallel Parisian society. The play follows Greek gods Mercury and Jupiter as they descend from Mount Olympus and impersonate mortals in order to pursue their goals. Through the gods’ worldly encounters, Molière illustrates the ways in which powerful people exploit those less fortunate than them. More specifically, Amphitryon offers Molière’s most pointed commentary on Louis XIV. The character of Jupiter, who descends to seduce mortal Amphitryon’s wife, Alcmena, was a direct play on Louis’ extramarital affairs. Jupiter remarks to the audience: “I’ll take this opportunity to appease/ Alcmena, and to banish her vexation, and in so doing taste the ecstasies/ of happy reconciliation” (Amphitryon II.iv.1-4). The phrasing of “take this opportunity” reminds audiences of how the Gods, and moreover, the King, seize whatever they feel should be rightfully theirs. But it is in painting Jupiter as a traitor that Molière paints him as human. In the words of Lionel Gossman, Jupiter is “disquietly human” (202), and is subject to as many vices as the mortal characters in the play. Just as Molière saw Louis XIV as a man beneath royal robes, he paints Jupiter as a man in godly form.
Though Amphitryon can be called Molière’s most critical play, it was also one of his best-received. It was a blockbuster in 17th century France for everyone from the King to the townspeople (Chatfield-Taylor 330). While Tartuffe required several petitions to be performed in public, Amphitryon played at the Theatre du Palais-Royal 29 times in four months (331). The legacy of Amphitryon spans to present day; amphitryon now means “host” in modern French, and sosie (after the character Sosia) means “look-a-like” (Merriam-Webster). Amphitryon was so well-crafted that the French adored the play for its impeccable humor, and still revere it to this day.
Molière’s legacy, however, spans further than Amphitryon. Whether he was critiquing hypocrisy, reflecting society, or mocking the King himself, Molière consistently exemplified the lengths to which humor can be our shield during battle. From Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, and Amphitryon, we learn one vital thing: comedy has the means for power. Comedy can carry weight. Even in its most farcical form, satire is the reason that humor can, in the words of Moliere himself, “do no better than to attack, by ludicrous portrayals, the vices of [an] age” (First Petition).
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