Molière: Satires, Debates and Modernity

Modernity is an endless debate for historians and intellectuals. Louis XIV's reign has often been described as the dawn of the modern state for France. One could argue that this magnificent reign also witnessed the development of modernity in theatre and comedy, with the tremendous work and achievements of Molière. Beyond the changes imported to the genre (explored in the first part of the article), Molière's modernity was also expressed through texts, thematic and satires. This article seeks to give another insight of the numerous aspects that make Molière's resonate with modernity.

Molière. Nicolas Mignard. ca. 19th century.

Above all, modernity was overwhelmingly present in Molière’s iconic comic style. Among the different types of humour exploited in his plays, the most famous one undoubtedly remains his satires. In the Impromptu de Versailles, Molière stated that "It is the business of comedy, to present a general picture of all the defects of men and especially of the men of our own age" (quoted from Calder, 1993, p.16). From his first comedy Les Précieuses Ridicules, his first comédie-ballet Les Fâcheux, to the end of his career with Le Malade Imaginaire, Molière produced an extraordinary amount of satirical characters inspired from a wide range of social contemporary figures which shared the timeless flaws of vanity, hypocrisy and dishonesty (Norman, 2006). For many historians, these satires represented important stylistic innovations. Andrew Calder asserted that it resulted from a combination of the New and Old Comedy styles, as it departed from the traditions of the New Comedy and reintroduced the practice of mocking recognizable contemporary figures found in the Old Comedy (Calder, 1993). Inevitably, it challenged once again Aristotle’s conception of comedy. While there was an implicit general agreement that comedy should portray lower levels of society, Molière targeted multiple times the higher classes. Paul de Rapin, a contemporary of the seventeenth century, was struck by Molière’s originality, who had portrayed the ridiculous at much higher levels of society than his predecessors (Calder, 1993). Artistically, satires reinforced the visual dimension of comedies. Molière conceived his comic representation as a site of audience self-recognition which allowed the comedian to engage in a sort of dialogue with his public (Norman, 1999). Larry F. Norman reports that "the resemblance of his satirist depictions to contemporary life was so striking that (…) recognising the ridiculed person became a popular sport" (Norman, 2006, p.58). Under Molière, comedies became "public mirrors", living reflections of its society and of human nature which still nowadays arouse laughter. Unsurprisingly, Molière remains in French collective memories as the 'originator of modern satirical comedy' (Norman, 1999, p.1).

Molière’s satires foreshadowed a modern approach to the role of Arts in society. Besides its comic purpose, satires permitted Molière to address moral messages about social issues (McBride, 1997). This was particularly observable in his controversial comedy, Tartuffe which virulently attacked the Church. In this masterwork, Molière creates his critic around the contrast of two central characters, Orgon and Cléante. The protagonist of the play, Orgon stands as a living caricature of piety. His religious behaviour constitutes the heart of the intrigue as the antagonist, Tartuffe, exploits it to take advantage of him. On the other side, the character Cléante incarnates reason as he prefers to adopt a logical rather than dogmatic reasoning (McBride, 1997). Not only strengthening the comic aspect, the obvious opposition between the two characters asserts a moral dimension to the play, as Orgon’s fanaticism inexorably leads him to a tragic fate despite Cléante’s desperate efforts to reason him. In the end of the intrigue, Orgon is saved in extremis by the miraculous intervention of the king. The presence of a Deus Ex Machina to avoid the expected tragic outcome contributes in underlining the danger of such flaw to the audience. Beyond that, Cléante and Orgon also engaged in seventeenth century debates. The contrast between the two characters heavily echoed the quarrel between Jansenists and Molinists. Occurring in the seventeenth century, this debate opposed the rigorist Ecole Française to the humanists and Deists and brought important questionings concerning the place of religion in society and for individuals. Robert McBride affirmed that "there is certainly no doubt that Molière was no stranger to the moral issues involved in this debate" (McBride, 1997, p. 60). As a result, Tartuffe highly underlines Molière’s modernity in terms of moral ideas and in terms of using arts to propagate opinions and critics.

Molière Reading Tartuffe at Ninon de Lenclos. Nicolas André Monsiau. 19th century.

This modern aspect in Molière was made even more evident with the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns. Little known internationally, this artistic and intellectual conflict remained a determining moment in French history. For Jean DeJean, this period was "a pivotal role in the history of what we now think of as modernity" as it posed essential questions concerning the future development of the Arts and to its relation with the classic model (DeJean, 1997, xii). Whereas the "Ancients" led by Boileau stated that perfection had already been reached in the Classic period, the "Moderns" followed Charles Perrault’s idea that:

The beautiful Antiquity has always been venerable

but I do not think it has been laudable

They are great, it is true, but remain men like us (Perrault, 1).

Despite being dead, Molière was involved in the debate. Many moderns considered the comedian as one of them, as he was clearly sharing Perrault’s artistic idea. His overall innovations and transgressions from the classic models left few doubts concerning his potential affiliation with the moderns. Larry F. Norman even interpreted that the quote from Molière’s young heroine in Le Malade Imaginaire: "the ancients, sir, are the ancients, and we are the people of today", suggested an overall idea of artistic and social progress from the author (Norman, 2013). On the other side, the Ancients held some criticisms concerning his style. Despite being an admirer and supporter of Molière, Boileau reproached him his artistic transgressions against the New Comedy and his, sometimes, grotesque humour. Although this debate took place after his passing, it nevertheless highlights that for his time, Molière was considered as a modernist. Jean de Lafontaine even associated his genius with the one of Terence and Plautus (Norman, 2013).

On a broader scale, the artistic development and ideas of Molière ultimately echo with the Enlightenment. In the eighteenth century, many philosophes praised Molière for his intellectual and artistic contributions. Voltaire described Molière as: "a comic and philosophical genius, a man above all Antiquity" (quoted in Wagner, 1973, p. 1). It was undeniable that Molière’s critics in Tartuffe foreshadowed the upcoming philosophical movement. Tartuffe had presented, decades before, a similar approach to religion than many iconic figures of the eighteenth century intellectual movement. The ideas behind the character of Cléante totally illustrates the ideas of Emmanuel Kant’s essay: What is the Enlightenment, which encourages people to detach themselves from superstitions and to think by themselves. The similarities found with Enlightenment confirms Braider’s assumption that Molière is the first "to have created the first truly convincing portrayal of modernity itself" (Braider, 2017, p.173). After all, the Enlightenment was a precursor to the French Revolution, the turning point from the Early Modern period to Modern times. Mechele Leon, a historian, even studied the influence of Molière during the Revolution and pointed out that because of his ideas, Molière was one of the most frequently performed playwrights in Paris during the Revolution (Leon, 2009).

Siècle de Louis XV, une soirée chez Madame Geoffrin. Philibert Louis Debucourt. 1821.

Nevertheless, Molière’s modernity held some limitations. Even if denying Molière’s attentions to criticize society would be "an evident absurdity", his satirical portraits were not necessarily commentaries on large moral or social issues (Arnavon, 1970). Norman argued that characters such as Orgon were primarily depicting specific individuals, rather than ideas (Norman, 2006). His main source of inspiration for his satires were his contemporaries, to whom he attributed universal characteristics. For Norman, this adroit mixture was key to Molière’s success as a too contemporary and individualized portrayal would have quickly lost appeal as society evolves (Norman, 2006). Most of Molière’s famous controversies were mainly resulting from accusations of slanderously personal depictions (Norman, 2006). Even the scandal of the first edition of Tartuffe was not a direct consequence of Molière’s attack on the Church, but was rather caused by eminent individuals who recognized themselves and feared for their reputations (Norman, 2006, p.62). It was even a common thing, comedians continuously had to defend themselves against claims that it promoted immorality or subversion of rightful authority within this period (Norman, 2013). Furthermore, the convergences between Molière’s satires and the Enlightenment also possessed some limits. In contrast to most philosophers, Molière never questioned the monarchy. During his career, Louis XIV expressed a particular attachment to Molière’s genius and protected him against the jealousy of rival troupes and conferred him the honour of organizing festivals (Leon, 2009, p.59). Leon stated that this protection "bounded Molière to his King" (Leon, 2009, p.59). In Tartuffe, Molière undeniably expressed resentment towards the influence of the Church, like did Voltaire, but still maintained an unconditional loyalty to his monarch. In the end of his comedy, not only the King is depicted as the miraculous saviour who restores justice over injustice, but Molière also addresses a eulogistic message to his supportive monarch. Lastly, his affiliation with the Moderns in the Quarrel was not entirely synonym of modernity. The Moderns definitely showed a modern conception of the Arts, but concerning political ideas, the Ancients were closer to nowadays standards, especially regarding democracy. Chateaubriand remarked that it was the Ancient thinkers who revived the ideas of democracy as "living more in Rome and Athens than in their own country, [who] sought to revive in Europe the ways of antiquity" (Norman, 1999, p.89).

In conclusion, Molière was not modern on every aspect, but his works undeniably show the growing emergence of modernity during the reign of the Sun King. Artistically, Molière pushed comedy to new frontiers with original innovations and mise en scène. He made of comedies unprecedented visual masterpieces, reminding that theatre does not restrain to words but extend to the visual arts as well. His thirst to improve comedy, despite surpassing the norms imposed by the classics, gave to theatre its modern standards. Nowadays, Molière stands in the heart of French culture. Symbol of comedy, reason, innovation, his works illustrated the artistic and intellectual grandeur of the reign of Louis XIV.

Bibliographic references:

Arnavon, J. (1970). Morale de Molière. Stalkine Reprints.

Braider, C. (2017). Molière Theatre and Modernity. In C. Pendergast (Ed.), A History of Modern French Literature, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Princeton University Press.

Burke, P. (1992). The Fabrication of Louis XIV. Yale University Press.

Calder, A. (1993). Molière: The Theory and Practice of Comedy. The Athlone Press.

Dejean, J. (1997). Ancients Against Moderns, Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle. University of Chicago Press.

Dock, S. V. (1992). Costumes & Fashions in the Plays of Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière: A seventeenth century perspective. Editions Slatkine.

Dock, S. V. (1995). Authentic Costuming for Tartuffe and Le Misantrope. In J. F. Gaines & M. S. Koppisch (Eds.), Approaches to Teaching Molière’s Tartuffe and Other Plays. The Modern Language Association of America.

Mazouer, C. (2006). Comédies-ballets. In D. Bradby & A. Calder (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Molière (pp.107-120). Cambridge University Press.

McBride, R. (1997). The Sceptical Vision of Molière, A Study in Paradox.The MacMillan Press LTD.

McCarthy, G. (2002). The Theatres of Molière. Routledge.

Norman, L. (1999). The Public Mirror, Molière and the Social Commerce of Depiction. The University of Chicago Press.

Norman, L. (2013). The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early Modern France. Chicago Scholarship Online.

Norman, L. (2006). Molière as satirist. In D. Bradby & A. Calder (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Moliere (pp. 57-70). Cambridge University Press.

Leon, M. (2009). Molière, the French Revolution and the Theatrical Afterlife. University of Iowa Press.

Perrault, C. (1687). Le Siècle de Louis le Grand. Jean Baptiste Coignard.

Powell, J. S. (2006). Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Molière and music. In D. Bradby & A. Calder (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Molière (pp 121-138). Cambridge University Press.

Simonds, P. M. (1977). Molière’s satirical use of the “Deus Ex Machina in Tartuffe”. Educational Theatre Journal, Vol.29(1), pp. 85-93.

Wadsworth, P. A. (1977). Molière and the Italian Theatrical Tradition. French Literature Publications Company.

Wagner, M. (1973). Molière and the Age of the Enlightenment. Voltaire Foundation.

Visual Sources:

Debucourt, P-L. (1821). Siècle de Louis XV, une soirée chez Madame Geoffrin. [Print]. Retrieved from:

Mignard, N. (19th century). Molière. [Engraving]. Retrieved from:

Monsiau, A. N. (19th century). Molière Reading Tartuffe at Ninon de Lenclos. [Oil on Canvas]. Retrieved from:

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Benoit Gaume

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