In the play, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere narrates the story of how a scoundrel and a hypocrite disguises himself as a pious man of religion. By affecting religious behavior, Tartuffe charms his way into the house and the favors of Orgon, a local rich man. Orgon is unfortunately unable to see through Tartuffe's duplicity, and in the process almost loses all his possessions to the scoundrel Tartuffe. Only the fortuitous intervention of the king saves Orgon's family from the machinations of the unscrupulous Tartuffe ("Tartuffe's Plot").
This paper argues that Tartuffe is best read as a satire against the hypocrisy of political and religious authority figures of Moliere's day.
The satire contained in this play made its author a target of 17th century religious authorities. After all, the main audience of this play was the Parisian elite in the late 17th century. This audience would have understood that Tartuffe had an underlying critique of both bad kingship and lying religious leaders (Baker, "Tartuffe as political parable"). The authority figures evidently understood this as well. When Moliere died, he was originally denied burial on consecrated ground. Only through the intervention of the king swayed the Archbishop of Paris's mind, smoothing the playwright's burial in holy ground (Bloom, "Chronology," p. 208).
The first part of this paper examines Tartuffe as a political satire. It looks at the symbolisms of Orgon and other characters in criticizing ineffectual political authority. The next part then looks at the play's content as a satire against religious figures, with a particular influence on Moliere's criticism of the Jesuits. It examines the religious activities that gave rise to Moliere's ire, and looks at how Moliere depicts these activities symbolically throughout the play Tartuffe.
Political satire in Tartuffe
Because Tartuffe is often read as a criticism of religious authority, the political content of the play is often glossed over. After all, Moliere himself alludes to the support of the king in the play's 1669 preface. Moliere was also well aware of the fact that his career as a playwright would have been over if the King had caved in to religious authority and banned the play (Calder 188).
However, Moliere also needed to revise the play at least twice before receiving permission to freely stage Tartuffe in public. It took five years of work before the wording of the play was sufficiently changed to gain the approval of the king (Calder 188).
Analysts like Lyman Baker observe that in Tartuffe, many of the political mores of the day are mirrored in the depiction of Orgon's household. Seventeenth century France was a patriarchal era, where only men served as heads of households and exercised authority over all their dependents (Baker, "Tartuffe as Political Parable").
Thus, even though not every family member was deceived, it was enough for Tartuffe to deceive Orgon.
In the very first scene, Moliere introduces the audience to Orgon's family -- a prosperous household that is capitalizing on its political connections with the king.
The audience learns about the social rankings in this relatively small household, from the "saucy" servant girl to the "dunce" Orgon, the ostensible head of the household. The audience also learns of the two tradition of thought that were battling for ascendancy in King Louis XIV's court.
The first tradition, seen in Orgon's mother Madame Pernelle, represents the "stodgy, old-fashioned mindset" (Brody 176) of the previous regime and of older 17th century French society. The dour Madame Pernelle is critical of the lifestyle of her family's younger members, ascribing their behavior to the bad example set by their elders.
Through Madame Pernelle, Moliere gives voice to the concerns of the "older" court members, who were critical of how younger aristocrats behaved scandalously even as they maintained an air of respectability.
The second tradition is embodied in the character of Elmire, Madame Pernelle's daughter-in-law and Orgon's much-younger second wife. Elmire has earned her mother-in-law's ire through her many qualities. For example, Madame Pernelle castigates her daughter-in-law for dressing "like a princess." To older Parisians, such a mode of dress implies indulgent behavior and a desire to attract other, perhaps younger, men (Brody 176).
Through the mother-in-law's diatribe, the audience also gets a glimpse into the household's social status and lifestyle in general and Elmire's social orientation in particular. Orgon's family is clearly a member of France's upper social crust. Though the family is not aristocratic, Moliere establishes Orgon's political connections with the king early in the play, by setting up how Orgon had "served his King" during the wars of the Fronde.
Elmire clearly benefits from these political connections, as seen in her 17th century Parisian "yuppie" lifestyle. Aside from dressing like a "princess," Elmire also has a line of carriages waiting at her front door. Her household always has a parade of lackeys, ready for a party and endless socializing.
These "costly fripperies" are the mark of a family that, though not aristocratic, is still upwardly-mobile.
Because of their wealth, Orgon's family was considered important members of French society.
These parallels were not lost on the original audience of Tartuffe, who would have readily recognized the symbolisms.
Madame Pernelle, for example, embodies the values of the older court of Louis XIII.
This older generation was generally more religious and conservative. They believed in the values of frugality and discipline. To them, the "freewheeling" social values of the new court were seen as a breakdown of social values (Brody 177).
Elmire, on the other hand, is the representative of the new leisure class. Her pastimes and leisure pursuits are more in line with those of King Louis XIV's younger court. After all, the king was only 26 years old at this time, and with a much-younger mistress (Brody 176). This younger court was also known for its excesses rather than its frugality.
Orgon is also an important character in Tartuffe's political satire. Because he is male, Orgon is the de-facto head of the household. This is despite the fact that Orgon is not very intelligent and is in fact, easily fooled.
The Orgon household is clearly representative of 17th century French society. Orgon serves as the figurative head of state. Despite his bumbling nature (his own mother labels him a "dunce"), Orgon is the head-of-household and retains authority over all his dependants. As Baker observes, Orgon is "a head-of-household (who) counts as a metaphorical king" (Baker, "Tartuffe as political parable").
It is therefore significant that Elmire and the rest of the household sees through Tartuffe's machinations, while Orgon and his "old guard" mother fall easily under the scoundrel's spell. To an audience familiar with the prevailing social climate in 17th century France, Orgon would emerge as an ineffectual leader. By clinging to antiquated mores (symbolized by Madame Pernelle) and ignoring the advise of more knowledgeable people (such as Elmire), Orgon thus risked losing the wealth he had worked hard to accumulate.
While the political contexts of Tartuffe is subtle and may need teasing out particularly for a modern audience, the religious context of this play is clearer.
Since Tartuffe is a religious confidence man, the play is often read as a slap on religious authority. After all, in 17th century Catholic France, religious authority underlay all forms of leadership and government.
Many analysts doubt, however, if Moliere intended Tartuffe as an attack on religious leaders. Alfred Bates, for example, notes that the first private reading of the play was held before the Pole and a group of prelates. Tartuffe was interpreted as an attack on the Jansenists. Bates maintains that his idea was wrong, but Moliere himself did not dispel this idea (Bates).
The character of Tartuffe is himself a fraud. More specifically, he is a man who commits fraud under the auspices of religion. Different analysts have interpreted Tartuffe as representative of various religious traditions. Calder, for example, writes that Moliere showed a "hostile view of the Jesuits" (187). The Jesuits clashed with the traditional religious orders because of their lax casuistry. During this time, the Jesuits had taken over most of the Catholic religious centers around the world. Jesuits were now the confessors to the most powerful families in Europe, including Henry IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV.
However, though the play is named after the scoundrel, Moliere's thrust in writing the play is not a direct attack on the likes of Tartuffe. Rather, much of the play's power derives from the way the audience laughs at the bumbling Orgon. Tartuffe, after all, is a comedy. The interplay between the trickster Tartuffe and the fool Orgon stimulates laughter for the audience (Walker 154).
However, in addition to laughter, the recognition of Orgon's stupidity also forces the audience to examine their own tendencies to be fooled by religious hucksters. It is on this level that Tartuffe succeeds admirably as a religious satire. In other words, instead of asking themselves "Am I a scoundrel like Tartuffe," most members of the audience would ask: "Am I food like Orgon?"