Religious Attacks


Religious Attacks – “Tartuffe” By Moliere Essay, Research Paper

The Religious Attacks Made By “Tartuffe”

Moliere (whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) rocked the 17th century French world with

his comedy “Tartuffe” in 1664. Although, religious factions kept the play banned from theatres from

1664-1669, “Tartuffe” emerged from the controversy as one of the all-time great comedies.

Tartuffe is a convincing religious hypocrite. He is a parasite who is sucking Orgon, the rich

trusting father, for all he is worth. Orgon does not realize that Tartuffe is a phony, and caters to his

every whim. For instance, he reneges on his promise to let his daughter Mariane, marry Valere. Instead

he demands that she wed Tartuffe, whom she despises. He also banishes his own son, Damis, from his

house for speaking out against Tartuffe and all of his son’s inheritance is promised to Tartuffe.

Tartuffe is nothing more than a traveling confidence man who veils his true wickedness with a

mask of piety. Orgon and his mother Madame Pernelle are completely taken in by this charade. On the

other hand, Cleante, Elmire, and Dorine see Tartuffe for the fake that he really is. Cleante is Orgon’s

wise brother who speaks

elegantly about Tartuffe’s hypocrisy. Through Cleante, Moliere most plainly reveals his theme.

Spare me your warnings, Brother; I have no fear

Of speaking out, for you and Heaven to hear,

Against affected zeal and pious knavery.

There’s true and false in piety, as in bravery,

And just as those whose courage shines the most

In battle, are least inclined to boast,

So those whose hearts are truly pure and lowly

Don’t make a flashy show of being holy (Meyer 1466).

In speeches such as these, Moliere wanted to get across the fact that it was false piety he was

condemning and not religion in general. In the preface to the play, which Moliere himself wrote, he

bluntly states this. ” If one takes the trouble to examine my comedy in good faith, he will surely see

that my intentions are innocent throughout, and tend in no way to make fun of what men revere; that I

have presented the subject with all the precautions that its delicacy imposes; and that I have used all

the art and skill that I could to distinguish clearly the character of the hypocrite from that of the

truly devout man.” (Meyer 1509)

The play successfully conveys this message because Tartuffe is a first-class villain. He is as

manipulative as Lady Macbeth, as greedy as Prince John, as underhanded as Modred, and as clever as Darth

Vader. Through his every word and deed it becomes more apparent that he is thoroughly bad. More

specifically, he not only wants to marry Orgon’s daughter, but wants to defile his wife as well. He is

not satisfied with living off of Orgon’s wealth but wants to possess it. At no time in the play does

Tartuffe resemble a truly pious man. The play never mocks God, but only those who use his name to prey

on unsuspecting fools.

The part of the fool is played to the hilt by Orgon. Throughout the first three acts he is such

a domineering idiot that he is not even worth pitying. He, along with his mother, play the part of the

blind zealot. What he chooses to call Christian love leads him to punish his family and himself because

he takes away their freedom of choice and integrity and his own property. But, Orgon is not content to

follow Tartuffe alone. He demands that his family also follow. He becomes a threat to their happiness

when the comedic scheming by the family begins.

Dorine, Mariane’s maid, uses her earthy wit to convince Mariane and Valere not to docilely

accept Orgon’s judgement. Damis, Orgon’s son, testifies against Tartuffe’s scandalous behavior with

Elmire. Cleante continues to offer Orgon sage advice and Elmire conspires to set a trap for Tartuffe

where Orgon can witness firsthand the ungrateful hypocrite’s actions.

Dorine and Orgon almost come to blows, Damis is banished, and Cleante is ignored. Only Elmire

succeeds. She hides Orgon under a table while pretending to play along with Tartuffe’s advances. Even

when Orgon witnesses Tartuffe’s treachery firsthand it takes him a while to accept it. Elmire, by this

time, has so little faith in her husband that she begins to think he is going to stay under the table and

let Tartuffe ravish her. The turning point in the play is when Orgon comes out and confronts Tartuffe.

Tartuffe, rather than accept that he has been caught, vows that he will have Orgon’s property yet. Since

he now controls Orgon’s property, he arranges to have Orgon’s family evicted. Only the king’s benevolent

intervention saves Orgon’s family and Tartuffe is arrested.

With this tidy conclusion, Moliere not only conforms to the standard for comedies of his day, but

also shows that religious hypocrisy will lose in the end. When Tartuffe was seen for what he really was,

he was despised by one and all. Religious leaders saw the scrutiny that this play would cause them to be

subjected to and caused it to be banned for that reason. But, as in the play, justice won out in the end

and the play was exhibited freely after five years of bondage.

The fact that religious leaders could keep “Tartuffe” banned for so long shows that they had

power in realms not normally delegated to religious officials. When looking at “Tartuffe” from a

historical standpoint it becomes apparent that Moliere is condemning those who would use religion to gain


“To understand the violent reaction to “Tartuffe”, we must look briefly at the place of church

and faith in the intellectual, cultural, and political life of the times because they had important

functions beyond religious and moral guidance.” (Walker 60).

When Moliere decided to satirize human behavior in “Tartuffe” he struck a nerve with a powerful

entity, the church. No matter how unlikely it seems to us three-hundred years later, these people took

religion seriously. “Tartuffe” was released at the same time that Cardinal Richelieu was making his

infamous rise to power. Because of this, there

was, “increasing pressure on all segments of society to conform” (Walker 61). Moliere obviously was not

conforming to the popular religious dogma of the day and this was seen as a threat, even though he had

the support of Louis XIV. Despite the support of the king, the play was banned. This is testimony to

just how much power the religious officials had.

The French had been deeply split over matters of religion in the years preceeding the play. This

had led to a war between the Catholics and Protestants. Religious groups sided with various noblemen who

were struggling for power. This became known as the Battle of the “Frondes”. After this war concluded,

there emerged a belief that the main danger to national unity lie in heresy. “Agnostic, free-thinking

ideas were very much present, although carefully screened for fear of the real possibility of execution

for heresy” (Walker 61). This attempt to restrain free thinking was challenged by Moliere and he was

shot down for it. One critic wrote an especially scathing review of “Tartuffe”, in which, ” the author

of ‘Tartuffe’ was represented as practically the Antichrist” (Fernandez 39).

The church and state were each fully supportive of the other. Hence, “a clever man like

Richelieu could pursue interlocking careers in the church hierarchy and government. One path to temporal

power was ecclesiastical, not only over the spirits of men but in the political and social sense”

(Walker 61). A similar path was followed by the “imposter”, Tartuffe. Both used arranged marriages to

create a political stronghold. Both were intent on getting rid of resistance. Most importantly, both

used their power in the spiritual realm to increase their power in the political realm. At the end of


play Tartuffe appears to have done just this by taking over the hapless Orgon’s estate. Only the king’s

intervention prevents this. The king apparently knew what was going on the whole time and was merely

waiting to catch Tartuffe red-handed. “With one keen glance, the king perceived the whole, perverseness

and corruption of his soul, and thus high heaven’s justice was displayed; Betraying you, the rogue stood

self-betrayed” (Meyer 1507). With this ending Moliere pointed out that there will be no stop to the

hypocrite’s outrages unless someone in power puts an end to it.

Despite the attacks of the clergy, Moliere remained a strong believer that comedy knows no

privileged classes. The church’s shortcomings were every bit as eligible to be laughed at as the common

peasants. It is the privilege of a comic writer to remain aloof from society around him in order to be

able to point out issues that others either do not notice, or do not wish to tackle. In the case of

“Tartuffe”, it was an issue that was taboo for others to speak of. Even King Louis himself was scared to

go against the “divine judgement” of the church. The Holy Sacrament decided to ban the play before it

had even been publicly performed. Nevertheless, “the king pressed Moliere to stage his comedy at court

at the first possible moment” (Fernandez 119). After the ban on the play was finally lifted, it became

Moliere’s most successful play. This suggests that both the nobility and the public enjoyed seeing the

Church subjected to scrutiny, although they could never say as much!

with their words. In essence, Moliere became a champion of the people by mocking the hypocrites who

used religion to rise to power. Since this breed included some of the most powerful men in France at

that time, the move was especially bold. In fact, it caused Moliere to be in conflict with the church

for the rest ofhis life. For instance, at his deathbed, “his wife was absent, trying fruitlessly to

persuade a priest to give him the last rites” (Bishop X). “The Church preferred to regard him as a

disreputable player, and was disinclined to grant him religious burial” (Gassner XII).

It is obvious that the play “Tartuffe” contains a meaning much deeper than an amusing little

anecdote. Trying to decide which of these methods is more effective is possible only by using the

following basic criteria. Which viewpoint captures the essence of the religious theme Moliere was trying

to project.

When reading the casual reader will see that Moliere is attacking religious hypocrites. While

the play will be amusing, and possibly will convey it’s point, the reader cannot possibly understand the

full weight the play carries without knowing the historical background behind it. For instance when

Cleante declares, “So there is nothing that I find more base, Than specious piety’s dishonest face,

Than these bold mountebanks, these histories, Whose impious mummeries and hollow shows” (Meyer 1467).

Throughout the play, one will observe the parallels between the villain, Tartuffe, and religious leaders

of Moliere’s day, specifically Cardinal Richelieu. It is obvious that Moliere detested the way that men

like this rose to power. Cleante speaks out, saying, “(these men) exploit our love of Heaven, and make a

jest, Of all that men think holiest and best; These calculating souls who offer prayers, Not to their

Maker, but as public wares” (Meyer 1467). He is condemning false religion, religion which is used only

to gain political power. During Moliere’s lifetime he had seen Richelieu rise through the political

ranks, using religion as a springboard, until he was the king’s chief minister. This is the “false

piety” Cleante condemns in the play.

By looking at “Tartuffe” historically it becomes clear the courage it took for Moliere to

perform this play, knowing that he would be ostracized by the church for the rest of his life. At

Moliere’s death, Bishop Bossuet said, “God is showing his anger against Moliere” (Bishop X). However,

by using the historical viewpoint, we can see that Moliere actually died a hero, knowing that he had

always fought for what he believed.

Bishop, Morris. Eight Plays By Moliere. New York:

The Modern Library, 1957.

Fernandez, Ramon. Moliere: The Man Seen Through the Plays. New York:

Hill and Wang, 1958.

Gassner, John. Comedies of Moliere. New York:

The Book League of America, 1946.

Meyer, Michael. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Boston:

Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Walker, Hallam. Moliere. Boston:

Twayne Publishers, 1990.

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