The play opens in the Parisian house of the middle-class but wealthy Orgon, who has recently won honor by serving the King of France loyally during a civil war, and who is currently on a two-day business trip. In the first scene Madame Pernelle, his mother, ho has been visiting, takes her leave of the rest of Orgon’s household: his daughter, Mariane; his son, Damis; their stepmother, Elmire; and her brother, Cléante. They are accompanied by Elmire’s maid, Dorine, and Madame Pernelle’s maid, Flipote. As she goes to exit, Madame Pernelle scolds each character in turn, for their sinful ways. She saves her special criticism for Elmire, whom she believes to be vain shallow. Madame Pernelle wishes for her son’s entire family to follow the teachings of Tartuffe, a poor holy man whom both she and Orgon revere. The rest of the household, however, believes (correctly) that Tartuffe is a hypocrite and a fraud, more interested in Orgon’s wealth than in the true teachings of the Church. Madame Pernelle will hear nothing against Tartuffe though, even threatening that if they do not listen to Tartuffe, the neighborhood will begin to gossip about Elmire’s flirtatious and extravagant ways. Cléante and Dorine, two of the most reasonable characters in the play, contend that people will gossip no matter what, and that the worst moralizing gossips are often the worst sinners as well. Madame Pernelle, suspecting that the two are making fun of her, storms out, though not before slapping her maid (a hypocritical action for a supposedly pious woman).
Once she is gone, Cléante and Dorine discuss the problem of Tartuffe, worrying that the hypocrite has Orgon completely under his power. Elmire, Damis, and Mariane reenter, worriedly discussing Mariane’s impending wedding to her beloved, Valère. They believe that Tartuffe has turned Orgon against the match. Damis is particularly concerned, since the ruin of this match would dash his own hopes to marry Valère’s sister. Hearing Orgon approaching, all but Dorine and Cléante retire. Upon Orgon’s arrival, Cléante witnesses firsthand his brother-in-law’s obsession with Tartuffe: as Dorine tries to tell Orgon of Elmire’s recent illness, Orgon repeatedly asks about Tartuffe’s well-being. Even though Dorine tells him of Tartuffe’s greed and gluttony, Orgon responds only with, “Poor fellow!” to great comic effect. Once Dorine leaves, Cléante tries to make Orgon understand how ridiculous he is acting. Orgon tries to defend Tartuffe to Cléante, but cannot even articulate his virtues, simply calling him, “A man who…a man who…an excellent man.” Despite this vagueness, however, Orgon asserts that he no longer feels any earthly cares: “My mother, children, brother, and wife could die,/ And I’d not feel a single moment’s pain.” Orgon, still trying to convince Cléante, describes his first meetings with Tartuffe, during which the hypocrite would ostentatiously and loudly pray at church everyday, showing off his charity and piety, and rejoicing in his decision to make Tartuffe a part of his household. Cléante tries to explain to Orgon that there is a difference between appearance and sincerity, and begs him to listen to moderation and reason. Lastly, he asks Orgon if he intends to break Mariane’s engagement to Valère. Orgon, however, refuses to answer, and exits. Cléante worries that there will be trouble, and decides to go warn Valère.
As Act Two opens, Orgon announces to Mariane that he wishes for her to marry Tartuffe instead of Valère. Mariane is appalled, but she is also a dutiful and docile daughter who does not want to contradict her father. Luckily for her, the brash and fearless Dorine enters, and begins to ridicule the idea of a match between Mariane and Tartuffe. Orgon grows increasingly angry as Dorine continually interrupts, threatening and eventually attempting to strike her. Dorine stands firm, however, and at last Orgon leaves in frustration and anger. Once he is gone, Dorine berates Mariane for refusing to speak up for herself. Mariane responds that she cannot go against her father, but Dorine urges her to resist. She says that if Mariane will not fight to marry Valère, then she does not really love him, noting that there is a difference between professions of love and love itself. Mariane asserts that she will kill herself if forced to marry Tartuffe, but Dorine responds again with sarcasm, calling Mariane self-pitying. Mariane responds that any other course of action would be unmaidenly, and Dorine in turn tells her that she must secretly wish to be married to Tartuffe. Only once Mariane begs for her assistance will Dorine relent, agreeing to help her marry Valère—who, conveniently enough, has just appeared. The two lovers meet, but Mariane refuses to say that she will stand against her father, which creates a huge rift between the two, as each foolishly and emotionally attempts to hurt the other. The absurd fight comes to an end only when Dorine physically pulls the pair back towards each other and makes them hold hands, at which point they renew their vows of love. Dorine, who now must force them apart, wonders at the madness of lovers.
At the beginning of Act Three, Dorine must deal with yet another dramatic member of Orgon’s family: this time, the hotheaded Damis, who has unwisely resolved to directly confront Tartuffe. Dorine urges him to let Elmire deal with Tartuffe, for the maidservant has noticed that the holy man has a curious soft spot for his patron’s wife. She tells Damis that Elmire and Tartuffe are about to talk in that very room, and Damis demands to hear their conversation. Exasperated, Dorine hides him in a closet, warning him not to lose his temper. For the first time in the play, Tartuffe enters; seeing Dorine, he ostentatiously calls to his manservant, asking for his hair-shirt and his scourge to injure and supposedly purify his body. Dorine scoffs at this display, and continues to mock Tartuffe to his face as he orders her to cover her bosom with a handkerchief, for fear of arousing impure thoughts within him. He becomes far more tractable, however, when he hears that Elmire wishes to speak with him, a fact that Dorine astutely notes before exiting.
As Elmire enters, Tartuffe praises her extravagantly and says that he has been praying for her ceaselessly. Elmire accepts his nauseating flattery graciously, before attempting to turn the conversation towards the match between Mariane and Valère. Tartuffe, however, has other ideas, and decides to seize this moment alone with Elmire to confess his love for her. Grabbing her hand, groping her knee, and even feeling the lace collar of her dress, Tartuffe invades Elmire’s personal space and tells her—blasphemously—that he worships her as if she were divine (in truth his feelings are greedy and lustful). When Elmire asks what Tartuffe would do if she told her husband of what he had said, he responds that he knows that her charity will excuse his sinful speech. Elmire in turn tries to use her silence in exchange for Tartuffe’s support of Valère’s and Mariane’s marriage, but Damis foils her plot, leaping out of the closet and rejoicing that he at last has the proof to expose Tartuffe’s treachery to Orgon. Though Elmire urges her stepson to be quiet, Damis announces Tartuffe’s guilt as soon as Orgon enters the room. Tartuffe makes no attempt to deny it, keeping up his pious act and making Orgon angrier and angrier not at his treacherous friend, but at his own son. As Tartuffe continues to heap blame on himself, Orgon turns against Damis completely, insulting and threatening him, forcing him out of the house, and finally disowning him. Tartuffe pretends to be shocked and saddened by this turn of events, manipulating Orgon into begging him to remain at the house. He then offers to stay away from Elmire for propriety’s sake, but Orgon refuses this offer as well, saying instead that Tartuffe should in fact spend all of his time with Elmire. Furious at his whole family, whom he believes to be conspiring against Tartuffe, Orgon then announces that not only will he marry Mariane to Tartuffe, but that he will sign away all his lands, property, and money to Tartuffe that very day in order to prove the strength of their bond. The two go off to draw up the deed.
Some time has passed at the start of Act Four, and Cléante has come to warn Tartuffe that the whole town is talking about Orgon’s fight with Damis. He urges Tartuffe to cause the two to reconcile, but Tartuffe refuses. The two then have a fight about morality, with Cléante using reasonable, logical arguments, and Tartuffe using slippery, manipulative emotion. Just as Tartuffe is about to lose the argument, he excuses himself to go pray. Immediately upon his exit, Elmire, Mariane, and Dorine enter, begging Cléante to help stop the marriage between Mariane and Tartuffe. Orgon enters next, ordering Mariane to rejoice at her future marriage to his friend. She begs to be allowed to live in a convent rather than marry Tartuffe, but her father (though moved for a moment) will not listen to her or to Cléante. At last Elmire intervenes, asking Orgon how he can do such a thing after Tartuffe’s attempted seduction. Her husband responds that if Tartuffe had actually done so, then she would be more upset. Elmire, calm and collected, asks if she can show her husband proof of Tartuffe’s sinful offer. Orgon is completely disbelieving and skeptical, but agrees that she may try. Sending out the rest of her relatives and concealing her husband under a table, Elmire calls Tartuffe to her, and pretends to return his love, explaining that she was too ashamed of it before, but that she can hide it no longer. Tartuffe, forever greedy and grasping, says that she must prove her love with a physical token of her affection. He tells her too that their potential affair will not really be a sin, and that he will remain discreet about their liaison. Elmire delays, and eventually sends Tartuffe out of the room to check for eavesdroppers. Shocked and enraged, Orgon confronts Tartuffe upon his return, berating him for attempting to marry his daughter and steal his wife. When he kicks Tartuffe out of the house, Tartuffe responds with the ultimate threat: since his former friend has signed over his lands and properties, the hypocrite now has the power to turn out Orgon and his family. He vows to do so, and to punish Orgon for his betrayal, before exiting. Elmire asks what he means by this, and Orgon refers vaguely to a mysterious but foreboding strongbox that was in Tartuffe’s room.
As Act 5 commences, Cléante has returned to help his family in their time of crisis; Orgon explains to his wise brother-in-law that the strongbox in question used to belong to his friend Argas who was disloyal to the King; to possess it would be considered treason. Orgon, of course, agreed to hold it for Argas, but then gave it to Tartuffe for safekeeping. This decision appalls Cléante, who once again councils Orgon to choose a path of moderation, rather than one of extremes. Damis returns as well, offering to kill Tartuffe for his father (Cléante opposes this plan as well). Next the women—Madame Pernelle, Elmire, Mariane, and Dorine—enter. The household attempts to convince Madame Pernelle of Tartuffe’s treachery, but she refuses to believe them—until, that is, Tartuffe sends a bailiff named Monsieur Loyal to the house to forcibly evict Orgon and his family by the next morning. The family threatens the bailiff and forces him to leave the house, but he is quickly followed by Valère, who has heard that Tartuffe has shown the contents of the strongbox to the King, who has decided to arrest Orgon. As Orgon prepares to flee (aided by Valère and Cléante), Tartuffe enters with The Officer and announces that they have come to arrest Orgon. The family insults him, but to no avail. Salvation comes only when The Officer announces that he is there not to arrest Orgon, but to arrest Tartuffe. He goes on, explaining that hypocrites such as Tartuffe cannot fool the King, and that he recognized the con man from the first as a common, “vicious” criminal. In gratitude for Orgon’s service, the King has invalidated the deed, and returns to him his lands and property. The family rejoices in the generosity of the King, and Orgon announces that Mariane and Valère will shortly be married.