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Tartuffe Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Molière's Tartuffe. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Molière

An actor as well as a playwright, the artist known as Molière experienced a great deal of success within his own lifetime, but faced severe societal prejudice as well. Despite being adored by both his patrons and the public, Molière faced opposition from the French government and the Catholic Church for his sharp, satiric works, several of which (including Tartuffe) were censored by the authorities. Although Molière came from a wealthy family, the French considered theater a shameful career, and the playwright was once imprisoned for his theater company’s debts. Having contracted tuberculosis when he was young, Molière collapsed onstage at age fifty-one while performing in his own play The Imaginary Invalid—he insisted on finishing the performance, but died later that night. Despite his renown, his status as an actor rendered him legally unfit to be buried on holy ground; only an intervention from the King himself allowed the playwright’s family to give him a nighttime burial in a Church graveyard.
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Historical Context of Tartuffe

Molière wrote during the reign of Louis XIV, whose reign from 1643-1715 brought about a period of prosperity and power that France had never before seen. Louis built the opulent Palace of Versailles, where Tartuffe was first performed. Called the Sun King, Louis was believed to be nearly omniscient by his subjects, and was nearly omnipotent in the way he dominated power even over French nobles; it is for this reason that the character of the King displays almost miraculous powers of perception at the end of Tartuffe. The Age of Enlightenment (in the 17th and 18th centuries) also coincided with Molière’s lifetime, creating increasing conflict between scientists and the powerful Catholic Church. In Tartuffe, Moliere takes a thoroughly Enlightenment view, depicting emotion as dangerous and irrational, while presenting reason and logic as the pinnacles of human achievement. The character of Cléante represents the perfect Enlightenment man; he is both rational and religious, combining his faith in God with his faith in logic.

Other Books Related to Tartuffe

Moliere’s other most famous work, The Misanthrope, depicts a severe and serious man in love with a shallow and flighty gentlewoman. Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism (1759), the tale of a completely innocent young man who undergoes various trials and travails, represents a later work of French Neoclassical comedy. Racine’s Phèdre (1677), a retelling of the Greek tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolytus, explores the darker side of Neoclassicism. Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1677), a bawdy tale of mixed up identities and cross-dressing, provides an example of the Restoration Comedy, a British style contemporary with French Neoclassicism. Texts such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s comic poem The Canterbury Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Romantic Era The Scarlett Letter (1850), and Charles Dickens’ Victorian Oliver Twist (1837) all depict different forms of religious hypocrisy. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1997) by Dario Fo, an absurdist political satire, provides a modern example of the sort of broad farce on display in Tartuffe; so does Poiret’s La Cage aux Folles (1973), a French farce about homosexuality that eventually became a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.
Key Facts about Tartuffe
  • Full Title: Tartuffe
  • When Written: 1660s
  • Where Written: Paris
  • When Published: The play premiered on May 12, 1664. This version, however, was censored by royal decree, and the published version we use today was not performed until February 5, 1669.
  • Literary Period: French Neoclassical comedy (mid-17th century)
  • Genre: Comedic stage play
  • Setting: Paris in the 1660s
  • Climax: Elmire exposes Tartuffe as a fraud
  • Antagonist: Tartuffe and the deceptive hypocrisy he represents

Extra Credit for Tartuffe

A Neoclassical Neologism. So culturally influential is the play Tartuffe, that the word “Tartuffe” has entered the dictionary as a synonym for “hypocrite.”