French culture at this time closely linked society and religion; the Church held an enormous amount of power, and piety was considered an essential part of everyday life. Tartuffe, however, misuses religion, his shows of faith contrasting with the quiet but true faith of characters such as Elmire. Though Tartuffe has become a symbol of religious hypocrisy, the play does not condemn religion; rather, Moliere seeks to illustrate the difficulty of discerning the difference between true piety and false pious gestures. Tartuffe does not use religion for good, but rather as a tool to manipulate those around him. He displays piety when others are watching, but drops his act as soon as he sees something he covets (such as Elmire, or Orgon’s wealth). Although he occasionally performs good deeds, such as giving money to beggars, he does so only in order to make his charade of faith more believable.
In contrast, Elmire acts piously even when it is not advantageous to do so. She rejects Tartuffe’s advances only to beg Damis not to tell Orgon about the incident. She would rather hide her own virtue than upset her husband. This fact is particularly ironic considering that at the beginning of the play Madame Pernelle condemns Elmire for her impious ways, noting how she wears stylish clothes and entertains many callers. This utterly incorrect judgment yet again illustrates the problems of distinguishing between true and false faith. Elmire seems sinful, yet is in fact virtuous and faithful. Tartuffe, meanwhile, seems pious even though he is a greedy, lustful liar.
Religion, Piety, and Morals ThemeTracker
Religion, Piety, and Morals Quotes in Tartuffe
He guides our lives, and to protect my honor
Stays by my wife, and keeps an eye upon her;
He tells me whom he sees, and all she does,
And seems more jealous than I ever was!
There’s just one insight I would dare to claim:
I know that true and false are not the same;
And just as there is nothing I more revere
Than a soul whose faith is steadfast and sincere,
Nothing that I more cherish and admire
Than honest zeal and true religious fire,
So there is nothing that I find more base
Than specious piety’s dishonest face—
Orgon: Poor though he is, he’s a gentleman just the same.
Dorine: Yes, so he tells us; and, Sir, it seems to me
Such pride goes very ill with piety.
A man whose spirit spurns this dungy earth
Ought not to brag of lands and noble birth;
Such worldly arrogance will hardly square
With meek devotion and the life of prayer.
Tartuffe: Hang up my hair-shirt, put my scourges in place,
And pray, Laurent, for Heaven’s perpetual grace.
I’m going to the prison now, to share
My last few coins with the poor wretches there.
Dorine: Dear God, what affectation! What a fake!
Your loveliness I had no sooner seen
Than you became my soul’s unrivalled queen;
Before your seraph glance, divinely sweet,
My heart’s defenses crumbled in defeat,
And nothing fasting, prayer, or tears might do
Could stay my spirit from adoring you
My eyes, my sights have told you in the past
What now my lips make bold to say at last,
And if, in your great goodness, you will deign
To look upon your slave and ease his pain,—
If, in compassion for my soul’s distress,
You’ll stoop to comfort my unworthiness,
I’ll raise to you, in thanks for that sweet manna,
An endless hymn, an infinite hosanna.
Orgon: Can it be true, this dreadful thing I hear?
Tartuffe: Yes, Brother, I’m a wicked man, I fear;
A wretched sinner, all depraved and twisted,
The greatest villain that has ever existed.
My life’s one heap of crimes, which grows each minute;
There’s naught but foulness and corruption in it;
And I perceive that Heaven, outraged by me,
Has chosen this occasion to mortify me
Charge me with any deed you wish to name;
I’l not defend myself, but take the blame.
Believe what you are told, and drive Tartuffe
Like some base criminal from beneath your roof;
Yes, drive me hence, and with a parting curse:
I shan’t protest, for I deserve far worse.
Orgon (to Damis): Ah, you deceitful boy, how dare you try
To stain his purity with so foul a lie?
Sir, by that Heaven which sees me here distressed,
And by whatever else can move your breast,
Do not employ a father’s power, I pray you,
To crush my heart and force it to obey you,
Nor by your harsh commands oppress me so
That I’ll begrudge the duty which I owe—
And do not so embitter and enslave me
That I shall hate the very life you gave me.
If you’re still troubled, think of things this way:
No one shall know our joys, save us alone,
And there’s no evil till the act is known;
It’s scandal, Madam, which makes it an offense,
And it’s no sin to sin in confidence.
Well, so you thought you’d fool me, my dear saint!
How soon you wearied of the saintly life—
Wedding my daughter, and coveting my wife!
I’ve long suspected you, and had a feeling
That soon I’d catch you at your double-dealing.
Hust now, you’ve given me evidence galore;
It’s quite enough; I have no wish for more.
Sir, all is well; rest easy, and be grateful.
We serve a Prince to whom all sham is hateful,
A Prince who sees into our inmost hearts,
And can’t be fooled by any trickster’s arts.
His royal soul, though generous and human,
Views all things with discernment and acumen;
His sovereign reason is not lightly swayed,
And all his judgments are discreetly weighed.
He honors righteous men of every kind,
And yet his zeal for virtue is not blind,
Nor does his love of piety numb his wits
And make him tolerant of hypocrites.
‘Twas hardly likely that this man could cozen
A King who’s fouled such liars by the dozen,
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.