Tartuffe: Double-dealing in the Era of the Sun King
Tartuffe was written in the era of Louis XIV, the Sun King, a time when France was arguably the greatest nation in the Western world and a time when the intellectual and aesthetic development of society was in a stage of development called the Baroque.
It was a time of excess and a time of grandeur. It was not a time for small things – for small gestures, for small oeuvres. The great King himself reigned for years and years, having begun as an inexperienced boy beneath the hand of his mother, Anne of Austria, and the Cardinal Mazarin, and grew over time to a stature that led him to say “l’ Etat, c’est moi” – “I AM the State.
He built Versailles, waged many wars, had numerous mistresses and sons and daughters both natural and illegitimate, and ruled so long that he saw his grandchildren die.
The state that existed under such leadership was characterized to some extent by polarized opinion.
There was worldliness – there had to be, considering that it was a time when marriages among the nobility were arranged for financial and political reasons, when sinecures were bought and sold, the same principle of purchase being true for churchmen, civil servants or soldiers, and when fortunes depended on the favour curried at court from the king and the women close to him. It would take a large amount of cynicism, similar to that which informed Pascal’s wager, to move in such a society. On the other hand, one was constrained by the powerful institutions of Church and State. One could, as a matter of fact, lie, cheat, steal and fornicate. One could have one’s enemies murdered in their beds, or sleep with a neighbor’s wife, or bribe bureaucrats and court officials. It was, however, impossible to do so barefacedly. One had to move within the rules of polite society, and profess to uphold the kind of morality advocated by the Catholic Church. How did one survive such a world?
The answer would be bare-faced hypocrisy. In Tartuffe, the playwright Moliere presents the audience with an exaggerated depiction of a pious hypocrite, a man who professes to be the soul of perfection – indeed, as one who seeks perfection in his spiritual life – while he sets about a series of machinations that are ultimately designed to give him money and sensual pleasure, precisely the things that a good, a devoted Christian is supposed to shun.
Moliere sets out to show that hypocrisy, sadly, is often rewarded. As a character, Tartuffe manages to dupe his patron and his mother, although the other characters seem to be able to see through his pretences. The playwright appears to be presenting the way in which the relationship between hypocrite and dupe hurt society: Hypocrisy is in itself abominable, but the ignorance and stupidity of those who allow themselves to be taken in by it magnifies the harm it does a hundredfold by giving power over to the pretender and helping him achieve his aims. It is bad enough to be a hypocrite, but it must be worse to be so shallow and simple-minded as to be taken in by him.
As the play opens Tartuffe is “discovered” by his patron Orgon at Church while he is engaged in a series of exaggerated devotions. Orgon says of him: “Each day he came to church meek as you please/ And right across from me fell on his knees/ He caught the eye of every person there/ Such warmth and zeal he put into his prayers.” To the critical eye of course the problem is quite apparent. Christ after all said that when one gives alms “Your left hand should not know what your right hand is doing.” He even derides the Pharisees and those who tear their hair and look haggard and hungry when fasting, saying that whatever sacrifices one makes for one’s soul is a matter between one’s self and God. Tartuffe, however, makes it a point to sit in front of the wealthy Orgon and treat his prayers as a species of performance. The man is so devout that people notice his devotion and his piety straight off – he seems very, very good, and too good, and what’s too good is likely not true. Orgon’s brother Cleante sees this when he takes alarm at the declaration that Tartuffe even reproached himself when, having been interrupted in his prayers by an insect, “killed the creature much too angrily.”
Orgon, however, is so convinced that he is ready to marry his daughter off to this gem of manhood, and refuses to believe that Tartuffe has, while trying to win the hand of Mariane, has tried to convince Elmire, Orgon’s wife, to become his mistress. Moliere highlights Orgon’s ridiculous infatuation in Act 1 by showing how the wife is distressed and sick and fatigued, yet the master of the house only has eyes and ears for Tartuffe’s welfare. In fact, it is worthwhile to note at this stage that Orgon and his mother have been totally taken in by Tartuffe, while the rest of the household ranges from indifferent to cynical to appalled. Ironically, it is the master of the household and his mother – who presumably has great influence upon him – who are the targets of deception, and it is they who wield the greatest power over this family.
Between Acts 3 and 4, Tartuffe’s less-than-pure designs on the women of the household are exposed in typical comic fashion by people hiding under tables and overhearing what isn’t meant for their ears at all. In this way Orgon is forced to come to his senses and confront the impostor. The problem is that Tartuffe has had the foresight to ensnare his patron quite deeply – he knows things that will get Orgon into trouble, specifically through the possession of a strongbox filled with documents related to a fugitive friend. In the end, however, everything turns out all right. Orgon is about to flee the country and Tartuffe arrives with a Gentleman of the King’s Guard. When it seems that the game is up for Orgon, it turns out that the Guardsman has come to arrest not him but Tartuffe, for crimes formerly committed under an assumed name.
The play then, ends happily, even though it accomplishes this with a species of Deus-ex-machina. Being a comedy, it could reasonably have ended sadly, so this fortuitous event is a moot point. It is the proximity of disaster that is important here.
In the time when the play was written it created a great furore. Even though the representative of the Pope himself made it clear that he did not find it hugely offensive, many critics decried this seemingly sacrilegious depiction of piety. The question many audiences, readers and reviewers find themselves faced with is this: Is Moliere ridiculing pious hypocrites or all kinds of pious people in general? If he confines himself to the first then it is reassuring enough, because it becomes easy for one to say that one is a good kind of pious – not a hypocrite, one whose devotion is real. The second opinion confronts people with a more uncomfortable idea – it IS possible to have too much of a good thing, and what’s worse, too much of a good thing does more harm than good. King Louis XIV himself did not find the work abominable; he even made Moliere’s group of actors the King’s troupe. Greatness found no trouble with this work, and one can speculate upon whether or not Papal representatives and royalty have so much trouble with hypocrisy that they consider a satire upon it always well-timed and edifying. One can even argue that anything that really makes people think is bound to be taken badly, whether in 1644 or 2010. Perhaps the best thing about Tartuffe is how Moliere takes displaces the blame – if a man is a hypocrite, then he is one because it is often an intelligent choice to be one. And of course, it becomes a feasible and intelligent choice when there are Orgons and Madame Pernelles in the world – people who think there is good and bad but are not astute enough to see that no virtue is perfect, in the same way that no vice is ever so vicious that it does not have its saving grace.
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Mitford, Nancy. The Sun King. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
Moliere, Jean-Baptiste. Tartuffe and Other Plays. London: Signet Classics, 1967.
Neal, Lisa. France, An Illustrated History. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2001.
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Tartuffe: Double-dealing in the Era of the Sun King. (2017, Jan 27). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/tartuffe-double-dealing-in-the-era-of-the-sun-king/