Molière’s Tartuffe is a perfect example of the critical yet satirical exploration of the theme of religious hypocrisy in the Enlightenment literature (TheatreHistory par. 1). A symbolic capital of praise and admiration that the play has accrued over the centuries speaks tellingly of its theatrical worth as well as of the importance of the relationship between society and religion, which was considered one of the most controversial issues in the 17th century France (Brians par. 4; TheatreHistory par. 4). This paper aims to explore religion, holiness, and hypocrisy that were used as currency in a power struggle at the time of reform and renewal in the context of Tartuffe.
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Religion in Molière’s Tartuffe
The opening of the play suggests an audience that “Tartuffe is full of holy speeches… and practices precisely what he preaches” (Molière 3), thereby letting it know that an outward manifestation of piousness is often treated with fanatical reverence. Irrational veneration for Tartuffe is also evident from the fact that in an attempt to praise his ostensible holiness, Madam Pernelle shows disregard for her grandson by saying that she does not like to “hear him mocked by fools like you” (Molière 3). Therefore, from the very beginning of Tartuffe, the audience understands that for the play’s characters, religion takes precedence over their families. However, it is necessary to make a distinction between humor at the expense of religion and jokes about those who use it for their benefit: even though Molière pokes fun at religious fanatics like Orgon, he treats the subject of religion with respect. While unraveling arcane relationships between authority, religion, and consciousness, the playwright manages to adhere to the satirical portrayal of excessive devotion to faith without downgrading to the outright mockery of religion.
Tartuffe is a comedy of manners that aims to criticize “an irreclaimable hypocrite” (TheatreHistory par. 1) who abuses the power of his ostensible piety to take a swing at the domestic happiness of a man who is fooled by his speeches. It is clear that Molière respects religion and wants to divorce it from the hypocrisy that pollutes it with twisted ideology created by unconscionable individuals like Tartuffe. Therefore, while criticizing the opportunist and Parisian foibles, Molière manages to draw the characters of the play with a warm paintbrush of his literary talent that “suggests the fervor of his religious sentiment” (TheatreHistory par. 2). It is not religion that is being mocked, but rather men of religion who explore grotesque attitudes toward piety for personal gains. Such attitudes can be exemplified by Orgon’s habit of stuttering when speaking about Tartuffe: the man is so irrational in his admiration for the imposter that he cannot retain a clear state of mind. When he finds out that his wife had a fever, the first thing Orgon wants to know is whether Tartuffe is well. He calls the hypocrite “poor fellow” even after discovering that the man is “bursting with health, and excellently fed” (Molière 4).
By showing his audience how hypocrisy can be employed for destroying people’s lives, Molière provides them with instruments necessary for discerning frauds who are willing to project a false image in an attempt to attract the adulation of masses. It is necessary to remember that Tartuffe represents religion or, to be more precise, its dark underbelly; therefore, the playwright has worked hard to furnish critical thinkers with pills against pernicious threats it poses. The play makes it clear that Parisian society was filled with people for whom deceit was nothing more than lingua franca. Tartuffe can serve as a Babel fish for those individuals who want to navigate through a treacherous sea of religious dishonesty and are willing to understand this lingua franca of false virtue. Tartuffe’s advances at Elmire are revolting enough to show the audience that hungry-looking specter of the supposedly pious man does not represent religion as a whole. The play shows that malevolent intent and willingness to wreak havoc for a minor gain of the satisfaction of covetousness is nothing more than a purview of small minds and callous hearts. Neither Tartuffe nor Tartuffe can speak about religion in its entirety, rather the play and its characters provide the audience with a glance at the frontier of the 17th-century Parisian society with all its foibles and obsessions. At the time of the Enlightenment, the most prominent thinkers in Paris believed that their role was to show their compatriots the ills of hereditary aristocracy and religion; therefore, Tartuffe is a perfect example of a literary work the sole aim of which was to enlighten (Brians par. 1).
As the essay has demonstrated, religion and holiness were used as currency in a power struggle at the time of reform and renewal ushered in by the Enlightenment. By showing his audience that Tartuffe was a fraud, Molière decries religious hypocrisy that was so dangerous in the era with an extremely limited supply of alternative worldviews. It is hard to think about another play that can be viewed by individuals who are willing to explore the theme of blind devotion and deceit perfectly narrated with the help of exquisite rhyme schemes.
Brians, Paul. “The Enlightenment.” Public.wsu, Web.
Molière, Jean. Tartuffe. Translated by Richard Wilbur, Harvest Books, 1992.
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TheatreHistory. “Tartuffe: A History of the play by Molière.” TheatreHistory, Web.