Molière, pseudonym of JEAN BAPTISTE POQUELIN (1622-73), French dramatist, and one of the greatest of all writers of comedies. His universal comic types still delight audiences; his plays are often produced and have been much translated.
Molière was born in Paris on January 15, 1622, the son of a wealthy tapestry maker. From an early age he was completely devoted to the theater. In 1643 he joined a theatrical company established by the Béjarts, a family of professional actors; he married one of the members of the family, Armande Béjart, in 1662. The troupe, which Molière named the Illustre Théâtre, played in Paris until 1645 and then toured the provinces for 13 years, returning to Paris in 1658. On their return Louis XIV lent the troupe his support and offered them occasional use of the Théâtre du Petit-Bourbon and, in 1661, use of the playhouse in the Palais-Royal. Secure at the Palais-Royal, “Molière for the rest of his life committed himself entirely to the comic theater, as dramatist, actor, producer, and director” (Encarta 96).
In 1659 the company presented Molière's Les précieuses ridicules (The Affected Young Ladies). Written in a style similar to that of the older farces, it satirizes the pretensions of two provincial girls. The work took Paris by storm, and from that time until his death, at least one of Molière's comedies was produced each year (Compton’s 95).
L'école des femmes (The School for Wives, 1662) marks a break with the farce tradition. “Considered the first great seriocomic work of French literature”, it deals with the part women played in society and their preparation for it; the play constitutes a bold satire on contemporary materialistic values and, as such, was denounced for impiety and vulgarity (Encarta 96).
In Tartuffe (first version, 1664; third and final version, 1669) Molière invented one of his famous comic types, that of a religious hypocrite. The audacity of this play is attested to by the king's not permitting a public performance of it for five years although he himself thought it amusing. The king had good reason to believe that the play, with the grasping, hypocritical Tartuffe, clad in clerical garb and hair shirt, would offend the powerful French higher clergy (Britannica 91).
The ever-popular Le Misanthrope (1666) pictures a young suitor, Alceste, sincere but humorless, trying to woo Célimène, a flirtatious court soubrette. Because this play does not end happily, it is sometimes characterized as a tragedy (Earley and Keil 92).
Others among Molière's most successful plays (numbering about 33) are L'avare (The Miser, 1668), a stark “comedy,” loosely based on a work by the Roman comic dramatist Plautus, and Le médecin malgré lui (The Physician in Spite of Himself, 1666), a satire on the medical profession. Le bourgeois gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman, 1670), a comedy-ballet with music by the king's favorite composer, Jean Baptiste Lully, mocks a successful but naive cloth merchant who aspires to being received at court. A swindler bilks him with promises to arrange such an invitation, and in hopes of becoming a courtier Monsieur Jourdain, the would-be gentleman, prepares himself by taking lessons in music, dancing, fencing, and philosophy. The four scenes devoted to these lessons are among the most hilarious ever written by Molière, and all ends happily with a mock Turkish ballet (Earley and Keil 92).
Molière's last comedy, Le malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid, 1673), about a hypochondriac who fears the ministrations of doctors, is in the tradition of those satires on medicine widespread in 16th- and 17th-century literature. Ironically, during the first week of the play's run, as Molière was playing the leading role, he was stricken ill onstage and died a few hours later (February 17, 1673) (Compton’s 95).
Molière's satires, directed against social conventions that thwart nature, give a more accurate portrait of contemporary French society than do the serious dramas of his contemporaries Pierre Corneille and Jean Baptiste Racine. Although his stock characters and comic effects were borrowed from older traditions—from the comedies of the Greek writer Aristophanes, from the Roman comedy of Terence and Plautus, and from the Italian commedia dell'arte—he gave psychological depth to his misers, lovers, hypocrites, and social climbers. “A master of slapstick, he yet contrived to maintain an underlying note of