Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (who used the stage name Moliere), born January 15th, 1622, is considered one of France’s greatest playwrights, if not the greatest. His amalgamation of humor and intellect, his ability to exquisitely capture the hypocrisy of 17th century French society, and his sparkling and lucid prose have made his works immensely popular around the world both in universities and, of course, on the stage. He was described by Voltaire as “the painter of France,” as his works held a mirror up to his country’s vices and virtues.
Moliere had a pleasant and comfortable childhood, as his father tended the king’s furniture and upholstery. He was educated at France’s finest schools, including the Jesuit College du Clermont in Paris. His mother, who was very religious, died when he was ten years old. It was expected that Moliere would continue in his father’s trade, but he showed little interest in doing so. Instead, the young Moliere often watched the street comedians trying to sell patent medicines, and frequently attended plays at the Hotel de Bourgogne with his grandfather.
In June 1643, the 21 year old Moliere and the actress Madeleine Bejart founded the Illustre Theatre, but this endeavor went bankrupt within two years. Because he had both acting talent and legal knowledge, Moliere had served the head of the troupe. Some issues with personal debt landed him briefly in prison during this time period, but the sum was paid and his freedom obtained within 24 hours. This was also the time period during which he adopted his stagename.
Following the failure of the Illustre Theatre, Moliere traveled with another theatre troupe. He eventually created another company of his own, for which he also wrote and directed. Through this company's success, Moliere secured the patronage of Philippe I, Duke of Orleans. Moliere’s two best-known plays from this period include L’Etourdi, ou le Contretemps and Le Docteur amoureux.
Moliere eventually made his way to Paris, where he performed in front of the King at the Louvre. With the help of the Duke of Orleans, his company shared the theatre with the famous commedia dell'arte troupe of Tiberio Fiorillo. In 1659, Moliere's satire Les Precieuses ridicules premiered. The play mocked the Academie Francaise, a group which established the rules of the French theater, and was concerned with tradition and unity. In 1661, Moliere premiered Dom Garcie de Navarre, ou le prince jaloux, but it was a failure. The December 22nd, 1662 premiere of L'Ecole des femmes was much more successful, and Moliere's reputation began to blossom. The play's blatant comedy garnered much attention, some of it negative, all of which led Moliere to continue focusing on plays that prized innovation over classicism.
The three-act version of Tartuffe premiered in 1664 and gained him even more notoriety, as it appeared to attack religion. This play, as well as Dom Juan, was censored by the Roman Catholic Church. Though the playwright's initial targets had been young society girls, he had now turned to the clergy and professional classes, which was problematic. Many people in power did not admire his desire to expose fraud and hypocrisy, especially when he leveled those attacks around them.
Moliere's name was also besmirched by the scandal surrounding his marriage, at 40, to the 20 year old daughter of his former mistress, Madeleine. King Louis XIV was unruffled by Moliere's reputation, however, and officially honored him in 1663. Two later plays, L'Avare and Le Misanthrope, solidified his remarkable contribution to French theater.
Moliere died on February 17th, 1673, from complications brought on by his performances in Le Malade imaginaire. He had been suffering from tuberculosis for many years. After he collapsed on stage, the priest refused to administer the last rites, and it was only through the King's intervention that he was allowed to be buried at night in order to avoid further scandal.
While Moliere's work may still cause some controversy in certain religious circles, it has remained profoundly impactful for many playwrights and actors, and stands a paragon of classical French theater.
Study Guides on Works by Jean-Baptiste Moliere
Tartuffe, first performed as a three-act play before King Louis XIV in 1664, and then in its official five-act version in 1669, is perhaps Moliere’s greatest accomplishment. Its piercing commentary on hypocrisy and impiety, its light-hearted wit...