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To What Degree Moliere Attacking Catholic Church Religion Essay

In this essay I will be trying to determine to what degree Molière is attacking the Catholic Church in Le Tartuffe. Having gathered and analysed information about the play, its author and his relations with the Church, I am going to present my opinions at the same time searching for the answer to the question posed above.

Moreover, the Church would use its influence on people’s morals in order to stop them from rebelling against the rulers and telling them to live the life of hermit. One of the principles of ascetic attitude is to avoid all kinds of entertainment that prevent us from achieving salvation e.g. dancing, studying books other than the Bible, playing games, falling in love or…watching theatre plays-frivolous genre of comedy in particular. At that time Moliere and the Catholic Church were natural enemies. [3] 

The first time Molière got into trouble with the Catholic Church was in 1643 when the parish priest of Saint-Sulpice banned Moliere and his theatre from performing on parish territory. Later in 1664 after the premiere of “Le Tartuffe ou l’hypocrite” the play was banned due to the protests of pious communities supported by the Catholic Church. Molière, having spent five years asking King Louis XIV for permission, was eventually allowed to present “Le Tartuffe” again. In the meantime the pious managed to ban another play of Molière “Dom Juan”. As we can see, Molière had every right to be angry with the Church which was constantly making efforts to disturb him. Not only the attitude and attacks from the clergy or pious communities pushed him to criticising the Catholic Church, but also the playwright himself strongly disagreed with the contemporary Christian standpoints. [4] The form of the Catholicism trying to reconcile the faith and reason which was slowly becoming more popular in the 17th Century, was much closer to Moliere’s point of view than the traditional way of worshipping the God.

“Voici une comédie dont on a fait beaucoup de bruit, qui a été longtemps persécutée; et les gens qu’elle joue ont bien fait voir qu’ils étaient plus puissant en France que tous ceux que j’ai joués jusques ici” [5] .

In the preface to “Le Tartuffe”, Molière mentions the powerful people, who are subject to critics in his play and who did not want it to be staged. Who could this be? The author did not say clearly who those people were. He tells us he had criticised the doctors or members of nobility before and nobody complained. It is very likely that the “powerful people” are in fact the pious and clergy, “(…) ils ont couvert leurs intérêts de la cause de Dieu;” [6] whose main argument against theatre is that it is against God’s will.

Even though the identity of the “powerful people” may seem to be quite obvious, the name of the Catholic Church is not even used once in the preface, so we can’t really be sure if those people were on the mind of Molière. He only mentions the fact that the fathers of the Church had different opinions regarding the role of comedy in general.

“Je ne puis pas nier qu’il n’y ait eu des Pères de l’Église qui ont condamné la comédie; mais on ne peut pas me nier aussi qu’il n’y en ait eu quelques-uns qui l’ont traitée un peu plus doucement”. [7] 

Molière states that the only people who are supposed to be criticised in “Le Tartuffe” are real imposters - all these people who put the faith to wrong use to try to manipulate others. This way the playwright suggests the respected clergy should not feel intimidated by the contents of the play. Molière even declares some sort of alliance between theatre and Church as they both have the same objectives. They fight for justice and defend moral values.

“Les choses même les plus saintes ne sont point à couvert de la corruption des hommes; et nous voyons des scélèrats qui, tous les jours, abusent la piété, et la font servir méchamment aux crimes les plus grands”. [8] 

According to the author, the play is not meant to hurt anybody’s religious feelings. Molière says he did not even make the characters use sacred words which shows respect for the Catholic faith. They, in fact, very often refer to some kind of “force-majeure” called simply “Le Ciel”. The names of Jesus Christ, God or Catholic Church are never mentioned which deprives the opponents of the play of their arguments. Still, the frequent use of the word “Le Ciel” by Tartuffe is considered by some critics to be abusive and inappriopraite. [9] 

In the beginning of the play we notice many references to the Bible which are made by Madame Pernelle and Orgon, for instance in his discussion with Cléante in I,v he refers to as many as three different Gospels: to John 19,5(line 272); to Philippinians 3,8(line 274); Luke 14,26 (lines 278-279). This shows that Molière in the early stages of the play abandons status quo towards the Church and is perhaps willing to communicate us some deeper thoughts later on.

The character which is Molière’s greatest “weapon” against the Church is Tartuffe. I fully agree with the opinion of Benedicte Louvat who states that the playwright created Tartuffe on the basis of multiple religious figures of that time. This means Molière did not want to attack any group of pious in particular, he prefered to concentrate on the whole of little “moral marriages” of Church with different organizations. Thus, everybody involved in that kind of relationship could recognise a little bit of himself in Tartuffe. [10] It eventually led to much controversy around the play. Among the groups that are thought to be criticised in Le Tartuffe we find the most powerful and influencial names like the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), Jansenists and La Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement.

Although Tartuffe is the main character and has huge impact almost on all events in the play, we need to wait until the third act for his first appearance. The first two acts introduce us to the issues of his past and controversial reputation. It is clear that the family is divided because of him. The head of the house Orgon and his mother Madame Pernelle are the most important figures who support Tartuffe. The remaining members of the family saw through Tartuffe immediately, but are unable to prove their point to Orgon.

What is even more interesting, some literature critics say that the main events which take place in Le Tartuffe like the attempt to seduce Elmire and the betrayal of Orgon, were inspired by Moliere’s personal experiences. It is believed that a man called Charpy de Sainte-Croix seduced the wife of one of the author’s neighbours after receiving a shelter in their house. Another victim of the real devots was a popular actor Bendinelli who was betrayed by the priest staying in his house. [11] 

I would like to focus on the third scene of the third act, where we get to know what Tartuffe is capable of, and how Molière carries out his most spectacular attack on the Catholic Church. Even though the playwright suggested something completely different in the preface.

The scene in which the imposter tries to seduce Elmire is not only relevant to the plot but also is one of the most daring parodies Molière ever created. The playwright incorporates the language of sexuality into that of prayer to make Tartuffe seduce Elmire and to show Molière’s disrespect for the Catholic Church. [12] Literature critic Richard Parish noticed that the prayer Moliere based his parody on is known as Salve Regina, and is originally addressed to the Blessed Virgin. There are exact coincidences in the use of the words “bonté”, “doux”, “douceur”, “sein”, “soupirs”, “voix” and close overlaps between “bienheureux/heureux”, “ésperance/espoir”, “reine/souveraine”, “yeux favorables/oeil bénin”. [13] Although this kind of attack seems to be spectacular and extremely daring, it was well concealed and Molière managed to make his point despite the difficulties. On the other hand, only few who were aware of the existance of Salve Regina could actually read the hidden message.

It was all still not enough for the playwright. Throughout the text we encounter many little but controversial statements or behaviours demonstrating gullibility of dévots which can be seen as insults towards the Catholic Church, for example the fact that Tartuffe and his false attitude is being worshipped by Orgon and Mme Pernelle rather than the God himself. Orgon even mentions how fascinated he was to see Tartuffe praying for the first time.

“Il attirait les yeux de l’assemblée entière,

Par l’ardeur dont au Ciel il poussait sa prière;

Il faisait des soupirs, des grands élancements,

Et baisait humblement la terre à tous moments” [14] 

The idea of good Christians being naïve and abused by the people like Tartuffe was not popular as it contradicted the teachings of the Catholic Church according to which there is a prize of life after death for everyone who believes in God, who is faithful and does not ask too many questions. Instead, the real dévots are manipulated by faux dévots.

The playwright had said on multiple occasions that Le Tartuffe was not supposed to disrupt the established order and undermine the authority of any organizations. It might seem to the reader that Dorine and, above all, Cléante are the characters who look after the household. One can find it really grotesque that the character who is meant to be the counterbalance to sinister Tartuffe is Cléante, who strongly disagrees with the popular at that time social type of devot. Cléante’s opinion are similar to those presented in the Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales which promoted the philosophy of conciliation of the reason and faith. Thus, it is very likely that Cléante in fact represents the point of view of the playwright.

To what degree does Molière attack the Catholic Church in his play? Having taken all the arguments above into account, we come to a conclusion that Le Tartuffe criticises a whole spectrum of Christian issues from single prayers to philosophies. Although the difficult times during which the play was staged forced Molière to conceal his critics, some people back then were able to read the message just like we are today.

One of the first critics of Le Tartuffe, the Archbishop of Paris, Hardouin de Péréfixe said that Tartuffe was “une comédie très dangereuse et (…) d’autant plus capable de nuire a la religion que, sous prétexte de condamner l’hypocrisie ou la fausse dévotion, elle donne lieu d’en accuser indifféremment tous ceux qui font profession de la plus solide piété”. [15] 

This quotation should be the final argument proving that Le Tatuffe was, above all else, supposed to attack the institution of the Catholic Church as well as everything connected with it. The Church was fully aware of this fact. However, Molière eventually won his battle against the pious allowing us today to explore the cultural relations in the XVII century France.

Words: 1967


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