The central theme of Tartuffe is hypocrisy, as exhibited in the holier-than-thou attitude of the antagonist. Tartuffe is the personification of hypocrisy, pretending to be morally upright and extremely pious when he is really a scoundrel. The main theme of Molière’s Tartuffe refers to the hypocrisy of religion versus Christian virtues, or people who claim to be religious but are hypocrites instead. The Absurdity of Zealotry During Molière’s time, a rogue Roman Catholic movement that advocated extreme piety gained a modicum of popularity. Called Jansenism, it promoted the Calvinist tenet of predestination along with an austere, almost unforgiving moral code. Pope Innocent X condemned Jansenism in 1653 in a papal edict entitled “Cum Occasione” (“With Occasion”). In Tartuffe, Molière, a Roman Catholic educated at a Jesuit school, lampooned Jansenism in particular—and fanaticism of any kind in general—through his characterization of Tartuffe. Thus, Molière was doing with his play what the pope had done with his edict. However, when the play opened before the king and his court at Versailles Palace, the clergy frowned on it because they thought its purpose was to satirize all clergymen, as well as the Catholic religion in general. Molière had to revise the play twice before the king approved it for public performance. The only significant change Molière made was changing Tartuffe to a layman rather than an official member of the clergy.
Orgon foolishly believes in everything Tartuffe says and does. Even though his family members call his attention to Tartuffe’s obvious hypocrisy, Orgon stubbornly supports Tartuffe, even making him his heir and offering him the hand of his daughter. Orgon’s utter gullibility represents the attitude of churchgoers who accept sham religion characterized by zealotry. It also represents the foolhardiness of anyone who falls victim to hypocrisy in any form. However, in his mockery of Orgon and Tartuffe, Molière does not in any way impugn sincere religious attitudes.
UNDERDOGS CAN BITE
Though only a lowly servant girl, Dorine is perceptive, witty, and bold—an astute judge of character who is not afraid to speak her mind. In many ways, this maid of steel is the most admirable character in the play, demonstrating that one does not have to be highborn to be high-minded. Her opposition to female subservience in a male-dominated society is centuries ahead of its time.
~ Professor Tracy Manning
Artistic Director, Taylor University
PROBING QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER DISCOVERY
1. Orgon loves Tartuffe more than all his family and friends, trusts him completely, and even offers to “hand over all (his) worldly goods” if Tartuffe will stay in his home forever. It isn’t until the rest of the family go to absolute extremes that Orgon’s eyes are opened. Tartuffe is remembered as the greatest scoundrel who ever lived. In fact, his name is often synonymous with “trickster.” Where does the fault truly lie? With Orgon, or with Tartuffe?
2. Every character at some point in the play experience suffering. How much of that suffering is their own fault, and how much should we ascribe to the villain, if there is a villain? Is Tartuffe the only villain in the play? Who or what else could be the villain?
3. In Act IV, Elmire decides to seduce Tartuffe in the hopes that her husband will see the Tartuffe for the scoundrel that he is. In doing so, she willingly deceives and manipulates them both with her feminine charm and sexuality, abusing the attraction Tartuffe has for her. Is her manipulation of his infatuation fully justified?
4. How do you see women portrayed in this play? How is your 21st century perception different than that of Moliere’s audience in the 17th century?
5. What is the relationship between reason and religion in the play? Can the two coincide?
6. It could be argued that if Orgon had listened to Cléante’s wisdom in the beginning of the play, the family would never have fallen so far into Tartuffe’s authority. Where do you see blatant truth ignored today?
7. The difference between perceived piety and true piety is discussed at length in the play, which begs the question, if integrity is never seen, does it truly count?
8. Under our American laws of free speech, it is no longer taboo to speak truthfully about flaws we find in our religious leaders, or any significant authority figure.What are some constructive ways you can address the hypocrisy of those in authority over you?