The Religious Attacks Made By “Tartuffe”
Moliere (whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) rocked the 17th century French world with
his comedy “Tartuffe” in 1664. Although, religious factions kept the play banned from theatres from
1664-1669, “Tartuffe” emerged from the controversy as one of the all-time great comedies.
Tartuffe is a convincing religious hypocrite. He is a parasite who is sucking Orgon, the rich
trusting father, for all he is worth. Orgon does not realize that Tartuffe is a phony, and caters to his
every whim. For instance, he reneges on his promise to let his daughter Mariane, marry Valere. Instead
he demands that she wed Tartuffe, whom she despises. He also banishes his own son, Damis, from his
house for speaking out against Tartuffe and all of his son’s inheritance is promised to Tartuffe.
Tartuffe is nothing more than a traveling confidence man who veils his true wickedness with a
mask of piety. Orgon and his mother Madame Pernelle are completely taken in by this charade. On the
other hand, Cleante, Elmire, and Dorine see Tartuffe for the fake that he really is. Cleante is Orgon’s
elegantly about Tartuffe’s hypocrisy. Through Cleante, Moliere most plainly reveals his theme.
Spare me your warnings, Brother; I have no fear
Of speaking out, for you and Heaven to hear,
Against affected zeal and pious knavery.
There’s true and false in piety, as in bravery,
And just as those whose courage shines the most
In battle, are least inclined to boast,
So those whose hearts are truly pure and lowly
Don’t make a flashy show of being holy (Meyer 1466).
In speeches such as these, Moliere wanted to get across the fact that it was false piety he was
condemning and not religion in general. In the preface to the play, which Moliere himself wrote, he
bluntly states this. ” If one takes the trouble to examine my comedy in good faith, he will surely see
that my intentions are innocent throughout, and tend in no way to make fun of what men revere; that I
have presented the subject with all the precautions that its delicacy imposes; and that I have used all
the art and skill that I could to distinguish clearly the character of the hypocrite from that of the
The play successfully conveys this message because Tartuffe is a first-class villain. He is as
manipulative as Lady Macbeth, as greedy as Prince John, as underhanded as Modred, and as clever as Darth
Vader. Through his every word and deed it becomes more apparent that he is thoroughly bad. More
specifically, he not only wants to marry Orgon’s daughter, but wants to defile his wife as well. He is
not satisfied with living off of Orgon’s wealth but wants to possess it. At no time in the play does
Tartuffe resemble a truly pious man. The play never mocks God, but only those who use his name to prey
The part of the fool is played to the hilt by Orgon. Throughout the first three acts he is such
a domineering idiot that he is not even worth pitying. He, along with his mother, play the part of the
blind zealot. What he chooses to call Christian love leads him to punish his family and himself because
he takes away their freedom of choice and integrity and his own property. But, Orgon is not content to
follow Tartuffe alone. He demands that his family also follow. He becomes a threat to their happiness
when the comedic scheming by the family begins.
Dorine, Mariane’s maid, uses her earthy wit to convince Mariane and Valere not to docilely
accept Orgon’s judgement. Damis, Orgon’s son, testifies against Tartuffe’s scandalous behavior with
Elmire. Cleante continues to offer Orgon sage advice and Elmire conspires to set a trap for Tartuffe
where Orgon can witness firsthand the ungrateful hypocrite’s actions.
Dorine and Orgon almost come to blows, Damis is banished, and Cleante is ignored. Only Elmire
succeeds. She hides Orgon under a table while pretending to play along with Tartuffe’s advances. Even
when Orgon witnesses Tartuffe’s treachery firsthand it takes him a while to accept it. Elmire, by this
time, has so little faith in her husband that she begins to think he is going to stay under the table and
let Tartuffe ravish her. The turning point in the play is when Orgon comes out and confronts Tartuffe.
Tartuffe, rather than accept that he has been caught, vows that he will have Orgon’s property yet. Since
he now controls Orgon’s property, he arranges to have Orgon’s family evicted. Only the king’s benevolent
intervention saves Orgon’s family and Tartuffe is arrested.
With this tidy conclusion, Moliere not only conforms to the standard for comedies of his day, but
also shows that religious hypocrisy will lose in the end. When Tartuffe was seen for what he really was,
he was despised by one and all. Religious leaders saw the scrutiny that this play would cause them to be
subjected to and caused it to be banned for that reason. But, as in the play, justice won out in the end
and the play was exhibited freely after five years of bondage.
The fact that religious leaders could keep “Tartuffe” banned for so long shows that they had
power in realms not normally delegated to religious officials. When looking at “Tartuffe” from a
historical standpoint it becomes apparent that Moliere is condemning those who would use religion to gain
“To understand the violent reaction to “Tartuffe”, we must look briefly at the place of church
and faith in the intellectual, cultural, and political life of the times because they had important
functions beyond religious and moral guidance.” (Walker 60).
When Moliere decided to satirize human behavior in “Tartuffe” he struck a nerve with a powerful
entity, the church. No matter how unlikely it seems to us three-hundred years later, these people took
religion seriously. “Tartuffe” was released at the same time that Cardinal Richelieu was making his
infamous rise to power. Because of this, there
was, “increasing pressure on all segments of society to conform” (Walker 61). Moliere obviously was not
conforming to the popular religious dogma of the day and this was seen as a threat, even though he had
the support of Louis XIV. Despite the support of the king, the play was banned. This is testimony to
just how much power the religious officials had.
The French had been deeply split over matters of religion in the years preceeding the play. This
had led to a war between the Catholics and Protestants. Religious groups sided with various noblemen who
were struggling for power. This became known as the Battle of the “Frondes”. After this war concluded,
there emerged a belief that the main danger to national unity lie in heresy. “Agnostic, free-thinking
ideas were very much present, although carefully screened for fear of the real possibility of execution
for heresy” (Walker 61). This attempt to restrain free thinking was challenged by Moliere and he was
shot down for it. One critic wrote an especially scathing review of “Tartuffe”, in which, ” the author
of ‘Tartuffe’ was represented as practically the Antichrist” (Fernandez 39).
The church and state were each fully supportive of the other. Hence, “a clever man like
Richelieu could pursue interlocking careers in the church hierarchy and government. One path to temporal
power was ecclesiastical, not only over the spirits of men but in the political and social sense”
(Walker 61). A similar path was followed by the “imposter”, Tartuffe. Both used arranged marriages to
create a political stronghold. Both were intent on getting rid of resistance. Most importantly, both
used their power in the spiritual realm to increase their power in the political realm. At the end of
play Tartuffe appears to have done just this by taking over the hapless Orgon’s estate. Only the king’s
intervention prevents this. The king apparently knew what was going on the whole time and was merely
waiting to catch Tartuffe red-handed. “With one keen glance, the king perceived the whole, perverseness
and corruption of his soul, and thus high heaven’s justice was displayed; Betraying you, the rogue stood
self-betrayed” (Meyer 1507). With this ending Moliere pointed out that there will be no stop to the
hypocrite’s outrages unless someone in power puts an end to it.
Despite the attacks of the clergy, Moliere remained a strong believer that comedy knows no
privileged classes. The church’s shortcomings were every bit as eligible to be laughed at as the common
peasants. It is the privilege of a comic writer to remain aloof from society around him in order to be
able to point out issues that others either do not notice, or do not wish to tackle. In the case of
“Tartuffe”, it was an issue that was taboo for others to speak of. Even King Louis himself was scared to
go against the “divine judgement” of the church. The Holy Sacrament decided to ban the play before it
had even been publicly performed. Nevertheless, “the king pressed Moliere to stage his comedy at court
at the first possible moment” (Fernandez 119). After the ban on the play was finally lifted, it became
Moliere’s most successful play. This suggests that both the nobility and the public enjoyed seeing the
Church subjected to scrutiny, although they could never say as much!
with their words. In essence, Moliere became a champion of the people by mocking the hypocrites who
used religion to rise to power. Since this breed included some of the most powerful men in France at
that time, the move was especially bold. In fact, it caused Moliere to be in conflict with the church
for the rest ofhis life. For instance, at his deathbed, “his wife was absent, trying fruitlessly to
persuade a priest to give him the last rites” (Bishop X). “The Church preferred to regard him as a
disreputable player, and was disinclined to grant him religious burial” (Gassner XII).
It is obvious that the play “Tartuffe” contains a meaning much deeper than an amusing little
anecdote. Trying to decide which of these methods is more effective is possible only by using the
following basic criteria. Which viewpoint captures the essence of the religious theme Moliere was trying
When reading the casual reader will see that Moliere is attacking religious hypocrites. While
the play will be amusing, and possibly will convey it’s point, the reader cannot possibly understand the
full weight the play carries without knowing the historical background behind it. For instance when
Cleante declares, “So there is nothing that I find more base, Than specious piety’s dishonest face,
Than these bold mountebanks, these histories, Whose impious mummeries and hollow shows” (Meyer 1467).
Throughout the play, one will observe the parallels between the villain, Tartuffe, and religious leaders
of Moliere’s day, specifically Cardinal Richelieu. It is obvious that Moliere detested the way that men
like this rose to power. Cleante speaks out, saying, “(these men) exploit our love of Heaven, and make a
jest, Of all that men think holiest and best; These calculating souls who offer prayers, Not to their
Maker, but as public wares” (Meyer 1467). He is condemning false religion, religion which is used only
to gain political power. During Moliere’s lifetime he had seen Richelieu rise through the political
ranks, using religion as a springboard, until he was the king’s chief minister. This is the “false
piety” Cleante condemns in the play.
By looking at “Tartuffe” historically it becomes clear the courage it took for Moliere to
perform this play, knowing that he would be ostracized by the church for the rest of his life. At
Moliere’s death, Bishop Bossuet said, “God is showing his anger against Moliere” (Bishop X). However,
by using the historical viewpoint, we can see that Moliere actually died a hero, knowing that he had
Bishop, Morris. Eight Plays By Moliere. New York:
The Modern Library, 1957.
Fernandez, Ramon. Moliere: The Man Seen Through the Plays. New York:
Hill and Wang, 1958.
Gassner, John. Comedies of Moliere. New York:
The Book League of America, 1946.
Meyer, Michael. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Boston:
Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Walker, Hallam. Moliere. Boston:
Twayne Publishers, 1990.