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Le Tartuffe by François Boucher (drawing) and Laurent Cars (engraving). (Photo credit: Google images)


MADAME PERNELLE, mother of Orgon
ORGON, husband of Elmire
ELMIRE, wife of Orgon
DAMIS, son of Orgon
MARIANE, daughter of Orgon, in love with Valère
CLÉANTE, brother-in-law (beau-frère) of Orgon
TARTUFFE, a hypocrite
DORINE, Mariane’s maid
M. LOYAL, a bailiff (l’huissier)
A Police Officer (l’Exempt)
FLIPOTTE, Madame Pernelle’s servant

Le Tartuffe is a five-act comedy in verse. It was first performed in 1664 and banned. It was rewritten and performed in 1667, but remained banned until 1669.

Le Tartuffe: structure

In the Misanthrope, Molière combines in one character, Alceste, the blondin and the barbon, or the young man who wishes to marry and the person(s) who oppose(s) the blondin‘s marriage. In other words, in Le Tartuffe, the eirôn and the alazṓn, or the blondin and the barbon, are separate characters, but Molière seems to have doubled his alazṓn, or barbon. Both Orgon and Tartuffe are blocking characters, or the alazṓn. They are so close to one another that one could suggest a symbiosis.

ORGON to CLÉANTE, Tartuffe (I, 5)
Dear brother, you’d be charmed to know him;
Your raptures over him would have no end.
He is a man … who … ah! … in fact … a man
Whoever does his will, knows perfect peace,
And counts the whole world else, as so much dung.
His converse has transformed me quite; he weans
My heart from every friendship, teaches me
To have no love for anything on earth;
And I could see my brother, children, mother,
And wife, all die, and never care—a snap.

Your feelings are humane, I must say, brother!

The Plot

This is how the plot unfolds. Orgon has taken into his home a man feigning devotion, Tartuffe. Tartuffe is also a casuiste, a person who can take sin out of sinning. Because Tartuffe is a deft casuiste, he allows Orgon to act as a tyrannical father, and to do so with impunity. Orgon is so delighted he cannot see that he is being fooled. Yet, without Tartuffe, Orgon could not be a tyrannical father. For instance, when Orgon’s daughter Mariane begs her father to be spared a marriage to Tartuffe, Orgon has to brace himself, because he is at heart a compassionate individual:  

MARIANE to ORGON, Tartuffe (IV, 3)
I beg you
Upon my knees, oh, save me from the torment
Of being possessed by one whom I abhor!

ORGON to himself, Tartuffe (IV, 3)
Allons, ferme, mon cœur point de faiblesse humaine !

[Come, come, my heart, be firm! no human weakness!] 

Mariane then asks to be allowed to enter a convent

MARIANE, Tartuffe (IV, 3)
Oh, rather let a convent’s rigid rule
Wear out the wretched days that Heaven allots me.

But Orgon has a good directeur de conscience under whose guidance, he is learning to turn inhumanity into a virtue, which it is not. Knowing the role Tartuffe teaches, Orgon preaches mortification:

ORGON to MARIANE, Tartuffe (IV, 3)
So, mortify your senses by this marriage,
And don’t vex me about it anymore.

Orgon is therefore beguiled. With the exception of his mother, Madame Pernelle, Orgon is the only member of the society of the play not to see that Tartuffe is a faux dévot who does not mortify his senses. However, Orgon so needs Tartuffe, who fits him like a glove, that he cannot see what everyone sees, which is both a recipe for disaster (Orgon is blind) and a source of comic relief (everyone knows and laughs).

‘Gros et gras, le teint et la bouche vermeille
[stout, fat, fair, rosy-lipped]

Gaston Hall writes that “‘Gros et gras, le teint et la bouche vermeille’ [stout, fat, fair, rosy-lipped], Tartuffe is quite unfitted to play the part of the saintly ascetic. No rascal with the slightest talent for hypocrisy would have dared sit down to dine upon ‘… deux perdrix  Avec une moitié de gigot en hachis’ [two partridges, As well as half a leg o’ mutton, deviled]” (Gaston Hall, p. 14).[1]

For instance, in Act 1, Scene 4, Orgon has just returned from a trip to the country and wants to know what has happened during his absence. However, he is so “tartuffié” that he cannot hear that his wife Elmire has been sick. He asks “Et Tartuffe” [And what about Tartuffe?] four times, and says “Le pauvre homme” [The poor man] four times, whatever he hears.

This scene also contains a second source of comic relief: the word “tartuffié” instead of possessed. Given the devastation visited upon Orgon’s family, the word “tartuffié” is incongruous but it minimizes the degree to which Tartuffe has seduced Orgon. In fact, Orgon is besotted and has begun to twist reality as did 17th-century casuists. Casuistry  constitutes a form of moral jurisprudence, a practice that led Blaise Pascal (19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662) to write his famous Lettres Provinciales (1656-57) and also exerted influence on Molière who mocked it in Tartuffe.

In short, in Molière’s Tartuffe, the character who opposes Mariane’s marriage to Valère is not Tartuffe, it is Orgon, the pater familias of most comedies.


Tartuffe by Jacobus Buys (Wikimedia Commons)

The Cassette: Orgon threatened

  • the Fronde
  • the cassette

However, as Orgon enjoys threatening his daughter into a mésalliance, which is the normal plot of comedies, Tartuffe is coveting Orgon’s wife and appropriating all of Orgon’s belongings, including a cassette containing incriminating documents. Tartuffe knows about the cassette and urges Orgon not to keep it in his, Orgon’s, possession. If Orgon gives the cassette to Tartuffe, he will be able to deny having this cassette if asked about it, which frees him. He would not have to sin. One of the methods of casuistry is restriction mentale. One says: “I don’t have it.” It may be an incomplete statement, but it isn’t an outright lie. Orgon does not want to sin.

CLÉANTE to ORGON, Tartuffe (V, 1)
How could you trust them to another’s hands?

By reason of a conscientious scruple.
I went straight to my traitor, to confide
In him; his sophistry made me believe
That I must give the box to him to keep,
So that, in case of search, I might deny
My having it at all, and still, by favour
Of this evasion, keep my conscience clear
Even in taking oath against the truth.

The above is information we are not given until late in the play, but Dorine mentions “late unpleasantness” at the very beginning of the play (I, 2). Dorine, Mariane’s maid, creates tension. Dorine is our zanni, the astute servant of the commedia dell’arte.

DORINE to CLÉANTE, Tartuffe (I, 2)
His conduct in our late unpleasantness
Had won him much esteem, and proved his courage
In service of his king; but now he’s like
A man besotted, since he’s been so taken
With this Tartuffe. He calls him brother, loves him
A hundred times as much as mother, son,
Daughter, and wife…

At any rate, it seems we have two alazṓn: a reticent pater familias and a man who can make arrangements with heaven.

Tartuffe’s Confession

The truth as lie

At this point, Act III, matters start to turn around. Molière however treats us to a confession that is a truth as lie.

Hidden in a closet (III, 3), Damis, Orgon’s son, has seen Tartuffe attempting to seduce Elmire, Orgon’s wife, and tells his father. Although he is “tartuffié,” Orgon nevertheless confronts Tartuffe, but no sooner does he address him than the faux dévot confesses. Il s’accuse pour s’excuser.

TARTUFFE to ORGON, Tartuffe (III, 6)
Oui mon frère, je suis un méchant, un coupable,
Un malheureux pécheur, tout pain d’iniquité,
Le plus grand scélérat qui jamais ait été.

[Yes, brother, I am wicked, I am guilty,
A miserable sinner, steeped in evil,
The greatest criminal that ever lived.]

Such defence is consistent with devotion and it is, therefore, very effective. In the Catholic Church, the devout confess. After confession, the sinner may have to make amends, but he or she is absolved. However, blind as he is, Orgon does not see a swindler in Tartuffe, but a genuinely devout man. In fact, Orgon  is the one who makes amends (penance). To show to what extent he believes him, Orgon asks Tartuffe to keep his wife company at all times (III, 7).


However, the plot has thickened. Elmire had asked Damis not to tell Orgon (III, 5). This warming was prudent on her part as Tartuffe’s confession only serves to convince Orgon that Tartuffe is a holy man, which he isn’t. So the results are catastrophic. As quoted above (IV, 6), Orgon presses the marriage of Mariane to Tartuffe and he disinherits his son Damis.


Elmire convinces Orgon, original painting by A. J. Mazerolle (theatrehistory.com)

Tartuffe, frontispiece by Pierre Brissard, 1682

Tartuffe, frontispice by Pierre Brissard, 1682

A Play-within-a-Play

All else having failed, members of Orgon’s family resort to a somewhat disputably theatrical device: a-play-within-a-play. Elmire tells her husband to crouch underneath a table behind a tablecloth, a form of curtain (IV, 4). From an actor Orgon is transformed into a spectator. He will see and seeing is believing.

According to Molière scholar Georges Forestier, the play-within-a-play is not a mise en abyme (see Related Articles). It is part of the action dramatique, the plot.[2] In the present case, Professor Forestier is absolutely right. Orgon is a doubting Thomas and so tartuffié, possessed, that his family has little choice but to conceal him under a table, which may not be a play-within-a-play, but constitutes a theatrical recourse. Orgon is stunned and slow to come to Elmire’s rescue. She has coughed repeatedly, as arranged, without Orgon emerging from under the table.

Yet Tartuffe does not take from Orgon much more than Orgon gives him. However, there is a difference. Tartuffe is an extortionist and Orgon, a potential family tyrant, but un homme de bien (a good man) at heart. He has truly been besotted. Orgon so needs Tartuffe, a casuist, that not only does he give his daughter to Tartuffe, disinherit his son Damis, foolishly sign himself away to Tartuffe, but he also entrusts to Tartuffe a cassette that contains incriminating papers and which we do not hear about until Act V.

La Fronde: uprisings

We will not discuss la Fronde except to note that under Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister of the French King from 1642 until his death, there were uprisings called La Fronde. These occurred between 1648 – 1653 and consisted in two campaigns: the Fronde of the parlements and the Fronde of the nobles. Absolutism gave no voice to France’s  parlements and it’s aristocrats, including princes of the blood, possible heirs to the Kingdom of France who played no role in governing France. Moreover, the nobles refused to pay a tax. The war against Spain was costing a fortune. In the end, peasants and members of the bourgeoisie had to foot the bill.

Both Orgon and Argas were involved in these uprisings. When finally, Orgon realizes that he’s been a fool, he tells Cléante, the raisonneur, and starts running upstairs in the hope of retrieving the cassette, but it’s too late. Monsieur Loyal, the bailiff, is already at the door to collect all of Orgon’s possessions. We soon learn from Valère, who must have friends in high places and is in love with Mariane, Orgon’s daughter, that Tartuffe has already used the cassette alleging, later, that his first duty is to serve the king: “Mais l’intérêt du Prince est mon premier devoir” (V, scène dernière).

ORGON to TARTUFFE, Tartuffe (V, scène dernière)
Ungrateful wretch, do you forget ’twas I
That rescued you from utter misery?

[I’ve not forgot some help you may have given;
But my first duty now is toward my prince.
The higher power of that most sacred claim
Must stifle in my heart all gratitude;
And to such puissant ties I’d sacrifice
My friend, my wife, my kindred, and myself.]

How ironic. However Valère has made arrangements for the family to flee (V, 6) because Orgon will be arrested, but in true comic fashion, Tartuffe is arrested.

The Final Society

Northrop Frye[3] writes that:

The tendency of comedy is to include as many people as possible in its final society: the blocking characters are form often reconciled or converted than simply repudiated. (Frye, p. 165)

In Act V, scene 3, Cléante remains optimistic. Tartuffe may prove more merciful than we expect.

CLÉANTE to ORGON, Tartuffe (V, 3)
Je voudrais de bon cœur, qu’on pût entre vous deux
De quelque ombre de paix raccommoder les nœuds.

[I wish with all my heart that some pretence
Of peace could be patched up between you two.]

Yet, in both Dom Juan and Tartuffe, salvation does not come from a ruse on the part of the society of the play. In Dom Juan a machine engulfs le méchant homme. In Tartuffe, un Prince ennemi de la fraude saves the family. Molière uses a deus ex machina. We have reached what Northrop Frye calls the “point of ritual death”  (p179). The eirôn cannot recover.

As noted above, Tartuffe takes little more than what he has been given by Orgon, but Orgon has given everything, which was foolish. Moreover, Tartuffe does not have to accept marrying Mariane. Nor does he have to take possession of what Orgon has handed over to him. Moreover, were Tartuffe humane, he would not run to the Prince carrying the incriminating cassette.

Doubling the alazṓn

Therefore, although Orgon is forcing Mariane to marry Tartuffe and gives all he has to Tartuffe, including the incriminating cassette, “[t]he pharmakós is neither innocent nor guilty,” writes Frye (p. 41). By doubling the alazṓn (the blocking character), Molière has allowed, on the one hand, greater vilification of Tartuffe, who becomes the pharmakósand, on the other hand, he has facilitated Orgon’s rehabilitation, as comedy wills. Tartuffe is Molière’s most convincing pharmakós.

Moreover, Tartuffe is the classic alazṓn: a miles gloriosus (Plautus, c. 254–184 BCE; Latin comedy), in which he resembles Dom Juan. (See Alazṓn, Wikipedia.) Elmire resists Tartuffe’s advances by telling him that she may offend heaven: le Ciel. However, in Tartuffe’s eyes, the eyes of a casuist, it is possible to sin without sinning, which is preposterous and leads Tartuffe to hoist his own petard. There is a farcical element in Tartuffe, just as there is a farcical element in the Misanthrope. Let us hear Tartuffe impersonating God, which is casuistry

TARTUFFE à ELMIRE, Tartuffe (IV, 4)
Si ce n’est que le Ciel qu’à mes vœux on oppose,
Lever un tel obstacle est à moi peu de chose,
Et cela ne doit pas retenir votre cœur.

[If Heaven is all that stands now in my way,
I’ll easily remove that little hindrance;
Your heart need not hold back for such a trifle.]

Conclusion: the pharmakós and the alazṓn

Comedy is a forgiving. By virtue of comedy’s ancient laws, there will be a happy ending, which, in the case of Molière’s Tartuffe, is brought about by the timely intervention of “un Prince ennemi de la fraude,” a deus ex machina.At the end of the play, as we are sitting on the edge of our seats, expecting the Exempt (a police officer) to arrest Orgon, the Exempt arrests Tartuffe.

Tartuffe is made into the guilty and punished half, the scapegoat, or pharmakós, of a doubled alazṓn. Doubling the alazṓn benefits the play. Orgon is part of the play’s final society, which he must deserve, or Elmire would not be his wife and his family so loyal. Nor would a servant, Dorine, speak to Orgon so openly. Orgon cannot re-enter society without redeemable features. We are not in fairyland.

The Truth as Truth

As for Tartuffe, he is as he describes himself when Damis, Orgon’s son, tells his father that he saw Tartuffe trying to seduce Elmire. His confession “gets him off the hook:” il se tire d’affaire. As Will Moore writes, “Tartuffe is sure of Orgon, and Molière is sure of his public” (Will G. Moore, p. 64).[4] But the truth as lie is a reprieve. The truth as lie turns out to be the truth, which is comic irony.

TARTUFFE to ORGON, Tartuffe (III, 6)
Non, non, vous vous laissez tromper à l’apparence,
Et je ne suis rien moins, hélas, que ce qu’on pense.
Tout le monde me prend pour un homme de bien;
Mais la vérité pure est que je ne vaux rien.

[No, no; you let appearances deceive you;
I’m anything but what I’m thought to be,
Alas! and though all men believe me godly,
The simple truth is, I’m a worthless creature.]

As the curtain falls, all are on their way to the wedding of Valère and Mariane.

All’s well that ends well.
(Tout est bien qui finit bien.) 

Love to everyone

Gouache (XVIIIe siècle) de Fesch et Whirsker. (Photo credit: Larousse)

Gouache (XVIIIe siècle) de Fesch et Whirsker. (Photo credit: Larousse)

I have already written that Tartuffe is the punished half of a blocking character. In this post, I have taken this thought further by suggesting a doubling of the alazṓn.

Micheline Bourbeau-Walker, “Tartuffe: masques, machines et machinations,” in Clive Thomson (ed), Proceedings of the 1981 Meeting of the Canadian Association of University and College Teachers of French (Kingston: Signum, 1981), p. 491-509.
ISSN 0700-1525

My PhD dissertation was a study of the pharmakós in Molière:

Micheline Walker, “L’Impossible Entreprise : une étude sur le pharmakós dans le théâtre de Molière,” DAI, 36 (1976) 8103A (Université de la Colombie britannique).


Jansenism & Casuistry

Sources and Resources


[1] H. Gaston Hall, Tartuffe, Molière (W. G. Moore, General Editor, Barron’s Studies in French Literature: 1960).
[2] Georges Forestier, Le Théâtre dans le théâtre (Genève: Droz, 1996).
[3] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays (Princeton University Press, 1973) (online)
[4] W. G. Moore, Molière, A New Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949).


Concerto for cello, strings and basso continuo in G minor (2. Adagio)

Performed by the Freiburger Barockorchester
Featuring Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello
Conducted by Petra Mullejans

© Micheline Walker
17 May 2016
(revised: 18 May 2016)