“Yes, death seems to me a hundred times less dreadful than this fatal marriage into which I am forced; all that I am doing to escape its horrors should excuse me in the eyes of those who blame me. Time presses; it is night; now, then, let me fearlessly entrust my fate to a lover’s fidelity.” (Isabelle, III. i, p. 33)
Translator Henri van Laun
Oui le trépas [death] cent fois, me semble moins à craindre,
Que cet hymen fatal où l’on veut me contraindre;
Et tout ce que je fais pour en fuir les rigueurs,
Doit trouver quelque grâce auprès de mes censeurs;
Le temps presse, il fait nuit, allons sans crainte aucune,
À la foi d’un amant, commettre ma fortune.
Isabelle (III. i, p. 38)
L’École des maris
When Valère and Isabelle leave at the curtain falls on Act Two, Valère has let Isabelle know that he will free within three days, or three days from the moment they part.
Isabelle cannot wait three days. Sganarelle will marry her the next day. What will she do? Once again, a forced marriage justifies the means, but these are not evil means. Isabelle has to lie. Molière’s ladies are very clever.
The Final Ruse
As soon as she hears that Sganarelle will marry her the very next day, Isabelle comes up with her best ruse. She tells Sganarelle that her sister is in love with Valère and that both are locked in her (Isabelle’s) room.
Sganarelle is pleased because he can now show his older brother, Ariste, that he knows best, that he was the better brother. He has raised Isabelle by confining her to a room. He believed that by locking Isabelle in her room, he would raise a virtuous spouse. But Isabelle has learned to despise Sganarelle. He expects Ariste to find Léonor in bed with Valère. No, Léonor is at a ball.
Isabelle runs to Valère’s house, so Sganarelle is perplexed:
Au logis du galant, quelle est son entreprise?
Sganarelle, seul (III. ii, p. 41)
[(Aside). To the gallant’s house! What is her design?]
Sganarelle, alone (III. 2, p. 36)
So, Isabelle frees herself, but although Sganarelle is surprised, his most important concern is to let his brother Ariste know that he has brought up une mondaine who is now in bed with Valère inside Isabelle’s room.
Ah je te promets bien, que je n’ai pas envie,
De te l’ôter l’infâme à ses feux asservie,
Que du don de ta foi je ne suis point jaloux,
Et que si j’en suis cru, tu seras son époux,
Oui, faisons-le surprendre avec cette effrontée,
La mémoire du père, à bon droit respectée;
Jointe au grand intérêt que je prends à la sœur,
Veut que du moins l’on tâche à lui rendre l’honneur;
Sganarelle à Isabelle (III. iii, p. 42)
[Oh, I can assure you I do not want to take from you a shameless girl, so blinded by her passion. I am not jealous of your promise to her; if I am to be believed, you shall be her husband. Yes, let us surprise him with this bold creature. The memory of her father, who was justly respected, and the great interest I take in her sister, demand that an attempt, at least, should be made to restore her honour. Hulloa, there!(Knocks at the door of a magistrate).]
Sganarelle (III. 4, p. 36)
Sganarelle does knock on the Commissaire‘s door, who happens to be with a notary. How convenient, a contract can be signed that will restore Léonor’s honour. Sganarelle then knocks on his brother’s door (III. v).
Votre Léonor où, je vous prie est-elle?
Sganarelle à Ariste (III. v, p. 44)
[Where is your Léonor, pray?]
Sganarelle to Ariste (III. 6, p. 37)
Pourquoi cette demande? Elle est comme je croi,
Au bal chez son amie.
Ariste à Sganarelle (III. v, p. 44)
[Why this question? She is, as I think, at a friend’s house at a ball.]
Ariste to Sganarelle (III. 6, p. 37)
Sganarelle then tells his brother that Léonor is in bed with Valère.
L’énigme est que son bal est chez Monsieur Valère.
Que de nuit je l’ai vue y conduire ses pas,
Et qu’à l’heure présente elle est entre ses bras.
Sganarelle à Ariste (III. v, p. 45)
[The riddle is that her ball is at Valère’s; that I saw her go to him under cover of night, and that she is at this moment in his arms.]
Sganarelle to Ariste (III. 6, p. 38)
Ariste cannot believe what he has heard. Appearances are deceptive and Ariste would never have forced Léonor into a marriage.
L’apparence qu’ainsi sans m’en faire avertir,
À cet engagement elle eût pu consentir,
Moi qui dans toute chose ai depuis son enfance,
Montré toujours pour elle entière complaisance,
Et qui cent fois ai fait des protestations,
De ne jamais gêner ses inclinations.
Ariste to all (III. v, p. 47)
[Is it likely she could thus have agreed to this engagement without telling me? me! who in everything, from her infancy, ever displayed towards her a complete readiness to please, and who a hundred times protested I would never force her inclinations.]
Ariste to all (III. 8, p. 38)
In Scene Seven, Valère enters the house and tells that he has made a commitment to Isabelle.
Enfin quoi qu’il advienne,
Isabelle a ma foi, j’ai de même la sienne,
Et ne suis point un choix à tout examiner,
Que vous soyez reçus à faire condamner.
Valère à tous (III. vii, p. 48)
[To be brief: whatever be the consequence, Isabella has my solemn promise; I also have hers; if you consider everything, I am not so bad a match that you should blame her.]
Valère to all (III. 8, p. 40)
Sganarelle is so certain that Valère is in bed with Léonor that he signs a contract that makes Valère the husband of the woman who might be in his lodgings. The notary leaves a blank space for the name.
In Scene Eight, Léonor returns from the ball rather disappointed. Ariste wants to know why she has played a trick on him. Sganarelle learns that she wasn’t with Valère, Isabelle was, who, by contract, is now married to Valère.
Ariste is surprised. Why did Léonor not discuss this matter with her? Their friendship goes back to childhood.
Léonor tells Ariste that she would marry him the very next day, if he asked. The discussion is over.
Je ne sais pas sur quoi vous tenez ce discours;
Mais croyez que je suis de même que toujours,
Que rien ne peut pour vous altérer mon estime,
Que toute autre amitié me paraîtrait un crime,
Et que si vous voulez satisfaire mes vœux,
Un saint nœud dès demain nous unira nous deux.
Léonor à Ariste (III. viii, p. 51)
[I know not why you speak to me thus; but believe me, I am as I have ever been; nothing can alter my esteem for you; love for any other man would seem to me
a crime; if you will satisfy my wishes, a holy bond shall unite us tomorrow.]
Léonor to Ariste (III. 9, p. 41)
In the final scene, Isabelle apologizes to Léonor for having used a stratagem that could, temporarily, dishonour her sister. It was despair. Isabelle did not want to be forced into a marriage with Sganarelle. She might have killed herself. In fact, she had found a good man who will marry her and, ironically, Sganarelle himself has signed the marriage contract. Again, in L’École des maris, irony is Molière’s main literary device.
The play ends on the prospect of a double marriage. “Tout est bien qui finit bien.” (“All’s well that end well.”) As for Sganarelle, he is hoisted by his own petard.
The main figure in this play is irony. Sganarelle himself makes it possible for his ward, whom he wishes to marry to meet Valère and to know that he is sufficiently honourable for her to take refuge in his house. But, once again, we have seen the jaloux as is own victim. Molière’s jaloux is his own victim. Sganarelle is Sganarelle’s worst enemy. He signs a contract that will allow Isabelle to marry Valère, which is how Molière expresses an inner drama. It is also interesting to note that Ariste doubts very much that Léonor is in bed with Valère. He is right in trusting her. Léonor may be forty years younger than Ariste, but he has brought her up gently. He has trusted her. The carte de Tendre proposes different kinds of love. If honnêteté there is, Ariste and Valère qualify. They are also examples of the galant homme, the gentleman.
Italy is the birthplace of refinement. Yet it could be that the Grand Siècle’s main achievement is l‘honnête homme. Salons were created in 17th-century France and they endured. Préciosité went too far, which is what Molière mocked. Molière did not mock women. On the contrary. When Isabelle realizes that a lie can be put into the service of a good end, she uses a lie and shows resolve. Isabelle’s life would be taken from her if Sganarelle married her. She would be his possession, his slave. There’s no evil in what she does. Nor does Molière vilify Sganarelle. Sganarelle boasted, which farce does not allow.
Molière mixes plot formulas. In L’École des maris, he uses the “all’s well that ends well,” the traditional happy ending of comedy. However, it is not, at least not immediately, a happy ending for Sganarelle. Ariste deflates a boasting Sganarelle, a farcical element. But ironically, Sganarelle approves of Valère. He finds in him an honnête homme and feels sorry for him, which is good news for Isabelle. She can trust Valère by Sganarelle own standards and testimonial. All the ruses confirm that Valère loves Isabelle. Sganarelle stands between Isabelle and Valère. He is the obstacle to a marriage between the young lovers, while promoting their marriage. He is the person Valère needed in Sganarelle’s household.
Sganarelle therefore combines several several comedic functions. He is the go-between in a love story, the senex iratus, or blocking character, in the same love story, not to mention the father, albeit a pater familias.
Sources and Resources
Love to everyone 💕
La Fille au Roi Louis
Claire Lefilliâtre (soprano)
Le Poème harmonique (dir. Vincent Dumestre)
© Micheline Walker
21 July 2019