L’École des maris was a great success for Molière, but it is a three-act farce written in verse, the twelve-syllable, or “pieds,” alexandrine verse. The play has ancient roots. It was written by Menander (born c. 342—died c. 292 BCE) and featured two brothers. Menander’s play was entitled (the) Adelphoe (The Brothers). Menander was the foremost dramatist of Greek New Comedy. According to Britannica, Menander’s “Second Adelphoe (Les Adelphes) constitutes perhaps his greatest achievement.” L’École des maris’ Greek roots may explain the use of le vers noble and, therefore the degree of tension characterizing the play. We associate the celebrated Aristophanes (c. 446 – c. 386 BCE) with Old Comedy.
Roman playwrights Terence (c. 195/185 – c. 159? BC) and Plautus were influenced by Greek comedy, but they wrote comedies which were considered erudite by Renaissance playwrights: commedia sostenuta. Terence‘s Adelphoe is rooted in Menander’s play and features two brothers. It may have been Molière main source. The play also borrows from Giovanni Boccacio’s Decameron (Book III, 3). Boccacio’s (16 June 1313 – 21 December 1375) The Decameron was a main source of stories. These are plague stories devised by individuals who have fled Florence to avoid the plague.
Closer to Molière are Juan Ruiz de Alarcón y Mendoza’s (1581-1639) Le Mari fait la femme (The Husband makes the Wife), Dorimond’s La Femme industrieuse (1661), Larivey’s Les Esprits (1653) and Boisrobert’s Le Comble de l’impossible (The Height of the Impossible), which borrowed from Lope de Vega.
Our characters are:
- Sganarelle, 40 years old (Molière)
- Ariste, 60 years old and Sganarelle’s older brother
- Valère, in love with Isabella
- Ergaste, Valère’s valet
- A Magistrate
- A Notary
- Isabella, in ward to Sganarelle
- Léonor, Isabella’s sister, in ward to Ariste
- Lisette, Leonor’s maidservant
- two brothers & two world views (Weltanshauung)
- enters Valère, the young lover
In Act One of The School for Husbands, the spectator-reader is introduced to Molière’s two brothers and, whatever the source of the play, the brothers are Molière’s brothers and the comedy altogether Molière’s. Sganarelle will develop into The School for Wives’ Arnolphe, but he is the coarse Arnolphe and altogether selfish and cruel. He is putting Isabelle into the service of his needs.
Il me semble, et je le dis tout haut,
Que sur un tel sujet, c’est parler comme il faut.
Vous souffrez que la vôtre, aille leste et pimpante,
Je le veux bien: qu’elle ait, et laquais, et suivante,
J’y consens: qu’elle coure, aime l’oisiveté,
Et soit des damoiseaux fleurée en liberté;
J’en suis fort satisfait; mais j’entends que la mienne,
Vive à ma fantaisie, et non pas à la sienne;
Que d’une serge honnête, elle ait son vêtement,
Et ne porte le noir, qu’aux bons jours seulement.
Qu’enfermée au logis en personne bien sage,
Elle s’applique toute aux choses du ménage;
À recoudre mon linge aux heures de loisir,
Ou bien à tricoter quelque bas par plaisir;
Qu’aux discours des muguets, elle ferme l’oreille,
Et ne sorte jamais sans avoir qui la veille.
Enfin la chair est faible, et j’entends tous les bruits,
Je ne veux point porter de cornes, si je puis,
Et comme à m’épouser sa fortune l’appelle,
Je prétends corps pour corps, pouvoir répondre d’elle.
Sganarelle à Ariste (I. ii, pp. 5-6)
[It seems to me, and I say it openly, that is the right way to speak on such a subject. You let your ward go about gaily and stylishly ; I am content. You let her have footmen and a maid; I agree. You let her gad about, love idleness, be freely courted by dandies ; I am quite satisfied. But I intend that mine shall live according to my fancy, and not according to her own ; that she shall be dressed in honest serge, and wear only black on holidays ; that, shut up in the house, prudent in bearing, she shall apply herself entirely to domestic concerns, mend my linen in her leisure hours, or else knit stockings for amusement; that she shall close her ears to the talk of young sparks, and never go out without some one to watch her. In short, flesh is weak; I know what stories are going about. I have no mind to wear horns, if I can help it ; and as her lot requires her to marry me, I mean to be as certain of her as I am of myself.]
Sganarelle to Ariste (I. 2, p. 13)
Isabelle tries to say something, but she is told to keep quiet:
Moreover, Sganarelle is days away from forcing Isabelle into a marriage she loathes. Ariste and Sganarelle signed a contract that gave them the right not only to bring up their respective ward as they pleased, but also stipulated that they marry their wards. Molière has introduced the contract George Dandin brandishes claiming he has a right to his wife.
Mon Dieu, chacun raisonne, et fait comme il lui plaît.
Elles sont sans parents, et notre ami leur père,
Nous commit leur conduite à son heure dernière;
Et nous chargeant tous deux, ou de les épouser,
Ou sur notre refus un jour d’en disposer,
Sur elles par contrat, nous sut dès leur enfance,
Et de père, et d’époux donner pleine puissance;
D’élever celle-là, vous prîtes le souci,
Et moi je me chargeai du soin de celle-ci;
Selon vos volontés vous gouvernez la vôtre,
Laissez-moi, je vous prie, à mon gré régir l’autre.
Sganarelle (I. ii, p. 5)
[By Heaven! each one argues and does as he likes. They are without relatives, They are without relatives, and their father, our friend, entrusted them to us in his last hour, charging us both either to marry them, or, if we declined, to dispose of them hereafter. He gave us, in writing, the full authority of a father and a husband over them, from their infancy. You undertook to bring up that one ; I charged myself with the care of this one. You govern yours at your pleasure. Leave me, I pray, to manage the other as I think best.]
Sganarelle to Ariste (I. 2, p. 13)
Ariste has been a kind and easy-going father and, despite the contract, he is not planning a forced marriage:
Qu’il nous faut en riant instruire la jeunesse,
Reprendre ses défauts avec grande douceur,
Et du nom de vertu ne lui point faire peur;
Mes soins pour Léonor ont suivi ces maximes,
Des moindres libertés je n’ai point fait des crimes,
À ses jeunes désirs j’ai toujours consenti,
Et je ne m’en suis point, grâce au Ciel, repenti;
J’ai souffert qu’elle ait vu les belles compagnies,
Les divertissements, les bals, les comédies;
Ce sont choses, pour moi, que je tiens de tout temps,
Fort propres à former l’esprit des jeunes gens;
Et l’école du monde en l’air dont il faut vivre,
Instruit mieux à mon gré que ne fait aucun livre:
Elle aime à dépenser en habits, linge, et nœuds,
Que voulez-vous, je tâche à contenter ses vœux,
Et ce sont des plaisirs qu’on peut dans nos familles,
Lorsque l’on a du bien, permettre aux jeunes filles.
Un ordre paternel l’oblige à m’épouser;
Mais mon dessein n’est pas de la tyranniser,
Je sais bien que nos ans ne se rapportent guère,
Et je laisse à son choix liberté tout entière,
Si quatre mille écus de rente bien venants,
Une grande tendresse, et des soins
Si quatre mille écus de rente bien venants,
Une grande tendresse, et des soins complaisants,
Peuvent à son avis pour un tel mariage,
Réparer entre nous l’inégalité d’âge;
Elle peut m’épouser, sinon choisir ailleurs,
Je consens que sans moi ses destins soient meilleurs,
Et j’aime mieux la voir sous un autre hyménée,
Que si contre son gré sa main m’était donnée.
Ariste à tous (I. ii, p. 8)
[Have it so; but still I maintain that we should instruct youth pleasantly, chide their faults with great tenderness, and not make them afraid of the name of virtue. Leonor’s education has been based on these maxims. I have not made crimes of the smallest acts of liberty, I have always assented to her youthful wishes, and, thank Heaven, I never repented of it. I have allowed her to see good company, to go to amusements, balls, plays. These are things which, for my part, I think are calculated to form the minds of the young; the world is a school which, in my opinion, teaches them better how to live than any book. Does she like to spend money on clothes, linen, ribands what then? I endeavour to gratify her wishes; these are pleasures which, when we are well-off, we may permit to the girls of our family. Her father’s command requires her to marry me; but it is not my intention to tyrannize over her. I am quite aware that our years hardly suit, and I leave her complete liberty of choice. If a safe income of four thousand crowns a-year, great affection and consideration for her, may, in her opinion, counterbalance in marriage the inequality of our age, she may take me for her husband; if not she may choose elsewhere. If she can be happier without me, I do not object; I prefer to see her with another husband rather than that her hand should be given to me against her will.]
Ariste to all (I. 2, pp. 14-15)
In fact, far from teaching Isabelle obedience, privations and confinement have prepared her to flee at any cost. As for Sganarelle, he has acted much as the School for Wives’ Arnolphe will. He has kept Agnès away from the world believing she would be a loving wife and never turn him into a cuckold.
Agnès will grow into a woman and fall in love when she meets Horace, as does the School for Husband’s Isabelle when she meets Valère. A scientist must be methodical, but we cannot separate reason from instinct, or intuition.
Well, although Isabelle has received very little education and has not been exposed to the world, she uses Sganarelle himself as the means of contacting Valère and escaping. Sganarelle is about to force Isabelle into a marriage with a man she loathes, so she uses the means to justify the end. Both Ariste and Sganarelle have a right to marry their wards, Ariste, however would not coerce Leonor into marrying him.
However, Isabelle will find a way to speak to Valère and, ironically, she will use
Sganarelle to the young man she has seen and is attracted to. Their eyes have spoken for four months.
At the end of Act One, Valère and his valet, Ergaste, return to their home to dream up a stratagem that will liberate Isabelle.
What am I to do to rid myself of this vast difficulty, and to learn whether the fair one has perceived that I love her ? Tell me some means or other.
Valère to Ergaste (I. 6. p. 19)
That is what we have to discover.
Let us go in for a while the better to think over.
Ergaste to Valère (I. 6. p. 19)
I will break here and go through the plot in my next post. Molière’s L’École des maris is considered a comédie d’intrigue: twists and turns. Until now, it has been a comedy of manners (une comédie de mœurs): two conflicting views on how to raise a young woman have been expressed. We will now see how an extremely clever Isabelle frees herself, with a little help for Léonor, and uses Sganarelle to achieve her goal.
Sources and Resources
- The Theatre in Italy during the 17th century
- Toutmolière.net Notice
- L’École des maris is a toutmolière.net publication
- The School for Husbands is an Internet Archive publication
- Images belong to the Bibliothèque nationale de France
- The Decameron is Gutenberg’s [EBook #23700]
 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Menander
Encyclopædia Britannica (last edited February 05, 2019)
(accessed July 17, 2019)
Love to everyone 💕
J’avois crû qu’en vous aymant. Brunete (Paris, 1703)
Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien (dir. François Lazarevitch)
Claire Lefilliâtre (soprano)
© Micheline Walker
19 July 2019