It is impossible to discuss the political critique of Moliere in Tartuffe without taking a look at the background in which the work emerges. Tartuffe was originally a play of three acts which debuted in 1664 in the Versailles palace before Louis XIV. Even as King Louis liked the work, many in the court were not pleased with it and condemned it as they had a reason to believe it was targeted at portraying the clergy and the religious institutions in a bad light. This was a wrong interpretation of the play as it was not the intention of Moliere to ridicule religion or sincere Christianity but rather it was a satire of overly rigid religiosity and church goers who considered themselves self righteous. Moliere in particular was concerned in ridiculing the heretical Catholic movement of Jansenism which had already been condemned by the Vatican. When looked from the perspective of the clergy it is easy to understand their discomfiture at the play.
Originally Moliere had cast the lead role Tartuffe who was a hypocritical antagonist as a clergy man. The play was banned by the king after pressure from the clergy and was only allowed for public viewing when Moliere revised it into five acts and casting Tartuffe as a layman. The major theme of the play Tartuffe is the religious hypocrisy which Moliere tries to bring out in satire. Tartuffe showcases a holier than thou attitude to everyone where as in reality he is the embodiment of evil. Hypocrisy is personified by Tartuffe by his pretense of moral uprightness and extreme piety when he is a scoundrel.
According to Alfred While Moliere was not only criticizing the religious extremism he was also interested in satirizing the religious class of people some of whom showed an absurd kind of zealotry. Moliere was using comedy in the play to also reflect on the attitude of the political class who believed in tenets such as the right of the nobles to rule over the rabble. To do this Jansen chose the Jansenist who were a rogue yet popular catholic movement which followed a code of extreme piety, preached predestination and had a strict and intolerant moral system. Pope Innocent X had condemned the teachings of the Jansenists in a Cum Occasione a papal edict. In his play Trtuffe, Moliere a devout catholic who had been Jesuit schooled particularly attacked Jansenism and fanatical tendencies generally (Marjorie, 137-43).
It can be argued then that Moliere was in the play just doing what the pope had with Cum Occasione. However upon its debut at the Versailles palace the clergy frowned upon it as satirizing the Catholic Church and all clergymen in general. It is important to note that the clergy saw themselves in the person of the lead role Tartuffe yet Moliere could argue it had not been intended that way. The assertion by the clergy that they saw an element of themselves in Tartuffe implies hypocrisy and absurd zealotry in that while they did not condemn the papal edict they condemned Tartuffe for doing exactly what the papal edict had done. The pope ids given a place of infallibility yet the common man is condemned for doing the very same thing that the pope is praised for.
Through the satirization of the character Orgon, Moliere is able to achieve comic relief yet a the same time pass a political message. Tartuffe uses Orgon to criticize the gullibility of the general population. Orgon stupidly believes everything done and said by Tartuffe without question. Even as his family members try to call his attention to Tartuffe's hypocrisy, Orgon completely continues to offer him his support and even offer him his daughters hand in marriage after making him his heir. The utter gullibility of Orgon is a representation of the churchgoer's attitude in the acceptance of sham religion which is typified by zealotry (Cummings, 71). It is also an embodiment of the stupidity of anyone who becomes the victim of hypocrisy I any type the political class included. The practice of sincere religion is however not ridiculed by Moliere as he does not in any way impugn it.
Moliere also intends to pass a message by saying that the downtrodden can also rise up and defend themselves if pushed into a corner. The people who are considered as dumb and lacking in knowledge can also have an impact. Moliere emphasizes this point through Dorine who though a humble servant is cast as daring, insightful, and witty and a good judge of personality who spoke her mind boldly. In more ways than one, Dorine is portrayed as the most endearing character of the play. She demonstrates that one does not necessarily have to of noble blood in order to have a bright mind (Marlorie, 248-54). In her defiance against being considered inferior in a male dominated society, Dorine is cast a woman who is centuries ahead in thought. Her resistance to subservience is evidenced by what she tells Orgon's daughter Mariane after she has been ordered to marry Tartuffe. She tells her to tell him that a person does not usually love by proxy and that a woman marries for herself not for the man. She provides comic relief by saying that if Orgon is so charmed by Tartuffe she should marry him himself not force hi upon his daughter.
Moliere employs dramatic irony very effectively in Tartuffe. He casts Orgon as the character whom everyone wants to laugh at his unwitting approval of Tartuffe while the audience and his family are fully aware of whom Tartuffe real character is. It is comical though sad to see the exhibition of Orgon's naiveté every time he speaks. For instance he is always praising Tartuffe for watching over his wife Elmire while the audience and his family all know that Tartuffe was not really looking out for Elmire's welfare but was in reality attempting to seduce her (Ackerman, 446-50). Madame Pernelle is also another character who in the passing of his message, Moliere uses humor in her portrayal. It is so ironical that even after Orgon who was once a great defender of Tartuffe discovers him not to be the person he pretends to be, it is ironical that Madame Pernelle does not believe him by saying that appearances can be deceiving and that good may at times be mistaken for evil. Moliere intends for the audience to laugh at Madame Pernelle and through this he passes across his political message concerning political zealotry.
According to Cummings (13-15) Tartuffe Moliere thus manages to use comedy very successful in the passing across of the political message concerning religious hypocrisy and hypocrisy of any kind which may be prevalent in the society. Moliere throught the casting of characters as naïve, obstinate and foolish in the person's of Orgon and Madame Pernell makes the audience laugh at them. Moliere also cast foil characters to these such as Dorine whois the complete opposite of Orgon. Whereas Dorine ius looked down upon as a servant girl she is more intelligent than the learned Orgon or Madame Pernell as she is a better judge of character aand does not subscribe to blind devotion to anyone or anything. Moliere also uses dramatic irony and comic relief in his portrayal of the religious church goers and zealots who he casts as naïve and hence impugns them and their practices which are hypocritical.