Religion in Tartuffe by Moliere

759 words | 3 page(s)

  Literary critics who discuss the theme of religion in Moliere’s comedy Tartuffe are generally divided in their opinions of the depth of the author’s criticism of this subject. On the one hand, there are those who claim that Tartuffe is not actually a satire on religion, but a satire on the French clergy, who extensively manipulate religion to obtain what they desire, just as Tartuffe does. On the other hand, there are those who disagree that Moliere only criticizes the clergy as a privileged social class conflicting with the emerging bourgeoisie; they see him as a critic of Catholicism and Christianity in general. This paper will investigate both viewpoints and assess their validity in the context of the play’s historical background and Moliere’s general outlook.

That Tartuffe attacks the French clergy by creating an image of a hypocrite Tartuffe is evident from the first lines. Tartuffe’s ability to fool Orgon, despite a mass of evident flaws in his conduct as a priest and his easily seen inability to play a pious person, points out at the hypocrisy and sins of the clergy themselves (because Tartuffe was copying them) and at the blind faith instilled by the clergy in Orgon. In essense, Tartuff is a representative of the clergy, since he embodies all the features that Moliere saw in his contemporary priests of various ranks. An indirect but rather compelling evidence for this may be found in the character of Cleante, a character speaking most clearly for Moliere himself. In one place in the text, Cleante exclaims, “Ah, there you go—extravagant as ever! / Why can you not be rational? You never / Manage to take the middle course, it seems, / But jump instead between absurd extremes.” These words are seen as a representation of what Moliere thought to be a real religious feeling or position and as the words of reason which is seen as primary over faith. It seems as though the character of Cleante Moliere wanted to show his audience that he knows everything about the essence of religion.

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If to refer to the historical context, at the time when Moliere published the play a group of priests and laymen united into a secret Company of Holy Sacrament organization had launched a vast campaign directed against the evils of the age. While their activity had earlier been severely scrutinized by Mazarin, other Catholics, and the public opinion, after Mazarin’s death, they got their power back and started to exert great pressure on Moliere as the enemy of religion. They achieved success in banning his plays. It could then be argued that it is exactly this group of fanatic clergy that Moliere attacks rather than religion in general.

However, the comedy may have had a deeper meaning. Judging by the outlook of Moliere, based on the atomic philosophy of Epicures and works by such free thinkers as Rabelais, Montaigne, and Sharron, Moliere must have wanted to oppose religion to knowledge and nature as the most powerful force, which is a start of any truth and any good. In this sense, Moliere opposed knowledge and nature to faith and Christianity. This becomes clear when we see how the author ridicules the very teaching of Christianity about love of the other, compassion, pity, and valuing spiritual values over the material ones. Religion, as we see in the character of Orgon, is represented by Moliere as the barrier to a person’s development.

Indeed, in Moliere’s play, we happen to see that truly faithful people are only fools, such as Orgon and Madame Pernelle, his mother. It is their faith that makes them weak, Moliere implies. One more evidence that Moliere actually attacked the religion as a whole is his position in his next play Dom Juan, where he showed that a pious person can only be a fool. This example shows that Moliere had probably designated it earlier to represent religion in a bad light and continued doing it later. Plus, more evidence is the actual effect of the piece on the audience: while Tartuffe is understood to be a hypocrite, etc., what is left from this film is feeling bad about religion and having an undermined trustworthiness to the clergy. This second example shows that Moliere’s message was to undermine the religion rather than simply criticize the clergy.

Overall, it seems Moliere’s attacked the religion, not merely the clergy. This may be evident by his ridiculing Christianity and Christians. In his view, reason had the highest status in relationship between people.

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