Literary Accomplishments & Contributions of Moliere

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson discusses the works and influence of Molière, the seventeenth-century playwright who is as iconic in the history of French literature as Shakespeare is in that of English. The lesson discusses both his literary context and some of his most enduring characters.


Molière was an active writer in the late seventeenth century, one of the most productive periods in French literature. Even in the exalted company of playwrights like Corneille and Racine, stylists like Bossuet, and poets like De La Fontaine, Molière stands out. Many of these other authors were themselves innovative, but Molière's popularity has endured in a distinctive way.

Performed for the king, printed for a broad audience

In a time of rapid social change, Molière commented on the society around him with both precision and wit. Patronized by the king during his lifetime, Molière has been embraced as an icon by diverse readers and audiences from that day to this. French itself is known as la langue de Molière, the language of Molière (English, in French, is known as the language of Shakespeare.) Molière's elegant rhyming couplets simultaneously celebrated and expanded the possibilities of the French language. Let's take a closer look at the works that made his reputation.

Themes and Style of Molière

Several factors distinguish Molière from his contemporaries. Whereas classical dramas, with characters from ancient history or mythology, were traditionally preferred, Molière devoted himself to contemporary subjects. While the subjects of his dramas were rooted in the realities of the seventeenth century, his themes have proved enduringly relevant. Moreover, Molière is genuinely and enduringly hilarious. Translator Richard Wilbur has aptly described his works as 'serious comedies.' Molière's keen eye for the foibles of human nature helps to keep his works popular on the stage, as well as in the classroom.

Famous Plays and Characters

Let's explore some of Molière's famous plays and characters.

Le Tartuffe

Le Tartuffe, also known as 'The Imposter,' or 'The Hypocrite,' is arguably Molière's most iconic work. Mercilessly skewering religious hypocrisy, as well as gullibility, the play was censored shortly after its first performance. Tartuffe, posing as a spiritual guide, insinuates himself into a prosperous household, but is eventually unmasked as a would-be seducer and blackmailer. In following Tartuffe's rise and fall, the play also depicts intergenerational conflict arising from differing expectations of conduct. Le Tartuffe portrays the dangers of mistaking slick rhetoric - or contemporary manners - for timeless moral truth.

Illustration of Tartuffe

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