Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name French: 15 January 1622 – 17 February 1673), was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature. Among Molière's best known works are The Misanthrope, The School for Wives, Tartuffe, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, and The Bourgeois Gentleman.
Born into a prosperous family and having studied at the Collège de Clermont (now Lycée Louis-le-Grand), Molière was well suited to begin a life in the theatre. Thirteen years as an itinerant actor helped him polish his comic abilities while he began writing, combining Commedia dell'arte elements with the more refined French comedy.
Through the patronage of aristocrats including Philippe I, Duke of Orléans—the brother of Louis XIV—Molière procured a command performance before the King at the Louvre. Performing a classic play by Pierre Corneille and a farce of his own, The Doctor in Love, Molière was granted the use of salle du Petit-Bourbon near the Louvre, a spacious room appointed for theatrical performances. Later, Molière was granted the use of the theatre in the Palais-Royal. In both locations he found success among Parisians with plays such as The Affected Ladies, The School for Husbands and The School for Wives. This royal favour brought a royal pension to his troupe and the title Troupe du Roi ("The King's Troupe"). Molière continued as the official author of court entertainments.
Though he received the adulation of the court and Parisians, Molière's satires attracted criticism from moralists and the Catholic Church. Tartuffe and its attack on perceived religious hypocrisy roundly received condemnations from the Church, while Don Juan was banned from performance. Molière's hard work in so many theatrical capacities took its toll on his health and, by 1667, he was forced to take a break from the stage. In 1673, during a production of his final play, The Imaginary Invalid, Molière, who suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, was seized by a coughing fit and a haemorrhage while playing the hypochondriac Argan. He finished the performance but collapsed again and died a few hours later.
Molière was born in Paris, the son of Jean Poquelin and Marie Cressé, the daughter of a prosperous bourgeois family. He lost his mother when he was ten and he did not seem to have been particularly close to his father. After his mother's death, he lived with his father above the Pavillon des Singes on the rue Saint-Honoré, an affluent area of Paris. It is like that his education commenced with studies in a Parisian elementary school; this was followed with his enrollment in the prestigious Jesuit Collège de Clermont, where he completed his studies in a strict academic environment and got a first taste of life on the stage.
In 1631, Jean Poquelin purchased from the court of Louis XIII the posts of "valet de chambre ordinaire et tapissier du Roi" ("valet of the King's chamber and keeper of carpets and upholstery"). His son assumed the same posts in 1641. The title required only three months' work and an initial cost of 1,200 livres; the title paid 300 livres a year and provided a number of lucrative contracts. Poquelin also studied as a provincial lawyer sometime around 1642, probably in Orléans, but it is not documented that he ever qualified. So far he had followed his father's plans, which had served him well; he had mingled with nobility at the Collège de Clermont and seemed destined for a career in office.
In June 1643, when Molière was 21, he decided to abandon his social class and pursue a career on the stage. Taking leave of his father, he joined the actress Madeleine Béjart, with whom he had crossed paths before, and founded the Illustre Thé tre with 630 livres. They were later joined by Madeleine's brother and sister.
Illustration after Pierre Brissart for the printed text of 'L'Étourdi, ou le Contretemps
The new theatre troupe went bankrupt in 1645. Molière had become head of the troupe, due in part, perhaps, to his acting prowess and his legal training. However, the troupe had acquired large debts, mostly for the rent of the theatre (a court for jeu de paume), for which they owed 2000 livres. Historians differ as to whether his father or the lover of a member of his troupe paid his debts; either way, after a 24-hour stint in prison he returned to the acting circuit. It was at this time that he began to use the pseudonym Molière, possibly inspired by a small village of the same name in the Midi near Le Vigan. It was also likely that he changed his name to spare his father the shame of having an actor in the family (actors, although no longer vilified by the state under Louis XIV, were still not allowed to be buried in sacred ground).
After his imprisonment, he and Madeleine began a theatrical circuit of the provinces with a new theatre troupe; this life was to last about twelve years, during which he initially played in the company of Charles Dufresne, and subsequently created a company of his own, which had sufficient success and obtained the patronage of Philippe I, Duke of Orléans. Few plays survive from this period. The most noteworthy are L'Étourdi, ou le Contretemps (The Bungler) and Le Docteur Amoureux (The Doctor in Love); with these two plays, Molière moved away from the heavy influence of the Italian improvisational Commedia dell'arte, and displayed his talent for mockery. In the course of his travels he met Armand, Prince of Conti, the governor of Languedoc, who became his patron, and named his company after him. This friendship later ended when Conti, having contracted syphilis from a courtesan, turned towards religion and joined Molière's enemies in the Parti des Dévots and the Compagnie de Saint Sacrement.
In Lyon, Mademoiselle Du Parc, known as Marquise, joined the company. Marquise was courted, in vain, by Pierre Corneille and later became the lover of Jean Racine. Racine offered Molière his tragedy Théagène et Chariclée (one of the first works he wrote after he had abandoned his theology studies), but Molière would not perform it, though he encouraged Racine to pursue his artistic career. It is said that soon thereafter Molière became angry with Racine when he was told that he had secretly presented his tragedy to the company of the Hôtel de Bourgogne as well.
Molière was forced to reach Paris in stages, staying outside for a few weeks in order to promote himself with society gentlemen and allow his reputation to feed in to Paris. Molière reached Paris in 1658 and performed in front of the King at the Louvre (then for rent as a theatre) in Corneille's tragedy Nicomède and in the farce Le Docteur Amoureux with some success. He was awarded the title of Troupe de Monsieur (Monsieur being the honorific for the king's brother Philippe I, Duke of Orléans). With the help of Monsieur, his company was allowed to share the theatre in the large hall of the Petit-Bourbon with the famous Italian Commedia dell'arte company of Tiberio Fiorillo, famous for his character of Scaramouche. (The two companies performed in the theatre on different nights.) The premiere of Molière's Les Précieuses Ridicules (The Affected Young Ladies) took place at the Petit-Bourbon on 18 November 1659.
Les Précieuses Ridicules was the first of Molière's many attempts to satirize certain societal mannerisms and affectations then common in France. It is widely accepted that the plot was based on Samuel Chappuzeau's Le Cercle des Femmes of 1656. He primarily mocks the Académie Française, a group created by Richelieu under a royal patent to establish the rules of the fledgling French theater. The Académie preached unity of time, action, and styles of verse. Molière is often associated with the claim that comedy castigat ridendo mores or "criticises customs through humour" (a phrase in fact coined by his contemporary Jean de Santeuil and sometimes mistaken for a classical Latin proverb).
Despite his own preference for tragedy, which he had tried to further with the Illustre Thé tre, Molière became famous for his farces, which were generally in one act and performed after the tragedy. Some of these farces were only partly written, and were played in the style of Commedia dell'arte with improvisation over a canovaccio (a vague plot outline). He also wrote two comedies in verse, but these were less successful and are generally considered less significant. Later in life Molière concentrated on writing musical comedies, in which the drama is interrupted by songs and/or dances.
Les Précieuses Ridicules won Molière the attention and the criticism of many, but it was not a popular success. He then asked Fiorillo to teach him the techniques of Commedia dell'arte. His 1660 play Sganarelle, ou Le Cocu imaginaire (The Imaginary Cuckold) seems to be a tribute both to Commedia dell'arte and to his teacher. Its theme of marital relationships dramatizes Molière's pessimistic views on the falsity inherent in human relationships. This view is also evident in his later works, and was a source of inspiration for many later authors, including (in a different field and with different effect) Luigi Pirandello. It describes a kind of round dance where two couples believe that each of their partners has been betrayed by the other's and is the first in Molière's 'Jealousy series' which includes Dom Garcie de Navarre, L'École des maris and L'École des femmes.
First volume of a 1739 translation into English of all of Molière's plays, printed by John Watts.
In 1660 the Petit-Bourbon was demolished to make way for the eastern expansion of the Louvre, but Molière's company was allowed to move into the abandoned theatre in the east wing of the Palais-Royal. After a period of refurbishment they opened there on 20 January 1661. In order to please his patron, Monsieur, who was so enthralled with entertainment and art that he was soon excluded from state affairs, Molière wrote and played Dom Garcie de Navarre ou Le Prince jaloux (The Jealous Prince, 4 February 1661), a heroic comedy derived from a work of Cicognini's. Two other comedies of the same year were the successful L'École des maris (The School for Husbands) and Les F cheux, subtitled Comédie faite pour les divertissements du Roi (a comedy for the King's amusements) because it was performed during a series of parties that Nicolas Fouquet gave in honor of the sovereign. These entertainments led Jean-Baptiste Colbert to demand the arrest of Fouquet for wasting public money, and he was condemned to life imprisonment.
On 20 February 1662 Molière married Armande Béjart, whom he believed to be the sister of Madeleine. (She may instead have been her illegitimate daughter with the Duke of Modena.) The same year he premiered L'École des femmes (The School for Wives), subsequently regarded as a masterpiece. It poked fun at the limited education that was given to daughters of rich families, and reflected Molière's own marriage. Both this work and his marriage attracted much criticism. The play sparked the protest called the "Quarrel of L'École des femmes". On the artistic side he responded