In A Nutshell
Molière wrote Tartuffe, originally entitled Tartuffe, ou l'Imposteur (Tartuffe the Imposter) in 1664. In the play, Orgon, a wealthy Parisian patriarch (male head of household) falls under the influence of a self-righteous hypocrite named Tartuffe. Orgon becomes obsessed with Tartuffe and the religious ideals the trickster supposedly stands for. Molière was apparently very fond of plot lines where a guy becomes obsessed with something. Many of his plays have similar plots. In Tartuffe, it's religion; in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman), it's social status; in L'Avare (The Miser), it's money; in Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac), it's doctors, etc. In each case, the main character's obsession interferes with his daughter's marriage plans – in Le Malade Imaginaire, for instance, he wants his daughter to marry a doctor instead of her lover – which forces his family to intervene. If you've already read Tartuffe, this should sound pretty familiar.
We've spent all this time talking about how typical Tartuffe is by Molière standards, so it may surprise you to find out that it's (quite possibly) his best-known play. The reasons behind the play's fame are simple: it was scandalous. By 1664, Molière was already a big name in French theater. That same year, King Louis XIV had agreed to be the godfather of Molière's first son. Molière's theater troupe was called the Troupe du Roi. That's The King's Troupe. Yeah, let's just say he'd hit the big time. As you probably know from VH1 Behind the Music, major success seems to always cause lots of problems. In Molière's case, the problems came in the form of critics, many of them religious, who thought his plays were irreverent, irreligious, and just plain naughty.
Tartuffe riled up Molière's critics even more than his previous plays. At the time, the Catholic Church was a major political power in France. As you might imagine, a play about a hypocritical criminal masquerading as a holy man didn't go over too well. The dévots, a group of ultra-conservative Catholic nobility, were especially offended. Oh, and it didn't help that Orgon, a member of the upper class, was portrayed as a total fool. All of this "offensive" material, caused the play to be banned.
As they say, there's no such thing as bad publicity; and Tartuffe has certainly benefited from its notoriety. "Tartuffe" (along with the noun tartuffery) has entered into the dictionary in both English and French. A tartuffe, as you might expect, is a hypocrite, religious or otherwise; tartuffery is, well, acting like Tartuffe. The play has been filmed, broadcast on TV, brought to Broadway (and, quite probably, a high school near you!). It's pretty much the classic French play for English speakers. Now it's your turn enjoy it.
Why Should I Care?
First, a disclaimer: Tartuffe was scandalous back in the day, and there's a reason why. It deals the idea of religious hypocrisy. This issue was hard to tackle back then and, well, it remains hard to tackle now. We here at Shmoop think everybody has a right to believe what they want; we're just here to present the facts. Sure we have lots of opinions on literature, but even then, we want you to challenge them and come up with your own thoughts. OK, time to get on to the issues Tartuffe.
In 2007, an American Christian group called LifeWay Research conducted a survey in which they asked participants about their beliefs and churchgoing habits, among other things. According to the survey, a majority of Americans who said they believed in God didn't go to church. Why? Well, 72% of the non-churchgoers said it was because the church was "full of hypocrites" (source). Those are pretty strong words, right?
Now, although surveys are by no means perfect, there's some indication that Americans don't like religious hypocrisy. These same Americans live in a society that protects free speech and guarantees the separation of church and state. So they're allowed to express their opinions without the government imposing any particular religion on them.
When Molière wrote Tartuffe in 1664, he didn't have those kinds of guaranteed freedoms. The Roman Catholic Church was a hugely powerful cultural and political force back then, so you can imagine what kinds of risks he was taking when he wrote and performed a play whose title character was a hypocritical holy man, a self-righteous sham. But in Tartuffe Molière was wise enough not to fill it with specific references to the Catholic Church, or the French religious climate in general. Instead, he presented a rather simple message that is just as applicable now as it was over three centuries ago.
And Molière's has a universal message about hypocrisy, one that is about religion, but not just religion. It's applicable to most any situation, and it's quite a surprising bit of wisdom to find in such a light comedy. And, really, can you think of a better antidote for self-righteousness than humor and self-deprecation? We can't.