Molière chose to write Tartuffe in rhyming verse. ("Chose" is key here, for sometimes, as with his follow up play, Don Juan, he wrote in prose.) As a result, things can sound a bit silly and nursery-rhyme-y when that same style is copied in English. However, it can also sound swift and smooth, or just plain eloquent. When Cléante tells Orgon, "Spare me your warnings, Brother;/ I have no fear of speaking, for you and Heaven to hear,/ Against affected zeal and pious bravery," that rhyming, the stuff you might expect to make his speech seem pompous really gives it that extra zip (1.5.9).
Let's break it down now, word by word. Let's start with comedy: as that famous English playwright said, "all's well that ends well," and, well, Tartuffe definitely ends well. Catch our drift? Like most comedies every thing wraps up happily in Tartuffe. The villain gets taken to jail, the lovers get married, the foolish father gets a dose of reality, and everybody else gets to breathe a sigh of relief. You get the picture.
Now let's move on to the society part of the equation. Economic class definitely has something to do with it. Tartuffe concerns the trials of a rich family, that's being preyed upon by a poor, that is, not wealthy, swindler. And, of course, there's Dorine, a servant with a tendency to get herself involved in the lives of the people who, according to her society, are supposed be her "betters." Religion is also a big deal in the world of Tartuffe. Priests and other members of the Catholic Church were considered to be part of a totally different class.
In Tartuffe, we get to see the interaction of all these different elements: rich men and aristocrats, ladies and their hired help. It's that interaction that shakes things up and gets us laughing – especially when it turns out nobody's really playing the role you might expect them to be playing. Orgon, the rich father, is really a dope; the holy man is a fraud; and the servant girl might just be the wisest of them all.
Tartuffe. Sounds like some kind of fancy dessert, no? Well, it isn't. It is, however, the name of a character in the play. Now, let's take a look at the list of characters. Ah! There it is. If we were French, we'd see Tartuffe, faux dèvot, which is basically just an old French way of saying "hypocrite." (It literally means "fake deeply religious person.") So we can assume that the play is about some guy named Tartuffe who's a hypocrite.
OK, that's pretty good, but this begs the question: what exactly is a hypocrite? It's one of those words, like ironic, that gets tossed around a lot, and so loses some of its meaning in the process. In general, it's someone who doesn't practice what they preach; in this particular case, it's, well, someone who really doesn't practice what he preaches. Tartuffe himself doesn't get the most stage time of all the characters, but he's present throughout. For better or for worse, he's the mover and the shaker, the one who gets people talking and, in some cases, emptying out their wallets.
Tartuffe ends just like a good old-fashioned comedy should: happily. The villain is carted off to jail. The lovers get married. Wrongs are righted. Justice is served. The truth prevails. This is all pretty standard stuff. There is, however, one element to the ending that requires a little more analysis. The only reason why Tartuffe can end happily is because of the King. Let's call him King Deus Ex Machina. The name fits because that's exactly what the King is. Deus ex machina literally means "god from the machinery." It's a technique borrowed from ancient Greek theater; plays would often be resolved when a "god" was lowered onto the stage in order to mete out justice or zap people with lightening bolts or whatever Greek gods do. In this case, the King, "who sees into our inmost hearts/And can't be fooled by any trickster's arts" sees right through Tartuffe's scheme and saves Orgon from prison or exile (5.7.19). He's the embodiment of all the virtues that Cléante loves to talk about:
He honors righteous men of every kind,
And yet his zeal for virtue is not blind,
Nor does his love of piety numb his wits
And make him tolerant of hypocrites. (5.7.19)
In short, the King is a world-class wise man. He puts everything in its right place. Not only does he nail Tartuffe for the stuff he's done to Orgon, but he also exposes Tartuffe's criminal past. Oh, and he commends Orgon for his "loyal deeds in the late civil war" (5.7.19). So we can leave the play knowing that Tartuffe is getting what he deserves and that Orgon really isn't a total idiot. He's just maybe going a little soft in his old age.
Cléante gets the last words in before the curtain drops. When Orgon curses Tartuffe, Cléante stops his brother-in-law, saying:
Leave the poor wretch to his unhappy fate,
And don't anything to aggravate
His present woes; but rather hope that he
Will soon embrace an honest piety,
And mend his ways, and by a true repentance
Move our just King to moderate his sentence. (5.7.25)
So, we end the play on a happy note. No one, Cléante says, not even Tartuffe, is irredeemable. There can be no happier ending than that.
Tartuffe is about rich people with rich people's problems. Sure, the action all takes place in one room, but it's a darn nice room in what we have to assume is a darn nice house. Molière doesn't really tell us much about the place, but think about it: nothing would be happening if Tartuffe didn't stand to gain a lot of cash by duping Orgon and family. As you might expect, Orgon made his money, at least some of it, by serving the King – it's never really clear – but it's safe to say he probably had some kind of lucrative enterprise going on back in the day. As it stands, he's getting older now, he's looking to pass his money on to an heir or two. There's no better place to stage a comedy about inheritance than in daddy's mansion.
Now, in terms of the big picture, all this takes place at a time when Louis the XIV, the Sun King, reigned. He was a big deal – he was the Sun King after all – and to serve under him or to have anything to do with him was a, well, big honor.
At the same time, it's important to remember that the Catholic Church was an equally big player. To claim allegiance to God, as Tartuffe does, was to associate yourself with one heck of a powerful institution. France itself had been rocked by decades of religious conflicts between the Roman Catholic majority and the Huguenot Protestant minority. By the time Tartuffe was written, the worst fighting was over; the Huguenots were tolerated, but the Catholics reigned supreme. In any case, Tartuffe's less than holy behavior led to some controversy in and outside of the play – but you can read more about that in the "In a Nutshell" section. Let's just say Molière's playing with fire here.
Tartuffe makes for a funny, zippy little read/watch, especially when it's in verse. This doesn't mean it's insubstantial, though. There are lessons to be learned her – mostly from Cléante – about piety, wisdom, society, and generosity. And that same zippiness that makes things fun can make that heavy stuff a bit too easy to tune out. So keep your eyes/ears open, and don't neglect the serious bits.
Translations are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. Molière wrote Tartuffe in French in verse. Each line is twelve syllables long. It's what we academic, poetical types call an alexandrine; don't worry about the specifics. The lines themselves are arranged in rhyming couplets. Here's a sample from the original French. Don't worry if you don't understand it:
C'est véritablement la tour de Babylone,
Car chacun y babille, et tout du long de l'aune.
Each line has twelve syllables, and the final word of each line rhymes. In this case, the rhythm of the words within the line is not as important as in, say, Shakespeare where most everything is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter (a.k.a. blank verse) and has pretty steady rhythm.
Now, when translating Molière, everyone has his or her own style. All our quotes happen to be taken from Richard Wilbur's translation of Tartuffe. Wilbur decided to mix things up a bit. His version is still in verse, complete with rhyming couplets, but he's chosen to get rid of the alexandrines. He's replaced them with those ten-syllable long lines that Shakespeare liked so much. So now we get:
Parties are towers of Babylon, because
The guests all babble on with never a pause. (1.1.34)
The rhythm of the line isn't perfect – you really have to treat "towers" and "never" as one-syllable words to fit it into the form. Still the translation reproduces the feeling of the original French pretty well.
Some translators choose to forego the verse altogether. In her recent prose translation, Prudence L. Steiner puts it this way:
Honest folks' heads are spinning with confusion; no wonder that the other day a wise man called it a second tower of Babylon. Everyone babbles on and on and on.
You still get the same message. The Babylon/babble on pun is still in there, but there's no rhyming and there's no enforced rhythm.
Which one is better? Well, we can't really say. Some people think all that rhyming is cheesy, but it is in the original French version. In the end, it's really just about choice, and what feels right. You'll probably just have to deal with whatever translation you're given if you're reading this for school, but if this is just for a bit of fun, well, check things out before you pick a version. There are many different ways to say the same thing, and sometimes they're all great. If you want that witty, quick feel, maybe you want to stick with verse. If you want things a little heavier – and Tartuffe can get pretty heavy – maybe go with the prose. The choice is yours.
You may have heard of this little thing called the Tower of Babel. Yeah, it's referenced in the name of that Brad Pitt movie, but it's also in Tartuffe. In Act 1, Scene 1, Madame Pernelle slams everyone within hearing for being decadent, immoral, and unprincipled. She serves up some extra-strong Haterade for Elmire and her hard-partying ways:
People are driven half-insane
At such affairs, where noise and folly reign
And reputations perish thick and fast.
As a wise preacher said on Sunday last,
Parties are Towers of Babylon, because
The guests all babble on with never a pause; (1.1.34)
What matters in this passage is the little matter of allusion. What you might think is just a cringe-inducing pun (Babylon, babble on) is also a reference to a passage in the Book Genesis, chapter eleven.
Here's the short version of the story: Back in the day, a bunch of people made their way to Babylonia. Now, everybody in the whole world spoke the same language at this point. One day, everybody got together and decided that they were going to build a big city, a city with a huge tower that reached all the way up to heaven. The project got under way immediately: since all the people spoke the same language it was easy to get them on the same page. Now, God saw this going down, and thought to himself, "Hmmm, if all these same-language-speaking people can get together and build this heaven-reaching tower, who knows what else they can do. I'd better confuse them all by making them speak different languages." And so it was done. That is, the people couldn't understand each other, and were scattered all over the place. The city, on the other hand, was never finished. (You can read the whole story here.)
At this point, you're probably all like, "OK, Shmoop, this is pretty cool and all, but what does this have to do with Tartuffe?" In Tartuffe, as in the Babel story from Genesis, language is confused. Often Tartuffe is the one responsible. He has a knack for bending religious language to his will. As he tells Elmire in Act 4, Scene 5:
Some joys, it's true, are wrong in Heaven's eyes;
Yet Heaven is not averse to compromise;
There is a science, lately formulated
Whereby one's conscience may be liberated,
And any wrongful act you care to mention
May be redeemed by purity of intention. (4.5.13)
So, basically, Tartuffe tosses everything out the window: the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), and makes up his own set of rules. And he does it all with language.
Tartuffe's linguistic agility is shown throughout the play. He first tricks Orgon by praying loudly in church. When Damis accuses Tartuffe of trying to seduce Elmire, the con man bamboozles Orgon with reverse psychology. When Tartuffe is involved, everything becomes babble, meaningless stuff meant only to manipulate others and advance his schemes. Madame Pernelle may have everything all topsy-turvy, but her above words sort of define the play. It's a story about cutting through the meaningless babble and finding the truth.
Orgon, the patriarch of a rich Parisian family falls under the spell of Tartuffe, a self-righteous hypocrite. The family's attempts to convince Orgon of Tartuffe's unsavory nature fail, and Orgon decides he would like Tartuffe to marry his daughter Mariane – despite the fact that she is already engaged to Valère. Mariane wants nothing to do with this, but she is unwilling to stand up to her father.
Tartuffe is content to marry into Orgon's family, but he also lusts after Orgon's wife, Elmire. When his attempt at seduction fails, Elmire makes a deal with him: as long as he tells Orgon to let Mariane marry Valère, she won't tell Orgon what happened. Damis – who's been hiding in the closet the whole time – won't stand for such an agreement, and insists upon telling his father the truth. Orgon doesn't believe him, and instead disinherits him and banishes him from the family home. He gives Tartuffe exclusive rights to the family fortune and pushes up the wedding date to that very night.
Elmire convinces Orgon that she can show him that Tartuffe is wicked. She "seduces" Tartuffe while Orgon hides under a table and watches. Once Orgon has seen enough he confronts Tartuffe, who vows to get revenge. Orgon realizes only too late that he has put himself in a bad position: Tartuffe has the rights to his property and a set of very damaging documents. Tartuffe's plans are revealed: his representative, Monsieur Loyal shows up at the house and tells Orgon he's about to be evicted. Valère shows his loyalty to Orgon when he comes to help Orgon flee the country; he has heard that Tartuffe is on the way to arrest him. Soon after, Tartuffe arrives with a police officer. He has shown Orgon's documents to the King and expects Orgon to be taken to prison. The police officer arrests Tartuffe instead, and explains the truth of the matter. Tartuffe is shown to be a longtime criminal. Orgon is rewarded for past services to the King. He agrees to let Valère marry Mariane.
The stage is set in Act 1, Scene 1, during a long interaction between Madame Pernelle and the rest of the characters – excluding Orgon and Tartuffe, of course. It's all exposition, really, but it gets things up and going quickly.
Although pretty much all the characters hate Tartuffe already, this development puts them into crisis mode. Dorine, Mariane's servant is especially vocal when expressing her displeasure. Tartuffe won't budge, however.
Events unfold very quickly and things get complicated – very complicated – just like that.
This is where everything changes; Orgon, finally sees the light.
At this point, we know things aren't going very well, but we don't know how much damage Tartuffe is going to do. He's got the ball in his court, so to speak.
Things come to a head here. It looks like Tartuffe has really nailed Orgon, and the only option Orgon has left is to flee the country.
It's a picture perfect conclusion, complete with a marriage. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, and all is right in the fair kingdom of France.
Orgon is duped by Tartuffe; he loves him more than he loves his family. He wants to give him his only daughter. Orgon's family hates Tartuffe and wants him gone.
Even after Tartuffe attempts to seduce his wife, Orgon still can't believe the "holy" man is a hypocrite. He disinherits his only son and decrees that Tartuffe will marry Mariane that evening. He also signs his estate over to Tartuffe.
Elmire shows Orgon that Tartuffe is a fraud. Tartuffe attempts to blackmail Orgon, but his plan backfires. He's arrested, Orgon gets his stuff back, and Valère is given permission to marry Mariane.