Hypocrisy is a slippery thing. To some, it's obvious: Tartuffe is called a hypocrite pretty much right off the bat. The more we're told about him, the more noticeable his hypocrisy becomes. At the same time, hypocrisy goes hand in hand with deception; it represents an effort to project a false image. It's a hard act to pull off, and Tartuffe doesn't do a particularly good job of it, but he still succeeds in putting everything off balance. That's the real problem with hypocrisy: it calls the truth of everything into question.
Though Tartuffe definitely doesn't practice what he preaches, he manages to deceive himself; he actually buys into some of his lies.
By putting a hypocrite at the center of the play, Molière puts everything off balance. We're forced to question every statement and every action, to decide if they each – or any – should be taken at face value.
Orgon may be the king of fools in Tartuffe, but he's not the only one that's off his rocker. As Dorine points out, Mariane and Valère are suffering from a bit of what the French call l'amour fou (mad love). And, indeed, Tartuffe's undoing is his own foolish love for Elmire. Unfortunately for just about everyone involved, this kind of folly is catching; more often than not, the fool is under the impression that he is the only sane person left. In Tartuffe, that rule holds true as ever.
Orgon's foolishness, though troublesome, springs from a deep, if naïve, trust in his fellow man.
Orgon represents little more than a bundle of incorrect opinions waiting to be refuted by the other characters.
Religion was a touchy subject back in Molière's day…but Molière himself didn't seem to have any qualms with making some jokes about it. The thing is, Molière's play Tartuffe doesn't make fun of religion: it makes fun of those who manipulate religion to get what they want – like, you know, Tartuffe. Still it's worth noting that there is no direct religious foil for Tartuffe; instead, Cléante has to do double duty as the voice of reason and the representative of true religious understanding. Through Cléante, Molière makes sure that everybody knows how foolish Orgon is acting, and lets them know that he knows what religion's all about.
Orgon is, ultimately, the most religious character in Tartuffe; though he does not understand many fundamental religious ideas, it is only his desire to learn and become more faithful that leads to trouble.
Molière has no need for a truly righteous foil for Tartuffe. One need only do the opposite of what Tartuffe does to act in a virtuous manner.
Considering Tartuffe was written in the 17th century, you might expect the female characters to be soft-spoken, demure, and generally pretty dull. But that couldn't be further from the truth – well, except in the case of Mariane; she's soft-spoken, demure, and generally pretty dull. But Elmire and Dorine – that's a whole different story. Each one defies convention with gusto: they do some things that would still be audacious even today. They're quick-witted, strong-willed, and a bit saucy. They're a match for their male counterparts anytime, any day.
Molière portrays unconventional female characters not because he has progressive notions, but because their actions make for better theater.
Dorine and Elmire represent a real alternative to traditional gender roles; they are the real protagonists in Tartuffe, the only characters who are able to take action.
Here's a question for you: should one always tell the truth under all circumstances? Molière seems to think not. Sure, Tartuffe is the one that does most of the lying, but what are we to make of, say, Elmire? She's willing to lie and cover up the truth – twice – in order to manipulate and expose Tartuffe. It is important to remember that she gets results by lying, while Damis only creates more trouble by telling the truth. This isn't to say that one strategy is better than the other of course. If anything, it speaks to how slippery a thing the truth can become once the lying begins.
Molière makes it clear that deceit, though often harmful, can also be a useful and perfectly ethical solution to a problem.
"[A]ny wrongful act you care to mention/ May be redeemed by purity of intention" (4.5.13). So says Tartuffe when he's trying to seduce Elmire. Strangely enough, Molière doesn't completely disagree with that statement. Sometimes, he suggests, the ends justify the means, and even lies can be used to do good.
So, on one hand we've got Tartuffe. He acts like a moral authority while doing tons of immoral and unethical things: he lies, steals, blackmails, attempts to commit adultery…the list goes on and on. On the other hand, we have Cléante. He has a handle on these sorts of matters, and he's not afraid to share his opinions. He explains to Orgon why Tartuffe is full of lies, and he confronts Tartuffe personally whenever he gets the chance. Those two throw their weight around, but they're not the only ones with an opinion or two. When you encounter Elmire and Dorine, be sure to watch them carefully.
In Tartuffe, we learn that, though there are some cases where right and wrong are clearly defined, more often than not we find ourselves in a gray area between the two extremes.
However light and humorous Tartuffe may be, Molière has a real interest in teaching his audience about right and wrong.
Marriage is many things in Tartuffe. It's political; that is, it's just as much about making alliances as it is about love. It is about love, of course, but the workings of love are hampered throughout the play. We're told that marriage is ultimately decided by the father of the bride. We're also told, however, that a father's mistake will cost him dearly, that the bonds of marriage are only as good as the match that's been made. All this is to say that marriage is important. Without the drama between Orgon, Mariane, Valère, and Tartuffe, there would basically be no play at all.
In Tartuffe, marriage functions as both a political tool and a manifestation of true love.
In Tartuffe, Molière introduces a marital conflict into the play in order that he might explore issues related to it, namely adultery and the role of women in society.
We hear some strange opinions about sin in Tartuffe. Madame Pernelle tells everyone that Tartuffe is the authority as far as sin's concerned. Nobody listens of course…well, except for Orgon. Now, you may be wondering what separates "sin" from "morality and ethics." Truth is, they're intimately related. But in this case, it's a matter of specifics. Tartuffe manages to ignore so many real, Christian rules about proper behavior – even as he's pretending to be the authority on it – that you can't help but be reminded of the particular rules he's breaking.
However much of a wrongdoer he is, Tartuffe's actions actually teach us about sin, inasmuch as he shows us what not to do.
In the end, we learn that sins can and should be forgiven, that even Tartuffe has a chance at redemption.