The son of a Parisian artisan, Poquelin lost his mother when still a child and entered the prestigious Jesuits' Collège de Clermont, to complete his studies. There are many stories about his time at the college: It is said that his father was very demanding of him, that he met the prince of Conti, or that he was a pupil of the philosopher Pierre Gassendi, but none of these seem to have any foundation.
It is certain, however, that Poquelin was a close friend of the abbé La Mothe Le Vayer, son of François de La Mothe-Le-Vayer, in the years in which the abbé was editing his father's works, and it has been suggested that Poquelin may have been influenced by them. Among his first works was a translation (now lost) of De Rerum Natura by the Roman philosopher Lucretius.
When Poquelin reached the age of 18, his father passed on to him the title of Tapissier du Roi, and the associated office of valet de chambre, which brought him into frequent contact with the king. Poquelin is claimed to have graduated in law at Orléans in 1642, but some doubts remain as to this.
In June 1643, together with his lover Madeleine Béjart and a brother and sister of hers, he founded the theatre company or troupe of L'Illustre Théâtre, which became bankrupt in 1645. At this time he assumed the pseudonym of Molière, inspired by the name of a small village in Southern France. The failure of the company caused him to spend some weeks in prison for debt. He was freed by the help of his father, and he left with Madeleine for a tour of villages as a travelling comedian. This life lasted for 14 years, during which he initially played with the companies of Charles Dufresne , and subsequently created a company of his own. In the course of his travels he met the prince of Conti, the governor of Languedoc, who became his patron, and he named his company after him. But this friendship would end later, when Conti joined Molière's enemies in the Parti des Dévots.
In Lyons, Mme Duparc, famous as la Marquise, joined the company. La 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 left his theology studies), but Molière did not perform it, though he encouraged Racine to pursue his artistic career. It is said that soon after Molière became very angry with Racine when he was told that he had secretly presented his tragedy to the company of Hôtel de Bourgogne too.
Molière reached Paris in 1658 and played at the Louvre (then for rent as a theatre) in Corneille's tragedy Nicomède and the farce Le docteur amoureux (Doctor in Love), with some success. He was awarded the title of Troupe de Monsieur (the Monsieur was the king's brother) and with the help of Monsieur, his company joined a locally famous Italian company that played Commedia dell'arte. He became firmly established at their theatre Petit-Bourbon, where in November 18, 1659, he gave the premier of Les Précieuses ridicules (The Affected Young Ladies), one of his masterpieces.
This was really the first of his many attempts to make fun of certain mannerisms and affectations then common in France. It was Molière, indeed, who coined the phrase that satire castigat ridendo mores (it criticises customs through humour) sometimes mistaken for a genuine Latin proverb). The style and the content of his first success were soon at the centre of a wide literary debate.
Despite his own preference for tragedy, 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. He also wrote two comedies in verse, but these were less successful and are generally considered to be less significance.
"Les Précieuses" won Molière the attention and the criticism of many, but it was not a popular success. He then asked his Italian partner Tiberio Fiorelli , famous for his play Scaramouche, to teach him the techniques of Commedia dell'arte. His 1660 play Sganarelle, ou le Cocu imaginaire (the imaginary cuckhold) seems to be a tribute both to Commedia dell'arte and to his teacher. The theme of marital relationships was here enriched by the insertion of a view of Molière's about the amount of falseness in the human relationships, which he depicted with a degree of pessimism. This was evident in his later works also, and was a source of inspiration for many later authors, including (in a different field and with different effect) Luigi Pirandello.
In 1661, in order to please his patron (Monsieur), he wrote and played Dom Garcie de Navarre, ou le Prince jaloux (The Jealous Prince), a heroic comedy derived from a work of Cicognini's. Monsieur was Philippe, Duke of Orléans, who was so enthralled with entertainment and art that he was soon excluded from the state affairs. Two other comedies of the same year were the successful L'École des maris (the School for Husbands) and Les Fâcheux, 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 honour of the sovereign. These entertainments led Jean-Baptiste Colbert to demand the arrest of Fouquet for waste of public money, and his condemnation to life imprisonment.
In 1662 Molière moved to the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, still with his Italian partners, and married Armande, whom he believed to be the sister of Madeleine; she was in fact her illegitimate daughter, the result of a flirtation with Duc of Modène in 1643, when Molière and Madeleine were starting their affair. The same year he played L'École des femmes (The School for Wives), another masterpiece. Both this work and his marriage attracted much criticism. On the artistic side he responded with two minor yet elegant and interesting works, La Critique de "École des femmes" (in which he imagined the spectators of his previous work attending it) and L'Impromptu de Versailles (about Molière's troupe preparing an improvisation). This was the so-called la guerre comique (Comedy War), in which the opposite side was taken by writers like Donneau de Visé, Boursault, Montfleury.
But more serious and less artistic opposition was brewing. A so-called parti des Dévots arose in French high society, protesting against Molière's excessive "realism" and his irreverence, which were causing some embarrassment; these people accused him also of having married his daughter; the Prince of Conti too, once his friend, joined them. Molière had other enemies, too, among them the Jansenists and some traditional authors. However, the king expressed his solidarity with the author, granting him a pension and agreeing to be the godfather of Molière's first son. Boileau also supported him through statements that he included in his Art poétique.
Molière's friendship with Jean Baptiste Lully influenced him towards writing his Le Mariage forcé and La Princesse d'Élide (subtitled as "Comédie galante mêlée de musique et d'entrées de ballet"), written for royal "divertissements" at Versailles.
Le Tartuffe, ou L'Imposteur was also performed at Versailles, in 1664, and created the greatest scandal of Molière's artistic career. Its description of the general hypocrisy of the dominant classes was taken as an outrage and violently contested. The same king allegedly suggested that he suspend the performances, and Molière rapidly wrote Dom Juan, ou le Festin de Pierre to replace it. It was a strange work, derived from a work by Tirso de Molina and inspired by the life of Giovanni Tenorio , rendered in a prose that still seems modern today; it describes the story of an atheist who becomes a religious hypocrite and for this is punished by God. This work too was quickly suspended. The king, demonstrating his protection once again, became the new official sponsor of Molière's troupe.
With great music by Lully, Molière presented L'Amour médecin; subtitles on this occasion reported that the work was given "par ordre du Roi", by order of the king, and this work received a much warmer reception than its predecessors.
In 1666, Le Misanthrope was produced. It is now widely regarded as Molière's most refined masterpiece, the one with the highest moral content, but it was little appreciated at its time. It caused the "conversion" of Donneau de Vasé, who became fond of his theatre. But it was a commercial flop, forcing Molière to immediately write the Le Médecin malgré lui (A Doctor Despite Himself), a satire against the official sciences; this was a success despite a moral treatise by the Prince of Conti, criticizing the theatre in general and Molière's in particular.
After the Mélicerte and the Pastorale comique, he tried again to perform Tartuffe in 1667, this time with the name of Panulphe or L'imposteur. But as soon as the king left Paris for a tour, Lamoignon and the archibishop banned the play (the king finally imposed respect for this work a few years later, when he had gained more absolute power over the clergy).
Molière now ill, reduced his output. Le Sicilien, ou l'Amour peintre was written for festivities at the castle of Saint-Germain, and was followed in 1668 by a very elegant Amphitryon, obviously inspired by Plautus's version but with evident allusions to the king's love affairs. George Dandin, ou le Mari confondu (The Confounded Husband) was little appreciated, but success returned with L'Avare (the miser), now very well known.
With Lully he again used music for Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, for Les Amants magnifiques, and finally for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman), another of his masterpieces. It is claimed to be particularly directed against Colbert, the minister who had condemned his old patron Fouquet. The collaboration with Lully ended with a tragic ballet, Psyché, written with the help of Thomas Corneille (brother of Pierre).
In 1671 Madeleine Béjart died, and Molière suffered from this loss and from the worsening of his iown llness. Nevertheless, he gave a successful Les Fourberies de Scapin (Scapin's Schemings), a farce and a comedy in 5 acts; the following La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas was however not at his usual level.
Les Femmes savantes (Learned Ladies) of 1672, was a masterpiece born of the end of possible use of music in theatre, since Lully had somehow patented the opera in France, so Molière had to go back to his traditional genre. It was a real success, and it led on to his last work, which was also one that is held in high esteem.
One of the most famous moments in Molière's life is the last, which became proverbial: he died on stage, while performing Le Malade imaginaire. Strictly speaking, he collapsed on stage, and died a few hours later at his house, without sacraments because two priests refused to visit him and the third arrived too late. It is said that he was wearing yellow, and because of that, there is a superstition that yellow brings bad luck to actors.
As an actor, he was not allowed by the laws of the time to be buried in an ordinary cemetery, in sacred ground. It was his wife Armande who asked the king Louis XIV to allow a "normal" funeral celebrated at night.
List of major works
- La Jalousie du Barbouillé
- Le Médecin volant
- Dépit amoureux
- Précieuses ridicules
- Dom Garcie de Navarre
- L'École des maris
- Les Fâcheux
- L'École des femmes
- Critique de l'École des femmes
- L'Impromptu de Versailles
- Le Mariage forcé
- La Princesse d'Élide
- Don Juan
- L'Amour médecin
- Le Misanthrope
- Le Médecin malgré lui
- Pastorale comique
- Le Sicilien
- Georges Dandin
- Monsieur de Pourceaugnac
- Les Amants magnifiques
- Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme
- Les Fourberies de Scapin
- La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas
- Les Femmes savantes
- Le Malade imaginaire