The16th and the17th centuries were a great period of Enlightenment for Europe concerning issues that influenced public perception besides shaping the general view on matters that defined the lives of people during that period. Art works like books and painting would easily catch the attention of different groups including the political class, the religious organizations, and many others that were in the business of shaping debates and issues in the society. One of the artworks that resonated well with the Enlightenment period was the play Tartuffe by Moliere. It, in a manner, satirized the social, religious, and political class causing jitters among them because of the simple issues that were revealed in the play (Leigh 35). In writing the play, the playwright sought to bring to the attention of different groups the hypocrisy as well as interconnectivity of the groups that were serving as the light of the social development and enlightenment. In using Tartuffe as a religious, yet a hypocritical man, the play definitely comes into confrontation with religious groups. This is because during this time, the church held a special place in the political as well as social development of the people in the society. This paper discusses how the play Tartuffe transformed the social and political worldviews during the European Enlightenment period by the themes, which are revealed therein.
European Enlightenment as reflected through Tartuffe by Moliere
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The Enlightenment era was characterized by a number of transformations in philosophical, rational, and scientific development. The period was defined by voices of reason from different people. For instance, in the play Tartuffe, Doriane the servant of Orgon, comes about as the voice of reason in Orgon’s household. She comes about swiftly to oppose the plans of Orgon to marry his daughter. It is also evident that the Enlightenment period was highly defined by order in nature. There is order in the family of Orgon as seen from his orders concerning Tartuffe (Leigh 39). In fact, when he comes home and finds his wife sick, he has the discretion to decide what matters to him, and to the surprise of many people in his family, he decides to look for Tartuffe rather than his ailing wife. Order is also seen in the way the King is dragged into the matter. He only comes in the matter of legal concerns where Tartuffe expects that he will be favored before the King because of the legality of the documents that Orgon has given to him. However, he is in for a rude shock when the King decides to detain him instead of Orgon and claims that he has also witnessed the deception and hypocrisy of a man who is trusted by a friend to the point of giving his personal belongings to him and disowning his own son for the sake of the friend, yet in the end the friend forsakes him and threatens to legally evict him from his home (Hammes 9).
In addition, the Enlightenment period was also characterized by lack of individualism in the society. During this time, people were expected to belong to either one or several political, social, or religious groups that were shaping the society at the time. People were living in unity as a universal approach to the problems and challenges that were facing them in their daily lives. In the play Tartuffe, we find the basic functional unit of the society, a family, which is headed by a man and who is also in charge of the family’s property. In the play, also the issue of interdependence is evident as Tartuffe comes about as a person who is heavily inclined to the side of religion as well as the political one. Orgon is so much concerned with social undertakings and this is the reason why he takes in Tartuffe as a beggar in the first place. He is also concerned with the wedding of his daughter to the extent that he makes eleven decisions to change the wedding when he feels that the man his daughter is going to marry is not the right person for her. He also decides to give much of the family property to Tartuffe despite the several red lights he has had about his trusted friends. He only has a change of heart when he himself witnesses Tartuffe seducing his wife and that is when he changes his attitude to him. As noted by the playwright himself, the play Tartuffe attacks the vices that were happening in the Enlightenment period by the use of satire and other forms of art to bring out the vices happening in the society. Thus, Moliere stated that “as the duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them, I believed that in my occupation I could do nothing better than to attack the vices of my age by making them ridiculous…”(Hammes 15).
As was the case in the Enlightenment period, a number of characteristics were reflected in the play Tartuffe, which was typical of the Enlightenment period. For instance, the subject of religion, which defined political and social lives of the people at the time, is presented through the emphasis on reason. The playwright views the religious fanaticism as unreasonable given that the society trusts religious people with several issues including their spiritual nourishment and therefore cannot afford to have religious fanaticism amongst themselves as reflected through Tartuffe’s actions in public (Simonds 91). As for the writer of the play, the Enlightenment period was stuck in a period of extremes when people were completely different from what they pretended to be in public. However, even in the midst of confusion and lack of direction, there is always a small voice of reason, which requires much listening. In the play, Cleante and Doriane are the little voices of reason. In fact, this is not only in the play, but also in the society in which they live. The fact that Moliere used a lowly person like a servant in a wealthy family as the voice of reason is an indication that the Enlightenment Period in Europe was full of surprises with people who might be looked down upon in the society coming up with reasonable suggestions that impacted the whole society. The social and political as well as economic development was no longer a preserve of the elite in the society. This is simply because reason and enlightenment were not reserved for them alone, but for anyone capable of reasoning and coming up with decisions that would impact the society (McMahon 34).
The play also espouses a number of elements that were typical of the Enlightenment period in Europe where different institutions were attacked through the work of art. For instance, in the play, Orgon and his mother Perniele trust Tartuffe to the extent of leaving him in control of their family. The reason for their unquestionable trust is because Tartuffe carries and presents himself as a trustworthy person and this is reflected in the way he dresses in priestly manner and comes out a representative of the church and looks so much like a prayerful person. However, he is just the opposite of what he presents himself to be. This pretension is not lost to other family members since they see mischief and pretention in the person from the word ‘go’ and plan to stop him at all costs or better still to make Orgon and his mother realize who the real Tartuffe is. In the light of happenings in Europe at this time, Moliere is just saying that religious rhetoric was capable of presenting an incontrovertible answer to many questions that were facing the society. However, the corruptive nature of the carriers of good news as envisaged in the religious doctrines is the spoiler of the incontrovertibility of the message. Such people are represented by Tartuffe in the play. In other words, the play helps to bring out the rot in the society, which was happening, but to which no one was willing to speak out against. Because of this, the play was opposed by many religious groups. They view it as attacking their moral authority to influence the society. This is because the same society was coming out to ask the authenticity of many religious leaders and indeed if they were interested in helping their society come up with solutions to the challenges that were facing the society. Inadvertently, Moliere is simply bringing up religious discernment, which he feels is going to prevent the abuse of religion as was evident during this period (Leigh 50).
In other instances, the play puts emphasis on the ignorance of the society at this time. Inasmuch as the evidence is clear that Tartuffe is a pretentious person, Orgon and his mother are not moved with this revelation and continue to give him their unwavering support and trust. However, the truth is that the rest of the family, including a simple servant in their house, has recognized the hypocritical nature of their visitor. In the same manner, few people in Europe were willing to question the actions of their political and religious leaders, even though some were already aware of their mistakes. The society at this period was deeply rooted in ignorance for fear of reprisal from their leaders but for Moliere, the play through Tartuffe and other characters brings out the undoing of the leaders. He is also seen urging the society to rise up and question the actions of people who look glorious in their characters and do what is opposed to the expectations of the society (Hammes 23).
The other enlightenment that is evident in the play is the faith that people are supposed to have in the monarch. Inasmuch as Orgon has committed a punishable act by relinquishing his properties to Tartuffe, he does not expect any mercy or leniency from the King. Everyone including Tartuffe himself is convinced that the King will give Tartuffe the property as was agreed between him and Orgon. However, the King’s change of heart and his confession that he has known about the hypocrisy of Tartuffe is an indication that justice was coming to Europe at a time when people had been denied justice for a long period. Because of the supreme authority that the King has, he is able to a make a decision that he thinks is just to the society as opposed to earlier times when all such decisions were based on the law whether the law was unjust or not. Because the King has supreme authority and is acting on behalf of God, his decisions are final and thus Tartuffe has no other option, but to accept the decision of the King to give back the property to the rightful owner who is Orgon. As a representative authority from God, the King was mandated to act justly in all cases just like Orgon was also mandated to act justly to his family members, although he had failed in his duties. The King thus exercises discernment in his ruling concerning the case between Orgon and Tartuffe, a character that has been lacking in the society before the coming of the Enlightenment period(McMahon 40).
Finally, the issue of suicide is brought out clearly in the play to satirize the changing views of the society about death through suicide. Prior to this awakening in Europe, many people believed that suicide was a simple way of transiting from one life to the other. However, the Enlightenment period came with a change of view about suicide. For instance, when Mariane threatens to take away her life when she is forced to marry Tartuffe, Dorine sarcastically tells her to go on with the plan because it was a simple way of running away from problems. To Dorine, this is a ridiculous statement that avoids reason and that would be dealt with through a sarcastic approach that mocks the person who is contemplating suicide. During this period, it was expected that all situations and challenges could be tackled from a reasoning point of view rather than acting as a result on the impulse of the circumstances. As such, people who were going to react to unpleasant circumstances with a mind of killing themselves were worthy of ridicule for their unreasonable responses. The other element that comes out in this scene and that could relate to the awakening is that despite the challenges that people were facing in the society at this time, there were still others who were ready to embrace reason in their thinking and actions. This includes Dorine who has come out as the agent of reason not in one instance, but in several instances where she speaks to the society about the need to have a reasonable approach to the challenges facing the society (Simonds 88).
In conclusion, the play Tartuffe brings about a number of issues that Enlightenment Europe was struggling with during this period of Enlightenment. The importance of reason, discernment, justice, morality, and rule of law is emphasized through the acts of the characters like Orgon, Tartuffe, the King, Dorine, and many others who espouse the practices prevailing in the society.