Molière was a French playwright who worked under the patronage of Louis XIV, the Sun King, during the French absolute monarchy (1622 – 1673) . Molière himself was a playwright, actor, director. He is especially known for his innovative role in comedy. He helped raise the status of comedy, which had previously been regarded as less prestigious than tragedy. Among his best-known works are “Tartuffe” and “The Bourgeois Gentleman”.

Life of Molière

 Molière was born in Paris, France, into a wealthy family of craftsmen. His real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. He studied at the Jesuit Institute of Clermont, where Voltaire had studied.

 Career in theater

 His father was a craftsman in the royal service and wanted Molière to follow in his family’s footsteps. However, an encounter with an actress led him to the life in theater. In 1643, he abandoned the family business to found the Illustre Théâtre. The stage name Moliere was given to him at that time. However, in 1645, Moliere’s troupe failed in Paris and went bankrupt. Moliere was even imprisoned for his debts.

 But Moliere did not give up and began touring the countryside: for about 13 years, he toured in Nantes, Toulouse, Lyon, Montpellier, and other cities. Moliere grew and emerged as the head of a theater company. He was also an actor, writer and director.

 Success as a playwright and theater director

 In 1658, Molière’s troupe returned to Paris. On a stage set up in the Louvre, they performed a play before Louis XIV. Louis XIV permitted him the use of the Theatre Petit Bourbon. In 1659, his satirical play “The Affected Young Ladies” was a great success.

 Molière himself began to receive a pension from the court. He combined comedy and ballet to create the comedic ballets, thus consolidating the patronage of Louis XIV. Diplomacy in Europe at that time made use of music and balls. Molière’s plays became also part of the diplomatic toolkit.

 Molière’s “The School for Wives” was subjected to various criticisms. One of the reasons was that, as a comedy, it dealt with serious themes such as the religious education of women. At the time, comedies, unlike tragedies, were not highly regarded by society. This kind of exchange was to be seen in other plays as well. In 1661, his troupe moved to the Palais-Royal Theater, which Richelieu had built.

 Maturity as a playwright: “Tartuffe” and “The Misanthrope”

 In 1664, his troupe staged “Tartuffe” at the Palace of Versailles. It dealt with the problem of fanatical religious beliefs. It was strongly opposed by the church and was banned from being performed at the court.


 In the meantime, his troupe staged “Don Juan” with great success. However, this too was met with great opposition from the church.

 Despite his struggles with the church and other forces, Molière produced a wide variety of works in his later years. He continued to write plays and manage his troupe in the face of competition from other theater companies, unstable management of his own troupe, and conflicts with the church and other forces.

 ”The Bourgeois Gentleman” (1670)

 In 1670, Molière premiered “The Bourgeois Gentleman”. It is known as one of Molière’s best-known comedic ballets. The music was composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully, a well-known musician of the time.

 The background of this work is that Louis XIV had a policy to ease the conflict between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie at that time. As a result, an increasing number of bourgeois married aristocrats in order to acquire aristocratic status. This play was intended to satirize such bourgeois.

 Jourdan, its protagonist, is one such bourgeois. Following the customs of the aristocracy of the time, he learned music, fencing, and dance. He wanted his daughter to marry an aristocrat by all means. However, when he knew that her daughter’s boyfriend was not a nobleman, he opposed their marriage. Then, her boyfriend’s servant tried to trick Jordan. The servant had the boyfriend dress in the clothing of an Ottoman nobleman and successfully convinced Jordan that the boyfriend was such an aristocrat. Thus, their marriage is approved.

The “The Bourgeois Gentleman” and the Ottoman Empire

 This work is also set against the backdrop of the arrival of the Ottoman ambassador to Paris in 1669 to conduct diplomatic negotiations with France. Since the first half of the 16th century, France had cooperated with the Ottoman Empire. At the beginning, King François I of France was at odds with the Holy Roman Emperor, Karl V of Habsburg. Therefore, the French king joined forces with Emperor Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire, who had confronted the Habsburgs in the First Siege of Vienna.

 Thereafter, France continued to regard the Ottoman Empire as a good collaborator in opposing the powerful Habsburgs. It also maintained good relations with the Ottoman Empire in order to profit from trade in the East. However, by the mid-17th century, the power of the Ottoman Empire was weakening. Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire granted trading privileges also to Spain. France therefore began to reevaluate its relations with the Ottoman Empire and withdrew its ambassador from Constantinople, its capital.
 In 1669, the Ottoman Empire sent an extraordinary ambassador to Paris to restore relations. On his way to Paris in France, the extraordinary ambassador was well received. He was entertained with music and balls. But in Paris, invitations to festive banquets and social events were reduced. For example, he was not invited to the premiere of Molière’s play “Mr. Pourceaugnac”.

 The reason for this was that the extraordinary ambassador was actually only a low-ranking official of the Ottoman court. It had also long been the practice of Ottoman ambassadors to be excluded from festivities and other receptions in France. In the end, the diplomatic negotiations between the two sides failed.
 Molière’s “The Bourgeois Gentleman” was premiered about six months after the extraordinary ambassador returned to France. French diplomats cooperated in the production by providing various information.
Therefore, “The Bourgeois Gentleman” is said to have originated from the failure of these diplomatic negotiations. For example, it is said to have been created as a consolation for France’s failure to turn the negotiations to its advantage. Or it has been described as a satire of the French government’s response to the Ottoman envoys.
 There are other interesting interpretations. It has been suggested that “The Bourgeois Gentleman” was a satire on the stereotype of the Ottoman Empire as it was accepted in Europe at the time. The background is that the Ottoman Empire had been regarded as an alien external threat to European princes since the 16th century.

 The Ottoman Empire had been a follower of Islam since the reign of Mehmed II. In the 16th century, it was advocated that Christian Europe should unite to fight the Ottomans. As Europe was internally divided and at odds due to religious wars, the Ottomans were seen as an external threat to promote peace in Europe. Thus, the Ottoman Empire became the object of satire and ridicule at diplomatic functions and festivals at the time of the various peace treaties. The stereotype of the Ottomans as wearing thick robes with a scimitar, and performing martial dances was shared and demeaned.
 ”The Bourgeois Gentleman” satirized this stereotype. As mentioned above, the protagonist Jourdain opposes his daughter’s marriage. Her boyfriend pretends to be an Ottoman aristocrat by wearing this stereotypical attire. Because of the stereotype, Jourdan is tricked into thinking he is an aristocrat and allows the marriage to take place. But since the theater audience would have seen the real Ottoman ambassador, they witness that Jourdan is obviously deceived because of the stereotype. Thus, this play shows satire on those who are at the mercy of Ottoman stereotypes.

The Last Years

 In 1673, Molière collapsed during a performance and died. His troupe would be reorganized into the Comédie Française.


 Figures associated with Molière

● Louis XIV: King of France who became Molière’s patron. King at the top of the French absolute monarchy. In addition to theater, he was also a patron of music and painting.

Recommended or Selected references

モリエール傑作戯曲選集』 柴田耕太郎訳, 鳥影社, 2022
渡辺淳『喜劇とは何か : モリエールとチェーホフに因んで』未知谷, 2011

David Bradby(ed.), The Cambridge companion to Molière, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Ellen R Welch, A Theater of Diplomacy: International Relations and the Performing Arts in Early Modern France, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017