English 108    World Literature     Mr Teich

Moliere's writings about Tartuffe -- Petitions to the King and Preface
[adapted from Library of Liberal Arts, ed. R. W. Hartle, 1965]

First Petition
Concerning the Comedy Tartuffe

Whereas the duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them, I felt that, being in that profession, I could do no better than to attack, by ludicrous portrayals, the vices of my age; and since hypocrisy is certainly one of the commonest, most disagreeable, and most dangerous, the thought occurred to me, Sire, that I should render no small service to all the upstanding people of your kingdom, if I wrote a comedy which would discredit hypocrites and properly expose all the studied grimaces of those excessively pious folk, all the covert rascalities of those counterfeits of piety who try to trap men with spurious zeal and sophistical charity.

I made this comedy, Sire, with, I believe, all the possible care and circumspection demanded by the delicate nature of the subject; and, the better to preserve the esteem and respect we owe to the truly pious, I differentiated as well as I could between them and the character I had to deal with. I have left no ambiguity, I have removed whatever could confuse good with evil, and in this portrait I have used only clear colors and essential traits that make immediately manifest a true, out-and-out hypocrite.

Nevertheless, all my precautions have come to naught. They took advantage, Sire, of the susceptibility of your heart in matters of religion, and they were able to overcome you in the only way by which you are vulnerable, I mean by your respect for sacred things. The tartuffes have had the underhanded skill to find grace in the eyes of your Majesty; in short, the originals have had the copy suppressed, no matter how innocent nor how true the likeness.

Although the suppression of this work was a severe blow, nevertheless my misfortune was softened by your Majesty’s explanation of this matter; and I believed, Sire, that you relieved me of all grounds for complaint by your kindness in saying that your Majesty found nothing to criticize in the play that you forbade me to present in public.

But despite this splendorous declaration from the greatest as well as the most enlightened king in the world, despite the added approval of his Eminence the Papal Legate [1] and the great majority of our prelates, who all, after my private readings of the work, have been in agreement with the sentiments of your Majesty; despite all that, I say, we see a book composed by the curate of --[2] which brazenly contradicts all that august testimony. Your Majesty speaks for nothing, and his Eminence the Legate and the prelates give judgment for nothing; my comedy -- though not seen -- is diabolical, and diabolical, my brain; I am a devil dressed in flesh and clothed like a man, a freethinker, impious, worthy of an exemplary execution. Public burning would not suffice to expiate my offense, that would be letting me off too lightly; this worthy gentleman is careful not to stop there in his charitable zeal: he wants me to get no mercy from God; he insists that I be damned-- the matter is settled.

This book, Sire, was presented to your Majesty; and, surely, you can imagine how disagreeable it is for me to be exposed every day to those gentlemen’s insults, how much wrong such calumnies will do me in the world if they must be tolerated, and, finally, how much it is in my interest to be purged of its deceit and to make known to the public that my comedy is nothing like what is claimed. I shall not say, Sire, what I should like to request for my reputation and to justify to all the innocence of my work. Enlightened kings like yourself have no need to have our wishes pointed out; they see, like God, what we need, and know better than we what they should grant to us. It is sufficient to place my interests in the hands of your Majesty and to await respectfully whatever it may please your Majesty to ordain.

Second Petition

[In his camp before the city of Lille in Flanders, by La Thorilliere and La Grange [3] actors of his Majesty’s troupe and colleagues of Monsieur Moliere, concerning the interdict that was laid the sixth of August, 1667, on the presentation of Tartuffe until further ordered by his Majesty.]

It is a piece of great temerity on my part to come and importune a great monarch in the midst of his glorious conquests, but in my present state where, Sire, can I find protection save in the place where I seek it? And to whom can I make solicitation against the authority of a power that crushes me, save to the source of power and authority, the just dispenser of absolute orders, the sovereign judge and master of all things?

My comedy, Sire, was not able to enjoy the kindness of your Majesty. For naught I presented it under the title of The Impostor and disguised the character under the trappings of a man of the world; in vain I gave him a little hat, long hair, a wide collar, a sword, and lace all over his costume, softened several places and carefully eliminated everything that I thought could give the slightest shadow of a pretext to the famous original models of the portrait I wished to make; all that was of no use. The cabal awoke upon the mere conjectures that they could make about the affair. They found means to catch by surprise minds that, on any other subject, are proud of not being able to be taken unawares. My comedy had no sooner appeared than it was struck by a bolt from a power that must command respect; and all that I could do, in those circumstances, to save my own self in this bursting storm was to say that your Majesty had had the kindness to permit the presentation and that I had not thought it necessary to ask permission of others, since it was your Majesty alone who had forbidden it.

I do not doubt, Sire, that the folk whom I depict in my comedy are trying to use influence with your Majesty, nor that they are thrusting onto their side -- as they have already done -- truly upright people, who are all the more easily fooled because they judge others by themselves. They [the hypocrites] have the art of daubing fine colors over all their intentions. Whatever semblance they wear, it is not at all God’s interest that moves them; they have proved it enough by the comedies they have allowed to be presented so many times in public without their saying the slightest word. They do so because the latter merely attacked piety and religion, about which they care very little, but this one attacks them and makes sport of them personally; and that is what they cannot stand. They cannot forgive me for unveiling their impostures for all to see; and they will certainly not fail to tell your Majesty that everyone is scandalized by my comedy. But the pure truth, Sire, is that all Paris is scandalized only by the interdict, that the most scrupulous found its presentation profitable, and that there is astonishment that people of such known probity should have such great deference for people who should be regarded with horror by everyone and who are so opposed to the true piety which they profess.

I await with respect the judgment which your Majesty will deign to pronounce on this matter, but it is very certain, Sire, that I must no longer think of making comedies if the tartuffes have the upper hand; for they will feel authorized thereby to persecute me more than ever and will try to censure the most innocent things that may come from my pen.

May your kindness, Sire, give me protection against their poisoned slander; and may I, upon your return from such a glorious campaign, ease your Majesty from the fatigues of his conquests, give him innocent pleasure after such noble labors, and give laughter to the monarch who gives tremors to all Europe.

Third Petition
The fifth of February, 1669

A very honest doctor, [4] whose patient I have the honor to be, promises me, and is willing to swear to it before a notary, that he will make me live another thirty years if I can obtain a favor from your Majesty. About his promise I told him that I did not ask so much, and that I should be satisfied if he would swear not to kill me. The favor, Sire, is a canonicate in your royal chapel of Vincennes, vacant since the death of --.

Do I dare ask this additional favor of your Majesty the very day of the great resurrection of Tartuffe, brought to life by your kindness? I am, by that first favor, reconciled with the devout; and I would, by the second one, be reconciled with the doctors. [5] This is certainly too many favors at once for me, but perhaps it is not too many for your Majesty, and I await, with a little respectful hope, the answer to my petition.


1. The Papal Legate, Cardinal Chigi, nephew of Pope Alexander VII and his ambassador extraordinary, had heard a reading of Tartuffe while at Fontainebleau.

2. A certain Pierre Roulle,, curate of Saint-Barthelemy, had published a vitriolic pamphlet against Moliere. The expressions used by Moliere are taken directly from this work. As a result of Moliere’s petition, Roulle was made to feel that his work of supererogation was not appreciated.

3. Before leaving to take personal command of his armies in Flanders, Louis XIV had apparently given Moliere verbal permission to present his revised version of the play. After the first performance, the police forbade its further presentation. The order came from Guillaume de Lamoignon, First President of the Paris parlement, who, unbeknownst to Moliere, was a member of the Company of the Holy Sacrament.

4. A certain Monsieur de Mauvillain. Note the tone of confident joy and almost of camaraderie that Moliere takes toward the King

5. MoIiere had made sport of doctors in Dom Juan, Doctor Love, and The Doctor in Spite of Himself.

Moliere's Preface to TARTUFFE

Here is a comedy about which people have raised quite a stir, which has long been persecuted, and the people it mocks have made plain that they were more powerful in France than all those I have mocked heretofore. The marquises, the precious ladies, the cuckolds, and the doctors have suffered the portrayal in peace, and have even made a show of being amused, like everyone else, by the sketches we made of them. But the hypocrites could not take mockery; they were immediately affrighted, and found it strange that I should be so bold as to make sport of their grimacing and wish to criticize an occupation meddled in by so many honest folk. It is a crime they could not forgive, and they all took up arms against my comedy with a frightful furor. They were careful not to attack it through the side that hurt them -- they are too politic for that, and know too well how to get along in the world to unveil the depths of their soul. Following their praiseworthy custom, they concealed their private interests with the cause of God, and in their words Tartuffe is a play that offends religion. From one end to the other it is full of abominations, and there is nothing in it that does not deserve the flames. All its syllables are impious; even the gestures are criminal; and the slightest glance, the slightest shake of the head, the slightest step to left or right hide mysteries which they manage to explain to my disadvantage.

In vain I have submitted it to my friends’ judgment and to everybody’s censure; the corrections I have been able to make, the judgment of the king and queen, who have seen it, the approval of the great princes and ministers, who have publicly honored it with their presence, the testimony of upright people, who found it useful -- all that has not helped at all. They will not let go; and every day, still, they prompt the public outcry of indiscreet zealots, who insult me piously and damn me from charity.

I should care very little about anything they can say, were it not for the artifice by which they create for me enemies whom I respect, and thrust onto their side truly worthy people, whose good faith they catch unawares, and who in their enthusiasm for Heaven’s best interests are easily impressionable. That is what obliges me to defend myself. It is to the truly pious that I wish everywhere to justify myself about the conduct of my comedy; and I beseech them with all my heart not to condemn things before seeing them, to rid themselves of all prejudice, and not to serve the passion of those whose grimacing dishonors them.

If one takes the trouble to examine my comedy in. good faith, one will see without a doubt that my intentions throughout are innocent and that it in nowise tends to make sport of things that we must revere; that I have treated it with all the precautions required by the delicate nature of the subject and that I have put all the art and all the care possible to distinguish clearly between the character who is the hypocrite and the one who is truly devout. To that end, I have used two whole acts to prepare the arrival of my scoundrel. He does not keep the spectator in suspense for a single moment; he is recognized immediately by the characteristics that I give him; and, from one end to the other, he does not say a word, he does not do one action, that does not depict for the spectators the character of a wicked man or enhance the character of the truly upright man whom I place next to him as a foil.

Of course I know that in reply those gentlemen try to insinuate that it is not up to the theater to speak of these subjects, but I beg leave to ask them on what basis they establish this fine maxim. This is merely a hypothetical premise, which they in nowise prove; and it would present absolutely no difficulty to point out to them that ancient drama had its origins in religion and was a part of their mysteries; that our neighbors, the Spaniards, mingle drama into the celebration of practically all their holy days, and that even with us the theater owes its birth to the cares of a confraternity that today still owns the Hotel de Bourgogne; [1] that it is a place that was given for the presentation of the most important mysteries of our faith; that one can still see plays printed in gothic type under the name of a Sorbonne doctor, [2] and, without going so far afield, that in our own time Monsieur de Corneille’s religious plays were produced and were admired by all of France. [3]

If the mission of comedy is to correct men’s vices, I fail to see why some should be privileged. In the State, this one is of an importance much more dangerous than all the others; and we have seen that the theater is a great force for correction. The finest points of a serious morality are usually less powerful than those belonging to satire; and most men are scolded by nothing quite so well as by the portrayal of their faults. It is a great blow to vice to expose it to everyone’s laughter. We can easily stand being reprehended, but we cannot stand being mocked. We are willing to be wicked, but we will not be ridiculous.

I have been reproached for having placed terms of piety in the mouth of my impostor. Well! Could I help it in properly representing the character of a hypocrite? To me, it seems enough for me to make known the criminal motives that make him say those things, and for me to have cut out sacred terms, for it would have been repugnant to hear him make bad usage of them. -- "But in the fourth act he propounds a pernicious morality." -- But is not this morality something we have heard about over and over again? [4] Does it say anything new in my comedy? And can it be feared that things so widely detested should have any influence over people’s minds, or that they should gain authority in the mouth of a scoundrel? There is no probability in that; and the comedy Tartuffe should be approved, or else all comedies condemned.

And that is precisely what has recently been raging, and never have some people been so furious against the theater. I cannot deny that there have been Fathers of the Church who condemned the drama, but no one can deny that there have also been some who treated it a little more gently. Thus, the authority on which the proposed censure is based is destroyed by this division, and the only conclusion that can be drawn from this diversity of opinions in minds enlightened by the same intelligence is that they have considered the drama differently, and that some have taken it in its pure state while the others have looked at its corruption and have confused it with those base spectacles which have been correctly called "spectacles of turpitude."

And indeed, since one should discourse on things and not words, and since most contradictions come from lack of understanding and from wrapping up contrary things in the same word, one need merely lift the veil of equivocation and look at what comedy is per se to see whether it is reprehensible. It will be agreed, no doubt, that, being nothing other than a skillful poem which, by agreeable lessons, reprimands men’s defects, it could not be censured save unjustly; and, if we wish to hear the witness of antiquity on this matter, she will tell us that her most famous philosophers praised comedy, they who professed such austere restraint and who incessantly cried out against the vices of their age. She will point out to us that Aristotle consecrated his night watches to the drama and took the trouble of reducing the art of making comedies to precepts. [6] She will teach us that her greatest and highest ranking men gloried in composing some themselves, [7] that there were others who did not scorn to recite in public those which they had composed; that Greece manifested her esteem for this art by the glorious prizes and the splendid theaters with which she did it honor; and that in Rome itself this same art also received extraordinary honors. I do not mean in Rome debauched under licentious emperors, but in Rome disciplined under austere consuls, in the time of vigorous Roman virtue. [8]

I admit that there have been times when comedy was corrupt. But what is there in the world that is not corrupted every day? There is nothing so innocent that men cannot stain it with crime, no art so salutary that they cannot reverse its intentions, nothing so good in itself that they cannot turn it to bad uses. Medicine is a beneficial art and everyone respects it as one of the most excellent things we have, yet there have been times when it became odious and often it has been made into an art for poisoning men. Philosophy is a gift of Heaven; it was given to us to lead our minds to the knowledge of God through contemplating the miracles of nature; nevertheless, everyone is aware that it has often been perverted from its function and publicly used to uphold impiety. Even the holiest of things are not safe from men’s corrupting, and we see scoundrels who every day abuse piety and wickedly make it serve the greatest crimes. But for all of that one does not fail to make the necessary distinctions. One does not bundle together into one false conclusion the true excellence of the things being corrupted and the malice of the corruptors. One goes on separating the bad usage from .the goal of the art, and just as we do not take it into our heads to forbid medicine because it was banished from Rome. [9] or philosophy because it was publicly condemned in Athens, [10] likewise we should not wish to interdict comedy because it has been criticized at certain times. That censure had its reasons, which do not exist today. It was restricted to what it could see, and we must not draw it out beyond its own self-appointed limits, nor stretch it further than is right, and make it embrace the innocent with the guilty. The comedy it aimed to attack is not the one that we would defend. One must be careful not to confuse the one with the other. They are two persons whose manners and morals are completely opposite. They have no connection with each other beyond the similarity of the name; and it would be a frightful injustice to want to condemn Olympe, who is an upright woman, because there is an Olympe who was depraved. Judgments like that would perforce cause a great disorder in the world. By that system everything would be condemned; and since we do not hold that severity against so many things that are abused every day, we should then grant the same grace to comedy and approve plays wherein we see instruction and propriety reign.

 know that there are some souls who are so dainty that they cannot suffer any comedy, who say that the most proper are the most dangerous, that the passions depicted are all the more touching in that they are filled with virtue, and that souls are moved to tenderness by those kinds of representations. I cannot see that it is such a great crime to be moved at the sight of a chaste passion, and it is a high plane of virtue, that complete insensitivity to which they would lift up our soul. I doubt that such a perfection lies within the strength of human nature, and I do not know whether it is not better to work at rectifying and tempering men’s passions rather than trying to do away with them altogether. I admit that there are better places to frequent than the theater; and if we are going to reprove all the things that do not directly concern God and our salvation, it is certain that comedy must be among them, and I find no fault at its being condemned with the rest; but if we allow, as is true, that the exercises of piety suffer intervals and that men need diversion, I maintain that they cannot find a more innocent one than comedy. But this has been too protracted. Let us finish with a mot from a great prince about the comedy Tartuffe. [11]

A week after it was forbidden, a play called Hermit Scarmouche was presented before the court; [12] on leaving, the king said to this great prince, "I should really like to know why the people who are so scandalized about Moliere’s comedy don’t say a word about Scaramouche." To which the prince replied, "The reason is that the comedy Scaramouche makes sport of Heaven and religion, which those gentlemen don’t care a hang about, but Moliere’s comedy makes sport of them, which is what they cannot stand."

1. The Hotel de Bourgogne, where the Royal Troupe played, was owned by the Confraternity of the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord. From 1402 to 1548, this group enjoyed the exclusive right to perform Christian mystery plays in Paris.
2. Moliere refers to a passion play edited by Jehan Michel, doctor of medicine. He has confused him with a theologian of the same name.
3. Polyeucte, one of Corneille’s greatest plays, and Theodore, Virgin and Martyr.
4. In Pascal’s Provincial Letters.
5. The expression is St. Augustine’s,
6. In the 17th century, the word comedie could mean "comedy," "drama," "theater," or even "tragedy."
7. Scipio's collaboration with Terence.
8. Moliere is contrasting the legendary civic virtue of Rome under the Republic with the public debauchery of emperors such as Claudius, Nero, and others. Both Plautus and Terence lived and wrote during the days of the Republic.
9. Pliny, Natural History XXIX. 8.
10. In the person of Socrates.
11. The Prince de Conde, a prince of the blood belonging to a collateral line of the House of Bourbon, was the commander responsible for many great victories of the time. Conde was a champion of Tartuffe.
12. A licentious play about a debauched monk who frequently "mortified the flesh."