Reviewed by Associate Editor Ciara O’Muircheartaigh
In “A Paradoxical Partnership: An Exploration of Molière’s Comedies during the Reign of Louis XIV,” Serena Frechter analyzes the complex relationship between seventeenth century French ruler Louis XIV and his playwright contemporary, Molière. Frechter argues that although Molière is often sidelined in analyses of Louis XIV’s absolutist reign, the playwright had an essential role in furthering Louis XIV’s political agenda, and that Molière, too, benefited from their relationship, both financially and otherwise.
Frechter begins by pointing to significant gaps in existing scholarship on Louis XIV and Molière. She explains that extensive research and analysis have been done on the life and ambitions of Louis XIV, and to some extent Molière as well, but that there is little to no existing work on the politically motivated relationship between the two. Although some authors have used the regular appearances of Molière’s work in Louis XIV’s court as evidence of Louis XIV’s commitment to the arts in general, Frechter argues that their relationship was more significant than that, and that Molière helped Louis promote absolutism to the French people.
In order to explore their relationship, Frechter begins by describing and analyzing Louis’s path to, and motivations for, absolute rule over France. She describes Louis’s movement toward absolutism as a series of instances of his bringing order to previously disordered areas of France’s sociopolitical system. Naturally, given the subject of her paper, she devotes particular attention to Louis’ creation of a formal system of patronage in the arts. She points to this system as evidence of a symbiotic relationship between Louis XIV and Molière; artistic patronage meant the long-term stability of Molière finances and reputation. Inversely, the French Académie commissioned artists to create works that venerated Louis.
Frechter separates Louis XIV’s politically motivated national elevation of art into three distinct categories: emphasis on his own “singular power,” giving the French people “tangible representations” of his enemies, and creating a “distraction” for anyone marginally influential who he felt posed a threat to his power (7). Louis used culture to create a community among wealthy and powerful people, spending large amounts of money on events, rituals, and artworks that encouraged a sense of loyalty and belonging. This was necessary, as many of Louis’s reforms drained nobles of their political power.
Frechter’s primary source analysis centers around three of Molière’s plays: L’ecole des femmes, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and Tartuffe, all of which were written between 1660 and 1670. Although these plays appear inflammatory in that they mock the nobles and clergy Louis aimed to impress, the author argues that they in fact target only those nobles who attempted to defy the king. She notes that L’ecole des femmes ends “in chaos,” emphasizing the inability of non-rulers to create order in their own lives (15). Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, too, appears deceptively critical of seventeenth century French social structure. Although it centers around the challenging of gender norms and expectations, it preserved the class hierarchy of the time, and allowed nobles to laugh at bourgeoisie attempts at social climbing.
In her analysis of Molière’s work, Frechter also touches on the playwright’s use of prefaces in printed editions of his plays as a means of asserting authority over his work’s interpretation. He published only as a means of preventing others from publishing his content, and was in fact quite hesitant to publish at all. However, once he did choose to publish, the structure and content of his prefaces were highly intentional. He emphasized the complexity of his work and the loss of nuance and meaning that resulted from seeing only the text of his plays.
Frechter ties her analyses together with a study of Molière’s Tartuffe. Although Louis himself had no major problems with the play, the church felt attacked by the “fraudulent piety” of the story’s eponymous main character (23). In fact, they were so upset by the play’s content that the archbishop of Paris ordered that those who sought it out in any form would be excommunicated from the church. Louis also banned a later, extended version of Tartuffe (entitled L’Imposteur) before it could be shown to the public. Molière wrote to Louis in hopes of convincing him to let the revisions be performed, saying he felt firmly that Tartuffe actually furthered Louis’s absolutism by “exposing” the “hypocrites and rascals” who posed a threat (24). It was not until five years later that Le Tartuffe, a second revision, was approved (and was extremely well received). This obviously benefited Molière, but it also assisted the king; when Louis ultimately did allow the play to be performed, Frechter argues that his handling of the situation demonstrated his control over both the church’s and Molière’s behavior.
In conclusion, Frechter asserts that Molière benefited from his relationship with Louis XIV even after his death. The king pulled all possible strings to ensure a dignified burial and legacy for Molière, despite the church’s open disdain for the playwright. The author also re-emphasizes the importance of Molière’s role in Louis’s political success, saying his plays not only furthered, but also helped to develop, French absolutist ideology toward the beginning of Louis’s reign.