Study Questions and Notes for Molière's Tartuffe

A Moliere site with a Tartuffe study guide (Beverly McClure)
Another Tartuffe study guide (Lyman Baker, KSU)
Moliere, Tartuffe (a brief description from
17th Cenury History (from L'age d'or):

At right: Armande Béjart as Elmire; Du Croisy as Tartuffe
Bejart et Du Croisy

Pre-Reading Questions

  1. What do you think of TV evangelists? Why do you think people send money to them?
  2. Have you ever known someone you would describe as a hypocrite? How would you define a hypocrite?
  3. How could an all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving God permit evil in the world?
  4. Why do you think people write literature? Why do you read it?

Tartuffe Notes

The English (and French) word hypocrite comes from the Greek word hypokrites, meaning "actor." For the original French audience the name Tartuffe probably suggested the French word truffe, or "truffle," which is slang for "big nose" or "fool." The verb truffer means "to stuff" or "to cram." Molière's play has been so popular over the years that Tartuffe's name has entered the modern French language as the word tartufe, which means "false devotion" or "hypocrisy."

Tartuffe Questions

  1. As you read, try to imagine what a staged version of Tartuffe would look like. Where are the characters, what expressions are on their faces, what do they look like, and how (with what tone of voice and what pauses and emphases) do they deliver their lines?
  2. What does Molière say is the function of comedy in his Preface to Tartuffe? Do you think comedy works this way? What do you think is the function of comedy? Why did some people attack Molière's play? Do you think their attacks justified in some measure?
  3. As you read the first scene, whose word do you trust and why? What do you find out about each character?
  4. Why do you think Madame Pernelle is critical of others in the first scene? Compare / contrast to other characters' (Orgon, Cléante, Dorine, and Damis) reasons for being critical.
  5. Look for the following stock characters as you read Tartuffe: the young lovers whose desires are thwarted by an unreasonable father, the clever servant, the "reasoner," and the impostor or parasite. How are they like or unlike types of characters found in TV sitcoms or soap operas?
  6. Try to pick a ruling passion for each major character in the play and defend your choice. For example what passion do you think motivates Orgon to trust Tartuffe?
  7. How effective is reason in stemming the passions of various characters (especially Orgon) in the play? What (if anything) really works to change people’s behavior, to make them see the error, extremity, and blindness of their passions? What do you think Molière is saying about the relations between reason, passion and authority?
  8. Who has power in the play and why?
  9. What do you think Molière thinks of religion? Could his critics have been partially right—that his play might in some ways lessen religious devotion?
  10. Why do you think Molière included the argument between Mariane and Valère? (Act II, scene 4). What do you think this argument is all about?
  11. What are some reasons why Mariane does not actively resist her father’s plan to marry her to Tartuffe?
  12. As you read the play, ask yourself what Orgon’s state of mind is in each scene. For example, what do you think he is thinking / feeling when he tells Mariane that she will marry Tartuffe? Why do you think he refuses to believe his own son when Damis tells him what he has heard Tartuffe saying to Elmire?
  13. What reasons could Molière have for mixing the language of love and religion in Tartuffe’s speeches to Elmire (247-254; 286-290)?
  14. Why do you think Orgon is fooled so badly by Tartuffe? (See introduction, pp. 160-61. Also, the name Orgon suggests the French word orgeuil, meaning "pride.")
  15. Do you think Tartuffe is really a hypocrite? Does he think he's a hypocrite? What do you think motivates him? Support your answers by referring to the text.
  16. When Tartuffe confesses his crimes (259-60), do you think he’s sincere? (Does he really confess?) Why or why not? Why do you think this confession works so well in convincing Orgon of his innocence? Do you think Tartuffe really wants to leave (266)?
  17. Why do you think Orgon waits so long to come out of hiding in Act IV (286-292)?
  18. In Act V, scene 3, why do you think Mme. Pernelle won’t believe her own son’s testimony about Tartuffe’s villainy? What point(s) do you suppose Molière is making about how to make people blinded by passion see the light of reason?
  19. Do you think the deluded characters really learn to behave reasonably? Does reason really triumph at the end?
  20. Name some of the ways in which passion destroys order in the play. In what way is order restored? Does the resolution ("unknotting" or dénouement) of the plot in Act V seem satisfying to you? Why or why not?

Additional Tartuffe Questions
1. In Act II, Scene 2, why do you think Dorine purposely goads Orgon into losing his temper? What can she hope to achieve? Find other instances in the play where characters lose control and are overcome by their passions.

2. Some say Orgon became infatuated with Tartuffe because he wanted greater control over his family (or perhaps himself). What do you think of this view? (See 160-161.)

3. Who has control in the play and who loses it and why? What are some extremes of loss of control depicted in the play? Relate control to the virtue of moderation, the use and abuse of power, and the legitimate and illegitimate exercise of authority (discuss specific scenes).

4. Give concrete examples of some of the contradictions in the play between traditional religious values and the usual 17th century bourgeois existence (e.g., pride vs. humility, money vs. poverty, humanity vs. "heaven"). Can you find any evidence in the play that Moliere endorses traditional religious values? If not, what sort of religion does he advocate in the play?

From Moliere's Preface to Tartuffe

Here is a comedy that has excited a good deal of discussion and that has been under attack for a long time; and the persons who are mocked by it have made it plain that they are more powerful in France than all whom my play have satirized up to this time. Noblemen, ladies of fashion, cuckolds, and doctors all kindly consented to their presentation, which they themselves seemed to enjoy along with everyone else; but hypocrites do not understand banter: they became angry at once, and found it strange that I was bold enough to represent their actions and to care to describe a profession shared by so many good men. This is a crime for which they cannot forgive me, and they have taken up arms against my comedy in a terrible rage. They were careful not to attack it at the point that had wounded them: they were too crafty for that and too clever to reveal their true character. In keeping with their lofty custom, they have used the cause of God to mask their private interests; and Tartuffe, they say, is a play that offends piety: it is filled with abominations from beginning to end, and nowhere is there a line that does not deserve to be burned.
 . . . .
Especially to the truly devout do I wish to vindicate my play, and I beg them with all my heart not to condemn it before seeing it, to rid themselves of preconceptions, and not aid the cause of men dishonored by their actions.
. . . .
    If the function of comedy is to correct men's vices, I do not see why any should be exempt. Such a condition in our society would be much more dangerous than the thing itself; and we have seen that the theater is admirably suited to provide correction. The most forceful lines of a serious moral statement are usually less powerful than those of satire; and nothing will reform most men better than the depiction of their faults. It is a vigorous blow to vices to expose them to laughter. Criticism is taken lightly, but men will not tolerate satire. They are quite willing to be mean, but they never like to be ridiculed.
. . . .
I cannot deny that there were Church Fathers who condemned comedy; but neither will it be denied me that there were some who looked on it somewhat more favorably. Thus authority, on which censure is supposed to depend, is destroyed by this disagreement; and the only conclusion that can be drawn from this difference of opinion among men enlightened by the same wisdom is they viewed comedy in different ways, and that some considered it in its purity, while others regarded it in its corruption and confused it with those wretched performances which have rightly been called performances of filth. 
. . . .
. . . I wonder if it is not better to try to correct and moderate men's passions than to try to suppress them altogether. I grant that there are places better to visit than the theater; and if we want to condemn every single thing that does not bear directly on God and our salvation, it is right that comedy be included, and I should willingly grant that it be condemned along with everything else. But if we admit, as is in fact true, that the exercise of piety will permit interruptions, and that men need amusement, I maintain that there is none more innocent than comedy.

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