During a period obsessed with ranking, Molière’s success came from creating comedies around social class. Social class indicators of that time included:
All of Molière's plays took place in either France or the Mediterranean, making the connection between the fictive characters and the real social class structure in the specific geography possible. Molière used the social class of the characters to help define their personalities in the play. With clothing, the people of higher class wore very extravagant costumes while commoners would wear something simpler. Conflicts between social classes seemed to be a relevant topic in most plays, but they are almost absent in Molière's comedies. In many of Molière's plays we see people of power being listened to, even if none of the characters like these people. For example, in the beginning of Le Tartuffe, Madame Pernelle has the power of being Orgon's mother. All of the characters seem to listen to her because of her social class. The maid, Dorine, tries to talk, but gets shut down by Madame Pernelle when she tries to give her opinion.
During the 17th century,mobility began to be more restricted as was change in status. The ratio of nobles to non-nobles went from about 15 percent to 10 percent. People needed to be able to prove their nobility with documentation when it became even more prevalent in people's lives. Molière commonly used usurpations to illustrate the distinctions between social classes. He also used characters from a lower class and had them dress as if they were in a higher class or marry into a higher class to become a part of a noble family. He uses a double identity to make fun of the popularity of social classes.
In a time when religious activities, sincere or not, were popular in France, Molière took it upon himself to write about them in his plays. Tartuffe is portrayed as scheming his way into a stable French family. While he is flattering the head of the household, he is beginning to usurp his power and wealth, which eventually turns the family against him. Tartuffe is one of the characters who displays two sets of qualities, one side being his ability to trick high class people out of their power and wealth, at least for a time, the other being his greed and carelessness. Both sets of qualities display polemics related to the ideas of various religious groups and ideologies, and the struggle overall to enable change.
While Molière plays are worth considering for many reasons, the insight they provide into matters of social class and its relationship to money, power and religion in his times is particularly intriguing.
‘’Tartuffe.’’ Great Works of literature II. 20 February 2016. https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/eng2850hmwc/?tag=social-classes
James F. Gains, “Social Structures in Moliere’s Theatre”. Ohio State Press.
Lindsey Price, “Introduction to Moliere”, Theatrefolks. 30 May 2016.
Andrew Calder, “Moliere: The Theory and Practice of Comedy” The Athlone Press, 1993.