He was only fifty, but his hectic life, his tuberculosis, his marriage, and his bereavements had drained his vitality. The portrait by Mignard caught him at his prime: large nose, sensual lips, and comically elevatable eyebrows, but already a wrinkled forehead and wistful eyes. Moving in the vortex of the theater from town to town and from day to day, dealing with high-strung prima donnas, a lively wife, and a sensitive King, seeing two of his three children die—this was no primrose path to optimism, but an open road to bad digestion and early death. Understandably he became “a self-devouring volcano,” 43 melancholy, sharp-tempered, frankly critical but sympathetically generous. His troupe understood him and was devoted to him, knowing that he used himself up to give it sustenance and success. His friends were always ready to do battle for him—above all, Boileau and La Fontaine, who, sometimes with Racine, made with Molière les Quatre Amis, the famous “Four Friends.” They found him well educated and informed, witty but seldom merry, a Grimaldi on the stage, but in private sadder than Shakespeare’s Jaques.
After four and a half years of separation he returned to his wife (1671). The child that resulted from this reconciliation died after a month of life. At Auteuil he had lived on a milk diet prescribed by his doctor; now he resumed his usual consumption of wine, and attended late suppers to please Armande. Despite his increasing cough he decided to play the leading role, Argan, in his final play, Le Malade imaginaire (February 10, 1673).
Argan imagines himself afflicted with a dozen diseases, and spends half his fortune on doctors and drugs. His brother Béralde derides him:
ARGAN. What must we do, then, when we are sick?
BÉRALDE. Nothing, brother. . . . We must only keep ourselves quiet. Nature herself, when we let her alone, will gently deliver herself from the disorder she’s fallen into. ‘Tis our ingratitude, ‘tis our impatience, that spoils all; and almost all men die of their medicines, not of their diseases. 44
To further ridicule the profession, Argan is told that he himself can become a doctor in short order, and can easily pass the examination for a medical license. There follows the famous mock examination:
FIRST DOCTOR. Demandabo causam and rationem quare opium facit dormiré. . . .
ARGAN. Quia est in eo
Cujus est natura
Sensus stupifire. . . .
SECOND DOCTOR. Quae sunt remedia
Quae in maladia
ARGAN. Clisterium donare,
CHORUS. Bene, bene, bene respondere,
Dignus, dignus est intrare
In nostro docto corpore.
Molière’s death was almost a part of this play. On February 17, 1673, Armande and others, perceiving his fatigue, begged him to close the theater for a few days while he regained strength. But “How can I do that?” he asked. “There are fifty poor workmen here who are paid by the day; what will they do if we don’t play? I should reproach myself for having neglected to give them their bread for a single day so long as I was able to act.” 45 In the final act, as Molière, in the part of Argan (who had twice pretended death), uttered the word Juro, “I swear,” in taking the oath as a physician, he was seized with a convulsive cough. He covered it with a false laugh, and finished the play. He was hurried to his home by his wife and the young actor Michel Baron. He asked for a priest, but none came. His cough became more violent; he burst a blood vessel, choked with the blood in his throat, and died.
Harlay de Champvallon, Archbishop of Paris, ruled that since Molière had not made his final penitence and received absolution, he could not be buried in Christian ground. Armande, who had always loved him even while deceiving him, went to Versailles, threw herself at the feet of the King, and said, not wisely but boldly and truly, “If my husband was a criminal, his crimes were sanctioned by your Majesty in person.” 46 Louis sent some secret word to the Archbishop. Harlay compromised: the body must not be taken into a church for Christian rites, but it was allowed a quiet burial, after sunset, in a remote corner of the Cemetery of St.-Joseph in the Rue Montmartre.
Molière remains by common consent one of the greatest figures in the literature of France. Not by perfection of dramatic technique, nor by any splendor of poetry. Almost all his plots are borrowed, almost all their denouements are artificial and absurd; almost all his characters are personified qualities, several, like Harpagon, are exaggerated to the point of caricature; and too often his comedies fall into farce. We are told that the court, as well as the general public, liked him best when he was most farcical, and did not relish his mordant satires on failings widely shared. Probably he would have omitted the farce if he had not felt compelled to keep his company solvent.
Like Shakespeare mourning that he must make himself a motley to the view, he wrote: “I think it a very grievous punishment, in the liberal arts, to display oneself to fools, and to expose our compositions to the barbarous judgment of the stupid.” 47 It irked him to be always required to make people laugh; this, he has one of his characters say, “is a queer enterprise.” 48 He aspired to write tragedies, and, though he fell short of his aim, he managed to give to his greatest comedies a tragic significance and depth.
So it is the philosophy in his plays, as well as their humor and pungent satire, that makes almost every literate Frenchman read Molière. 49 It was essentially a rationalistic philosophy, which gladdened the hearts of the eighteenth-century philosophes. “There is in Molière not a trace of supernatural Christianity,” and “the religion expounded by his mouthpiece Cléante” in Tartuffe “might be endorsed by Voltaire.” 50 He never attacked the Christian creed, he acknowledged the beneficence of religion in innumerable lives, he respected sincere devotion; but he scorned the surface piety that put a weekly face on daily selfishness.
His moral philosophy was pagan in the sense that it legitimized pleasure, and had no sense of sin. It savored of Epicurus and Seneca rather than of St. Paul or Augustine; harmonized better with the laxity of the King than with the austerities of Port-Royal. He deprecated excess even in virtue. He admired l’honnéte homme, the sensible man of the world who threaded his way with sane moderation among competing absurdities, and adjusted himself without fuss to the shortcomings of mankind.
Molière himself did not reach that plane of moderation. His profession as a comic dramatist compelled him to satire, and often to hyperbole; he was too hard on learned women, too indiscriminate in attacking physicians; and he might have shown more respect for enemas. But overemphasis is in the blood of satire, and dramas seldom make their point without it. Molière would have been greater if he could have found a way to satirize the fundamental evil of the reign—the military greed and ruinous despotism of Louis XIV; but it was this gracious autocrat who protected him against his enemies and made possible his war against bigotry. How lucky he was to die before his master had become the most destructive bigot of them all!
France loves Molière, and still plays him, as England loves and plays Shakespeare. We cannot, as some fervent Gauls would do, equate him with England’s bard; he was only a part of Shakespeare, whose other parts were Racine and Montaigne. Nor can we, as many do, place him at the head of French literature. We are not even sure that Boileau was right when he told Louis XIV that Molière was the greatest poet of the reign; when Boileau said this, Racine had not yet written Phèdre or Athalie. But in Molière it is not only the writer who belongs to the history of France, it is the man: the harassed and faithful manager, the deceived and forgiving husband, the dramatist covering his griefs with laughter, the ailing actor carrying on to the hour of death his war against pedantry, bigotry, superstition, and sham.