Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyere

By A. J. Krailsheimer | Go to book overview
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9: MOLIÉRE

FOR all the excellence of the comedies with which Corneille first made his name, it is indisputably as a writer of tragedies that he occupies so eminent a position in the history of literature. Molière, too, had tried other paths before he found his highway to fulfilment, and though as a tragic author and writer of heroic comedies he knew more disappointments than success, this diversity of experience certainly contributed to the perfection of his comic masterpieces. It is this common variety of experience, as well as their common genius, which makes a comparison between the two at all possible; in fact, in so far as any generalizations are useful, it is more appropriate to consider Corneille with Molière than with Racine as the representative writers of their respective ages. At the height of their success they both enjoyed public as well as royal approval in the highest degree, and to that extent may be taken to reflect the point of view of a wide section of society. As for influence, this is harder to assess, but it was Molière's aim, as he says, to affect conduct by the portrayal of vices, and it is hard to believe that the message of his great comedies met with no response.

It is not just as an actor-author-manager with a sense of theatre second not even to Shakespeare's, but as a delineator of human problems that Molière continues to command respect and, above all, to entertain audiences. His farces, his Sganarelle and Scapin, may still raise a laugh, but it is those comedies which provoke thought which remain the most successful. All these, from his first great success l'École des femmes, to his last, le Malade imaginaire deal with monomaniacs and their impact on the society around them. Here, in a most forceful though perhaps unexpected way, the problem of the 'moi désaxé' is given the principal role, and in his treatment and solution of the problem Molière is as profound as any of the other authors studied. In comedy one would not look for metaphysical speculations of a formal kind, but none the less they are implicitly present in Molière's work, and a quite

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