Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Une Parfaite et Sincere Bonne Correspondance et Amitie": French-Turkish Trade and Artistic Exchange in Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme(1)

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Une Parfaite et Sincere Bonne Correspondance et Amitie": French-Turkish Trade and Artistic Exchange in Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme(1)

Article excerpt

Moliere's Bourgeois gentilhomme has come to be viewed as the pinnacle of the author's achievements in the genre of the comedie-ballet. As Charles Mazouer remarks, "Tous les agrements de la musique et de la danse y sont comme recapitules avec une maitrise epoustouflante: chansons, serenades, actions dansees, ceremonie burlesque se succedent; et jamais les ornements n'ont ,ete, si heureusement integres, si naturels et si necessaires."(2) Yet this formal integration seems to translate itself to the plot only with difficulty, as the play moves rapidly between very different scenes and subjects. This variety of content, and even of subject, poses evident problems for interpretation. Reading the play as the story of a ridiculous merchant's desire to become a nobleman can reduce the Turkish ceremony to an incidental, albeit ingenious, method of humiliation, while concentrating on the Turkish ceremony and its sources can obscure the central role of Monsieur Jourdain.(3) In addition, the closing ballet des nations, while not unrelated to the body of the work,(4) further clouds both of these readings of the play to such an extent that the ballet is rarely reproduced in anthologies or on the stage.

I believe that the seeming fragmentation of the plot of the Bourgeois gentilhomme can be explained, if not resolved, by turning away from the prevalent interpretation of the play as a critique of increasing social mobility in Louis XIV's France, and turning toward the intricacies of French-Turkish relations during the rime of the work's composition. Using the instructions that Louis XIV issued to his ambassadors to Turkey during the years surrounding the play's performance in Chambord, I advance the theory that the themes of identity, unity, and money traditionally (and correctly) seen as central to the Bourgeois gentilhomme are not unrelated to similar issues facing the French state, issues in which Turkey played a singular and important role. Indeed, I hold that Moliere's complex response to Louis XIV's desire to see Turkey ridiculed on stage is by no means limited to the ceremonie turque, but runs throughout the play, providing the link between what are only apparently disjointed episodes.

As has been often noted, the Bourgeois gentilhomme has its origin in a diplomatic dispute. In 1670, Louis XIV asked Moliere and Lully to compose a divertissement for the court that would compensate for the lack of respect shown to him by Soliman Aga, the ambassador that the Turkish "Grand Seigneur" had sent to France a year before. Soliman Aga arrived for his audience with the king underdressed and unimpressed by the efforts the court had made to communicate Louis XIV's unsurpassable grandeur. To make matters worse, he obliged the French monarch to descend from his throne in order to receive his master's letter, thereby forcing Louis XIV into symbolic subservience to the Turkish empire.

A diplomatic slight of this sort would have been shocking under any circumstances, but given the importance and nature of French-Turkish relations during the time, this episode was particularly damaging to the identity and even unity of the French state that Louis XIV sought to project. As Louis XIV repeatedly informs his diplomats in their instructions, before his reign, France had enjoyed a privileged and unique relationship with Turkey. He points out that "avant l'annee 1535 aucun prince chretien n'avoit ny trait, ny capitulation avec la Porte, qu'en cette annee la Francois premier fit les premier traites ou capitulations avec sultan Soliman, empereur des Turcs, par l'entremise du sieur de la Forest."(5) These negotiations enabled France to monopolize trade with the Orient; as the instructions given to La Haye-Vantelet, the French ambassador sent to Turkey in 1665, state:

   Depuis ladite annee 1535 ... les Francois ayant etably leur commerce dans
   les estats du Grand Seigneur, y apporterent de tres grands avantages,
   d'autant que non seulement ils acheterent les marchandises qui sont en
   abondance dans ses estats et y porterent celles de l'Europe qui leur
   estoient necessaires, mais mesme attirerent au travers des estats du Grand
   Seigneur une bonne partie des marchandises des Indes et de Perse, pour les
   distribuer dans l'Europe, et augmenterent notablement les douanes du Grand
   Seigneur par le moyen des droits d'entree et de sortie de ces
   marchandises. … 
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