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tartuffe and the root of hypocrisy by Andrew Hart
January 22, 2010, 3:00 am
Filed under: essays, literature

Richard Wilbur precedes his amusing and finely honed translation of Tartuffe with a startling revelation: Tartuffe is not a religious hypocrite.  Generations of readers have glossed over this simple fact that becomes a provocative avenue for exploration once aired.

For those not familiar with Tartuffe, the plot is darkly comedic.  Orgon, the head of a French family, is taken in by Tartuffe, a swindler who curries favor by pretending to be an overly pious man.  The unsuspecting Orgon sponsors the devious Tartuffe, much to the chagrin of most of his household, who can see Tartuffe’s true colors.  Orgon reneges on his promise to allow his daughter Mariane to marry her love Valere, and instead promises her to Tartuffe.  But Tartuffe actually has designs on Orgon’s voluptuous young wife, Elmire.

Mariane’s maid Dorine sets into motion a plot to unmask Tartuffe as a swindler, but it is foiled when Orgon’s hotheaded son Damis accuses Tartuffe too soon, leading Orgon to disown him and believe Tartuffe instead.  Tartuffe convinces Orgon to will the deed of the estate to him, and uses some incriminating documents as blackmail in an attempt to kick Orgon out of his home.  But just when it appears that Orgon will be arrested for treason, Tartuffe himself is taken to jail, recognized by Louis XIV as a notorious swindler who once went by another name.

Wilbur asks us to concentrate on the last plot point.  Tartuffe is unmasked as a confidence-man, a notorious all-around swindler who used religion in this instance to gain the trust of Orgon.  Hypocrisy is his game, not his nature.  His nature is deceit in all forms, and he stays true to form throughout the play.  So Tartuffe — the character marked in the dramatis personae as “hypocrite” — is consistent.

What do we make of a play featuring an un-hypocritical hypocrite?  It tugs at the very root of hypocrisy itself.  Hypocrisy does not stem from evil deeds in Tartuffe; we can trace its origin to less obvious sources.

In final response to Mariane’s vehement protest against marriage with Tartuffe, Orgon instructs her to “mortify [her] flesh” and go through with the union.  The meaning is clear: Orgon, faced with the unknown of old age and loss of control over his family, prefers that Mariane marry Tartuffe and become old instead of marrying Valere to stay young.  Allying with Tartuffe is not an end, but a means to Orgon’s attempts to undermine his family to maintain his own happiness.

That Orgon’s personal happiness is his only aim further manifests itself in his refusal to believe his son, wife, maid, and daughter when told of Tartuffe’s designs on Elmire.  The views are so stilted that Orgon can hardly believe it when his own mother parrots them after events have conspired to expose Tartuffe’s treachery.  Orgon’s mother is as convinced of Tartuffe’s saintliness as she is hateful and bigoted, so her over-the-top defense of Tartuffe to her son after Tartuffe’s betrayal is clear stands as an especially hilarious reminder to just how self-serving Orgon’s actions were.

This central unmasking of in Tartuffe is its greatest and most subtle stroke.  The play reveals that the desire to do evil does not make the hypocrite.  The root of hypocrisy is fear and insecurity, and the hypocrite of the play is not Tartuffe, but Orgon himself.

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