The French literature attained pre-eminence during the reign of King Louis in the 17th century. This period is known as the golden Age of literature in France. France saw its greatest dramatists during this period. This period is also known as the triumph of classicism. During this period the conflict between two literary inclinations, creative freedom and acceptance of literary rules was resolved in favor of reason, proportion and harmony as the exceptional literary values. Two of the outstanding dramatists who emerged during this time were Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere and Jean Racine.
Moliere is considered widely as the greatest playwrights of all times Jean Racine’ tragedies are appreciated by widest audience. Moliere is a French writer who reigned in the period (1622-1673). His comedies range from simple farce to sophisticated satires. His comic dramas represent the timeless models of human vice and folly. He has been a director, actor as well as a playwright. He has great command over the techniques of all the theatrical genres of his time: native French farce, high comedy and machine plays.
He has skills in exploiting lowest tricks of farce to the most refined comedy of language.
Above all he knew how to make people laugh. His plays are enjoyed by audiences of different generations and cultures. His comedies which often deal with exaggerated passions often evoked equally passionate response from the audience. One of the finest comedies written by his was ‘Tartuffe’. The plot centers round the household of Orgon, the head of the family and his plight when he takes in his home a spiritual advisor who is in reality an imposter and a rough. Tartuffe is the hypocrite. Except Orgon and his mother, other members of the family are aware of the truth.
They employ extraordinary means to convince Orgon his mistake. In the final stages of the play, the king intervenes to dispose Tartuffe. The Play made its first appearance before King Louis as a three-act play. Even though the king liked the play, it was condemned by the court clergymen. They believed that ‘Tartuffe’ unjustly criticized religion and its practitioners. It is not too difficult to understand the hostile reaction of the Church hierarchy to the comedy. In the early version, Molerie presented the hypocrite antagonist Tartuffe as the clergyman.
The play was performed again in front of the public after it was revised twice. The final version was a five act play and character of Tartuffe was changed as a layman. Jean Racine is also a French writer who reigned in the period (1639-1699). He is a dramatist who is reputed mainly for his tragedies. His tragedies as well as his tragic heroes are considered varied because of his language and plot construction. He uses simple, poetic but elegant language. Mainly the language is dramatic which gives memorable expression to the subtle and also to the extreme passions of the protagonist.
His plots adhere to the unity of time, place and action. The protagonist is Greek, Roman, Biblical or Turkish. They are all of high-ranking position but they do not live up to their standard their position demands. These characters often depict a divided human nature. They are weak, impulsive, cruel, self-seeking and yet they are aware of their degeneration from an unattainable ideal. Many critics have insisted it is the influence of his Jansenism. His dramas whether influenced by Jansenism or not, they are distinguished by the tragic vision of fate it expresses.
There are optimistic elements in his play but they are pale against the strong forces of demolition. His protagonists are apparently free agents but yet due to their nature or the forces of higher place they are destined to failure and ruin. His tragedies are rivaled only by the classical Greek models and by Shakespeare. His works reveal how well he absorbed the theatrical techniques and the tragic outlook of the Greeks. Often, the ruthlessness of his tragedies surpasses that of Sophocles or Euripides. He is one of the predecessors of Greek tragedy.
He differs from his contemporary Corneille, in field of Classical French tragedies only in characterization, where he represented them as almost driven by uncontrolled passion. His creations appeals to the modern audience as they are more human and their speech more natural than exalted. His famous play ‘Phedre’ is based on Greek play ‘Hippolytus’ by Euripides. It is a depiction of Greek mythological characters. The theme of the play is Phaedra’s forbidden passion for her step son Hippolytus and how she deals with her obsession.
The plot is compact and streamlined without waste of words. To the ancient drama of Euripides, he added Hippolytus’ love for Aricia and thus provides the cause of Phaedra’s jealousy. Both Racine and Moliere are classical French writers of the time of King Louis in the 17th century. After Moliere’s comedy ‘Tartuffe’ was revised, it was enacted as a five act play. Racine’s tragedy ‘Phaedra’ is also a five act play. Moliere and Racine wrote their plays in Alexandrine verse, one of the most popular literary formats of the 17th century.
In this formal, each Alexandrine line consists of twelve syllables and sometimes thirteen. There is a brief pause between sixth and seventh syllable, which is known as caesura. Rhyming couplets appear throughout in the two plays, ‘Tartuffe’ and ‘Phaedra’. Moliere is essentially a comedy writer. ‘Tartuffe’ is a five act that satirizes religious hypocrisy. The author uses caricature, witty dialogue, situation comedy and irony to make his audience laugh. The play is set in a middle class home in Paris. The protagonist is Organ, the head of the Parisian family and antagonist is Tartuffe, the hypocrite.
The climax in the play occurs when Orgon hiding under a table hear the conversation between Tartuffe and his wife, Elmire and realize that Tartuffe is a fraud. Finally the king intervenes to give justice to Orgon by punishing Tartuffe. It is like the deus ex machina of ancient Greek plays where a deity or a power from above intervenes to resolve the conflict. Besides he had to remain in the good grace of the king to stage the play in public. He uses dramatic irony in many of the speeches of Orgon and his mother Madame Pernelle, to reveal their naivety.
Racine in contrast is famous for his tragedies. ‘Phaedra’ is a five act tragedy. It is based on the mythological play ‘Hippolytus’ by Euripides. The setting of the play is the royal court in Troezen, a town in southern Greece on a large peninsula Peloponnesus. The protagonist is Phaedra and antagonist is Phaedra’s uncontrolled passion for her step son, Hippolytus. Phaedra is in conflict with herself in her unrelenting passion for Hippolytus. Even if she struggles to subdue her desire, it remains stronger. The climax occurs when she declares her love to Hippolytus and he rejects her.
This scene sets in motion events which results in death of Phaedra, Oenone ( nurse of Phaedra) and Hippolytus. Racine’s depiction of Phaedra has been linked to his Jansenist beliefs. She has free will but it is nothing as compared to the power of her fate which takes her towards her downfall. Racine may have imitated the convention of ancient Greek tragedies like Oedipus the king, where the Almighty ultimately decides the fate of individuals. Or he planned Phaedra as a victim of her own moral shortcomings despite her family background and the machine of gods.