Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to the world as Molière, was and still is considered one of the greatest comedic writers of all time. Composing at a time when French audiences were both open to satire of currents events and comfortable with different types of theater, Molière seized opportunities with both hands. Audiences had grown accustomed to the physical comedy of farces as well as the twisted plots of the comedy of intrigue. Molière found a way to blend the two together by focusing on human behavior, specifically within society.
Born January 15, 1622, Molière grew up firmly in the upper-middle class. His father was a well-to-do tradesman who became, by royal appointment, a supplier of furniture and carpets to the king's household. This appointment would later be passed on to Molière who, after deciding to quit law and become an actor, transferred the honor to his brother.
With friends Joseph and Madeleine Béjart, Molière formed the Illustre Theatre. While the company made a promising start in Paris in 1644, they soon found themselves in financial trouble. Molière was briefly jailed for debt before the company set to the provinces to build its repertoire. Patronized by the Duc d'Épernon, the traveling company had an easier life than many of their fellow artists; performing in noble homes and on permanent stages, they had the opportunity to develop new material when they had no other commitments.
In 1653, support transferred from the Duke to the Prince de Conti, who called Molière “the cleverest actor in France” before he became devoutly religious and spurned the company of actors two years later. During this brief period, however, they performed one, possibly two, of Molière's own plays, and Madeleine Béjart was making a name for herself as a great touring actress. The company's move back to Paris seemed imminent, and so it did in 1658 under the patronage of Phillipe d'Anjou, King Louis XIV's brother.
In Paris, the company grew in popularity. On a night that they performed Corneille's Nicomède for the king, Molière boldly concluded the evening with “a modest entertainment,” entitled The Amorous Doctor (probably written by Molière). The King enjoyed the performance so that he granted the company use of a permanent theater space, shared with just one other group. During this time, Molière attempted to stage serious tragedies while also reviving his own farces from his touring days. Both the farces and his acting were a huge success, ultimately granting his troupe the King’s patronage and use of the Palais Royal in 1660.
From here, Molière would write, act and manage until the night of his death in 1673. Having just performed that evening as Argan in The Hypochondriac, Molière went home coughing blood and did not survive the night.
It was his time at the Palais Royal, however, that was his most productive and most dangerous. Plays like The Miser, Tartuffe, The School for Wives and, of course, The Misanthrope, came out of this period. Tartuffe and The School for Wives plunged Molière into his greatest controversies, The School for Wives for its “insults to the ‘holy mystery’ of marriage” and Tartuffe for blasphemy, a very serious crime at the time. One pamphlet called for Molière, the “vulgar showman,” to be burned at the stake. Yet, with the king's support, Molière was not harmed physically, though some say emotionally he suffered the personal insults more than the professional ones.
However, little is really known about the man himself. Those who knew him painted him as “an impatient, ambitious man with expensive tastes,” but they also described him as “generous and honorable.” About his life, very little exists—no letters or diaries and, like Shakespeare, no surviving manuscripts of his plays.
Also like Shakespeare, Molière left home and steady work for a life in the theater. He borrowed from existing texts, lived as a writer/actor/manager, stirred controversy and survived because of connections to the king. Molière, too, was a keen observer of people. His plays focused and commented upon the society in which he lived, a society that both loved and hated him, brought him up and attempted to put him down. Yet Molière thrived as do his plays still today because of the complexity of his central characters and overarching universal themes—as only a great artist with a keen eye for observation of human behavior can achieve.