Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière
1622–73, playwright and actor, son of a merchant who was upholsterer to the king. His name was originally Jean Baptiste Poquelin. Molière was the creator of French high comedy; his genius lay in exposing the hypocrisies and follies of his society through satire.
In his youth Moliére joined the Béjart troupe of professional actors. Madeleine Béjart was for years his mistress; her younger sister, Armande, became his wife in 1662. The little company, headed by Molière and called the Illustre Théâtre, settled (1643) in Paris, but their venture failed (1645), and they spent the next 13 years touring the provinces. They returned in triumph with a performance of Molière's Le Docteur amoureux for Louis XIV. Under royal patronage this troupe, performing at the Palais Royal, enjoyed continuous success; it is known as the ancestor of the Comédie Française. Molière had, nevertheless, to contend with rivalry from the Hôtel de Bourgogne and with cries of impiety and slander from critics and other authors.
The great variety in Molière's work stems from his being at once actor, director, stage manager, and writer. Influenced by the commedia dell' arte, he wrote farces, comedies, masks, and ballets on short notice for the entertainment of the court. He is best known for the great comedies of character in which he ridicules a vice or a type of excess by caricaturing a person who is its incarnation: Le Tartuffe (1664), on the religious hypocrite; Le Misanthrope (1666), on the antisocial man; L'Avare (1668, tr. The Miser); and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670, tr. The Would-Be Gentleman), on the parvenu.
Other plays in which vices are personified are Les Femmes savantes (1672, tr. The Learned Women), on the fashionable, affected intellectuals whom he had already lampooned in Les Précieuses ridicules (1659), often called the first comedy of manners and Le Malade imaginaire (1673), on the hypochondriac. Molière was acting the title role of the latter when he was fatally stricken. Also comedies of character, but depending more on absurdities, are L'École des maris (1661, tr. The School for Husbands) and L'École des femmes (1662, tr. The School for Wives), which was followed by a skit against the critics, La Critique de l'École des femmes (1663); and Don Juan (1665), an adaptation of the old story of the libertine. The playwright's farces are uproarious—Sganarelle (1660), Le Médecin malgré lui (1666, tr. The Doctor in Spite of Himself), George Dandin (1668), Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669), Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671, tr. Scapin, the Trickster), and La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas (1671). Among Molière's other works are the poetic Amphitryon (1668), after Plautus; L'Étourdi (1653?, tr. The Blunderer); Le Dépit amoureux (1656, tr. The Amorous Quarrel); and Le Mariage forcé (1664, tr. The Forced Marriage).
1639–99, dramatist. Racine is the prime exemplar of French classicism. The nobility of his Alexandrine verse, the simplicity of his diction, the psychological realism of his characters, and the skill of his dramatic construction contribute to the continued popularity of his plays. Educated at Port-Royal, he broke with his Jansenist masters over his love for the theater. His first dramatic attempts, La Thébaïde (1664) and Alexandre le Grand (1665), were imitations of Corneille. With Andromaque (1667), a tragedy after Euripides, Racine supplanted Corneille as France's leading tragic dramatist.
Corneille's friends, including Racine's former friend Molière, tried to ruin the young playwright, but the backing of Louis XIV and later of Boileau saved him. Racine's next play, Les Plaideurs (1668), wittily satirizes the law courts. His subsequent plays are milestones in French literature—Britannicus (1669); Bérénice (1670); Bajazet (1672); Mithridate (1673); Iphigénie en Aulide (1674); Phèdre (1677). After a concerted attack on Phèdre, Racine, in a revulsion against his irregular life, gave up the theater. In the same year he married and was appointed official historiographer by Louis XIV. Mme de Maintenon persuaded him to write Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691) for performance at Saint-Cyr. These differ from the earlier plays in their Biblical subjects and use of a chorus and in the length of Esther, which has three acts instead of five. There are many English translations of Racine, among them those of John Masefield, Lacy Lockert, Kenneth Muir, and Robert Lowell.