Classical Lit And Mythology

Phaedra Tartuffe Racine Moliere



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The patriarchy has been the standard social organization in human history for centuries. Only in modern times, due to increased feminist theory, has the male’s role as head of the household changed. However, the subversion of this traditional role has been the subject of many novels and plays, and the plays of the seventeenth and eighteenth century are no exception. Jean Racine’s Phaedra and Molière’s Tartuffe both carry examples of men who, instead of lovingly providing for their family and being the pillar on which it stands, give in to their own desires and vices. Each play is also filled with family members who have issues with their fathers. However, neither play makes or even intends a strong statement against the patriarchy, as both Theseus in Phaedra and Orgon in Tartuffe are redeemed in the end. Although the father figure is subverted, they will always be the head of the household, and will always end up right in the end.

A patriarchy is a form of social organization in which the father is the supreme authority in the family, clan, or tribe and descent is reckoned in the male line, with the children belonging to the father's clan or tribe and a society that is built on this social organization. European society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was structured and authoritarian: husbands and fathers exercised sovereign authority over wives and dependents. The ideal father-figure of these times is a wise educator and provider, who protects his family and builds his family’s estate.Therefore, the subverted patriarch would be foolish, unable to provide for or protect his family, and his estate would be greatly diminished.

Based on Euripides’ play Hippolytus, Jean Racine’s Phaedra tells the tale of figures in Greek mythology. The king, Theseus, is believed to be dead after he goes out on an adventure, and his wife, Phaedra, decides to pursue her romantic interests in his son, Hippolytus. However, Hippolytus is in love with Aricia, who his father has forbidden him to marry due to her family’s history as rivals to their own. Theseus, upon returning, believes the rumor that Hippolytus has forcefully had an incestuous affair with Phaedra and after banishing him, invokes the power of the gods to kill him. Phaedra then kills herself for causing this rumor.

Theseus is consumed by his passion for power and feels betrayed when he believes he has been usurped by his son. Upon hearing of Hippolytus’ supposed attempt to rape his wife, he seeks revenge, but is racked with doubt and anguish over the decisions he has made. His rage against his son is befitting of nobility, however, his actions were based on falsehoods. The adoption of Aricia at the end of the play is his repentance and shows his remorse for his actions, restoring his fatherly attributes of generosity and humility.

Phaedra has a mortal fear of her father, Minos, the Cretan King. In Greek mythology, her father asked the god Poseidon for an offering, so Poseidon provided him with a magnificent white bull. Minos then refused to sacrifice it, so in punishment for this, Poseidon sent Minos’ wife Pasiphae to mate with the bull, producing a Minotaur (a half man, half bull) who was eventually killed by Theseus. Phaedra’s fate is conditioned by this ancestry. One of the play’s many themes is whether or not a person is doomed from birth because of their family history and inherited character traits.  

Hippolytus is the illegitimate son of Theseus by an Amazonian Queen. He attempts to emulate his father’s monster-killing exploits, however, when he does encounter one, it has been summoned by his father. Regarding Hippolytus, Racine states that “I felt I should give him a failing that might render him somewhat guilty towards his father…” He does not defend himself when his father makes the accusations of incest and rape because loves his father too much to speak against him, and to tell him that his wife is the one making advances would strain the father-son relationship further.

Molière’s Tartuffe is the story of Orgon, and how his concern for the welfare of his boarder, the villainous Tartuffe, unravels his family. Tartuffe portrays himself as a religious man, and uses religious zeal to convert Orgon to his way of thinking. Tartuffe tricks him into arranging a marriage between himself and Orgon’s daughter (who is already engaged to someone she loves), and into disowning his own son, so that Tartuffe will be the sole heir. He also gets Orgon to sign over his belongings to Tartuffe, legally. Just as Tartuffe is throwing Orgon and his family out of their home, the king steps in to restore Orgon’s property and throw Tartuffe in prison. The play is based on a society with a strict code of manners which permits individuals to erect structures of illusions for themselves. It dramatizes the damage wreaked on a family when an individual is single-minded and acts out his obsessions regardless of others - the consequences of the abuse or misuse of authority.  It satisfies the need for social order and harmony because it punishes those who disrupt social order by their egocentricity and desire for possessions or power. It also examines the uncontrollable power of self-delusion and the powerful and destructive fantasies of absolute authority, which Orgon is a clear example of.

Orgon is derived from a stock character of Commedia dell’Arte (an improvised comedy that followed a rudimentary scenario rather than a script), called Pantalone. Pantalone is traditionally the authoritative, unreasonable father. His status is at the top of the pecking order, and usually controls the finances, and therefore is usually obeyed. Pantalone is rich and miserly, and always has servants working for him. Pantalone is deathly afraid of losing his money which, in turn, would cause him to lose his place in society. Pantalone’s plot function is to be set up to fall or made to look like a fool. He is taken advantage of and ends up without his money or swindled out of most of it.

Before the arrival of Tartuffe, it is implied that Orgon served the king honourably, tended to his estates in a rational and dignified manner, and had been a sane man who was respected by his family and friends. Orgon, during the time of the play, has an extreme preoccupation with his own desires, by which he attempts to control others. Therefore, he is obsessed with his own desire to achieve a kind of total power and authority in his household. Orgon brags:

“My soul’s been freed From earthly loves, and every human tie: My mother, children, brother and wife could die, And I’d not feel a single moment’s pain.”

The rebellious behaviour of the son and daughter appear to contravene authority, however, they effectively challenge a repressive, irrational imposition of authority. He is duped by Tartuffe by being invited to fulfill his own fantasy of autonomy and authority. He obsessively believes everything Tartuffe tells him, which is a perverted dogma that fuels his rule over his family. Orgon’s desire for greater intimacy and communication with Tartuffe results in the exclusion of his wife from his private circle. He inadvertently assigns his authority to Tartuffe, therefore losing what he wanted to begin with. Tartuffe transforms Orgon into a kind of monster: he nearly sells his daughter, disinherits his son, allows his wife to be raped, and loses his family’s property and fortune. Orgon can be considered the villain of the play due to his disregard for his wife, son and daughter and the consequences of that, but it is evident that he has been duped, which makes him more foolish than evil. His actions demonstrate that he did not have the qualities of common sense, good taste, or moderation, all of which were greatly admired in Molière’s age.

There are many other plays in this time period which reflect the subversion of the patriarch and those rebelling against its authority. For instance, in Aphra Behn’s The Rover, the character Florinda begins by announcing her intention to rebel against her father’s marriage choice. She and another character, Hellena, escape their enforced lives at home to go meet men in public.

Both Theseus in Phaedra and Orgon in Tartuffe are shown to be fools, whose desire for power makes them unable to provide for or protect their families properly. Both men’s actions lead to their respective families’ downfall. However, both men are redeemed in the end. Theseus realizes he was in error when sending his son to his death and adopts Aricia to make up for it. Orgon realizes he has been lied to by Tartuffe and is saved by the king before it is too late. Both men are restored to the ideal father-figure: wise providers and protectors whose estates remain intact. This is because society had always been patriarchal, and in the minds of Racine and Molière, would always continue to be so. These plays are meant to be morality plays, showing the audience that to give in to one’s desires and vices can destroy your family as well as yourself. Although the drama of these plays is in the downfall and subversion of the patriarch, the conclusion is always that the system remains intact.   


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