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The School for Wives

An introductory note on the play by Molière

This article was originally published in The Dramatic Works of Molière. Trans. Henri Van Laun. New York: R. Worthington, 1880. pp. 339-40.

THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES, played for the first time in the theatre of the Palais-Royal on the 26th of December 1662, was the complement of THE SCHOOL FOR HUSBANDS, which it succeeded at an interval of eighteen months, THE BORES intervening. The one no doubt suggested the other. The central situations of the two have much in common: the arbitrary and jealous lover, to whom circumstances have given almost the authority of a husband; the simple ward, rescued from physical constraint by the unfettered cunning of love. In fact, there is not that contrast of character between the two plays, which the antithesis of their titles might lead us to expect. The text is not altered; we have merely another reading of the same text. Arnolphe is a more refined and rational Sganarelle; and if his fault is the same, and his catastrophe similar, we do not despise him and rejoice in his misfortune, as we were compelled to do with the tyrant of Isabella. His selfishness is, perhaps, equally great, but its exhibition does not render him so odious.

The reason of this is to be found in the display of his many eccentricities, his system of education, his cunning, his choice of foolish servants, his absurd whimsicalities, his pedantry, and, above all, his perpetual restlessness. He hardly ever leaves the stage during the whole of the five acts of the play: he goes away, appears again, moves about, plots, scolds, loses his temper, recovers it, dogmatizes, entreats, and, after all, is punished by his very faults. His servants are more stupid than he wishes them to be, his ward more simple than he thought her; he has jeered at husbands who are deceived, and he himself is victimized; he wanted to abuse the confidence Horace placed in him, and becomes himself a dupe; he intended to sacrifice Agnès to his own happiness, and, at the end, becomes "the most unfortunate of mankind."

The troubles of Sganarelle and Arnolphe are the troubles of jealous husbands in every age, and it would be idle to heap up instances in the predecessors of Molière which may have contributed to form his conceptions. One of those that come nearest to the type before us is the story about a gentle knight of Hainault, in the forty-first of the Nouvelles nouvelles du Roi Louis XI., reproduced by Scarron in his Nouvelles tragi-comiques.

Still more suggestive is Scarron's la Précaution inutile, partly based upon The Jealous Man of Estremadura, by Cervantes, in which there are several situations to which we must consider Molière to have been indebted for his first and second acts. The ingenuous self-confidence of Arnolphe, quaintly contrasting with his recurrent jealousies, finds an ante-type in many an ancient Italian story. Straparola's fourth night of the Piacevoli Notte (Agreeable Nights) has suggested some hints for the third and fourth acts; the fifth is wholly original. Molière's own history also furnished him with his subject, for he was now married, and did not find in marriage the happiness he hoped for. Without wishing to attribute to him all the ridiculous absurdities of Arnolphe, or to suppose that his wife was another Agnès, still we imagine that though he had scarcely been married a year, he felt already the necessity of watching over, and if possible, of guiding the steps of his youthful spouse. It seems to us that in many of the sayings of Arnolphe, there is to be found a feeling of bitterness and passion, rather out of place in the mouth of such a ridiculous personage, but which give clear indications of what was even then passing in the mind of our author. The words which Arnolphe uses when kneeling at the feet of Agnès show what tempestuous passions must have possessed Molière; and though it is often dangerous to identify a poet with his creation, still there must be always some part, however small, of the individuality of the originator in the character he produces.

As regards Agnès, whose name is the type of a simple, artless girl, her character develops as the plot of the comedy rolls on. In the first scene, she is an uneducated, ingenuous maiden; but she gradually changes under the influence of love, and becomes earnest, intelligent, and even logical.

This comedy was fiercely attacked by several, who accused it of being wanting in good taste, sound morality, rules of grammar, and, what was more dangerous, of undermining the principles of religion. The second scene of the third act, in which mention is made of "boiling cauldrons," of a soul as "white and spotless as a lily," but "as black as coal," when at fault; of "The Maxims of Marriage or the Duties of a Wife, together with her daily exercise," gave great offense, and were said to be like the phrases of the catechism or the confessional. A formal patron of Molière, the Prince of Conti, who had become a mere devotee, wrote against it in his Traité de la Comédie et des Spectacles, and in later times, even such men as Fénelon, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Geoffroy have found much to blame in this comedy, whilst several literary men, Hazlitt amongst the English, and Honoré de Balzac amongst the French, consider this play as Molière's masterpiece.


The School for Wives
Other plays by Molière
Molière Studies

Related Webpages

Molière Index
The School for Wives
Moliere Monologues
Molière: Poems

Related Dramatists

Pierre Corneille
Victor Hugo
Jean Racine


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