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The School for Husbands

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. 257-8.

THE SCHOOL FOR HUSBANDS was the first of Molière's plays in the title of which the word "School" was employed, to imply that, over and above the intention of amusing, the author designed to convey a special lesson to his hearers. Perhaps Molière wished not only that the general public should be prepared to find instructions and warnings for married men, but also that they who were wont to regard the theatre as injurious, or at best trivial, should know that he professed to educate, as well as to entertain. We must count the adoption of similar titles by Sheridan and others amongst the tributes paid, by imitation, to Molière's genius.

This comedy was played for the first time at Paris, on the 24th of June, 1661, and met with great success. On the 12th of July following it was acted at Vaux, the country seat of Fouquet, before the whole court, Monsieur, the brother of the King, and by the Queen of England; and by them also was much approved. Some commentators say that Molière was partly inspired by a comedy of Lope de Vega, La Discreta enamorada, The Cunning Sweetheart; also by a remodelling of the same play by Moreto, No puede ser guardar una muger, One Cannot Guard a Woman: but this has lately been disproved. It appears, however, that he borrowed the primary idea of his comedy from the Adelphi of Terence; and from a tale, the third of the third day, in the Decameron of Boccaccio, where a young woman uses her father-confessor as a go-between for herself and her lover. In the Adelphi there are two old men of dissimilar character, who give a different education to the children they bring up. One of them is a dotard, who, after having for sixty years been sullen, grumpy and avaricious, becomes suddenly lively, polite, and prodigal; this Molière had too much common sense to imitate.

The School for Husbands marks a dinstinct departure in the dramatist's literary progress. As a critic has well observed, it substitutes for situations produced by the mechanism of plot, characters which give rise to situations in accordance with the ordinary operations of human nature. Molière's method--the simple and only true one, and, consequently, the one which incontestably established the original talent of its employer--is this: At the beginning of a play, he introduces his principal personages: sets them talking; suffers them to betray their characters, as men and women do in every-day life,--expecting from his hearers that same discernment which he has himself displayed in detecting their peculiarities: imports the germ of a plot in some slight misunderstanding or equivocal act; and leaves all the rest to be effected by the action and reaction of the characters which he began by bringing out in bold relief. His plots are thus the plots of nature; and it is impossible that they should not be both interesting and instructive. That his comedies, thus composed, are besides amusing, results from the shrewdness with which he has selected and combined his characters, and the art with which he arranges the situations produced.

The character-comedies of Molière exhibit, more than any others, the force of his natural genius, and the comparative weakness of his artistic talent. In the exhibition and evolution of character, he is supreme. In the unraveling of his plots and the dénouement of his situations, he is driven too willingly to the deus ex machina.

The School for Husbands was directed against one of the special and prominent defects of society in the age and country in which Molière lived. Domestic tyranny was not only rife, but it was manifested in one of its coarsest forms. Sganarelle, though twenty years younger than Ariste, and not quite forty years old, could not govern by moral force; he relied solely on bolts and bars. Physical restraint was the safeguard in which husbands and parents had the greatest confidence, not perceiving that the brain and the heart are always able to prevail against it. This truth Molière took upon himself to preach, and herein he surpasses all his rivals; in nothing more than in the artistic device by which he introduces the contrast of the wise and trustful Ariste, raisonneur as he is called in French, rewarded in the end by the triumph of his more humane mode of treatment. Molière probably expresses his own feelings by the mouth of Ariste: for The School for Husbands was performed on the 24th of June, 1661, and about eight months later, on the 20th of February, 1662, he married Armande Béjart, being then about double her age. As to Sganarelle in this play, he ceases to be a mere buffoon, as in some of Molière's farces, and becomes the personification of an idea or of a folly which has to be ridiculed.


The School for Husbands
Other plays by Molière
Molière Studies

Related Webpages

Molière Index
The School for Husbands
Moliere Monologues
Molière: Poems

Related Dramatists

Pierre Corneille
Victor Hugo
Jean Racine


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