Tartuffe is the title character of French playwright Moliere’s best-known play Tartuffe. The character is a mockery of a hypocritical religious man, who tries to con a French family out of their money. Because of this character, the play was alternately banned and praised in France, but has consistently remained popular and controversial throughout the centuries.
In the play, Tartuffe has convinced the passionate Orgon and his mother that he is a simple religious man, full of grace. Elmire, Orgon’s second wife, his children and servants are convinced that he is actually a con-artist, and try to trap him into revealing his true intentions. When Damis, Orgon’s son, misinterprets Elmire’s plot to bring down Tartuffe as evidence of her unfaithfulness, Orgon banishes from the house.
Still sure that the pious-seeming man is a trickster, Elmire again sets up a seduction scenario to prove to Orgon his pious friend is actually a lusty hypocrite. By the time Orgon actually understands the truth, Tartuffe has used his influence to gain control of the house, finances, and even the hand of Orgon’s daughter. The family is on the verge of being expelled from their own house, when direct intervention of the king prevents their eviction and throws Tartuffe in jail.
The villain character is often considered to practice sophistry as a means of carrying out his schemes. This form of argument involves turning a complicated web of seemingly-logical statements into a faulty conclusion. It is based on the ability to deceive people by asserting a conclusion so vehemently that your audience pays little attention to the underlying logic. Moliere’s hints that this is a common practice among religious officials, particularly the Jesuit ministers of France, let to an uproar among the religious hierarchy of France.
The play was first performed in 1664 at the palace of Versailles. The fury of religious reaction to the central character was so enormous, that King Louis XIV, while privately admitting he enjoyed the play, banned it from public production. Moliere attempted to rewrite the play with modified themes, but the church continued to shun the production and even called for Moliere’s execution for heresy. By 1669, most of the uproar subsided, and the play was again performed in its original form.
The sophism, reverse psychology, and careful plotting of the title character lead some experts to consider him a failure of a Machiavellian villain. Unlike the goal of Machiavellianism, Tartuffe is mostly unsuccessful at gaining power ruthlessly while maintaining a respectable public face. Some interpretations suggest it is not the wiliness of Tartuffe but the gullibility of Orgon that allows a villain to seize power. In modern productions, the character is sometimes performed with political or televangelical ambitions, inflaming controversy through portrayals of the pious as villains and the believers as fools.