Molière is the pseudonym for Jean Baptiste Poquelin, one of the greatest comic geniuses the world has seen, and undoubtedly the master of "social comedy." Almost singlehandedly, he prompted international acclaim for French social comedy, and established the form as one of the more enduring types of comedy. In the plays, he analyzed many aspects of his contemporary society and penetrated into the essential characteristics of various types of people. His critical insights into the nature of types like the hypocrite, the misanthrope, and the miser remain almost as urbane today as they were when written.
Molière was born in Paris, France, in 1622, the son of rather prosperous middle-class parents, who sent him to good schools to be trained in law. However, somewhere along the way, Molière fell in love with the theater and was to devote his entire life to the theatrical profession.
He probably received a law degree in about 1641–1642, but thereafter he joined three other people to form a theater company called L'Illustre Théâtre. At this time acting was not held in the highest esteem, to begin with, so when Molière consorted with a woman in his troupe named Madeleine Béjart, it only proved to his bourgeois parents that their son was lost. Molière was actually to remain acquainted with this woman for the rest of her life. In 1662, he married nineteen-year-old Armande Béjart, a vivacious flirt who gathered numerous admirers around her, much to the chagrin of her husband. Legend has it that four years later, Armande would become the model for the capricious and flirtatious Célimène in The Misanthrope. She did however, bear him three children before his untimely death in 1673, the third child being born in 1672, the year before Molière's death.
The company Molière helped establish did not fare too well and went bankrupt during its second season. During this time, he was often plagued by creditors and it was also then that he began to use the name "Molière."
He continued in his career as an actor in another company for about ten more years before he turned his hand to playwriting. In the interim years, he also gained experience in directing and managing. By the time he began to write, he was known as one of the greatest comic actors of his time, and the experience he gained by acting, managing, and directing contributed to his understanding of what was theatrically effective and provided him with a thorough knowledge of the theater.
The production of Molière's first play, The Romantic Ladies, established a reputation for him that was to endure for the rest of his life. Since this play, like his later ones, dealt rather severely with certain aspects of society, satirizing affectations of speech, among other things, many people of high society objected to the portrayal because it hit too close to home. Almost every play that Molière wrote met objections, usually from the faction in society which he ridiculed. The most open and hostile objections centered upon the production of Tartuffe, a play which satirizes religious hypocrites and certain aspects of the church. Tartuffe was perennially banned, and Molière had to resort to using his influence with the king to get permission for the play to be produced.
Even after Molière became a successful and rather wealthy playwright because of his shrewd business ability, he continued acting in his own plays. It was during a production of his last play, The Imaginary Invalid, in which Molière had a part, that he complained of ill health; he died the same night.
Because of his criticism of many aspects of life, Molière was denied a proper burial and was only grudgingly allowed a burial plot in sanctified ground. His plays, however, have transcended the times and the society for which they were written; and the very probes into human nature which caused him such difficulty during his lifetime have gained for him a lasting reputation as dramatist and satirist.