School for Wives

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A: Molière Pf: 1662, Paris Pb: 1663 Tr: 1926 G: Com. in 5 acts; French alexandrines S: A town square, 17th c. C: 6m, 2fArnolphe, a middle-aged Parisian gentleman, is so dismayed by the loose living of contemporary women and the way they betray their husbands that he determines to bring up his young ward Agnès in a state of total innocence. He thereby hopes to guarantee for himself a virtuous wife. However, he discovers that Horace, the son of an old friend, has fallen in love with Agnès. Horace tells Arnolphe of his plans to steal Agnès away from her old guardian, not realizing that this is Arnolphe himself. Arnolphe is at first able to thwart Horace's plans, but Agnès shows her resourcefulness by eloping with Horace. Arnolphe's jealous resolution to kill Horace is averted by the arrival of Horace's father, who forces his son to an arranged marriage – to none other than Agnès herself.

A: Molière Pf: 1662, Paris Pb: 1663 Tr: 1926 G: Com. in 5 acts; French alexandrines S: A town square, 17th c. C: 6m, 2f

This is accounted the first great comedy by Molière. Its subtlety derives from the ambiguous nature of Arnolphe. Like all Molière's comic figures he is obsessed with one idea, in this case the need to keep his future wife in a state of ignorance. On the other hand, Arnolphe's desire for a virtuous wife, contrasted with the decadent behaviour of many contemporary women, is understandable. As a suitor over twice the age of his prospective bride, he appears inevitably comic – an act of supreme self-irony by Molière, who at the age of 40 had just married the 19-year-old Armande Béjart. Moreover, as a jealous lover who can keep his beloved only by virtual enslavement, Arnolphe shows himself to be despicable. Thus, while Arnolphe's cynicism about contemporary society, like that of Alceste in The Misanthrope, may win him some sympathy, the audience nevertheless delights in his failed enterprise. Modern audiences can take particular pleasure in the way that a young woman rises above her cruel treatment to display considerable emotional maturity.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

Reference entries

Molière (1622—1673) French dramatist