Ovid tells the story of a sculptor called Pygmalion who creates a statue of the "perfect woman" and adores her. The gods show pity on his love and bring the statue to life. The beautiful woman steps down from her pedestal, falls instantly in love with her creator, and they live happily ever after.
This perennial male fantasy is pure baloney.
Bernard Shaw shows the real outcome in his Pygmalion, as does Ibsen in A Doll's House. When a man tries to create his perfect woman and then keeps her dependent on him, she doesn't say "I love you," she says "Goodbye."
And so little Agnes (a name that means lamb"), deliberately raised in a convent to be ignorant and simple, is brought like a poor lamb to market to marry the older, pompous, cynical Arnolphe who looks for a wife too stupid to betray him.
The playwright we call Molière (1622-1678) was born Jean-Baptiste Poqueline in Paris in 1622 during the reign of Louis XIII. His family was middle-class and respectable, since his father was one of the king's upholsterers, and the boy received a good education and the promise of following in his father's comfortable and secure position. Ah, but his imagination was seduced by street players, musicians, dancers, and wandering actors until, at 21, Jean-Baptiste announced himself for a life in the theatre and formed the tiny troupe he was to call L'Illustre Theatre. To spare his family the shame of having a disreputable actor in the family, young Poqueline adopted the stage name "Molière." The dazzling red-headed Madeleine Bejart was the troupe's leading lady and was soon Molière's mistress, remaining his dramatic and business partner for the rest of their lives. For 15 years, the vagabond troupe toured the provinces, playing in barns, houses, and in the open, learning the deft comic moves of the Italian Commedia del Arte and perfecting their craft. At some point, Molière began writing sketches and plays for his strolling players. At Lyon the actress Catherine Debrie became his mistress while his partnership with Madeleine stayed intact.
Molière was 36 when, in 1658, no less an admirer than the Duke of Orleans (the king's brother) secured the wandering players the chance to perform before the newly crowned Louis XIV in a Paris glittering with performance and entertainment possibility. With one of Molière's delightful farces, the players won the attention and, it was to turn out, the undying loyalty of the Sun King and they were appointed Troupe de Monsieur to the king's brother.
It's difficult for us today to comprehend how controversial were Molière's comedies. His enormous gift for mockery of the pretentious and insincere won him the bitter enmity of the Church hierarchy, certain members of the court, almost the entire medical profession (a particular target), and a coterie of important ladies who arbitrated social status in Louis' Paris. They also landed him in jail once and twice closed his theatres. It was the king's intervention every time that rescued Molière and his players. Ultimately, Louis XIV put his favorites under his direct patronage by naming them the Troupe du Roi and giving them a pension.
Molière excels in funny, farcical plays flaying one singular, obsessive character. They are satires about extremists that almost seem to be derived from the old medieval Vice and Virtue plays. Tartuffe, for example, is the embodiment of religious hypocrisy, cheating a family out of wealth and house through his pretended piety. Alceste is the sourest of misanthropes, finding nothing but ill in his fellow humans. Argan is consumed by his self-absorbed hypochondria, surrounding himself with incompetent doctors. Harpagon is the very definition of greedy and grasping. These central characters are always buffered by a good friend who expresses a more moderate, measured perspective on society and offers a thoughtful, compromising model of behavior-immediately scorned by the protagonist. As the protagonist's life has been shaped by his one dominating obsessive character trait, so his richly deserved come-uppance is the outcome of that sorry flaw.
In the case of School for Wives, Arnolphe is obsessed by jealousy and the fear that he will be made a cuckold by any wife he takes, as he has seen other men betrayed. Arnolphe's humiliation would be very public, since he himself has publically jeered and mocked at husbands who have been duped by their wives. He thinks he has solved the dilemma by cloistering a young girl, raising her to be ignorant and "simple" and devoted only to his interests. The result is Agnes, a lovely girl so untutored that Arnolphe makes fun at her expense at how stupid she is.
Men attempting to keep women in their place by denying them education is an old, old story. Fortunately, as in the case of Agnes, natural cleverness and basic kindness of character often makes the girl learn fast. Agnes falls in love with Horace out of her own good heart and quickly learns to manipulate in her own turn. Arnolphe, who would have victimized the young lovers, finds himself the butt.
Jealousy is one vice to which Molière kept returning, and critics actually speak of his "Jealousy Series"-The Jealous Prince, School for Husbands, and School for Wives. And there was a reason why jealousy was such a familiar vice to Molière. Madeleine Bejart had brought her much-younger sister (possibly her illegitimate daughter) Armande, then only 8, then into the life of the troupe. Molière directed Armande's education and she grew up under his eye. By the time she was 17, he was wildly in love with her and, throwing over the faithful Catherine Debrie, married the girl. He was 40. What a mistake! Although she bore him two children and he wrote several sensational stage parts for her, neither partner was happy. The beautiful Armande became one of the most notorious flirts in Louis' court, heartless, acquisitive, giddy and shallow. If he complained, she called him a tyrant. They separated. They reconciled, Molière suffered-suffered from her indifference and suffered because he knew himself to be a fool. While Agnes and Arnolphe are not directly Molière and Armande, their dilemma is certainly reflected in School for Wives.
Molière's end was as dramatic as his life and enduring works. Worn out and ill, in 1678 he was performing Argon in The Imaginary Invalid when he hemorrhaged and collapsed onstage. He insisted on finishing the performance and then was taken home to die. All priests refused to give him extreme unction but some nuns arrived to comfort his end. The Catholic Church refused to bury him in sanctified ground until, one final time, the Sun King intervened and Molière was quietly laid to rest under cover of darkness in hallowed ground.
What is an education? How does it differ from brainwashing, inculcation, or propaganda peddling? In our current "Information Age", we are for the most part, more enlightened than our predecessors about rules of knowledge generation, evidence handling, and content validity. We are experts of data or "facts". But very few of us would confuse this with wisdom, or the empowerment of goodness. How do we know whether an education has actually occurred, if the life of the student has not been changed in some important way, and presumably for the better? Though I doubt Molière intended to use his comic masterpiece, School for Wives, as case material for such a question, once the laughter subsides, it is among the deeper substance that lingers.
Agnes (name means "lamb") is an innocent and naïve girl, at the mercy of fate. As a child her care is transferred from her mother, to a nurse, to Arnolphe, to a convent of nuns, then back to Arnolphe. She is portrayed as a passive recipient of the shepherding of others. She is the pre-modern woman - "a non-entity" without the identities imparted to her by her man-constructed world. Fraught with possessive anxiety, Arnolphe denies Agnes a formal education. As a helpless child, he sends her to a convent (an anti-school) where she is to be kept a "perfect void". She will do and be as he instructs. This is Arnolphe's scheme for the creation of his 17th century Stepford wife. Her ignorance will yield her content with a simple life, render her easy to control, and make her unattractive to other men. However, Agnes, the lamb of fate, has a fateful encounter with a young man (Horace) and the education that ensues changes everything. She falls in love. And through her love, comes to know and transform herself. As Horace witnesses her metamorphosis, he offers Molière's beautiful centerpiece line:
Love is indeed a wondrous master, Sir,
Whose teaching makes us what we never were,
And under whose miraculous tuition
One suddenly can change one's disposition.
It overturns our settled inclinations,
Causing the most astounding transformations:
The miser's made a spendthrift overnight,
The coward valiant, and the boor polite;
Love spurs the sluggard on to high endeavor,
And moves the artless maiden to be clever.
Love educates. It frees, it ennobles, it graces, it empowers. Agnes, the possessed object, through love discovers herself, and so, becomes a subject. While Arnolphe's possessive jealousy attempts to "void" (cancel out) Agnes' growth, her own unschooled love actualizes an innate self-birthing. Her education is natural and intuitive - far beyond the control of Arnolphe or anyone.
Arnolphe, forever worried that he will be cuckholded is blind to love's transformative power. All that he knows is an impossible wish to own another. His futile efforts to this end, is the primary source of the play's humor. Obsessive, like the relentless call of the cuckoo, Arnolphe is constantly scheming to escape his irrational fear - only to ultimately entangle himself in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Cuckholdry is understood to be the consequence of a wife's infidelity. Her unwitting husband is lead to invest his resources in the care of another man's offspring. The term was derived from the cuckoo bird which is know to lay it's eggs in the nests of other bird species - duping them into taking on the expensive care of their young. Small birds are known to actually push their own eggs from their nests to accommodate the larger parasitic egg of the cuckoo.
Arnolphe's anticipatory fear of being made a cuckhold is the very source of his scheme to raise Agnes. Arnolphe does not adopt her, in the sense of providing loving parental support for her eventual individuation. Instead, he acquires her as a nest egg, an embryonic trophy wife. Fate exploits Arnolphe's possessiveness by laying the "egg" of Agnes in Arnolphe's nest, essentially using Arnolphe's manipulative scheme to secure aide to a destitute child. Since Arnolphe's "investment" in Agnes does not ultimately yield the fruit he planned, he may be seen as having been cuckholded by Fate.
Duplicity is a common target in Molière's theatre, and Arnolphe is a prime example. His two names offer a concretization of his double life. Throughout the play, he presents himself unauthetically - "unfaithful" to the truth. Chrysalde's view of Arnolphe offers a reference from which Arnolphe's duplicity toward everyone else is made clear. Perhaps in his wish to distance himself from St. Arnolphe, patron saint of cuckholds, Arnolphe claims a new identity of status, Monsieur de la Souch. This is a revealing choice. Souch is an ancient Gaul word (predating French), a tribal totem meaning: "tree stump". Ironically, Arnolphe's bourgeois claim of prestige through this name change exposes his unconscious undertow - a fear of truncated masculinity, the looming shadow of anticipatory castration. Moreover, like the play's hapless cat, he is a mortal, nearing the moment he can expect to be cut down. One need not look too far to see the double crisis of Arnolphe: an aging gent painfully watching the flicker of his dying candle.
Yes, School for Wives is a fairy tale. The motif of love vanquishing evil is as transparently wishful as it is common. No one appreciates smart-alecky observations of how the world is filled with "facts" to the contrary. At best, we know the perennial motif to be a half-truth. Ah, but when love is given a fair shake, it is indeed a wondrous master.
"I've arranged to be secure forever," Arnolphe tells his friend Chrysalde toward the beginning of Molière's School for Wives. Arnolphe has spent the thirteen years prior to the first scene of the play building the foundation for his perfect world, brick by self serving brick. He spends the two hours of the play itself watching helplessly as the whole structure slowly but inexorably crumbles.
Like so many people in our own day, Arnolphe believes in the perfectibility of his world. With enough money and attention, he is convinced, he could move mountains, change the course of rivers, or fly to the moon. He is a very satisfied self-made man. We can assume that the wealth of which he boasts is the result of the singularly forceful personality we see on display. The strong, even domineering personality is a frequent role model in today's business world, often attaining a preeminence that brings with it the status of a public celebrity. Think Donald Trump or Jack Welch or Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. An assertive personality likely gained a person points in Molière's time as well. It was, however, where one stood in the good favor of the king that ultimately brought success, as Eileen Warburton points out in her essay. That was what promoted and occasionally saved Molière himself. But Arnolphe discovers to his horror that the very talents and character traits that brought him success in his public life are utterly useless at home.
With the technology available to us today, our own efforts to perfect our world really do result in moving mountains, changing the course of rivers, and flying to the moon. Technology has also become a tool in our efforts to perfect ourselves in our private lives. Today's 60 year old looks younger and is more active than his or her counterpart in Molière's day, or even in the mid-20th century. While much of that can be attributed to a healthier diet and exercise, technology plays a principal role as well. Youth-prolonging drugs and cosmetic surgery have become the weapons of choice for putting off the inevitable predations of age. If Arnolphe had had access to Botox and Viagra and maybe a brow lift, he would have felt better armed for the struggle and might just possibly have been a little more successful in fending off Horace's amorous advances toward Agnes. But alas, armed with just his own "haggard face," the desperate Arnolphe resorts to groveling before Agnes, and that serves only to make him even less appealing to her.
That obsession with youth has afflicted men for centuries, even millennia. Ancient Greek and Roman comedies frequently featured the late middle-aged father foolishly panting after his son's girlfriend, a tradition made familiar to us in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was an archetype that Molière inherited and enthusiastically embraced. "In that boy's presence, what hell I undergo," whines Arnolphe at the end of the first act. Underneath their youthful good looks, he warns Agnes, young men are "all scales and talons...devils of the vilest sort." In more recent cultural and social norms, that mockery of preening, prowling middle aged men is less evident. The cartoonist Peter Arno made a whole career from the 1930s to the 1950s out of skewering ridiculous older men's pathetic flirtations with preternaturally nubile young women. But throughout that same period, there was an endless parade of seemingly ageless men who wooed and won women half their age. Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits. Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron in Daddy Long Legs. We never laughed when Cary Grant chased Doris Day (20 years younger) or Audrey Hepburn (25 years younger) or even Sophia Loren (30 years younger). In more recent years, we still don't gasp when actors as different as Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson and even Steve Martin are paired with actresses many years their junior. It was only when Clint Eastwood became eligible for Medicare that he played his last role of courting a woman two decades younger - Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County.
If that older man-younger woman scenario hasn't changed much in fifty or a hundred or two thousand years, what the 20th and 21st centuries have given us is greater acceptance of older woman-younger man pairings. In classical times, that was a recipe for disaster. Phaedra fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus and nothing good came of it. By the 1930s though, screwball comedies featured rich older women who kept pampered younger men right under their husbands' noses (My Man Godfrey, The Women) to audiences' unending delight. Sunset Blvd (1950) portrayed a more troubling version of the same relationship.
Today we are more accepting of this phenomenon and even have an admiring name for women who are drawn to younger men. Cougars. In recent popular culture, these women have many faces: nurturing (Summer of '42), needy (The Last Picture Show), playful (Desperate Housewives), predatory (The Graduate), tragic (The Reader) and in its most extreme example, just plain weird (Harold & Maude). In what passes for real life, Demi Moore (48) and Ashton Kutcher (32) have been the poster couple for cougardom in our popular culture.
Poor Arnolphe, born too early to see his plan bear fruit. But if he had been successful, wed Agnes and filed away the cuckold's horns, we might never have gotten to know him. Molière knew what his audience wanted. And 350 years later, we still want it and still get it. They will probably still be laughing at his foibles 350 years from now. Arnolphe is secure forever, not in the way he planned, but in the pantheon of great humor and great literature.