The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were filled with enormous and unprecedented change for the medical profession in France. Citizens of the country were beginning to choose between different available types of healthcare and practitioners that practiced their brand of medicine throughout the country (Brockliss and Jones 284). The qualifications of these practictioners varied greatly—as Brockliss and Jones put it, “…running from learned graduate physicians to theatrical itinerant charlatans to rustic Ladies Bountiful,” (284). Although much of the population was unable to acquire the services of a well-educated physician due to poverty, essentially narrowing down choices to only lower-class practitioners, the learned medical community still faced a challenge in separating themselves from what they viewed as inferior medical practices. Medical professionals of the era adopted a specific persona that would help reflect their superior education and class in an attempt to establish themselves as legitimate physicians. Despite this, however, there was still a significant amount of criticism in the arts and in public, accusing doctors of being well-versed in the rituals of antiquity but incapable of actually healing a patient (Porter 131). Perhaps the most skilled and vocal about his disdain for the medical profession during this period was seventeenth-century Molière—a playwright and actor who targeted doctors in many of his satirical comedies. Though many of these comedies, employed stock, buffoon archetypes to satirize the medical profession, experiences and changes throughout Molière’s career led to more complex representations of the medical community in his plays that effected theater, medicine, and society.
After establishing himself in comedy—a much more difficult path for a playwright at the time than tragedy—Molière achieved success while still genuinely using his plays as a vehicle for his emotions and opinions (Fernandez 51). Molière reflected his feelings on hypocrisy, corrupt establishments, and French society through his plays, often inflaming controversy with his sharp, unrelenting wit. His 1664 play Tartuffe invoked the wrath of a French church group named the Society of the Holy Sacrament that believed Molière was satirizing them (Jacobus 342). Tartuffe eventually was a hit amongst audiences, though the group succeeded in banning the play’s production for six years (342). With this resistance to controversy, it is no wonder why Molière chose to attack the medical profession in his comedies. Though medical professionals strove to legitimize themselves in both the eyes of the public and the Royal courts, some of the behavior of physicians proved to be counterproductive. Roy Porter states, “…the doctor was typecast, first and foremost, as a lofty scholar: ‘Hippocrates’, proclaimed James Primrose…‘saies that a physician which is a Philosopher, is God-like,’” (Porter 130). Accounts of French and English physicians of the time suggest that many doctors were acting “God-like” in every manner but in their ability to actually cure disease, especially after receiving validation from royalty (132-133). Molière likely had numerous reasons for heavily satirizing doctors, including personal distrust and disdain for them (a reason that eventually plays a significant role in his last play, Le Malade Imaginaire). However, the promise of commercial success may have also been a major reason. Biographer Ramon Fernandez comments: He had long since become aware of the capital that comedy could make of medicine and medicos. Kept exceedingly well informed by the Mauvilain for whose son he had sought a favor in the third Tartuffe petition, he was aware that quite a proportion of the medical faculty declined to recognize latter-day physiological discoveries—particularly the circulation of the blood. He had direct observation of the physicians of the royal household—and it is notorious that the physicians of the...
Cited: Brockliss, Laurence, and Colin Jones. The Medical World of Early Modern France. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. Print.
Fernandez, Ramon. Molière: The Man Seen Through the Plays. Trans. Wilson Follett. New Yoek: Hill and Wand, 1958. Print.
Hubert, J.D. "The Doctor 's Curse." Molière & The Comedy of Intellect. Berkeley: Univeristy of California, 1962. 255-67. Print.
Jacobus, Lee A. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Drama. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin 's, 2005. Print.
Knutson, Harold C. Molière: An Archetypal Approach. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1976. Print.
Molière. "The Reluctant Doctor." Don Juan and Other Plays. Trans. George Graveley and Ian Maclean. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. 93-133. Print.
Porter, Roy. Bodies Politic. Ithica: Cornell UP, 2001. Print.
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