"The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them." - JBP
"Les Femmes Savantes" was written and performed by Jean Baptiste Poquelin (Moliere) in 1672, just a year before his death. It borrows several elements from his infamous "Tartuffe". The "salons" of Louis XIV's court, hosted by ladies of the nobility, had become more powerful, partially because with 5000 nobles at Versailles there had to be some way of establishing a pecking order. Louis himself had created an Academy of the best minds. He also established an elaborate system of etiquette and fashion to keep the nobility's competitive nature - and their wealth - occupied. His initial transfer of the capital from the Louvre to Versailles, twelve miles outside of Paris was to isolate those who had endangered both his and his mother's lives in their rebellion - the Fronde - in the days of his young regency. The salons were an extension of his demand for civility, refinement, and control.
In "Ladies", Moliere once again explores Obsession and its interference with Nature. (It's interesting how often comedy, while celebrating eccentricity, can appear remarkably conservative in it support of the status quo.) Nature has often, of course, been portrayed as the ideal - Aquinas' "middle way"; Hamlet's "hold the mirror up to Nature"; Hippocrates' "first, do no harm". In Moliere obsession at first appears comical, even silly, but there is always an underlying current of danger - what might appear harmless can lead to chaos for innocent bystanders. In "The Imaginary Invalid" and "The Flying Doctor" Moliere isn't against doctors but quackery. In "The Too Learned Ladies" he isn't against women or honest intellectual exploration but the fake science and pretension of Cosmology, Alchemy, and Egyptology. Philaminte's salon is not intended to further knowledge but to serve as a platform for her power. "We will decide what words can be used! We will define humor!" And her acute desire for stature almost destroys the happiness of her daughter, Henriette.
Moliere knows where his bread is buttered. He takes a moment in each of his plays to reflect on the wisdom of Louis XIV and his court. In doing so he may, at first glance, appear sycophantic, but I think he and Louis also agreed that aristocratic pomposity had to be kept in check, and that the people sometimes needed the firm protective hand that only an all-seeing monarch could provide. "The Too Learned Ladies" is a reflection on the rewards of tolerance and love.
By Lance Davis