Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Who was Moliere?

We're used to the controversial and sometimes provocative assertions that William Shakespeare was not the author of the plays that bear his name, so it's perhaps not surprising that there should be similar arguments d'outre Manche about France's own literary and theatrical hero, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, a.k.a. Molière.

It all began in 1919 when French poet Pierre Louÿs became intrigued by what he percieved as the stylistic disparities in some of Molière's plays. He published a series of articles on the subject, before deciding that the great comedies (Tartuffe; Don Juan; The Misanthrope; The Miser) were not from the pen of Molière but were the work of Pierre Corneille, tragedian and author of El Cid.

He went further and compared the chronology of the two men and discovered that their paths had crossed on more than one occasion, leading him to affirm that 'Corneille dominated Molière's entire life'. He then posed the same predicable and indispensable questions about Molière that we hear about Shakespeare : Why did he leave no trace of his handwriting? Why have none of his letters to his family or to his friends survived? And Louÿs also wanted to know why, in 1644, did he adopt the pseudonym of Molière after a stay of six months at Rouen, the very place in which Corneille was living?

Fast forward to December 2001 and the publication of an article in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics by one Dominique Labbé, in which he compared sixteen plays of Molière and two comedies of Corneille using a statistical tool known as 'intertextual distance' which measures the overall difference in vocabulary in two texts in order to determine the relative difference in the occurrence of words. The lower the numbers are the more likely that they are the work of the same author. He concluded that the lexical difference in the plays was sufficient close to zero to prove that they came from the same hand, namely that of Corneille. He followed it all up in a book entitled Corneille in the Shadow of Molière.

Needless to say, Labbé's book upset many scholars. They pointed out that many playwright of the 17th century used similar vocabulary registers, and that in any case there are syntax and rhythm differences between the works of Corneille and Molière. Also the subject matter of their plays differed widely, Molière influenced by Italian farce, Corneille with heroic figures of tragedy and tragicomedy. And Corneille also went to great lengths to ensure intellectual copyright of his works.

As with Shakespeare, there may also be an element of snobbery involved. Both playwrights were provincial, both followed the lowly profession of actor, and both wrote bawdy comedies. Victims, perhaps, of their own uniqueness.

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