Molière, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in 1622, bears the unchallenged mantle of France’s greatest comic dramatist. Supported by a wealthy bourgeois family, he was educated in a Parisian Jesuit college that introduced him both to classical literature (Terence and Plautus strongly influenced certain plays) and, doubtless, to acting. Shunning the family trade of tapestry weaving, and the law, which he studied in Orléans, he formed in his early 20s the Illustre Théâtre, a company whose success was soon quashed by debts that remained unresolved for decades and even caused his imprisonment. On release, he led his troupe to the provinces where he toured long and widely, also gaining important noble patrons, before returning to Paris in 1658.

His own plays figured frequently in their established repertoire, ...

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